I’ve been playing Magic for a long time. A really long time. This year marks Magic’s twentieth anniversary, and I’ve been playing for nineteen of those years. I played in the very first Pro Tour back in 1996 and in quite a few of them since then. In all those years, I’ve learned a few things about the game and about building decks.
A lot of people have different perspectives about deckbuilding in Magic. Some people focus on trying to predict what their opponents are going to play and ensuring they have all the right answers. Some people are tuners, focusing on squeezing as much efficiency as they can out of the most popular decks. Some people pride themselves on going rogue, looking for ways to put rarely played cards to use. What unites them all is the desire to come out on the other side with that most hallowed of creations: a good deck.
What makes a good deck? There are a lot of things, of course. A complete deck and sideboard is 75 cards, which makes for a lot of moving parts. You need to pay attention to your curve, your mana base, your sideboard swaps, and any number of other things—but at this point, we’re already getting ahead of ourselves.
These are all characteristics of a good deck, but they aren’t what make a deck good. A deck can have flawless mana and still be terrible. It can have a perfect curve and have no real shot at competing. It can have just the right number of sideboard cards for every matchup but still be the underdog in all of them. You can get everything else right and still end up with a terrible deck unless you follow one all-important rule.
So often, people show me decks they tell me are built for "the metagame," and they’re collections of reactive cards that they’ve put together aimed at the various decks they expect to face. They ask me what I think about their deck—I ask them what they’re trying to do, and they can’t tell me. They can point out that they have this card to destroy this other card and this card against that one, but when I ask them, "What do you want your deck to do?" they don’t know what to say.
The number one rule of building a good deck is to have a powerful, proactive game plan.
What does that mean? It means that your deck should be designed to do something and that something should be the focus of the decisions you make with your deck construction. And I don’t mean something like "kill all of my opponent’s creatures" or "counter all of my opponent’s spells." There may have been a time in Magic’s history that sitting behind a wall of countermagic was a viable road to victory, but that day is ancient history.
A powerful, proactive plan is something like "accelerate into Primeval Titan," "play a hexproof creature and pump it with Auras or Equipment," or "fill my graveyard with Humans and Reanimate an Angel of Glory’s Rise." All of these are real plans. All of them are good no matter what it is your opponent is trying to do as well. Sure, some game plans match up better against others, but it’s important that you have an idea of how you want your games to play out.
What do you want the game to look like in the first few turns? What do you want the game to look like when you’ve had a chance to develop your board? What do you want the game to look like when you win? These are all important questions to ask yourself when you’re in the process of building a deck. You should know what you’re trying to accomplish, and that should inform what cards you’re actually putting into your deck.
A deck like R/G Aggro plans to flood the board with creatures and get through damage before the opponent can get set up, forcing through the final damage with Hellrider and burn. Junk Reanimator fills up its graveyard with Mulch and Grisly Salvage while accelerating into Thragtusks and Unburial Rites thanks to mana creatures, ultimately going over the top with Angels or Craterhoof Behemoth. The Aristocrats puts pressure on the opponent with aggressive, resilient creatures and ends the game with evasive threats like Falkenrath and Cartel Aristocrat. Solid, powerful, proactive plans.
I can already hear the objections. "But Kibler, what about control decks? Aren’t they reactive? Doesn’t that disprove your rule?" Not at all. The fact of the matter is the good control decks are the ones that actually have powerful, proactive plans of their own. Let’s take a look at some decklists:
- 1 Terror
- 1 Pithing Needle
- 4 Broken Ambitions
- 4 Cryptic Command
- 2 Cruel Ultimatum
- 4 Esper Charm
- 1 Celestial Purge
- 4 Volcanic Fallout
- 1 Duress
- 4 Mana Leak
- 1 Cancel
- 2 Doom Blade
- 2 Disfigure
- 4 Spreading Seas
- 2 Consume the Meek
- 3 Inquisition of Kozilek
- 4 Preordain
- 3 Mana Leak
- 4 Day of Judgment
- 4 Spell Pierce
- 1 Deprive
- 4 Preordain
- 1 Stoic Rebuttal
- 1 Sylvok Lifestaff
- 1 Sword of Feast and Famine
These are the most successful control decks of the past few years. What do they have in common? They all have fundamentally proactive game plans—they simply use countermagic, discard, and removal to advance those plans.
