Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ubiquity in EDH, or A Format Gone Stale

So I currently have no EDH decks built. As previously mentioned, I took apart all of my decks, so that I could get some reorganization done on my collection, and also so that I could rebuild my Big Highlander. I have several legends in my Highlander deck, so I can convert it to an EDH in about 10 minutes time, if I want to. For instance, I could choose Teneb the Harverster for a General, and remove all Blue and Red spells and lands, then remove anything banned in EDH such as Kokusho and Recurring Nightmare. I should be left with a little over 100 cards, so I can just cut cards until I have 100, shuffle up and I’m good to go.

The idea here was to have one big highlander deck that contained within it multiple possible EDH builds. That way, instead of having all my good cards tied up in 4 or 5 EDH decks, I’d have a maximum of 1 copy tied up in the highlander, but I’d still have access to a variety of builds. This idea was born out of a realization that among the 4 most recent EDH builds, there was a LOT of overlap. For example every deck that ran Islands had Mulldrifter and Rite of Replication. Every green deck had Indrik Stomphowler and Sakura-Tribe Elder. It was really a huge strain on my collection, as I was also trying to build a multitude of 60-card decks.

Thus I thought that if I could just build one BIG deck that contained within itself a number of possible EDH builds, that would alleviate this problem somewhat. It hasn’t worked out quite as well as I thought. For it to really succeed as I hoped, I would probably need to expand the big Highlander to 300 cards, at least. Which is doable, but I prefer not to. So, I consider the experiment a partial failure for now. The big deck can be converted to a passable Teneb or Thraximundar deck, or possible a Kaarthus deck even.

The problem, though, is that any of those decks would be considerably different than what I would build if I just set out to build an EDH in those colors. For instance, a Kaarthus EDH deck would probably run a good deal more Dragons and Dragon-related cards. Teneb might consider running Buried Alive. Furthermore it all but precludes something like a Zur build. I might run Zur himself in this big deck, as he can help me find such gems as Survival of the Fittest or Recurring Nightmare. But in EDH, Nightmare is banned all together and Survival wouldn’t be legal in a Zur-colored EDH. Then the reverse of this problem is also true – in a Zur deck I’d want to run things like Battle Mastery and Steel of the Godhead, but in a 250-card 5-color deck, neither of those auras is worth a slot.

Now having highlighted the issues around my idea and why it’s not working out as I’d hoped, let me switch gears and talk about something that I learned from this experiment. In looking at the decklists for several of my EDH decks, I realized that all of my EDH decks tend to be 3-color “good stuff” decks. They might be loosely based around a theme, but more often than not, my “theme” is simply to analyze what that particular color combinations strengths are and play to those strengths by running the most powerful effects I can find. I tend to keep my General in mind and play to his strengths. My Thraxi deck had a very high number of removal spells and Barter in Blood type effects. Mostly the deck just wanted to keep the ground clear for Thraxi to smash face. Rafiq ran quick evasive creatures and combat-damage abilities, as well as buffs to make Rafiq himself more lethal. But overall, I frequently ran the same bloc of utility spells. Mulldrifter, Forsee and Harmonize were my go-to spells for drawing cards. Indrik Stomphowler and Acidic Slime were just as ubiquitous in green decks, and Flame-Tongue Kavu, Anger and Spitebellows are pretty much the only 3 red creatures I would ALWAYS run no matter what.

There were so many cards like that – cards that I considered auto-includes regardless of strategy or theme – that I came to realize that there was a certain homogeneity to my EDH decks that contributed to them all feeling very similar to play. Perhaps that is indicative of my play stile and card preferences. In fact, I’m certain it is. But, it also reveals to me that as different as I thought my Rafiq and Thraximundar decks were, they really offered up similar play experiences. This was in large part due to the fact among all my decks, there were more duplicates of cards than there were unique cards. Only Thraxi could play Slave to Bolas, for example, but most mono-colored cards tended to be the same from deck to deck. The blue cards I was playing in Rafiq were nearly identical to the blue cards in my Vorosh deck, and the blue cards in my Thraxi deck.

