Starting From Scratch: The Key Points Of Building A States-Worthy Deck From Nothing

Here is a depressing little fact: Almost no rogue decks win major tournaments. Jamie Wakefield’s PTQ win with Secret Force is legendary partly because of Jamie’s writing skill and partly because he was like the Little Engine That Could – failing repeatedly with the same deck before finally qualifying. I’m the king of rogue decks, and if I really wanted to win, I wouldn’t go rogue… But if I did, here’s the basic steps I’d take towards making a competitive deck.

Last year, I decided I wanted to write a fantasy novel. I didn’t spend much time on world-building or backstory, because I was afraid doing so would mean I had a really spiffy world with no energy left over to write a book. Instead, I jumped right into outlining a story my wife Sarah and I would enjoy reading (we own a fairly extensive fantasy library) and set off to writing. Every Saturday and Sunday morning – while Sarah slept until noon – I tapped away at my keyboard, following the adventures of Rorn and Talimendanis Treebearer. Ten months later, I had the first draft of a manuscript.

Recently, Virtualbookworm decided to publish my novel, and you can check it out here.

“Birthright” relies on more fantasy cliches than I’d like – a side-effect of spending so little time on world-building – but it has, I think, interesting characters that do interesting things at a fast pace. I’m very proud of my first novel, and hope you’ll check it out. There will be more novels from me in the future, I assure you.

What does this have to do with Magic? Well, this article wouldn’t exist without my novel. You see, I wanted to publicize my book to a wide Magic audience because I think you’ll enjoy the read (and hey, who doesn’t want royalties?). Ferrett said I was more than welcome to do so on StarCity, but I had to write an article for it.

“Fair enough,” I said.”You pick the topic.”

His response:”A serious look at States from a rogue deckbuilder.”

Frankly, I found this request odd. I mean, I guess most people would agree that I’m a”rogue deckbuilder” – but why on Earth would that qualify me to give you advice for States? In my mind, you should avoid rogue deckbuilders. They smell funny and use bad decks.

Let me explain.

A Definition Of Rogue

I read lots of people throwing the term”rogue deck” and”rogue player” around. It’s become fashionable to say that you have a rogue deck, in fact. Somewhere along the line it seems that other people’s definition of rogue veered wildly away from my own. Rogue is a term to describe the fringe, not something to be embraced.

Have you looked up”rogue” in the dictionary lately? It’s pretty ugly.

For me, a rogue deck always has the following two characteristics:

1) You made the deck yourself

2) Other people don’t want to play it

Rogue decks aren’t undiscovered tech: They aren’t finely-tuned metagame decks. They aren’t decks that fall outside of the top four to six deck archetypes at any given time. They aren’t random cards cobbled together at the last minute.

That is, they aren’t these things unless you made the deck yourself and others don’t want to play it.

In my mind, you don’t set out to create a rogue deck. If you love deckbuilding, you set out to create a deck, pure and simple. Maybe a two-card combination tickled your brain, or you saw someone pull off a cool trick in Limited, or you have always loved monoblue control decks, or you think Rorix Bladewing is the coolest thing since Samurai Jack. Deck ideas can come from a myriad of places.

The genesis of a rogue deck always comes from an individual who wants to make his or her own deck. Period.

After that, one of four things happens:

The first result is that your deck idea is too slow, inconsistent, narrow, mana-intensive, or any number of other reasons that deck ideas fail. You scrap the idea (or, more accurately, you file it away for another day), and move onto something else. This result is probably the single most common one for new deck ideas. No rogue decks come from failed deckbuilding attempts.

The second result is that your deck slowly evolves into an existing decktype. Usually, this happens through playtesting, but what Zvi calls”deck drift” can happen even in theoretical revisions of a decklist. As you further refine your card choices, you take out cards that are sub-par and replace them with better alternatives. Maybe you started with a B/G control deck based around Undead Gladiator. After some testing, you realize that cards like Mind Sludge, Corrupt, and Mutilate are critical to victory in a bunch of games, which digs you deeper and deeper into a black manabase. At some point, frustrated and staring at the deck, you wonder why you have green in there at all and wham! You have yourself a pretty typical monoblack control (MBC) deck. This is deck drift, and it’s probably the second most common result for new deck ideas.

