Seedborn Musings – Decktagon

The multiplayer world evaluates cards based on their impact on the board state; rattlesnake is the most famous evaluation, with maybe cockroach the close second.  But what about deck plans?  You can read tournament reports with tons of adjectives that sound like they try to quantify some of these things, but each player uses them differently.  This article suggests some concrete definitions so you can know what’s going on when your deck is or isn’t winning.  And if nothing else, it has cool-looking charts!

This article was spurred by my last Commander game.  I was playing the Karador list from last week’s article, a friend was playing my Radha list, and the other two decks were Grand Arbiter Augustin IV (staple-filled W/U control) and mostly-Mountain/land death Ashling, the Pilgrim.  Things were pretty nasty on all sides for awhile – an early Ashling, a True Conviction and Promise of Bunrei for me, a Grand Arbiter with Greaves, and a third-turn Abundance for Radha (which I destroyed with Kami of Ancient Law about four times thanks to Radha’s Recollect effects and later stole with Crime). 

In a game against either Grand Arbiter or Ashling, the casting of the commander is almost always the announcement of The Threat, so the game had been swinging on that pole for awhile until the Ashling player was neutralized.  Sure, he lasted about 20 more turns, but when Ashling was Spun into Myth, his fate was sealed.  With Grand Arbiter dying some time thereafter to a Bogardan Hellkite, it came down to my two decks.  Karador pulled it out with the recurring discard/removal package of He Who Hungers soulshifting Crib Swap, which eventually was enough to overcome Radha’s graveyarded Genesis and a host of nasty creatures.

I propose eight ways to look at any deck you’re building.  Timmy/Johnny/Spike will draw you to the power of certain cards over others, but how you build your decks from there is more easily identified along these axes than in the famed psychographics.  And given that there are only so many cards and plans you can fit in a deck, you need to spend your “points” as naturally and as prudently as you can across these categories.  Here they are:

Power – How smash-‘em-up, kill-‘em-all is Plan A?  I have a Jund ramp deck whose ideal turn is Violent Ultimatum/Lavalanche to clear the board for Charnelhoard Wurm to hit the damaged player and recur either sorcery.  Earlier this week, I pulled off the Violent Tomato on three straight turns.  I won that game.  That’s power.  Despite my first sentence, there are plenty of ways to be powerful.  A lock or an infinite combo packs plenty of power as well.

Speed – How fast does Plan A show up?  If Plan A is Goblins, then your speed is high.  If Plan A is that Jund ramp deck, then your speed is abysmal.  Just remember that this aspect focuses on how soon your end result shows up.  A ramp deck doesn’t have its Plan A up just because it draws all its Rampant Growths and Cultivates; it’s just getting to Plan A faster that way.

Consistency – How often does Plan A show up?  A two-card combo or synergy is much more consistent than a five-card one.  Tutoring, card draw, and filtering increase consistency in their different ways, but so also does having redundant effects in the deck.  Again, weenie rushes are aiming for consistency and taking advantage of a more powerful deck’s inconsistencies.  A Tempered Steel deck focused on Myr will have more consistency than a non-Myr deck thanks to Myr Galvanizer’s extra pump.  That might not be worth the power tradeoff of having better individual creatures, but it scores better here.

Depth – How much worse is Plan B than Plan A?  If Plan A is the height of the peak, Plan B is the depth of the valley.  What happens when Tempered Steel is Naturalized or Ashling is put on the bottom of the library?  Mostly-Mountain Ashling Commander builds are a perfect example of what separates consistency from depth.  Since Ashling’s a Commander, the deck consistently does what it wants to do, but as it doesn’t have too much to do without its Commander, it lacks depth.  Consistency and depth aren’t always at odds either; a deck’s Plan B might be similar enough (and involving enough of the same cards) as Plan A that you might consistently hit A while having most of the parts for B.  Splinter Twin builds in Standard right now exhibit this well; while making infinite Deceiver Exarchs with Splinter Twin is Plan A, Plan B of making Titan tokens is pretty powerful in its own right.  That says nothing about how often the infinite combo goes off (in my experience, a lot/too often!), but the depth helps out a lot.

