How often are you really going to need a boomerang?
That’s how I feel when I look through most Magic toolboxes. Sure, you have your cornerstones like a screwdriver, wrench, and cordless drill. Maybe you
have one or two corner-case necessary evils like a glue gun or a wire cutter. But a boomerang? Seriously? Do you even know how to properly throw
that thing? Â Â
Unless you’re Ray Walkinshaw or Russell Tassicker, I’m guessing no.
The Magic toolbox is one of the most powerful engines in the gameâ€”but it’s also one of the most misbuilt and misused. Toolboxes, being a collection of
one-ofs that another card can search out, give you maximum flexibility and provide you with more options. More options generally create more decisions,
and the more decisions there are, the more chances there are to theoretically make the right one and maneuver yourself into an optimal position.
However, in reality, there’s a plateau where more options stop becoming consistently helpful. At a point, you begin to decrease your deck’s
power by having too many cards that you never want to tutor for and are suboptimal when drawn naturally.
I mean, do you have any idea how frustrating it is to reach into a toolbox at random while carefully balancing on a ladder only to pull out a
boomerang? Almost anything else in that situation would have been more helpful! (You would have been better off with just a second screwdriver.)
So where do you start with filling a toolbox? How do you make sure you’re packing it properly?
The Beatdown Toolbox
In the world of toolboxes, the beatdown version needs to be the slim, trim, portable version you can carry with you to the lake. There’s no room for
excess. Drawing a useless piece at the wrong time can be fatal.
Which kinds of cards exactly fuel a beatdown toolbox? Good examples would be Fauna Shaman, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Birthing Pod. While those three
cards in particular lend themselves to other decks and often result in more midrange beatdown approaches, they definitely fall into more of a
“beatdown” class of toolbox cards.
So, where do you start?
Well, there are three cornerstones to toolboxes: bullets, splits, and redundant pieces.
Redundant pieces in beatdown decks are typically the safer pieces of a toolbox because they’re fine when drawn on their own. For example, in a Standard
Naya deck, I think most people would agree Vengevine is usually a slightly superior card over Hero of Oxid Ridge. However, there are certainly some
cases where the Hero’s triggers are useful. It can go either way. On their base wholes though, the cards are mostly comparable: four power haste
creatures for four mana.
If you’re okay with a fifth Vengevine, then running a singleton Hero doesn’t hurt you that much. It’s a comparable card that will give you some degree
of utility at very little cost to your deck.
Splits are also fairly safe pieces of a beatdown toolbox. The basic idea most of the time is that two cards with similar effects are split 3/1. Usually
you want to naturally draw one, but there are cases where you want the other, and overall it won’t make a difference in a lot of games.Â
For one example, take the above instance with Vengevine, but instead change it to go down to three copies of Vengevine and then supplement it with a
fourth pseudo-Vengevine in Hero of Oxid Ridge. Another good example would be a 3/1 split of Llanowar Elves to Birds of Paradise in a mono-green deck.
They’re going to do similar things, but sometimes you might really need to block a flier to go to the air with a piece of Equipment.
Now, the past two categories are mostly safe inclusions. You shouldn’t go overboard on them, but they’re safe choices most of the time. Bullet cards,
on the other hand, are cards that are more commonly mishandled.
The idea of a bullet card is that it’s good in a specific situation/matchup, but not anywhere else. Therefore, you want one to tutor for. The problem
is that if you draw it in the wrong matchups, you’re just down a useful card.
Now fortunately, you kids have it pretty good these days with Fauna Shaman and Birthing Pod because it means you have an easy means to throw away your
useless creatures and turn them into something more helpful. But still, that’s no excuse for sloppy deckbuilding. Â
Here’s the deal. Imagine a card you want in your toolbox. Imagine the board state. Now ask yourself: how often would this board state come up? How
often would tutoring for another creature be just as fine? Is tutoring for this card just win more right now?
There are some situations where you always need a specific card and another creature won’t get the job done. Spellskite is a good example of this. No
other creature can replicate what it does for the cost; it’s often the only creature you can grab to get out of a situation, and it’s not win more
because you might just lose if you don’t have it.
However, very few creatures fill this role. Most of the time, you should only have one, maybe two at the absolute most maindeck. The rest of the time
you’re just wasting spots. After sideboarding of course you can bring in as many bullets as you need because you’ll have them for the matchup you want
them. But maindeck, you don’t need to have access to upwards of four, five, or even six bullets. I mean seriously, how often are you really
going to Fauna Shaman for that Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite when the game isn’t decided in your favor already? Â Â
Set. That boomerang. Down.
The Control Toolbox
Unlike beatdown decks, control decks often have a little more room to play around with their toolboxes. You can usually afford to have more toolbox
options (depending on the engine) because you have to be able to control the game. To do that well, occasionally you need narrow answers in the first
Additionally, unlike beatdown where you need every card to win, in control it’s often a matter of staying alive long enough to execute on your plan. A
single dead draw over the course of the game is more manageable because your goal is to make the game go longer, thereby lessening the impact of a
single dead draw.
