From Shoddy To Janky: A Tale, Constructed

“I’ve played a similar number of matches in each format. I’m showing improvement in one, but not in the other. Why?”
“Don’t look at me, dude.”
“I didn’t know either. So I started thinking about the games, looking for differences between my Limited and Constructed matches…”




“Who’s out there?”

“Dude, it’s me! Jack!

“I don’t know a Jack… Wait, yes I do.”

“C’mon, man! I can’t open the door!”

“Sorry. Just a second.”

“Thanks, man. Were you trying to barricade yourself in here for a reason?”

“No. I was just sorting my cards. I forgot I stacked my extra commons by the door.”

“That’s a bunch of cardboard, dude. That’s a whole tree right there!”

“Yup. And that’s just the green commons.”

“Man. By the way, you look like hell. When was the last time you stepped outside?”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Uh-huh. A little sunshine every now and then wouldn’t kill you, you know. It might sting a little, though. So what’s been keeping you out of circulation? Still trying to be the next Bukowski?”

“I stopped trying to be Bukowski years ago, Jack. That’s why I’m still alive.”

“Yeah, yeah. So what is it? Everybody was asking about you again. We’re havin’ a great time, watching England smack Argentina around on the big screen, and you’re doing…. Well, what were you doing?”

“I was sleeping. The World Cup is being played in Asia, Jack. That’s half a world away; there’s a bit of a time zone issue.”

“Yeah, geography can be a harsh mistress sometimes.”

“Thank God for the VCR. Anyway, even when I’m watching the matches, my mind keeps wandering back to this card game.”

“Magic: the Gathering, a game designed by Richard Garfield?”


“Okay. Can I move this big pile of stuff here? If you’re going to start talking about this game again, I want to get comfortable.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m long-winded, Jack?”

“Not at all, dude. Start your filibuster.”

“All right; take a look at this.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a chart with of my DCI rating since I started playing. The blue line is my limited rating, the red line is my constructed rating.”

“Is it normal for them to keep going down like that?”

“It is for me, Jack. See how the blue line starts to come back up a little?”

“A little is right, dude.”

“Work with me. I’m trying to establish a point, here.”

“Sorry, dude.”

“Okay, see how the red line keeps dropping?”

“Yeah. It’s going down like a two dollar-“

“That’s enough, Jack. Okay, I’ve played a similar number of matches in each format. I’m showing improvement in one, but not in the other. Why?”

“Don’t look at me, dude.”

“I didn’t know either. So I started thinking about the games, looking for differences between my Limited and Constructed matches.”

“Fascinating, dude.”

“One thing that I noticed fairly quickly was that I have more mana problems when I play Constructed. I’m always suffering from flood or screw, with no pattern as to which one is going to hit me. That sucks. I couldn’t figure out the problem. Granted, my mana bases are not the smoothest in the world – but probability is probability, right? I shouldn’t have been getting hit as hard with this thing as I was. Then, I had an epiphany.”

“Epiphany? Doesn’t she dance at the Oasis?”

“Jack, do you know what this is?”

“Enlighten me.”

“This is a card sleeve. Its purpose is to protect your cards from wear and tear. People put these on their cards when they play.”

“What’s your point, dude.”

“These sleeves are responsible for most of my mana problems.”

“I don’t follow you, man.”

“When I play in a Limited format, I don’t sleeve my cards. I suffer fewer mana problems. When I play in a constructed format, I sleeve my cards. I suffer heavy mana problems. One might ask why.”

“Dude, why?”

“Because I can’t shuffle my cards when they are sleeved.”

“I’ll bet it’s because you can’t feel anything, dude. I have the same problem.”

“I actually did a test. I took a sleeveless deck, sorted it, and shuffled. Then, I drew seven cards, and checked my next three cards. Repeat a dozen times. Then I did the same test with the same deck, but sleeved. Guess what? Twice as many mana problems in the sleeved test.”

“So, you’re gonna play without wrapping those rascals? That sounds risky.”

“No; all the cool kids play with plastic, and I don’t want to be made fun of. I’ve just changed my shuffle for sleeved decks. It’s working better.”

