Sullivan Library – A Rogue Standard Deck Walkthrough

Read Adrian Sullivan every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Deckbuilding is difficult. Sure, it’s relatively easy to come up with a semi-competitive deck, one that could do some rocking in an 8-man queue of an FNM… but deckbuilding for a tournament like Worlds? From scratch? That’s a different kettle of fish. Adrian takes us through some of the pitfalls one can face when shuffling up a rogue sixty. He also presents a fresh Standard deck that jumps through the correct deckbuilding hoops…

Sometimes there seems to be a confluence of events. Usually when everything comes together, it seems like people talk about fate or god or the like, but I’ve never been partial to those ideas. Instead, I like to think about chance, and the value of recognizing chance, and seizing upon it when it happens.

And so it goes that I’m ready Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation,” reading Brian Kowal talking about draft analysis, mulling over my esteemed editor’s request for Standard articles, and thinking over a recent e-mail I received on last month’s A Wisconsin States Retrospective, when I think about how to seize on this opportunity.

From the e-mail:

When a format, Standard most notably, is freshly rotated and ripe for the picking, how do [you] arrive at a deck choice?

He goes on to describe testing and discovering that in testing that Red decks with a splash of Green were not doing well, but that testing was showing Goblins might actually be a good choice.

Then, of course, come States, not one, but two Red splash Green decks make the top 8, with about the same 70-some cards in them between main deck and sideboard. [… My friends] do less-than-impressively with Goblins. No Goblins in the top 8 here either.

Yet, yourself and Brian Kowal came up with, on numerous occasions, a deck that was “rogue”-ish and do quite well for yourselves.

What exactly is it that my friends and I are doing so wrong? How are normal ol’ PTQ goers like my friends and I supposed to crack into even semi-pro-ness when it seems like everyone else got the memo about, say for example, Con-Troll being the deck to play?



There’s a lot of meat there. Enough meet for about a dozen articles at least. This is only one article, and I’d like to address some of the key things here, in brief.

First of all, if you look at the States results, I would say that not everyone got the memo about Con-Troll. Whether or not that deck, or any deck for that matter, is correct, the fact of the matter is that many people who were even given Kowal’s memo (a small group) didn’t choose to play it. I went into my reasons why, previously, and I’m sure others had their own reasons. One of the things to remember, though, is that when you’re reading an article online, it magnifies the element of reality that it is portraying.

Take Madison, Wisconsin, for example. To me, Madison is an incredible place to be at for Magic. But for the vast majority of you out there, it is just a place that some of us might mention. Between all of the people that wrote on this site on the week of November 16th – 20 people – 3 of them are writing from Madison. Pete Jahn, Chris Richter, and I, all live here. If you read something about Wisconsin or the Wisconsin area, while it is true that it is the greatest thing ever, it is also true that it is being magnified somewhat by the reach that these voices have. Add to that the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (or most likely, the Three to Four Degrees that anyone reading this probably has to every major Magic player in the world), and you have even more of a feeling that certain things must have been abundantly obvious. Many of us all talk to the same people. Steve Sadin, I’m sure, talks to Mike Flores, as does Patrick Chapin and Sean McKeown. You can bet that just that alone will amplify the voice of Flores beyond his already omnipresent voice in the game of Magic.

So, to answer the question about “missing the memo”: you didn’t miss it. It just wasn’t addressed to the world at large.

Think about Wafo-Tapa’s (I assume) Guile deck. The basis for this deck was available for anyone to grasp onto. Clearly, people had talked about Guile/Pact of Negation in numerous places. Why, then, wasn’t it everywhere at the event?

Someone did the work. But they didn’t want to have that work just out there for the world at large to have access to. They told their friends, and two of them made the Top 8 at Krakow because the work was done well. It’s absolutely possible that many other people played the deck and didn’t do well. We’ll never really know.

Look at the work that you did in preparation for States. If you did bad work, you’ll definitely get bad results. But even if you do great work, that doesn’t mean that it is going to pan out exactly that way.

Most of us don’t do great work. We do fair work or good work. My own preparation for States (and Brian’s too, I would argue) was good, but not great. To be great, we would have had far more hours in testing. We’d both have been better prepared, even if our decklist wouldn’t have changed (though mine would have been more honed).

For the most part, all we can do, any of us, is just try to do the best testing we can with the resources we have. The rest is the deck.

How do you build a deck from scratch? How do you boldly go where no man (*cough*) has gone before?

The thing is, usually you can’t.

You can’t. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. At least not usually.

You can go into spaces that people have forgotten. You can revisit your glory days. You can make something that is tied intrinsically to the success that you know are real. Most rogue decks are rogue because they aren’t expected. It’s not that they are anything particularly new.

