Feature Article – Sullivan Library: Deck Genesis

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Adrian Sullivan, one of the finest deckbuilding minds in the game, has done it again. Today’s Sullivan Library takes us through a fantastic new Green/White deck that has positive matchups against four of the top five decks in Standard. If that isn’t enough, the article also divulges some of the Master Builder’s deck design secrets. Looking to smash at a Standard tournament, or hoping to hone your deckbuilding skills? Then this is the article for you!

In the beginning, there was a deck. It wasn’t the best deck in the world, but you could look at it and see that it was good.

Any of us who build decks spend a lot of time tinkering and honing. In some ways we can call it an art, in some ways we can call it craftsmanship. But, perhaps most importantly, it is exploration.

Many of the influential people within the world of Wizards of the Coast Research and Development (whether they be Ghosts of R&D Past or Present) have held the idea that there is no such thing as a person who “designs” a deck, but rather that these decks exist the whole time, and they are “discovered” by some intrepid individual who steps out into the unknown.

Many times this process of discovery does not result in the ways that we expect. We could go out in search of “the Indies” and end up in the Americas, not even realizing the full ramifications of what we’ve discovered. We could go looking for a Northwest Passage, spend incredible amounts of resources, and never find it. Maybe you’ll make it to the top of Everest and find that someone has already beaten you there. These decks, it has been contended, exist, and the so-called deckbuilder is not a creator… more an explorer.

Exploration and discovery aren’t always so romantic, either. We can all “discover” the new Chinese delivery place when we get a flier under our windshield wiper, or “discover” the new Quik-E-Mart down the street that has been advertising opening day for a month now. This kind of discovery happens all the time. Who designed Green/Blue Madness for Block? We can look at specific sub-archetypes (like Deep Dog for Standard) and point to them as having a specific “creator” (if we choose to use that term). Often, however, Wizards packages certain cards so fantastically, we can’t help but simply plug them into already explored archetypes and play them. Incinerate and Mogg Fanatic are fantastic examples of cards that are already so clearly well known, we don’t expect them to create new archetypes, but rather, their power will plug them into tons of archetypes that we already know are good.

Take Foresee, Ghostfire, River of Tears, or Quagnoth. None of these cards do anything so radically different that we’re really likely to be exploring a whole new realm if we go about using them. River of Tears and Ghostfire offer increased options for a deck looking for more burn or more Black/Blue mana. Foresee is either an alternative to Careful Consideration, or it could be Considerations number five through eight, depending. Even Quagnoth, which has few to no real similar cards (depending on the format), just gives another real answer to a problem, rather than forging something completely new.

Quagnoth is similar to Take Possession, in that you don’t expect it to birth a new archetype. Rather, it will support one. This makes it very similar to a card like Tarmogoyf, which, while powerful, is still just a powerful cheap drop in Green. Compare this with a card like Sprout Swarm or Oriss, Samite Guardian, neither of which have yet panned out impressive/important new decks, but that threaten to be cards that could if the right discoveries are made.

Most of the time, we don’t have these huge discoveries. I’ve helped usher more than my share of new decks to the world, but, for most decks, we’re still working with material that is mostly already there. I’m going to revisit one of my greatest decks that never was, and show you what I’ve done with it to make it what I think is perhaps one of the greatest decks for Standard today.

1 — Work with what you know

If you already have a great deck, but it’s for a different format, or maybe the format has rotated and is different, maybe you can build off the old to make something “new.” There isn’t all that much in common between Ravnica Block Constructed and today’s Standard (636 versus 1879 legal cards…), but it’s always possible that you can recreate past successes by working on the back of something good.

