Fifteen Minutes for Fifteen Lessons: Learning to Innovate

About once a month we get a submission so good that I (the editor) just have to rave about how good it is on the front page. This is one of those articles, and it’s guaranteed to make you a smarter Magic player.

If there’s something I see a lot, it’s people posting in the forums with a certain level of deckbuilding skill that puts them above the level of beginner but not yet the level of experienced player. At the same time, these people pilot decks they’ve seen, follow the advice they hear about improving the deck, and generally enjoy the game.

Sooner or later, though, they realize that they want to play their own deck once in a while – something they built themselves. Regardless of whether or not it’s a new player, I see a lot people just post a random decklist and a one-line request for help. Sometimes, it’s just laziness; but other times it’s really about players who haven’t quite grasped how to create or even tinker a deck on their own. They want to improve their deck but just don’t know how. Others are just people who are tired of netdecks, and want to play with something they have created themselves.

With an all-new Standard and a Block-Constructed format coming up, I thought it would be a good time to point out these ideas for general public consumption. Many of these ideas will already be known by the more experienced players, but hopefully, there’s a bit of something for everyone – experienced players, “newbs,” netdeckers, and rogue players alike.

Without further delay, let us begin. I’ve included as many bibliographical links as I could find – if you aren’t familiar with any particular thing I cite, you might want to take a moment to briefly look at it to get some more background on the subject. (I apologize in advance – many of the links hit premium articles, but let’s be honest – if you are at all serious about innovating, you need to read them. It’s really worth it.)

Throw Away All Preconceived Notions

Remember everyone’s initial assessment of the card Tooth and Nail when Mirrodin was released? It was “just an overcosted tutor.” It cost a whopping seven mana just to do anything, and two more for an effect that players had come to expect for a lot less (remember, Pro Tour: Tinker was on everyone’s mind). Who needs a card like that?

And then, of course, Gabriel Nassif TwelvePost defied all preconceived notions about the card and its ability to be entwined. No one doubts Nassif’s skill as an innovator; he was playing the most innovative deck possible in the most non-innovative pro tour in history. His Top 8 berth was quickly noted, and Standard still has his Green Monster running around in some shape or form.

There were a lot of reasons that people initially dismissed Tooth and Nail, but in hindsight they were quite wrong. It wasn’t that hard to get that much mana in today’s Green decks. Furthermore, people misevaluated the creature base that could be used. Even prior to the release of Darksteel, Leonin Abunas and Platinum Angel made one heck of a critter pair. Nassif realized that and pounced on it – and thus the credit is his. [For the record, I posted a forum topic the day after that Pro Tour suggesting Tooth and Nail might be quite good in Standard as well and the reaction was almost universal in that I had lost my mind. – Knut]

Another good example was the complete dismissal of MaskNought in Vintage. Both Illusionary Mask and Phyrexian Dreadnought are useless on their own, so most assumed it was time to put them aside. Lo and behold, [author name="Eric"]Eric[/author] Miller wins an SCG P9 with The Riddler, a convergence of traditional MaskNought into 5/3 for a powerful combination. True, the deck won the event under circumstances of low turnout (due to hell freezing over in the Northeast), but you can’t say his deck wasn’t original.

Break Symmetry

This is the most common way people begin to innovate. Breaking symmetrical effects is one of the most fundamental aspects of deckbuilding when it comes to working with cards that treat everyone equally Additionally, determining what symmetrical effect you would like to break gives you a direction that you can use to start building a deck.

Some examples are fairly simplistic: use Solemn Simulacrum and Rotlung Reanimator with Death Cloud or Wrath of God. Others are harder to figure out, or just don’t scream out at you at first. I’ll cite an example that developed in our forums: take Seizan, Perverter of Truth. When people saw him on the spoiler lists, most reactions I saw were negative. “Your opponent gets two cards before you do.” “This suffers from the Howling Mine problem.”

True, Seizan’s card-drawing effect is symmetrical. Adding Underworld Dreams, though, changes the entire dynamic of his ability. Every turn, you draw three cards for 2 life, your opponent draws three cards for a whopping 5 life and also has to deal with a 6/5 Demon.

A much more famous and irritating example is Mishra’s Workshop mitigating the effects of Trinisphere. Trinisphere may be symmetrical; but you sure don’t care when you’ve got a Workshop to fuel your three-mana+ spells. Again, Eric Miller innovated when he put Chains of Mephistopheles into his 5/3 deck The Man Show that helped him earn second place at an SCG P9 event.

