Graveborn Musings—Of Knives and Gunfights

Every deck is different. That might not be the case for tournament decks, when all 75 cards in a mirror match may be identical, but every casual deck I’ve ever seen has been unique, just like the players. What that means is that within any given playgroup there are inevitably going to be differences in power level. Now, it’s hard to precisely define “power” in terms of cards, let alone individual decks (Brandon’s dectagon is as close as anyone has ever come), and the strategic interactions of multiplayer mean that the most powerful deck isn’t going to win every game, as most groups have a tendency to balance against the strongest player or deck. However, I have seen time and again how a powerful deck, or a player whose decks tend to be significantly stronger than those of the rest of the group, can dominate. Maybe it isn’t a problem as long as everyone is having a good time, but if your decks are less powerful than other decks in your group and you want to do something about it, then read on!

Sharper Knives

If you often have the feeling that you are bringing a knife to a gunfight when you sling cards, then your first responsibility is to ask “what can I do differently?” I’m not being judgmental here, but if other people are getting better and you aren’t, then the question needs to be asked. Are your opponents adding new cards to old decks? Are they making new decks? Or are they just playing better?[1] Ask yourself these three questions – then ask that last one again and take your time answering, because while it doesn’t relate to power level, it may be the most important way that people improve, and the hardest thing to put your finger on. Once you’ve thought about what they are doing that you are not, you can start thinking about the solutions that are under your control.

In the immortal words of Chris Rock, “So whatcha gonna do?” If your opponents are beating you with new cards, then you should consider whether you’re interested in following suit. If they tweak their decks every week, why don’t you? If they have a killer new deck, have you gone through your cards or the online spoiler looking for new deck ideas? If they play the same ball-crushing monstrosity every week, can you either modify your decks or build something new to attack its weaknesses? If they have honed their skills, then you can try to do the same. These constitute the first level of solutions, and they are choices that you have to make.

Here are some more specific suggestions for tackling the power problem. Let’s start with the most difficult and controversial: getting your hands on new cards. Obviously Magic is a business, and the good folks at WotC, SCG, etc, are trying to earn a living just the same as the rest of us. That means that the easiest ways to upgrade your decks are going to involve spending some cash, and this is the quickest way for folks to drift apart in terms of deck power. I remember when I started, I was a student working part-time in a comic and card shop, and I could only push my staff discount so far before I couldn’t make rent anymore, so I understand the plight of those who just don’t have as much dinero as some of their peers. Even now, as a salaried drone, I find that a lot of the university students that I play with have more of the new cards than I do, which adds a whole new level of shame to losing at FNM, let me tell you. I know that I make more money than the student sitting across from me, but little things like making rent, saving for the future and not having my wife leave me are all going to limit how much of my income I can dispose on Magic. For all of us in the ‘can’t afford a playset of the chase rares’ camp, we have to figure out the smart way to use our resources.

If buying beaucoup packs or paying single card prices is a stretch, remember that time is money. Taking some time to scour the Reject Rare Bin (or, I’ve recently learned, the search engines on eBay) looking for bargains and inspiration is perfect for those of us on a budget. I’ve built a ton of decks, and have plans to build a bunch more, from cards I picked up in the ¥19 (about 20-30 cents) bin here in Tokyo, or playsets of new rares that I picked up for a buck or two plus shipping on eBay. Also, for us there is a silver lining to the recent introduction of Mythic rares, which is that the average price for non-tier-one rares has come down. Sure, there are more $20 cards (and $50 cards, god love ‘em) per set, but a buck will get you a lot more of the rares from a new set now than it used to.

And did I say rares? What about the glorious world of commons and uncommons? Your local store may not have a great catalog, but there’s this thing called the internet and you can use it to find friendly folks. The Ferrett and Abe Sargent have both written great articles about the unsung budget heroes of multiplayer, and they can be a great base for countless decks. Unless you’ve been playing continually since 1993, and have a photographic memory, there are plenty of undiscovered gems out there just waiting for you to…umm…discover them. For example, last year I found two Urza’s Saga commons that I’d overlooked – Unnerve and Curfew. I picked up a playset of each online for less than a buck, added Megrim (an oft-printed uncommon), and Warped Devotion (a junk rare), and hey presto, a fairly vicious control deck for multiplayer. The only thing better than finding forgotten gems is kicking ass with them!