There’s no shame in deck drift, by the way. Archetypes exist because they have reliability and power, and the kind of active experimentation that got you from B/G control to MBC demonstrated MBC’s strengths first-hand. When you get to an existing decktype through your own means, you undoubtedly understand the card choices and interactions far better than someone who copied their decklist off of the internet. Even better, these evolved deck-drift archetypes usually use two to six cards that”netdecks” don’t have. In the end, you can look quite innovative by having an original deck idea that evolves into an existing decktype. You don’t have a rogue deck, though.

The third result is that your deck turns out to be a house and you want to piss yourself you’re so excited. You test, and test, and sure enough… You have just discovered that UpheavalPsychatog will dominate most matchups, even though everyone else hasn’t even sniffed the idea of using Psychatog in a deck. Good for you! You just created the elusive silver bullet or an entirely new decktype that is bound to shape the current metagame dramatically. This outcome is what most people dream about when generating deck ideas, and as you might expect it doesn’t happen very often. When it does happen, though, usually it does so independently in various parts of the world at about the same time. Good ideas bubble to the top that way.

Guess what, though? You don’t have a rogue deck. You just made yourself famous by creating a new decktype – but as soon as you play that bad boy in a tournament and win, it will be plastered on every internet site and make its way quickly into the Netdeck Hall of Fame. It may get called”rogue” for a few hours – but decks that dominate tournaments regardless of the player usually don’t hold onto the moniker very long. In fact, usually you created the deck with the help of a team and everyone loves the deck.

For me, decks that your teammates love aren’t rogue decks.

Which brings me to the fourth and final result of new deck ideas. Sometimes you make a deck you really like. How it plays fits your style perfectly, the card choices make you smile, you understand how to sideboard versus different matchups, and you think you may just have a Category 3 deck on your hands. You take it to a local tournament and it performs well. In fact, it might even win. Hopped up on adrenaline, you write an article about it for StarCity. Fame and kudos are within your grasp. And you know what happens then?


Or, more exactly, nothing you expected.

“Why’d you use that card?”

“Sounds like you got lucky.”

“Don’t you think Jareth, Leonine Titan is too slow for today’s Type 2?”

“Don’t you just roll over to U/G Madness?”

“That looks inconsistent to me.”

“Where’s Cunning Wish?”

These questions define the rogue deck. It means that when other people look at your decklist – even in the face of positive results – they question its viability.

How you react determines your rogue status. If you give up or radically change your deck (although, dangit, you sure liked the way it was), then you have landed yourself into Category 1 or Category 2. If, on the other hand, you keep playing it despite the criticism… If you thumb your nose and press on… If you believe in what you have created…

…then and only then do you have yourself a rogue deck. At least in my eyes.

How Much Do You Want To Win?

Here is a depressing little fact: Almost no rogue decks win major tournaments (Remember: My definition of rogue, not yours). Jamie Wakefield PTQ win with Secret Force is legendary partly because of Jamie’s writing skill and partly because he was like the Little Engine That Could – failing repeatedly with the same deck before finally qualifying. For awhile, Secret Force was actually a pretty good choice in Extended… But not when Jamie played it.

He knew his deck backwards and forwards, though, and he liked the way it played. For Jamie, that comfort and knowledge aligned enough for him to win a big event.

Today it is infinitely harder to win with a rogue deck than the days of The Dojo. Access to information and Magic theory now dwarfs what was available back then. Nowadays the average Magic player can make a lot of educated decisions about the metagame based solely on the internet. Moreover, average play skill has gone up over time, as has the average understanding of why decks win.

As you look at your deck that nobody believes in, think seriously about your goals for States: Do you really want to win? If so, I sure hope you have playtested the hell out of your deck and understand the major decktypes backwards and forwards… Because odds are that all of that criticism your deck received had some merit.

Put simply, it will take a lot more luck for you to win than the person whose deck evolved into MBC.

