Deckbuilding is more of an art than a science, and it is impossible to say that any deck is ‘perfect’ or ‘optimized’ except in a very relative sense. On the other hand, we all want to make our decks as good as possible. There are many limits that we face as deckbuilders, and making our decks better is a matter of identifying and overcoming those limits. Today I’m going to show the evolution of an EDH deck that has come a looooong way – further than any of my others, I think – and show why I made the changes I have, what limits I’ve overcome and what limits remain. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how I look at EDH, show how multiplayer strategy affects card choices, and help you with your own decks.
In the Beginning…
…the deck was a formless void. My Thraximundar EDH deck began when Alara block gave me a huge pile of RBU cards. As every casual player knows, one of the world’s great tragedies – right behind global famine, gender inequality and boy bands – is when cool cards aren’t being used in decks. So I cracked a Cruel Ultimatum in a booster, found a Grixis-colored general and threw together a pile of cards – pile being the operative word. A big part of the process was simply finding as many half-way interesting three-color cards as possible, cards that weren’t going to fit in other decks. The general was Sol’Kanar the Swamp King, just because he was old-school, and I liked the combination of evasion and lifegain. I also had a Prince of Thralls and Sedris as heavy hitters, and pretty much everything else was just a question of “I wonder what this does.” Sometimes you’re going to plan out every single aspect of a deck before you sleeve it up, but I much prefer the organic process of playing with cards, seeing how they interact, and putting new combinations together.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the idea of casting those big, beefy powerful spells in those colors. Of course, the Ultimatum was the coolest, but I also had fun with Overwhelming Forces, Slave of Bolas, Void and others. Another big change was realizing that Thraximundar was one of the most powerful generals in the game – I actually won an EDH duel where my buddy Xin got a second-turn Marit Lage, through a combination of desperate chump-blocking and lucky top-decking into a Dark Ritual and fourth- or fifth-turn Thrax. A general who (usually) hits for seven, has haste, changes the board state, and kills Akroma? Sign me up!
Here’s the earliest version that I bothered writing down:
As you can see, this is the worst case of overgold since B.A. Baracus, and it’s not really meant to cast any spells before turn six. This deck has only really overcome the first limitation on deckbuilding: theme. I knew I wanted to cast big powerful spells that shake up the whole game (what the Great Alongi called “Gorillas”), then get ‘em back and do it all over again. Every deck needs a theme, in the sense of an overarching goal that you’re trying to accomplish, just like every journey needs a destination. And just like a journey, deciding where you want your deck to go is just the beginning.
The second limitation for this deck to overcome was card availability. Most of us will never be able to get as many cards as we want, and if we do, we’d just build a bunch of new decks and then we’d need more cards. You don’t need to be playing the most expensive cards to have fun or even to win reliably, but the fact is that some spells are better than others, and getting better cards will often significantly improve the performance of your decks. As an example, the card that sticks out most in the 2.1 decklist is probably Hellfire – a great old-school card that was for a long time the best board sweeper in Black. I got one a long time ago and hardly ever used it, but especially when the demon Sol’Kanar was my general, I figured a little more of a devilish theme was a good idea. The thing is, it really is a subpar card; if you want to kill all of their creatures then Plague Wind or perhaps Reiver Demon are more effective, and if you really need a board sweeper then you want Damnation first and foremost. I learned that the hard way when someone cast Storm Herd and announced that he would attack me next turn. I drew a Demonic Collusion and tutored for an answer but the closest thing I could find was Hellfire. What a painful quandary: a lethal 40 from the birds, or a lethal 43 from my own spell? I chose to die with my boots on and killed the birds, along with myself, all the while wishing that I had Damnation in my deck. Unfortunately, despite having an über-Rare Legends card that most people have never seen, I just didn’t have enough copies of Damnation to spare for Thrax.
There are other cards that are conspicuous by their absence. Even if your general only costs five, it’s still nice to have a Sol Ring to speed things along, and when you change to a seven-drop it becomes even more important. Similarly, while Diabolic Tutor is a great card, it is a strictly worse Demonic Tutor. Also, I know you didn’t really read that decklist carefully, but if you did you would have noticed that I was missing one each of the Ravnica shock-lands and bounce-lands that I could have been using. These are all examples of a deck being weaker than it otherwise could have been because I didn’t have, couldn’t spare or couldn’t find certain cards. I solved a lot of these problems eventually, although every new set has at least one ridiculously expensive card that I want to slot into one or more EDH decks; the problem of card availability may never be completely solved, but evolution means coming closer to a solution.
The third and arguably most important limitation that I began to deal with was focus. Some people might think that this is the same as theme, but it’s not; theme is about deciding what you most want to do, while focusing your deck is as much about taking out other stuff as it is about adding to the theme. For example, you can see a weak discard sub-theme, with Blightning, Pain Magnification and Rise//Fall, amongst others – an earlier iteration of the deck even had Blazing and Doomsday Specters. Leaving aside the question of whether these cards, or discard generally, are effective in multiplayer, it is clear that these cards are not the Gorillas I wanted to cast, and the deck’s focus could be improved by replacing them with on-theme cards or better support.
