It’s about time I put myself on the line, so here goes my first attempt at writing a theory article. I’m going to keep this relatively painless: nothing arcane or esoteric, references from the current Standard and Block environment, and a complete lack of math. I’ll also try to keep it short because I understand how theory can get boring fast.
I am not positing anything groundbreaking here, but rather exploring an established part of the game, and trying to maximize its beneficial applications. What I’m talking about is Toolbox Theory.
In order to explain Toolbox Theory concisely, I’m going to generalize a bit here (paradoxical!). There are basically two kinds of decks. The first kind has lots of four-ofs, and win by the consistency of their build; they are good at doing what they do, and basically attempt to force this strategy on their opponents (recently described in a Mike Flores article,”How to Make a Deck“). The second kind has more cards that fill only one or two slots; they win by being more reactive, shutting down an opponent’s strategy with key cards. The first kind of deck may have better win percentages against most of the field, but it also has an arch-nemesis that is an auto-loss. The second deck is slightly worse off against most of the field due to its lack of crushing consistency, but has no unwinnable matchups, since they are sure to include hosers for every viable opponent strategy. This is not to say that there is no gray area in between, but every deck falls more to one side of the line.
The second deck type represents Toolbox Theory. The idea is to use tutor effects to find the cards that fill only one or two slots; these can be good cards that work less effectively in multiples, or they can also be silver bullets. Without cards to search out the proper”tool” like Diabolic Tutor or Fabricate, this can never be a viable strategy.
Here is a list (by no means exhaustive!) of some tutors in the standard environment:
Plunge Into Darkness
Tooth and Nail
Bringer of the Black Dawn
Rather than cull through set lists, I defer to the readers to point out the tutors that are missing. Sound off in the forums if there’s one that has worked well for you!
Unfortunately, Toolbox Theory (TbT) does not work with all deck archetypes; many decks rely on the redundancy and consistency outlined above, and to remove certain cards to place tutors and tools would just water them down. The best application of TbT is in decks that already utilize tutors as part of their archetype. My ideas tend to fall more on the side of TbT; utility is something that pervades most of my original decks. This is because before I went to college and stopped playing Constructed Magic for four years, a large contingent of decks featured TbT as a big part of their construction. Back then, U/W Control decks (often called Browse/Digger) used cards like Soldevi Digger and Soldevi Excavations in conjunction with Browse and Impulse, two very powerful search engines. They could afford to run a lot of two-ofs because they were virtually guaranteed to churn through most of their library each game.
Toolbox style decks can be powerful for several reasons. One of those is silver bullets. These cards are so-called because they do one of three things:
1. Win the game outright.
2. Destroy your opponent’s position so badly that they cannot possibly recover.
3. Prevent your opponent from winning.
4. Shut down your opponent’s strategy, giving you time to do 1-3.
Some examples from times past are Order of the Sacred Torch, Moat, and Karma. There are also tons of silver bullets in the Standard environment. Damping Matrix, COP:Red, Platinum Angel, Mindslaver, Flashfires, Persecute, Akroma’s Vengeance, and Ivory Mask are some examples. You can apply TbT to a variable level of degree; if you’re using a deck that runs Fabricate, and you keep losing to Ravager / Disciple, cut a card and throw in a Damping Matrix.
To recap so far, we have two testers to gauge the strength of TbT in any given environment. The first is the quality of the available tutors, and the second is the quality of the stuff that can be tutored for, be they normal tools or silver bullets.
A strength of decks that are base around TbT is that you can win any given matchup; odds may not be in your favor, but even in a bad matchup you will have a very specific game plan. For example: I’m going to try and win with weenies, but if they play an Exalted Angel, I’ll tutor for and cast Obliterate.
Some drawbacks of TbT decks are that they may have dead cards – stuff that is awesome against some decks, but won’t do anything against others. Most of these tool cards are going to be in small numbers, only one or two copies, so this won’t happen all the time, but it will happen. Successful decks will have a use for even”dead” cards, as a pitch to Thirst for Knowledge or something else to get at least minimal use from them.
I have to first use an old decklist to show the ridiculous power of properly applied TbT, then I will get on to Standard with perhaps a smattering of Block. I’ve never had to play against this deck, but here is a list featuring one of the best tutor effects ever: Survival of the Fittest.
