Sunday, December 5, 2010

Deckbuilding Aesthetics

There was a post recently over at Commandercast that touched on a topic I was planning to write about. The author, Astray Penguin, beat me to the punch (curse you, Penguin!). In the second half of his post, he discussed how he chooses specific basic lands for his decks, selecting lands with art that matches the colors and themes of his deck.

 It's a pretty interesting topic, to me at least, because I do the same thing. I always cherry-pick my lands to suit the deck, but I also am particular about making my sleeve color match as well. Astray Penguin makes some great suggestions, such as using old-border lands if you are using an old-border General.

My interest in this comes from my background in art and design. I have a bit of training in both fine art and graphic design, although I’ll be the first to admit I’ve largely squandered my modicum of talent. But the fact is, I am a tad more concerned with aesthetics and appearance than most random Magic players. It’s not about “blinging out” my deck. I love foils as much as the next guy, but I’m not overly concerned with showing off my bottomless Magic budget. I just want my deck to look good, and to be aesthetically pleasing.

Also, I am a touch Obsessive/Compulsive and coordinating things appeals to that part of my psyche.

Astray Penguin's article is a great starting point, and I suggest reading it as well. I'll try not to overlap too much with his post, but I want to expound on this topic a little more in-depth that he did. Also, as mentioned I will be talking about sleeves as well. To me, sleeves are even more important to aesthetic coordination than the lands you choose. 

But we'll discuss lands first, and then move on to sleeves.

1. The basics of Basic Land

First off, let's address why this is important. Short answer: it isn't important. Running one basic Plains over another will not in any way make your deck perform differently. It's just about appearance and art. But, given my background in art, art is very important to me.

There are a huge number of artists working on the Magic game that I highly respect and admire. One of the ways I like to show that appreciation for the talent and skill of some of my favorite artists is by making their art stand out as much as possible. Coordinating your basic lands and selecting the right sleeves are the two main ways to accomplish this. Making your deck look good is really all about making the artists' illustrations look good. 

In fine art, selecting the right frame for a piece of art is almost as important as selecting the art itself. You can have a masterwork Degas hanging on a wall, but if it's in a cheap Wal-Mart frame it will negatively affect how the art looks. But before we pick out a frame, naturally we must pick out our art first!

Usually, the easiest decks to choose lands for are mono-color decks. Most Basic Forest illustrations have green in them and most Mountians have red. If your deck is mono-green, you'll obviously want basic Forests. Beyond that, you have some options. I usually try to run only one art per basic land type, but in a mono-color deck I will run at most two types of a given land. 

So. Let's say my deck is mono-Green Elves. Obviously, I want Forests, and I want green in them. I will further refine my search to those that strike me as an elvish Forest. Some good examples of Forests that DON'T exactly make one think "Elf":

This one is from Kamigawa block, where the predominant green tribe was Snakes, not Elves. It even depicts the hatcheries the Orochi used in the setting. Too setting-specific for an Elf deck.

This one is from Shadowmoor, which did feature elves, but the art here is a bit too spooky for most Elf decks. If you're using mostly Shadowmoor and Eventide Elf cards, or it's a Black/Green Elf deck, then this might work but for a generic Elf deck it's a poor choice.

Like Shadowmoor, Mirrodin also featured elves, but this art is equally as distinctive to it's native plain. Not a good choice for most Elf decks.

Rise of Eldrazi lands are pretty unique to their set as well, and don't really look like the sort of environment an Elf would happily call home.

With the "don'ts" out of the way, let's see what might fall in the "do" category:

Both of these make great examples, because they show signs of civilized life among the trees. These literally depict where an Elf would live - a hollowed out tree trunk, or a home built among the branches. It helps that both lands have exceptionally well-executed art. John Avon has long been known as one of the best Land artists in the history of Magic, while Quinton Hoover's Forest is just phenomenal.

For an Elf deck, or most any generic Green stompy deck, you really can go with just about any Forest that shows rich, lush greenery and has good art. That's the wonderful thing about mono-color decks: you have more freedom to just pick your favorite Forest or Swamp or whatever. There are likely to only be a handful of "wrong" choices.

The more colors you include, the harder it becomes to find just the right art for your basic lands. You want to try to find a basic that includes touches of the other colors in your deck contained in the art. For examples, in a Blue/Red deck, I would try to find Islands with some red or purple in the art, and Mountains with blue in the art.

