Removed From Game – Theme Decks Versus Intro Packs

Read Rich Hagon every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Wednesday, November 12th – Of all the changes that have occurred within Magic over the last couple of years, few caused me more trepidation than the conversion of Theme Decks into the new Intro Packs. Having taught many new players the game through the use of the excellent Theme Decks, and with a constant supply of new ready-to-play sets of four or five decks at a time, they were a core component of my Magic experience. So why change a winning formula?

Of all the changes that have occurred within Magic over the last couple of years, few caused me more trepidation than the conversion of Theme Decks into the new Intro Packs. Having taught many new players the game through the use of the excellent Theme Decks, and with a constant supply of new ready-to-play sets of four or five decks at a time, they were a core component of my Magic experience. So why change a winning formula? It seems that Theme Decks weren’t necessarily doing what Wizards wanted, and a retooling and restyling has taken place. In this article, I’ll attempt to show why Theme Decks can be such a good part of your Magic arsenal, why they’re an invaluable teaching tool, and why picking them up can be good for not only a beginner’s game, but yours as well.

Theme Decks are curious little items. Part Time Capsule, part Instruction Manual. Part ferocious power, and part ghastly weakness. Part flavor-driven, part (apparently) random card choices, part Constructed yet monstrously Limited, and indeed limited, there’s a ton of stuff going on under the wrapper. In no particular order, here’s what I believe Theme Decks can do for you:

The Power of Removal — In almost all the Theme Decks down the years, the removal has been severely lacking. If you see a genuine high-class piece of removal in your opening hand, you’ve done well. Most of the time, creatures bang into each other, with pseudo-removal like Giant Growth effects taking precedence over ‘destroy target monster.’ That means that when you do get to just swipe a fattie off the opposing board with a flick of your Dark Banishing, you really appreciate it, and that’s a great lesson for all kinds of Limited formats.

Husbanding Removal — To start with, you get so excited when you see that piece of quality removal that you just can’t wait to splurge it at the first available irritant that moves. But as you play the decks over and over your appreciation for the power of removal increases, and you come to understand that God didn’t create all monsters equal. Yes, you could kill that 2/2 for 3 with no abilities, but if you just took two damage this turn you could make your 3/3 next turn and effectively deal with their threat and still have that removal in hand. Most players I’ve taught with Theme Decks have turned into real misers when it comes to removal, and won’t be passing it in Draft without a very good reason.

Card Advantage — Although this varies from set to set, by and large the four/five decks in a set are pretty well matched. That means that often you’ll see some kind of monster stall develop on the board, with both players going into topdeck mode. And then someone will blow the thing wide open with a massive card draw spell, like Tidings. Few things leave you feeling more impotent once you understand the game a little than watching your opponent fill their hand with options, as you sit with your 7th forest of the game in hand. It’s partly the stodginess of these games that allow you to see Card Advantage at work so clearly.

Familiarity – Let’s not pretend that Magic is anything other than the most amazingly complex game that has ever succeeded in finding an audience. Chess fans, don’t even bother. A bright 6 year old can learn what the half dozen or so pieces can and can’t do in about 15 minutes. Magic? Thousands of pieces interacting in (insert word denoting scientifically improbable number here, just shy of infinity) ways. Even the simplest of the Theme Decks have maybe 20 unique cards in them, so that’s 40 pieces to learn in your first ever game. Eek. But although that’s daunting, at least those same cards come around game after game, and with each passing duel you come to understand a little better how the deck fits together, because by and large the Theme Decks are quite focused. If memory serves, there is one authentic Combo-esque deck out there somewhere, involving Blasting Station and artifact recursion(?), but for the most part, for all their uniqueness, it becomes quickly apparent whether your deck is super-fast killkillkill, or stay alive until doomsday. When learning a new game, reinforcement of lessons already learned is key, and after yet another turn of reading a new card that your opponent has just played, there’s something positive about finding an ‘old friend’ on top of your library.

