for publishing some of the most fundamental principles of Magic. Almost all strategical theory can be
traced back to the Dojo’s loyal writers, and any serious Magic player owes these old vets a debt of
business in 2000. In a last-ditch effort to save the four years of wisdom that had been collected there at
the time, the editor asked the community to archive the articles for future reference. The best of the
Dojo articles are reprinted here because they’re still vital to Magic today… StarCityGames.com merely
reprints them, adding links to clarify older cards that new players probably won’t have seen so that they
can understand some of the strategy. Many of the Dojo’s writers are still active in Magic and write for
other sites; give them a shout-out for helping the community grow.
Building Broken Decks volume II: Templating, etc.
“If not for innovators like me, people would still be casting Morphling on turn 6.”
Take a deep breath.
I am going to say something that might bother you.
So take a deep breath.
You are probably not Alan Comer or Zvi Mowshowitz. If someone has called you a Mad Genius, it probably wasn’t about Magic. This is not to say you don’t have a good idea now and again, but you probably don’t have the crazy out there ideas, or at least not as often, as some of the game’s more eccentric designers.
In my opinion, the key tool for most amateur tournament players is not deck innovation or having first-mover ideas, but deck templating. Templating a deck has to do with taking an existing deck or archetype and working on some specific card choices and numbers in order to improve the design.
At one point, another insane designer (Adrian Sullivan) and I were in agreement that, given a tournament-proven deck list, you should generally not tweak card choices and numbers given by a respectable deck designer. I no longer follow that principle and fuck around with other people’s decks all the time… that is where most of my good ideas arise!
For our first example, the most influential deck of the MBC season has got to be Skye Thomsen’s Rebel deck from week one. This deck was the starting point for a lot of good theories and the grandfather of the Flores, New York, VGC, and other white control decks.
Here is the version of White Skyes used to win the NY PTQ on Week One:
4 Chimeric Idol
4 Cho-Manno’s Blessing
2 Defender en-Vec
2 Defiant Falcon
4 Fresh Volunteers
2 Mageta, the Lion
4 Parallax Wave
1 Ramosian Lieutenant
3 Ramosian Rally
4 Ramosian Sergeant
3 Seal of Cleansing
4 Steadfast Guard
I am lucky enough to have Patrick Johnson (of Accelerated Blue and Necro-Tinker fame) as one of my good friends and deck design partners. Besides being a strong deck designer, Pat and I work from almost identical design principles (even though Pat is traditionally a blue mage and I am a black mage whenever possible). We both believe in deck consistency, low draw deviation, library manipulation, and hating our opponents into the ground.
Given this framework, Pat and I worked on the Skye Thomsen deck and came up with multiple versions of the now-infamous Flores.dec. (I hate that name, but it seems to have stuck, thanks to Sean McKeown and my friends at Neutral Ground).
Our first impression was that this was a deck to beat or be beaten by, so we took it very seriously. We assumed the deck would have a natural advantage against blue (Steadfast Guard + Cho-Manno’s Blessing), and testing showed that it (especially with Mageta) was very solid against G/W. We conceded black control (and, in fact, Pat ended up losing to a black control deck in week 2’s Top 8). That left the mirror for tweaking.
The first thing we noticed was that Skye’s deck ran no Rebel Informer. A single Rebel Informer is not likely to be drawn (it cannot be cast), but can be devastating in the mirror, or at least be summoned up to block a Blastoderm in preparation for Mageta deployment. In order to run the Rebel Informer, it became obvious that our 2 mana searchers would become more important. That meant more land.
With our emphasized 2 mana searchers and Informer paranoia, Nightwind Glider extended the Rebel chain as a nigh-unblockable offensive threat (most other players had only Lieutenants and not Falcons) that would also refuse to jump back into the library when staring down the Informer. That meant a 2/1 flyer main deck.
