Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Theme vs. Power - Developing Your Deck Ideas

I've been vaguely interested in an Edric, Spymaster of Trest deck for quite some time now. However, multiple attempts at developing a deck around Edric have always faltered and fallen by the wayside. I just assumed this was because perhaps I didn't find him as interesting as I thought, or just didn't think the card selection in U/G was on par with what, say, a Blue/Black/Green deck would offer.

Today, though, I had something of a revelation. I was browsing the EDH forums looking at every Edric decklist posted since Obsidiandice's first development thread right after he was spoiled, and was jotting down various cards and ideas from each one - anything that caught my eye and didn't seem too terrible.

After doing this research and looking back over all my notes and scribblings, I finally realized why I could never get the deck off the ground before. The deck had no identity. No theme. Nothing compelling to guide and inform the construction process, nothing to give the deck a clear goal or path to victory. It’s basically just “play blue and green stuff that doesn’t suck” and hope a plan forms mid-game. But, the deck needs an identity, or else it’s just kinda boring. Not to mention it makes it really hard to build the deck, because frankly Green and Blue both have about a million cards that could be considered “good in EDH”. It seems an impossible task to sift through that many cards and cherry-pick the best of the best without some underlying structure to inform the selection process.

A “theme” can be just about anything, and it can be as specific or as vague as you need it to be – the important part is just to HAVE one to begin with. It’s important to know what you want the deck to DO, before you can decide how best to make the deck do it. For example, if you want your Edric deck to be as aggressive and fast as possible, you’re probably going to go with Infect as a major theme. Cheap evasive creatures will be a second, but closely-related, theme. From there you have a clear, concise idea to build around, and when you run out of thematic cards, you can go ahead and fill the blanks in with miscellaneous “good stuff”.

Or, maybe you want to model the deck after the UG Ramp decks of Standard back in the days of Zendikar when Explore, Treasure Hunt, and Prime Time all lead up to a back-breaking Avenger of Zendikar. Ramp is certainly a proven archetype in EDH, so that’s a solid game plan, too.

Maybe you just want to make Edric your primary win-condition by voltron-ing him up with equipment or auras. I’d say you’re in sub-optimal colors for that, but if you can make it work, God bless you!

Either way, the important part is having a theme or a purpose or some kind of plan to follow. Otherwise your deck is just an incohesive collection of cards that might be good on their own, but don’t really function together quite the way you want them to. The deck will be harder to build because the power level of some cards will be next to impossible to weigh in a vacuum, and there isn’t enough synergy to weigh them in context of the deck.

The exact amount of “theme” you need and the allowances you can make for random “good stuff” will vary greatly from deck to deck, depending on the colors and abilities of your general. I’m of the opinion that Blue/Black/Red is a pretty phenomenal color scheme for a deck that’s mostly just good stuff with only the barest hint of a theme tying them together. The sheer strength of your card selection in those colors is such that you can get by with only the minimal amount of synergy – you just have to avoid any glaring anti-synergistic combinations and you’ll probably win more than a few games off the strength of your individual cards. My Thraximundar deck was basically 90% “good stuff” with the only real “themes” being “board control to clear the way for Thraximundar” and “exploit the graveyard as a back-up plan”.

On the flip side, my Rafiq deck is one of my favorite decks of all time simply because it’s one of the most thoroughly synergistic decks I’ve managed to assemble, and while the list actually allows for quite a bit of variance in its “good stuff” selections, the core of the deck is so fundamentally synergistic that virtually every non-land card I draw feels like part of some little mini-combo.

Both decks were powerful and played very well. They played quite differently, but it would be rather difficult for me to weigh one against the other.

With Thraximundar, I chose cards primarily based on raw power alone, only avoiding cards that I found un-fun, too mean, or just too at-odds with the rest of the deck’s cards. Other than that, I made little to no concessions to theme over power. If it was good, it was in the deck. Cards only ever got cut for being too weak or being outstripped by a new card. It was just a collection of powerful effects, and true, they would occasionally produce surprisingly subtle effects and little synergies would emerge now and then, but most of that was by chance rather than design. Yet the deck still functioned as desired, playing smoothly and cohesively far more often than not. The game plan was remarkably simple most of the time – try to get Thraximundar out and swinging, keep blockers out of his way and if you drew something powerful and relevant, cast it! It didn’t really NEED anything more concrete or complicated.

With Rafiq, I went the other route – I chose many cards for theme rather than stand-alone power. Giltspire Avenger is probably the single worst card in the deck, yet I have never been able to cut it, because it does have Exalted, and thus even when it’s tap ability fails to do anything of use, the Exalted bonus does often prove quite relevant in pumping Rafiq or some other attacker. Sure, I’m not running EVERY Exalted card in print – some are just too underpowered, but Giltspire Avenger is a perfect example of hitting that sweet-spot where it’s a weak card on its own but it adds JUST ENOUGH synergy that the way the deck plays overall makes the Avenger better than he seems at first glance. It’s like a well-oiled, finely-tuned machine and the Avenger is just one tiny cog in the intricate workings of that machine. It’s not the most important cog, by far, yet it’s still making a significant contribution to that machine’s operation. Removing that one tiny cog won’t disable the machine – at most it’d lead to a very small drop it it’s efficiency… but the fact that the machine runs even .0001% better WITH that piece than it would without is all you need to justify that cog’s role in the grand scheme.