Power Rares — By and large, Rarity has little impact on Magic at the level of the table itself. It rarely, no pun intended, matters what the commonality of the card is that’s beating you about the head. As we know, part of the beauty of Magic is that you can die to a 1/1 just as much as you can to a Hellkite Overlord. These two things may not occur as often as each other, but both possibilities remain. Even so, in most of the Theme Decks there are one or two absolute killer cards, most often some ginormous monster. We like to pretend as we get better at the game that we’re unfussed as to how we win, but the small child in all of us still thrills to plunking down the bomb rare from nowhere to win the match. The Theme Decks have this built in.

Mana Management — Although not universal, most of the Theme Decks are multi-colored, and even if that means just a mixture of plains and forests, you start to learn about looking after your mana. It’s pretty much certain that you’ll tap the wrong lands a hundred times before you start spotting ‘off-color’ activations already onboard, or the more advanced idea of representing cards that your opponent knows you have in your deck, and might just have in your hand. A lot of players learn by being given a pile of red cards and some mountains, and although that’s great as far as it goes, as soon as you start trying to Draft you find a massive hole in your knowledge. So how exactly do I cast all this stuff? Theme Decks also generally introduce you to that year’s version of land filtering and mana fixing, something that’s important when it comes to deckbuilding (can we say Five-Color Control?)

Set Mechanics — In each Block, there are new mechanics, and experienced players quickly identify them as Limited or Constructed mechanics (while there’s obviously some crossover). In the Theme Decks, Wizards have gone out of their way to showcase the new mechanics in a moderately powerful way, putting plenty of internal synergies into each deck to show you what those mechanics do before you go into the ultra-competitive world of Sealed or Draft, or the massively complex world of Constructed. Take Affinity for example. You might, as a brand new player, not be entirely sure why paying ‘a bit less’ for things would be particularly powerful. Then you cast your first Broodstar for UU, and you understand. Not every mechanic gets to shine at Sanctioned level, but in this environment there’s usually little enough removal to allow even the weakest mechanics a bit of breathing room to set up shop and do its thing. Which brings me to…

A Forgiving Environment — I believe that this is one of the most crucial gifts the Theme Decks bestow on new players. It’s hard to pin down quite where the power level of them sits. On the one hand, they behave like Constructed decks, since they have 60 cards, multiple copies of individual cards, a clear theme, a clear purpose, and feel familiar relatively quickly. They clearly aren’t as powerful as Block Constructed however, since they rarely have 4 of anything, aren’t terribly streamlined, have all kinds of ‘narrow’ cards that are useless or next to useless quite a bit of the time, and also play cards that no self-respecting deckbuilder would touch. Perhaps they’re closer to draft then? No, because good Drafters can concoct absolute beatings with lightning starts, a ton of removal, everything flying, all singing all dancing nonsense, and hardly any of that applies to the Theme Decks. Sealed deck then? This is perhaps the closest analogy, since creature combat is at the heart of most Theme Decks, and that’s true of Sealed play. It’s also analogous in that both Formats have mana-intensive bombs that can swing the game your way. However, the Theme Decks are pretty tasty compared to most Sealed offerings, since they are vastly more consistent, definitely more focused and are likely to have more synergies. Even though the Theme formats are generally slow, partly due to a conscious lack of mana acceleration and also to enable the big spells to be played sometimes, there’s still the possibility to utterly overrun your opponent with a ‘fast’ (all things are relative) start. To me, this is one of the greatest tricks ever pulled by Wizards — the fact that this unique niche Format can look and feel like a hybrid version of every other version of Magic, and yet does so whilst being significantly slower than any other format. It’s almost like getting to play in slow motion, and that’s an invaluable teaching tool.

