Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Building Blocks: Deck Design, Part 1 - Inspiration

It’s been a while since I did anything but post spoilers or a decklist. I enjoy doing these theory and philosophy articles. Really, I do! It’s just that, when it comes to Magic, I’m mostly a technology guy. Discussing why *this card* is a perfect fit in *that deck* is usually more interesting to me than discussing why *broad type of card* is good in *entire format* . Usually.

But, oddly, the posts I’ve written for this blog that I am most proud of, and consider to be my best contributions to the format, are the small handful of posts that are more theory or philosophy than technology. So, there have been several topics – and I can’t understate this enough: SEVERAL, as in probably 25 or more topics – that I’ve almost written about. Almost, I say, because I am lazy in some cases. In other cases, I actually DID write the article, but never posted it because I felt that by the end of it, I hadn’t really said anything worth saying or original enough to make it worth your time to read. Or I just lost my train of thought and derailed it so badly I just couldn’t save the post. Or, I was busy dealing with the fact that I’ve moved twice in the space of a year, have no damned money and am living in two spare rooms of my in-laws’ house.

With my cramped living conditions, deck building is a bit of a logistical nightmare for me, and with my abysmal financial situation, acquiring the cards I want can be tricky as well. So for these two reasons, I haven’t been as prolific in the Deck Tech department. Also, I happen to be enjoying the decks I do have together so I’ve been less motivated to tear them down and rebuild new ones. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?

Nonetheless, I did manage to build Savra and Maelstrom Wanderer since the last move, so despite the adversity, when I feel inspired I don’t let it keep me from my passion. I will build decks no matter what; they’re just going to be fewer and farther apart for the time being.

So in the absence of any new deck brews to talk about, I wanted to share with you all some insights into my deck building process. This might be helpful, or it might be merely interesting, or it might be a total waste of your time. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it.

Anyway, deck design.

What is the foundation of a Magic deck? Is it the mana base? The utility effects that help make the deck “work”? The General you chose to lead the deck? The game-winning combo?

Nope. None of these is the real foundation of a Magic deck. The real foundation is the idea you had that got you to build the deck in the first place. Every deck begins as an idea first, nothing more.

I consider myself to be an artistic type – I actually have a background in art, including schooling and a short-lived career in Graphic Design. I appreciate and adore creativity in all facets of life. I’m not trying to sound pretentious, though I probably do. I’m just laying this out so you’ll get a better feel where I’m coming from. Deck design, for me, is all about inspiration. I don’t arbitrarily decide to make a deck in a certain color-scheme or with a certain General (usually), and force the issue. I wait for an idea to capture my imagination and excite me, then I run with it. Inspiration comes from many different angles, though. Sometimes it’s a card, or combination of cards, sometimes it’s a mechanic or a broad type of synergy, sometimes it’s a wonky theme. Whatever it is, it has to pop into my head and take root enough for me to want to build the deck.

Sometimes, inspiration doesn’t always pan out. It leads to a crappy deck with a bad idea at the core of it. Other times it works great. The point is, I never set out to build a deck without getting that moment of inspiration first. I love building decks, but I never build just to do it – much like artists might love to paint, but without a good idea they won’t paint something just for the hell of it.

To help me better illustrate the various ways in which inspiration might strike me, I’m going to run down a list of some of my decks, past and present, and analyze what exactly inspired me to make that deck. We’ll start with two of my classic decks:

Rafiq of the Many – This deck was partly inspired by both the Exalted mechanic overall, and Rafiq himself. Yeah, everyone who’s plugged into the online EDH community knows Rafiq is an obvious and over-used general, but when I first latched on to him, he was far from overused, because it was before Shards was even released! The moment he was spoiled, I was in love. I tried desperately to trade for a copy of him at the prerelease, the release and for weeks after the set came out. I finally had to just buy a copy becaue no one wanted to trade theirs, and I couldn’t open one to save my life. The deck started with me getting Rafiq, jamming in EVERY SINGLE Exalted card in print, and then filling the rest out with random good stuff and utility. It developed and evolved a lot from there, but Rafiq is and always has been the centerpiece of the deck, with the Exalted mechanic being a prominent, unifying theme throughout the deck. By and large, though, this deck is a solid example of a Legendary creature being the main inspiration. Before I knew a single one of the 99 cards, I knew Rafiq was my general – the deck just grew organically from there.