Drawing the line between theme and power is probably one of the toughest aspects of EDH deck-building to get right. More often than not, there is no clear answer; you just have to let play-testing sort it all out. I started out the Rafiq deck by playing literally EVERY card in print with the Exalted ability. Obviously some got cut quickly, like Sighted-Caste Sorcerer. Other stuck around a while but eventually revealed themselves to be too weak for their thematic contributions to make up for their deficiencies – Rhox Bodyguard being a prime example. Eventually I came to realize that despite not having Exalted, Loxodon Heirarch was just so much better than the Rhino that the deck as a whole benefited more from the Elephant despite the fact that I was diluting the theme. Giltspire Avenger, on the other hand, lands just on the other side, where his power level in a vacuum might be under the curve, yet cutting him in favor of a more powerful but non-Exalted-having card would dilute the theme too much and the deck would actually be worse off!

So, from this we can extrapolate two things:
1.       Sacrificing thematic cards for more powerful cards can, ironically, weaken a deck by diluting its primary game plan with off-theme or non-synergystic cards that seem better in a vacuum.
2.       The opposite of #1 is equally true: sacrificing raw power for thematic cards is also just as capable of weakening a deck, if the card’s contribution to synergy is less than its contribution to average powerlevel.

It’s usually easier to tell when #2 is happening. When you play a Rafiq deck and you’re disappointed every single time you draw Court Archers, you know you have a case where you’re letting the theme dilute the power. Recognizing when power is diluting the theme is a bit trickier to identify in most cases. I’m hard pressed to find a good example, but I think Planeswalkers provide the most immediately relatable example: take Jace, the Mind Sculptor for instance. Say you throw him into your Blue/Green deck. Jace is obviously an insanely powerful card in his own right, and can be quite good in EDH – no surprise, right? But how many people run him, only to find that every single time they cast him, they use is 0 ability to brainstorm once, then find that he get’s wiped of the face of the table before their next chance to use him. Is he worth running, then?

Well, most people would argue that Brainstorm itself is a pretty mediocre card for most EDH decks, and most of the folks who do run it have pretty flimsy justifications for it.  If it’s that unpopular as a 1 mana instant, how many fans do you suppose Brainstorm would have it were a 4-mana sorcery? Yeah, probably somewhere in the ballpark of ZERO!

So you might be operating under the assumption that your deck is stronger because you’re running Jace the Mind Sculptor, but stop and think about it: Is he really that good, or are you just running a 4-mana, sorcery-speed Brainstorm? 

Bringing this all back to the matter at hand – Edric, Spymaster of Trest – I realized that the several aborted attempts I’d made before all failed to coalesce into anything with a unifying theme, or a recognizable game plan. I realized that with something like Thraximundar, who is about as subtle as a concrete cinder block through your window, simply throwing a deck full of powerful stuff in those colors behind a dominatingly powerful general was all the strategy or theme that deck required, but Edric was a beast far more subtle and clever, and as such needed more subtlety and cleverness in the deck he’s meant to command.

I haven’t yet sorted out precisely what this means for the development of the deck, but it does give me a good starting point: Spies. Edric is the SpyMASTER of Trest. Meaning, he has some number of other spies at his beck and call, ready to venture out into the world and gather information for their Spymaster. This thought lead me to the new idea I have that will guide the development and construction of the deck: Spying. I want to spy on my opponents and barter and broker what I learn on my path to a subtle, sneaky victory. Creatures like Jhessian Infiltrator will certainly fit the theme, but also cards that let me look through my opponent’s libraries. Extract, Bribery, Knowledge Exploitation jump to mind. Rogues as a creature type could provide a small tribal sub-theme.

My goal is to have this deck become my go-to whenever I am playing with a new batch of players, or when someone in my regular group shows up with a new deck. “Oh! I know what you’re up to! Better make friends with the spy master, or he’ll divulge your naughty schemes to your enemies!”

Now I have something to guide the deck’s construction, and how I want it to play. There will certainly be plenty of room for some miscellaneous good-stuff at the end, but I’ll have a core to build around that gives shape and structure to the rest of the deck around it, which will make it easier to build and to play the deck, while giving it more of an identity – it’s not just an Blue/Green deck, it’s a SPY deck!

Hopefully these insights will help illustrate the importance of the roles that theme and synergy play in the EDH format… not just that it’s important to have a theme, but to realize when the theme becomes more of a hindrance than a helper. And that sometimes, just sometimes, the only theme a deck needs is “More Power!”. Finding the right balance between the two is the key to making each deck you build successful and fun. Of course what counts as a “success” also varies from player to player, but that’s a whole different article…

Well, with these profound thoughts guiding me, I shall begin developing the Edric deck at once, and with a little luck I shall have a list ready to post in a few days. Until then, best of luck to all you EDH deckbuilding geniuses out there.



  1. Great article. It's true that for many builds there are just too many possibilities, and having a theme makes it easier to build. More than just that, though, having a theme makes your deck quite different from decks in the same colors or even with the same commander, and this is a good thing; even if you don't consider a deck to be an expression of yourself, the more different your Rafiq deck is from That Other Player's, the less likely your opponents will know its capabilities, and also the less likely your opponents will get tired of the deck - if they play the same kind of deck twice as often because your good stuff build is too much like That Other Player's, you're likely to just bore them much quicker than usual, and that's not fun.

  2. Thanks, Disciple. You bring up a very important point that I neglected to touch on. Having a theme helps make the deck more unique, and keeps your decks from getting boring or repetative. I'm a dedicated, hardcore Good-Stuff player, but even I get bored with Consecrated Sphinx and Primeval Titan every once in a while.
    It felt weird and wrong cutting Consecrated Sphinx from this deck, but at the same time it was liberating and exciting.