Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #50: Building a Multiplayer Theme Deck

It’s nice to see T2 and limited catching on – but multiplayer deckbuilders have been doing tribal all along. Looking back over my past articles, I see fun decks built around sea creatures, elves, zombies, soldiers and more. It’s a common multiplayer idea – but I want to talk about how to build such decks in general, not about any specific tribal deck.

Onslaught, the new set, is all about theme or tribal decks. It’s nice to see T2 and limited catching on – but multiplayer deckbuilders have been doing tribal all along. We just didn’t have a special word for it. Looking back over my past articles, I see fun decks built around sea creatures, elves, zombies, soldiers and more.

It’s a common multiplayer idea – but I want to talk about how to build such decks in general, not about any specific tribal deck.

A good multiplayer deck is one of the last bastions of old-school deckbuilding. A good multiplayer deck needs to be versatile. It needs to have a win condition, of course, but it also needs to have answers to whatever appears, plus the ability to cope if, for some reason, the other players decide you should die first. A good multiplayer deck follows the lead of Brian Weismann’s The Deck, not U/G madness or Tog decks in current T2. Multiplayer decks should not be dedicated to forcing through a fast combo or fast beats… But they do get added style points for including a sneaky, combo win.

Whenever I build a multiplayer deck, I try to answer the question what will I do about ~this~, for each of the following problems.

1) Global sweepers, like Wrath of God and Armageddon.

Usually, this is the easiest question to answer. If your deck has a passable mana curve and a reasonable amount of land, you should be able to recover from Armageddon. If you avoid overextending, you should survive Wrath. Some decks, like an artifact-heavy Karn, Silver Golem deck, will be vulnerable to Purify or Akroma’s Vengeance and you just have to live with that… But most multiplayer decks can be built to play around most sweepers.

2) Annoying enchantments and artifacts, like The Abyss, Meekstone, Humility, and Moat

Some enchantments can just shut down a deck. In some cases, you may be able to count on an opponent killing them, but not always. It’s better to have your own answer. The answer can vary, from Emerald Charm to 187 creatures and some search to Nevinyrral’s Disk, but you probably need something. If you are considering a mono-red or mono-black deck, you probably need either Disk or you need to splash green or white for Disenchant. (It’s kinda nice to say "splash green for Disenchant.")

3) Removal for the most annoying creatures, like Royal Assassin and Peacekeeper

This is just another version of asking how you will deal with the worst problem cards – these are creatures that never attack and never block, but still need to be killed. They can be a real pain, but every color carries some answers if you look hard enough. Red and black are obvious, and white has Swords to Plowshares… But even blue and green have direct removal, in the form of Psionic Blast and Unyaro Bee Sting. Even Rath’s Edge, Bullwhip, and Rod of Ruin can deal with many of those problem creatures. If killing the creature is not useful (like when the opponent has a Reanimator deck), then consider cards like Arrest and Stupefying Touch.

4) Some way of dealing with big, fat creatures

Every deck needs to have some idea about what it will do if an opponent drops a Craw Wurm. That answer could be chump blockers, tappers, Maze of Ith, Meekstone, bounce, removal or theft, but the deck needs some plan.

5) Weenie hordes

Again, every deck should have some strategy for dealing with the guy who makes twenty Saprolings by turn 4. You can have something elegant like Simoon or Nausea, or just get the player to send them elsewhere by dropping a couple of 2/3 blockers… But you need some plan, because weenie hordes are not exactly uncommon.

6) Evasion creatures

The most common evasion creatures are fliers. Your deck needs to have a method of beating a strong flier deck. You may also want to think about the other options for evasion, such as shadow and unblockable guys.

7) Burn

Some players will build decks that try to do twenty points, straight to the head, for everyone at the table. You can run answers, like CoP or Aegis of Honor… But I find that just sitting quietly and looking non-threatening works just as well. The fire slinger will rarely be able to kill more than a couple players before dying himself, so just make sure you don’t scare people early – or disguise yourself with an Ivory Mask.

8) Land destruction

his rarely tends to be the question in itself, since Stone Rain/Pillage is not much of a strategy in multiplayer. The more common "LD" effects either look like Armageddon (e.g. Wildfire), or fall into the annoying enchantments / artifacts category (like Back to Basics, Tsabo’s Web, and Winter Orb). Nonetheless, think about whether you are likely to see these problems, and plan accordingly.

Not every deck needs to be able to answer every question. In fact, if you are playing a deck that can answer everything – which probably means it looks something like Keeper – then you have another problem: If you start playing a Keeper-style deck full of broken rares and Power Nine cards, you will be drawing attention to yourself. That’s bad. You want your deck to develop slowly and without trumpeting its power, but it should be able to answer the most common problems the people you are playing against are likely to produce.

Those last three words – likely to produce – are the key. If you are playing a bunch of newbies with their big critters and creature enchantment decks, maybe you do not need an answer to Moat or Peacekeeper – but you are a fool if you do not have a way of handling a Craw Wurm with Unholy Strength.