Vorosh, the Hunter – This example is an exact opposite of the one above. This deck began with my desire to utilize a specific trio of cards: Genesis, Mulldrifter and Shriekmaw.  More broadly, I wanted to build a value engine using Genesis to recur and reuse utility creatures with built-in self-sacrifice abilities. Genesis + the Evoke mechanic simply resonated with me and excited me as a deckbuilder, and there were lots of little puzzles to solve in getting the deck up and running. Getting Genesis in the ‘yard, for instance, was more tricky than simply “Run Survival, pitch him to Survival”, as I didn’t OWN a Survival of the Fittest at that time. So I had to find ways to get find my engine of value, ways to get them assembled the way I needed them to be, and ways to make all that “value” actually translate into "winning games". Vorosh was simply played for his colors, because he was literally the only option in GUB at the time, and really the entire deck just grew from the idea of getting Genesis online with some ETBF utility guys. This deck is a great example of a group of specific cards, and an overall synergy inspiring and driving the deck’s design.

Vish Kal, the Blood Arbiter – This deck is a pretty unique and weird example, even for me. It started out as a Ghost Council deck, but that deck just wasn’t really coming together. It was winning games here and there, and capable of some pretty powerful plays, but it was just a mess of not-that-great interactions and different strategies and synergies. I decided to swap out Ghost Council for Vish Kal on a whim, mostly because Vish was both A) New and different, and B) a Vampire. Beyond that I still didn’t have any idea how to give the deck an identity or a theme or any sort of overlying principle to help guide card selection. Inspiration struck while I was sorting and analyzing the Ghost Council version of the build and I noticed two interesting things:

1)      There were a number of cards that were White/Black mirrors of each other – for example: Wrath of God and Damnation, being the most literal instance, where Damnation is literally a Wrath of God shifted to black. There were other cool pairs, where a White card and Black card would be very similar, yet almost direct opposites.
2)      There just happened to be, by pure coincidence, exactly as many White creatures in my deck as there were Black creatures. Wow, I thought, cool coincidence. Then, curious, I counted all the White and Black non-creature spells. Once again there were exactly the same number of White spells as Black spells! Holy cow. I had unknowingly and unintentionally built the deck to be perfectly evenly split between White and Black. Kinda like the Yin/Yang, no? Add to that the previously mentioned mirror/duality of White and Black, and suddenly I had a “Thing” to help give the deck an identity.

First off, I resolved to strictly and rigidly maintain the perfect balance between White and Black cards in the deck. That could not, under any circumstance, be changed. Secondly, I tried to find more “pairs” between Black and White. They could either be mirror-images (like Damnation & Wrath of God) or they could be opposites (like Karmic Guide and Puppeteer Clique [one reanimates MY guys, one reanimates YOUR guys]). Thirdly, from exploring those two ideas in depth, I hit on a third way to explore the duality of White and Black: Lifelink vs. Deathtouch. After all, boiled down to its essence, the whole White/Black saga is less about Good vs. Evil and more about Life vs. Death. So creatures with Lifelink and Creatures with Deathtouch became a recurring theme, along with other forms of life gain for me, and life-drain for my opponents.
Vish Kal having Lifelink and the ability to kill creatures was just icing on the cake. He really had almost nothing to do with my inspiration for the deck’s overall themes, yet he managed to be a perfect fit anyway. The real inspiration was simply the idea to take White and Black, the two most polar opposite colors Magic, yet somehow the two most similar colors in some respects, and build a deck to exploit and explore that duality - showcasing both the differences and the similarities between the two colors nicely.

While the Vish Kal example is a pretty unique and niche corner case of inspiration, the first two examples are much more common. MOST decks I put together stem from one of those two types of inspiration: I either want to play a given general, or a certain card or group of cards.