It was really only in the multicolor cards that there was a great deal of variance from deck to deck. This, to me, defeats the purpose of having multiple decks built. If I play a few games with Rafiq and get tired of playing that, I could switch to… say, Vorosh maybe. Vorosh was certainly a good deal more controlling than Rafiq, with much more removal AND more graveyard recursion as well. However, both decks contained Green and Blue, and so many of the G and U cards in each deck were the same. It really felt pointless to have two decks with completely different themes and strategies but still containing nearly half the same cards.

It is my understanding that the format of EDH was invented and designed specifically to reward players with many varied game experiences. First off, you have a 100-card deck that also happens to be singleton. The intent behind these deck-building requirements is plainly obvious: to allow you to play one deck over and over again and have a new experience with each game. The problem is that I was playing FOUR decks and STILL managed to get bored. Obviously I’m doing something quite wrong. This is what led me to build the Horde of Notions / Tooth and Nail deck. It was a deck that felt quite unlike most of my other EDH decks. For one thing, it was 5-color which meant that more and more of my “pet cards” and “must runs” had to be cut – if I’d run them all, I wouldn’t have had room for all those wacky Tooth and Nail combos, which made the deck play much more like a themed deck with a specific strategy and purpose. Sure, I included what utility I could, but overall, it had a MUCH higher number of slots dedicated to doing one specific thing than any other EDH I’ve previously built.

But this approach had it’s own problems. My previous 4 decks all had variety within themselves, but ubiquity amongst them all led to a very repetitive feeling in playing them all. This one was far less homogenous than those decks, but at the same time was just as redundant because it was TOO focused on it’s core strategy. Basically, the deck wanted to do one thing, and one thing only: Cast Tooth and Nail for a devastatingly synergetic pair of creatures. It could go on the offensive early with Horde but that WASN’T what the deck wanted to do, and every time I won with Horde before getting to cast T&N, it felt more like a defeat than a victory.

Then there was the fact that, while I had a vast enough array of creature pairs that I could tailor my T&N targets to best fit whatever the board state was at the time of casting, 90% of the time the best possible pair was Emrakul + Madrush Cyclops, with Avenger of Zendikar + Flamekin Zealot being a very close second. There was almost never a situation where any other pair of dudes was better than either of those pairs. I occasionally went ahead and got something else just for the sake of variety, but ultimately I came to understand that the deck was less of a “cast T&N” deck than it was a “get Emrakul out” deck. I could have taken Emmy out, of course, but then Avenger of Zendikar would have just become the go-to guy and only slightly more often would some other creature pair be more appropriate. I still would have the kind of variety I’d hoped for. So even though I could customize my Tooth targets in a vast number of ways, I still wound up getting bored with it rather quickly, because no matter what the situation a select few pairings just kept cropping up as the best possible answer to the board.

So now we finally come to my point. EDH is about variety. You get to play a whole bunch of cards from all over the game, many of which you would be ruthlessly mocked for playing in any other format. You have a big deck full of random stuff, so you can play a whole bunch of games with this one deck, and if you’re doing it right, you’ll win all of those games in a different manner, or at least with a different huge creature. In a Rafiq deck, you’ll probably win with Rafiq most often and that’s fine, but if you ALWAYS win with Rafiq + Might of Oaks, then it just gets boring too quickly. Sometimes you want to win with Rafiq + Finest Hour, or Sheild of the Oversoul or Eldrazi Conscription, or maybe just Rafiq by himself gets the job done in three hits. Then occasionally you’ll win with Simic Sky Swallower + Sovereigns of Lost Alara getting Conscription on your big Shroud guy, and you didn’t even CAST Rafiq this game.

Again, the point is: Variety. Tutors a fine. Important even. But if you’re 100-card singleton deck plays out the exact same threats and answers nearly every game, then you’re missing the point. Less obvious, though, is that if you have 4 or 5 EDH decks built at the same time and your most Control-ish deck and your most Aggro deck have nearly 40 cards between them that are the same – you’re missing the point. That was my mistake. I just had TOO many cards that I felt I HAD to run in any deck of the appropriate colors.

