The Kitchen Table #122: The Casual Player’s Preconstructed Deck Primer

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Abe takes us through a minefield of precon goodness, highlighting the best – and worst – these ready-made decks have to offer. A fine foray into oft-unexplored territory.

Today’s article is geared more towards the better casual players out there. I dearly love precons. I think that the idea of precons has been a good one, and there are some classic precons out there that are just amazingly good.

Now, the power and nature of precons has changed over time. The first block of precons, from Rath Block, were quite powerful. To this day, Stronghold precon The Sparkler, is my favorite precon. That deck has three creatures, two of which are walls and the third is a 1/1 common. How does it win? Playing that deck made you a better player.

I defy anyone to pick up Deep Freeze from Tempest and not think it is a good deck. As a Blue/White control deck, few newbies could make a better one. The Stronghold discard Megrim deck, Migraine, is just up many people’s alleys. The Exodus deck, Groundbreaker, is a fine land destruction deck, with twelve LD spells in it.

Land destruction? A deck with only three creatures, and no winning condition among them? A Megrim deck with Bottomless Pits and Ensnaring Bridge? A real Blue/White control deck, and not some amalgamation that looks like it was a Draft deck? These are some creative ways to build a theme deck.

Ever since then, precon ideas have become less and less creative. Of course, some of that probably has to do with the changes in the nature of the decks themselves. Originally, these preconstructed decks were used in Arena leagues in certain seasons. Everybody would buy a precon and play it for one week. Then, you’d modify your sixty card deck by adding fifteen cards. Any card you took out of your deck went to the sideboard, and you could add cards to the sideboard as well. The following Arena weeks you’d have sixty card decks with fifteen card sideboards. As you can see, if the original decks were not specifically designed to work in tournaments, they certainly had a more tournament worthy feel to them.

Precons have gone through stages where they have been better and worse. They’ve also gone through stages where their names have gotten better or worse. Let’s take a look at some of the worst names:

Sky Slam – Who names their deck Sky Slam?

Max Attack – Sounds like a video game personality, not a theme deck.

Master Blaster – Oh yes, this actually was a video game.

Swarm & Slam – Was the writer trying to go for a Dr’s Seuss rhyming scheme?

Special Forces – Can we just agree not to name decks after the military? I don’t want to see advertising for the Dissention precons featuring the Blue/Green precon “The Coast Guard.”

Air Razers – What? Sounds like a bad Blood Bowl team name. Also, many people probably thought this read “Air Razors.

Painflow — Introducing that goth band with the sound you kids love… Painflow!

Little Bashers – I think this was a long lost Dickens novel.

Wicked Big – For when you don’t like your bashers little, get them wicked big.

Sacrificial Bam – How Emeril gets ready in the morning.

Despite some bad names, you should own precons. Everybody should. Now, if you are a good player, you may be thinking, “Why should I care about precons?” Allow me to give you reasons as to why:

They’re a Tool to Help People Learn the Game

In case you don’t have the Portal starter that teaches people the game, you need to have a way to teach new players how to play Magic. Precons are one of the best ways to do that. Give someone one of the easier precon decks and then teach them by playing against them with another precon.

The only way Magic survives and thrives is if we all take the time to teach new people how to play. I like to play Magic. You like to play Magic. If that random guy at the bus stop is interested, teach him how with a pair of precons. This will help everybody learn the game.

It is a Challenge to Play Them

As a better player, I often grab a precon to play multiplayer against other players at my table. It’s a real challenge to try and win a multiplayer game with just a precon, although some are much better equipped than others. In fact, I have played the aforementioned The Sparkler so much that people actually fear this little precon in my hands.

Find a precon that you really like, then add it to your collection of decks that you play casually. If you are playing a kid at the store with his pet deck, don’t play your U/G Madness deck against him. Pull out your Invasion precon Spectrum and try to beat him. At the very least, you’ll have some fun.

You’ll also find that playing a precon for a game or two is a nice change of pace. I often play more relaxed when I am playing a deck I did not build. It’s almost as if I have to play my best with one of my own creations in order to do it justice. Playing a precon allows me to relax and take it easy.

Randomize Your Precons

I have virtually every precon ever made in its original box with the original inserts. I put them in long boxes according to their block. Then we have precon wars. One player will roll a box, then roll to see which random precon they get for the next game.

