Seedborn Musings – One Thing Leads to Another

Put in something wrong.  You know it’s in there too long, but then…one thing leads to another.

When it comes to fixxing your deck, there are a ton of options that make a major difference in whether your deck is the machine you dreamed of or whether it doesn’t start.  The same is true for drawing dead late in the game; nothing takes the wind out of a game quite like it.  This isn’t as hard as it seems; it’s just a matter of choosing your support spells better, which often is as simple as switching commons around.  Here are some basic questions you should ask, with the rest of the article explaining my take on each of them.

Does your deck want ramp, color fixing, rituals, or none of the above?

Do you need to draw lots of cards, cycle, cantrip, filter cards, or just put in lots of good spells?

How much of your deck’s objective is too much?

What cards are responsible for your worst games?

The more ambitious the deck, the more vital and difficult these questions are.  If you solve them, though, you’ll find that your decks that knock on awesome’s door finally open it up.  If you find your enthusiasm for a deck waning, try fixing these problems and see if it helps.

Ramp v. Color Fixing v. Rituals v. None of the Above

I’ll start from the back on this one.  You can go without any of these in a few circumstances:

  • You’re monocolored or artifact.
  • You have a low curve.
  • Your deck requires a certain set of spells for card advantage (e.g. Lead the Stampede, Dark Tutelage, non-green landfall).

There are plenty of decks that fit here, and one of the advantages to those types is that they don’t need a whole lot of other setup to be good.

Rituals have a limited function, but they’re great for the right deck.  Here are some reasons to run rituals:

  • Your deck has one or two major plays that it tries to protect with cheap stuff.
  • Your deck has an intense need of a particular color.
  • It’s a storm deck or some other deck that wants to cast lots of spells.
  • The deck’s major plays are so much better than their normal turns that it’s worth burning a card on mana just to make it happen.

Phyrexian Negator isn’t much of a good turn 4 or 5 play.  It’s good on turn 3, but it’s patently absurd on turn 1.  Dark Ritual makes it happen and ramp doesn’t.  It’s why Negator and Ritual go together like cocoa and krispies: One enables the absurdity of the other.  Similarly, although not as classic, a turn 3 Cyclops Gladiator can dominate a board much more than a turn 4 one can.  Pyretic Ritual gives you the triple red necessary to do that in whatever deck you’re playing, while speeding it up by a turn.  Similarly, Chandra Nalaar can do a lot more damage as a turn 4 play than she can as a turn 5.  Enter the Ritual again.  Black has a long history of this, but red has entered the field nicely, and there are plenty of decks that may want to win quickly with a midrange threat, at which point rituals make sense.

While most players getting familiar with these concepts embrace ramp quickly, color fixing is a neglected variant the understanding of which can make all the difference to your deck.  I just changed a few cards in the following list this week which by the early results say that they made a ton of difference:

4 Cylian Sunsinger
4 Woolly Thoctar
2 Naya Battlemage
2 Goblin Razerunners
2 Protean Hydra
2 Avenger of Zendikar
1 Retaliator Griffin
4 Mayael’s Aria
4 Obelisk of Naya
4 Horizon Spellbomb
4 Soul’s Might
3 Strength of the Tajuru

24 basic lands (the 3 Jungle Shrines I own are in my wife’s Naya deck)

Shard decks like this one need color-fixing, not ramp.  Horizon Spellbomb was a step in that direction, but the next important step was cutting Obelisk of Naya for Prismatic Lens.  (I also cut Retaliator Griffin and 2 Soul’s Might for Knotvine Mystic.)  There are so many reasons to want RGW on turn 3 that the Obelisk is doing the wrong thing.  Obelisk of Naya can fix colors, sure, but it violated the fundamental principle of color fixing: make sure it’s under the curve of the reasons you want it.  If my deck had lots of 2RGW things, this wouldn’t make a difference, but with Thoctar, Aria, and effectively Sunsinger all wanting RGW as early as possible, the Obelisk wasn’t working.  Nor would Naya Panorama work well here, as colorless mana is basically useless to the deck.

