Black Magic – Brewing

Sam Black doesn’t consider himself a deckbuilder, but he does build decks. Lots of them. Here’s a taste of his process and how he comes up with his unique brews.

Back when I was in college, I wanted to someday build and name a deck that became widely played. I wanted to be known as the guy who built ______. This was years before I’d ever qualified for the PT. Now I’ve had more success in Magic that I could realistically imagine then. I can’t really point to a specific time when I’ve done this, but it’s not really important to me anymore.

The point is that I wanted to be a known as a deckbuilder. I build a lot of decks, and I basically always have. I don’t really market myself as a deckbuilder, and there are a few reasons for that.

Basically, I think promoting oneself as a deckbuilder is basically about ego. You have to convince yourself that something you’ve built is new and special, not just an obvious combination everyone’s working on or a tweak on an existing known deck, and you have to believe that it’s good enough to advertise, advise other people to play, and try to take credit for.

I built the Goblin deck I used in the “Win a Car” event that I won, and it had a lot of very unique card choices and was also not a strategy that was getting respect at the time. I still didn’t really think of it as “building a deck”—I just played Goblins. Goblins is always a deck. You can’t get credit for Goblins. (This is not intended to be read as a rational argument; it is the feeling behind not really making a big deal about it.)

The other reason I don’t promote myself as a deckbuilder is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at it.

I’ve read about how, when building a deck, you should look at a format and try to exploit its weaknesses, or maybe you should look for a way to play all the best cards in a format, or maybe you should look for the fastest, most powerful thing you can do. That’s probably great advice, but it’s not what I do.

I don’t get most of my inspiration for decks from looking at the format I build for; I get inspiration from anywhere else. Draft decks that were fun or had some particularly sweet interaction, or maybe some casual games I played in some weird format, or maybe I just take some particular card or interaction that I think is cool and try to build the best deck I can to support it.

Honestly, I think that last one is how most new players approach building decks, and really, I think it’s what was imagined in Magic’s conception. People would find things they thought were cool and build around them. This is why “build-around-me”s exist. “Power Surge, that’s a cool card, I wonder how I can make a deck that uses this.”

There’s evidence of this in my past articles on decks I’ve built, of course. I thought Surge Node and Everflowing Chalice were awesome together, so I built a deck that could use Surge Node. Ultimately, the card was weak enough that I had to cut it down to a one-of from the initial version, but that’s often how these things go. I have an idea, and I build around it, and then I find other synergies in the deck that take over, and maybe the original idea gets pushed out.

Today, I want to walk you through the brewing I’ve done in the last few days. This won’t result in showing you an awesome deck (as far as I know—the place I’m at with it now might actually be close to reasonable… we’ll see), but the point is about the process.

I’m going to go back a little further than I need to in telling this story. Bear with me.

A long time ago, I tried playing hundred-card singleton in a two-man queue on MTGO. My opponent played a bunch of ramp and card draw and then a chain of time walk effects and killed me. I thought his deck looked pretty sweet.

That led me to want to build a Turboland Edric, Spymaster of Trest EDH deck that played all the Howling Mine effects, ramp spells, and all the “take an extra turn” effects. I did that, but I didn’t feel like buying Edric on MTGO, so I used Rubina instead. The deck won all of the relatively small number of games I played with it pretty easily because mana + card draw + big spells is the basis for basically every winning strategy in EDH, and I got bored and moved on.

A few of my friends were playing EDH online, and I wanted to play a deck that was serious and competitive (they have good collections and well-built decks) that didn’t follow exactly that formula.

The one deck I’ve enjoyed and had success with that is further from doing that is the Sek’Kuar that I wrote about here. Phyrexian Altar makes that deck not especially fun. You just find it and go infinite with Sek’Kuar and Nether Traitor a little too often.

This tangent couldn’t really be less connected to what I’m getting at, but the point is to show that my inspiration really did come from wasting time with EDH.

So, before all this happened, at some point I had a conversation with Tom Raney, and he told me that his Aluren deck is awesome in Legacy. He explained that he cut the cards that make it really focused on finding and casting Aluren quickly and instead built the deck around getting value with Coiling Oracle, Cabal Therapy, and Gitaxian Probe. Sign me up; that does sound sweet.

Lately, Gau’s been asking me if I’m going to the StarCityGames Invitational, and I’ve been answering that I don’t know, I’m not really in the mood, and I don’t feel particularly excited about the formats, but if I find something fun to play, I’ll probably go.

I thought maybe that would be Raney’s Aluren deck, so I borrowed some cards from Tom Martell on MTGO and tried the deck out. It was fine, but I wasn’t winning a lot more than I was losing with it. As I was playing it, it felt like a deck I would build. It lacked a bit of focus and would grind small card advantage basically just for the joy of grinding small card advantage, and then either you had the combo and won, or that didn’t happen, and the card advantage was generally pretty meaningless.