“Great, dude. So now the red line should start going up?”

“Maybe. I have other problems to solve. It’s great to find a simple problem, but the real challenge to Constructed formats is not shuffling.”

“It isn’t?”

“Uh…no. It’s deck construction.”

“Okay. Another simple problem.”

“Oh, no. Not simple at all… At least not for me. I suck at building decks.”

“What a surprise.”

“Well, I’m getting better. Sort of.”

“How many decks have you built, dude?”


“Is that a lot?”


“Waitaminute. You’re so lying to me, dude. You’ve told me about a half dozen of these tragic tournaments you’ve played in. You got a bunch of cards and built a deck on the spot.”


“So that’s more than three decks, dude.”

“It is and it isn’t. The decks I’m talking about are for Constructed tournaments.”

“What’s the diff?”

“Basically, Constructed means you build a deck at home and bring it in to play.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Think about it, Jack. Which deck do you think is going to be better: The deck built in twenty minutes from a small pile of random cards, or the deck built, tested, and tweaked over an extended period of time built from a large collection of cards, with a few components acquired as needed?”

“Um… The second thing.”

“Yup. Limited decks are all about improvising. Constructed decks are all about direction.”

“I swear on everything holy if you try and turn this discussion into another theatrical metaphor, I and several volunteers will beat you to death with cricket bats.”

“Okay – moving right along, here was my first try at building a deck.”

The Worst Land Destruction Deck Ever Conceived.dec

1 Chainer’s Edict

2 Innocent Blood

2 Rancid Earth

2 Soul Burn

1 Laquatus’s Champion

2 Pardic Miner

3 Goblin Gardener

3 Petravark

1 Petradon

1 Magnivore

1 Blaze

1 Ghitu Fire

1 Seize the Day

1 Final Fortune

4 Stone Rain

4 Pillage

2 Demolish

3 Earth Rift

2 Epicenter

1 Cabal Coffers

4 Tainted Peak

8 Swamp

11 Mountain

“Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.”

“Aren’t you being kind of hard on yourself, dude?”

“Not really. Let’s look at a couple of things wrong with this deck – just a couple.”

“Sure thing, dude.”

“First off, this deck is inconsistent. Any decklist that sports bunch of single copies of cards without tutoring or severe card drawing is not going to see those singles. Ever.”

“Singles are bad unless you know you can find them. Gotcha, man.”

“Second, this deck has too many cards that are situational – like Seize the Day and Final Fortune. Those slots would have been better filled with cards that would be useful whenever they come off the top of the deck. Something like several burn spells.”

“Utility over fancy tricks. Got it.”

“Third, the mana base. More swamps, fewer mountains, cut the Coffers. Maybe run some painlands.”

“Okay, may I point out three points is more than a couple – which should be defined as two, dude?”

“Jack, for a man with only a passing acquaintance with the English language, you can be a grammatical pain.”

“Part of my charm, dude, part of my charm. So you actually showed up in public and played this deck?”

“I’m afraid so. To a Grand Prix trial, no less.”

“Wow. You wore a mask, right?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Tell me you at least went under an assumed name, dude.”

“Hey, I didn’t know any better. The only thing I knew at that point was that land destruction was not the most viable of alternatives, but it just looked like fun to me. I had grand visions in my head of denying my opponents the ability to play land on their second turn with one of my pair of Pardic Miners (I obviously had won the die roll and chosen to play first), followed by a Stone Rain or Pillage on my third turn. This would continue until I had finally drawn into my sole Magnivore or Laquatus’ Champion, and then the end would come swiftly.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Sounds like a pipe dream. You’ve seen the decklist.”

“True. So how did it go?”

Grand Prix: Milwaukee Trials, March 23, 2002

Round One. Christopher M.

You’re welcome for the bye.

Round Two. Brian S.

You’re welcome for the bye.

Round Three. Jeremy A.

You’re welcome for the bye. If I ever see another millstone, it will be too soon.

Round Four. Sergey N.

You’re welcome for the bye. Sorry your second Rith died.

