Friends and foes at StarCityGames.com… hello!
Today, I want to talk about deck brewing, something I did a lot in the weeks preceding the recent World Championships in Rome.
If you aren’t much of a brewer, or don’t really know what I’m talking about, that’s okay. No one’s perfect. The first thing you ought to understand (or at least take my word for) is that most brews, from most brewers, aren’t any good. And when I say â€˜most,’ I don’t mean 60%. I don’t mean 80%. I mean 99.5%. My average brew doesn’t even make it from paper to cardbacks (especially if my sharpie is low on ink).
In fact, in today’s age of Magic Online and internet articles, even some of the strangest and counterintuitive decks ideas get developed by strangers across the globe, trying out this card and that, copying one another, improving their build as to augment (slowly) their MTGO bankroll. As recent Pro Tour Champion Brian Kibler explained to me, “those fellas in the standard queues aren’t fooling around.” No joke.
So, in this era of widespread brew-volution, is there room left for you, the individual, to find new ideas? Or are we left tinkering with which last four cards to squeeze into our Jund decks, and how to best sideboard with Zoo to beat Hypergenesis? The question feels bleak. But of course, I still believe in brewing, and hopefully this article will embolden you with a similar spirit (if you didn’t already have it).
Let’s talk about a few rules of thumb to keep handy before we get into the examination of decklists.
First, you can’t hold any cards to be sacrosanct, uncuttable, too good to leave out, etc. If you think a card might not belong, try cutting it (or at least a few). If, after some games, you feel like you really need four, that’s cool. You can always put them back in.
Second, unless you are building a potentially broken combination deck, try to play the good cards. I’ve seen (and devised) many a brew trying to make a set of second-rate cards work together. It’s usually a stretch. The real trick is finding ways for the already powerful (and played) cards to become even better together. In other words, if you are trying to kill turn 2, you might have to pack Cabal Rituals and Ad Nauseams. But if you are brewing something down to earth, your best bet is to try to make the best cards even better, not to show off your willingness to sport some obscure spell. That said, if in putting together a few powerhouses (like Played Geopede and Steppe Lynx) you end up tossing in some oddballs (Kor Skyfisher or Teetering Peek), more power to you.
Finally, don’t be afraid to play something resembling a mainstream deck. They’re usually mainstream for a reason.
So, you can cut anything, but you also shouldn’t be including cards just to be cute. Rather, try to squeeze as much filth into your deck as possible. If packing filth means your deck isn’t as off-the-wall as it started, you can forgive yourself.
Now, let’s go back in time. Way back…
Alan Comer, Miracle Grow
This is Alan Comer’s “Miracle Grow” deck from the tournaments immediately following Pro Tour: New Orleans 2001, a tournament that saw Illusions-Donate (played by only about a dozen players) turn in a dominating performance, including the winner, two in the Top 8, and another two in the Top 20.
Not only is Alan’s deck devastating for an ill-prepared Donate player (Winter Orb and free counters are pretty gross against a card drawing combo deck), it was also in excellent shape to beat some of the slower control decks hoping to grind and hate out Donate.
Looking at his deck, however, you must wonder: why all those stinky dudes? Do we really have to play with Gaea’s Skyfolk, Lord of Atlantis, and Curiosity? I suppose it’s easy in retrospect to see that the core of the deck is really Gush, Winter Orb, Brainstorm, Force of Will, but it wasn’t so obvious back then. And, lots of folks came packing Land Grants and Quirion Dryads (fine cards, I think), along with various assortments of fellas, including Werebear, Waterfront Bouncer, and Wild Mongrel. Many of them were even pretty successful.
And then a brash young man, named Ben… Ru… well, me. I came along, with a different sensibility. I yanked a lot of the junky cards from Comer’s deck, and kept what I felt were the essentials… along with squeezing in some power from another color: White.
Ben Rubin, Supergrow
Now you might not think of Meddling Mage as a power card, and today it’s not. But back then, a 2/2 mattered a lot more. The aggressive decks were summoning Mogg Fanatics, Jackal Pups, and Granger Guildmages, not Wild Nacatls, Steppe Lynxes, and Kird Apes. And the control decks didn’t run Tarmogoyfs to hold you off, they tried to squash you with Pernicious Deed and Fire/Ice (both of which made great Meddling Mage names). And although Mystic Enforcer is no Baneslayer Angel, a cheap 6/6 pro-Black flyer was just as good as you might think.
Anyway, Supergrow was tight. And it did a lot of winning both at its inaugural Grand Prix and in the tournaments to follow.
What’s illustrative about this brew? As I previously mentioned, it went to lengths to include more good cards, instead of finding ways for second tier cards to be not-so-bad.