No Stupid Rules — I guess in a perverse way that part of the fun in Magic is discovering the 4,276 stupid rules that exist in the corners of the game. Whilst I accept this aspect of the community, I think we can all agree that firing up the Interweb in order to find the Oracle wording on Humility isn’t something we want to subject our new players to. Thankfully, the Theme Decks have been utterly neutered in this respect, and in almost ten years of teaching the game I can’t remember having to watch the look of utter incredulity as some hideous interaction that goes against all human wisdom gets explained. In the world of the Theme Decks, Magic works the way we all think Magic is supposed to. It’s clean, intuitive, well-designed and doesn’t require three Level 5 judges to unravel in a document that would do credit to Roe v Wade.

Evasion — With so many creature stalls, the first piece of Evasion that doesn’t get met with removal can often go the distance. Evasion Is Good feels like one of the first tactical lessons we want our fledgling players to learn, and as the 3/3 flyer kills us for the 7th time, it’s easily learned.

Synergies — One of the biggest steps up the rung of learning about the game is where you get to stop looking at a card on its own and start thinking of it as part of a team, either within a whole-deck framework, or in combination with a particular other card. At its simplest, mechanics like Affinity or Exalted showcase this. Sure, your 1/1 Exalted creature might not be very good, but he doesn’t just make your big guy bigger, it takes your big guy out of range of their big guy. Once you start to see the way in which cards interact with each other, you’ve taken the first steps towards authentic deckbuilding, as you start actively searching for components that go well together.

Signposts to Block — This tends to vary from set to set, but particularly in multicolor sets like Ravnica or Shards the Theme Decks tend to actively promote a clear cut color-based strategy that is likely to feature in Block Constructed. I clearly remember seeing a Boros theme deck with copies 2, 3, and 4 of a rare added in making the Top 8 of a largish Block event. This time around, having given exactly 7 seconds thought to Block, Exalted with Bant and Artifacts galore with Esper seem certain to feature in Block. Using the Theme Decks as an initial template gives us the opportunity to work out what cards are surplus to requirements and how the deck could be improved whilst keeping its fundamental shell intact.

Signposts to Higher Constructed — If you’ve never heard of Higher Constructed, that’s because I’ve just made it up, to signify more powerful formats than Block, i.e. Standard and up. Although less obvious, the forgiving environment can often give rise to the chance to witness what can happen when something gets left unchecked. That then allows us to wonder if we can make the Combo resilient enough to go further up the Magic foodchain. Take Skullclamp for example, which, amazingly, was in one of the Theme Decks that year. On one delicious occasion, my opponent drew a piece of artifact removal, and couldn’t decide between my Skullclamp and some random monster. I’d like to tell you that I said, ‘kill the Skullclamp, it’s bonkers.’ I’d like to tell you that I said, ‘well, it’s up to you, but I’d kill the Skullclamp.’ I’d even like to tell you that I said, ‘well kill the monster, and let’s see what happens.’ Bastard that I am, I actually said, ‘Well it’s up to you, but in your position I think I’d kill the monster. After all, that Skullclamp only gives a +1 bonus, which isn’t much.’ He killed the monster. Twenty minutes later, I’d drawn my entire library and killed him. As I chortled away, he sat in silence for a while and then said, ‘I should have killed the Skullclamp’. A lesson learned, no? Meanwhile, neither of us could have failed to spot the potential of the mental uncommon for Constructed prowess.

New Cards — There’s a philosophical divide over this. If you belong to the school of thought that says you’d basically be happy (ignoring Draft for a moment) with three card booster packs, as long as they were all Constructed playables, then this is utterly irrelevant to you. However, at the other end of the scale is the ‘every card is Sacred’ crowd. If you tend towards this view of the game, then there’s something rather affirming about seeing underpowered cards find their place in the sun. While Ken Nagle can cogently make the case for why Cylian Elf should exist, in Theme Decks Cylian Elf might even be outright good, under far more circumstances than in the harsher formats. There’s the added benefit of trying to exploit these weaker cards to the max, since those are mental muscles that you can flex just as effectively with the dross as with the power of a set. Indeed, you could argue that making the most out of a collection of ’23rd’ cards is a highly desirable skill when it comes to Sealed play, or even Draft.

