Deep Analysis – On Deckbuilding

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Thursday, May 14th – Richard Feldman has created a plethora of powerful rogue creations down the years, with some of his builds propelling their pilots to the pinnacle of the game. Today, in his penultimate article, he brings us some invaluable insight into his personal deckbuilding process…

Although we’re in the midst of full-tilt Standard season, which is not usually a great time for theory articles, I’ve got two articles I’ve got to write which really can’t wait. See, I’ve recently decided to hang up my Magical hat for a spell (get it?) until I’ve got enough free time to really compete to the best of my ability again, and I don’t want to end this column without having said my piece on these two subjects.

This article is for deck designers.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that I should write this, or that I might even be qualified to write this, until Zac Hill pointed out that I “have an insane batting average when it comes to rogue decks and tournament results.” I like to think of myself as a modest guy, and frankly had not considered this might even be the case until he said it…but when I put some thought to the finishes my many off-the-radar decks have had over the years – in my hands or in the hands of others – I had a tough time disagreeing with him.

There are lots of competitive deckbuilders out there, but very few of us get to the point where our creations are bringing home consistently strong finishes. Zac posited that I’ve had more than my fair share of success in this area because I’m able to quickly discard bad ideas and move on, while many deckbuilders get stuck on an idea that turns out to have little or no merit. We all do this to some extent; I certainly have on many occasions, and I’m sure even the Gabriel Nassif of the world (best deck designer of this millennium, if you ask me, and I only shy away from “in history” because I wasn’t playing competitively before 2001) have periodically gotten stuck on a crazy idea that looked like gold but turned out to be garbage.

Why do we do this?

Two reasons. The first is that plausible deck ideas are not a dime a dozen. As often as we deck designers are struck by crazy ideas, we filter lots of them out. “Norin the Wary plus…no, that’ll never work.” So when an idea comes along that actually makes it through that first filter, we get excited. Hey, this crazy idea might actually work!

The second reason is that once we’ve settled on a deck, and decide we are actually going to devote time to developing it, we get invested. Whenever a format changes, the Magical Hive Mind quickly swarms to generate a series of Best Decks. By deciding that none of these Best Decks suit us, that we are going to be the Intrepid Heroes who make a deck that breaks the mold and changes the format (after which we will slay the dragon and rescue the princess), we become instantly attached to the delivery vessel of that promise, the deck itself.

To decide that we’re going to devote time to this new creation, this future format-warper, this Solution To The Metagame, to boldly go where no deck in the format has gone, we have to have confidence. We have to trust that the effort of designing a new deck is going to be worth it, that there will be a payoff coming once we’ve tuned this new thing into its format-crushing ideal form, that we won’t just audible to the Emergency Red Deck that Jim always keeps in his backpack in case the uberdeck turns out to be uberjunk.

We know that there’s always a chance we’ll end up reaching for Jim’s backpack, but we have to believe we won’t, this time, if we are to justify the endeavor in the first place. So once a deck has made it through that first filter, once we’ve spent time thinking about it and testing it and tweaking it…we are reluctant to go back, to admit that our filters didn’t work, that we had spent time on a wrong idea.

This is where we have to swallow our pride. We have to critically analyze our own creations every step of the way, always looking for a sign that they might be The Wrong One even as we hunt for ways to nurture them into The One.

Rule Number One: Eyes On The Prize

Before you do anything else, ask yourself this:

Are you making a pet deck, or the best deck?

This is something you need to decide right now, and there are no in-betweens when you are starting from scratch. You don’t go into a tournament planning to Top 8, you go in planning to win. By the same token, you don’t start building a deck planning to create a “good” deck, you go in planning to create the best deck. There are plenty of good decks out there, and ending up with something on the same level as what’s already out there is a waste of time to a true competitor; you could have spent that time practicing with some other good deck instead.

So if you don’t care about making the best deck, then cool. The rest of this article is not directed at you, but it’s cool. We can still hang out and stuff. Just understand that if you’re not even aiming for the top, you’re setting out to create a pet deck, and I don’t have any advice to give on how to make your pet deck better.

Now, for those of you trying to make the best deck, listen up. To be the Best Deck, your deck has to be a better choice than every other deck in the format. If there is another deck out there that you believe will get you a better result, even if it’s the stockiest stock deck, the nettiest net deck, it doesn’t matter. Play that deck instead of the one you’ve been working on, because at least then you’ll get more experience with an actual Best Deck – something that will help you get there next time you set out to be the king of the hill.

This is where most of my deck ideas get cut. I go through the matchups with the new deck I’m working on, and in each case I ask myself, “can I make this matchup work?” Will I actually be able to beat the format’s Red deck with this? The control deck? The combo deck? The Faeries deck? You have to have a plan for each of these matchups – and sure, you won’t know if the plans will actually pan out until you test them – but if you can’t even come up with a plan for a given matchup that sounds workable, then chances are good that the matchup’s going to be terrible.