Second, whereas many had thought of Miracle-Gro as an aggressive creature deck (backed by Force of Will and Winter Orb), Super-Gro maintained no such illusions. Other than Quirion Dryad and Mystic Enforcer, every creature’s initial role was something other than attacking (making mana, preventing a spell, or looting). We had taken on so many strong cards that there was no rush to get in there and end things with brawlers (as the Merfolk and Wild Mongrel versions had done) – so in effect we eschewed not just a set of cards, but a central theme of the deck (quick beats).
All that gushing aside, it must be admitted that such an advance in deck-tech wouldn’t be exceptional in today’s world of online evolution. Recall the Green Monument deck from the SCG $5K in Philadelphia. Within weeks of its unveiling, I’d played against versions profitably including White for Path to Exile, Red for Chandra Nalaar and Bloodbraid Elf, and even Black for Duress. I think it safe to say that such players would’ve found it in their hearts to splash for â€˜Plow back in the Miracle-Gro days.
Similar to barging in on the Miracle-Gro shell, we had some recent success tinkering with the traditional Naya-Zoo configuration leading up to Pro Tour: Austin.
Here is a sample list from the Pro Tour, indicative of what we saw as the â€˜standard’ version.
What we found very frustrating in trying to beat this deck was how resilient it was. Not only was it fast and lethal, but it kept pressing as the game went on! Even if you dealt with a Wild Nacatl / Tarmogoyf start, you still had to be ready for Knight of the Reliquary, and then cards like Umzewa’s Jitte and Ranger of Eos.
As I brewed various concoctions to beat Zoo, and still have a shot against other decks, my builds went in two directions. They either got wackier in one extreme; or they got closer to being Zoo in the other.
One night, I had a Four-Color Gifts deck whose early game was Bolt, Helix, Path to Exile, Tarmogoyf, and Knight of the Reliquary! It did well against Zoo, but something just didn’t feel right. Then I asked Patrick Chapin about a Red/Green/Black deck – maybe Kird Ape, Tarmogoyf, Slaughter Pact, moving into some midgame plan…
But why!? He wondered. Why was I playing â€˜almost Zoo’ and yanking its best card (Wild Nacatl!). It became obvious to me that I had had too much pride. I had been too insistent on straying from the norm, on not playing Zoo. So into the realm of Zoo I dove.
First, I tried Vines of Vastwood in an otherwise standard Zoo configuration. I quickly realized that it wasn’t up to par with the Extended power level. I had also tried Tribal Zoo, and found it a little quirky, and probably weak in the mirror (damage from lands, etc.). So I retreated to my room, and started wondering. What’s important in Zoo, against Zoo? Killing their larger creatures (Goyf, and Knight of the Reliquary) seemed like the obvious key. What are the weaknesses of Zoo? To me it seemed like zoo lost to combo (against which I thought it should only sideboard, owing to relative weakness of the combo decks against Faeries and other matchups), and Hate. The control decks weren’t overpowering Zoo exactly, they just found little ways to get edges. Engineered Explosives, Threads of Disloyalty, Firespout, etc. These plans worked when Zoo drew a lot of early drops, and often failed when Zoo didn’t. So my first alteration was obvious – take out a lot of the creatures to avoid the hate!
But what would I add? Our team had been very impressed with the power of Punishing Fire/ Grove of Burnwillows, a synergy that it seems no one else thought much of. If I was taking out Kird Apes, it wouldn’t hurt to take out some of the Forests for Groves. I had originally wanted to splash Slaughter Pact as an extra terror, but the more I thought about Punishing Fire the more it seemed superior. It was an early play, an unexpected engine against control decks, and a brutal endgame against Faeries, and other Zoo decks. My first draft of â€˜Big Naya’ was:
After a round of games against Zoo, I was impressed by Elspeth, and realized I didn’t need all the Helixes. Noble Hierarch was also looking better every game with lots of big fellas to accelerate to, and two Treetop Villages and Punishing Fire to sink extra mana into.
Here’s what we ended up with:
Much of the sideboard was devoted to beating combo, dredge and dark depths, whereas we felt the maindeck was plenty ready for zoo and faeries.
You’ll be happy to hear that this brew, as is bound to happen every decade or so, worked as planned!
I want to end with one last brew which is perhaps less noteworthy, but typical of the formula I’ve been alluding to.
Obviously mindful of my vanity leading into Austin, I wasn’t too proud to sport Boros at the World Championships. Could I find oodles of tech to squeeze in? Maybe another color? Nah man, Boros was pretty good to start with. I did, however, wonder if we could make Earthquake work in the deck. I wasn’t as happy with Teetering Peeks and Kor Skyfisher as others were, mostly because they delayed getting to Ranger of Eos, and didn’t function well as early plays.
So we tried Quake, and it was good- transforming the Green matchup, and making Boros, white weenie, Bant, and Lotus Cobra more favorable. Again, we were willing to work with a familiar shell, and try to squeeze in a powerful (but rarely included) spell. As it turned out, we didn’t find much else to change- sometimes that’s how it goes these days.
Happy brews, happy holidays, and thanks for reading.