Break “Bad” Cards

Breaking “bad” cards is another important step in innovation. When I say “bad” though, I’m not referring to Chimney Pimp and friends. I’m talking about cards that have powerful yet possibly unwieldy effects that cause players to initially dismiss them. A good example is a card like Radiate – it’s overlooked since it’s not an easy card to break or even use. (Of course, there are the times you play Radiate on Artifact Mutation against Affinity, something that I saw happen in multiplayer once. Ouch.) A while back, Remus Shepherd wrote an article about a deck built around Radiate and Metamorphose, and while I can’t speak for its success, I can certainly say it was innovative. Another example is using Gustha’s Scepter to protect Windfall from a Lion’s Eye Diamond activation.

This avenue has probably the largest area for successful innovation, often resulting in full decks. Michelle Bush, widely accepted as one of the best female players ever in Magic, took two cards that were seemingly awful and created one of the biggest upheavals in Magic history. Illusions of Grandeur and Donate don’t seem like much on their own, but it didn’t take long for her creative uses of those cards to become an absolute monster combo deck (now known as Trix).

Consider the effect on All Suns’ Dawn. Despite being an oft-maligned card ever since Ben Bleiweiss practically made a fool of himself over it, All Sun’s Dawn is an extremely powerful card. Take a few moments to think about the best possible result you could get from casting A.S.D. – what five cards (or five card combination) would you want to put back in your hand? Assume no constraints on mana, any other cards you want to make it work, and no constraints for actual setup. What do you think you can come up with?

How about Orim’s Chant, Regrowth, Fork, Demonic Tutor and Time Walk? That would be my initial suggestion.

Chant away an opponent from interfering, Fork a Time Walk, Regrow and Walk again, then tutor up an All Sun’s Dawn to do it again. That’s three free turns before you even get anything back from your graveyard. If you actually use four A.S.Ds, you could tutor up Burning Wish instead to go get All Sun’s Dawn one last time. In total, you could generate 18 extra turns – that seems powerful to me. If that seems expensive, well, of course it is; although consider you have a few turns per cycle to spread out the mana cost. But the mana cost is dwarfed by the insane result of what you’re doing.

(You could substitute Ritual of Restoration for Orim’s Chant to mitigate the cost somewhat, if you have a Black Lotus. Sacrifice Black Lotus for WWW, play the Ritual of Restoration, replay Lotus and sack it to make WWGGG; just enough to play All Sun’s Dawn again. You could then theoretically substitute Overmaster in place of Fork to help force through your plan.)

You don’t need to use Red or White here to get a powerful effect. Regrowth, Demonic Tutor and Time Walk (or Ancestral Recall, for that matter) are good enough to want to play All Sun’s dawn on its own. All Sun’s Dawn also only requires a single Green mana, so Mana Draining into it isn’t impossible. It would still cost quite a bit of mana, but after enough tweaking you can find the optimal balance between cost and effect. There could be another set of five cards even better that I haven’t thought about that would perhaps be better. I challenge people to post what they can come up with in the forums.

I’m not saying that this is some hot piece of tech that should be under consideration for use, say, in Vintage Tog or Oath of Druids (which already splash Green). I’m simply saying that an effect as powerful as the one attached to All Sun’s Dawn is a pretty good place to start innovating. I challenge anyone reading this article to post a decklist in the forums (legal in any sanctioned format) that really breaks All Sun’s Dawn. I’m sure some of you can come up with something, even if the deck has no chance of breaking new ground, in any format.

Breaking underutilized cards allows you to pull together a deck by focusing your efforts on building around one or a few particular spells or effects. This makes it easy to start putting together whole new decks. Most recently, Gifts Ungiven inspired Team CAB a reason to create an entirely new deck; and while it’s obviously not a “bad” card that no one’s looked at, their article is a good example of how a deck focused around a single card can be a great way to start a new deck.

Break Synergy

I’ve written about synergy before, but there’s good reason to rehash it here. Synergy is an essential element of deckbuilding. Innovation begins when you start looking for non-obvious synergies. (For those who don’t know what synergy is, it essentially describes the idea that two or more items, when together, are greater than the sum of each item individually; e.g. Corn beef and cabbage. Peanut butter and jelly. Dan Paskins and Red Deck Wins.)

Synergy is not the same as breaking symmetry, although they can be related. Often, synergy is the answer to breaking symmetry, but sometimes synergy can be an independent entity. An example independent of symmetry is why Kiki-Jiki is better than Flametongue Kavu in Goblin decks.

