Mental Deck Deconstruction

Carsten provides a model for how to approach unusual decklists correctly, which is an important skill for events like SCG Legacy Open: Dallas this weekend.

Have you ever sat in a Top 8 match and been given your opponent’s decklist, only to stare in disbelief at something utterly weird? Weird as in say something like this:

I mean, really, what the heck is even going on here? You’re paired against this monstrosity, and you don’t even get what he’s trying to do on first sight. How the heck are you supposed to develop a meaningful plan to beat it? Or maybe you just realized this weird collection of cards won an 81-player event in Chicago and want to give it a whirl. To get any kind of helpful test results, you really need to understand what’s going on before you can meaningfully play a game with this deck.

This situation is more common in Legacy than in smaller formats, yet the same thing could just as well happen to you if you’re a Standard or Modern player. Just imagine you had been given this decklist previous to Matthias Hunt’s performance at Pro Tour Born of the Gods:

Are you really going to tell me you’d have truly grasped what the deck is capable of just by taking a glance at the decklist? You might understand where the deck is going, but there is no way you can figure out all the little tricks your opponent is going to pull against you by just reading the cards. Instead, what you need to do is to approach the list in a constructive and focused fashion.

Independent of if you want to beat the weirdos that actually show up to real tournaments with these kinds of decks or if like me you love weird decks and want to give them a test drive, correctly deconstructing a decklist just by studying it is a valuable (and time-saving) skill and one that I believe can be learned more easily through the correct approach than by just doing it again and again. Today I’ll be breaking down how I do that, and please feel free to chime in if you have a different approach that works well for you.

Deconstruction Initiated

I think the easiest way to teach this is to just show you by using an example I have been exploring lately, Kaspar Euser’s deck from Grand Prix Paris:

The first thing I look at when I see a new decklist is the overall makeup. Is the deck full of spells? Creatures? Is there a mix of them? How many lands does the deck run? The goal here is to get a feel for where the deck is going in general. In Kaspar’s deck, the answer is quite obvious—there are only spells and lands, so clearly he isn’t trying to beat down. There are also 27 lands, so the likelihood of it being a truly fast combo deck is quite low.

Once I’ve gotten a first impression, I like to look at the noncreature spells first. Generally speaking, I feel the spells tell you a lot more about where a deck is trying to go than the creatures, even in creature-heavy decks. Think of Melira Pod in Modern for example. The deck has barely any noncreature cards, yet seeing Birthing Pod alone will give you a lot of information as to why the deck looks like it does.

To get the most out of studying the spells, you need to look at them from the correct angle. The first two questions I always ask myself are "how much and what kinds of removal does the deck run?" and "what disruption does it have access to?" The reason these two categories are so important is that they tell you how the deck expects to operate. A low removal count means the deck expects to simply overpower creature strategies by going bigger or comboing out. On the other hand, a high removal count reveals a deck that is planning to go reasonably long, answering the opponent’s threats while developing its own game plan. Similarly, the disruption informs you as to how the deck plans to deal with noncreature threats and how aggressively the deck plans to push its own game plan forward as well as how much it expects to be interacted with.

To get back to the list at hand, Kaspar’s deck presents only three pieces of removal and unusual ones at that: three copies of Supreme Verdict. This already tells us a lot. First, the deck is clearly not fast enough to simply race creature-heavy decks; otherwise, no removal would be necessary. Kaspar clearly isn’t worried about any one particular creature. He wants access to a full reset even at the overly expensive rate of four mana, so hate bears probably don’t matter much to what the deck wants to do.

The fact that there is no other removal serves to further clue us in that he isn’t actually trying to control the board. He has to be planning to win during the time period his first sweeper has bought him or else additional removal would be necessary.

As for disruption, Force of Will stands alone. That can basically mean two things; the deck is either fast enough to not need anything else or already resilient enough to opposing disruption that it rarely needs to protect its game plan and mainly wants Force of Will to keep the opponent from going off too early. Clearly the first thing isn’t true—that’s what the presence of Verdict tells us—so whatever Kaspar is trying to do has to be pretty hard to stop through conventional means.

Exploration, Crop Rotation, and Life from the Loam then tell us in why that is. He’s planning on doing land shenanigans and probably relies on Loam to overcome disruption in the long run, not to mention that lands are naturally resilient to classic disruption (other than Wasteland) since they can neither be countered nor Thoughtseized.