I’ve mentioned my Ravnica Block Constructed deck a few times now over the last couple of years. It was exceedingly powerful in the format, but unfortunately never really had a format to be played in (Team Constructed makes determining what was a “good deck” from that era much more difficult). For reference, here is that deck:

4 Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
4 Dryad Sophisticate
4 Selesnya Guildmage
4 Vinelasher Kudzu
4 Watchwolf
4 Civic Wayfinder
4 Giant Solifuge
4 Loxodon Hierarch

3 Moldervine Cloak
2 Glare of Subdual
2 Bathe in Light

5 Forest
4 Plains
4 Temple Garden
3 Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree
4 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Gruul Turf

The reason that this deck seemed to perform so well is that it kept overwhelming everything I threw at it. Unlike other Green/White decks from that era, it didn’t fool around with trying to be sneaky with “cool” cards. It just laid down one big guy after another. The combination of each of its parts made it incredibly hard to handle.

Porting this over to Standard is easy. It’s already a Standard deck, if you want to call it one. That is, everything in it is legal. For other decks, this might not actually be the case. You clearly couldn’t port over Affinity, for example, but you might be able to go to an old decklist of some kind from say an old Standard, and bring over most of the best bits, and just bring over the “closest” cards to what you’ve lost. Sometimes it can be incredibly easy. Mana Leak, for example, can become Rune Snag.

These conversions don’t make for the best decks, but they do give you a starting place to work from when you’re attempting to make a great deck.

2 — Look for the best new material that fits

There are cards that simply beg to be played because they are that good. If you’re playing Black/Blue control, chances are you’ll have Psychatog in your deck if it’s legal in the format. He’s just that good. He demands airtime.

Look at the newly available cards and try to figure out if any of them are worth it based on power alone. There are bound to be a few. Look at your mana curve and try to decide if any of the cards are simply improvements. Chances are a few of them will be. Other cards might simply have a great deal of synergy.

A quick perusal of Time Spiral, Cold Snap, and Tenth Edition led me to these cards:

Call of the Herd
Troll Ascetic (!!)
Horizon Canopy
Treetop Village
Yavimaya Dryad

All of these cards seemed just so fantastic and easy “auto-includes”, so I did just that. I included them, cutting a whole slew of cards. The Yavimaya Dryad might seem like the odd guy out, but he’s in there precisely to replace the Civic Wayfinder that was in the old list. Civic Wayfinder ended up on the old list by way of a very happy accident. I needed a deck to playtest against with my new Ravnica Block deck, and press-ganged my friend Justin into being my partner. We just grabbed some decks that someone (to this day, we don’t know who) had put together and left on the table, just to see if the combo deck I had was any good (it wasn’t). The beatdown deck they had was rubbish, but the Wayfinder was fantastic. When I built White/Green later, I stole that little bit of technology, to my great happiness. Dryad is simply a better Wayfinder, for the most part.

So, you want to find the “good” cards, but you don’t simply want to throw a card into your deck because it is “good”. One of the super-secret decks I’m working on in Block is dealing with just this issue. There is only so much space in the deck, and I’ve been incredibly happy with it, but I feel like the deck just ought to have a Tarmogoyf in it. Of all of the cards in the deck, Call of the Herd is the only one in it that seems like it could be cut, but at the same time I really like the Calls in the deck. For now, I’m playing with the Tarmogoyf instead, but it is absolutely possible that the Calls might be the better choice, and I’ll switch back. It’s also possible that I simply should run both and cut something else, but in the case of this super-secret deck, everything else just feels too necessary to it to imagine cutting. In the end, if I end up with Call of the Herd, it would be a clear case of the “better” card simply not making it because of the synergies in the cards already in the deck.

3 — Take lessons from other archetypes

Sometimes someone else will explore something that isn’t at all related to what you’re working on, and you’ll realize that their work applies in a great way to the work that you’re doing. With this deck that we’re looking at, for example, I got that very lesson from the various White/Green Tarmogoyf decks that have been running around Time Spiral Block Constructed. Sure, they were all running that powerhouse of monstrosity the Tarmogoyf, but I’d already decided that that card was going to be included because of the power that it represents. But they were also running this card called Llanowar Reborn. This was something interesting that I wouldn’t necessarily have considered “good enough” the first pass through all of the new cards. But here they were, legions of White/Green beatdown players in TSP going to town with it and having success.

Maybe there was something to all of this success. In go the Llanowar Reborn.