I only mean to be discouraging if you’re serious about winning. As a competitive endeavor, it serves you better to have a Category 2 or 3 deck than a Category 4. (Does it serve you better to have a deck of your own design that no one supports, or a netdeck that you’ve never played? Now that is an interesting question). You are fighting uphill with a rogue deck and, realistically, you probably won’t win.

However, my personal belief is that rogue players don’t usually aim to win the entire tournament like Jamie. At least I can speak for myself. I never enter something like States wanting to win; I enter States wanting to compete. I know my decks are different and original. I know that the hours of playtesting for any given established decktype collectively far outweighs my own playtesting, no matter how much work I’ve done. I know most of the premiere players are playing decks that have proven themselves as both reliable and powerful. Believing I will win Northern California States is delusional.

Instead, I always want to end the day with a winning record. I want my deck to beat more established decks than not. Sometimes I have side goals like”I want to win a game with a stolen Spiritmonger,” or”I want to pull the Llawan-Alter Reality trick once.” If I am feeling really good about my deck, I may aim for a Top 8 appearance (and in the Top 8, anything can happen). Basically, though, I want to know that my deck idea has merit. Because I almost always enter States caring a little about the mantle of”State Champion” and caring deeply for my individual deck.

I’m not suggesting that every person playing a rogue deck shares my same goals. Instead, I’m suggesting that every person should understand his or her goals for States and realistically assess their means for achieving them.

A final thought here before I actually jump to a States deck:”Being different” does not qualify as a tournament goal in my mind. It certainly doesn’t qualify you as a rogue player. If you want to be different, wear a Barney costume to States, use uncooked hotdogs as Wurm tokens, or scream”Chop Suey!” every time you attack. When I talk about tournament goals, I’m talking about game and match performance. Going 0-6 with a weird deck isn’t really rogue if you brought the deck just to be different; it’s just sad.

My States

Which is all to say that I am the absolute last person to be giving advice on States. In fact, I’m not playing in States this year – Magicthegathering.com and my year-old son demand too much time for serious playtesting. Even if I had a deck I really liked, I wouldn’t suggest you play it. Too often, I’ve had someone change a deck I loved, only to lose and say the idea sucked.

I hate it when people change my decks and still call them my decks. Your deck may have sucked – but mine was quite nice, thankyouverymuch.

Ahem. I think rogue players may be a defensive lot, too.

Anyway, don’t look to me for States advice. Instead, I can help you understand how someone who plays their own decks (a rogue deckbuilder, I guess) would approach States this year. A brief sketch of my thinking may inspire you to contemplate different assumptions you hold about States from me. You may also get inspired to try your hand at creating a deck instead of copying one off of the internet. In my mind, this is the absolute best outcome for my article.

Well, except maybe you buying a copy of”Birthright.”

If I think about States 2002, I realize that every person and their mother tells me that if I can’t compete with U/G, then I am in for a very frustrating day. Now, U/G encompasses a fairly broad array of decks – which makes this statement difficult to get my mind around. But all U/G decks I’ve seen win with flying Wurm tokens. Whatever deck I make, then, I want to be prepared for flying Wurm tokens. I also want to use Onslaught, because it is my favorite Magic set of all time. First step in deciding on a deck to test, then, is to scan the cards for deck centerpieces that will handle flying Wurm tokens.

Some juicy possibilities in Onslaught exist. Entrails Feaster is a possible solution to Wonder. Astral Slide will kill tokens dead if I can reliably Cycle cards. Chain of Vapor and/or Words of Wind make for an interesting bounce deck. MobilizationDeath Match is slow to get going, but could be fun. Nantuko Husk in combination with Faceless Butcher and/or Gravegouger is intriguing.

These are all great beginnings for a deck design… But I particularly like Silklash Spider.

Silklash Spider stands out to me because it is green and big. I particularly like it as a solution to flying Wurm tokens, because it doesn’t rely on any other cards to do its job and because it’s a reusable solution. Those other ideas are cool, but I don’t want to get too tricky from the outset just to deal with flying Wurms.

The one downside to the Spider is that it is also green, so it’s possible that sideboard cards geared towards beating U/G will hose my deck, too. As long as I veer away from tokens, though, I think I’m okay. Most solutions to U/G seem to revolve around graveyard or token destruction – neither of which affects Silklash Spider.