Cutting Obelisk was a nonobvious move because it fixed my colors, but the key was understanding that it didn’t do it at the right time.  Now the deck runs a whole lot smoother, getting that much closer to its dream of winning with Mayael’s Aria.

If Rampant Growth is concerned with the quantity of mana, Mana Cylix and friends are concerned with the quality of mana, and that difference is increasingly relevant the more colors you add to your deck.  As with the previous entries, the advantage of color fixing is that it comes usually from artifacts, as opposed to the greenliness of ramp.  If you’re trying to run an Ultimatum, then you probably want ramp and color fixing, but if you’re just trying to go for an early Woolly Thoctar or Sprouting Thrinax, then hoping the color your draw is green so you can use Rampant Growth isn’t necessarily better than Prismatic Lens, Mana Cylix, or Terramorphic Expanse.

Ramp is the most known of these variants and tends to be used in all the spots where it needs to be.  The problem is when, as discussed above, it’s the wrong tool for the job.  Make sure you’re accelerating things that ought to be accelerated.  Is that 8-mana finisher in your deck worth ramp slots, or would you be better off with a cheaper finisher and slots for other utility or creatures?  Just as an aging power hitter can justify his roster slot and the slot of his pinch-runner/defensive replacement as long as he keeps mashing the ball (but no more), power finishers justify ramp so long as they are actually finishing the game more than something else would.  My Jund deck whose primary goal is to recur Lavalanche or Violent Ultimatum with Charnelhoard Wurm?  Yes, ramp is needed there; Charnelhoard Wurm synergizes with these cards in a way other cards around it can’t do.  The engine costs 7 mana and it’s getting back 7 mana spells; you don’t do that without ramp.

There, it’s necessary.  In many decks that have ramp, it’s a dead draw.

Card Draw v. Cycling v. Cantripping v. Filtering v. None of the above

As with ramp, card draw is associated primarily with a single color, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively there.  Black can rival blue, and green’s got a few spells worth considering.  Card draw’s at its best when you have a sequence of plays that requires a number of cards, or if your deck’s looking to control via having more options than the other players.  It’s not good if you’re curving out to one thing a turn.  Lead the Stampede with typical Elves is good.  Lead the Stampede with a typical fatties deck is not good.

Cycling v. cantripping is a nuance like color fixing v. ramp (even as color fixing is closer to filtering than it is either of the options here).  Cycling is at its best in an options-based deck, whereas cantripping is just there to help fuel the plan.  Many decks don’t have the space for fog effects; Angelsong gives them the option.  Cycling is a deck’s insurance policy.  Should things go wrong, you have the card to protect you; should things go right, you can get something else.  Other great cycling cards include Krosan Tusker, Viscera Dragger, and the forgotten Radiant’s Judgment.  One of the hidden benefits of the Astral Slide decks was the options afforded by cycling.  Eventually, they could sculpt a hand with stuff useful to the game state by cycling away what wasn’t going to be useful.

Cantripping is more straightforward and also more of an auto-include, at least in multiplayer.  If you’re deciding between a card that cantrips and one that doesn’t, the latter makes sense only for curve reasons (i.e. if you tend to have spare mana open for the cheaper one but not the cantrip).  If your black decks are using Tormod’s Crypt, switch them to Nihil Spellbomb; the extra mana won’t kill you unless your metagame is Manabarbs and chaff.  Cantripping isn’t about giving a plan B; it’s about increasing the odds of finding your plan A.  This is why cards like Prophetic Prism are casual gold; they’re color-fixing and cantrips, which are both facets of enhancing plan A for several decks.  Kaleidostone is the same way for five-color decks, and Elsewhere Flask has similar applications.