“Wow. You suck.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. I decided to come up with a new plan.”

“You had a plan before?”

“Shut up, Jack. Regionals was approaching, which would be followed by another Grand Prix trial. I needed something easy to play that stood a chance at winning. Furthermore, I was on a tight budget, so buying several ten-dollar rares to build a deck was not going to happen. This meant I was playing Red/Green.”

“Sounds good, I guess.”

“I present, the second deck I ever built.”

Nearly the Worst Red/Green Build Ever Conceived.dec

Main Deck

4 Flametongue Kavu

4 Wild Mongrel

3 Basking Rootwalla

4 Arrogant Wurm

2 Werebear

4 Fiery Temper

3 Voracious Cobra

2 Krosan Beast

2 Rabid Elephant

3 Centaur Chieftain

2 Overrun

2 Narcissism

2 Seton’s Desire

3 Tangle

11 Mountain

15 Forest


1 Legacy Weapon

3 Spellbane Centaur

3 Price of Glory

2 Hull Breach

3 Yavimaya Barbarian

3 Kavu Chameleon

“That seems like a lot of cards, dude.”

“It is a lot of cards, Jack. It’s about six cards too many, in fact. I knew this deck wasn’t tuned, but I gave in to one of my worst habits.”

“You started writing?”

“No, I refused to get heartless as I was finalizing my deck before testing it.”


“Yeah. You know, paying my money and walking into Regionals with it. Testing.”

“So how did that thing turn out?”

U.S. Regionals, April 13, 2002 (Happy Birthday, Mom)

Round One Nick R

Hey, good luck. Mountain, go. You Duress me? Okay, here’s my hand; the only thing you can choose is Fiery Temper. Invoke Madness, cast Fiery Temper targeting you. Okay, I’ll start dropping guys and hey, my deck is working! Wow! Oh, crud… That’s a Mortivore you just plunked down, isn’t it. Let’s see, we’re in the midgame now, and I must consider myself fortunate to have survived this long. I think I’ll make a catastrophic blocking error that results in the death of my pumped Rootwalla, rather than making the better decision of not pumping him, discarding Arrogant Wurm to the Mongrel, and getting him into play before my turn. Game one ends with you at one life, having just dealt twelve to me with Nantuko Shade for the win.

Game two: Not even close. I’m a goner, although oddly enough, the game starts with the same – you Duress me, the only thing I have in hand you can select is Fiery Temper. Weird.

“That was about it.”

“What? Don’t these things usually last longer? I thought a lot more folks got to kick your butt than that.”

“Usually… But the wife called with a baby emergency. Spent the rest of the day in the hospital.”

“You see, dude, that’s why you just shouldn’t breed. It screws up all of your hobbies.”

“Jack, you truly are the center of your own tiny, tiny world.”

“Whatever, dude.”

“Anyway, the one match I played was fun, but misleading. My deck performed pretty well that first game, and I was mana screwed the second. A few more matches would have hammered the problems with my deck into my skull, and I could have tweaked it a bit for the next challenge… The Grand Prix trial for Milwaukee.”

Grand Prix: Milwaukee Trials, April 20, 2002

Round One, Steve S

Hey, good luck. Game one. Hey, I suck. Game two. I suck bad. Thanks for playing.

Round Two, Eric D

Hey, good luck. Game one. Yup, I suck. Game two. That’s suckin’ for ya. Thanks for playing.

Round Three, Rick N

Hey, good luck. Game one. How bad do I suck? Overrun, nine damage gets through to you. I lose. Game two. Maybe I don’t suck all that bad.

Game three: No, I suck. Thanks for playing.

Round Four, Nathan H

Hey, good luck. Game one. Holy crap, I won. Game two. Holy crap, I won again. Are you the only guy playing blue today? My sideboard hates blue somethin’ fierce. Thanks for playing.

Round Five, Jason C

Hey, good luck. Game one. I suck. I also hate Spiritmonger. Game two, I still suck, and I still hate Spiritmonger. I’m not too fond of Plague Spitter right now, either. That’s how bad I suck. Thanks for playing.