Full English Breakfast
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Wall of Roots
4 Volrath’s Shapeshifter
3 Tradewind Rider
2 Phyrexian Dreadnought
2 Quirion Ranger
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Gilded Drake
1 Sliver Queen
1 Reya Dawnbringer
1 Flowstone Hellion
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
4 Survival of the Fittest
4 Force of Will
If you’re curious enough for these, it’s on the Wizards site here (http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/bb31).
The deck was so powerful that it led to the banning of Survival. With Squee, Goblin Nabob, not only could the Breakfast player tutor for whatever creature card they needed, the Survival turned into a card advantage engine. The sideboard also contained twelve one-ofs and three Pyroblasts; not only was the deck able to fetch an answer to virtually every opponent strategy, they could double up on the most effective answers without threatening their ability to tutor for them. TbT will probably never achieve this level of power again, but now that you’ve seen the pinnacle, you can evaluate it better.
Now let’s talk about TbT decks in the current Standard and Block environment. While this isn’t the deck that just won Nationals over in England, it better represents Toolbox Theory:
4 Vine Trellis
3 Ravenous Baloth
2 Eternal Witness
2 Darksteel Colossus
1 Leonin Abunas
1 Platinum Angel
1 Magma Giant
1 Tornado Elemental
4 Tooth and Nail
4 Reap and Sow
3 Sylvan Scrying
3 Magma Jet
1 Talisman of Impulse
This particular makeup allows the Tooth player to tutor up whatever set of creatures best fits the bill; it even goes one step better by putting the critters directly into play. The now defunct version of this deck, Elf and Nail, also used the combo of Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and Triskelion to take out an opponent’s lands, or to prevent a Wrath effect (in response, I’ll animate all your lands).
The idea is that the Tooth player has a range of situational critters that they bring out to deal with specific threats. Trisk takes out problem lands and problem beaters like Goblin Sharpshooter or Disciple of the Vault, Duplicant takes out Colossuses or whatever else, Molder Slug against Affinity, Abunas / Platty Pants … and of course it has one of the nastiest tutors available, T&N itself. Not all toolkit decks have to follow this particular pattern; but Tooth costs nine mana to play entwined, so a large portion of the deck has to be based around hitting that high mana requirement.
Another place that TbT can be useful is in Krark-Clan Ironworks decks. As a quick aside, I’m going to get off on a rant here. KCI decks are not”Fruit Loops,” as so many people seem fond of calling them. Fruit Loops was an Extended deck from before I went to college, featuring Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, and Ornithopter (notice that it actually has a loop!). So stop calling it that.
Continuing on, KCI decks mostly run four Fabricates. They also have some specific weaknesses, one of them being Disciple of the Vault. There are tons of things to tutor for that solve this problem: Engineered Explosives and Pyrite Spellbomb to name two. Another weakness of the deck is the vulnerability of the Ironworks itself; Welding Jar can help out here. Only a single copy of either spell is necessary, so that when you need it you can pull it out and you probably won’t draw it otherwise.
Plunge Into Darkness also intrigues me. As a tutor card with only a single colored mana in its costs, it could go into a range of decks. Where it seems like it would work best though, due to its high cost in life and its other function as a sacrifice outlet, is in a weenie deck that expects to:
1) Be ahead on life,
2) Have lots of creatures out and
3) Has a solid finisher card.
One weakness of this type of deck is that they often run out of steam if they don’t win right away; Plunge could provide a Black Weenie build to find the finishing card when they need it most.
I was going to post an original deck here at the end, but the article is stretching out a bit longer than I expected, and it was never a competitive build anyway. Here’s a hint: it used a TbT backbone of Diabolic Tutors and Merchant Scrolls to fetch good stuff to imprint on an Isochron Scepter. If you have any ideas, or want to check mine out, email me and I can provide a decklist.
Anyway, I promised to keep this short and so this is the end. Hopefully my first foray into metaphysical territory was successful and I have provided enlightenment. I’m just proud that I got through this entire article without once mentioning Geordie Tait.
John Matthew Upton
I like back, feed me!
jmumoo AT yahoo DOT com