Flexibility – How well can this deck attack unforeseen circumstances and board states?  Rock decks specialize in this; a deck full of Acidic Slimes would be quite high in flexibility.  Flexibility is an offensive category at its core, dealing with destruction and disruption.  Because pros care highly about preparing for an expected metagame, flexibility isn’t valued as much in the tournament scene as it is in multiplayer, where you might be facing literally anything.

Homing How well can this deck attack a single Threat?  Charnelhoard Wurm recurring Lavalanche can take out one player quite effectively; a Pestilence deck probably can’t do that as well.

Resilience Basically the opposite of flexibility: how well can this deck defend against random problems?  Dauntless Escort is a perfect example of resilience; mass removal that might care most about somebody else won’t deal you splash damage.

Fending – The opposite of homing: how well can this deck work when it’s perceived as The Threat?  Does it still crush as crushingly as it’s supposed to on paper, or does it wilt like a wilting thing?

For every deck, you can just assign values to each of them, or you can make a radar chart like this one (I like them because they show lopsidedness well).

Certain archetypes fall primarily along a few axes.  So do you when you go to build a deck in the abstract.  You’re drawn to certain cards and to building certain ways around them, and a lot of that is going to be what you’re looking for in a deck.  In my decks, I’m looking for power, depth, and resilience.  I’m not looking for explosiveness (speed + power); I’m looking for an awesome plan A (power) that, while pwning when it shows up, has Plans B and C close behind it (depth).  I want whatever cards I draw to be something I can build a plan around, and if the plan isn’t there yet, I want to be around 20 life when I find it (resilience; I’m staving off die-roll-style random hate by having something up early).  I don’t normally care about speed; it’s not the biggest deal in multiplayer anyway.  Nor do I focus much on homing or fending; rarely do I steamroll any one person, and my anti-targeting efforts are more involved with not looking like a target for awhile (in other words, instead of fending, I just build slow decks).  What do some standard deck types look like on this radar chart?

Burn: Speed + Consistency. 

Plan A is to draw spells that get the opponent from 20 to 0 as fast as possible.  Oh look!  Everything in the deck does that!  This is consistency rather than depth because there isn’t a Plan B; look at what Kor Firewalker or other random lifegain does to most burn decks and you’ll see the difference.  In multiplayer, burn has excellent homing capabilities because it can send all its burn at one player and make their life miserable.  That makes them unlikely to win chaos but likely to be part of a winning team.  The value of Burn is that it’s able to draw Plan A because everything is Plan A, and it can get the job done quickly.  But that’s about all it can do.

Weenie decks: Speed + Depth. 

The difference between weenie and burn is in the former’s anthem effects; creatures + anthems is plan A, while swinging with printed power and toughness is plan B.  Depending on the weenies involved, this depth is good or bad.  Ordinarily, Goblins lean towards speed while Elves lean toward depth.  Traditional white weenie, with its Path to Exile-style removal, tends to take hits v. Goblins and Elves on speed and depth by adding flexibility, while Tempered Steel will take the extra hits on depth to add power; their creatures aren’t as good as white weenie in most cases, but with Tempered Steel they’re amazing, so that’s power over depth.  As with burn, creature rushes can overwhelm a single opponent, although being made of creatures gives at least some points to categories Burn doesn’t get; there’s a little bit extra in resilience and fending, even if it’s not much.

Suicide black/All-in decks: Power + Speed. 

Yes, this combination comes at a cost – card disadvantage, very little on the defensive end of the spectrum – but suicide black is about as explosive as it gets.  Anyone who’s been on the wrong end of Dark Ritual à Phyrexian Negator knows what I mean; sometimes that combination is too hot to handle.  Yes, Lightning Bolt on a newly cast Negator is awful, but if the opponent doesn’t have the Bolt, then you just kill them quick and hard, and that’s all sorts of fun.  I’m sure Daryl would agree.

Combo decks: Power + Consistency. 

The Plan A often is spectacular; the problem is finding it.  Good combo decks put in all sorts of ways to find the combo, from Preordain to tutors of all descriptions.  Bad ones lack consistency and are considered jank as a result.

Blue/X permission control: Power + Consistency + Resilience.

Blue/X tap-out control: Power + Consistency + Flexibility.