That said, I can already tell you that it's tough to find an Island with red in it, so I usually find one with some lightning in it, as a ton of Red cards feature lightning in their art. Here are the three Islands I most often end up using in a U/R deck:

These are all fantastic illustrations by themselves, but really look great in a deck with Lightning Bolts.

For my Mountains, it's easy enough to find a Mountain with blue in the art - several have a blue sky. For example:

Both definitely have some blue in the art, but it's also important that the Mountain and Island coordinate. This is a bit subjective, but even though I really love this Ice Age Mountain, it's not really a good fit to go with my stormy-looking Islands.

One thing that helps is to pull lands from the same set or block where possible. For instance one of my three Islands up there is from Rise of the Eldrazi. A quick scan of the Eldrazi Mountains turns up this:

While it's not the most interesting image, or particularly attractive on it's own, it has two key features that make it a good fit. One is that both illustrations depict the same basic visual cue: the Hedrons of Zendikar. The other is that little splash of blue in the top corner that helps tie the pallets together. And they look okay next to one another:

Once the deck is built and sleeved, we can make them mesh a little better by selecting the right color of sleeves. 

One important guideline, which Penguin also touches on, is that you should never mix different frames in one deck. There are currently 5 different Basic Land frames: the old frame (pre-Mirrodin), the new frame (post-Mirrodin) and three "full-art" frames appearing in Unglued, Unhinged and Zendikar. When selecting lands, ALWAYS stick to one frame style. mixing full art and regular is quite ugly and even the various full-art frames don't mesh well together. 

It shouldn't even need saying, but Penguin said it anyway, and I will echo him: avoid white-bordered lands like the plague. They are ugly as fuck, and you should stay away from them. 

Three color decks get tricky. Here it really starts to help to draw from one block to keep some unity amongst the land choice. If I'm playing an Esper deck (specifically, a WUB deck with an artifact theme), I'll use the Esper lands from Alara Block:

However, if my deck is just a WUB without any thematic ties to the Esper Shard, I might try to find a different trio of basics. The Esper lands are too distinctive to just throw into a Zur the Enchanter deck.

Four and five color decks are nearly impossible to stick to these guidelines. I might simply choose lands from all the same block and that will have to suffice. Or I just pick out one of my all-time favorites from each land type and ignore color coordination or theme. But even with such an eclectic selection of lands, I still try not to have any one basic "stick out" too much.

Allow me to reiterate here that this really only applies to Basic Land selection, and shouldn't really be used as a criteria for choosing non-basics or anything else in your deck. If a card has multiple art versions due to reprinting, fine, but choosing which Elves to run in your Elf deck based on art alone is a foolish way to build a deck. But basic lands all function the same regardless of art, and there is a HUGE variety to choose from, so why not customize to show off your artistic tastes?

 2. The essentials of Sleeves

So, we've covered land selection. Now we move on to sleeves. This is a crucial aspect of the aesthetic appeal of your deck. Remember my art frame analogy from earlier? This is where it comes into play. When you sleeve a deck of Magic cards, each of those cards has an illustration. This illustration is a little work or art, and deserves to be framed accordingly. 

Selecting the right frame for your art is an important part of making the art "pop" or look good, and it is a gesture of respect to the artist. Haphazardly framing a piece of art in a poorly-chosen frame is disrespectful to the artist. Given my background, I cannot abide such disrespect. As I said, I have a high amount of respect for a good number of Magic artists (even if I don't actually like an artists work, I usually respect that artist). And while it's nearly impossible to build a deck that contains only cards with art I particularly like, I still want every single card to look as good as possible. 

This also has a practical application as well. I am the sort of player that usually has a large number of decks built at any one time, and the color of sleeves also helps to identify and locate a given deck when I want it. It sounds simple and obvious, but I can't tell you how many times I've seen a player sleeve his Red-Green deck in Blue sleeves and his mono-Blue deck in pink, and his White Weenie deck in sleeves with a Dragon on the back. WHAT. THE. FUCK?

My friend Chad has a mono-Red Dragon deck sleeved up in light-blue sleeves. Ugh! It's atrocious, and I can't begin tell you how awful it makes all that bad-ass dragon art look.

Again, mono-color decks tend to be the easiest. For that mono-Green Elf deck, we're obviously going to want some green sleeves. Mono-Black Vampires go in black sleeves, and Stupid Red Burn goes in red sleeves. Duh. 