At the same time, we knew that while bears can put on some decent pressure, the capability to search beyond a fifth time would not win a lot of non-standoff games (and we had Mageta and Rebel Informer to break our standoffs). That meant that we could cut the Fresh Volunteers.
The other main factor was that, even at week two, we knew that breaking Mageta parity would be incredibly important. To us, that meant playing with more Lions than the opponent did. Because we had a lot more land and twice as many Lions in the mirror, we thought our chances of getting them first (and thereby denying an opposing Lion drop) were good.
The rest of the number tweaks represent our 4-of/1-of consistency and strategy theories, though the deck was later improved.
This is a version I used to make Top 8 in Milford, MA.
1 Rebel Informer
4 Cho-Manno’s Blessing
1 Defender en-Vec
1 Defiant Falcon
4 Mageta the Lion
1 Nightwind Glider
4 Parallax Wave
1 Ramosian Lieutenant
4 Ramosian Rally
4 Ramosian Sergeant
1 Seal of Cleansing
4 Steadfast Guard
1 Kor Haven
2 Rath’s Edge
Though obviously improved upon over time, I felt this was one of the best decks of its era (in fact, I think I lost only a single Swiss game to Mike McGlinchy’s Black Control deck, which forced a time limit draw).
People quickly started to figure out that shorter Rebel chains were better than the unwieldy ones. Rebel card advantage was no match for Mageta’s board control; it didn’t matter how many Rebels someone could search up… they would all jump into the graveyard with equal abandon. The low chain was mostly there to block while establishing Mageta control, and to exploit slow draws on the part of the opponent.
These ideas eventually led to the removal of the mid-cost searchers and rebels in favor of Afterlifes. Breaking Rebel Informer after week 2 or 3 was vastly inferior to breaking Mageta parity. That is, if Rebel Informer is one’s answer to an opposing Rebel deck, generating short-term card advantage is all well and good, but the mana spent on largely reactive Informing is not being spent on proactive recruitment; it is therefore very easy for an opposing mage to bust out the Lion and both make up the lost card advantage (recurring Wrath) and time advantage (suddenly he has a 3/3 in play and you have a graveyard).
The specific evolutions I have illustrated with the White Skyes deck represent one aspect of templating . I believe the great Paul McCabe and Eric Tam invented this term some years ago. For the PTQ player, who often has many potential trials, it is probably the most important skill in deck design.
Deck templating is not the invention or discovery of a new deck, but the modification of an existing design to alter its matchups in some way. For our White Skyes example, the theory here is that White Skyes begins with a natural advantage against all decks except for black control. If we maintain the advantage against all decks except for black control, but modify the deck in order to beat itself more often, we come up with, by definition, a better deck.
Besides the land/Lion/Rebel swaps we discussed, there are some other tweaks that occurred between the New York and Milford deck lists. Note that with fewer Bear-class Rebels, busting through using Defender en-Vec is less impressive. Also note that if we assume that Steadfast Guard + Cho-Manno’s Blessing is our core plan against blue, then Seal of Cleansing becomes considerably less powerful in our design than Disenchant. Disenchant is the card that best answers Parallax Wave (remember, we are aiming for mirror wins here); it is also very good against Chimeric Idols and Cho-Manno’s Blessings. Note that we like Disenchant so much that we go from 3 Seals in Skye’s deck to 4 Disenchants in the Milford build and add an ancillary Seal of Cleansing (not quite Disenchant, but close) just because four isn’t enough for us. We do not play cards like Aura Fracture because they are inherently inferior for our purposes. Not only does an Aura Fracture allow for the same kind of opponent planning that makes us shy away from a Seal of Cleansing base, it costs one more mana, generates inherent card disadvantage, and cannot kill a Chimeric Idol; even Abolish would be better.
There are numerous examples of deck templating during successful metagame predictions. Not all of them are based on answering the mirror match, but if the deck is the de facto best deck (as White Skyes was in the early weeks of MBC), then that is a good way to begin.
Usually you will want to begin with a solid design with no more than 1 or 2 adverse matchups in a projected metagame.
From there you should ask yourself what your attitude towards your adverse matchups is. Do you ignore them (I think this opponent will be uncommon; I think this opponent will be defeated in early rounds by other projected decks), or shore them up (I will give up some of my advantage against favorable opponents in order to have greater overall positive performance), or make them worse (I will lose to this deck anyway, by removing my defenses to this difficult matchup, I can ensure that I will always win this or these)?
Originally designed by Seth Burn and Marc Aquino for PT Chicago 2000 itself, Pooh Burn actually evolved into the dominant red deck of Extended 2000 as a templated answer to the then-top decks of Maher Oath and Free Spell Necro (places one and two at Chicago). Because Pooh Burn ran so few small creatures (which were, incidentally the core speed and strength of the then-standard Extended red decks, shortening games against both blue control and combination strategies), it was much better against Oath card advanatage. At the same time, fewer creatures meant fewer realistic targets for spells like Spinning Darkness from the black deck, sanctioning Necropotence card advantage over time. Nonetheless, Hammers and Sandstalkers served as long-term damage sources.
Pooh Burn made multiple GP Top 8 finishes in the hands of Alex Shvartsman.
The Toronto Deck/McCabe Necro
The Toronto Deck won my first PT (Dallas in 1996); I had the honor, in fact, of getting my tail handed to me by eventual Champion Paul McCabe.
Though Eric Taylor would for years decry the efficiency of The Toronto Deck when compared with Knight-Necro decks, which were more able to exploit the mana advantage that Necropotence generated via lower-cost spells, The Toronto Deck is a good example of templating to an environment. In 1996 mono-black Necropotence was known to be one of the most powerful archetypes in the Standard environment, and had dominated the”Black Summer” preceding Dallas. Players were ready with Serrated Arrows, which was a devastating answer to the 2/1″pump” Knights from Fallen Empires and Ice Age which made up stock Necro’s main attack force. Worse yet, Hammer of Bogardan had been recently printed (Dallas was Mirage’s premiere), and that card did a real number on Necropotence creatures.
McCabe templated his deck against these trends, playing tougher creatures which were more likely to survive an Arrows or Hammer assault (other than Lord Hypno, of course, whose inclusion as a potential turn-1 win was too delicious to ignore). His deck was more consistent in the mirror, as well, with 4 Necropotences (believe it or not, and you will see below, that the industry standard was 3), making it much easier to get the”I win” card into play, as well as a load of anti-Knight kill (Serrated Arrows, Contagion).
For this, McCabe sacrificed a great deal, however, in terms of overall deck efficiency. I will let a friend explain:
“Necro is like a faucet of water. You turn on your tap, and out comes the water. If you use really fat creatures in your Necro, this means you can only play a few cards from your hand per turn. Why bother with Necro at all in that case? You may as well just draw from the top of your deck. This is an example of bad Necro-fattie with the water just trickling out. I realize that McCabe’s Dallas Necro is a counter example, but having played McCabe’s Necro in a few PTQ’s and also having played a sleeker, lower-costing Necro, I can tell you first hand that a fattie Necro has a much lower win percentage (in my case 57% v. 78%), and is an overall weaker deck. That McCabe’s Necro and not Lauer’s, Pikula’s or Hacker’s won in Dallas had a lot to do with the metagame and deck pairings (and perhaps also due to the fact that so many of the Necro players in the top 8 in Dallas thought they didn’t need 4 Necros in their decks to win)… I can’t understand why anyone would play less than 4 Necropotences, unless he’s just showing off about how he can win even if he doesn’t draw the best card in his deck.”
History tells us that, perhaps, McCabe won because Necropotence, even in a less mana-efficient deck, allows its controller to draw so many cards, that he doesn’t need a creature rush to win. A precursor to the LauerPotence deck of the first PT Chicago, The Toronto Deck could use Necropotence to just feed the Lake of the Dead/Drain Life engine, drawing more cards, dealing tons of direct damage, and dodging the single Strip Mine that other players were allowed to run.
1 Ivory Tower
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
1 Serrated Arrows
1 Zuran Orb
4 Dark Ritual
4 Drain Life
1 Hymn to Tourach
4 Hypnotic Specter
1 Ihsan’s Shade
2 Mind Warp
2 Sengir Vampire
The Midwest Deck/PikulaPotence
At the same Pro Tour, Chris Pikula of Indiana was able to make Top 4 with a differently-templated Necropotence deck; of the other two players with the same design, Worth Wollpert lost in the last Swiss round to make Top 16, and your narrator finished considerably out of the money.
Chris had some sort of vague interview in The Duelist following his success at Dallas, about how adding bolts made Necro”insane” in the abstract, but having worked with Worth on the deck myself, I have a more concrete take.
We seemed to be losing to Whirling Dervish. We would get out some Knights, deplete the opponent’s hand, lose to Whirling Dervish. Dervish would get bigger and bigger and just race us down. Sometimes the opponent would draw another Whirling Dervish. That would be twice as bad.
I decided that I wanted a way out of losing to a tiny green creature and added red to my Necrodeck (I had just won a PTQ with a B/R Necrodeck and had drawn over 7 to find the Incinerate to make Top 8… in 1996, this was a maverick play). Worth added 7 bolts as well and we found that Necropotence + Lightning Bolt could be aimed at the opponent’s head, not just at his Whirling Dervishes (for example, if he had none).
At the same time, the deck had no room for cards like Nevinyrral’s Disk. We cut the Ivory Tower to go with the no artifact theme (Chris left in the Black Vise as another direct damage source), but had to play the sub-optimal Shatter because our bolt deck was very vulnerable to Zuran Orb.
Besides the lowly Shatter, the Midwest Deck gave up a lot of consistency for its versatility on the ground. The single biggest problem was”the janky mana.” Just look at Chris’s deck list. Yes, that is a Lava Tubes.
Other than the mana inconsistency, we lost some of the brute power of Necropotence. Our lower Swamp count made it so none of us played Lake of the Dead to power Drain Life. We couldn’t Stupor-disrupt or Choke our opponents, for our bolts took up valuable deck space. Even beyond the jank of Lava Tubes, we ran tons of pain lands… for each tap, we could draw one fewer card from Necropotence.
1 Black Vise
1 Zuran Orb
4 Black Knight
4 Dark Ritual
3 Drain Life
1 Hymn to Tourach
4 Hypnotic Specter
2 Knight of Stromgald
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
4 Lightning Bolt
PatrickJ.dec was a templated blue creature deck built for Urza’s Block Constructed. In an environment where the blue creatures were strong but the blue counterspells were expensive, Pat chose to emphasize the color’s strengths and tried to get around its weaknesses.
Metagaming against other blue control decks and Replenish decks with 4 main-deck Temporal Adepts in place of weaker spells. Though Pat was able to hold the ground with Powder Keg and Monolith-backed Treacheries, his deck was nonetheless weaker on defense than other blue control decks, which boasted Veiled Sentries and Serpents as both quick ground defense and ferocious attackers against other blue players.
PatrickJ.dec ended up being very influential and ruled Type II for months after Urza’s Block was an archaic format.
Pat also wrote a brilliant article about his deck here on The Dojo; read or re-read it.
As you can see from all of these successful deck lists, the innovation did not come from a groundbreaking new idea, but instead a solid foundation for a deck, with modifications to making it faster, more resilient against a certain opponent, or more durable against predicted cards.
Amateur-level tournament players have weeks upon weeks to figure out which decks have these foundations, and can furthermore predict the opposition with Internet results. Along with solid theory and practice, these elements are the keys required to succeed at the PTQ level.
Next Week: The Mail Bag and More On Deck Selection