Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Building Blocks: Deck Design, Part 2 - Execution

If the first step in deck building is to have an idea, the next step (or, several steps) is to execute on that idea.

In Part One of this article, I discussed inspiration – that is, the idea that leads to one wanting to build a deck. Regardless of the form it takes, or where it comes from, the idea behind the deck is your starting point. You have a foundation, a first small step, but that’s merely the beginning. For this part of the article, I’m going to walk us through my deck building process. This is not a how-to guide or “EDH Deckbuilding for Dummies”. It’s an introspective glimpse into my mental processes, that MAY yield something valuable and helpful to you, or it might just be a glorified vanity post where I come off looking like I’m trying to sound brilliant and awesome. Either outcome, we at least get to find that out together!

So. What I’m gonna do first here, is to pick a deck and really explore, step-by-step, the process I used in building the deck. I’m going to use my Savra deck in this exercise, because it’s my newest deck, and having built it semi-recently, I actually remember a bit of the process. My memory is pretty terrible, so picking something still fresh is critical.

Step One is, of course, inspiration. The tale is fairly simple and straightforward. The initial inspiration behind the deck was just that I really wanted to put both Soul of the Harvest and Harvester of Souls in the same deck. Simple as that. I love all three things these two cards represent: I like casting guys, killing guys and drawing cards. Fantastic! So, I started with those two cards in mind. That put me square in the Green/Black combination, and I initially wanted to go with Skullbriar as the general. But after working on the list for about a week or so, the deck wasn’t coming together at all. It felt like the “Skullbriar” elements of the list weren’t meshing with the “Soul/Harvester” elements of the list – making the General relevant, while also making those two guys relevant was pulling the deck in too many directions and overcrowding what it wanted to do.

This is a common deckbuilding problem, and it’s almost always the result of going off half-cocked, getting too eager about the inspiration part and not really thinking it through all the way. Once I realized I had this problem, I went BACK to Step 1 and  started again with my two guys that formed the inspiration, then I actually took my time and thought it through. What is it about Soul of the Harvest and Harvester of Souls that I like? Well, in a nutshell, they draw me cards! Everyone should know by now I have a fetish for card drawing in Magic – I literally cannot build an EDH deck without trying to pack some kind of draw engine into it. So I want these two guys to draw me cards. To make them work I need to be both casting creatures (for the Soul) and killing creatures (for the Harvester). So I’m in Green/Black and I want to both play creatures for profit, and kill them for profit. If only there was a General that cared about both of those things… oh, wait. Duh. Savra. Savra wants me to have creatures in play for her to do her thing, which is killing everyone’s creatures that aren’t mine! Savra is thematically and mechanically a perfect fit for the two lead stars of my idea. The engines that will make Savra effective and useful will ALSO be the same engines that make the Soul Bros. effective and useful.

This kind of synergy is what makes deck building enjoyable to me. Finding pieces that interlock together and play off each other – but not necessarily infinite combos and such – is a true joy of mine. Once I realize Savra was infinitely better then Skullbriar for this particular deck, things really took off.

By now, you’ve realized that this deck’s inspiration was, at first, a scenario where I just wanted to play two specific cards, and that was my starting point. But, that was a sort of incomplete form of inspiration – after all, taking off just from those two cards, my attempts at building the deck around them were hitting all sorts of dead ends and problems. It wasn’t until after I realized the cross-synergy between the Soul Bros. and Savra that the inspiration process was truly complete, and the deck began to grow organically from there.

Harvester of Souls and Soul of the Harvest are cool cards, and I’m still very happy with them, but from a deckbuilding standpoint they just don’t quite do enough to suggest a direction for the deck. Obviously, I want to cast some creatures, and kill others. That’s too generic and broad, though, to give the deck an identity. That’s why it wasn’t coming together with Skullbriar. Not enough of a cohesive and clear direction led to me just throwing random shit together. BAD IDEA!

