Throughout my Magic-playing career (such as it is), I have been pretty reluctant to play any”mainstream” Constructed deck, opting instead for decks of my own design. I am an R&D”Johnny,” and I’m damn proud of it – and I have a lot of fun with my Stampeding Wildebeests and Arcane Laboratories and Tahngarth, Talruum Heroes. (I also win my fair share of games with them, thanks very much.) The problem with all of this is that when I’m not inspired, I don’t do much.
My interest in the Constructed Magic scene this summer has been… Well, to say that I’ve been disinterested would be generous – to say that I don’t really give a deleted expletive about Onslaught Block would be somewhat more accurate. I have no real problem with the format, but there’s nothing that I really want to play. No deck has leapt out and grabbed me, screaming”Build me, consarnit!” or even just meekly raised its hand and mumbled”Play me, if it’s not too much trouble.”* So for a while, I just stuck to weekly drafts and occasionally helping somebody test one matchup or another.
A couple months ago, however, I was reminded by some friends of an old, old format we used to play. It was about four years and two game shops ago, in the summer of Urza’s Destiny. The format was called Ironman, and it was good. Some of you may be thinking of tearing up cards that go to the graveyard, but that’s not what I’m talking about – that’s a different”Ironman.” This was an equally crazed version of normal Magic: Five-hundred card decks of all five colors, ten card hands and a hundred life, played at a table with as many opponents as you could find. And one more thing: Every single card, basic lands excepted, was restricted.
This was the perfect opportunity to flex my unoccupied Johnny spirit. This format is different from normal Magic in all the ways that let cards made for Johnnies everywhere shine without being completely overshadowed by the more powerful options out there. Well, that and it’s fun as all get-out. With these memories stirring in my head and no interest in constructing any sixty-card deck, I decided it was time to rebuild an Ironman deck.
Granted, the fact remained that everyone else who had ever played the format had broken their decks apart long ago, just like I had. The cards were now shoved into closets or drawers (although some of the guys threw their decks together into a very cool continuous draft), so even if I did build a deck, there would be nobody to play against but myself. The thing is, with a deck that big, it’s no problem for two players (or four, or more) to just grab chunks and go at it. Even if I’m the only one with a deck, the format could live again – and live it would.
The first step toward getting Ironman back off the ground was to give the rules a once-over. It was always a lot of fun, true, but there were serious balance issues. First up, the whole notion of starting with a hundred life was instituted with the best of intentions, but everyone knows where that road leads.** Yes, with higher life totals everyone will get to play for longer and nobody can get eliminated too quickly just because their deck didn’t cough up the right mana, but there’s a strong argument against it as well, led most capably by a Phyrexian Processor set to fifty (I did that on more than one occasion).
But even so, twenty seems like such a puny number, especially considering the magnitude of the spells to be flung back and forth. In old Ironman, it was hardly unusual for a 30/31 Lhurgoyf to be only the second- or third-largest creature on the table, usually trumped by a Beast of Burden or Multani, Maro-Sorcerer. Of course, as I’m the one building the deck, I could just keep the obscenely large creatures on the sidelines… But then what’s the point? Turning giant monsters sideways is always good times! Dying to said monsters in one hit isn’t so peachy, though, so I compromised and set the starting life at thirty to test the waters. The extra ten-point cushion turned out to be a nice help to a slow start, but it didn’t cause the games to go extraordinarily long. With angels and elementals capable of administering beatings of ten, twelve or as much as sixteen points of damage in a single turn, it doesn’t even seem like that much. Life-spending cards aren’t even that imbalanced by the extra points, so thirty has remained the starting life since day one.
The ten-card hand rule was another that seemed a little shaky to me. It did help that you got extra cards, so it was more likely that you could cast spells early in the game, but it was nothing three more turns didn’t do anyway. Besides, if I’d left the ten-card hands intact, I know I’d have people discarding cards every turn when they weren’t supposed to (an error I constantly committed), which is just a hassle that nobody needs. Stick with what you know, said my gut, so I stepped hands back to seven cards.
Of course, the one thing I simply couldn’t change was the deck construction rules. After all, that’s the whole reason I was doing this! As I noted earlier, the decks are set at five hundred cards, no more, no less. All five colors must be played, and not just a minimum number of cards like in 5-Color. Every color must be played equally (for this purpose, multicolor and artifact cards count as a sixth”color”). Originally, the actual number of cards in each color was also a set thing, but I really saw no reason somebody shouldn’t be able to load up on spells or lands, if that’s what he or she wanted.