Take Kowal and I and States. His deck, Con-Troll, got second this year. What was it? It was a rebuild of a deck that he and I created almost a decade ago, and that he rebuilt again, in essence as a mainstay for Invasion Block. That deck, in turn, was crafted in an attempt to create a true Aggro-Control deck for Urza’s Block Constructed, based in the lessons of Counter-Sliver and Fish decks in general.

Kowal (with Ben Dempsey, among others), the year before, came up with the unfortunately named “This Girl” (unfortunate because it should have been named “Righteous Babes”), the Angel-Fire update that gave Mike Flores his most noteworthy constructed finish. My contributions to the deck? I think I said “Good idea” and “You’re right, you probably should change that” a lot. Here, the deck design was largely based on understanding how to make mid-range decks work (maybe as a result of knowledge he gleaned from designing Ponza, and with other kinds of associations with mid-range kings Sol Malka and Jamie Wakefield), and how to marry it to aggro-control. In essence, then, was a lot of “creation” going on here, but it was all on knowing how archetypes worked, and being able to call a good card a good card. This is a big deal — knowing about how good a card is. This skill can only be cultivated with practice.

Perhaps one of the most important skills in deckbuilding is knowing when to let go of the past. The year before that, when I won with Eminent Domain, I built the deck, at first, as an attempt to find Ponza in the format. Eventually, it became clear to me that Ponza was not going to do it. Stone Rain just didn’t do it for me in a world full of Umezawa’s Jitte and Remand. Eventually, on a lark, I thought I’d try out a “Ponza” deck without several of the key elements of the deck, and moving into other colors. It was going pretty well, but there were still problems. As I was fitting in cards, Icy Manipulator stands out as a great example of a card that was inspired by the past. It was an answer to numerous problem cards that came up in testing, but it was widely considered a “bad” card. A long time ago, though, it wasn’t a bad card, it was a good card. Cards are contextual. Any piece of crap can become fantastic if there are cards that help it out in certain ways, or the world has a certain sheen to it.

Eminent Domain stands out as a fantastic example of some of the most important rules in building a new deck. Remember the past. Be willing to abandon the past and branch out. Find contextually powerful cards.

So, let’s try to build a brand new deck.

The thing about building anything “brand new” is, as the saying goes, “everything old is new again.”

The deck that I’m thinking of is Mono-Black Control. I’ve always really loved this style of deck. Right now, it has some impressively powerful tools, thanks to cards like Damnation, Tendrils of Corruption, and Korlash. I knew that I was interested in this kind of deck for a long time now, but didn’t actually work on developing it because I was facing a crunch of time resources — I had to make my choice, and I chose Johnny Walker Red instead. One of the other constraints was Thoughtseize — I didn’t expect to be able to find them without having to buy them, and I wanted to minimize the amount of buying I’d have to do.

So, with a glance at my trusty spoiler sheet got me these cards as incentives:

Big incentives:
Augur of Skulls
Consume Spirit
Cruel Edict
Garza’s Assassin
Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
Stronghold Overseer
Nameless Inversion
Profane Command

Less relevant, but still of interest were these cards: Diabolic Tutor, Distress, Ascendant Evincar, Avatar of Woe, Funeral Charm, Grave Pact, Graveborn Muse, Hypnotic Specter, Liliana Vess, Mortivore, Nekrataal, Rain of Tears, Ravenous Rats, Sengir Nosferatu, Shrouded Lore, Stupor, Terror, Thrull Surgeon, Twisted Abomination, and Withered Wretch.

Interesting cards that I viewed as likely to be unusable: Curse of the Cabal, Beacon of Unrest, Haunting Hymn, Null Profusion, Phyrexian Rager, and Phyrexian Etchings.

These could maybe be buttressed by these colorless cards: Citanul Flute, “Snow” in general, Epochrasite, Gauntlet of Power, Loxodon Warhammer, Mind Stone, Mirari, Phyrexian Totem, and the Rack.

I have to keep in mind the environment that I’d be expecting. Now, in the world that exists after Krakow, I know that I expect Guile, Pickles, Mannequin, some various forms of Goyf-based aggressive decks, various forms of Kithkin and Goblins, and a smattering of other decks. It’s pretty wide open.

Next, to the lists! What can we learn from other decklists? In the 44 States listed by StarCityGames.com, there were a number of Tarmo-Rack and Rock lists that might give some hint about where to go, but it’s a bit of a stretch. There are a few other decks that might be worth noting, though. Daniel Kershner’s 4th place in Virginia with a Zombies-based Mono-Black is interesting, especially when you think about what a Lord of the Undead can do in such a deck. Nicholas Schreck’s 7th place Missouri deck looks interesting as well, including Lord of the Undead without a massive Zombies theme, and including 4 copies of Loxodon Warhammer (potent on a Korlash, especially). Tyler Young’s deck is the most interesting to me. Running 4 Graveborn Muse (presumably as a Phyrexian Arena replacement), heavy artifact mana, and Beacon of Unrest, it provides a lot of food for thought. Tony Nguyen’s deck from Colorado is interesting, but isn’t running with the Korlash that I love so dearly.

