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Anatomy Of A Theme Deck

It used to be extremely common in casual Magic circles to see thematic decks. Fortunately, Commander is keeping this tradition alive! Sheldon Menery breaks down how to get hyper-creative in your deckbuilding!

Moreso than any other format, Commander is home to the theme deck. We put together wacky concoctions because we can. We also know that many of our friends and fellow Commander enthusiasts think it’s cool and do the same. There’s nothing like sitting down at a table full of decks which have been optimized—but in the artistic sense.

Part of the reason we developed the format the way we did was to ensure that there would always be a safe haven for decks that might not necessarily perform perfectly but have something else to them, something endearing and attractive. Today I’m going to delve into answering the questions: “What is a theme deck, what does it look like, and how do I build one?”

A theme deck is one which has an element or elements which tie the cards together in some fashion other than in-game mechanical synergies. While the tribal deck is the most commonly-used theme, the only limitation to theme decks is your imagination. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll be discussing decks in the two broad categories of “tribal” and “non-tribal,” the predominant part of the latter I’ll call “narrative” theme decks.

Tribal Theme Decks

The most popular theme decks, tribal decks center around one (or sometimes more) particular creature type, such as Goblins, Elves, Angels, or Dragons.

Often, you’ll see them focused on a race and class combination like Human Soldiers or Giant Warriors. Sometimes, they’ll take on a broader collection of creature types, like fellow Commander Rules Committee member Scott Larabee’s Octopuses, Krakens, and Leviathans deck. Regardless of the creatures used, the predominance of the deck is comprised of that creature type.

How slavish you are to the theme is up to your personal tastes and card availability. Sometimes it’s a fun challenge to have all the creatures restricted to the particular the tribe—like my Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund deck, which has only two non-Dragons, Solemn Simulacrum and Sakura-Tribe Elder (hey, Dragons are expensive and need some help getting going). In my Lord of Tresserhorn deck, I took out the last non-Zombie, Solemn Simulacrum, so it’s now 100% tribally pure.

Tribal themes can be about more than just creatures. There are tribal spells, such as All Is Dust (Eldrazi) and Knowledge Exploitation (Rogue). There are plenty of non-tribal spells which simply fit into what your deck does, like Dragon Fangs and Dragon Tempest for Karrthus, or Rooftop Storm, Army of the Damned, and Zombie Apocalypse for that Zombie deck. Patriarch’s Bidding is a flexible card for any tribal deck (which obviously contains black).

There are times when I’ve rejected putting an otherwise-good card into a deck because I thought that it wasn’t theme-appropriate. The one which comes directly to mind is not putting Phyrexian Processor in my Trostani and her Angels deck. It’s a lifegain deck, so the card fits extremely well. You’ll get back pretty quickly the life you lost to the Processor. In fact, if Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice is on the battlefield, you’ll start getting it back as soon as you begin making tokens.

But the tokens are black, which is opposite the two colors of the deck, green and white. They’re also Minions, not Angels. It just feels like something which Trostani wouldn’t do, and the feels are definitely the way to go about theme decks. If Phyrexian Processor were more like Riptide Replicator, with which you get to choose a color and creature type, then it would be in the deck. Or if Riptide Replicator were remotely playable.

Although there’s certainly no IEEE standard for tribal decks, I’d say that at least half the creatures have to be of the creature type in question in order to consider it tribal. I tend to go with as many as is reasonable and still have a playable deck. Some of them fit all the way; some of them don’t. The commander doesn’t necessarily need to be one of the tribe (for example, Trostani is a Dryad), although it makes the theme more complete if it is (Lord of Tresserhorn is definitely a Zombie).

It’s also thematic to include cards which have your commander’s name in them, like putting into your deck lead by Heliod, God of the Sun all the Heliod cards: Chosen by Heliod, Dictate of Heliod, Evangel of Heliod, Heliod’s Emissary, Heliod’s Pilgrim, Ordeal of Heliod, and Spear of Heliod. Certainly, if your commander has his or her own weapon, then it’s a must-include.