It’s great to see their faces when they roll The Sparkler. “I never win with that thing.” I jump up and say, “I’ll play it then.” Of course, the wily veteran of my group assures everybody that they do not want me to play with The Sparkler.

Playing with these theme decks is a great format for multiplayer. If you don’t want to invest in a ton of precons, then have everyone buy a few precons of their own, and play a few games with everybody all “preconned up.”

I believe that you’ll find that it’s more fun to play with precons than you first imagined. After all, precons are decks too. They want to be played and ultimately, loved.

Use a Precon as a Foundation

Ever since they were first released, precons have been altered. Grab one and alter it into a different deck. Maybe you’ll want to stick with the fifteen extra cards, similar to what was once done in Arena leagues. That’d be a fine way of modifying your decks. A more interesting way of modifying your decks would be to keep the precon rules about the number of rares, uncommons and commons in the deck intact. You can only add a rare if you take out a rare, and so forth for the other commonalities.

With all of these good reasons to play precons, hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite for the game. What precons should you play? Everybody has different tastes, but allow me to present a dozen of my favorite precons:

The Sparkler – Obviously my favorite precon. This is not an easy deck to just pick up and win with. Be aware that Fanning the Flames is your key to victory; don’t use them as mere creature kill unless you absolutely have to.

The Plague – This Urza’s Saga precon features a nice combo built around Worship, Pestilence, Rune of Protection: Black, Protection from Black creatures, Urza’s Armor, and more goodies like that. It’s a very synergetic deck.

PulverizePulverize is not everybody’s cup of tea, but its uses the Scourge theme of “Casting Cost Matters” along with cards like Scornful Egotist, Torrent of Fire and whatnot. This is a gambling deck, so you’ll have to decide if you really want to play it or not.

Migraine – Another Stronghold precon mentioned above, the Migraine is a classic Megrim deck (with three Megrim). It features a pair of Bottomless Pits, an Ensnaring Bridge, Pit Imps that can attack under a Bridge because they start with zero power, a bunch of cheap shadow guys, good solid removal, and more discard to adjunct your main theme. It also has a Portcullis! (See last week’s article to find out why I think that’s a big deal).

Deep FreezeAnother deck mentioned above, Deep Freeze is a fine U/W control deck. It features Avenging Angel as one of its rares. It has plenty of countermagic, flyers, a few creatures to mug up the ground, and a touch of removal in cards like Repentance and Pacifism. One card this deck is missing is Capsize.

Spectrum – I like the Invasion five-color deck. It features three different split cards and fun stuff like Fires of Yavimaya and Ordered Migration. Opponents need to be afraid of Global Ruin as one of its rares, because that card can win you games.

Replicator – This unusual Nemesis deck uses several Green creatures that, when they come into play, allow you to search your library for extra copies. They then use a full hand to fuel cards like Spellshapers and Saproling Cluster. I like fun synergetic decks like this one. It also features Saproling Burst as a rare, and four Blastoderms.

Barrage – This Planeshift precon is a Red and Green house. From Fires of Yavimaya to a pair of Flametongue Kavu, this is the strongest Invasion block precon. Thunderscape Battlemage, Assault/Battery, Simoon, and more are all featured in this deck.

Domain – I think Domain is right behind Barrage in power, and also from Planeshift. It is built around Quirion Dryad as a rare. This deck revels in Domain strategies, and loves cards like Ordered Migration, Tribal Flames, Wayfaring Giant, Allied Strategies, and Worldly Counsel. In here you’ll find removal, fun creatures, lots of land searching, and more. This is a fun deck.

Trounce-o-Matic – Odyssey predicted U/G Madness by having a U/G Threshold precon. Werebears, Cephalid Looters, Wild Mongrels, Roar of the Wurm, and more. This is one of the few precons that can be aggressive early and late with creatures that are equally suited for both games.

GroundbreakerThe abovementioned Groundbreaker is a fine land destruction deck from Exodus. With four Stone Rains, three each of Rain of Tears and buyback land destruction in Flowstone Flood, plus an emergency pair of Aftershock, this deck packs a nice contingent of earth-smashing spells. After that, it has three Anarchists that can return your land destruction spells back to your hand in order to keep going. Removal and creatures fill most of the remaining slots.