None of these decks, though, include Thoughtseize, a card that I know I’m going to want to capitalize on. This card seems like it might be critical to include in a deck that has to probably go wading into a world of decks with Blue in them.

After my first sweep through, I think I want to have the following cards:

4 Thoughtseize
4 Mind Stone
4 Augur of Skulls
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Shriekmaw
4 Profane Command

One of the things that keeps coming into my mind is the fear of being beaten down by a fast swarm. Another thing that comes to mind is my desire to have a constant discard source against Blue if I were to get it out. For the Blue question, this really leaves us with only two answers: Hypnotic Specter and Liliana Vess. Overall, I’m actually somewhat unexcited by Liliana Vess in a deck like this, so I think that the Hippie is going to be more what I’m looking for.

Hippie also doubles as a card that simply requires elimination. If you don’t kill a Hippie, it will usually mow you to bits. Even aggressive decks have essentially two options: kill or race. This seems like a really great addition.

Even with so many cards, there are still some questions of the path that the deck could go down. Gauntlet of Power seems like a potentially ridiculous card in a deck with Profane Command. However, it seems like it would need a little more than Profane Command to truly be crazy good. It obviously begs the question of Consume Spirit, and to a lesser extent, Shrouded Lore and Mirari.

So, which way to go? Towards a “classic” Black Control deck with Drain, Drain, Drain for the win? That might be okay, or it could be complete garbage. Other potentially incredible inclusions in a deck sporting Gauntlet of Power might be Stronghold Overseer and Null Profusion. Alternately, you could move towards a deck that chooses to win on the board with creatures. Without some reasonable card draw, it seems unlikely that the Gauntlet version would make any sense. Can we make such a deck?

If we go with the Gauntlet, version, I can’t imagine wanting more than 3 Gauntlets. It might look something like this:

4 Thoughtseize
4 Mind Stone
4 Augur of Skulls
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Graveborn Muse
4 Profane Command
4 Consume Spirit
3 Gauntlet of Power
25 Swamp

After just a few games, I realized that I didn’t actually care much for the card advantage afforded by Graveborn Muse. It was just so expensive for such an easily eliminated creature, and with the return didn’t seem worth it. Literally, every time that I cast it, I wished that it was something else. Oh, for a Phyrexian Arena. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that Phyrexian Etchings just won’t cut it.

My gut says that a Gauntlet version of the deck is the wrong way to go. There are just too many counterspells, and it gives you too many things to have to count on. It feels like it is trying to be the control deck in every matchup, and is unable to put on the pressure. There’s just too much missing to go this direction.

I was actually underwhelmed by Consume Spirit. It was just so expensive before it begins to give you any returns, and without some kind of mass card drawing spell, just didn’t get it done.

Here’s a somewhat radical reworking:

4 Thoughtseize
4 Augur of Skulls
4 Mind Stone
4 Hypnotic Specter
3 Hoarder’s Greed
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Shriekmaw
4 Profane Command
25 Snow-Covered Swamp

After several matches, I discovered that Hoarder’s Greed was so exciting I wanted to have four of them. Having the card trigger and move from Night’s Whisper into a less dangerous Infernal Contract was pretty insane. On those rare instances that it became something even bigger, it was usually fine, too, except against the most hyper aggressive decks. That said, I decided that four was too much after a few too many games where I didn’t have time to cast it, nor did I want to.

The Hippies were “fine,” but in a land of Mulldrifter, there weren’t enough cards doing what I wanted them to be doing. After a lot of thinking, I decided that while Shriekmaw was a solid card, I wanted to hearken back to a card I had played at Regionals that I thought was really solid: Garza’s Assassin. It might be just what I was looking for…

A short playtesting session later, I was really happy with the results. The Garza’s Assassins were as valuable as I remembered them being, often producing two-for-ones, but more importantly, playing out like a walking Seal of Doom. This was especially important when dealing with Teferi, Faerie Conclave, or Momentary Blink. Shriekmaw, I decided, would still have a home in the sideboard.