Yet there are two more examples that are a pretty common source of inspiration, at least lately. One of those is the “theme” deck.

“Theme” is a pretty broad word in Magic, and can encompass a lot of different things. Here’s a good example of a theme-inspired deck:

Wrexial, the Risen Deep – Can you guess what the theme is here? Yep. Using my opponents’ own spells against them. This is more of a mechanical theme, but themes can be more flavorful, too. I’m personally more apt to make a mechanically-themed deck, as flavor-themes usually lead to janky, weak-ass decks, which I really don’t enjoy. I’ve seen some real works of art, though, along these lines. There’s a totally unplayable but still absolutely awesome Call of Cthulhu deck floating around out there for example. But my intent with the Wrexial deck was, obviously, to just play stuff that stole/copied/used my opponents’ cards to win instead of my own. The #1 win condition in the deck is… well, whatever YOUR #1 win condition was supposed to be!

However, this Wrexial deck is also an example of another source of inspiration for me: Other people’s decks.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean “Net Decking” in the sense that it’s most often used. In EDH it’s widely considered a taboo to straight-up copy someone else’s list card-for-card. Something about how diversity is what keeps the format fresh and exciting, blah blah blah. Anyway, regardless of social conventions, I personally find it boring to copy someone else’s list down the 99th card. I like to express my individuality and creativity! That said, just because someone else has a Wrexial deck doesn’t mean I can’t have one too, right? So what if I use an existing Wrexial list as a starting point? By the end of my process, I’m sure my list will not be identical to any other Wrexial list out there. Sure a LOT of the cards will be the same – who doesn’t run Urborg in a Wrexial deck? – but enough cards should be different to adequately distinguish my list from anyone else’s.

In the case of the Wrexial deck, I was initially inspired to make the deck by Andy of Commandercast fame, who had a project to build a playable Wrexial deck on a budget of $30.00. His project was, for him, a success and he was very happy with the deck’s performance, despite the very stringent budgetary restriction. I simply wondered to myself how much better the deck could be without clinging to that restriction and was allowed to run more powerful cards that Andy couldn’t play due to the budget.

The “theme” of stealing and playing all of my opponents’ things was in no way my own idea. It is pretty much the guiding idea behind every Wrexial deck, including Andy’s. But that doesn’t make it any less of an inspiration. It’s the idea that guided my building process, and I spent a good deal of time on Gatherer doing research to try and find cards that fit the theme that might have been missed or overlooked by Wrexial players who came before me. I wanted to distill the theme of playing out of my opponents’ decks and graveyards into as potent a tool as I could possibly make it.

So, I was inspired first by Andy’s deck, then once I began to build my own version, I was inspired by the overall theme of the deck. My first build was very, very similar to Andy’s list, just with some money cards like Consecrated Sphinx and Jace the Mind Sculptor. But I soon began tuning and refining the deck a lot, and while it still basically plays the exact same way Andy’s list does, and pretty much every other Wrexial deck, the exact card choices are different enough to suit my sense of individuality.

To sum up, here’s a quick list of the four most common ideas that form a starting point for my deckbuilding process:

1.       A specific General that I want to build around. Some Legends just scream “Build a deck for me!”
2.       A specific card or small batch of cards I want to  build around (Past in Flames is a card I'm desperate to build around, but haven't managed to succeed with... yet.)
3.       An overall theme, be it a mechanical one (“Tokens!”, “Exalted!”, “Steal your shits!”, etc.) or a flavorful one (“Military and War”, “Life and Death”, “Spies!”)
4.       Other people’s decks – sometimes someone else just beats you to a cool idea, simple as that.

“Inspiration” really means nothing more than taking that first step toward building a new deck. It’s the foundation, nothing more. After getting that inspiration, there is much more to do, but for me at least, nothing can be built without that foundation in place. This article has focused exclusively on that step: laying the first brick. In Part Two, I’ll explore the methods I use to turn that bare foundation into a brick shithouse of a deck (hopefully!).


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