Combat — It’s just possible, I suppose, that somebody somewhere at Pro Tour: Berlin uttered the word ‘block,’ but if they did, it was probably in a sentence like ‘man this Elfball sucks bigtime, thank goodness our hostel is only a block away.’ Yes, learning all about Combat math and Constructed aren’t two easy bedfellows, and it’s one of the most deficient areas of the game for many players, not least because it’s so hard to teach with all the variables. With the Theme Decks, you’re going to run into Combat math almost every game, and because you’re going to quickly develop some familiarity with both your deck and the goals it’s trying to accomplish, you can get to the stage where you’re actively thinking about things like, ‘well if he has the pump spell that would put me to five, which would put me within range of his Lava Axe, but that’s okay because I can leave mana up to counter the Axe if he has it next turn, because I’m going to play my 3/4 which should slow him down enough that I can cast my draw spell on the following turn and then I can go back out of range with my lifegain.’ Although that kind of thinking may be second nature to you, it almost certainly wasn’t when you were first starting the game. Theme Decks give you the time and repeated opportunities to learn all about Combat and when it’s right to put your men in the way or go all-in. Arguably, this is the most valuable teaching tool the Theme Decks provide.

Changing Card Values — Underneath it all, Magic is a game about correctly valuing cards in an ever-changing set of circumstances, and balancing those values against the costs associated with bringing those values online. We’re both at 1 life. Which would you prefer, a 1/1 for 1 or a 20/20 flying trampler with haste for 1? You know there’s a trap coming, but the 20/20 is almost always going to be the right answer, unless mine is a Mogg Fanatic…every turn, we constantly re-evaluate the situation of the game and the match, changing the value of the cards in our hand based on the state of play, how many cards our opponent has, the lifetotals, even the time left on the round….the variables are astonishing. Whereas those decisions can become terrifyingly marginal in the Real World of Magic, in the Theme Decks they are often straightforward. Your 2/2 for 2 is great on turn two and progressively less great as the game goes on, unless you need a blocker, or unless you have an Umezawa’s Jitte needing to hitch a ride (yes, Jitte was in a theme deck too) or unless your opponent has no monsters and is at 2. A vanilla monster with apparently minimal complexity showcases beautifully the non-stop decision-making processes that go into making a decent player.

Narrow Cards — In any given Draft, particularly if it’s Single Elimination, there’s every chance that you won’t get to see every card in your deck, much less have the opportunity to use them effectively. In the Theme Decks, the same cards come around and around, and each time they do you learn a little bit more about them. This is especially true when it comes to narrow cards, so-called because although they generally do their thing well, that thing is very small in scope. A card like Naturalize (whilst really good) is a prime example of narrow. It doesn’t draw you cards, or counter a spell, or block, or attack, or have power and toughness, or generate mana. What it does do is put one specific targetable artifact or enchantment in the bin. There are any number of occasions when this is exactly what you want to do, but there are also a ton of times when it does nothing, and with the Theme Decks so balanced, a turn where you effectively draw nothing (when you can’t make use of your narrow card) can be the difference between winning and losing. After a few games, you start to get a feel for whether it’s a good plan to have these kinds of cards in your deck or not, and you’re well on the way towards the idea of ‘hosers’ in a Constructed sideboard.

Flavorful — The Theme Decks are flavorful in a way that almost no other form of the game can accomplish (with some kind of Tribal Highlander being the immediate example). For all that the last two Pro Tours have been won by decks allegedly sporting the name ‘Elves,’ neither Charles Gindy nor Luis Scott-Vargas had anything remotely flavorful going on. For Gindy, Elves meant Chameleon Colossus, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Thoughtseize. For LSV, Elves was all about Insects and Grapeshot and a Combo kill. That is as it should be, as the Pro Tour isn’t about flavor. But Theme Decks are, and standing alongside their highlighted mechanics, each deck has a powerful cohesive flavor, whether it’s a tribal Goblins or Elf deck, White Weenie hordes, Blue flyers, or massive beasts. Because of the forgiving nature of the environment, cards that wouldn’t flourish elsewhere get a slot on flavor grounds, and, from a marketing standpoint, that allows players to take ‘ownership’ of a deck within the group. ‘I want to play the artifacts’ or ‘but I like Goblins’ is a powerful way to get new players hooked into the game.