“One and four, dude? Are you sure you still wanna do this to yourself week after week?”

“I’m loving it. Really, I am. There are a lot of problems with this deck, but two of them stand out big time. First, a good deck is a consistent deck.”

“Okay. Your deck isn’t consistent? It doesn’t have all those single copies of cards like you were whining about in your first deck.”

“True, but it is still fighting consistency. It’s basically a creature rush deck with a couple of tricks to keep my brain interested – but like I said before, it is six cards too many. Each card in a deck beyond the minimum skews the odds of drawing any given card by more than you would think without running the numbers. This easily could have been a sixty-card deck… And should have been. Many would argue that all decks should be the minimum size, and they are probably right, but I’m just dumb enough to add one extra card for fun every other tourney or so. I must get over that. Anyway, that isn’t even the most obvious, glaring, spine-breaking problem with my Red/Green monstrosity.”

“Confess it, brother.”

“Any deck that is using Green for its primary color should be playing mana acceleration cards, and a few of them. Archetypes become archetypes for a reason, and that reason is that they possess key strengths. If one builds a deck within a given archetype, it stands to reason that one should draw on that archetype’s strengths.”

“Well… Duh.”

“Green accelerates its mana base using critters like Birds of Paradise and Elves of various ilk. It does this so that it can get big, fat beatsticks on the table ASAP or a bunch of smaller, less-menacing-until-you-realize-there-are-too-many-of-them-to-stop beatsticks out there. Then everything goes sideways until it is time for the next game. Red is a natural compliment to this plan because Red wants to be very aggressive and throw big, flaming rocks at people’s heads. Fun for the whole family. But the key to everything is to start that mana flowing.”

“Hey, dude, I’m not sure if you knew this, but your deck doesn’t have any of those birds or those elf things.”

“Very good, Jack; you get the gold star. It does have two Werebears. How often do you think I’m going to draw a Werebear in the opening hand of my sixty-six card deck?”

“Almost never?”

“Another gold star. Throwing four elves into the deck couldn’t have hurt.”

“So that’s two decks you built, and they both suck. When exactly do you (and I’m quoting here) ‘sort of’ get better?”

“Right about now.”

Pale Mage Finally Discovers Non-Basic Lands.dec

Main Deck

4 Last Laugh

4 Sphere of Grace

4 Global Ruin

4 Voice of All

1 Nantuko Shade

3 Verduran Enchantress

3 Gravestorm

2 Spirit Link

4 Pacifism

4 Kirtar’s Desire

4 Memory Lapse

3 Bog Wreckage

4 Tainted Field

3 Tainted Isle

4 Tainted Wood

2 Plains

8 Swamp


2 Squirrel Nest

3 Chatter of the Squirrel

3 Stupefying Touch

3 Circle of Protection: Red

1 Aegis of Honor

3 Floating Shield

“I don’t understand, dude.”

“Bear with me. I started going to Friday Night Magic at one of my local shops. Most Fridays are Type II, which is good because I’m trying to get better at this deckbuilding thing.”


“So, my first Friday, I forgot to build a deck. I knew I was going to revisit the land destruction idea, but this time with Blue for some counter magic. I grabbed all the cards I thought I would need and built the deck during lunch. Turns out I forgot a couple of cards, but the deck was pretty much what I had envisioned. The deck sucked and I didn’t win a game.”

“Right. You suck. Got it.”

“Next Friday, I forget to build a deck, grabbed all of the cards I thought I would need, and built some janky piece of crap that had Last Laugh in it. It was basically a Black/White Weenie deck using Last Laugh as a reset. But I forgot some cards, so I was improvising the whole way. It sucked, I won one game when my opponent cast Obliterate without thinking things through clearly.”

“Right. You still suck. When do you build the good deck?”

“Third Friday, I remember to build my deck by Thursday night. Here’s how it works: Sphere of Grace reduces damage from a black source by two. Each trigger of Last Laugh does one point of damage to each creature and each player. A Sphere of Grace in play will obviously prevent us from taking any damage from Last Laugh.”

