Flow of Ideas – The Secret to Building the Best Decks

Monday, January 31 – Gavin Verhey has brewer’s disease. After his article with 40 new Extended decklists from last week, he’s not close to done yet! This week, tells you the secret to modern-day deckbuilding.

I have brewer’s disease, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

My mind has scheduled time into ordinary activities to build Extended decks. I can’t help it – it’s just where my thoughts go.

Watching a movie? It’s a good time to build an Extended deck. Going into the shower? Sure, time to build an Extended deck. Think I’m going
into the tank on you? Sorry, I’m actually building an Extended deck.

You get the picture.

I’ve gone through a lot of decks this Extended season (those 40 from two weeks ago were just the tip of my
brewing iceberg), and I’m bound to go through many more before the season is finished. And more than just within Extended – when playing
Legacy, Block, and even Standard, I always find myself on the quest for a new deck.

Fortunately, my full-hearted foray into deckbuilding has uncovered a hidden truth about modern-day deck construction. The world of deckbuilding has
changed significantly in the past few years, but only the people at the top of the deckbuilding chain seem to know the secret to building the best
decks. Not just mere good decks – decks that are perhaps the correct metagame choice for a weekend or contain powerful cards – but
the best decks, ones that will thrive and exist in tournament play long after their initial arrival.

What is this well-hidden truth? It’s deceptively simple: the best decks are really two or more different decks in one.

Now, if you think that means the rest of this article is going to be a primer for my 120-card Scapeshift deck, you’ll have to check back another
week. But if you want to pioneer the best decks in any format, read on.

It used to be that the best decks were built as relatively linear strategies. For example, in the beginning you had decks that looked like this:

Now, the infamous Sligh deck – the first deck of its kind – has a few different lines of play. Though mostly a beatdown deck, it can follow
the principles of “Who’s the Beatdown” just fine. It
can just Bolt some opposing creatures, gain control, and then begin to take an advantage with its own creatures.

The deck had a couple other game plans. You could Strip Mine the opponent into oblivion with the right draw or attrition them out with Brothers of Fire
and Orcish Artillery. But those are just a few different means to an end. Was Sligh really two different decks?

Let’s look at another famous deck of its era from a few years later.

Randy’s deck was a masterpiece. Chockfull of filthy permission and overwhelming card advantage engines, it quickly found its way into the annals
of Magic history. In 1998, this deck was incredible.

Today, this deck would be completely unplayable.

It’s not just that the creatures today might be better (they are) or that players today might have more tools to fight control decks. (They do.)
Rather, the very nature of what it takes to be a great deck has changed.

Look at the deck’s core strategy – it’s unbelievably linear. It’s even more linear than Sligh! It has to do the same exact
thing every game, and if anything cracks through your wall of countermagic, you’re going to be hard pressed to deal with it.

I’ve tried building decks like these in every Standard format in the past five years, and they don’t work. The threat density is too high; the
good cards are too cheap; people have too many ways to come back into the game from a decimated board and – most importantly – the decks
today operate differently. The closest you’ll ever come to a deck like this is something like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Mono-Blue Guile:

Note how Guillaume’s deck operates much differently than Randy’s. Guillaume realized that he’d need to deploy threats to have a chance at
contesting the game. The Teferi-Guile plan gave a traditionally reactive deck a proactive strategy.

Even then, the newer iteration of the Mono-Blue deck is still incredibly linear. It’s better than Randy’s in this regard but not by much.
You can see this diversity creep through the ages with beatdown decks too. For example, this was a defining deck of its era:

David Price’s infamous Dead Guy Red from 1997 redefined the original Sligh deck to become a red deck of pure aggression. We still see some
interactive elements, but for the most part, his deck is concerned about one thing: dealing twenty as fast as possible. This is a principle still put
into practice today – but many decks have opted to slow down and incorporate other elements into their strategies as well. 

Let’s compare that with a modern-day analogue:

Pat’s McGregor’s deck has some robust starts that Price could have only dreamed about in 1997. Turn 1 Steppe Lynx, turn 2 Scalding Tarn,
Goblin Guide, take 6?!? Surely this must be a fantasy!

However, in addition to being aggressive, you’ll notice McGregor’s deck contains elements that give it plenty of long-game resilience. The
best example of this is that quad laser of Squadron Hawks sitting in the main deck – especially alongside a Stoneforged Sword of Body and Mind!
Pat can have a quick opening, but he also has a late game to back it up after his team gets blown away by an untimely Pyroclasm or Day of

While we’re getting closer, we’re still not quite at what I mean when I say the best decks of today are two (or more) decks in one
sixty-card package. McGregor has a lot of different plans… But, like Schneider’s Sligh deck fifteen years earlier, that doesn’t
really mean he’s playing two different kinds of decks, just that he has an early game plan and a long game plan.

The key distinction to all of this is that being multiple decks is not just having a plan A, B, C, and D. There are a lot of decks that can
claim to do that, and I think any modern-day deck would be hard-pressed to not have several backup plans with the amount of card redundancy currently

However, despite numerous overarching plans, “mono-deck” decks are always trying to do the same thing no matter what game plan
they’re on. You can guarantee that Boros Deck Wins will always (with any reasonable draw, anyway) have a creature within the first two
turns, just like you can guarantee that Draw, Go will always have a plethora of countermagic available, just like you can guarantee that David
Price will always be trying to kill you as fast as possible.