If I only had time to playtest one deck idea and knew I was going to use Silklash Spider, I would make a monogreen control deck. Monogreen control decks have hibernated in recent years thanks to an array of good anti-green sideboard cards, the loss of Desert Twister, and the multicolor craziness of Invasion block. I’ve always felt comfortable playing slow monogreen decks, though, and would love to try my hand at playing a deck like this at States.

Which is all to say that my imaginary States deck will start with…

4 Silklash Spider

The problem is that I might very well be dead from flying Wurm tokens before I can ever cast the Spider. Thus I need additional defense and mana acceleration. The mana acceleration part, at least, is fairly easy: Llanowar Elves is a Turn 1 play, while Werebear and Krosan Tusker both act as a combination mana developer and late-game threat. That equals a lot of mana, which is just how I like my decks to behave. I don’t know whether to use three or four copies of the Tusker, so I’ll start conservatively to see how I like them.

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Werebear

3 Krosan Tusker

For defense, I’ll add Wall of Mulch to slow the pain of quick threats, particularly speedy red Goblins, and to dig for cards I need. I’ll also play Moment’s Peace because it has a very special place in my heart.

Bad reasons? Well it’s not your deck, is it?

4 Moment’s Peace

4 Wall of Mulch

It occurs to me at this point that the Tusker and Wall are pretty cool reanimation targets. I wonder what happens if I add…

3 Genesis

One thing that happens is that I start wracking my brain for other cool cards to recycle. Also, I haven’t used a single enchantment or artifact yet and don’t see any reason to start now.

The problem is that there are too many cards I want to recycle once I add Genesis. Phantom Centaur, Druid Lyrist, Ravenous Baloth… Even Scavenger Folk and Skyshooter might be worth considering. Luckily, I think my big green deck can make fine use of Living Wish – which also allows me to drop my Spider count to three maindeck and add a menagerie of other green creatures in the sideboard.

I’m tempted to include Creeping Mold and call it a day… Except that Chain of Acid has really sparked my interest. I’m not using anything but creatures and land as permanents, so if the Chain was going to work in a deck, it would be this one. As a way of experimentation, then, I’ll start with Chain of Acid in my deck understanding that I may drop it pretty quickly.

That leaves me with something like this:

Green Thing

24 Forest

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Wall of Mulch

4 Werebear

3 Genesis

3 Hystrodon

3 Silklash Spider

3 Krosan Tusker

4 Moment’s Peace

4 Living Wish

4 Chain of Acid


3 Naturalize

2 Druid Lyrist

1 Scavenger Folk

1 Nantuko Tracer

1 Skyshooter

1 Spellbane Centaur

1 Terravore

1 Phantom Centaur

1 Ravenous Baloth

1 Genesis

1 Silklash Spider

1 Silvos Rogue Elemental

Now, is this the deck I would take to States?


This is the first draft of the deck I would begin playtesting against a gauntlet of netdecks. At this point, I have no idea if:

In other words, the deck above is probably woefully different from the deck I would bring to States. But, knowing me, I would stick with a deck that at least vaguely resembles the one above. I have enough experience with monogreen control that I probably wouldn’t scratch the idea entirely and go with a netdeck I hardly understood.

Would the deck drift into an existing decktype? I suppose anything is possible – but that would be a long and winding road. If Gigapede made it maindeck, I could see the temptation to use Wonder, and once that happened…

Is Green Thing the next ‘Tog? In a word: No. I’m fairly sure there would be no Green Thing bandwagon on which to jump.

Which leaves me, probably, with a deck I like that no one else believes is competitive. And we all know what happens then.

Have fun at States. I encourage you to build your own deck, because on the whole I think Magic is a better game when people do so. If you’re going to build your own deck, though, start now instead of days before the event and get some playtesting in. I’m a pretty decent deck theorizer and my decks always look completely different after a bout of playtesting than before.

Finally, if you do end up bringing your own creation – rogue or not – be sure to pound some flying Wurm tokens into pulp for me, okay?

Oh, and buy that book”Birthright.” I hear it’s excellent!


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