The cardboard poster child of a control toolbox in recent years has been Mystical Teachings. Take a look at these two decks from the Top 8 of Pro Tour
Amsterdam late last year:
While the exact packages Jacob and Wafo-Tapa used were different, you’ll notice some similarities. Just like with beatdown, you see splits, redundancy,
and bullets. Except here, the splits and redundancy are between removal and countermagic. You’ll see lots of splits, too. It’s nice to have flexibility
in that department since it costs you so little to do so. If you’re going to play six removal spells that are all vaguely similar, you can split them
and then find the best one in any given situation with a tutor.
But how many bullets are there in each maindeck?
Well, there’s the Extirpate in both decks, the Celestial Purge in Wafo-Tapa’s deck, and, if you’re really stretching, the Consume the Meek (which is
useful in a ton of matchups) in both their decks.
They were playing a Mystical Teachings package with the entirety of Extended at their disposal, and they didn’t see a need to clunk it up with maindeck
Ancient Grudges, Flashfreezes, or otherwise. These two decks are streamlined in that department.
Someone building this deck from scratch would likely end up with two or even three times as many bullets. I’m sure Wafo-Tapa and Jacob played plenty of
games to reach the conclusions they did about which bullets were necessary.
Take a lesson from them and only play the bullets you absolutely need. Play games and record what you actually tutor up, then afterward look over the
cards you never searched up. If you never tutored for a card, there’s probably a reason whyâ€”and it doesn’t deserve a slot in your compact sixty.Â Â Â
The Combo Toolbox
If beatdown is the slim, ultra efficient toolbox, and control is a toolbox heavy with a 3/1 Phillips/Frearson split and plenty of wrench redundancy,
combo is the mystery toolbox. You never know what you’re going to get. You can have everything from ultra-tight, streamlined combo decks like this:
- 1 Tendrils of Agony
- 4 Brainstorm
- 4 Cabal Ritual
- 4 Duress
- 4 Dark Ritual
- 2 Grim Tutor
- 1 Ill-Gotten Gains
- 4 Lotus Petal
- 4 Lion's Eye Diamond
- 4 Infernal Tutor
- 4 Ponder
- 2 Thoughtseize
- 1 Ad Nauseam
- 4 Preordain
To… well… this:
- 1 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Carrion Feeder
- 1 Xantid Swarm
- 2 Tinder Wall
- 1 Wall of Roots
- 1 Academy Rector
- 1 Starved Rusalka
- 1 Wild Cantor
- 2 Protean Hulk
- 1 Body Double
- 1 Reveillark
- 1 Progenitus
- 1 Viscera Seer
- 1 Fauna Shaman
Combo toolboxes are inherently much different from other toolboxes. Why? Because while other toolboxes are used mainly for valueâ€”searching up a
Sunblast Angel or finding the right removal spellâ€”combo toolboxes are usually part of some directly game-winning combination. There are no splits.
There is very little redundancy; redundancy only exists when you need to do your combo slightly differently to get around the current board state.
There are only pieces to put together for winning the game.
What is the largest mistake made in combo toolboxes? Putting in cards that don’t contribute to assembling your combo!
For example, in last year’s Legacy Reanimator, you could maindeck one Chain of Vapor to Mystical Tutor for… but how often were you really going
to search up that Chain over another combo piece? How often are you going to draw that Chain and think, “Sweet, a free Force of Will pitch!” Even if
they had an active Tormod’s Crypt in the first game, searching up another combo piece was still likely to be more useful a lot of the time.
The same kind of thing goes for modern-day Legacy Storm. (As seen above.) When you’re playing a tight, precise combo deck, you don’t have the time to
concern yourself with casting Wipe Away on a miraculous game one Ethersworn Canonist.
A crucial point in combo is that even if they have the maindeck hate, they’re just not always going to have it every game. Do you really want to
dilute your deck for every single game one of the tournament just to maybe be able to use it against one guy who has the maindeck answer for you if he draws it? Not a chance. That’s just going to mess up your deck with very little payoff.
Now, after sideboarding occasionally you’ll be adding in cards to fight whatever they might have. Even then, a lot of the same concepts apply. For
example, have you seen Richard Feldman Fearless Dredge?
While not really a toolbox deck, there’s no way to beat hate in there for exactly those reasons: they have to have it, draw it, and cast it. Those
three factors aligning occurs less often than you may think.
Closing the Toolbox
My largest advice with toolboxes is to playtest, playtest, playtest! While you can theorycraft all you want, it’s hard to know for sure which pieces of
any given toolbox are relevant and which ones are useless until you play some games and find out for yourself. If you’re not searching for a card often
enough in the matchup you’d want it in, then it doesn’t deserve a spot. Don’t be trapped by the mindset of, “well, it hasn’t come up yet, but I know it
will eventually”â€”I guarantee you there’s going to be something consistently better when normally drawn that you can play there.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed today’s look at the basics of building toolboxes. If you have questions, either post them in the forums, tweet them at me, or
send them via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I’ll also be around on Magic Online most of tomorrow for Tuesday Night Overextended if you
want to catch up with me there.
I’m skipping GP Kansas City this weekend because of my brother’s graduation, but have fun if you’re there. Open a Karn Liberated for me!
Rabon on Magic Online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter
After two weeks off, the audio is back this week! You can find it by clicking here. Thanks for listening!Â