If you really want to get your hands on those chase cards but don’t have the cash, then you have one legal option: rotation. Wait until the Standard bombs are no longer Standard-legal and you can bet that the price will come down on a bunch of them, and the rotation of Extended will bring most of the rest of them down. The card stores will bring the prices down, but if you know any people who play a lot of Standard there’s a chance they would trade away or sell the bombs that they can no longer play for cents on the dollar.

In Core Sets, you have the added advantage of uncertainty. I love Grave Titan, and was shocked when he, like the other Titans, became expensive tournament staples almost overnight. As a result, I didn’t have any, and the price on eBay was routinely over $40 or even $45. I was planning to get a bunch of them when they rotated out of M11, but then when Inferno Titan was spoiled as being in M12, I assumed that the rest of the cycle would follow. Still, I was able to pick up a playset of Grave Titans for cheaper than normal because the price dipped; apparently the online dealers weren’t 100% sure that The Zombie-Dripping One would return (and as I write this, it hasn’t been confirmed, but 2½ of them have been and it seems highly unlikely that they won’t reprint the whole set). I’m not a regular reader of MTGSalvation, but using them to find out what will and won’t be reprinted can save you some cash if you time it right.

Finally, a word on drafting. Drafting is a really fun way to play Magic, but it is pretty skill intensive. Translation: you’re going to get stomped the first few times you try it with a more experienced crowd. Still, it is possible to use drafts to pick up the cards you want from new sets. If you’re eager to build an infect deck but can only afford a few packs, you should draft a couple of times, force infect as much as you can, and soon enough you’ll have playsets of the commons and uncommons you need, as well as a much better chance of picking the rares that are most interesting to you. On top of that, if you’re the only casual player in the draft, then you’re likely to be able to walk away with some of the Timmy-oriented rares that the tourney crowd rejects (you know; jank like Splinter Twin).

Firing with Both Barrels

So that deals with the individual cards, but you play with your decks, and if you’re reading this it is presumably your decks that are getting beaten. So, bring them all out and let’s have a look at them. Firstly, how many decks do you have? One for every set that you’ve been active for? In my case, I think that would be around 40 sets in which I bought at least six boosters, and I know I have way more than 40 decks, but then I’m both extraordinarily old and an unabashed Magic junkie. How about one deck for every year you’ve been playing? Or are we talking more like one deck, period? Do you, for example, have one deck for every color, or for every guild (i.e. two-color combination), or for every Shard (i.e. Grixis, Jund, Naya, Bant and Esper)? Do you have at least one each of the four basic deck archetypes (aggro, control, combo and mid-range)? These decks represent your arsenal; is your arsenal extensive to battle against your fellow Planeswalkers? If not, you need to upgrade it. Also bear in mind that having more decks with more diverse strategies will give you a lot more chances to win.

Your homework for this article is to build at least one deck for each color. They don’t have to be fancy – if you only have access to a couple of booster packs, then you may struggle to make 60-card decks, in which case make 40-card decks. On the other hand, if you have a couple of boxes of cards then your bonus homework is to make at least one deck in every Shard. Super-bonus extra credit homework for those of you with too many cards to count, or even locate: identify at least 200 cards that you don’t need, and donate them to the people in your group who need it most.

Next, let’s look at the quality of each deck. Firstly, how many cards and what percentage of lands do you have in each deck? I struggle to stay within the 99 card limit in Commander, so I wouldn’t insist that every deck have only 60 cards, but the fact is that if you are really serious about increasing your win rate, then your best bet is to trim your decks down to 60 cards and 40% land. Note also that the 40% land guideline is designed to give you the best chance of having four land in play on the fourth turn. At that level, assuming no other mana fixing, you have a 77% chance of having at least four land by the fourth turn, but only a 40% chance of hitting your sixth land drop on time (yikes!!). If your deck consists of land and Titans, then you will need a lot more land to ensure that you aren’t waiting on that sixth land.

Secondly, focus. Look at each of the decks that you consider to be too weak, and tell me in one sentence how that deck wins. Then, ask yourself if that plan is realistically achievable in the face of two or more opponents who don’t want you to win. If you can’t answer both of those questions then your deck needs serious help.