Focus is a balancing act, because if your deck is too good at doing one thing, then it will play the same way every time and do very little else, which will bore everyone except the hardest of hardcore spikes. You need to include some cards that are just fun to play, whether they match the focus of the deck or not. The trick, as near as I can tell, is to take out the cards that actively stop you from achieving your focus, without going all out to put in every possible way of achieving it and making the deck dull and predictable.
One of the best ways to do that is to look at a related but still distinct limitation: efficiency. At one point I just got tired of too many opening grips full of uncastable spells, and cleared out all of the most expensive spells that weren’t really getting it done for me. Don’t get me wrong – even the sleekest and most up-to-date version is still as top-heavy as a sumo in stilettos – but there has to be a limit to how many cards cost six or more mana, unless you really enjoy passing the turn. Efficiency is like an aphrodisiac to the tournament set, but it shouldn’t be a turn-off to casual players; you just need to look at your pet cards and see that some of them are more compatible with the core of your deck than others. Take Deepfire Elemental, for example. This is a fantastically versatile card that provided some much needed artifact removal, as well as clearing out token creatures and weenies so that Thrax could force my opponents to sacrifice their real bombs. But at the same time, it is very mana intensive, and I soon realized that blowing cheap stuff up with a repeatable effect wasn’t as much fun as blowing up expensive stuff with Ultimatum or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, so I cut it. Another easy cut was Kaervek, a fantastically powerful card that offers an extra dimension in multiplayer but which had no interactions with anything else. A general rule is that you shouldn’t have too many critters with the same mana cost as your general anyway, and if your deck has too many expensive win conditions and not enough support cards, you’re never going to actually, you know, win.
So what got cut? The first to go were:
- Executioner’s Capsule – I can recur everything except artifacts and enchantments, so I started to wonder what exactly is the point of this;
- Rise//Fall, Pain Magnification, Blightning – no room for this particular subtheme. Maybe I’ll make a Gwendlyn Di Corci deck later;
- Jilt – Hmmm, this is early removal, but it’s highly situational and best cast late …sometimes when you get mixed messages from a card that means it’s versatile; other times it just means that it’s wrong for your deck. I might come back to it, but I doubt it
- Deepfire, Kaervek, Crosis, Sol’Kanar, Mindwrack Liege, Djinn Illuminatus, Vicious Shadows – for various reasons, these were the least enjoyable/relevant of my high-end spells. All of them are good and some of them are great, but there was too much expensive stuff, especially considering some of the other additions I made
- Hellfire, Scythe of the Wretched, Vedalken Orrery, Suffocating Blast, Bituminous Blast – almost strictly better alternatives were available
These are the cards I played around with in the first couple of waves of changes. Not everything I added stayed – some were just experiments and some were good cards that got obsoleted – but that’s part of fun!
- River Kelpie, Rhystic Study, Liliana Vess, Demonic Tutor, Mana Crypt, Sol Ring – card draw, tutoring and mana accel can be overdone, but these types of cards are considered good for a reason. A deck that never fires isn’t fun, either for the deckbuilder or its opponents. Kelpie in particular is gold in a deck with a reasonable amount of reanimation, especially if Crucible of Worlds and fetchlands are common in your meta;
- Damnation, Overwhelming Forces, Sorin Markov – found them, bought them, put them in. A casual deck doesn’t have to be a budget deck, and especially if you can get good toys for bargain prices, I say go for it;
- Rakdos Carnarium, Bojuka Bog, Halimar Depths, Crypt of Agadeem, Dragonskull Summit, Drowned Catacombs – take care of your mana base and your mana base will take care of you. There is a danger of having too many lands come into play tapped (which is why I’m considering Amulet of Vigor), but getting the right mix of mana and getting some utility out of your land drops can be worth the price;
- Deathrender, Nim Deathmantle – Equipment that enables recursion and lets you cheat your overpriced toys into play is good news;
- Fleshbag Marauder, Prophetic Blast, Innocent Blood – I don’t know if I’ve ever been completely happy with the removal suite in any deck, but the global sac effects are perfect for a sac-happy guy like Thrax. Replacing Bit-Blast with Prophetic Blast was harder, as I really prefer Bit-Blast, but Cascade for <5 isn’t as good in a gorilla deck. On the other hand, Impulse lets you dig for mana and enablers in the early game, and finds your bombs when you’re ready to cast them;
- Beacon of Unrest, Recall, Grim Discovery, Victimize, Balthor the Defiled – if you’re going to recur your spells, why not recur your critters and stuff as well? I may have put too many eggs in my graveyard with this deck, but what kind of Black mage would I be if this wasn’t my favorite play style? Also, Balthor might be the best card that a Black deck could possibly topdeck in the late game;
- Leyline of Anticipation – almost strictly better Vedalken Orrery in a Blue deck. I didn’t have room for both, so I plugged the Leyline in here and put the Orrery in another deck. It isn’t ideal, but your decks have to learn to play nice with each other
Polishing to a Glossy Sheen
Once you’ve removed the cards that were getting in your way and established a strong focus for the deck, it’s largely about making sure the remaining pieces work well together – maximizing synergy. Granted, synergy is a bullshit word made up by Madison Avenue marketing executives, but the idea is important. What are the core cards in your deck? What are your main tutor targets? What cards do you most enjoy playing with?