Comparing how much I loved my deck in PT Philly (Mono-Blue Poison) and how much I hated my Modern deck (Braid of Fire Grixis) at Worlds, or even just comparing how much I liked the Standard Olivia Grixis we played at Worlds to the Modern Braid of Fire Grixis deck, leads me to conclude that, as a player, I want to make a serious effort to get away from decks that are just trying to grind.

Echoing sentiments Adam Yurchick expressed recently, I don’t want to just play for card advantage. I want to try to kill my opponent, which is a real change from how I, like so many others, used to approach the game. (I’ll avoid going into a long rant about how I think this is based in a great change that has happened in the design of Magic cards.)

I wanted a deck that really did something, but I was impressed by Cabal Therapy.

So I wondered if I could build a Legacy deck to take advantage of the awesome things my Sek’Kuar deck could do that would be able to take advantage of Cabal Therapy + Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy + Bloodghast. Also, Dark Ritual-Liliana felt like a great first turn in Legacy to me, especially discarding Bloodghast.

So I built a grindy card advantage deck that never got around to killing the opponent or even protecting itself in any relevant way; it just played some creatures that couldn’t block or usefully race anything, made the opponent discard a few cards, and lost. Seriously, that’s what happened.

I couldn’t find room for the Phyrexian Altar + Nether Traitor + Pawn of Ulamog (cheaper Sek’Kuar) combo that I wanted in large numbers, and the deck just didn’t do anything.

Well, that’s not entirely fair; let me talk about what I had going on here.

I wanted to combo with Nether Traitor, and I wanted to exploit Bloodghast + Cabal Therapy. This meant I wanted Entomb. At that point I obviously wanted Life from the Loam. Pox/Small Pox are awesome when I’m playing Life from the Loam and Bloodghast. I’m not really playing a lot of other creatures, so Pawn of Ulamog looks pretty bad, but if I play one and one Volrath’s Stronghold, I can find him if I need to combo. Okay, so this combo generates infinite mana; what am I going to do with that to win? Well, I’m already playing Life from the Loam, Mox Diamond (you got that that card’s automatically included once I put Life from the Loam in the deck, right?), and Entomb, so I guess it would be cool if I could find a land that could turn infinite mana into winning. Well, how ‘bout Dark Depths? Great. And then I can play one Vampire Hexmage, and I can Volrath’s Stronghold her back and go off that way too. Oh, and I might as well play a Grim Discovery.

I couldn’t make this up; obviously, this is the thinking that went into my first attempt to build this deck.

The deck also had Dark Ritual and Liliana.

I played a game with this deck, and it was terrible. I was trying to do way too much and didn’t have enough cards to really make any of the things happen. Also, I didn’t have any of the things you need in Magic like removal or win conditions.

The first step was to cut Gitaxian Probe. I just couldn’t afford that many slots. This made Cabal Therapy mostly worse as a maindeck card than Hymn to Tourach. Also, I wasn’t really playing enough creatures (I only had one Nether Traitor to Entomb) so the Phyrexian Altar was usually worthless; really, it didn’t work at all. I needed to focus on the creatures.

After some reworking, I came to this:

Now, I should explain that it’s only two Mox Diamonds and two Entombs because that’s how many I have on MTGO, and I didn’t want to buy more right then. I actually kind of like brewing under card constraints because it gives me some free deck slots to try stuff out, and I basically know what more of those cards will do.

Sorin Markov is there to have something to do with mana from Loam, Pawn, or late-game Dark Rituals. Bridge from Below is cute, and I wanted to try it out as an incidental value card. I have a lot of ways to discard it, or I can dredge or Entomb it. Swords make my bad creatures that are always in play actually do something, which was missing before, and Blasting Station gives me an additional sac outlet, which was really missing before. It’s really frustrating when you have Bridge from Below and Bloodghast, but you can’t find a way to get Bloodghast into the graveyard to get a token for each land you play; trust me.

This deck is still bad.

Dark Ritual is awful after turn one and not great there, and I’m still not really doing quite enough. I did play a really sweet game where my opponent Stoneforged for Batterskull, and I thought it was all over, but then I assembled Pawn of Ulamog + Reassembling Skeleton + Phyrexian Tower to lock up the ground and stop him from gaining life; I could then kill him with my shadow creatures.

The next step is definitely cutting Dark Ritual. I don’t know that where I went is definitely the best direction, but I feel like I’m getting toward having a real deck with this last update.

I’m writing this article very much from inside the process. I built the first version of this yesterday, and this is what I’ve gone through just Wednesday and Thursday afternoon—it’s Thursday evening now.