You can still fudge the colors, of course. Nothing says you can’t load up certain colors with cycling cards or morphs to artificially create color imbalance, but the whole point of the rules is to encourage diversity. When the decks are this big, and you have every dual land ever printed available to play, you lose a lot more in card quality by playing Brand and Bloodstoke Howler in the first place than you gain in mana consistency for not having to deal with mountains.
If you haven’t realized it already, let me point out that consistency in most senses of the word is really a lost cause in Ironman. It can be hard to wrap your head around that, especially as consistency is one of the driving forces in modern deckbuilding, but it’s the truth. A fine-tuned Constructed deck can execute an optimal game plan sometimes as much as fifty percent of the time, with the other fifty percent performing as close to that level as possible. Your average 5-Color deck is fairly consistent – not quite as much as a sixty-card deck, of course, but between the various tutors and redundant card choices, it can execute a game plan with acceptable precision. An Ironman deck is twice as big as a 5-Color deck. Not only that, but every card is restricted. Every card. If it’s not a basic land, you only get one. So a given card is eight times less likely to show up in this format than it would be in Five.
It’s not consistent. It’s not supposed to be. It makes for an absolutely different game every time, and any card that shows up three games running is a severe anomaly.
Not only that, but just about every tutor card is unavailable for use. Although nothing ever rotates out of Ironman use, the format did use the 1.5 Banned List, and in addition to that I’ve decided to refrain from using any card that is banned or restricted in 5-Color, as they would seem to know what breaks the curve too severely in the world of giant decks. In short, unless you’re looking for land, your deck searching options are about nil. Hell, I’ve decided to exclude even the very few tutors that would get in under the radar, for reasons I’ll discuss a little later.
Besides its restricted list, 5-Color also donated a few other things to Ironman (also known to some people simply as”Big Deck Format” or, due to the hybridizing of the two formats,”Big Five”). Five allows no-, one- and all-land mulligans in addition to standard Paris mulliganing, which leads to opening hands that let people actually play cards (which is the one thing you want to be consistent at), so I adopted those immediately. Recently, the rule to allow drawing a card on the first turn, even when playing first, has made its way into use, since the penalty of a lost card is so much more severe than the advantage of playing first.
The last facet of Ironman is the multiplayer aspect; classic Ironman was always played chaos multiplayer. (What with the rather lofty starting life totals, that would make for some very long games.) However, when I first physically put my new deck together, I could usually only scrape up one other person to play, so it started out as mainly a one-on-one game, and that worked pretty well. The games weren’t too long, and both players generally got to sling some pretty cool spells, so everyone was reasonably happy. Then, one week, someone (and I think it may have been Gary Wise) suggested Two-Headed Giant. Now that was a multiplayer I could live with! It engages all of the players from start to finish without separate feuds cropping up and excluding some players. (At the very least, it helps those of us accustomed to duels easily identify who our enemies are!) Although that first two-on-two didn’t last very long, another game picked up later in the evening, and we warred back and forth until nearly 4 a.m. Since then, Two-Headed Giant has been the multiplayer format of choice.
At this point, I’ve put all the rules, such as they are, on the table. You could, if you were so inclined, actually go off and build an Ironman deck of your own. If you’re not interested in something like this, hey, that’s cool. It’s a big investment, both in time and cards, and for people who are satisfied with standard play, it’s probably not worth it. But if you do feel that you’d like to construct your own Ironman deck (no pressure!***), allow me to share my thoughts, opinions, views, and other similar words about the deckbuilding process.
When you sit down to make a deck like this, there are basically two routes you can go, which are basically the same as for building a normal deck. The first, which I used, was to simply go through card lists and pull cards to include. Inevitably, I ended up with too many cards and had to trim it down, and that made for some tough decisions. Arc Lightning or Pyrotechnics wasn’t a particularly stressful choice, but not running Ray of Revelation felt somehow wrong. Of course, keeping that meant cutting something else. From the first list I made, which was about a hundred cards too long, to actually having an actual decklist was about a week of contemplation and consideration. Since I was pretty much the only person who would have a deck, any card that wasn’t in the deck would never see play. The end result is a sort of”greatest hits” deck, featuring a lot of flashy Legends, staple spells, and unexpected oldies (go Avenging Druid!).
The other route you might take is to actually attempt to build a deck. Obviously, U/G madness isn’t an option here, but you can attempt to link most of your cards together through some overlying synergy. If, for example, you wanted a deck that used Spike Weaver really well, you could start your decklist with that, and then add cards that worked well with it. Dragon Blood, Forgotten Ancient, and Disturbed Burial would all be fine choices. Then add cards that work well with those cards; Spike Feeder, Spitting Hydra, and Triskelion, perhaps. Rinse, lather, and repeat until you have a list long enough to make up most of your deck. Add in other spells to taste, mix well and serve.
