Better Than Good

As I’ve mentioned in many articles before, I like to build my own decks. One of the things that frustrates me most is when I build a deck that should do well and it doesn’t. What I’d like to explore in this article is the difference between a good deck and an amazing deck. The…

As I’ve mentioned in many articles before, I like to build my own decks. One of the things that frustrates me most is when I build a deck that should do well and it doesn’t. What I’d like to explore in this article is the difference between a good deck and an amazing deck. The difference between a deck that’ll go 3 wins, 3 losses in a local Type II tourney, and a deck that’ll qualify someone for the Nationals.

Firstly, why is a deck that only wins three matches good? I mean, there are other decks there that win five, or even six out of six matches, three is pretty bad right? Wrong. There are players out there that put decks together on a weekly basis and never get three wins in a row. The other thing to remember is that most of the decks at a tourney aren’t good decks… they are amazing decks; they’re net decks. In short, if you win 50% of your games and you’re building your own decks, you’re doing well.

So. Let’s imagine we have a good deck. For the purposes of this article I’ll use the Fish deck I built a couple of months ago. The deck went 3-3 at a local Type II tourney where every well known net deck was represented. Here’s the deck list that was finally played:

Team Phatbeats”Parallax Fish” played by Andy Smith.

Creatures (27):

3 Coral Merfolk
4 Rootwater Thief
4 Lord of Atlantis
2 Seahunter
2 Jolting Merfolk
1 Temporal Adept
4 Thornwind Faeries
4 Vodalian Soldiers
3 Darting Merfolk

Other Spells (10):

4 Counterspell
2 Daze
2 Miscalculation
2 Dominate

Land (23):

4 Rishadan Port
2 Dust Bowl
17 Island


2 Parallax Tide
2 Boomerang
1 Hibernation
1 Submerge
2 Annul
1 Saprazzan Bailiff
2 Misdirection
1 Masticore
1 Arcane Laboratory
2 Chill

Looking at the deck you can see that there are ways to control just about anything. Faeries, Dominate, Temporal Adept and Jolting Merfolk keep creatures under control. The Adept can bounce other permanents we don’t want on the table and we can counter the spells we really don’t want our opponent to play. This stems from my seeming inability to play a deck that can’t handle one type of permanent. I hate the idea that someone could put something on the table and I there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.

The meta-game we were expecting was a lot of rebel decks, lots of green weenie and a few black weenie decks along with one or two Replenish and Ponza decks. We thought there might be a few combo decks but they’ve not been too fashionable lately. This led us to believe we’d need to be able to cope with an early creature rush (hence the Darting Merfolk and Vodalian Soldiers) and then build a creature base for the kill.

The reality was that although there were answers to most things and no situation was really hopeless, we often didn’t see cards we needed when we needed them. Although there were counterspells to stop big bad spells, there weren’t really enough. Finally the sideboard. The sideboard contains many cards we could bring in against most decks, it also contained many ‘one-shot’ solutions without many ways to get them.

How can we make this an amazing deck? What can we do to turn it into a 6-0 deck that people will start to think about when they build their decks to bring to Bath? Let’s have a look at a more successful Fish deck from the US regional qualifiers and see if that helps.

Seth Burn Fish:

Creatures (20):

4 Sandbar Merfolk
4 Coral Merfolk
4 Lords of Atlantis
4 Rootwater Thief
4 Masticore

Other Spells (18):

2 Coastal Piracy
4 Counterspell
4 Miscalculate
4 Daze
4 Thwart

Land (22):

4 Rishadan Port
18 Islands


4 Seal of Removal
4 Annul
1 Submerge
3 Misdirection
3 Somnophore

What’s the first thing you notice? For me (having just typed it out) it’s the number of lines – there are less spells of different types. The deck is all”four of this and four of that.” The other thing to notice is that the deck has weaknesses. What happens if a Scald hits the table on turn two? How can an uncomplicated deck that has weaknesses be amazing? The answer is simple: simple is good. One of the biggest misconceptions about Magic is that the more complicated a deck is, the better it is. If you look at many of the top deck-types they have a very simple concept. A simple deck is focused, it’s designed to do one or two things and do them well.

Seth’s deck does two things: Play creatures and counter spells. The four Masticores and two Coastal Piracy offer creature control, but Masticores work well without the Piracy anyway, and there are only two Piracy, so you won’t often see them without a Masticore in your hand or in play.

There are exceptions to this, and exceptions are useful things. Look at Mike Flores‘ Control Black deck. There are lots of ‘one-shot’ cards, it looks very complicated so why does it work if simple is the way to go? The answer is the four Vampiric Tutors and four Yawgmoth’s Wills. These eight cards allow us to get any ‘one-shot’ card and play it twice. Even the Tutors can be used twice. That gives us eight ways to get a spell whenever we need it. That gives the deck a level of consistency comparable to Speed Green with 12, two power one-drops.

This shows us a second important concept: Consistency. A deck needs to be able to do the same thing over and over again. Game after game a deck needs to be able to perform in exactly the same way. Speed Green looses games when it can’t put the opponent under pressure with an early creature rush. Port blue looses when it doesn’t see enough counter spells and Ponza doesn’t work if you only see two land destruction spells in a game (unless you’re very lucky and your opponent is very mana screwed).