“Obviously, dude.”

“Houston, we have a janky combo. Now we need a deck. The weenie idea from the previous week didn’t work out too well, because the weenies tend to get killed off before they can help the cause, especially against any deck playing Red or Black. The metagame at my store is currently very aggro, with an emphasis on beatdown.”


“Nevermind. Let’s save that for another day. Besides, I’m not even using that word correctly, but people will understand what I mean.”

“What people, dude?”

“Okay, now we need a way to set Last Laugh off. Since we aren’t going to be using creatures, we need some other permanents to leave play. I seem to have a sick fetish for land destruction, so Global Ruin is going to be our primary fuse for this bomb.”


“Now we have a big problem to solve, which can be broken down into two smaller problems. The big problem is, how are we going to live long enough to get these combo pieces into place and then go off? Part of that problem is surviving the creature rush that we know is coming, and part of that problem is digging deep enough into our deck that we can find the pieces that we need.”

“Dude, are you using the royal ‘we’ in this little description?”

“To stall the creature rush and insure that enough turns go by to put a lot of land into play, we use Pacifism and Kirtar’s Desire. We rely on two card-drawing engines to speed through the library. The first is Verduran Enchantress, since we are heavy on enchantments. Each time we cast one, we draw a card. Suddenly, most of our deck is cantrips.”

“That sounds good.”

“She’s fragile, though. She gets burned and bounced a lot – enter Gravestorm. It has the drawback of giving our opponent the choice as to whether we draw an extra card each turn or not, but since we aren’t moving a lot of stuff into the opponent’s graveyard, often there is no choice to make. We get the card.”

“Cool. What about these guys?”

“The Voices of All are there for cleanup. In a perfect world, when we set Last Laugh off with the Global Ruin, we will have a Voice in play having named Black for her comes into play ability. That way, we can set the combo off earlier if need be and let the Voice finish up. Since she won’t die when the Last Laugh triggers, Last Laugh stays in play, which can keep pressure on our opponent.”

“What about the Shade?”

“Good eye, Jack. He can be an alternate path to victory, especially mid-game if the combo isn’t set up, but the opposing team is all pacified. Only two of our mana sources are incapable of producing black mana, so pumping him up to lethal levels is not much of a problem.”

“Why do you need these Blue cards, dude?”

“Oh, the Memory Lapses are to push key pieces through, especially the Global Ruin when we are ready to set the bomb off. They could easily be replaced by Gainsays, but I happen to own the Lapses. I don’t care if my opponent’s Counterspell is going to his library or not, because he’s not going to draw another card, he’s going to die.”

“Man, you’re talking in the singular again; you must be winding down.”

“Almost done. The sideboard isn’t great, but here’s the logic: The Aegis of Honor and the Circles of Protection: Red are obvious. Burn spells are a pain, and the more burn the opponent has, the worse it gets. The Floating Shields are there primarily against Red as well. A Voice can enter play having named Red, and a Shield can provide her pro black if need be. Stupefying Touch takes care of a lot of annoying problems like the several thousand creatures with an activated ability whose cost is”discard a card from your hand”; it also neuters Grim Lavamancer. The squirrel stuff is mostly for decks with Black packing non-targeted removal or Braids.”

“Dude, so this deck doesn’t suck?”

“Nope. It’s not Psychatog or anything, but it’s the first deck I’ve built that can go at it with what the other folks are walking through the door with on Friday night… And that’s what I wanted to do. It hasn’t seen a lot of play so far, but out of its two match losses, one was because of a huge play mistake on my part. Get this – I’m playing against Burning Bridges, right?”

“You’re talkin’ another language, dude.”

“Okay, two cards, Grafted Skullcap and Ensnaring Bridge. Grafted Skullcap forces its controller to discard his hand at the end of his turn. Ensnaring Bridge won’t let creatures attack if their power is greater than the number of cards in its controller’s hand. Add several million burn spells and sprinkle with other ways to deal direct damage, and you’ve got a deck.”

“Okay, dude, I follow ya.”