Card filtering has been a somewhat irrelevant matter for most colors until Crystal Ball showed up.  I haven’t tried it in a variety of decks, but I do like scrying.  The Grand Architect deck I used to run in Standard won tons off the back of Augury Owl and Sea Gate Oracle, not only because they were blue creatures for the Architect but because the pair of them ensured it was next to impossible to miss my combo pieces.  While opponents had awkward mulligan decisions, 2 Islands and an Owl meant I was going to sculpt the things I needed in the order I needed them.  And that’s where filtering is best, in my opinion – when you need to sculpt the sequence of plays a certain way or when your hand from game to game makes you need different cards in your upcoming draws.  If I had the Grand Architect and Steel Hellkite in hand, I’d want my scry to reveal a Clone but not a second Architect necessarily; if I had the Clone in hand with nothing else, I’d want the scry to reveal a Grand Architect but not a second Clone.  If you can classify your deck as finicky, but it’s not options-based, then you’re looking for scry.

Lastly, there are the “good stuff” decks that are fine with topdecking.  Slow fatties decks might fall into this category, as they’re unlikely to cast more than one spell a turn anyway.  Individual spells are powerful enough that the occasional dead draw won’t kill them.  While you can make plenty of decks along this line, they normally take a pretty extensive collection to have enough spells that can justify themselves independently.  When you see an opponent play these decks, you’ll know what they are.  The rest of the time, it’s probably best to put some filtering or cantripping in if your deck theme supports it.

I’d include library search as another category here, but its uses are almost entirely in combo decks, which are their own beast and aren’t going to have the deckbuilding decisions this article contemplates.

How much of your deck’s objective is too much?

There’s an easy way to build theme decks – cramming everything on the theme into a deck and pressing play.  Depending on the power of the theme, this can work out fine.  If you’re making a Soldier deck, having 4 Field Marshals, 4 Daru Warchiefs, 4 Raise the Alarms, and 24 random Soldiers probably is a reasonable deck.  The theme is linear, obvious, and powerful – include away!

The more esoteric the theme, the harder this balance is.  One of my favorite decks became surprisingly good only when I figured this out – it was mediocre before.  It was a Void Maw list featuring the Daryl special, Nezumi Graverobber, and several other graveyard exile cards to beat face with Carrion Wurm or my personal favorite, Plague Wind with Void Maw (hint: you’re killing somebody that turn).  It was innovative and fun, but it had many tepid plays.  A lot of this was from including Merrow Bonegnawer and similar cards.  The deck was so good at exiling graveyards with its good pieces that it didn’t need backup – it needed synergy.  Changing about 10 cards made the deck not only more fun (since it worked more) but more effective than anyone had imagined – and notice how many of the things I’ve hit on are in the changes:

4 Basal Thrull
4 Viscera Dragger
4 Nezumi Graverobber
4 Offalsnout
4 Void Maw
2 Carrion Wurm
2 Gravestorm
4 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Plague Wind
4 Shred Memory
4 Death Rattle

22 Swamp

The key changes here were Offalsnout, Gravestorm (which I bought to improve the deck), and Nihil Spellbomb.  As with Basal Thrull, Offalsnout combos quite well with the deck, as evoking Offalsnout with Void Maw out equals a weird black pump spell.  Nihil Spellbomb’s cantrip is vital for a plan A deck like this one.  Gravestorm is the stone nuts here, as it’s virtually impossible for you not to draw cards off it.  This deck is a classic example of a deck where, having built in a number of positive and fun interactions, finding the right support turned it into a juggernaut.  With the Spellbombs, Gravestorms, and Viscera Draggers, I have 10 spells that will draw me a card, which is sort of surprising in a black deck that isn’t trading in life for cards.

I had pursued a theme of graveyard exile that, while linear, wasn’t powerful enough on its own to warrant cards just for theme.  Adding synergy changed everything, and now it’s one of my signature decks.