4 — Work out the kinks and find happy accidents by actually testing

Back when I was first building actual decks, way back in 1993 and 1994, my concepts were pretty rough. My Counter-Burn deck simply included 4 copies of every counterspell that I liked (for example, no Spell Blast) and 4 copies of every burn spell that I liked. My Black/Blue discard/bounce deck added in 4 copies of every discard or bounce spell that seemed good.

Well, we can’t do that in tournament Magic. We have to make choices. Something gets the axe.

Those Llanowar Reborn were pretty darned good. Incredibly good in fact. Turn 2 is a great time to drop a 4/4. It is so good, in fact, that some decks will keel over and die right there. Repeated uses of the Llanowar Reborn via the Karoo-effects of Selesnya Sanctuary and the Gruul Turf are great. Treetop Village was proving its worth. But running all of them… thirteen “comes into play tapped” lands is a bit much for a beatdown deck. Something has to give.

At first, the choice seemed obvious. Cut some of the Karoos or cut some of the Reborn. Treetop Village is simply too good, right? Right?

As luck would have it, Tenth Edition wasn’t legal when I would try to test the deck on MTGO. I had to make do. I wanted something to approximate Treetop Village’s drawback and have some kind of utility. I ended up using New Benalia. It came into play tapped, and it had a “useful” ability. I would just use my imagination and pretend that it was a Village.

And I was finding that I didn’t really need the Village after all. It was a great card, obviously, but it was easily worth far less than the Reborns and their ability to create such huge monsters. It was worth less than the Karoos, who would build me up to near infinite mana and let me reuse my Reborns. They weren’t worthless, they were just worth less than everything else that I had that came into play tapped. This freed up some space for some “comes into play untapped” mana, and a quick revisit to the old list reminded me of how great the Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree had been. It even had synergy with Glare of Subdual! Oh, how we forget!

Never in a million years would I have built the deck with City Tree instead of Treetop Village if I built it cold. Testing let me realize that I didn’t need a card like Treetop Village, as good as it is. My deck was better off with the much less powerful City Tree in its place.

5 — Test other decks, and pay attention to the fine details

Sometimes the ramifications of the cards you’ve chosen mean that there are strange little discoveries that can pay off in some way. One example of this comes in the form of a little one-of called “Dryad Arbor.”

Dryad Arbor is not a particularly good card. It may come into play untapped, but it acts like it doesn’t. It can be killed, stunting your mana for the turn. It can simply suck. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t right in a deck.

I was testing against my friend Rashad Miller when he put a Dryad Arbor into play from one of his decks using a Yavimaya Dryad. I hadn’t even realized that this was something that Yavimaya Dryad could do. I resolved to try one Arbor.

Suddenly, testing against Rakdos didn’t seem nearly so scary. Hit? Take 0! Sure, they could still Hit me sometimes, but one of the big scary moments in that matchup totally got pounded away.

Playing again and again against other Tarmogoyf decks with Red was also showing me that I needed to keep my darned Goyf alive! But with what? I didn’t want a counterspell like Mana Tithe. There had to be a solution. I found one that I’m pretty pleased with (it’s a bit below), and I think you’ll be a little surprised by it.

Keep your eyes open. Lessons can be anywhere.

So here is the final result of tons and tons of testing and honing.

Some card-by-card:

2 Gather Courage / 3 Bathe in Light / 2 Glare of Subdual

In a sense, here are my counterspells. The Gather Courage sprung out of the need to keep my Goyfs alive in an early game when I would tap out, or, for that matter, to keep a Kudzu alive. It’s amazing to cast this card for zero mana, like a crazy kind of Daze. Bathe in Light works much the same way, but can often be a Falter, or other surprise counterspell. In a different metagame, with a heavier burn contingent, I could easily see reversing these numbers for 3 Courage/2 Bathe.

Glare of Subdual is that late game card that you want to see if things are going wrong, or if things have just hit a light stall. Suddenly, you can push through those last points of damage, answer that scary big threat, or just stall for a couple of turns before a game-winning alpha strike. Good stuff!