Nassif’s Five-Color Control deck is really a Cruel Ultimatum deck more than anything, seeking to drive the game to the point that he can take advantage of the incredibly powerful and game-breaking sorcery. Matignon’s U/B Control deck, like all those of that era, was really a deck built around establishing and protecting Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Caw-Blade and Faeries are probably a bit more obviously proactive, as they’re built around game-winning two-drops in Bitterblossom and Stoneforge Mystic, with Caw-Blade having Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a back-up plan as well.
Even the most famously reactive control deck of all time, the all-counterspell Draw-Go deck played by Randy Buehler at the 1998 World Championship, had a proactive game plan: Whispers of the Muse. The goal of the deck was to exchange resources with the opponent in the form of countermagic and eventually take control of the game by wiping all of the opponent’s permanents off the board with Nevinyrral’s Disk and outdrawing them with Whispers of the Muse.
- 4 Nevinyrral's Disk
- 4 Counterspell
- 2 Dissipate
- 4 Whispers of the Muse
- 4 Dismiss
- 1 Memory Lapse
- 3 Mana Leak
- 4 Impulse
- 3 Forbid
- 4 Force Spike
Now, I’m not claiming that this deck was itself a proactive deck—it was known as Draw-Go for a reason. But at its core, the deck was working toward a powerful and proactive plan: outdrawing its opponent with Whispers of the Muse. The deck functioned largely because of the sheer quantity and quality of the flexible countermagic in that era, and thankfully, Wizards has made a concerted effort to foster varied gameplay by avoiding that mistake again.
Despite that, we actually have a pretty close structural analogue to Draw-Go in today’s Standard environment with Esper Control. Much like Draw-Go, Esper’s entire shell is built toward building to a powerful card drawing effect—in this case, Sphinx’s Revelation. The two decks even share the characteristic of primarily winning with their lands in order to devote as many slots as possible to cards that allow them to effectively trade resources with the opponent. Both Nephalia Drownyard and Stalking Stones allow their respective decks to win without devoting actual cards in the deck to the banal process of winning the game—the sheer card advantage generated by Sphinx’s Revelation or Whispers of the Muse was more than enough to bury their opponents.
While this rule may be interesting in theory, what does it mean in practice? How do you actually build decks with it in mind? Well, for one, it means that when you’re choosing cards for your deck, you want to focus on how they relate to your own game plan. A player recently asked me to look at a Standard G/W/B midrange deck he’d built and wanted to know what I thought of it. The deck had a number of unusual choices, but what stood out most to me was the presence of a full playset of Deathrite Shaman without any graveyard enablers.
I asked him about them, and he told me that he’d been having trouble against Reanimator decks so he decided to play Deathrite Shaman in his maindeck in an attempt to improve the matchup. I explained to him that the Shaman seemed much better suited for his sideboard since they did nothing to further his own game plan. I suggested that he try playing a set of games against something other than Reanimator and keep a close eye on how Deathrite Shaman performed. He came back to me later that day to let me know that he’d done exactly that, had realized how weak Shaman was in many of his games, and had decided to cut them.
What does this mean for "metagame decks?" Much has been made of the importance of building your deck for the metagame—certainly that supersedes this rule, no? Not at all. The best metagame decks are powerful, proactive decks that intersect with the rest of the metagame in a favorable way.
Consider my winning deck from Pro Tour Austin. Ben Rubin and I took a fundamentally powerful and proactive shell—Zoo—and added to it another powerful engine in Punishing Fire plus Grove of the Burnwillows. While many touted my win as the result of my deck’s effectiveness against other Zoo decks, I didn’t play against a single Zoo opponent before the semifinals! If my deck had simply been an "anti-Zoo" deck, it would have failed miserably. Instead, I played a deck with a powerful and proactive game plan of its own that intersected favorably with what Zoo was trying to do. I was able to overcome my non-Zoo opponents because my deck was fundamentally powerful, and I was able to win the tournament because my deck matched up well against Zoo.