“Good. My deck will roll over and die to anything like Burning Bridges the first game; there’s too much burn. The next two games should go to my deck, on paper. So we’re playing game three, and I have an Aegis of Honor in play. My opponent is taking me apart slowly but surely with a Grim Lavamancer. I’m thinking to myself how terrific it would be if the Aegis could some how redirect the damage of the Lavamancer back at my opponent’s head – or at the very least, prevent it. That is when I notice the Circle of Protection: Red that has been sitting in my hand for about five turns, waiting to be cast so that it can do its damn job and keep my scrub butt alive. By then, of course, I am well within Barbarian Ring range, the race is lost.”

“Dude, you really love to lose, don’t you?”

“Evidently. But that was my fault, ’cause I suck. The deck was doing all it could.”

“So did you beat anything?”

“Oh, yeah. Green/Red is a good matchup for this deck. Lots of critters to put the Pacifism on. Once the combo goes off, it’s like getting two triggers for the price of one, ’cause the enchantment leaving play sets Last Laugh off, as well. Unfortunately, the guys who normally play Blue/Green didn’t show up, so I don’t even have a test case for that matchup. I imagine it would be a much tougher match due to the counters. Interestingly, I had one draw with this deck.”

“How did that happen?”

“Dumb mistake on my part again. I’m playing against a monoblue deck with Shifting Sky and Llawan, Cephalid Empress. My opponent is getting Shifting Sky on the table as soon as possible and naming blue. This puts a little crimp in my plan, because that means Last Laugh is going to be blue, and I don’t have a way of preventing damage from a blue source to myself. Fortunately, the rest of his deck seems to be centered around turning big blue flyers sideways, so I have ample opportunity to enchant them into non-attacking potatoes. After several turns, I have finally gotten a Voice of All on the table through his counters and having named blue. The problem is, my opponent has cast Delusions of Mediocrity. This is annoying.”


“It means he has a higher life total than I have. When I set the combo off, either I need a higher life total than he does so that I win when state-based effects are checked, or I need to be very careful and make sure I have enough life to survive the cascade of damage. Its late in the evening, and I am impatient, so I choose the latter. Of course, I miscount the number of permanents that are going to be leaving play, so instead of having one life left after the cascade, I lose the game. The second game was similar to the first, except I remained patient and whittled his life down below mine before pushing the Global Ruin through. Unfortunately, time was called just as I was doing this, so the match was a draw. I am confident the third game would have gone my way, based on how the first two games played out.”

“That’s pretty big talk for a guy who admitted he couldn’t shuffle his cards a few minutes ago.”

“Hey, sometimes it’s the little things, you know?”

“So this is the killer deck?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Psychatog would destroy this deck without breathing hard. Trenches, I don’t know, but I suspect Trenches is strong enough to win most of the time. There is a guy who plays a Desolation Angel deck sometimes on Fridays, but I haven’t matched up with him. He packs a lot of hand disruption, but I’m not convinced that’s too much of a problem for this deck. The card drawing engine is pretty strong. The challenge against his deck would be to get the Sphere of Grace and Last Laugh out ASAP, because sooner or later he’s going to want to kick out his Angel. I may try to play this deck for awhile longer.”

“Why wouldn’t ya? Scared you might win too many times in a row?”

“No. I suspect people are going to start bringing more enchantment hate in their decks pretty soon. I don’t just mean at my local store, I mean everywhere.”

“Dude, it’s been great, but I’ve gotta run.”


“There’s a semifinal match starting in about ten minutes. Go Korea! Hey, the door is blocked again, dude.”

“Oh, those are my cards from the new set. Judgment.”

“More cards? Dude, does it ever end?”

“Never. It’s great. Wanna take a peek?”

“Like I said, I’ve gotta run… Whoah, who’s this?”

“That, my friend, is Solitary Confinement.”

“She is hot, man.”

“She is the reason enchantment hate is back July the first.”

“Man, she’s hot.”

“Yup. Give her back, you were leaving, remember?”

“You’re a jerk.”

“Give me the card.”

“Just kidding…c’mon, how ’bout a hug?”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

Pale Mage.