One of the more important things to watch out for while I was doing this was the mana. This isn’t a new concept to anyone, but as I was looking at close to three hundred different cards, it could be a little overwhelming. The principles are the same, though: Be careful of needing too much colored mana, and too much mana in general. If I was running more spells that cost two black mana than cost one, that needed to be fixed -and if I had more spells that cost seven mana than cost three, then I wasn’t going to be doing much except getting beat up by the person who drew Mother of Runes.
This is where I really learned to love the”colorless” spells. This isn’t some Mirrodin rumor; I’m just talking about cards you can use without needing colored mana. Artifacts are obviously in this category, but more than that, anything that cycles for colorless and any morph creature is playable for a little investment regardless of what lands you have on the table. Scion of Darkness is big and mean – but if you’re stuck on four lands, none of which are black, it’s happy to hit the bin and dig for something you want right now, while Quicksilver Dragon can always sneak onto the table in 2/2 form to get rid of some little attacker if necessary. (Morphs are also a lot of fun because, due to the requisite five colors, they really can be anything.) Being able to use cards, regardless of your mana, means that whoever is playing gets to do stuff, which means they’ll have more fun. And that’s the point, right?
The last specific card-related issue I’m going to deal with (and you can figure out anything else on your own) is balance. Even with all the cards on the”banned list,” such as it is, some cards are still available that I just refuse to use. These are either some sort of otherwise legal tutor card, like Eladamri’s Call, or something just too powerful for the good of the format. Tutors, even if they do only get creatures, break one of the fundamental rules of Ironman: Only one of everything. A Call is a second copy of every creature in the entire deck, which is bad enough – but after enough play, there are a few top-notch creatures that invariably become the prime targets. Now it’s not some utility spell that gets whatever Battlemage you need at the moment; it’s just a second Eternal Dragon, or Iridescent Angel, or what have you. Well, the rules say there can be only one. Hit the road, and take your Fierce Empath with you.
Cards that are too powerful for the format are things like Dwarven Blastminer and Trench Wurm, which can just destroy a player who doesn’t happen to have an answer. And this isn’t destroying in a cool”Oh, look, here’s a Seedborn Muse to go with my Avatar of Woe”**** way; it’s destroying in a”You don’t get to play the game anymore” way. Cards that operate at a power level too high for this sort of self-contained format are cards I don’t want people to have to deal with. Phyrexian Processor, unfortunately, turned out to be in this category. It was just too easy to cast too early for creatures that were too large, and there weren’t enough artifact destruction cards available to curb it without significantly diluting the rest of the deck. It had to hit the bench, along with Captain Sisay, who is now in permanent time out for harassing Visara the Dreadful and a few dragons that wish to remain anonymous.
Fortunately, only a few cards actually had to get cut for these reasons. Other cards can be a bit overpowered at times (Genesis and Fanning the Flames come to mind), but balance isn’t so important as to require sacrificing everything that breaks the curve a little bit. Anyway, simply elbowing in a few particular cards helps shore up the defenses (like Coercion for buyback spells or Phyrexian Furnace for graveyard recursion, and Dissipate for both). Usually, there’s a card available that can help if you look hard enough. Of course, just a couple cards don’t make a big difference in a deck this large, but these cards are good even when the cards that got them included aren’t around, so it works out.
Finally, everything is always changing. I change anywhere between two and ten cards in the deck every week as I think of more cards that I want to have available. When Mirrodin is released, that number will likely spike dramatically. There’s almost as much fun in building the deck as there is in playing it, and while change just for the sake of change isn’t a great idea, getting cards that aren’t pulling their weight out of circulation is a good thing when it makes space for new cards.
History in the Making
If you like what I’m offering here and you think you’d like to build your own Ironman deck, more power to you! Hell, you don’t even necessarily have to adhere to these rules – it’s your deck, you can bend ’em up how you want. If it’s not your thing, well, that’s cool too. But if you at least enjoyed reading about it, or it made you think about some new aspect of this game, I’ll be satisfied.
I don’t really have a good conclusion for this, as the deck is still around and new changes are constantly being made. New games are played every week, and some pretty wild stuff happens as cards that have never previously met come into contact with each other. I can assure you that Akroma, Angel of Wrath had never heard of a Kor Chant until it convinced her to kill herself instead of an innocent Faerie Conclave.
Thanks for reading, and have fun out there!
* — Actually, Paul Sottosanti came up with an interesting little black/red number that I might be inclined to play, but I’ll let him write about that one if he so desires.
** — Saskatchewan.
*** — Okay, maybe a little pressure.
**** — This did actually happen at one point. It was nasty.