Once I added Savra to the equation, though, cards began to suggest themselves right and left. Savra leads to  Grave Pact and Butcher of Malakir, as redundant effects. Utilizing Savra herself means I want plenty of dudes to sacrifice, so I started looking for ways to make tokens, and ways to sacrifice them for additional value. This led to more ideas, and those ideas led to still more ideas. This is what I mean by “growing a deck orgainically”.

You start by asking “What does this deck actually DO?” Once you know that, you then can look for cards that:

A)     Directly do what it is you want the deck to do.
B)      Somehow support doing what it is you want to do.
C)      Benefit or add value to what you’re doing.
D)     Make whatever it is your doing into an actual win condition.
E)      Generic utlity cards that might happen to also synergize with the deck.
F)      Generic utility cards that just make the deck work or fill holes in the deck.

I usually do the above in exactly that order. I’ll give an example or two of each type of card, from the Savra deck.

A)     Grave Pact is probably the single most obvious and important card in a Savra-centric build. Obvious inclusion.
B)      Any token-producers, removal spells, or sac outlets fit this criteria
C)      The Soul Bros themselves are the most fitting examples of adding value. What I’m doing is: Making guys, killing guys. Adding these two guys turn both of those actions into card drawing value. Also, Grim Feast fits, as it gains me life for killing guys.
D)     Massacre Wurm, Blood Artist and Falkenrath Noble all turn “killing guys” into “killing players”.
E)      Sakura-Tribe Elder is the perfect example. He’s already a good ramp spell, but in this case he’s vastly superior to spell-based ramp like Cultivate, because he’s a creature with a self-sac ability, all highly relevant and highly synergistic with the main goals of the deck!
F)      Any generic “Good Stuff” inclusion fits here. I kept these to a minimum but I don’t think it’s worth compromising the playability of the deck to completely avoid using “good stuff” or staples.

In most decks, I’m happy to just play Cultivate, Kodama’s Reach and Wood Elves as my default ramp package and call it a day, but I love it when I can find a compelling reason to play Harrow instead of Reach, or Yavimaya Elder instead of Wood Elves. In this deck, Worm Harvest is a key role-player in that it’s one of the very few ways to make creature tokens that are both Green and Black (super important, if you don’t want to die to Savra’s ability!). Having Worm Harvest in the deck means I want ways to get lands into the graveyard.

So, I start by adding fetches like Verdant Grove, Cycling lands like Barren Moor, and of course ramp spells like Scapeshift and Harrow. I also used Realms Uncharted and Life From the Loam at first, but I found I was getting killed while I was durdling around with my Lands. LOL. Anyway, I had to build in support for Worm Harvest, which was itself support for Savra.

Another tid-bit: this is one of the few decks I’ve ever seen where I’d just flat-out rather have Barter in Blood instead of Damnation. Of course, I’d run both if I had the space, but I was forced to chose between them, and Barter is just too synergistic to pass up. It can be a total blow-out against most non-token decks. It’s pretty terrible against another token deck, but whatever. 9 times out of 10, provided I’m the only token deck at the table, Barter in Blood + Savra = Plague Wind for four mana. In a vacuum, Damnation is flat out better, but this is a prime example of why you should give even the boring utility spells of your deck a second look: If nothing jumps out as being synergistic or “techy”, then it’s perfectly fine to just run the most generically powerful version of whatever it is you need.

Another example: If I’m playing Geth, Lord of the Vault as my general, I’m probably going to want Life’s Finale over almost any other board sweeper. I might run others, too, but if I somehow only had room for ONE sweeper, it’d be Life’s Finale, due to its techy synergy with my general. In a generic Thraximundar good-stuff build, however, I’m probably just going straight for Damnation as “tech” is less important than overall power level.

I usually start by following these organic threads of logic – I have this card, which suggests I use this card as support, which in turn suggests that card, followed by these two cards, etc. – until I have the core of the deck complete. Sometimes just this stage alone will result in you having way too many cards, but not always. Anyway, once I have the core synergies of the deck outlined, I look for ways to make the deck WIN GAMES.