It’s fine to have bad matchups, but you have to ask yourself if your deck is going to have better matchups for this environment than the deck you believe is currently best at this. If Faeries is the top deck, but has a serious weakness to Red, by all means pursue a deck idea that looks like it might be able to beat everything Faeries beats while beating Red decks (even if it does give up some of Faeries’s good matchups against niche decks like Planeswalkers.dec).

But if, at any time, you become convinced your deck is going to beat only some of the decks Faeries beats, while getting smashed by the same ones that smash Faeries – or otherwise have a worse overall matchup spread than the current best deck – then stick that sucker on the shelf! Don’t throw it in the trash, just push it to the back of your mind; often, you will be struck by a brainstorm that solves your problem a few days later.

Remember: if you’re not building the best deck, you’re building a pet deck.

Rule Number Two: Kill Your Darlings

This is actually a piece of fiction writing advice. I first read about it in Stephen King’s On Writing, although I can’t remember if he attributed it to someone else. Mike Flores once listed it as one of the most important qualities of a great deck designer.

Everyone who has the creativity to think outside the norm and the guts to actually compete with their own concoction also feels the pull of the Cute Trick. There’s that one card you thought up, or maybe that one interaction. You thought it up, not anyone else. The world has missed its potential! It’s your little secret. Maybe you tell your friends about it and some of them get excited about it too. Man, how could everyone else miss this?


Right now, in this moment between when you first discover the interaction and when you actually sleeve it up at the tournament, you are at the top of a slippery slope of self-hype and confirmation bias that could lead you to play something bad.

This is important enough that I would have put it first if that wouldn’t have taken me away from the natural progression of the deck design process. Instead, I will Fight Club it for emphasis:

Rule Number Three: Kill Your Darlings

Perhaps the most dangerous threat to the success of your deck is a pet card or a pet interaction – and, worse, it’s probably the most common problem I see in aspiring deck designers. If you can’t get past your attachment to pet cards, and learn how to evaluate your deck honestly, your decks will never realize their full potential.

I cannot emphasize this enough.

You must be honest with yourself about every card in your deck, if this list you’re working on is to genuinely aspire to the title of Best Deck. It doesn’t matter if the card or interaction does really flashy things some of the time; if it is not worth it overall, cut it. The game of Magic does not care how painful this might be for you. It has no pity for your incorrect decisions. If you do not design your deck to maximize your chances of overall success, rather than your chances of doing something cool, you are selling yourself short as a competitor.

Naturally, though, innovative decks necessarily start out with unusual card choices. Not all of them will turn out to be correct, and in fact very often only a few of the unusual card choices that you started out with will end up being worthwhile. The insidious ones are the ones that are good in the right situation, but that situation doesn’t come up enough to justify playing the card over something that is more consistently strong, but never reaches that dazzling blowout potential.

Consider Shadow of Doubt. When this initially came out, some people were trying to use it to do things like counter tutor effects like Gifts Ungiven and Rampant Growth effects like Sakura-Tribe Elder. After all, when you use it like that, it’s like a cantrip Mana Leak, and even when you can’t get the two-for-one, you can always just cycle it! Of course, it quickly became evident that this was just way too situational to compare to Mana Leak, and it was quickly abandoned as a generic counter.

Whenever you are playing an unusual card choice, especially if you are doing so because it seems to have synergy with the rest of the deck, ask yourself: would a less exciting card be better? Are you attached to this card choice because of the same reason you are attached to your deck – because you came up with it – or because it’s actually better than the status quo? Be honest with yourself.

A Practical Example

I have always had a soft spot for B/W Midrange Beatdown because of this deck:

Granted, B/W Midrange didn’t see much success between 2006 and 2009. This year, though, the deck has soared back to the forefront since Luis Scott-Vargas racked up the lofty finish of 2nd place at a Pro Tour by playing a midrange deck of the B/W variety. Now that Alara Reborn has entered the mix, just as it was in ‘06, B/W is once again a strong contender for the title of Best Deck in Standard.

To refresh your memory, back in ‘06 the non-BW decks were a combo deck that revolved around Heartbeat of Spring, a fairly standard R/G/W Zoo, a R/G beats deck similar to Zoo but with a greater focus on burn, a U/R land destruction deck that worked its way up to Wildfire and finished with Magnivore, and finally some U/R Urzatron decks with countermagic, bounce, and big spells like Tidings, Wildfire, and Keiga, the Tide Star.

Then there were the three flavors of BW. They all played Dark Confidant, Ghost Council of Orzhova, Castigate, and Umezawa’s Jitte, and Plagued Rusalka, but differed after that.

One was “Hand in Hand,” which Olivier Ruel played to a Top 8 finish at PT: Honolulu. It played discard creatures like Ravenous Rats and Shrieking Grotesque, along with “good stuff” creatures like Paladin en-Vec and Hand of Cruelty.

Then there was “Ghost Husk,” played by Michael Diezel to a 17th place finish at Honolulu, and to a 1st place PTQ finish by Osyp Lebedowicz. This was loudly advocated as the best of the three around the time of Regionals.

