I’ve always preferred creating or modifying decks to actually playing Constructed Magic. The essence of crafting your own weapon with which to bash skulls just pleases me in a way other games can’t really match. Sadly, the road to making a viable deck is full of pitfalls you have to dodge. Today I’ll be covering how I helped create one such deck. This one you may actually be familiar with: U/B Faeries.
First, I’d like to share a basic list I follow when designing decks and picking strategies. Here’s the short list of how you should be designing decks.
* Step 1: Identify the most powerful cards in the format.
* Step 2: Identify the most powerful strategies in the format.
* Step 3: Decide on a strategy that fulfills one of the following:
o A. A strategy that’s the most powerful available.
o B. A strategy that directly counters the strongest strategies in the metagame.
Here’s the UB Faeries deck Rich Shay and I created before 2007 States.
Yeah, it’s awkward to see 3 Mistbind Clique, but it was a 4-drop! The deck couldn’t possibly want that many! Heh.
The first step in that list is perhaps the most discussed and used criteria for building decks that I’ve seen. In fact, it’s been such an effective strategy over the years that you could probably think of a deck that simply plays “good stuff” as its main tactic, and you have a Step 1 deck. The benefits of such a plan are pretty obvious*, and the main reason to start there for deck construction is that everything is a trickle-down effect from there. Many times, the strongest cards are going to be at the core of the strongest decks in a format, regardless if they follow a coherent plan or not.
* Better topdecks, easier to maintain game-state, edge against certain types of decks with weaknesses to said cards, etc.
For Faeries, it had a couple of the best cards in the format at the time Rich Shay and I first had the deck. Mistbind Clique and Cryptic Command didn’t command the respect at the time that they do now with the benefit of hindsight a couple of years of play behind them. For the time (2007 States), it could also be argued Spellstutter Sprite and Scion of Oona were also among the strongest cards in the format. You almost always got value from Spite, and Scion was such a surprise blowout that it was nothing short of amazing in every match. Some cards are simply powerful in context; and in the context of this type of fresh format without many instant-speed sweepers, these cards were Next Level.
Identifying the best cards in a format gives you a knowledge advantage over people who haven’t dissected the cards. A huge advantage the Faeries deck had over every other deck in the format was that it never needed to tap out on its own turn. People didn’t realize this and played around open mana like the plague when it never had to tap out at any point in the match. You got a couple of free Time Walk since your opponent slowed himself down with no benefit to himself.
Finally, the fact is that many of the best cards simply will lead you to building a dominant strategy around them (Necropotence, Replenish, Life from the Loam, Skullclamp, etc.). Plus, it gives you an easy-to-reference list of the cards that probably fit well together, helpful when looking to give a certain strategy a power boost. [card]Tooth and Nail[/card] is a good deck? Well why not staple some one-drops and Skullclamp on there?
Step two is an extension of step one, but with a crucial difference. You no longer look at just the objectively powerful cards; you expand the criteria to look at the power of the format’s mechanics and internal synergies. For example, [card Stinkweed Imp]dredge[/card], [card Frogmite]affinity[/card], and [card Basking Rootwalla]madness[/card] are all obvious linear mechanics. They work well with cards of the same mechanic, or interact well from the same area as the mechanics are using. Affinity obviously loves artifacts, dredge obviously loves cards that can be played (or have effects) from the graveyard, etc.
For Faeries, it was obvious that tribal synergies were being pushed in Lorwyn. At first I blew off the Faeries tribe as I couldn’t imagine a bunch of 1/1 creatures being worth anything. Sure, Mistbind Clique and Scion of Oona looked pretty amazing in a deck filled with other Faeries, but the rest seemed so bad. Then Shay started beating up a bunch of my States choices with a deck full of 1/1’s, Cryptic Command and [card Familiars Ruse]Familiar’s Ruse[/card] and I took a closer look. As a group, the Faeries were strong–not yet absurd with the absence of [card]Bitterblossom[/card]–but it gained a lot of value by always having options. The entire mechanic meant you could play a flash-based deck and once I understood that, the value of the cards went up dramatically.
Some strategies may not be so straightforward, rather they simply are the culmination of picking the ‘best cards’ in the context of a single goal that leads to winning the game rather than winning outright. For example, aggro strategies weren’t playing cards anywhere near as strong as Damnation or Mystical Teachings, but Kird Ape and [card]Lightning Helix[/card] were still great cards in the context of the format. Right now people are playing cards like [card]Great Sable Stag[/card] which are certainly nowhere near the best cards in the format, but in the context of the format are sick.