So far, with the Savra deck, I’ve got ways to make guys, kill guys and draw cards, but only the “making guys” part really pushes us to an end game. In light of this, I added the Massacre Wurm/Blood Artist/Falkenrath Noble package to make the “killing guys” also viable as a win-condition. I could have also added something like Psychosis Crawler to turn “drawing cards” into a win-con but that seemed too unreliable and janky to actually work out.

As a much less techy – but still fairly relevant – win-con I added the *yawn* Prime Time/Avenger team-up. Boring, but they actually make too much sense in this deck not to run. In the mean time, overrunning with a token swarm or a massive Vulturous Zombie, or basically anything with a Sword of Feast and Famine all make fairly acceptable fall-back plans.

In the end, I’d say about 80 to 85 percent of the non-land cards in my Savra deck are, in some way, synergistic with the core ideas the deck is built upon – that is making guys, killing guys, and drawing cards. At one point I had Griselbrand + Sword of War and Peace in the deck too, and that was not only everything the deck wanted to do on an epic scale, but also a stone-cold win condition in and of itself. Then Griselbrand got the banhammer (deservedly so!), and the deck lost some of that power, but I was able to make up for it in other areas.
Anyway, the exact percentages don’t matter, and should be different from deck to deck.

My Rafiq deck really pushes the synergy and theme as hard as it can, to the point where there is damn near nothing in the deck that is strictly just a “good stuff” inclusion. Almost every single card plays directly into the deck’s main game plan which is to Double-Strike and Exalted someone to death as fast as savagely as possible. Even the Primeval Titan is there more because he’s just the best 6-power Trampler there is, and is even better as a 7/7 Double Strike trampler! Almost every creature either has some form of Evasion, a Combat Damage ability, or an ability that in some way makes Rafiq kill faster and more efficiently.

Some decks have a theme or identity that only needs so much support before it is “good enough to get there” and you have a LOT of room to fill out the deck with other stuff. My Wrexial build clearly has a main stragtegy of “stealing things” yet the deck is probably 3/4 “control” and only 1/4 “stealing things” because that’s really all you need for that strategy to be effective, and generic board control is just what you want to do the rest of the time. Going too heavy on your Plan A when that’s not the right call for the particular deck is a disaster.

If you really, really push your theme front and center, and you find the deck underperforming, usually the best place to start tuning it up is to slowly back off the theme elements just a bit and add more objectively powerful stuff. You don’t want to kill the theme, just find the elements where the theme is weakest – the cards that are starting to be liabilities instead of assets, and cut those. Try to find powerful “staples” that are still at least loosely connected to your theme or strategy, or have some synergy with the deck’s game plan. If there aren’t any, don’t be afraid to grab something more generic, if the power level and/or the weakness it patches up justify its inclusion.

So, to reiterate and sum up: Once you have the little nugget of inspiration, ask “What do I want my deck to do?” or, and even better question: “What does my deck want to do?” Often that little nugget of inspiration will answer the second question much more clearly than you could answer the first question. Because ultimately, that nugget IS what you want the deck to do, which is why the idea grabbed you and made you want to build the deck in the first place.

Occasionally, I will take an entirely different approach to building a deck. Despite the stigma it has within the community, I am an unapologetic fan of the “Good Stuff” archetype. I usually like my good stuff to be at least minutely synergistic and lead to a clear, concise line of play, but I also like running a pile of broken, busted cards like Prime Time and Constipated Sphinx and shit like that.

My favorite build within this archetype is Grixis Good Stuff control. Thraximundar is easily in the Top 5 of my all-time favorite Generals for EDH. And he’s so damn good, in fact, that you really only need to make a handful of minor concessions to Thrax and his abilities, leaving a VAST amount of deck space available for whatever the hell you feel like putting in it! I’ve seen some truly shitty-looking and random-as-hell Thrax builds just curbstomp an entire table. I’ve seen a Thrax deck that was actually a group hug/chaos deck meant specifically for Multiplayer still kick ass in a 1v1 game.