Leading You Onward — The Theme Decks are clearly not meant to be the be-all and end-all of your Magic experience, far from it. In fact, they’re designed to lead you by the hand into the wider world of the game, and the fact that each of the decks is so underwhelming is one way to accomplish this. By and large, each deck comes with a little handy tip sheet, telling you about some of the cards you might want to add to your deck, and cards to watch out for that can utterly wreck you. For the less strategic minded, these tip sheets also give you a basic outline of how to play the deck, often pointing up particular synergies that might otherwise remain undiscovered by the novice.

At this point, I realize that I’ve yet to say anything negative about the Theme Decks. Whilst this shouldn’t surprise you, given that I’ve been using them and collecting them for a decade and more, I’m not totally blind to their deficiencies. Here are a few of them:

Packaging — I guarantee that there are thousands of players who have gone into a store to purchase a Theme Deck, and got home only to find a random collection from a Tournament Pack, and vice versa. Plenty of actual Magic traders can’t even tell them apart half the time, and that’s rubbish. As we’ll see next week, that’s certainly a concern that’s been addressed by the Intro packs.

Weak Cards — It’s all very well saying that it’s good to have weaker cards in the Theme Decks, for a variety of good and sensible reasons, but weak cards are still weak cards. Something about pigs and lipsticks…

Blowout Rares — It may be fun to utterly destroy someone with a powerful rare, but when the opposing deck is completely unequipped to deal with it, that fun quickly turns into frustration that a perfectly good game gets ruined by a single card.

Teaching Bad Habits — Sometimes it’s hard to tell that the cards you’re playing with are as bad as they ‘really’ are. For the most part, (my earlier anecdote notwithstanding), starting with a Theme Deck and just adding a couple of rares will get you precisely nowhere. Narrow cards go into these decks to highlight what they can do, and knowing that opposing decks will pose exactly the kind of questions that narrow cards are the answers to. Often the decks do several things quite well, without doing any one thing very well, and that often isn’t the way to go for deckbuilding.

Hybrid Format — As we’ve explored, the Theme Decks accurately mirror none of the established Magic formats. Sealed can be overwhelming in its choices and mana complexity, Draft is ruthlessly efficient and packed with good spells, and once we’re into Standard upwards we’re on another planet. For all the benefits of this gentle world at a slower pace than normal, taking the plunge into the wider world can be extremely dispiriting.

Diminishing Returns — By and large, the first set of the Block is the most interesting as far as the Theme Decks go. A while ago, that was largely because the middle and end sets simply built upon the mechanics of the opener, perhaps with one addition. That’s very different now, but still cards go into the decks that come from the first set, leaving you feeling short-changed. As we’ll see next week, even with a set as flavorful as Shards, it was felt necessary to ‘pollute’ the decks with cards from, for the love of God, 10th Edition. A few choice words will be shared on this topic seven days from now.

Overall though, we can see that Theme Decks provide a pivotal role in learning about the fundamentals of the game, and manage to put the ‘fun’ part of that in the forefront, allowing a ton of subtlety to gradually appear over a bunch of games. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position to teach someone about the game, investing in a set of Theme Decks can be just about the best thing you could possibly advise to get them. Even after 20 or 30 games of the same matchup, you’ll still be discovering nuances of the way the decks interact. Although not exhaustive, I’ve attempted to point up at least 19 separate reasons why the Theme Decks are great, so as you can imagine I approached the new Intro Packs with their shiny packaging and unknown contents with a fair amount of trepidation. 41 card decks? Boosters? Hmm. All will be revealed next week.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.