Another example is the Doran deck I played at Pro Tour Amsterdam. We knew that the field was going to be full of combo decks, and we wanted to play something that matched up well against them. We also knew that Punishing Fire decks were likely to be everywhere. The result? We built a deck full of three plus toughness creatures—Loam Lion, Tarmogoyf, Treefolk Harbinger, Knight of the Reliquary, and Doran—and packed it with discard like Thoughtseize and Duress. We had a straightforward, proactive plan—play creatures and use disruption to let them keep connecting with our opponent—that happened to match up very well against the combo-laden field because discard was so effective against them. But fundamentally, our deck had a sound, aggressive plan and was even capable of a fourth turn "combo" kill of its own with an opening hand of Treefolk Harbinger, Treetop Village, and the mana to cast Doran.
What about decks without good, proactive plans? The much-loved Mono-Black Control archetype jumps to mind. Mono-Black Control was a powerful deck during the era of Torment when it had access to cards like Mind Sludge, Nantuko Shade, Cabal Coffers, and Skeletal Scrying. I played Mono-Black Control in that Block format, and my deck had an exceptionally powerful game plan of using Mind Sludge to tear my opponent’s hand apart followed up by using the mana generated with Cabal Coffers to chain Diabolic Tutors with Mirari and bury my opponent under card advantage and card selection.
That’s why Mono-Black Control was good then—it had a cohesive, powerful, and, most importantly, proactive game plan that was good no matter what the opponent was doing. A deck full of Mutilates and other removal may seem like a good idea in a creature-heavy metagame, but how does its plan hold up when it plays against anything else? What is its plan, even? Mike Flores touts the "Destroy All Monsters" school of thought, but that’s not a realistic plan in anything but the most tightly defined fields. Your deck needs to be working toward something rather than just answering what your opponent does.
I was toying with Mono-Black Control toward the end of the last Standard block, using a plethora of removal and discard to try to keep myself alive and eventually win with something like Sorin or Griselbrand, but I frequently lost games that seemed under my control simply because my deck didn’t do anything. Too many of the cards I drew were entirely reactive in nature, and many of them could line up poorly with my opponent’s threats. My "plan" boiled down to trying to survive until I could play Griselbrand, which wasn’t consistent or realistic enough. A far cry from the days of Mind Sludge and Cabal Coffers.
Compare this to a more recent incarnation of Mono-Black Control, the deck played by Conley Woods to a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Gatecrash. While I’m not sure if the deck is actually any good, he had a much more proactive plan. Instead of focusing on using all of his cards to answer what his opponents played, he planned on using Crypt Ghast to power out huge threats early like Griselbrand and Rakdos’s Return. His plan relied on a very fragile 2/2 creature for four, so it may not be stable enough to work in the long run, but at least he had a vision in his head of what he wanted his deck to do and built toward that.
I see a lot of comments on my articles and the articles of my fellow writers here at StarCityGames.com suggesting adding particular cards or even entire colors to a deck, generally framed in the form of a question like "Have you ever considered splashing black for Phyrexian Obliterator?" Frequently, it seems players want to add cards or colors to decks just for the hell of it. If you’re just looking to mess around or are playing purely for fun, that’s fine, but if you’re looking to build a good deck, you should be asking yourself how these changes impact the fundamental game plan of your deck. Could I splash Master Biomancer in my Predator Ooze deck? Sure, I suppose I could. But why would I do that? What element does it add to the deck’s plan? That is the question you should be asking yourself about every card you’re thinking about putting in your deck.
What’s your plan?
That’s it for this week. I hope you guys liked this departure from my usual article, and hopefully you learned something. I’ll be back next week with a look at Grand Prix San Diego and my preparation for Modern.
Until next time,