So, how do I build a Thraximundar deck? I start with Thraxi, of course, and add in maybe, oh, 5 or 6 cards that are specifically chosen because of him and the deck’s “strategy”. Fleshbag Marauder and Barter in Blood are obvious , when our general cares about opponents sac-ing dudes. Then, I build the boring, utility part of the deck. This mostly consists of mana rocks, as we are playing a 7 mana general without access to green, so jam-packing as much mana fixing and acceleration we can find is of paramount importance. Then I just start picking out handfuls of the best and most powerful basic utilty spells - Card drawing, removal and tutors. Mulldrifter, Terminate, Demonic Tutor. Etc., etc.

Finally, I get to the fun part: I go through Gatherer and my own rare binders and pull out basically every generically powerful spell in the right colors that I can get my hands on. I avoid specific types of cards: No counterspells, no Ruination, no unfun shit like that. I don’t want to be a funwrecker. But I grab stuff like: Consecrated Sphinx, Geth, Lord of the Vault, Blasphemous Act, and Nicol Bolas Planeswalker. Jace the Mind Sculptor. Inferno Titan. Time Spiral. Prophetic Bolt. Decree of Pain. Treachery and Bribery. Wheel of Fortune. Mimic Vat. Duplicant.

There’s no theme. There’s no rhyme or reason. Just pure, undiluted power. Stupid, broken power. By now I have like 200 cards sitting on a pile. I go through them one by one and at first I only cut the cards that seem directly anti-synergistic in some way. It’s hard to imagine what, exactly, might be anti-synergistic in a deck that is virtually free of synergy, but believe me, there’s always a few cards in the pile that make me think “Oh wait running that would hose this.” I also look for any potential infinite combos, and make sure something gets cut so that no “Oops, I win!” moments happen to crop up. Mikeaus the Unhallowed is one of those red flags – he enables a lot of infinite combos, so whenever I include him, I am careful to keep an eye out for accidental shenanigans.

Then I basically just start cutting for power. The weakest get cut, while the strongest stay. Eventually I get close to a playable stack, then the last step is to just massage the mana curve a bit, make sure the deck isn’t TOO loaded up with expensive haymakers and bombs. I make sure I have plenty of draw and removal for the early game, but also plenty of random powerful bombs to drop later. Everything that seems too situational, narrow, or just plain weak gets the axe. Anything that seems really powerful but is perhaps just a hair too expensive? Cut.

That’s the deck, in a nutshell. It’s not for everyone, and nobody is really going to be impressed. It’s not original. But it is a hell of a lot of fun to build, and to play! What’s the deck’s theme? Thraxi-Bombs. What’s my main strategy? Thraxi, backed up by bombs. What are my win-cons? Thraxi; shitloads of bombs. I can practically hear you rolling your eyes now, so I’ll stop there.

The point is: just as there is no “one way” to get inspiration for a deck idea, different ideas lend themselves to different methods of execution. The whole “organic” process I laid out with my Savra deck is currently my default go-to process with almost all my decks these days, but that’s mostly because I used to be much more prone to “good stuff” decks and got bored with all my decks being piles of good cards. I’ve been picking more “build around me” generals, or more defined themes or strategies for my decks, which has led to more deck building sessions like the one for Savra, where I start by identifying a core guiding principal and extrapolating from that core what should go in the deck.

It has led to some remarkably eye-opening experiences. I have built some decks that are really quite good through this process, but I’ve also built some absolute turds as well. Either way, it leads to a more fulfilling experience because I’m not just grasping at randomly good spells and trying to cobble some semblance of strategy out of them. I’ve learned the value of theme and fun in the format, but I’ve also reaffirmed the value of generically powerful cards as well. I still love a Good Stuff deck, but I like theme and synergy a lot more, too.

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