If we look at Seth’s Fish deck we can see that, as well as being simple, with all the ‘four of’ cards it’ll also be very consistent. With 20 creatures and 16 counter spells he should almost always have at least one of each in his opening hand. Even if he doesn’t he should be able to get one of each with a timely mulligan. The creatures are mostly very cheap to cast and so he should be able to play them early on. Looking a little closer you see that 8 of the cards have cycling too, so if there’s a little too many creatures a Sandbar Merfolk might get cycled away, same with the Miscalculates. This adds to the consistency.

The PhatBeats Fish deck has a lot of creatures and many of them are cheap too. Opening hands should almost always contain a two-casting cost fish to play nice and early, but it’ll probably also contain a more expensive, utility creature and with no way to speed up the mana, many of them can’t be used before turn four. The main difference is that we’ll see the odd counterspell now and then. It plays only eight counterspells and relies on the utility creatures to get it out of a fix but the utility creatures aren’t going to be drawn often enough to be consistent. When you see them you win, when you don’t you loose. We also have only two cycling spells and no other way to dig deeper into the deck to even it out a little more, another way that Seth’s deck is better.

From this we can see that there are two important principles to remember:

1. A focused deck is good.
2. Consistency is good

The two often reinforce each other, a consistent deck will often be consistent because it is focused and visa-versa.

How do we put these into practice? A simple method is to start by working out what your deck is supposed to do. Allow yourself at most two aims. Port Blue counters spells. Ponza blows up your land and burns your creatures. Speed Green runs you over with creatures. Bargain casts Soul Feast five times. Seth’s deck counters spells and builds a creature rush.

Once you’ve done that, put a deck together and draw some opening hands. Don’t bother to mulligan but see what the next five cards are. Shuffle well between drawing. Draw somewhere between 20 and 40 opening hands to start with, that should begin to show you how your deck will perform and, if you plan on loosing or winning your games all 2-1, you should be drawing 18 opening hands in a six round tournament anyway. Oh, make notes while you’re doing it too. Memory is a funny thing. I do a similar thing with multi-coloured decks to try to work out if I’ve got the land mix right. In the past I thought I had and took a deck to a tourney with the mix not quite right. In testing afterwards I worked out I needed one two less Plains and I’d have (maybe) won a game or two more.

Once you’ve done this ask yourself a few easy questions. Do you always get the spells you want to see? If not how often are you not seeing them? If you don’t see them in the first five turns will you loose? If you’re not seeing the spells you need in more than 50% of the draws your deck probably needs work. If it can’t win without seeing certain cards by turn five and that happens frequently, your deck needs more work.

This should show you whether your deck is consistent. To see if the deck is focused you should make a note of your strategy and play lots of games. In each game you should note now many times you won because of your strategy and which aspects of the strategy worked well.

With a Ponza deck, you might make a note of how many burn spells you saw and how many creatures you killed. Make a note of how many land destruction spells you saw and how many land you blew up. Make notes on how often your opponent was mana screwed because your strategy was working and how often the one or two big finishers actually finished your opponent off. That should show you if you need more or less burn or land destruction and whether the big finishers are doing their job.

With Seth’s fish deck you need to make a note of how many spells were countered. How often did the Rootwater Thieves take key cards from your opponent’s deck? How often did you cycle cards? How many times did casting a Lord of Atlantis against a blue player win you the game? How many times did a Lord beef your creatures up against white or green to help you stop the creature rush?

If any aspect of your strategy isn’t working, add cards, change cards and cut cards to see if you can make it work. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to change your strategy. At the end of the day, you have to be able to decide that a deck just won’t work in the current environment. After all, the environment changes and a card that makes it work might just turn up in the very next expansion so it’s not dead forever.

If we now look at the PhatBeats Fish deck we can see some problems. The strategy was supposed to be: Play creatures to beat down the opponent, play Parallax Tide to remove their land and stop them reacting and counter threats that will stop this happening. There’s three parts to that strategy already.

Over time, the deck evolved because the Parallax Tide’s weren’t working. There were too many decks where a short delay wasn’t enough as the creatures weren’t dealing damage fast enough. Although the strategy wasn’t working we didn’t look at the deck in terms of this, we just patched it to do better against the deck types we knew were out there. In short, we should have reworked the strategy and rebuilt the deck from scratch using the lessons learned, to fit the new strategy.

So, can we use these principles to make a better PhatBeats Fish deck? The answer is yes, but what is the new strategy we wish to implement? If we decide to run people over and counter threats, Seth’s deck is probably the way to go. If we decide to run people over and take their land away, we need to use different cards (Sunder springs to mind) or make the creatures deal more damage somehow.

I’m not saying that Seth’s deck is the definitive Fish deck. There are plenty of others out there that compete on the top level, against the top net-decks. But if we look at Seth’s strategy and the deck he has produced, its very good at what it is supposed to do. It’s better than good – it’s amazing.

Cheers, Jim.
Team PhatBeats.