With decks that are two-in-one, that’s not the case. You can never predict what they’re going to be doing.   

What do I mean? Let’s look at some truly great decks from recent times for the answer.

Faeries is a deck that has torn the metagame apart for years and continues to flourish (or, perhaps, Blossom) throughout Extended today. What
makes this deck so resilient? What can this deck do?

The better question might be what can’t this deck do!

If you have fought Faeries at some point or another, you know how it can go. Some games they’ll have a turn 2 Bitterblossom followed by a couple
Scions of Oona, and Faeries will quickly outpace you at the clip of even the best beatdown decks.

Other games, Faeries will lead on turn 1 Thoughtseize, turn 3 Vendilion Clique, and then land an all-too-obvious Cryptic Command on turn 4 before
slowly wrenching control of the game with a 3/1 and some Mutavaults.

In another game, Faeries might Mana Leak two of your early spells, Spellstutter Sprite a Preordain, land a Scion, and then sit back on Cryptic Command,
just daring you to draw your gun first.

In a fourth kind of game, Faeries will play a Bitterblossom, allow a couple of your cards to resolve, and then watch as your sorcery-speed spells gnash
their teeth in wait as two Mistbind Cliques shut down your main phase.

All of these games end in one result: the opponent’s defeat.

Yet, despite the result, look at how many ways it can happen! How every game begins is different; you can never be sure of what you’re going to
face. While trying to figure out mulliganing, you don’t know if you’re going to have to face a turn 1 Thoughtseize or Preordain; a turn 2
Mana Leak or Bitterblossom; a turn 3 Jace, Vendilion Clique, or Scion of Oona; or a turn 4 Cryptic Command or Mistbind Clique.

If Faeries only ever took one route to victory, it would be easy to fight against. Its linear game plan would have cracks. But, when playing against
Faeries, you’re never exactly sure what kind of game you’re going to have to play. Faeries is a hybrid Aggro/Control/Discard/Tempo/Beatdown
deck. Who can beat that?

Of course, I couldn’t mention Faeries without mentioning it’s similarly hated brother-in-law.

Much like Faeries… What can’t Jund do?  

Turn 2 Putrid Leech, turn 3 Kitchen Finks, turn 4 Bloodbraid Elf, turn 5 Demigod of Revenge – you’re dead!

The next game, turn 2 Lightning Bolt your creature, turn 3 Maelstrom Pulse your other creature, turn 4 Blightning to dislodge your last two cards
– and then a literal cascade of Bloodbraid Elves to steal the game away.

The next game, Jund might be able to sit back on its one-card combo of Fauna Shaman to chain together a swarm of Demigods knocking on your door. Not
only can Jund be the Aggro/Control/Discard/Tempo/Beatdown deck now, but it can even be the combo deck as well.

How many matchup analyses, tournament reports, and sideboarding guides have you read over the past two years where a player notes that the game hinges
on Putrid Leech? That everything revolves around if Jund has an aggressive or defensive draw? 10? 20? 50!?

I wouldn’t be surprised.

Like Faeries, Jund doesn’t have a linear frame of attack. It can control one game just as well as it can beat you down in the next. Even though it
doesn’t always get to choose its mode, that doesn’t really matter if the opponent doesn’t know how to prepare for your start.

Those are two better-known examples. As format-defining decks, maybe you’ve already arrived at similar conclusions. But how about this one?

Brian Kibler’s Caw-Go deck is a leading pioneer for this kind of deck construction.  

Sure, it might look like a control deck on the surface. I’m sure many of you view it – and play it – as such. But if you’ve
watched Kibler play the deck, either

in his video series

or in the StarCityGames.com San Jose Open video coverage on SCGLive,
you’ll know that isn’t always the case.

Many of you might opt to play the deck defensively. Sure, that’s one way to play. But you want to know what’s Kibler’s secret to
success with the deck is? Being aggressive! If you watch him play his deck, often he’ll fearlessly tap out for Gideon Jura or a Celestial Colonnade
attack, often with countermagic available in his hand, just so he can push damage through.

I remember watching one game in San Jose where Kibler, who was holding Mana Leak, tapped out to serve his Colonnade in for four damage against a
Valakut player who had access to six mana. It was an absolutely fearless play few control players would make – but that kind of
aggressive play was crucial to his victory.

Still, the deck isn’t always aggressive. When you’re playing against Caw-Go, sometimes you’ll have to play the long
game… and others you’ll have to find answers against a chain of Squadron Hawks nibbling at your life total. Do you leave in your endgame
cards? Do you keep in your answers to the squadron flock? It’s a dilemma that a deck with such diverse angles of attack continually puts its
opponent in.

Do you see the difference now?

The world of decks is becoming tighter and tighter as time goes on. Finding new entries into established metagames is becoming harder –
there’s a reason Faeries and Jund have found so much success across so many different formats. Whether brewing up a new deck or choosing one to
play, go for ones that have more to them than a one-deck approach. The more routes to victory your deck can take, the more ways you can navigate your
way to a win.

If you have any experience or stories about working on and playing decks like these, I’d love to hear about them! Please either post your
responses in the forums, tweet me @GavinVerhey, or send me an e-mail at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

Talk to you soon!

Gavin Verhey

Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else