4 Vinelasher Kudzu / Watchwolf / Tarmogoyf

As far a quick monsters go, these seem like they’re the best. The Wolf is easily the strongest if you don’t have any way to help it, but the Goyf and the Kudzu are better with even the barest amount of help. As far as raw power goes, the Goyf is better than the others, but the Kudzu does have the potential to far surpass a Goyf. Twelve strong drops like this can easily put every other deck in the format on D.

4 Call of the Herd / Troll Ascetic / Yavimaya Dryad/ Loxodon Hierarch

At the three-plus drop are some of the “advantage” monsters. Dryad lets you build up your mana and can often be unblockable, or can summon up a Dryad Arbor to let you tap things out with a Glare. Troll is simply a hugely problematic card for a ton of decks, and Call of the Herd provides efficient beatdown and card advantage. All of these can threaten to be even worse for an opponent because of Llanowar Reborn being used or reused.

Hierarch doesn’t need to be pumped to be effective, but he can simply be the nail in the coffin of an opposing beatdown deck, as well as occasionally shutting down Bridge from Below.


4 Faith’s Fetters / Sunlance

Each of these are used to take out a problematic creature that you simply can’t tolerate being around. Sunlance deals with the pesky early guys (like Magus of the Bazaar or Bob), and Faith’s Fetters deals with the big guys (like Akroma or another Tarmogoyf).

2 Seeds of Strength

Sometimes you want to win creature combat. Seeds of Strength is romantic (and probably could just as easily be Gather Courage), but it can provide a crazy swing in the game that other cards simply can’t.

2 Seed Spark

For those occasions where you must break some kind of artifact or enchantment.

2 Bottled Cloister

A great card against any discard deck, or any matchup where you don’t expect your opponent to be able to actually get rid of it (and you don’t need any combat tricks). Black hates this card.

1 Glare of Subdual

In some matchups, you really need an extra Glare. Black and Red generally can’t get rid of it, and it can just answer huge monsters like Korlash, Golgari Grave-Troll, or a Griffin Guided whatever. Three is too much for most decks in the metagame, but some matchups require another copy.

I’m crazy excited by this deck. It’s been playtesting fantastically for me. I expect you’ll be happy with it as well.

Why play this deck? Well, if Frank Kartsen’s predictions of the metagame are correct, it beats 4 of the 5 top current decks (Rakdos, Angelfire, Gruul, and Red Deck Wins). Seems good to me!

A couple of quick notes before closing. First of all, my apologies to anyone in the Midwest area who thought that there was a PTQ in Madison last weekend. I got my wires crossed with someone else and was all the more confused because I was preparing for a move into my new apartment. Second, without going into too much detail, I’d like to point anyone who missed it back to my article from last month “Overcoming the 4-1 Dogma in Numbers“. Mike Flores’s most recent article once again revisits the myth that decklists that are comprised of 4 copies or 1 copy of the cards in its list are superior. I would write a rebuttal to that if my own article didn’t already refute this outmoded idea so nicely. I’ve been told it’s one of my finest articles (I have two others in mind that I think are better, but it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, isn’t it?), and it’s well worth a read to anyone who builds decks, likes Magic theory articles, or simply wants to see why I disagree so strongly with Mike on this point. Mike does go on to mention that there are “exceptions” to the 4s and 1s, but I would say that it isn’t even that there are exceptions, but rather there are specific ways to analyze your numbers in decklists that have to be met for any number of copies to be justified. Read the article. You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck to my peeps in Indiana at GenCon, and good luck to my peeps in Columbus who are going to be playing their asses of trying to win the Eastern Regionals and qualifying for the rollerderby National Championships in September.

They're not interested in your White Weenie

WOTC's novel rules for Full Contact 2HG receive mixed reviews

Bigger balls than you

Good luck, Tatum! Go get some!

1 — Madison’s Dairyland Dolls, ranked #2 in the East!
2 — Mouse gets a helping hand from a snarling Crackerjack…
3 — My ex-roommate (as of today), the inimitable Tatum Tantrum.

Have a great weekend, everyone!