Non-Tribal and Narrative Theme Decks

A narrative theme deck tells a story of some kind. For example, I’ve seen a deck including the Skyship Weatherlight and its whole crew. Just recently, I featured a narrative theme deck from dear friend Brian David-Marshall, and his Lazav with the Getaway Face. Two of the best narrative theme decks I’ve ever seen have come from deck designing wunderkind Lark Ballinger, whose work I have featured on these very pages: The Battle of Arakeen, based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, and The Raven, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s work of the same name.

What all these decks have in common is that they use Magic cards to craft the story they want to tell. They’ll represent characters in the story (such as Lark using Hazezon Tamar for the part of Paul Atreides), items the characters have (Scroll Rack as Paul’s journal) or things which happen along the way (Crush of Wurms, for, well, the crush of wurms). BDM’s deck makes use of the tropes you find in film noir detective stories, such as Dark Impostor, Escape Routes, and Grave Betrayal. In this case, the names of the cards, which usually imply their function, are more important that what they actually do (although you’ll note that all of the decks I’ve mentioned here are perfectly playable). With a good theme deck, you get the feel of the theme the designer has assembled. Cards will hit the battlefield and the idea will resonate. “Oh, yeah. Expedition Map. Because of the treasure.”

While the most compelling non-tribal theme decks are the narrative ones, there is also room for whatever theme you can dream up, like my Ruhan “You Did This to Yourself.” Being Modern-legal in this Eternal format is a kind of a theme. You can have all the cards start with the same letter, or maybe your initials. I’ve seen “color/land type matters,” featuring cards like Crusading Knight and Magical Hack. I once tried to construct a deck with three cards which started with each letter of the alphabet plus 22 basic lands. I also built a deck with one card from each expansion, although I’m not sure that qualifies as a theme.

Mechanics are another direction you can take with a theme deck. While flying, trample, or even infect might be a little trite, since we see those abilities with some frequency, themes like banding, flanking, or horsemanship give you outside-the-box ideas to explore. I guarantee your friends will keep asking “Okay, how does banding work again?” Lifegain is a theme, although we have to be careful that we’re not wandering into the territory of simply describing how the deck wins and calling it a theme. Tutoring up Tooth and Nail for Mike and Trike (Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion) is definitely not what I’d call a theme deck.

Process

How you build your theme deck will likely depend on whether you’re making a tribal, narrative, or something else deck. For the first two, a top-down approach makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll probably want to start from the bottom up.

Tribal is straightforward. You choose the creature type you want to run with, and then either search your collection or Gatherer for all the creatures which match. If you’re going with one of the popular tribes, you’ll likely have more creatures than you can put into a single deck. For example, there are so many Zombies these days that I’m going to break my Lord of Tresserhorn deck into two different ones, which do two different things, but all the creatures from both will still be tribal (and I won’t repeat any cards).

If you’re going to pick a less-populous tribe, like Centaur, you might need to play all the Centaur cards just to have enough to call it a theme deck. Depending on the tribe, I might pick the commander afterward, based on what the cards do. Of course, if there is a tribe-specific commander which does something cool, like Kangee, Aerie Keeper, that’s likely your starting point.

Your process for non-tribal, non-narrative decks will completely depend on what you’re doing. A search engine like Gatherer is probably the right place do start so that you’ll know there are only nine “Bands with…” cards. The search engine will help you narrow things down, particularly if you’re focusing on a mechanic of some kind.

The narrative deck is the most difficult to assemble, or at least will likely take the most work. Especially if you’re dealing with a literary or filmic work which features characters, you’ll have to map out which characters are important enough to represent in your deck. A list of all the significant events (Was there a Narrow Escape? How about a Split Decision?) and material objects (a Cursed Scroll or Sword of Vengeance?) in the work will also tell you how many cards you’ll need to craft together the tale.

If you’ve only ever built decks around the mechanics of a commander, I urge you to give putting together a theme deck a try. The process takes the idea of finding good cards one step beyond, offering a challenging and fulfilling test for your deck-building skills. How strictly you stick to theme is up to you; maybe give yourself a little leeway the first time and then go whole hog the second time around. My theme decks are easily my favorites. They’re the ones I want to play the most often and generally the ones which create the most positive memories around the gaming table.

Last Week’s Comments

The discussion over Protean Hulk generated quite a few excellent comments and questions, both on the card and the process.