Blue decks are going to get to their plan A and it’s going to be a great plan A.  Just give them time to get there.  They tend to be threat-light (i.e. low on depth) and they’ll never be mistaken for speedy, but with enough card draw for consistency they will exhaust you and put the powerful plan on your head.  The difference in decks is their defensive capabilities.  Counterspells are blue’s ultimate in resilience; if an unforeseen problem is about to mess with the board state, a couple mana says it doesn’t happen.  Over the years, however, there have been enough blue finishers printed that tap-out control can exist, trading some of that resilience for a real attack.  The flexibility charge has been led by Baneslayer Angel and Gideon Jura in the blue/white decks and by Jace, the Mind Sculptor in plain ol’ blue.  Each of them can attack a wide range of problems in the board state while also having the power to win.

You might notice that blue control decks have the same strengths as combo decks but with an extra quality; this is why many combo decks are partially in blue, as most successful combo decks need some points in resilience or flexibility to buy enough time for the combo.  Mind you, they can’t put too many points there; that would take away from the power or the consistency, but if the balance is struck properly, then combo-control can do nasty things.

Rock: Depth + Flexibility + Resilience.

Does Rock even have a Plan A?  It’s hard to say what it is amongst Plans B-E, but the disruption/destruction package does a lot against whatever shows up.  When the deck has a reanimation/recursion package to go with it, there’s a resilience element that makes it inexhaustible and inevitable.  Entomber Exarch, the New Phyrexian on the block, combines flexibility and resilience elegantly, allowing for either recursion or disruption depending on your needs.  And with enough of the last two attributes, it often doesn’t matter whether the power shows up; getting there with 3/3s can happen enough times to make opponents wonder how they died.  The problem tends to be those situations when the flexibility and resilience didn’t work sufficiently and the deck needs to find raw power; when it doesn’t get there, it feels embarrassing to lose.

Jund-style midrange: Depth + Flexibility + Speed.

The Jund Plan A was sort of unknown, much like with Rock; maybe that’s why it never was quite the boogeyman that Jace decks have been in tournaments.  But what it lacked in defensive measures, it gained in speed, and this is what made it attractive to the pros, who tend to maximize power or speed where feasible.  This also makes them less successful in multiplayer than Rock decks, but it’s a unique combination that was worth mentioning.

Green smashing: Power + Depth.

Killing with an 8/8 trampler is a powerful Plan A.  If Plan B is killing with a 5/5 trampler, then it’s pretty close.  Curving into ever-beefier creatures gives the deck a chance to do something at most stages of the game, and that combination might be why it’s a first deck for many players – they feel like they can be in the game or get back in it at any point, because their deck keeps producing creatures that will be bigger than somebody else’s creatures.  You can sacrifice some of that depth to gain flexibility (Naturalize, Plummet, etc.), or you can add mana Elves to gain speed, but power and depth are at the heart here, making it fun for multiplayer even as it can get a little bland.

Homing/fending and flexibility/resilience tend to matter more on their own in multiplayer (although each type of multiplayer will value them differently).  Many of the choices to send a deck to one area or the other are in the last dozen cards to make the deck.  Even as burn and weenie rush lend themselves to homing more than flexibility, sometimes those decks do better in multiplayer with a Wall of Omens here or an Akroma’s Vengeance there.  Personal preference comes into play (enters the battlefield?) here.  For example, take a Bant/exalted deck shell.  You have the Rhox War Monks and the Finest Hours and all those kinds of things.  But what do you do to punch through?  Say you were choosing between Elite Vanguard and Slippery Bogle.  The former gives you more power and speed, but the latter gives you more resilience and fending.  The same goes for if you want to protect your main attacker with Canopy Cover; you’re giving up a creature slot, but you’re making a creature more resilient.  Put in Asceticism and you’re upping resilience and fending, though you’re giving up a lot of speed.

But in different environments, there might be reasons to include any of these.  If you play a lot of Star or Two-Headed Giant, set your decks on homing over fending; there’s little threat assessment that changes whether people swing at you or not, so you might as well not worry about that.  If you play Emperor and roll randomly for seats, as my group does, you’ll need a lot more fending, as you’re 2/3 likely to be targeted by two players for most of the game, so you need a lot to get through it.  Commander increases consistency, as your Plan A normally involves your commander, and there’s normally a lot of power and flexibility, but where you go from there is your call.  (Relative to most Commander players, I trade in consistency points – Sol Ring, tutors – for depth and more flexibility.)