Dominator – Do you like mono-Blue control? This Exodus deck is straight blue, including Capsize, four Counterspell, a pair of Forbids, a trio of Mana Leaks, Propaganda, and more. Flying creatures like Cloud Spirit, Wayward Soul, and arguably Killer Whale join tricks like Equilibrium, Erratic Portal, Legacy’s Allure, and Dominating Licid to produce a nice deck. It’s one weakness? It doesn’t have card drawing. You have to get and protect the one Treasure Trove as if your deck’s life depends on it.

I don’t personally like a lot of the newer precons – Mirrodin Block, Ravnica and Kamigawa block precons especially. They feel too easy. Let me give you an example:

Build a Sunburst precon, right now, in your head. What will it look like? Now, take a look at the Fifth Dawn Sunburst precon. It looks almost exactly like a typical Sunburst deck would. Nothing special. These precons are largely about featuring new abilities (like the aforementioned Sunburst precon) or the flavor of the block (like the many Kamigawa spirit decks or the many Mirrodin block artifact decks).

In Mirrodin block, there should have been an interesting combo deck, like the Urza’s Saga Plague deck or the Stronghold Migraine deck, but… nothing.

Want an example of what I mean? Let’s take a look at the boringness that is the Darksteel precons. We have an Arcbound precon (showing off a new mechanic), a W/G anti-artifact deck that hoses artifacts while also using them, a Red controllish deck that uses artifacts and removal to establish a board position, and a U/B equipment deck. Feh.

Mirrodin could have had one good combo deck. Instead we have a U/B Affinity deck, a mono-White Weenie equipment deck, a R/B Atog, Shrapnel Blast, Pyrite Spellbomb, Disciple of the Vault deck, and a big Green creature smash deck. How boring. There was nothing special, nothing unusual. These weren’t Constructed decks; they were Draft archetypes.

Now, that’s not to say that aren’t powerful. Sacrificial Bam (the deck with the Disciples, Atogs, Shrapnel Blast, Pentavus, etc) was a good deck that could kill people with ease. They just weren’t that clever or creative. I really like playing with the Orzhov precon because it is powerful, but it looks exactly like you’d expect an Orzhov Draft deck to look. They could have had an Orzhov combo deck. Instead, they chose to go with a typical, boring deck.

Again, I think the purpose of the precon has changed over time. It has evolved into a showpiece for new mechanics and simple decks for new players, even in expert level expansion sets.

Before I go, I want to leave you with this thought. Precons are great, and they have plenty of uses for players who aren’t playing at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving Magic tournaments. I want to show you something that I’ve talked about all article long. I’ve built up to this moment, when I reveal The Sparkler decklist and then discuss strategy. Are you ready?

Here is The Sparkler, my favorite precon.

The strategy behind this deck is simple. You want to get out Propaganda or a Wall as defense, then slowly kill, bounce, or tap down all opposing creatures. The flashpoint in this deck is six mana. You absolutely want to have six mana on the sixth turn, which is why this deck runs twenty-seven lands. Capsize with buyback, or Whispers of the Muse with buyback, is essential for your long-term survival.

Six mana also allows you to get to the point where you can play something and have a counter to back it up. Play Propaganda and you can Mana Leak a response. Watch your countermagic, because you only have one Counterspell. The rest is Power Sink, Spell Blast, and Mana Leak. There’s not even a Dismiss here, so watch you counters carefully.

Old precons had three rares, and you have two good ones, and iffy one. Evacuation is gold in this deck, allowing you extra time to get mana and find more defense. Intruder Alarm can keep tapped creatures from untapping if you counter the creatures that they play, giving you extra turns. Reins of Power, on the other hand, looks great, but rarely plays that way. It can allow you to attack with a horde, thereby dealing a lot of damage to a player and tapping their creatures for your Intruder Alarm. Also tapping creatures is your lone copy of Mind Games.

You have removal in several forms. Flowstone Blade kills regenerators. Otherwise, it has Shock, Lightning Blast, Fanning the Flames and Searing Touch as your creature kill. Save your buyback burn when you can, because it is also your winning condition. Contempt is one of the worst cards in the deck, unless you are playing against a deck with few to no artifacts, in which case Shatter is worth even less.

Well, now that you’ve seen The Sparkler, I wonder if anybody will actually try to play it?

Good luck in all of your precon adventures.

Until Later,
Abe Sargent