Some synergies are apparent and don’t need an explanation. No one needs to be told that Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion are great in a Tooth and Nail deck. Capitalizing the artifact status of Damping Matrix and using it in an “Anti-Ravager” Affinity deck is not quite as common a direction. What may be even less obvious is how Samurai of the Pale Curtain can pair nicely with Living Wish. These are just a couple of examples that can be provided out of thousands, many of which are obvious and many of which are not.

Innovation often comes from looking for synergies that may not be readily apparent. Cephalid Life is an example of where two decks merged because they had good strategic synergy: a desire to repeatedly target a given creature. This led to a very powerful deck on the Extended circuit that has posted quite a fair share of T8s, considering its relative newcomer status.

Practice Innovation At All Layers

Innovation doesn’t mean you have to come out with the next Meandeck Monster. Innovating can be small-scale, like splashing Black for Cabal Conditioning in an R/G deck in a format full of control. It can be tech in the sideboard. It can be a using an unusually high number of lands so you have the advantage in control mirrors, as Randy Buehler did. (He won with a deck that had 30 lands between his deck and sideboard.) It can be about finding the right silver bullet. Another good example was written about on this site, when someone siding in an Island and some Willbenders in their Onslaught block Zombies deck as a foil to Form of the Dragon.

Innovation is about more than a new deck. It’s also about new ideas to improve old matchups.

Sometimes, You Need To Just Ignore Formats And Metagames

This may be a little controversial, but I think the argument has merit: when you sit down to think about a new deck idea or card interaction, think in total abstraction. Maybe your deck will be Extended legal, maybe it will be even Standard legal. Maybe it will be legal in Legacy but not in Vintage. Whatever it is, don’t worry about what format the deck should be played in, focus on getting the best deck built that uses your idea. Afterwards, worry about porting it to the format of choice. (Although you should understand the format you might play in. Creature combat matters little in Vintage, for example. Just be aware that there are still limitations, even if we aren’t initially concerned with them.)

Doing this allows you to build an optimal deck with the intent on determining how to make it run like a well-oiled machine. Allowing yourself to consider the threat of Workshop, Trinisphere from the get-go is counterproductive, since you might not care if your deck turns out to be legal in Kamigawa block constructed. It doesn’t make sense to worry about getting stomped by Ravager Affinity if you could pilot the deck in Legacy with Null Rod in the sideboard.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be format-conscious at all. I’m saying that getting a radical idea to work in the first place is more important than considering external factors. Sometimes, you are specifically innovating for a given format, but at least pondering the effects of cards outside the format will help spur new directions.

It should go without saying that you should never consider a given metagame when building a “new” deck. We’ve had so many bannings in Standard that a whole new field has opened up – similar things occur when a set rotation happens, and all of a sudden, something old gets a new shot at being a contender again.

The basic idea is this: Build the deck first. Worry about metagame viability later. You may love the deck so much you play it casually.

Exploit A Core Theory

There are a plethora of Magic theories for study, and I recommend you search through some of the Magic University articles here at StarCityGames. There are fundamental theories to deck design: do you choose an “interactive” deck or a “noninteractive” deck? Beatdown or control? Do you design your deck around the strict principles of card advantage (like The Rock), or do you eschew that strategy for the alternate Philosophy of Fire?

If you are interested in innovation and are not immediately aware of the theories that I am citing, you should really, really read up on them. Innovation demands that you understand what the purpose of your creativity will accomplish. Mike Flores“Who’s the Beatdown?”, “Philosophy of Fire” and “The Limits of Interactivity” are all important reads. Similarly, you should read Geordie Tait controversial articles on card advantage (1 / 2 / 3), and/or Oscar Tan alternate card advantage series using T.H.E.F.U.C.C.* method (Control Player’s Bible #118-122). You should read up on Tan’s tempo articles as well. Perhaps the most underappreciated theorist is Chad Ellis, whose Weak Among the Strong articles always contain top-notch stuff that is becoming ever more important for us to know about.

*No, I’m really not making that name up, I promise. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

All innovation comes from the fact that you understand why you need it in the first place. Flores’ decision to move Fledgling Dragon to the maindeck while swapping out Blistering Firecats is not about blind creature swappage, it’s about understanding what Red Deck Wins needs to do to live up to its name. Knowing what theories your deck should abide will not only make your deckbuilding process more focused but will also provide you with a means to validate that your creative idea is accomplishing its initial objective.

Goldfish And Playtest

This should really go without saying, but I can’t tell you how many times I see on a forum thread someone dismissing something without even goldfishing it. Goldfishing is a critical process in deckbuilding, innovative or not – it lets you get accustomed to not only how the deck pieces together, but also what needs to be tuned or tweaked. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work at all – and that’s okay – but you might not know until you sit down to tweak it.