I also try to answer another question for all of my decks – what combat tricks can I show? I don’t like to have a deck that cannot do something to make combat more complex. If I can demonstrate that I may be sitting on a Giant Growth or Boomerang, people attacking me will have to do more math in figuring out what can attack me and what should stay away. That won’t make me immune – but it might convince people it is easier to attack someone else. That is the real reason I like to play those effects – and play them as soon as reasonably feasible. However, Giant Growth by itself is not generally worth it – which is why I like more versatile cards in this role. Wax/Wane or Emerald Charm (which can untap a creature to get a surprise blocker) are perfect examples – if you don’t need the combat trick, you can kill an enchantment. There are lots of others.

Why start with this in an article on building tribal deck? Well, I start thinking about these questions as soon as I start thinking about the deck. As I am writing this paragraph, I am considering what type of tribal deck to use as an example. I haven’t decided, but I am thinking about the weaknesses and colors of various options. For example, a Soldiers deck will be white, with lots of low power, high-toughness creatures that can do pretty well against beatdown. It’s white, so it gets Disenchant and other options, and the new Catapult Master gives it some answers to creatures that don’t attack or block… But it is prone to stalling and has real trouble with Wrath of God. I want to think about that before I put a lot of work into the deck – if a concept is going to roll over to the types of decks I expect my opponents to play, I’ll work on something else.

When I start thinking about a deck, I can mentally tick off a handful of cards for the deck. However, I’m not good enough to remember every card that fits the theme. For that, I use a database program, like Magic Encyclopedia or Magic Suitcase. I’ll search types and language for the creature type, just so I can find all of them. Many of the forgotten cards are junk, but it’s better to read through fifty bad cards to find one or two gems than to miss those gems altogether. For those of you that collect cards, paging through your binders of old sets works just as well – that’s Ingrid’s preferred method.

I have decided to do a "dogs" theme deck, mainly because my dog Bailiff has his head on my foot as I write this. Off the top of my head, I can think of Hollow Dogs, Patrol Hound, and Wild Mongrel as solid cards – but the only other dogs I can think of really are dogs: Filthy Cur, Monstrous Hound, and the Ice Ages dog with the keg of brandy. It’s time to fire up Magic Suitcase to see what I missed.

Here’s a list of all the dogs and hounds legal in T1 Magic to date.

Zowie. I called the Apprentice file I export this list to "dog pile" – that may be more right than I knew. The list contains bad cards in all five colors – and very few broken cards. However, it has some promise.

The first step is to eliminate the colors I won’t be playing. Now I have duals and Land Grants and fetch lands, so I could run all five colors and probably get them… But I am not going to splash blue for Phantom Whelp. White gives me Snow Hound, Dogged Hunter (he’s not even a dog – not technically, just in practice) and Patrol Hound – plus Tithe, Disenchant and Swords to Plowshares. Strong support, but the creatures just cannot make the cut. That leaves red, green and black.

Red is marginal. Lava Hounds is a fast 4/4 – which is good in smaller games, but not that useful in large multiplayer games. Jackal Pups are almost always going to be bad in multiplayer – someone will have burn or big blockers, and speed does not kill as well in large games. Monstrous Hound only works with LD, and Mad Dog is also pretty bad in multiplayer, where nearly everyone will have blockers. Lightning Hounds are decent, though, especially on defense. One good red dog (an Irish Setter?) is not a lot. I will start with just green/black, and only add red if absolutely necessary.

Here are the solid dogs I want to play, followed by those that almost make the cut:

  • Wild Mongrels (they need no introduction)

  • Dauthi Jackal: 2B, 2/1 shadow guy – nice evasion

  • Elven Warhounds: 3G, 2/2, bounce blockers before damage

  • Hollow Dogs: 4B, 3/3, attacking gets +2/+0

  • Mongrel Pack, 3G, 4/1, if dies, put 4 1/1 dogs into play

  • Plague Dogs, 4B, 3/3, if dies, all creature get -1/-1, sac to draw a card

  • Vampire Hounds, 2B, 2/2, discard a creature, VH gets +2/+2

  • Wild Dogs: G, 2/1, goes to player with highest life total

  • Ghost Hounds: 1B, 1/1, does not tap to attack

  • Mossdog, G, 1/1, when it is the target of an opponent’s spell, it gets +1/+1.

  • Watchdog: 3, 1/2, must block, attackers get -1/-0 if untapped

So that’s the creature mix. I have Plague Dogs to deal with the Royal Assassins and Peacekeepers, Dauthi Jackals and Eleven Warhounds to force through damage (slowly) and a reasonable mana curve. What I don’t have is bombs or even serious defenses. I may have to run a few walls – probably Wall of Roots or Wall of Blossoms, or even Cemetery Gate, to stay alive. It’s a moderately aggressive deck, so I will be running four copies of Rancor and will need something to provide combat tricks. Consume Strength is tempting: It kills the Merfolk Looters and so forth, provides attacker pumping and defender weakening, and it is in color. I’ll throw in a Howl from Beyond – howling is in theme, after all, and I have creatures that can get through unblocked.