(A side note: my signature decks are about making synergy from confusing cards.  One friend described my decks as playing head scratchers until everything comes together, at which point you go “ooohh, I get it,” and that characterization has been affirmed by others.  Why am I exiling graveyards so much?  So I can draw cards and get to the point where Void Maw takes a creature, then sticks it in your graveyard just long enough for me to animate it with a flipped Nezumi Graverobber.  That’s nonobvious from Nihil Spellbomb.  This, more than anything, is my defining deckbuilding characteristic; the decks I hold nearest and dearest to my Magic heart all have it in common.)

What cards are responsible for your worst games?

This question can’t be answered profitably until you have a keen eye on the other three.  Once you know to monitor those aspects, you’ll be well on your way to fixing things the first or second time you try.  The Mayael’s Aria deck is on version 2.5 or so.  I had emphasized the counters theme a bit too much, and the best creatures for these purposes, such as Triskelion, were slowing the deck down.  “Still had all these” plagued the deck, as did color screw.  Once Horizon Spellbomb came out, I was able to fix some of that, and Triskelions and Feral Hydras came out for Avenger of Zendikar (which is superb with Aria, for what it’s worth), so things flowed better.  But I still found myself with too many Soul’s Mights in hand and not enough RGW when I needed it.  Even though Soul’s Might is great for this deck, a 4G sorcery waiting for good stuff to go with it wanted to be something else.  I already discussed the Obelisk of Naya issue, but too many Soul’s Mights was a concomitant problem – too much synergy that taunted me in the hand.

In the abstract, Obelisk of Naya and 4 Soul’s Mights were perfect for this deck.  As the games and mana curve unfolded, they didn’t work.  I’m not always good at seeing when these things need to be changed; it takes practice and observation, as well as not being slavishly devoted to any card that you’re not building the deck around.

Power level issues reveal themselves in multiplayer easily, but curve/fixing issues don’t, because normally you have time to build up to something.  But remember that, when you drew the deck up, it was based on the idea that you would cast your spells on time.  A turn 5 Woolly Thoctar is just a more colorful Spined Wurm.  In multiplayer, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that your turn 5 Thoctar is powerful, because it would have been powerful if you had cast it on turn 3.  But by then, you’re playing Spined Wurm to your opponents’ relevant turn 5 plays.  Curve/fixing issues become power level issues in multiplayer, but the format doesn’t tell you that.

So if you suspect mana issues, play some duels with the deck, even if the deck’s meant for multiplayer.  Duels are far less forgiving on mana issues – why do you think pros spend so much time on their mana bases? – and the value of your spells is more directly tied to when you cast them.  Dueling will give you more games to test the issue as well, so you get a double advantage out of it.

Putting it all together

If the foregoing seems a lot to work on, it’s not as difficult as my verbosity implies.  All these questions are interconnected.  Take out your clunkiest cards and add the appropriate fixing, be it for colors, cantrips, added synergy, or whatever you need.  I’ve had countless decks go from drab to fab just by changing 8 cards.  If you’re the type who gives up on a deck early, try fixing it with these questions in mind first, and you just might find that your deck ideas are better than you thought.  There are loads of powerful cards in Magic.  The challenge is finding their best context, and whether that’s making an abstractly powerful card work or squeezing the potential out of weird card, working on these issues will make your decks a whole lot better.


About Brandon Isleib

Author of Playing for a Winner: How Baseball Teams' Success Raises Players' Reputations; sometimes-writer at GatheringMagic and Muse Vessel; card name/flavor text team for Magic 2015; Wizards of the Coast's first Digital Event Coordinator; directly responsible for the verb "create" on Magic cards; legislation editor for Seattle; voracious music consumer; Christian.
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2 Responses to Seedborn Musings – One Thing Leads to Another

  1. Pingback: Seedborn Musings – How to Win in Magic | Muse Vessel

  2. Pingback: Flashback! – The best of 2011

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