Why is this a problem? Well, it’s not variety. The decks became too similar, despite there strategies and some unique cards among them, Uril, Rafiq, Thraxi and Vorosh all just really offered up the same play experiences as one another. Switching from one deck to another didn’t give me enough variety. Too many pet cards. Too many games won by casting Rite of Replication with Kicker on something awesome. Too many games won by accelerating out a fast Thraximundar and wining in three hits. I like winning. And I don’t mind winning the same way over and over again with a 60-card deck that is designed to do just that. But in EDH it seems like the point is to win in as many different ways as possible with the same deck.

Now, this is just my interpretation of the format – you’re certainly entitled to take EDH in a different light, if that’s your preference. However, I feel like my view is more in line with the original intent of the creators of the format. Perhaps I’m wrong, but why would they have designed the format the way they did, unless they were actively trying to encourage diversity and creativity?

That all said, what’s next? I got bored with EDH, but now I already miss playing it. How do I go about getting back into the spirit and fun of EDH, while avoiding the ubiquity and narrowness that made it boring in the first place?

The first step is that I have to avoid the trap of “must run” cards. Pet cards are fine, as they tend to be more fun to play regardless of power level. Unfortunately many of my pet cards are also in the must run category; things like Bribery and Treachery. I really don’t know how to go about this step. I’m terrified of building a green deck without Greater Good. How do I draw cards?! I don’t know if I can really successfully avoid doing this sort of thing.

However, another approach is to emphasize building to my General’s themes. My Vorosh deck only played Vorosh for the colors – I rarely cast him in-game, and usually when I did it was for an emergency blocker, or I just wanted to sac him to Greater Good for cards. I rarely cast him, and NEVER won with him. I could try to build a Vorosh deck that actually wants to cast him and tries to win with him.

My Rafiq deck did an excellent job of playing to the General’s strengths and still managed to be fun and offered a decent variety of experiences. In contrast, Generals like Uril, are harder to work with. My first Uril build was really just a Naya “good-stuff” deck, but it had some issues. Once I started tailoring the deck to suit Uril better, it played better and won more often, but it also started playing very repetitively, and consequently got boring quickly. It’s a fine line between “playing to your General’s strengths” and simply having a linear strategy. A linear strategy, if I understand it correctly, is where you deck seeks to play out each game similarly, and often sets up the same win condition each time.

In Rafiq’s case I could win with Rafiq buffed by something else, OR Rafiq could act as the buff instead, boosting another creature to lethality. This was a slightly linear strategy in that I primarily won by attacking and combat damage, but the specifics really could vary quite a bit.

Uril, on the other hand, almost always won through General Damage caused by an Aura-laden Uril. And while I had a variety of Auras to put on him, the end result was simply that he was made bigger and harder to block. It was a very linear strategy, and for it to work properly I had to have Uril, the Auras and ways to find them/cheat them out. The deck became all about doing that one thing – Enchanting Uril all to hell. I started cutting alternate win conditions like Big Fat Guys and adding things like Three Dreams and Enlightened Tutor.

Sadly, I think this is the only way to properly build a Uril deck. So I either suck it up and play a deck with a very linear strategy, or choose a new general. I could play Rith. “Tokens” can be a pretty wide-open strategy with plenty of room for variance and experimenting. There are some must-run cards, sure – Doubling Season, anyone? – but ultimately it’s a clear theme but with more room for variety than Uril allowed.

