Embracing The Chaos – EDH Deckbuilding Theory

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Thursday, October 22nd – It’s the best format you’ve ever seen played. You’ve watched all the wackiness, you’ve heard all the stories. You’ve even borrowed someone’s 100 card pile and participated in the madness. Now you want to build your own deck. Where to start?

It’s the best format you’ve ever seen played. You’ve watched all the wackiness, you’ve heard all the stories. You’ve even borrowed someone’s 100 card pile and participated in the madness. Now you want to build your own deck. Where to start?

Right here.

Building an EDH deck will be one of the most difficult undertakings of your Magic-playing life – not because of the inherent difficulties of the format, but because of your choices: you have too many. The raw number of good cards you have to choose from in your colors is staggering, and the more colors you run the worse it is. The first thing you have to accept is that there are more cards that you can play than there are cards that you can play. In other words, the number of cards that will fit into your deck is greater than the number of cards that you’re allowed to put in. You have to get over the emotional hump of leaving stuff out. “But I want to play Fact or Fiction AND Intuition!” you scream. Sorry, Sparky, you might have to let one of them go.

The other mindset you’re going to have to get around is the idea of “breaking the format,” which is completely valid in competitive formats. In fact, you have considerable incentive to do so. Not so in EDH. The format is already broken. Especially if you’re playing Black, with all the Tutors, you can probably combo out reliably on turn 3 or 4 every game. If you want to experience the depth of EDH, resist that urge. At best, you’ll get bored quickly with the deck. At worst, you’ll find yourself ostracized from your local group since you’re not so much playing EDH as goldfishing. The deck you want to build is the one that is both playable and social.

The real thing some people fail to understand is that you don’t need to kill everyone every game in order to win. Winning in EDH is simply having a great time. It’s participating in games that are something interesting and special. That’s why “Group Hug” decks have gotten popular in EDH circles.

Now that you’ve gotten the philosophical framework, it’s time to get to brass tacks.

What Comes First: Colors or a General?

This is a classic chicken/egg argument. Here, it’s really up to you. The first decision you have to make is whether you want to play some colors that you like so that you can play cards that you like, or you’re going to play some sort of focused strategy. My Phelddagrif deck is the former. The colors have some fun cards, and while there are a few synergies, the deck is pretty much built around “ooh, I wanna play that card!” At the opposite end is my Kresh deck, finely tuned to do several different things—most specifically, running Kresh out there, making him huge and then either swinging or flinging. The questions you have to ask yourself are:

Is there a cool General with a cool ability (Crosis, the Purger or Akroma, Angel of Wrath) I want to play?

Are there specific cards or mechanics (such as Landfall or Splice onto Arcane) I want to play?

Are there particular combos (like Pickles Lock* or Woodfall Primus/Mighty Emergence) I want to play?

Are there single strategies (like Samurai beatdown or creature control) I want to play?

Once you answer these questions, you can narrow down your choice. Personally, I like starting with a color combination and theme—although admittedly, many of my themes involve creature beatdown—and then find a General who fits the theme. If I’m starting with a General, I’d rather it was either a new one (I simply replaced Garza Zol with Thraximundar in one deck) or one that few people play. Everyone and their brother has a Sharuum deck. You can’t play in a group of more than five people without running into Rafiq or Teneb. I get that Horde of Notions is awesome repeatable control. Run something different out there. Try Saffi Eriksdottir or Ramses Overdark on for size (both, by the way, are decks sported by Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe). Think outside the box a little.

Now What?

“Find stuff that makes you giggle. Put it in deck.”
Fellow L5 Judge Toby Elliott

There are EDH deckbuilders who will tell you that there are “auto includes” in your colors. Again, think a little outside the box. Sure, I play Solemn Simulacrum and Sol Ring in nearly every deck to smooth out and accelerate the mana, but I also play Blue decks that have zero counterspells and at least one Black deck with no Tutors. Toby has it right. The whole idea of this format is to see unusual, amusing stuff. Let your inner Timmy come out. How many times have you played decks in Standard or Extended that were successful, but you didn’t really enjoy playing? Don’t let that happen to you in EDH. The format is about having fun, so go ahead and play Storm Herd or Hive Mind.

That said, you still have to be able to play the game. This is a list of things that I make sure I put in nearly every deck:

Cards I Just Want to Play With

Each deck has up to about a half dozen of these. Often they’re just single cards that are good (or good in the format), such as Divinity of Pride in Merieke, or Galepowder Mage in Phelddagrif. Sometimes, they’re just wacky, like Infernal Genesis in Lord of Tresserhorn. Warp World’s popularity in the new Standard hasn’t hurt its popularity in EDH.

New mechanics make new EDH possibilities. The first thing I thought of when I saw Landfall was a card I otherwise hate (because I think it always slows down games): Thawing Glaciers.

Mana Acceleration

It might seem obvious to include it, but the type of mana acceleration you’re going to run depends on your deck. In Darigaaz, which is kind of a metagame deck, and has a good deal of artifact hate (such as Molder Slug). Where I might put Talismans or Signets (Fellwar Stone seems an obvious choice here) in other decks, Darigaaz has more land searchers, like Civic Wayfinder, and the insane Oracle of Mul Daya.