Cards like Garza’s Assassin provide a useful lesson for a number of reasons. Yes, it is absolutely a card that is based on the proven success of the card in my own personal experience. But, beyond that, it also represents a card that had to be tried out in the first place. I’m sure that a ton of people all over played around with Garza’s Assassin. For me, I was introduced to the idea of Garza’s Assassin as a Constructed card by Ben Dempsey. While seemingly solid, though unexciting on paper, Ben had opened my eyes to the fact that it could be very potent in the right deck. The card was literally off of my radar, but because it was a card that was considered and had shown its mettle, it remains a card that I’ll have in my “toolbox” of cards to remember.

The main deck was solid, though I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of the Augurs or Hoarder’s Greed being correct. Some part of me was wondering if perhaps something like Twisted Abomination or even Withered Wretch might make more sense in that slot. The sideboard was something that I definitely felt like I could take a crack at.

Extirpate is a card that I’ve never really enjoyed in the format that it seemed the most popular, Block, but that I’ve thought was a solid choice in other formats for some time. Extirpate seemed like a great answer to reanimation of various kinds, whether via Makeshift decks or otherwise. In addition, in control matchups, oftentimes, taking out a key counter could make the difference in a long game.

Versus the more aggressive decks, it seemed exciting to put a Warhammer onto a Korlash. Even when you don’t have a Korlash around, a Warhammer makes each and every one of your creatures into something that it absolutely has to kill. Shriekmaw also had a lot of use against the aggressive decks that were primarily non-Black, so it found a home in the board as well.

This left the question of the scarily unanswerable cards. What did you do about a surprise that you got handed, or a card like Story Circle or opposing Warhammers that Black isn’t too keen on? Pithing Needle, the newest Nevinyrral’s Disk, seeing play in any deck that can’t find the cards in its color to truly answer the problem.

After everything, it came to this:

This is a solid deck, put together over the course of only a few days, and minimal playtesting. This is not a deck that I would want to take to Worlds, or for that matter, to a nonexistent Standard PTQ. It is a deck that would be perfectly at home at an FNM or 8-man queue, especially given more honing time.

This is the final real lesson from a deck like this. To actually make this deck into something that might be worthy of going to Worlds takes a lot of time. It’s fairly easy to make a semi-competitive deck. The real question is how to make that deck go to the next level. One of the realities of deckbuilding is that many decks simply can not get there. This might very well be one such deck. In my gut, I don’t think it can, but I could be wrong.

This is why, ideally, you should be trying to pursue many avenues of inquiry. If you’ve put all of your effort into just one deck, then it had better be the right one. No matter how good a deckbuilder that you are, there is simply no guarantee of that. Even for the best of us, deckbuilding is often like throwing a bunch of darts at a very far off dart board. You have to actually throw several at it if you’re going to have any hope of making it stick.

It’s clear that not all of them time are we able to do this. There is simply too much to do. This is where something like a Magic team comes into play. So long as you can trust each other, you can have a group of people that will be able to potentially replicate those results that are the most impressive, further building up your data on the relative goodness of a deck. But more importantly, they can also contradict your data, and maybe show you something that you’ve been doing wrong.

Since most of our results are going to be misses, when we think we have a hit, we actually have to be able to do it again and again. In order to truly make the best “rogue” deck, you can’t just hope your one shot is going to stick, you have to take as many shots as you can. If something isn’t going to work out, you need to know when to turn away from it, or when to bend the deck into something different and new. Maybe there is a single card or maybe two that will make all of the difference, or maybe there is no such card, and you need to try again. Knowing the difference can be critical. This just takes practice.

A long time ago, Cabal Rogue made an awesome rogue deck. You might have seen something like it:

4 Necropotence
4 Unmask
4 Duress
4 Illusions of Grandeur
4 Demonic Consultation
2 Vampiric Tutor
4 Donate
4 Dark Ritual
4 Mana Vault
22 Lands

Shane Neville was the genius behind the deck. We abandoned it before Pro Tour: Chicago, playing Necro-Tinker and PT-Junk instead. Why? Well, the deck seemed fine and all, but we had this deck that could beat it (Junk), and also, the discard didn’t seem to be enough to protect the combo. They could just topdeck something and beat you! Oh, man! Still, it was a great three-card combo: you could drop the Illusions, Donate it, and draw a ton of cards to find the EMERALD CHARM that would kill your opponent! Wow! Great deck, but not quite good enough.

It wouldn’t take too long before Michelle Bush would put egg on our faces. Shane Neville would rib on the rest of us for a few years on how we all dropped the ball on this one. We were, after all, the ones who told him his idea was close but no cigar. This failure on our parts was largely the reason that I think he slowly dropped out of the game (that, and a few other things).

It’s not easy trying to come up with a new deck. The best thing to do, if you’re trying to, is to keep on plugging away, learning lessons along the way, and not forgetting them, lest it bite you in the ass.

Good luck out there, everybody. Keep on chugging away…

Adrian Sullivan