Other times the card choices may not even be particularly efficient in a general sense, but instead rely on a huge number of internal synergies that only become obvious in a specific plan. These types of decks are often the rarest kind, because they almost require the deck builder to analyze a plan and strategy for a multitude of matches while still in overview mode. Many times, players don’t stop to think of a plan past a very broad strategy until Step 7 or 8. However, when you’re relying on internal synergies, suddenly almost every card in the deck is part of the strategy, or an enabler of the strategy. It means putting a lot more thought into planning the deck at the early stages.
Few of these decks are actually successful in tournament Magic, often because of the sheer difficulty in correctly planning out tactics against more than three or four archetypes. Not to mention that the synergies needed to overcome the low overall power level of each card, and hence the skill needed to play the deck optimally, is on the rise too. Think of a Gro deck such an example. Every card needs to work well with every other card for the deck to ultimately function at a high level.
Step three is picking your strategy out. Optimally you to be playing the best strategy in the format or the strategy that beats the best strategy. The latter option is usually worse than the former, but at high level events it’s been proven to work over the years. The most famous examples of the counter-strategy winning the tournament over the ‘best’ strategies are Zvi winning with The Solution; and Ben Rubin with Dump Truck. Regardless of that though, for almost all of you reading this, the best plan is still to go with the most powerful plan you can come up with.
So let’s begin by breaking down the options I presented earlier.
A. Building around the most powerful strategy available.
Many times, the best deck in the format is the best because it has a strategy that just trumps everything else. Trix, Affinity, High Tide, there are times when you can see tournament results pan out to prove there was one dominant strategy, and other decks are simply weaker. The best example of this may be Pro Tour: Tinker*, where seven of the Top 8 decks, including the winner, used Tinker. It was a clear case of one type of strategy simply being better than the rest. Regardless of the exact build, the best strategy in the format was to combine fast mana with Tinker and huge overpowering effects.
*Pro Tour: New Orleans 2003. Extended.
This isn’t to say creating the best version of the most powerful strategy isn’t your overall goal, but if you pick this route you want to be sure that this strategy is the strongest in the format to begin with. Picking an inferior strategy and then attempting to build around it can give you false expectations in your matches before you begin testing, and can waste a lot of your time.
For Faeries I felt I had the most powerful strategy in the room, even if it was built around a bunch of 1/1 creatures. The deck had a combination of Mistbind Clique, tons of counters, a quick clock and Cryptic Command. Post-board you could even use Damnation and Jace Beleren to morph into the more controlling role that would later become the popular form of the deck. It also beat the other strongest strategy which was either Pickles or Mystical Teachings / Damnation control decks.
B. Building around a strategy that either counters the strongest strategies in the metagame, or allows you to adapt to them without disrupting the core strategy of the deck.
Almost every Extended & Standard deck from this past season is a recent example of this philosophy at work. People saw that the fetches + dual or vivids + Reflecting Pool mana base allowed for an easy-to-modify toolbox that could answer nearly any deck in the metagame. Since people couldn’t agree on a best deck, every week was basically one big scatter-shot guess at trying to pick the right answers to shove into the deck. 5cc on Magic Online seemed to change on a daily basis because nobody had a clue what the best build was, other than that it included Baneslayer Angel.
The idea behind picking this type of strategy is that the most powerful strategy in the format simply isn’t heads and tails above the rest of the pack. Thus, you can afford to be weaker and not be at a huge deck disadvantage even if you’re not actively using an inherently powerful strategy. Remember that you don’t always have to trade flexibility for power, though; 5cc was arguably the best deck at the end of the season and could run any answer it wanted ranging from Earthquake to Vendilion Clique to Identity Crisis and everything in between. Meanwhile it ran the best creatures in the format, the most powerful single spell and the best-of collection of planeswalkers, counters and removal.
Generally the rule when picking a strategy to build around is choosing one that shows clear signs of power but doesn’t lock you into running entire sets of enablers, thus giving up and chance at adaptation. The exception is when you know the deck can simply overpower whatever hate you run into. Ichorid was a decent example, as is Dragonstorm more recently. However, more often than not you see decks like Hatching Plans or the majority of Dredge builds – which have serious flaws – in which the core and enablers take up so much space they can’t easily be molded to fight opposing strategies. In that case it’s best to give up on being flexible and just make sure that your deck is the strongest strategy in the format to begin with.
Some part of me feels like I only wrote this to justify just how good the Faeries deck ending up being, even without the disaster of printing Bitterblossom. Really though it’s just one of those reminders that you should be playing the strongest decks by default rather than spending days trying to come up with a clever counter strategy. Making the best deck even better is usually a lot more profitable than trying to make a new ‘best deck’ even in the context of a single tournament. If you fail while making the best deck better, you still have the best deck, if you fail while designing something brand new, you have nothing to fall back on.