It can sometimes pay to know your complementary colors, though. For example if you have two mono-Green decks built, and want to be able to tell them apart at a glance, you might not want to use green for both decks. Using a color's complimentary color works well most of the time. Green's complimentary colors are red and purple. I wouldn't use red personally because red/green is too "christmas-y" to me. Plus I just think the green/purple duality is a nice contrast and looks more pleasing to the eye than the harsher contrast of red/green.

Just Google "complementary colors" and you'll get plenty of color-charts and info to help you pick the right complementary color or your deck.

Sometimes a specific card will pull you in a less obvious direction. A card with highly-distinctive art that really stands out might warrant special consideration. A good example of this is Liliana Vess. She looks just fine in a black sleeve, but a purple sleeve really makes her art pop. If I am running a mono-black deck with 3 or 4 copies of her card in the deck, I might consider using purple for the deck, especially if there are any other cards in the deck that also pull me in that direction, like perhaps Seal of Doom or Ravenous Rats.

So if my deck contains even a few of these cards, I might consider a matching sleeve color. A good trick is to take your assembled deck, before sleeving it up, and sift through the cards fairly quickly. Don't focus on the details just kinda let the illustrations shift past your eyes in a blur, and see if any particular colors jump out at you. In a mono-black deck you'll see a lot of blacks, browns and grays mostly, but if something like purple or yellow stands out on multiple cards, then that color might just be what the deck really wants. 

This won't always be the case, as I think yellow would be horrendous on any Black deck, no matter how many cards might have yellow in the art. But you get the point, just the same. Illustrations with a color palette that doesn't follow the norm for the color of card it's on tend to stand out more prominently. You just have to decide if that color touch is worth highlighting or accentuating.

For two color decks, the obvious choice is to try whatever color your two colors combine to make. For instance, Red and Blue combine to make purple, so my first choice here is to go with purple sleeves. Green and Red make brown, though and brown is rather ugly, but more relevantly it is hard to find brown sleeves. I know Dragon Shield makes them but I rarely see them in stores, and I don't know of any other manufacturer that produces brown. Regardless, I think brown would be ugly on any deck, save one that runs a high number of old-frame artifacts. Brown might work there, but that's about it. 

So another trick is to look at color balance. If your Red/Green deck is mostly Green, go with green sleeves and if it's mostly Red, use the red sleeves. 

For Black-White decks, Black or White sleeves could work depending on the balance of the two colors, but if it's fairly even, I'd go with Silver or Grey. Dragon Shield makes a fantastic silver sleeve that looks great on an Orzhov deck.

A weird combination is Red/White. For this pair, I'd use Gold or Orange. Despite the fact that I hate Orange above almost any other color, the Red/White combination looks pretty darn good in an orange sleeve. I used orange sleeves on a R/W doublestrike deck with these cards in it:

Despite my reservations, the orange sleeves looked fantastic. Lightning Helix in particular really wants either orange or gold to look sharp as possible.

Once you get into three or more colors, it's harder to pick just the right color. Going back to my Esper example from earier, if I'm running a true Esper deck with lots of artifacts, I might use a silver sleeve, but if it's just a non-Esper WUB deck, I might use a dark blue. 

Usually, for a three color deck, it's just looking at the assembled deck and aligning with whatever the most distinctive color is. My recent Bant deck had a very high number of gold-framed multicolor cards, and most of the art was fairly brightly colored with lots of white, yellow, gold. So for this deck a gold sleeve is ideal, but yellow was a fine choice as well. 

One thing you should keep in mind is that black goes with everything and everything goes with black. It's hard to find a card in magic that looks bad in a black sleeve. Some cards will look better in something else, but short of white-bordered cards none will ever look bad in black. So if you have a deck that you just can't seem to find an ideal match for, black is your best stand-by option. 

For EDH, you can also use your General as a good starting point. Rafiq or Numot might warant gold sleeves, but the art of Numot also pulls me strongly towards red. Savra wants black or green, most likely, but a dark shade of green would be perfect. Zur wants blue, most likely - the darker the better, but Sharuum probably wants silver to compliment the many artifacts you'll likely run.

It's a lot of work, but I will re-sleeve a deck if I determine that the chosen sleeves weren't actually the correct choice. I recently sleeved my vampire deck in silver, just because I wanted to be a little more creative than going with black. But it didn't work out like I hoped, and I ended up re-doing the deck in black. Sometimes the most obvious choice really is the best choice.