If my goal is to equip my resilient creatures, like the Standard deck that puts Sword of Feast and Famine on Reassembling Skeleton, why not just play Stoneforge Mystic? Adding white helps justify adding Flagstone of Trokair, which are obviously sweet with Smallpox, and then I realized that Teysa, Orzhov Scion is just a massive upgrade to Pawn of Ulamog.

The last version I played looked like this:

This list is still far from perfect. The first thing I’m doing is cutting Volrath’s Stronghold. Even though I’m playing three Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, I don’t always have one, and colorless mana is really bad. I don’t need the ability at all at this point. For now, I’ll make that another Barren Moor, which works well because I don’t have a lot of stuff to do on one. Likely, that will become another Mox Diamond.

I put Cabal Therapy in because I found myself siding it in a lot because I like how it plays against Stoneforge Mystic, and it’s sweet to randomly dredge. Ultimately, I don’t think it will be in the deck, at least not more than one main.

Viscera Seer is there as an experiment to get a good way to sacrifice my spirits (Bloodghast and Nether Traitor). Mortarpod and Grafted Wargear were added so that Stoneforge Mystic could find a sac outlet if that’s what I needed; they’re very different cards, so I wanted to try both. I may eventually conclude that one is significantly better, or I might like both. Adding those forced me to cut a sword, since I just had too many Mystic targets. Oh! I’d been trying to think of a good way to gain life. I could sideboard Sylvok Lifestaff—or better yet, maybe I could just go with Umezawa’s Jitte; sometimes I outthink myself. That thought process was typed in real time as I thought of these things.

I added Engineered Plague to my sideboard after I got crushed by Goblins (yes, I really do like brewing by being results-oriented, seriously), and I’ve just realized that Engineered Plague is also really good against me. I wonder if I should play something like Disenchant in my sideboard.

Also, note that this deck has a piece of technology the old one wanted that I hadn’t thought of yet in Buried Ruin, a great way to get my creatures to start to matter while I’m loaming.

Also, people have been siding Surgical Extraction in against me enough that I’m tempted to try Noxious Revival to counter it, but my current plan is just to Thoughtseize it.

Somewhere in writing this, I realized that my Sek’Kuar deck works by playing tons of creatures and getting value in a lot of places from sacrificing them. If I really wanted to build around Nether Traitor + Phyrexian Altar, the right approach might be to focus on playing more creatures that I want to sacrifice (Wood Elves? Doom Traveler? Sprouting Thrinax?) and more ways to sacrifice them (Greater Gargadon? Maybe just a lot of Viscera Seers? Culling Dais? We can probably do better).

I should probably talk about this Phyrexian Altar card, since I don’t really know if it ever sees serious play, and I’m just including it like it’s obviously something I’d want to do.

First of all, it turns all of your Bloodghasts into Lotus Cobras. If Teysa’s in play, they also become Emeria Angels. If Teysa’s in play and you have Nether Traitor, you can sacrifice Nether Traitor for a black mana, which triggers Teysa, which creates a Spirit token. Then you can sacrifice the Spirit token for a black mana, which triggers Nether Traitor. Pay the black mana from the Spirit to return Nether Traitor to play, and you’re back where you started, except that you have an extra black mana. In its current configuration, the deck isn’t great at taking advantage of infinite mana, but if you have Life from the Loam and Barren Moor, you can dredge your deck, and a second Nether Traitor lets you get infinite Spirits, which, with Teysa, lets you exile all of your opponent’s creatures. Also, if you have Batterskull instead of a second Nether Traitor, you can infinitely bounce and recast Batterskull, triggering Teysa to make a Spirit each time. If you have Viscera Seer, you can sacrifice Nether Traitor to it instead of Phyrexian Altar (still sacrificing the Spirit token to the Altar) to scry infinitely. If you have Mortarpod, you can do infinite damage. Reassembling Skeleton would also let you make infinite spirits. Basically, if you have Teysa, Altar, and Traitor, you probably have something else that will let you win the game on the spot.

That may be a 3+ card combo, but Nether Traitor is a hard to get rid of, and all the cards are providing some value on their own. The trick to building around Phyrexian Altar is figuring out if I can find a way to get enough value out of it that I’m happy to draw it when I don’t have the other pieces. That way I can just play a lot of them and usually have it. Buried Ruin, in addition to finding equipment, also gives me a good way to find Phyrexian Altar, which helps my situation a lot.

Grave Pact has been beyond outstanding for me in EDH, but I’m not sure if Legacy is creature based enough to want it main. I’m thinking it might be. It’s possible that I’ll eventually want access to a lot of Grave Pacts in my seventy-five.

I’m not sure how useful it is for you to read a description of the building and tuning of what is likely an irrelevant deck, but my editors tell me they want more articles about new ideas, and I quietly brew up and dismiss random disasters of decks often enough that I figured I should try actually documenting the process once. I hope something about this was useful, even if you don’t like the deck itself.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter