Chatter of the Squirrel – Deckbuilding as “Problem Solving”

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Wednesday, May 7th – I’m going to talk about how I went about generating a decklist for one of my Hollywood prototypes. The difference is that I’m making no claims as to the value of this particular deck. Instead, what I want to emphasize is the means through which I’ve attempted to solve an existing archetype‘s problems, and how I’ve created space for the necessary slots that try to do so. The execution isn’t what’s important; rather, it’s recognizing the holes that presently exist and taking steps to plug them.

Well, this last week sure has been. With my StarCityGames.com writings having stretched over two and a half years now, I’m almost positive that I’ve opened with that exact sentence before. Still, let’s recap:

– Graduated from college.
– Published some more poetry.
– Got re-hired in the Mayor’s Office.
– Had my Memphis Flyer review of William Gay’s Twilight quoted in the novel’s most recent printing.
– Found a house in Madison for the summer to ease the “learning the Malay language” process.
– Embarked on an epic journey to Dubuque, Iowa – yes, Iowa – for Kris Lyons’ wedding, only to fail to actually see said Mr. Lyons during the entire trip. Bill Stark, sadly, was across the ocean enjoying the childlike jubilance of one Marvin the Bear, so I had the terrible misfortune of spending an incredible seventy-two hours drinking Smithwicks, Guinness, and Fat Tire at an Irish Pub along the banks of the Mississippi with Anna Smith and Marcus Dale Pohlmann, Ph.D., Fulbright Scholar, whose pretensions of besting Chatter at his own game (viz. conspicuous consumption) proved futile despite a four-inch height advantage. Yaus.
– Managed to log maybe twenty-five hours’ sleep total across the last seven days.

And, the more minor details…

– Finished Veronica Mars Season Two.
– Learned that my girlfriend is about 10x better at poker than I am.
– Failed to beat Faeries with anything ever.
– Realized that the little cap they give you for graduation is probably the single silliest garment a person could ever place atop their head.

While true masters like the one and only Innovator have been bringing you truckloads of technology for the low low low low low low price of two cents an article, I’ve been sitting in a sketchy unmarked white van etching my way down Interstate 55 one slow mile at a time. Still, betwixt the ebbs and flows of one of the longest sustained conversations I’ve ever enjoyed, some thoughts took hold in my head. I realized I haven’t talked specifically about my deck building process in a very long time, and when I do I tend only to contextualize it within the construction of a single given deck. With Hollywood looming and everyone struggling to get a grasp of this new and dangerous format, now would be as good a time as any to do so.

This time, like many others, I’m going to talk about how I went about generating a decklist for one of my Hollywood prototypes. The difference is that I’m making no claims as to the value of this particular deck. Instead, what I want to emphasize is the means through which I’ve attempted to solve an existing archetype‘s problems, and how I’ve created space for the necessary slots that try to do so. The execution isn’t what’s important; rather, it’s recognizing the holes that presently exist and taking steps to plug them. Through playtesting you can decide whether your “plugs” are effective or not. A more valuable (and difficult) skill to hone is recognizing those potential problems in the first place.

Like many other people, I’ve been enamored with the Swans deck that Chapin’s popularized as of late. I’m a combo player whenever I can be, and even though I don’t typically tout the “power” of an individual card, it’s hard not to salivate over the potential that the Swans represent. I don’t know where Bryn Argoll is, but they draw themselves a lot of cards and apparently are huge fans of MC Escher.

No, Sanchez, that’s not a hip-hop artist.

Nevertheless, even a cursory perusal of the forums reveals three primary objections with the deck itself. Note that I’m not talking about actual problems with the deck, but rather the things people perceive initially when they look at a list. I haven’t played enough games to talk about what the deck may or may not be good at doing, and I trust Patrick to put out solid lists. But this article is about how you want your mind to operate when you see something that might be interesting, and so the actual efficacy of this or that list is the subject of another article.

The three objections tend to be that the deck plays too many “do-nothing” cards (redundant tutors, redundant combo pieces, four Dakmor Salvage), that its manabase looks worse than a portrait of Rosie O‘Donnell painted exclusively using canned cat food, and that it‘s too vulnerable to disruption.

Thinking about how to cure those problems, the first two issues should be obvious. To cut down on “do-nothings,” either play different cards or streamline the combo. To build a better manabase, cut some colors and add more manafixing. Overcoming a vulnerability to disruption, though, is more problematic, and come to think of it the most valuable part of this article might simply be my articulating, on a general level, how you typically go about doing this.

Historically, combo decks in particular have made themselves less vulnerable to disruption in three ways. First, they’ve become faster. The degree to which this proves effective, of course, depends on the speed of disruption in the format. If the means of disruption involves blowing up lands starting on turn 3, a combo deck that kills on turn 3 will be able to go off 50% of the time (potentially) without facing any disruption at all, and the other 50% of the time having to combo through a maximum of one disruption spell. If, on the other hand, the means of disruption typically involves one-mana Stifles, Cabal Therapies, Thoughtseizes, and Duresses, an improvement in speed is no longer as meaningful unless it limits the amount of disruption another deck can levee at you. That is, there’s a substantial difference between a turn 1 and a turn 2 effective kill – the first case will leave you unopposed a substantial portion of the time – and even a turn 3 kill will limit the amount of disruption they will draw on average because they won’t have the time or mana to dig for and then cast it. But there’s not all that much difference, in this situation, between comboing out on turn 4 or turn 5 on average. So the degree to which speed helps you avoid disruption depends upon the cost of the format’s commonly-played disruption. In Vintage or Legacy, where Force of Will enters into the equation, there’s actually an upper limit to the amount of value that speed can buy you.

Note that I don’t talk much about the quality of that disruption, because that’s not an issue you solve by becoming faster.

Second, decks reduce their vulnerability to disruption by drawing (or at least looking at) more cards. Intuitively, it’s not clear at first why this makes much sense. Drawing more cards obviously makes it easier for you to go off, but does it make it more difficult to disrupt you? One of the things about most existing Swans lists is that because you have so many one-for-one tutors, if you get a crucial combo piece removed you have to rely on your draw step to provide you with another one. An increase in the number of a deck’s tutors certainly means that you’re more likely to draw the correct piece on any given draw step, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve got more draw steps to get to that piece before it’s too late. More card drawing can render disruption irrelevant both by providing access to more copies of a given piece and by providing the relevant mana for you to cast those pieces in the first place, in addition to giving you a greater amount of information from which to formulate your game plan. Historically, the best combo decks have featured tons of card selection, because it allows you to pick and choose the things you need at a given moment.

Finally, decks reduce their vulnerability to disruption by surviving long enough that the disruption doesn’t matter. Everyone who has ever played a mid-range deck understands that all the Duresses, Therapies, Vindicates, Molten Rains, and Counterspells in the world don’t mean anything if they’re not accompanied by a relevant clock. In a format defined by creatures, if you can kill enough guys to survive a disruptive onslaught, it doesn’t matter what you’ve had to discard up to that point. Even if your card-drawing has been stripped and your combo pieces neutralized, if they can’t kill you, time is on your side. This can also take the form of “resilience,” whereby you aren’t necessarily killing creatures or surviving against a competing kill directly but rather shielding yourself against an effective win by neutralizing “trumps” (like Gaddock Teeg, Collective Restraint) or a wall of countermagic so dense that you’re never going to get through (via means such as Defense Grid).

With those principles in mind, I’ve set about designing a hypothetical Swans list that attempts to solve many of these problems. I’m not advocating this list to go play in a tournament tomorrow, though it’s certainly something to try and test. I’m doing it to demonstrate the type of thing that pops into my mind once I realize I’ve got some room to try and “improve” upon a list. If some of these improvements end up not working, then we as deck builders can see if there’s a way to splice what we have improved upon with the things that the original designers got right.

Taking things in the order that we listed them, then, the first problem to deal with is the issue of dead cards and redundant combo pieces. Multiple Seismic Assaults do literally nothing, but if you’re a Seismic Assault deck there’s not really a good way around that. Multiple Swans do literally nothing as combo pieces, but they do quite a lot as undercosted 4/3 flying creatures, so I’m fine keeping as many of those in as I can fit. Finally, each and every copy of Dakmor Salvage has actually zero text until the moment that you plan on killing the opponent, so it’s in our interest to minimize the number of those that exist in the final product – assuming suitable alternatives can be found. And these are just the combo pieces themselves! We’ve also got to make sure that Glittering Wishes have extra utility outside of just being Swans 4-7, and that Idyllic Tutors are actually solving problems as opposed to simply providing us with redundant copies of combo pieces to which we already have access.