So there’s my take on what decks can do in multiplayer and what styles you might self-identify with.  There are many paths to victory, but your style and playgroup will send you down a few of these axes.  Which ones are you?


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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7 Responses to Seedborn Musings – Decktagon

  1. Jules Robins says:

    This is, without a doubt, the most informative casual article I’ve ever read. Your insights are stunning, and from what I can tell, spot on, and your execution and examples are very clear. I love reading this website (although I don’t comment that often) and I’m looking forward to more! The only other thing I would have liked to see is how your position in your playgroup weaves in. i.e. If you’re the threat, you want more fending if you’re trying to win, or less consistency if you’re trying to escape your threat status.

    Keep it up,

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      High praise, Jules! I’m quite honored by the compliment.

      If your playgroup perceives you as The Threat, then you probably will need more fending measures at the expense of pretty much every place you can spare it, although I’d start with homing on the other axis. If your deck’s not capable of pummeling any one opponent, then after awhile no one will have bad memories of you obliterating them. If you’re in a 5-player game, don’t make your board state objectively threatening, i.e. threatening to all 4 players to where they can agree that you need to die first.

      I personally would have a difficult time lessening consistency of an already consistent decks, but if you tend to have a lot of consistent decks, experiment with depth instead. Like with fending, if everyone kills you as soon as a piece of Plan A shows up, then you probably need to mix up the plans some.

      Basically, your playgroup knows what axes you care about even as they might not be able to name them. When they see a new deck of yours start to do something, they expect you to have made choices consistent with your past preferences. If you work on changing your axes a little bit and get a well-balanced (i.e. non-notorious) reputation, you might get extra wins even with your old/favorite decks.

  2. Vrag says:

    Great article. This is exactly what I was trying to say in the comments of your “Winning with Junk” article. I’m constantly struggling with whether or not to add resilience to the deck at the expense of consistency. I’m definitely going to use this graph approach. I think it will help out a lot when I look at my decks and see whether I can afford to sacrifice one for the other.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      I *think* that in my terms you’re thinking of flexibility rather than resilience. It sounds like your decks are already very resilient, but you’re looking to jam in some more flexibility. Admittedly, this was one of the hardest distinctions for me to explain initially, so I’ll try to illustrate with some more examples.

      Normally an Acidic Slime, a Disenchant, or a Lightning Bolt is in the deck for flexibility. You don’t know what plan another deck has, but you’d like to have an answer to it, so there it is. It’s not there to help your Plan A (remember that everything keys off and is relative to your deck’s Plan A); it’s there to stop another person’s Plan A from even happening.

      Resilience is, roughly speaking, your deck’s defense against general disruption. If your opponent has planned for your Slime/Disenchant/Bolt with certain cards, then that opponent’s added resilience to the deck against your flexibility. Anti-Wrath cards are the clearest example. Many of these exist, like Wrap in Vigor or Sigil of the New Dawn. They rise to tournament quality when they do other things well; Dauntless Escort and Loxodon Hierarch fall in here (and Hierarch provided extra defense with life gain).

      These days, the flexibility of Acidic Slime is easily worked into Plan A is that plan is Birthing Pod, since Slime is one of the best plays before a Titan (though Archon of Justice is threatening that status). The more you can work your flexibility – dealing with others’ random threats (as opposed to resilience, which deals with others’ random disruption) – into your Plan A or even B, the better it will feel and the more successful your deck will be. That doesn’t make it easy, but it’s the goal at least.

      • Vrag says:

        I think you did a good job of explaining it. I would argue that disenchant and acidic slime can be considered resilience cards as well. I guess it just depends why you put them in and what your metagame is like. My main reason for wanting to put those types of cards in is not to ruin opponents plans (flexibility) but to stop them from ruining mine (resilience). So, I’ve been thinking of including them not to get rid of people’s Bad Moon type cards but to get rid of Meekstone type effects that prevent my deck from working as it should. Either way, the article did a great job of helping to analyze how I should balance my decks and what I should focus on to reduce their weaknesses. I printed it out to look at when I tune my decks.

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