Much like with lands, above 3 colors, it's nearly impossible to make an ideal match. For my 5-color Horde of Notions EDH deck, I initially went with yellow, but that ended up looking horrible, so I switched to green. It's hard to say why green was the right color, but it worked pretty well. Black was certainly a viable option, but I didn't have enough available and I really didn't want black anyway. Gold might have been a better choice, but I was leery of it after the yellow disaster. So I went with green and was satisfied, even if it wasn't perfect. 

My big highlander deck (250-card, 5-color), I just re-sleeved in brand-new purple Dragon Shield sleeves a few days ago, and it looks sharp. I'm happy with the choice even though some cards in the deck don't particularly want a purple sleeve. You may have picked up on this but I fucking love purple, and it helps that the purple Dragon Shield sleeves are exceptionally good sleeves anyways.

Again, it's really up to you to decide what looks good - taste is subjective. But there are cases where something just plain looks disgusting, regardless of subjectivity.

3. Budgetary restrictions

The astute reader might realize by now that following all my advise here will require a significant investment in sleeves.  Also, you might be the type of person that only has one or two decks built at any given time. You might change them out often, but you rarely need more than 120 sleeves on hand for your decks. 

If this is the case it might not be fiscally viable to have 5000 sleeves of every color of the rainbow on hand. I can understand this. I build decks like a mo-fo, so I can justify having a vast array of sleeves, because I've often had as many as 20 decks built at one time.

So if you aren't wanting to go broke buying sleeves by the truck-load, I recommend investing in two or three colors. One color you'll want for sure is black. Like I said, black goes with everything, and while it's not always the best choice, it will never be a bad choice. White is pretty versatile, and silver and gold also work on a wide variety of decks. Finally, most players tend to play one or two colors more often than the others, and if you know what your main color is, you can't go wrong getting some sleeves in that color. If 75% of your decks contain green, buy some green sleeves. 

Thus I'd recommend going with Black, your favorite Magic color, and one of the following: White, Silver, Gold. Having 100-120 of each of these three colors will allow you to sleeve nearly any deck in something that at least doesn't look terrible, and you don't have to over-invest in too many sleeves.

4. Closing thoughts

Again, this isn't exactly important. One basic Plains is the same as another, and your deck won't play better in blue sleeves vs red ones. But it is important to me, because I think appearance is important. I wouldn't show up to a Magic tournament in dirty sweatpants and a stained t-shirt, with unwashed greasy hair. My opponents will have a hard time taking me seriously if my appearance looks lazy and gross. I feel the same way about my decks. If my deck looks like shit, my opponents will assume it is shit and that I'm not serious about the game. 

Therefore I choose my sleeves just as I would choose my clothing. I want to reflect a sharp, clean appearance, with a good eye for aesthetic. Not every one cares so much for their appearance, though, and Magic tournaments are notorious for their odorous, unwashed player, so not everyone is going to give a shit if they have some white-bordered lands mixed in with their full-art and regular-frame lands.

That's fine, if that's you, but I tend to respect people who take at least a little pride in their appearance, and this principle extends to your Magic cards as well. If you don't take good care of your cards, I won't want to trade with you because who wants a junked-up Day of Judgement that looks 10 years old? And I'll take your decks a little bit more seriously if I can tell you put some effort and thought into every facet of the deck, not just the key rares.

And furthermore, it shows that you have some respect for art and the great talents that create the wonderful art of Magic: the Gathering. These artists helped make Magic the greatest, longest-lasting CCG ever printed, and we all owe them our gratitude, so please show the proper respect by treating their art as something worthy of appreciation. Frame their art and showcase it in your decks - that is, after all, what it's there for.



  1. I like to pick art that looks somewhat symmetrical when making two-color decks. For example, I end up using Ravnica Mountain #1 and Ravnica Island #4 in a lot of red-blue builds because I like the visual of lava rushing out the gates on the mountain meeting the water rushing through the open floodgates on the mountain.

  2. I do love that particular Island. Damn, Ravnica has some fan-fuckin-tastic Basic Land art!

  3. My man Stephen is on point, haha. Wicked in-depth article though. I also kind of obsess over the sleeve colours sometimes; I sleeve my general in a single differently-coloured sleeve as well so that also matters. I'm stupidly picky about it, I know, but it makes no sense to me to have a Red general sleeved up in white. It looks ridiculous.

    It also pleases me to know everyone hates white boarder lands, they truly make your deck look like shit.