To fix the manabase, a good place to start is by adding Green mana acceleration. It’s amazing how much you can get away with when you’ve got eight extra “land” slots that find you whatever you want. Of course, these take up spots within the sixty, so there’s a certain tradeoff there that you have to balance. Mana acceleration also conveniently helps the deck’s speed, but (being realistic) there’s not much of a way besides Lotus Bloom to get a 2 W/U W/U creature and a RRR Enchantment out before turn 4. Speed is not going to win us many games by itself.

In a Swans shell there are a couple of ways to draw extra cards. If you’re already playing Green mana acceleration, you can take a cue from the R/G Big Mana lists and run Harmonize, one of the most potent forms of raw card advantage current in Standard. A particularly compelling means, though, is through the “other” Swans engine (besides Seismic Assault), Skred. Green mana acceleration can get you Snow Lands, and even absent other elements of the combo a single Swans/Skred should draw you into whatever you need to very likely kill on the next turn.

Skred also serves the role of the final trait we were looking for, which was the ability to defend against a clock. While we’re traveling along this path – and playing Red and Green already – why not run one of the most touted cards in Shadowmoor, Firespout, to further bolster our defense against a creature assault? This fits in nicely with the fact that we’re already playing Glittering Wish for Swans, so we’ve got at least one secondary target already, increasing the return on multiple copies of Wish.

Taken all that together, I’ve come up with the following list:

4 Into the North
3 Edge of Autumn
2 Wall of Roots
3 Abundance
3 Seismic Assault
3 Swans of Bryn Argoll
4 Glittering Wish
1 Idyllic Tutor
4 Skred
3 Firespout
4 Harmonize
2 Gaea’s Blessing
1 Dakmor Salvage
4 Highland Weald
3 Arctic Flats
4 Horizon Canopy
1 Grove of the Burnwillows
5 Snow-Covered Mountain
3 Snow-Covered Plains
3 Snow-Covered Forest

1 Manamorphose
1 Firespout
1 Swans of Bryn Argoll
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Vexing Shusher
1 Deus of Calamity
1 Greater Auramancy
1 Harmonic Sliver
1 Mercy Killing

The attempt is to muster a creature-rush defense with Walls, Spouts, and Skreds while using a fairly impressive card drawing/tutor suite to assemble Abundance/Seismic Assault/Swans. Two Blessings (the cycling of which is a perfectly fine turn 2 play) and a Salvage insure that you can still deal nigh-infinite damage (you have to dredge to mill the Blessings so that you can get all your lands back in your deck). The mana is still the most awkward thing about the deck, as you’ve unfortunately got to run enough mana-fixing that you can’t max out on Walls, and you’re running 7 comes-into-play-tapped lands which limits your ability to use Search for Tomorrow. I’m sure the ‘lark matchup is bad because of this. A few nice things about this list, though, are that Abundance is actually just a really good card to play on its own, and that your Wish board gives you a good amount of flexibility while allowing you to actually sideboard real cards in many different matchups.

Still, I’m not entirely sure that this is the way to go. I’d actually like some Elsewhere Flasks, for one, so I wouldn’t just roll over and die if I drew exclusively Snow Mountain and Snow Plains. Lotus Bloom would be incredible to fit in, obviously, but it’d diminish your ability to cast Harmonize and Abundance and Swans on turn 3 – yes, you can just “run the Swans out there” in some matchups. At the same time, it’d make Skreds worse, since I think you’d have to cut a bunch of ways to put Snow lands into play. The main problem, of course, is upping the total mana required by the combo from seven to eleven, which slows you down considerably. The ability to actually play a game outside the combo itself might make up for this, though, and that’s why you playtest. I know I certainly enjoy being able to use Swans to their fullest even without the Seismic Assault, just via Skred and Firespout. It might turn out that the way to go is to hybridize the two lists, get over my fascination with Abundance, and run more Salvages while still keeping the Skred/Harmonize/Mana Acceleration portion intact.

The point is not to arrive at an optimal list on the first attempt. The idea, rather, is to figure out how to take care of problems you see in an existing list rather than simply complaining that there are things that don’t work. I know that I often dismiss an idea as too inefficient or too problematic when what I ought to be doing is thinking about how to improve those inefficiencies or vulnerabilities.

Until next week!