Playtesting is also more important than most give it credit. In a previous article, I outlined what I believe to be the best method for playtesting, and while not everyone has the time for the rigorous testing I propose, testing against real opponents is the only way that you’ll see any success. Sometimes, as Flores would agree, you don’t really learn how good a deck can be until after you’ve played a number of games with it. If you don’t keep at it, you may give it up before you realize how to play it correctly.

At the kitchen table, my wife once smashed my head in with a rainbow deck she built. It was a horrible mess, with a manabase consisting of various rainbow lands and all sorts of miscellaneous cards from each color and various multicolored cards as well. She just kept smashing me with a Genju of the Realm over and over again. At some point, I decided I wanted to see if I could port it to Extended, since I took such savage beatings from it that it seemed like a worthwhile experiment.

Red Deck Wins ate me alive. No matter what cards I played (and I could theoretically have played just about anything I wanted), the Paskins Pile just bashed me mercilessly. There was simply no chance of ever beating the most popular deck in Extended, so I decided it was probably a deck best left for the kitchen table.

Playtesting shows how a deck that looks good on paper actually looks in reality. It may be great in casual settings, but it’s possible it might not be able to hold up under the rigorous strain of competetive play. On the flipside, it may show you how viable the deck could become with a little tweaking. Either way, playtesting is a way of following through on your initial journey: if you desire enough, you’ll tweak it enough.

Comb Through Card Lists

A cornerstone of innovation is the ability to find niche cards that suit a particular role. Believe it or not, every single color in Magic has access to at least one discard spell in their own color. Black is obvious, Red has Skullscorch, White has Balance, Blue has Amnesia, and even Green has Stunted Growth. Similarly, every color has access to direct damage in its own color. Red needs no explanation, Black has all sorts of drain spells along with Coumbajj Witches; and Blue has all sorts of pingers to go with Psionic Blast and Pyschic Purge. White has Icatian Javelineers and damage redirection a la Shining Shoal. Green even has Tracker and Unyaro Bee Sting. Every color can counter spells: Illumination, Counterspell, Withering Boon, Red Artifact Blast, Avoid Fate and many more. While not all of those cards are necessarily good at what they do, the fact that some of them do things that the color does not normally allow are pretty important.

Assume you were piloting a Standard mono-Black aggro-control deck and feared Karma, but for whatever reason couldn’t splash for a solution. Can you find an option other than the unwieldy Oblivion Stone?

If you comb through card lists, you might discover that Mourner’s Shield will probably work long enough to get you by. (It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s just an example.) Searching through lists often spurs creativity as you may see something that you didn’t initially recall.

As obvious as it may sound to some, finding the right card for a given situation means that you are willing to comb through spoilers, looking for the offbeat card that does what you need within the constraints that are necessary. Innovation means that you look for tech the hard way: by searching yourself. Brand new tech doesn’t fall into people’s laps, you know. They seek it out.

Exploit Weaknesses

Sometimes, a metagame has a certain aspect to it that’s just begging to be broken wide open. A good example was how Team Meandeck realized that people were actually using creatures in Vintage – and thus Meandeck Oath was born.

Learning to exploit weaknesses in a given metagame is another great way to “go rouge”. One of my favorite examples of a “rogue” deck is Pirates, a deck I learned about from Craig Stevenson. The deck had powerful tools that exploited some of the worst weaknesses of popular decks in Extended: Goblins, Affinity and Red Deck Wins. Between Chill, Propaganda, and Energy Flux, he was packing a pretty potent set of hate in his sideboard, and Control Tog couldn’t survive the mana denial and bounce. In theory, that positions the deck for a potentially successful run.

That doesn’t mean the deck will win or even do well, it just means that you can bring a rogue deck to any format if you can exploit weaknesses in it. It needs a lot of serious analysis and focus in order to actually be a successful deck – you can’t win on hate alone. The proper way to do this is to take a step back, look at a given format, and analyze why or how the winning decks actually win. That’s why Meandeck Oath dominated the next SCG P9 Event – they knew how to break the format. Similarly, Flores tried to figure out why RDW just wasn’t winning in his recent article on interactivity.

Find square pegs that fit in round holes.

Back in the day when piloting Suicide Black was not considered the sign of supreme Vintage newbishness, people I knew playing the deck would just scoop to The Abyss. They assumed that since Black has no good way of dealing with enchantments (barring self-destructive strategies like Nevinyrral’s Disk or the ultra-slow Powder Keg), they might as well just give up. I never understood that – if I was concerned about the threat of The Abyss, I would pack a few copies of Forsaken Wastes between my deck and/or sideboard.