Finally, there was Ben Goodman, 22nd place at Honolulu and loud advocate of the “Ghost Dad” list that earned him that finish. His deck was easily the craziest of the three, playing Tallowisp, lots of Spirit and Arcane spells to let it search up removal spells like Pillory of the Sleepless and Enfeeblement (for Dark Confidant, which could not be so easily Pilloried), along with tricky Auras like Indomitable Will to save guys from Wildfire, and Strands of Undeath to attack the opponent’s hand.

Ghost Dad was utterly merciless against aggro decks, packing about a bazillion removal spells (including free ones like Sickening Shoal) and Tallowisp and Dark Confidant to serve up even more removal, not to mention the enormous blowout that was Shining Shoal. However, it had an extremely tough time beating the combo deck of the era, Heartbeat of Spring.

Hand in Hand became somewhat outdated once Wildfire decks rose in popularity after the Pro Tour, as it had neither Shining Shoal nor Promise of Bunrei to help recover. As this was a Team Constructed PTQ season and one member of our trio was having miserable results with Ghost Husk (he found the deck too situational, as he kept stumbling over draws that contained the wrong combo pieces), we were looking for a replacement. He had X-1’d Day 1 of GP: Madison (with no byes) on the back of Ghost Dad, and was interested in sleeving up the mighty Tallowisp again, but did not want to fold to Heartbeat.

Around then was when we started considering what Kotatsu Saitou had played to a Top 4 finish at GP: Hamamatsu.

4 Caves of Koilos
1 Eiganjo Castle
4 Godless Shrine
1 Orzhov Basilica
6 Plains
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
6 Swamp

4 Dark Confidant
4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
4 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
3 Kami of Ancient Law
3 Paladin en-Vec
4 Tallowisp

4 Castigate
1 Enfeeblement
2 Pillory of the Sleepless
4 Shining Shoal
1 Sickening Shoal
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Unholy Strength

4 Distress
1 Kami of Ancient Law
2 Manriki-Gusari
2 Pacifism
1 Paladin en-Vec
3 Phyrexian Arena
1 Spirit Link
1 Unholy Strength

Do you see what he did? He took Ghost Dad and cut the pet cards.

A deck that so horrifically mauls beatdown on the back of Tallowisp and Shining Shoal does not need to be playing Sickening Shoal, three Pillory of the Sleepless, Thief of Hope, Plagued Rusalka, and Teysa, Orzhov Scion. Apologies to Ben Godman, but it really doesn’t.

Cut. Cut. Cut.

Granted, it may have been easier on Saitou to kill someone else’s darlings, but his butchery of Goodman’s sacred cows let him fit Jitte in the maindeck alongside Paladin en-Vec, Isamaru, a tutorable Enfeeblement, and Unholy Strength to make the progression of turn 2 Tallowisp, turn 3 Kami of Ancient Law, search up Unholy Strength and play it make Tallowisp go from being a slow, clunky 1/3 in the Heartbeat of Spring matchup into a swinging-for-three-on-turn-3 Watchwolf lookalike.

I have no mercy when it comes to killing darlings (and neither should you); in this particular case, I turned this deck into Orzhova Maxima simply by taking Saitou’s cuts to the next level. I took out that one last Sickening Shoal, went down to a single Pillory of the Sleepless, embraced the twenty-two-land, four Orzhov Basilica manabase that for whatever reason only the Ghost Husk players seemed amenable to adopting, and made the deck stronger across the board for it.

The only parts of Ben Goodman initial deck that were left over when the dust settled were four Tallowisp, four Auras for him to fetch, and four Shining Shoal. Everything else – the bevy of Pillories, the Sickening Shoals, the Thieves of Hope, the Plagued Rusalkas, the Teysas, they were all gone. In return, I got to play four Umezawa’s Jitte in my maindeck for the many creature mirrors. Four Kami of Ancient Law for those Heartbeat decks. Four Paladin en-Vec (okay, I played Descendant of Kiyomaro in that slot, but still). These cards were not as flashy as the alternatives, but they were uncompromisingly strong just about whenever you drew them.

The results of this Mass Slaughter of Darlings? I got to brag that, of the four people who played Orzhova Maxima at Regionals, all but one qualified for Nationals with it. I doubt any of them would have if they’d still been playing Thief of Hope.


If I convince you of nothing else with this article, I want to convince you of this: take your decks seriously, and be honest with yourself.

Don’t settle for trying to make a “good” deck, shoot for being the best deck. And if, at any time, your deck doesn’t look like it can live up to that expectation, shelve it and either move on to the next project, or bite the bullet and play something you know won’t screw you. Take your individual card choices just as seriously, and evaluate them just as honestly; if a card is more exciting than – but worse than – a stock card that everyone is playing, then cut it. Make the swap. You’ll be doing yourself and the deck a favor.

That’s it for this week. Join me next week when I lay down the last Deep Analysis for the foreseeable future, with the best Magical advice I have to give.

Until then!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]