One of the great things about building casual decks is that you can be inspired by any of the cards hiding in your booster pack, especially when a new set comes out. I always end up with a big pile of new cards that I want to slot into existing decks—and if I do, the cards that come out of one deck go right into that big pile and vie for a place in another deck (the few SoLaS I own are caught in a continuous game of Musical Chairs, cycling endlessly between decks). The release of a new set is always a great time for the casual deckbuilder, and New Phyrexia is no exception. In the next few weeks I’m going to talk about some of the new decks I’ve been tinkering with, but today I’m going to look at making killer replacements as you bring new cards into your decks.
I was lucky enough to open a Karn Liberated recently and got very excited about teaming my favorite golem with my favorite Planeswalker (Old Nick, of course!). As things turned out, my plan to convert my Thraximundar EDH deck into a strongly themed Planeswalker combo of doom didn’t work out, because I had to remove too many of the things that make Thrax such a blast to play. I went pretty far down the road before I turned back, though, and learned a couple of lessons about the delicate art of retooling successful decks that I’d like to share with you.
For the record, here’s what Thrax looked like before I met Karn.
My goal was to add Karn and my only copy of Jace, the Mind Sculptor (what can I say; the boosters have been good to me recently, but I’ve paid my dues), inject as much Proliferate into the deck as possible and round it out with any ‘walker-specific support cards I could think of, but a job that big would require wholesale changes to the way the pieces of the deck fit together (and perhaps a crowbar).
Committing to a new theme requires you to look at the deck from a completely new perspective to get a clear picture of:
- What you’re trying to put in
- What you’ve got
- How much of your current build you’ll need to sacrifice
So first things first, what exactly goes into a Thaximundar, Defender of Planeswalkers deck? Let’s start with the obvious:
- Karn Liberated
- Jace, the Mind Sculptor
These two would be in addition to Liliana, Sorin and Nicol Bolas, who are already in the deck. Little Jace and the two Chandras are also possibilities, but I decided against it for the moment, primarily due to space constraints. They’d get a look after the first round of changes, but didn’t make the shortlist. If you really want Karn and Old Nick, then a few extra draw/filter/tutor spells will make you happier than a couple of weaker ‘walkers.
Luckily, Grixis has access to 13 of the 14 possible proliferators; only Plaguemaw Beast doesn’t fit the color identity of the deck.
- Contagion Clasp
- Contagion Engine
- Core Prowler
- Fuel for the Cause
- Grim Affliction
- Inexorable Tide
- Spread the Sickness
- Steady Progress
- Tezzeret’s Gambit
- Throne of Geth
- Viral Drake
- Volt Charge
Not all of those will make the cut necessarily, but given cards that offer repeatable Proliferation (the cockroaches), creatures that can both protect and pump the ‘walkers, and utility spells that I’d want anyway but which proliferate for a small cost are all worth a look. By my count that gives me at least nine proliferators to consider.
On top of that, there are the support cards. Nev’s Disk is the best way to protect a board full of ‘walkers, because it sweeps artifacts, critters and enchantments only (of course, beware the Liquimetal Coating—if someone makes Karn Liberated an artifact, then the Disk will sweep him away regardless of his Planeswalker status), so I’d like to get as much use out of it as possible. That suggests a couple of cards that might make it in if I have space:
In the same vein we could consider cards like Jokulhaups, Obliterate or Decree of Annihilation, but that isn’t exactly sporting. Considering my two high-end finishers, Pernicious Deeds would be perfect—which led me to Ratchet Bomb, a perfect sweeper in a deck stuffed with proliferate!
Better Out than In
Any casual deckbuilder worth their salt is going to enjoy finding cards to put it, but the hard part is taking out good cards. That requires looking at your deck in a couple of different ways. Firstly, what themes and sub-themes do you currently have, and secondly what cards do you already have that will work well with the new theme? Figuring out the answers to these two questions will let you decide which existing themes to cut or reduce focus on, which to keep or even enhance, and which individual cards should get the chop. Thrax is focused on the following themes, in roughly descending order of importance:
- Grixis Gorillas!!
- Forced Sacrifice (although I really should find another Gravepact for this deck, shouldn’t I?)
Also, while doing the breakdown for this article I noticed something really important: sure, I had 22 creatures (counting Thrax and the Bonehoard), which is perhaps a little low but OK, but I had nine cards that were absolutely useless if I didn’t have my own creatures either in play, in hand or in my graveyard. That seems like a recipe for dead cards, and so I’m going to look especially hard at those reanimators and creature enhancers when making cuts. The reanimation theme may disappear altogether (heavens to Murgatroyd, say it ain’t so!), to be replaced with proliferators or creatures that can block for the ‘walkers.