Card Draw

Another obvious one, but I’m still amazed at the number of decks I see that consistently run out of steam—and a number of others that do nothing but draw cards and little else. I like to target about 15% of my non-lands for card draw. In a deck that’s roughly 60 non-land cards, that means about 9 different ways to draw cards. I’m a fan of doing it with creatures, since they’re more easily recurred than Sorceries. Obviously, permanents that keep drawing cards for you, like Phyrexian Arena—which is especially good since it does so passively—are at a premium.

Things to Sacrifice Your Stuff To

You might find this an odd category, but other people stealing your stuff happens a good amount. Mass destruction, whether through Wrath effects or Disk effects, is inevitable. Make use of this by being able to sacrifice your permanents to do things. I’m a giant fan of Greater Good, since it fills both this function and the previous one. It has lead to some crazy things, like last week’s drawing of most of my deck. I also really like Read the Runes for the same reason. I really love Goblin Bombardment because you can dome people with creatures they’re killing. Altar of Dementia is a good old-school choice, although probably not a good one if you’re trying to fill your own graveyard for a good Living Death (unless you’re also playing with Leyline of the Void).


Being able to use your cards more than once is really important in longer games. Again, I’m a huge fan of passivity—doing stuff for no cost. Oversold Cemetery is the best example. You simply get back a guy every turn, and you get to pick which one it is. Old school Regrowth effects are good, but they tend to be one-shots, unless you’re dedicated to recurring your recursion. Battlefield Scrounger was an early-days favorite in my Phelddagrif deck, since it was also a warm body, and I could do it in response to someone trying to take something out of my yard. Simple things that shuffle stuff back up for you, like Feldon’s Cane, are a good source if you’re going to draw lots of cards.

Graveyard Removal

Other players will do crazy recursion things, since it’s generally just a good idea. That means you need to defend yourself a little bit. I always pack at least one bit of graveyard removal, oftentimes more. The one that I’m most fond of is Scrabbling Claws, since when I’m done with it or it’s about to get destroyed, I can draw a card with it. Since with the first ability the targeted player can choose which card to remove, it’s a good teamwork defense against a third player trying to animate something from a graveyard. I still consider it better than Relic of Progenitus, since I like to keep my graveyard around. One of my groups got so crazy with the recursion that I just started playing Leyline of the Void, but that might be over the top. I consider the Advocates from Judgment kind of interesting, if a little narrow—although they can also be great fence-builders. “Help me out, and I’ll put some stuff back in your hand to destroy that thing that’s about to smash us all!”

Enchantment and Artifact Removal

One of my criticisms of many people’s deckbuilding is that they don’t put in enough enchantment or artifact removal, most especially enchantments. I’ve used that to run roughshod over folks with six or seven enchantments at a time. Sure, it’s vulnerable to Disk effects, but for the most part, the damage is already done. People are a little better at destroying artifacts, but considering that they know that there will be artifacts that hurt them very badly in everyone else’s deck, not as good as they could be. Again, I like stuff that does double duty—both things that destroy either or things that destroy one of them and also do something else (like “be a creature”).

My favorite things that take care of both include Indrik Stomphowler, Trygon Predator, Nantuko Vigilante, the awesome Aura Shards, and Decimate. I guess Woodfall Primus and Angel of Despair also apply.


I’d love to play decks with nothing but 8 mana cost spells, but that’s not really practical. Balance out your splashy stuff with things that you can actually do in the early turns of the game. It’s certainly a popular strategy for turns 1-4 to be all about setting up stuff so that you can get to those 8 mana spells quicker, but I also like doing things early—like sauntering into the Red Zone. Give yourself plenty of things to do in turns 5-9, so that once you’ve hit critical mana mass, you can really do what you’d like to.


The way I figure out land is by first considering how many I’m going to play. I generally start at 38 and modify that based on the number of additional mana sources I have in the deck. If my math is correct, 39 land is the minimum you need in order to have a better than 50% chance of having at least 6 lands by turn 7 (that’s assuming no way to get additional draws or lands into play, so it’s a worst case scenario).

To figure out color, I simply count all the colored mana symbols in the mana cost of all the cards and come up with a total (52 Green, 27 Red, 21 Black) and run that into percentages. With 38 land in this scenario, I’d have 20 Green, 10 Red, and 8 Black. Personally, I count dual- and tri-lands as the most common (so Savage Lands would be a green source), if possible. The more multi-lands you have, the more you’ll need to tinker with your own formula, but this is a good first step.

There is my basic process of philosophy and implementation for building an EDH deck. I hope it helps you find a way to a deck you really love, and hope that it helps you Embrace the Chaos.

Until next week!

Sheldon Menery

*Boo! Anyone who plays Pickles Lock also molests underprivileged puppies. You know, the kind that just want someone to love them, the ones with the really big sad eyes.