Believe me when I say that none of my opponents at the time ever saw that coming. For those who don’t get it, The Abyss and Forsaken Wastes are Enchant World spells. Only one Enchant World is allowed in play at any given time, and the last one played destroys whichever one was currently in play. Thus, in this narrow (but frequent) scenario, Black had a way of destroying an Enchantment without needing to wait. The look on my opponent’s faces – who worshipped Oscar Tan and extolled the greatness of old-time Keeper – suddenly saw their control plan fall to pieces. Their Abyss was trumped, and they had invested too much time getting it into play to see it destroyed so easily.

It’s a classic case of jamming a square peg in a round hole – Forsaken Wastes was never meant to be Black enchantment removal, but it simultaneously did just that; all while biting my opponent every turn as well. Thinking outside the box like this can help you win games through innovative use of cards.

Learn the Rules

The last example I cited – using Forsaken Wastes to kill The Abyss – is a premier example of how knowing the rules is critical. You can’t properly understand card interactions without understanding the rules framework that make them work together. Innovation can start when you learn to use the rules to break seemingly hopeless cards.

The best example that I can cite where knowing the rules helped was the rise of Long.dec, where people finally broke Lion’s Eye Diamond by determining that you can sacrifice LED after playing Burning Wish but before it resolves. This lets you net BBB to cast Yawgmoth’s Will coming out of your wishboard, and then replay and reactivate the LED to power out your play. The same could be done with any tutor or draw-7; and ultimately, Long.dec was the reason Lion’s Eye Diamond was restricted. Being intimately aware of the proper timing was the key to successfully build one of the most degenerate decks ever made.


It’s important to recognize that the best innovation happens when groups of people sit down and hash something out. Trying to come out with the next format-defining deck all on your own is nearly impossible.

When you get a group of people to analyze a deck or idea, they often see different things. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from fellow forum users, friends, and others who have helped provide input on a variety of decks; ranging from decks currently under serious competitive development to decks that were more casual FNM creations. Either way, working with other people will give you a broader and more robust approach to deckbuilding, sideboarding, and even just playing the game.

C’mon, man, just share the love.

Remind yourself that you will not always successfully implement your innovation.

And here is where my expertise becomes important, as I have not quite yet made any serious contribution to Magic history, neither in writing nor in playing, despite my numerous attempts. That’s because innovation, unfortunately, will most often not lead to success (regardless of whether it’s in Magic or in the rest of real life). The vast majority of the time, innovation will lead you down a black hole – if you stick to it too hard, you will end up forgoing a better deck just to play with your concoction.

Perhaps one of the most telling things about innovation is that you need to be willing to “deal with rejection.” Case and point: last year, I was heavily involved in a forum thread to perfect a deck called BraidsGroom for last year’s Regionals, held before the release of Fifth Dawn and the banning of Skullclamp. As anyone who knew about that colossal forum thread, I devoted all of my energy into perfecting the deck, collaborating with everyone else, incorporating changes, and practicing with the aim of many of us to take T8s all over the country.

It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. One of us on the thread (not me) made 7th place with a (slightly) modified version of the “official” build, but he was the only one. We had built a remarkably innovative deck – it was one of the few decks that leveraged Greater Harvester for maximum potential, and it gave T&N fits – but innovation only took us so far. Affinity and ClampBidding were just better decks at the time. When Fifth Dawn was released, we tried to tune Suicide Dark to win – but it didn’t work. It just couldn’t win, despite the fact that it had to be one of the fastest, meanest, most aggressive Black aggro decks ever to appear in Standard after Dark Ritual went the way of the dodo.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t extraordinarily proud of our one, shining, glorious victory. It just means that if you expect every innovation to revolutionize the game/format/player perspective, you will break down and give up before you find that really good piece of tech.

Have Fun

This is the most important lesson out of them all. If you aren’t enjoying your quest for tech, then you aren’t going to want to persevere long enough to perfect it. But if you enjoy it and it gets you psyched up and you’re really determined about it, you might be able to claim a piece of Magic history.

Or you might not. Let’s not kid ourselves. The purpose of innovation is to bring new life and new enjoyment to the game we sometimes get jaded by, a game where metagames sometimes bore us to death (not mentioning anything in particular, of course… ahem), and one that sometimes seems “dominated by the netdeck.”

Let’s hear it for innovation: I’ll see you in the forums.


-Nathan J