The existing cards that could work well with ‘walkers are all of the killers and all of the ETB critters, which ensure that you always have a blocker, and you still get value even if they have to chump something monstrous and die a swift horrible death. Some of the fatter creatures are intended for use with reanimation strategies, and I think that kind of thing is going to conflict with the goal of protecting Planeswalkers. That suggests the following changes:
- Nicol Bolas, Ulamog and Prince of Thralls should be replaced with some of the proliferation-friendly creatures Core Prowler, Viral Drake and Reaper of Sheoldred,
- Reanimator all-stars Cauldron Dance and Torrent of Souls become Karn Liberated and JtMS
- A good general rule of thumb is that the cards that don’t really fit into a category should be replaced with cards that serve the primary theme – in this case Nezumi Graverobber, Siphon Mind and Wail of the Nim become proliferation engines Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine and Inexorable Tide
- Brainspoil becomes friend of the ‘walkers Rings of Brighthearth
Now that we have a good core to the deck, we can start optimizing. Look at your choices for utility cards and see how they stack up against some of the options that are more closely related to the new theme. The list of proliferators includes counters, removal and card draw, some of which is definitely worthy of consideration. There will also be some cards that use counters which we’ll want to take advantage of in a proliferation-heavy environment. On top of that, the presence of Inexorable Tide strongly suggests the use of buyback, to both stall and build up the ‘walkers. The fine tuning looks like this:
- Recoil, Crosis’s Charm and Mirari for Spread the Sickness, Capsize and Shattering Pulse
- Thran Dynamo becomes Everflowing Chalice
- Balthor the Defiled and Izzet Chronarch become Tezzeret’s Gambit and Grim Affliction
- Overwhelming Forces becomes Damnation, because every creature is now a threat
I’d also reconsider Sword of Feast and Famine, which is superb in an aggressive deck (Cruel Ultimatum and Nucklavee in the same turn is pretty good, but better on turn seven!) but potentially less awesome in a deck that anticipates spending a lot of time on defense. I’d be tempted to replace it with something a little more suited to blocking, like a Grave Titan, Batterskull or Deathcoil Wurm if I had any of them. Sword of Light and Shadow would be better because your forays into combat would still net you a blocker from your graveyard, but a simple Nekrataal, Entomber Exarch or Abyssal Gatekeeper would all offer some advantages over the generally superior SoFF. Remember that creatures are more important than equipment, because a sword needs to be in someone’s hand, claws or tentacles to be useful.
Finally, there are metagame calls and playstyle decisions to be made regarding creatures. I personally favor critters that do something useful when they’re cast, partly because my meta tends to be creature-light and partly because I have an irrational love of my graveyard (Victimize and Corpse Dance still made the final cut, purely out of stubbornness, and might be better as an Elixir of Immortality to recycle Karn and Nicol Bolas). If your meta features more aggressive critters then cards like Wall of Souls/Shadows, Fog Bank and Guard Gomazoa would all be excellent ways to protect your ‘walkers. If cards like Earthquake and Inferno are common then you might want to see if you can dig up a copy of Reverberation—not only will it protect your ‘walkers better than Wild Ricochet, but it will probably remove the threat (read: the red mage) directly.
The final version of Thraximundar and His Merry Band of Planeswalkers looks like this:
As I always say, there is no such thing as a perfect deck. I didn’t consider every card ever made, I was perhaps a little bit reluctant to let go of some of my favorite cards, and I didn’t add any tutoring, all of the available ‘walkers, or all of the cards from my first run of brainstorming – but that’s what makes playtesting so much fun!
This version offers a good look at what a dedicated Planeswalker-based deck can do though, as well as solving some of the curve and mana cost issues that the old build had. If it turns out to be more fun to play then I can tweak it further, which is all you can really ask of a retooled deck. It totally changes the way the deck plays and shifts the emphasis away from winning with Thrax and Ultimatum recursion to using those cards to protect the merry band, although they remain a strong Plan B. If I ever get sick of the way Thrax plays (doubtful!), I’ll know just what changes to make, and in the meantime I’ve learned a little bit more about how to revamp my decks. I hope you have too.
Until next time Magic players, this is the Graveborn Muse, tapping the swamps so you don’t have to!
PS: We still need more suggestions for the Standard-legal Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer deck! Add your ideas to the comments. Here’s what we’ve got so far: Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer
 There have been a couple of changes since I last wrote about the deck. Yes, that is Sheoldred in place of Garza Zol, Plague Queen—I’d decided on that ages ago, because Sheoldred is just a heapin’ helpin’ of necromantic goodness. I also replaced Spinal Embrace with Praetor’s Grasp and Sedris with Sword of Feast and Famine (even though Embrace works so well with Sword—I just really wanted to get Praetor’s Grasp in here at any cost!).
 If the card makes you want to create a new category called “Cards that are awesome,” then by all means keep it in, but you have to be ruthless in making cuts at this stage; if the deck really misses a card then you can always put it back in, but if you don’t try the new theme in earnest then you’ll never know if it’s better.
 Don’t think I’m saying SoFF isn’t awesome – it might even be my second favorite Sword of Wreck and Face – but it feels wrong in this situation. Of course there is the alternative of playing Vedalken Orrery and Leyline of Anticipation and using the untap ability of SoFF to cast Nicol Bolas with just four lands, but that’s a little too much like Magical Christmas Land, and the deck is clearly straining to find room for the proliferation suite as is.