Finally, we see a lot of library manipulation. Brainstorm shouldn’t raise an eyebrow, as you’re likely to run it in any deck that can cast it and follow it up with a shuffle effect. Adding Ponder, Living Wish, and Intuition all in the same deck however basically shouts "I’m trying to put together some kind of combo." Aside from working well with Loam, Intuition allows us to understand the three Verdicts—we’ve already assumed he wants to cast exactly one per game, so having Intuition as a stand in when you don’t have a Verdict in hand makes perfect sense.

In a more mixed deck, I’d now take a rapid look at the creature suite—disruptive hate bears and utility creatures speak for a longer game plan, while high power and toughness creatures indicate an aggressive bend. Sometimes a creature is really what the deck is built around. However, Kaspar’s deck cleanly avoids any contamination with those buggers, so we can skip that step. The presence of Crop Rotation already points us in the correct direction: the utility lands.  

As soon as we see the Thespian’s Stage, we finally get a clear idea of what he’s trying to do and start scanning for Dark Depths, only to find just a single one. Suddenly the presence of Living Wish becomes clear too, and sure enough a swift look at the sideboard reveals one of each combo piece hiding out there. Not having the maximum amount of combo pieces is a solid clue to reinforce the idea that this deck isn’t meant to play balls to the walls combo. Instead, Kaspar is looking for consistent access to his combo thanks to all the tutoring tempered by the flexibility provided by having tutors instead of purely linear win conditions, as evidenced by a couple of utility lands to grab with Crop Rotation (Wasteland, Maze of Ith) and a sideboard with five actual cards and ten different bullets to Wish for.

After looking over the deck in detail for the first time, we already have a solid idea of what Kaspar’s deck is trying to do and how fast it will be implementing its game plan. The endgame is clearly swinging in with an indestructible flying 20/20 to finish things in one fell swoop. Given the presence of Supreme Verdict and the low concentration of Dark Depths, though, he clearly isn’t rushing things, and a kill probably won’t happen before the opponent has had time to set up, maybe around turn 3 or 4 at the earliest. In addition, permanently answering the combo kill should be a major headache simply because the only other reasonable win condition the deck has is to Wish for Sigarda, Host of Herons, a solid threat but not exactly the bane of Legacy.

The Nitty Gritty

Now that we know where the deck is going in general, it’s time to focus on all the little tricks and synergies being abused. If you’re playing against the deck, you need to know these so that you don’t run headfirst into some cutesy trick that’ll blow you out, and if you’re planning to go with the deck yourself, well, we wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to deliver said blowout ourselves, would we?

At this point I look at all the cards that either clearly have the potential to do a multitude of things or simply don’t make sense to me on first sight. The former usually is mainly tutor effects but also can include other very open-ended cards like copy effects, while the latter can be just about anything. Kaspar’s list has more than most in both categories.

Potentially tricksy cards:

Crop Rotation
Living Wish
Thespian’s Stage
Possibly Exploration

Huh? inducers:

4 Flagstones of Trokair
2 Life from the Loam

The thing to do now is to look at all these cards and try to figure out both why they are in the deck in the first place if we haven’t done so yet and what the deck is actually capable of doing with them other than that. Usually, I just pick one of them and try to figure out what it interacts with in the first place. That generally leads to a wild chase through the deck as more and more possible interactions pop up, oftentimes even unrelated to the card I started out with.

Well, mainly what we’re looking for are unexpected targets, but here most of them are fairly tame, either combo pieces or answers. Wasteland deserves an honorable mention as the deck’s main answer to an opposing Wasteland. On first sight, Crop Rotation isn’t much more than a tutor. But wait, there’s actually another way to beat Wasteland! You can activate a second Thespian’s Stage in response to the Wasteland and simply get your 20/20 before it ever resolves. With Crop Rotation being an instant, that seems like it would often be a better solution. Activate the copy effect, and if your opponent tries to Wasteland, just sacrifice a land and do it again.

Speaking of sacrificing, the Flagstones of Trokair suddenly start to make sense. Usually, Crop Rotation simply trades in one of your lands for another. By sacrificing a Flagstones, you not only get a little bit of card advantage, but Crop Rotation suddenly becomes a ramp spell—you get the land from Crop Rotation but also get to find a Plains from the Flagstones. Pretty nifty.