Alejandro Pumpido captures the nature of commonly conflicted feelings about Protean Hulk: “I have played Karador, Ghost Chieftain for over three years, and as I saw the title of this article, my heart screamed YES, but my heart screamed from the very depths of every cell NOOOOOO!.”

For many of us, cards like Recurring Nightmare also fit the same category—cards we’d love play but realize are likely unhealthy for the format. Such is the mission with the RC.

We have to put aside our feelings about cards and look at them from the view of how they impact the format.

Vince Kolman writes, “‘I’m having trouble understanding the logic of allowing the deck least likely to abuse Protean Hulk to use it if you want to test the waters of unbanning it.”

Helpful reader Benjamin Juandy answered essentially how I would have: “By slotting Protean Hulk into an unoptimized build, you see whether its effect is powerful enough where it warps the deck to always want the card out so it can win.

We all know that there are cards that can be oppressive if you build around them—in truth, probably too many to ban and still have a reasonable coherent list. The idea in testing out cards which aren’t built around is to see if they’re broken without trying. When you test things, you look for data points. We already have the data point “broken if built around.” What we want here is to understand if it’s broken otherwise, hence putting it in the deck which is least likely to get mileage out of it.

Several readers pointed out appreciating the transparency this kind of discussion engenders. Kristopher Sicari writes, “I think it helps to reduce some of the ‘ivory tower’ accusations levelled at the RC.” Jeffrey Kramer likewise responds, “I personally think the Hulk needs to stay banned, but I appreciate how well you presented the pros and cons of both sides of the debate.”

Engaging in open discussion regarding the format is in most cases healthy. That way, even if you disagree with us, you can perhaps understand our reasoning. The takeaway here is that there is more space to talk about borderline cards and engage community opinion on them. I’ll endeavor to always present an even-handed argument in such cases. Cards which are simply wrong for the format (Balance, Worldfire) obviously won’t get the same kind of consideration as more gray-area cards, like Painter’s Servant or Protean Hulk.

Off the topic of Protean Hulk, Shawn O’Brien Casey asks, “Do you think you can do an article and deck list for Meren of Clan Nel Toth?

I think I can, Shawn. In fact, as I did with Ezuri a few weeks back, I’d like to do a whole series of “The Decks I Would Have Built” with the Commander 2015 commanders. Look for those in the future.

This week’s Deck Without Comment, in honor of the season-ender of Game of Thrones, is Karrthus, Who Rains Fire from the Sky.

Magic Card Back


Check out our awesome Deck List Database for the last versions of all my decks:

ADUN’S TOOLBOX;
ANIMAR’S SWARM;
AURELIA GOES TO WAR;
CHILDREN of a LESSER GOD;
DEMONS OF KAALIA;
EREBOS and the HALLS OF THE DEAD;
GLISSA, GLISSA;
HELIOD, GOD OF ENCHANTMENTS;
DREAMING OF INTET;
FORGE OF PURPHOROS;
KARN, BEATDOWN GOLEM;
HALLOWEEN WITH KARADOR;
KARRTHUS, WHO RAINS FIRE FROM THE SKY;
KRESH INTO THE RED ZONE;
LAVINIA BLINKS;
LAZAV, SHAPESHIFTING MASTERMIND;
ZOMBIES OF TRESSERHORN;
MELEK’S MOLTEN MIND GRIND;
MERIEKE’S ESPER CONTROL;
THE MILL-MEOPLASM;
MIMEOPLASM DO-OVER;
NATH of the VALUE LEAF;
NYLEA OF THE WOODLAND REALM;
OBZEDAT, GHOST KILLER;
PURPLE HIPPOS and MARO SORCERERS;
ZEGANA and a DICE BAG;
RITH’S TOKENS;
YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF;
RURIC THAR AND HIS BEASTLY FIGHT CLUB;
THASSA, GOD OF MERFOLK;
THE ALTAR of THRAXIMUNDAR;
TROSTANI and HER ANGELS;
THE THREAT OF YASOVA;
RUHAN DO-OVER;
KARADOR DO-OVER;
KARRTHUS DO-OVER

If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987 and is just now getting started with a new mini-series called Who Mourns for Adonis? which will set up the saga called (The Lost Cities of Nevinor), ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”