Another idea floating around in my brain has been to attempt that mythical Aggro Sharuum build I lamented over in my Scars set review. I really want to play a Sharuum deck that wins 99% of its games through combat damage. Things like Tempered Steel and Etched Champion make me think this can be accomplished. I want to try it.
Overall, I need to learn to dedicate more slots to what the deck is about, rather than cramming it full of ubiquitous good stuff. Some of that HAS to be in each deck, yeah. I don’t think any deck can reasonably expect to win without a solid utility package and a few good alternate win-conditions. But to make EDH fun, and more importantly to sustain the fun indefinitely, I need to avoid the trap of ubiquity. My decks need more individuality, more room to do their own thing and shine or fail based on their uniqueness, rather than to rely on a bunch of proven spells to prop up a handful of unique ones. Less unanimity and more variety between decks, coupled with less linear strategies, will result in a wider and more open-ended game experience, which in turn will keep the format fresh and interesting, rather than stale and boring.

I must begin to collect these thoughts and internalize them – then I start building!


  1. Nice post. I went to re-build my Rafiq deck this afternoon and ended up taking cards out of all my other decks to do it. Apart from just not having enough Sol Rings for every deck, I was taking a lot of familiar Green spells out of Azusa, familiar blue spells out of Thada Adel and familiar White spells out of my binder because I don't have another white deck. I think I added 2 new cards to the build and one, Fauna Shaman, is just a Survival Redux so it's not really "new". :/

  2. Great subject, one I think pretty much any multi-deck EDH player has probably run into at some point.

    I've avoided this a bit by accepting that some of my decks are 'sub-par' by SUPER SERIAL standards. I'm not going to hunt down nine Sol Rings so I can pray for the same turn one opener with every general. Accepting this has made my decks way more fun and different to play as I just slot in cool cards as I get them and don't worry about acquiring everything on a list.

    It also helps to actually have a vision for the deck, instead of trying to build a goodstuff deck. Those decks are straight-up wicked lazy. If you can't think of something more clever than slamming 60 really powerful cards into a deck with a thematic general, well... I think you have missed one of the best things about playing EDH. Trying to build a stylish deck using your personal secret tech and what you have on hand/got through trades always feels more rewarding to me than playing the EDH equivalent of a net deck.

    We'll be spotlighting this in our next podcast instead of the set review, this is even better.

  3. @GHoooSTS

    I've really been wanting to write something like this for a while, but I couldn't find a topic that hadn't been covered to death already. Then I had this realization when deconstructing my decks, and it was the perfect topic for me to really sink my teeth into.

    In response to your comments in your second paragraph, I have a few things to say. First off, I've never built an EDH "Net Deck". I rarely use the forums for input, and when I do it's usually to find something creative that
    I've overlooked. My lists are entirely my own, initially, and I only look for net advice when I want to make them more interesting.

    "Trying to build a stylish deck using your personal secret tech" is a great suggestion. The problem is that my "personal secret tech" is usually cards like Bribery, Treachery, Duplicant, stuff like that. See, I played EDH for nearly two years before I ever read a single post on the forums. Cards that are fairly obvious and very ubiquitous around the world were not being played here. I was the first person to play Duplicant around here.

    The problem isn't that I'm sticking to one formula, per se, it's that I have too damn many of those cards that I discovered the power of in EDH on my own, then later on discovered that they were widely played outside my own metagame.

    I'm honestly not trying to brag, but it's not the first time I've built a deck completely on my own, and then later discovered it was only a few cards off from a popular net deck. I've just been with the game so damn long that I've developed the same deckbuilding approach as a competitive player.

    There is always one person who is allowed to play a "net-deck" and not use style points for doing so: the original designer of the deck. And in a sense, I'm not so much playing a net deck as I am playing a ME deck - I'm not copying anyone else, just myself. That my choices line up with what's already heavily played in the format is 99% coincidental.

    The point is that most of these ubiquitous cards I'm so damned attached to I found on my own; I wasn't told to play them by any outside input. So they're much harder for me to abandon, because, despite their current ubiquity, they were at one time my own pet cards and I was the only one I knew who played them.

    And many of them are still hella fun. I just get tired of seeing them every game in every deck.

    And on that note, I am officially working on an Aggro-based, combo-free Sharuum the Hegemon deck. It'll be a while before I'm ready to share anything, but by it's very nature I will have less slots for these overused staples of mine. Should be a refreshingly new experience.