For Thrax, the core of the deck quickly became Cruel Ultimatum and Nucklavee recursion – sure, there are a couple of creatures that get you back one spell, but Nucklavee has the potential to get you back two, and that’s exactly the kind of card advantage you want to maximize. So I started to switch cards around so that every red or blue spell could be retrieved with Nucklavee – red sorceries and blue instants. To give you an idea of how serious I am about this, I took out Terminate, one of the best removal spells in the game, because it wasn’t a red sorcery. Eventually, I even replaced Slave of Bolas, which I love, for Spinal Embrace, which is similar and more powerful but harder to cast and less compatible with Deathrender, because I needed more blue instants. The only non-black spells that made it through this process were Beacon of Tomorrows (blue sorcery that self-recurs) and Wild Ricochet (an unbelievably useful red instant).
Another change hat I made recently was to reduce my vulnerability to sweepers by taking out the Signets and Journeyer’s Kite and replacing them with creature-based acceleration – Solemn Simulacrum and Pilgrim’s Eye, plus a Corpse Dance to reuse them better. This gave me more early board presence, increased the utility of my equipment and increased my reanimation targets, without significantly slowing me down. Another key card in this deck is Cauldron Dance, a ridiculously fun uncommon that doesn’t see nearly enough play, and there’s nothing worse than having Dance and a huge fattie in your hand but no critters in your graveyard. These smaller critters work really well with the Dance. Signets are a great way to play a four-drop on turn three, but they don’t do quite so much in terms of getting you to a gorilla on turn six instead of turn seven. In a deck like this, I’d rather hit more land drops, thin out my deck and not lose so much of my mana to a Disk. Relying on creatures more also gives me more use out of the recently-added Mimic Vat. Synergy can be tricky; sometimes changing just one or two cards can make a major difference to how well all of the pieces of your deck work together, so you should always consider it when evaluating the performance of individual cards, and your deck as a whole.
Another limitation that you will have to deal with on an ongoing basis is the metagame: how well you are equipped to deal with the decks you play against most often. Thrax has turned into much more of a Control deck than I originally intended, and it is usually very hard for anyone else to keep any critters on the board once he gets rolling. In some metagames, that will make him a monster, but in others there may be so few creatures that he becomes impotent. My playgroup still relies on creatures, but recently I have seen more and more reliance on artifacts, both for acceleration and general bomby goodness. As a result, I’ve found myself needing more artifact removal than ever, so I brought back Void, which had been on the bench for a while, replaced Nekrataal with Oxidda Scrapmelter, and am seriously looking for something else to address this weakness, whether it’s as simple as adding a Manic Vandal or as radical as replacing equipment for Shatterstorm and Meltdown (a word that has been making all of us in Tokyo very nervous during the last week). I would have already added Shattering Pulse or Into the Core, but of course they don’t come back with Nucklavee.
As of this writing, one of the funnest decks I’ve ever played looks like this:
Thraximundar: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle 2.3
As good and as fun as this deck is, it would be a mistake to think that it was optimized, perfect or otherwise finished. Like a gleaming undead shark, Thrax (and every other deck) will either move forward or die. At one stage I might even take out Cruel Ultimatum just to increase the variety of the deck; at the very least I can already name four cards that aren’t pulling their weight relative to the rest of the deck, and will be looking for replacements for them, a process that should never stop for any deck, EDH or otherwise.
However, there is one final limitation that I will never overcome: fun. However you define fun, whatever cards or combinations flick your switch, it is always possible to improve a deck past the point at which it is fun for you to play. For Thrax, I could probably improve his performance by taking out a couple of the most expensive spells and adding Mirage fetchlands, or by taking out a few of the utility creatures and all of the equipment for tutors, Time Walk effects and mana acceleration. However, if I did that, I would end up winning more games in fewer ways – every game would become about slamming Thrax down and killing my opponents with him before they got a chance to defend themselves. I would lose a lot of the variance that is supposed to be at the heart of a Highlander format, and I wouldn’t have a chance to make the more interesting plays that are, ultimately, the reason why I play the game.
Tinkering with your decks is a way to have fun with Magic when you aren’t playing the game, and in fact I probably spend more time tinkering than playing these days. Make sure you know what limitations your decks have – whether that is theme, card availability, focus, efficiency, synergy, fun or something else – and be on the lookout for ways to overcome them, but don’t get so carried away with the process that you forget to keep it casual.