I also expect to trade off dogs a lot, and to pitch cards to Vampire Hounds and the Mongrel, so some form of graveyard recursion is necessary. Volrath’s Stronghold is okay, but Oversold Cemetery should be better. Moreover, no one should be too upset if you get a dog back midgame – hopefully not enough to waste Disenchants on Oversold Cemetery or a Tormod’s Crypt on your graveyard. Aphetto Dredging is the poor man’s alternative to the cemetery, but it would work.

As a final means of getting damage though, Cover of Darkness, giving all dogs fear, should fit nicely. You don’t want many, since it is sort of a red flag card, but one or two should be good. With any luck, you should be able to kill off one opponent the turn you cast it. Besides, I want to include at least one card from Onslaught, the tribal set, besides Oversold Cemetery.

Here’s the first incarnation of the deck:

4 Wild Mongrel

4 Dauthi Jackal

4 Elven Warhounds

2 Hollow Dogs

3 Mongrel Pack

3 Plague Dogs

2 Vampire Hounds

2 Wall of Blossoms

22 dogs, 24 creatures

2 Oversold Cemetery

4 Rancor

3 Consume Strength

2 Howl from Beyond

1 Cover of Darkness

1 Regrowth

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Creeping Mold

1 Eradicate

16 other cards

4 Bayou

4 Llanowar Wastes

8 Forests

8 Swamps

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

1 Rath’s Edge

26 lands

The Demonic Tutor and other specials swell the deck a bit, but the deck needs answers to the problems I listed above. Dogs are not answers. Creeping Mold is for a group favorite – Maze of Ith – otherwise, Naturalize would work fine. Eradicate is for annoying creatures like Masticore. Other contenders for those two slots include Naturalize, Restock, Hurricane, Living Wish, Death Pulse, Diabolic Edict/Chainer’s Edict or even Overrun. The Rath’s Edge is because the decks wants lands early, but has nothing much to do with them later. The Regrowth is in case you need one of the answers back.

I would like to find room for some card drawing. The deck would love Survival of the Fittest: I could add Squee and find dawgs all day. However, playing Survival is like having one of those red LED counters ticking down towards zero. It says – to all your opponents – better kill me now, or I will pull bombs out of my arse until you are all blown away. No matter how hard I try, I cannot convince people that I am playing Survival in a bad deck. Everyone is always convinced that I have a bomb hidden away if I drop Survival – and that makes me target number one.

When you have the whole table gunning for you, Survivalling for a Wild Mongrel or Plague Dogs is not going to cut it.

This deck is not all that exciting. It will probably get some wins by staying quiet, letting half the players kill each other, then casting Cover of Darkness and winning with a sudden alpha strike. It has some solid tricks, like Rancoring a Elven Warhounds and sending. (Any blockers bounce before combat damage is dealt, so the Warhounds live and all the damage tramples through to the opponent.) You can even make friends with the Warhounds: e.g. by attacking into a Wall of Blossoms or Spike Feeder, but the first time you cast Howl from Beyond on a Rancored Warhound, all the friendliness will disappear.

Still, the deck lacks something – and I think that something is red. Lightning Hounds is a great defender when someone knows you have instant speed creature pumpers. Attackers just go the other direction. Red also gives you additional removal like Lightning Bolt and lets you add Gratuitous Violence, which will definitely give your dogs more punch. Now double and triple red in the casting costs mess up the mana, but you can probably get around that playing duals, fetch lands, sac lands, pain lands, Land Grant, Urborg Volcano, and Shivan Oasis.

Red also gives you a few more theme elements to play around with. More dog stuff.

I have two retrievers, so I play a lot of throw and fetch games. Fetch is not a Magic mechanic, but there is one card that has that kind of "throw the chew toy, get it back" feel: Squee. Squee works pretty well with the Wild Mongrel, Vampire Hounds and Hollow Dogs. Squee also works with Survival of the Fittest, but I’ve already talked about that.

The second thing red gives you is the ability to teach new dogs old tricks. In fact, you can teach them Arcane tricks. Arcane Teachings would work very well with many of the dogs listed. Arcane Teachings on a Lightning Hounds makes it a very fat puppy – and first strike and direct damage go together well.

Red also give you some other options for one-off answers, like Pillage, Boil, Terminate, Void, Earthquake, Burning Wish, Keldon Necropolis, and so-on. You could even run Anger or Decimate.

This is enough to give you some ideas, but I am not going to do a three color decklist. For one thing, I would never finish it. If I were taking a three-color dogs deck to a multiplayer session, I would probably put about 50 cards in the sideboard and change the deck extensively every game or so. I’d do the same thing with the decklist, and never finish the article. But since I have no decklist to include, I can finish it with:

Comments always welcome.


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