Flagstones also works as Wasteland protection in a different way. If your opponent tries to Wasteland a Thespian’s Stage preemptively, two leftover mana will allow you to turn it into a Flagstones. That doesn’t exactly compensate you for losing a combo piece, but at least you’ll get the land they just tried to destroy back. Something to remember definitely.

On the other hand, Crop Rotation is clearly limited, especially pre-board. It can find Maze of Ith and Wasteland for general utility but no other actual answers, so there’s no need to play around an instant speed Karakas or Bojuka Bog.

We’ve covered a lot of what this can do already, though there are a couple of additions. You can build your own fetch land to shuffle after Brainstorming by copying a Flagstones and sacrificing the original to the legend rule. You can highjack your opponent’s lands when desirable—copying the opponent’s basic land provides an additional way to fizzle Wasteland for example, and you can get additional utility out of the Stage by copying your own utility lands, especially Maze of Ith, before you’re ready to combo. If pushed enough, this deck might actually develop a board with three or four Mazes on it, quite similarly to normal Lands.

Living Wish on the other hand looks quite straight forward here. It can answer or disrupt just about anything that isn’t a planeswalker, complete the combo, or provide an alternative win condition. It doesn’t do anything especially unexpected however. It’s important to remember the actual lands in Kaspar’s sideboard, few as there are—those are the only cards that force you to counter the Wish if you want to deal with them after all.

Well, the main function of Exploration is clearly that it allows you to drop both combo pieces in single turn, meaning the threat of the 20/20 is always there once it has hit the field. Other than that we know that the deck actually has eight ways to accelerate up to the full combo by turn 3 now that we understand the Crop Rotation + Flagstones of Trokair interaction. It might be a bit faster than we suspected during the first look through the deck.

Intuition for Life from the Loam, Thespian’s Stage, and Dark Depths finds the whole combo, which is clearly something to be aware of. Kaspar’s deck is also perfectly set up to allow Intuition to serve as extra copies of his interactive cards, be it by getting triplets of Force of Will or Supreme Verdict or by finding Loam and the utility lands you need right now. Other than that the main thing to remember is actually what Intuition cannot do. It cannot find three copies of Dark Depths, allowing you to not counter it when you have graveyard hate online. Getting three copies of Living Wish gets around this to a certain point, but it doesn’t help with the whole countermagic issue.

In all honesty, I still haven’t figured out what the second Life from the Loam is doing in the deck. It doesn’t enable any better Intuition piles, so all I’ve come up with so far is that Kaspar wants to naturally draw into it more often. That makes a certain sense given that the deck has easy access to Wasteland (allowing for the Waste lock). Loam all but ensures that the combo will fire at some point given enough time and that an active Loam can easily turn Brainstorm into Ancestral Recall, giving the deck more staying power.

Altogether Now

All right, it’s time to consolidate all those details into a general picture. The beast we’re dealing with here is a reasonably slow combo deck that tries to hit us in the face with Marit Lage but plays the control role for at least a couple of turns before that. It has excellent tools to win a grindy late game and enough flexibility from all its tutors to ensure that it will be really hard to fully lock it out. Most of its staying power is based on recursion, however, meaning that graveyard hate should often be able to gut its long-game plans.

As for tactical choices, there are a million Crop Rotation tricks going on, and Thespian’s Stage requires us to pay close attention as to which lands are in play. But other than that we only need to play around reasonably common interactive moves coming out of the deck in the form of countermagic and Supreme Verdict. None of this changes post-board, as the majority of that space is given over to Living Wish targets.


Having understood all this, we should be reasonably well prepared to face the deck in battle. Playing it however is a little different. If you followed the comments on last week’s article, you already read that I feel like I’m not playing the deck well now that I’ve started testing, and that is in spite of going through all the above observations before playing a single game.

The truth of the matter is that while all this theorycrafting has given me a good idea concerning the deck’s abilities, likely enabling me to play reasonably well against it, that doesn’t mean I really understand how you’re supposed to shape the games with the deck against possible opponents. Yes, I know I want to end up with Marit Lage hitting the opponent in the face; however, I’m still unfamiliar with the pacing of games and when to go for defensive plays versus rushing for the combo. At least I know which tricks I’m looking to pull off though.

I hope this model for how to approach unusual decklists correctly is helpful for you. I know it’s a great boon to me whenever I see something unusually sweet, be it from my opponent or scouring the Internet for fresh decklists. Is my method similar to what you’ve been doing? Do you have a better idea how to do things? Don’t be shy. Let me know!