Thirdly, think about whether every card is focused on either achieving your plan for victory or keeping your opponents from achieving theirs first.[2] No? Then back to the drawing board. The balance between fun and effective decks, at least for people like me who love to cram new toys into old decks without thinking of the consequences, is tied to the balance between cards that are focused on achieving your plan and cards that are cool. As an example, if you want to win by making your opponents discard with Megrim in play, then cards like Beacon of Unrest, which are supercool and allow you to play with the toys that your opponents can’t but don’t actually contribute to your primary plan, may not be focused enough. Try putting in more ways to bounce permanents, or cards like Urza’s Spite that feed your opponents’ hands and then make them discard—i.e. cards that achieve your primary goal.

Lastly, is your deck under-performing because of a lack of innovation? Which are the newest cards in each deck, and when did you add them? How did you change the mana base to accommodate these changes? Did those cards strengthen the main theme of the deck or did you dilute your deck with fun but unnecessary cards, or cards that pull the deck in a different direction? Answering these questions will tell you if your deck has become stagnant.[3]

The Play Really is the Thing

Finally, let’s take a look at your play. I am a casual player at heart, and I make a ton of careless mistakes because I’m often more interested in other things that are going on, but I have made an effort to make my play a little bit tighter, and the results have been good for me in terms of winning and having fun.

1) RTFC! In other words, do you know what your cards do? Really? Read them again, just to make sure, and if you’ve got foreign cards mixed in there, then either learn that language or find the English wording. WotC uses a range of similar mechanics to balance the power of different cards, and it is up to you to know which ones are actually getting played. As an example, green’s mana ramp spells can put the lands into your hand, into the battlefield tapped, or untapped. Some of them only get basic lands, while some get basic forests or even Forest cards (which include Bayou, Overgrown Tomb and Murmuring Bosk). Whatever color and virtually whatever mechanic, there are differences like these between broadly similar cards, and it’s easy for you to get confused, so you need to know what the card says.

In fact, you need to know the updated wording of every card in your deck. That means the Oracle text from WotC’s Gatherer database. Your Ghouls are Zombies now, and many of your Goblins are now Warriors as well. Some of your end-of-turn effects will now happen at the beginning of the end step, which provides extra opportunities for shenanigans, while some of them happen during the clean-up step, which is different. Oracle changes can either benefit you[4] or mess you up, but it’s your responsibility to know what your cards officially say.

2) Learn to mulligan. Magic is a game of both skill and luck, and part of the skill of playing the game is knowing how to minimize the role of bad luck. There are some great guides to mulliganing available, and this isn’t one of them, but let me just say that casual players need to pay at least as much attention to mulligan decisions as tourney players. In Commander this means knowing the funky Commander mulligan rules, and in a new group that means asking about house rules (for example, we do the X-1 mulligan, but we also allow a one time only, no-further-mulligans-allowed, 1-for-1 mulligan, which is great if you get a good hand plus an uncastable late game sorcery or a five-land hand). But ultimately, you can’t make mulligan decisions unless you…

3) Know your deck. I love goldfishing—not that I necessarily count how long it takes to deal 20, 21 or 40 points of damage, but whenever I’m watching TV I’ll shuffle up a deck and play it out. It’s a reasonably good way to find weaknesses, especially in terms of the mana base, but it’s a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with the kind of decisions you need to make. Transmuting a Brainspoil? I have three main targets and I know which one to get when I’m ahead, behind or facing imminent death. Birthing Pod or Wild Pair? I know what my options are. Milled down to four cards? I know exactly what is left in my deck and can plan around the likely topdecks. Knowing your deck is one of the best ways to improve your play, speed up your games and refine your decks as new cards become available.

4) During your end step… The easiest way to tell a “Noob” (I hate that word so much. If someone calls you a noob to your face, you’re allowed to smack them in their face[5]) is when they play Instant cards or use activated abilities (such as Prodigal Pyromancer, Mimic Vat, or anything that is written in the basic format of “Do some stuff: Do some other stuff”). The thing about instants and activated abilities (which are sometimes called “fast effects”) is that you can usually use them at any time you like. What that means is that unless something happens to force your hand, you should hold off as long as possible before activating them. There are always exceptions (e.g. if your opponent has a Sundial of the Infinite either in hand or on the stack, this rule goes out the window), but waiting until just before your turn is usually the right play.

5) Know the rules. The Comprehensive Rules are 185 pages long, and I highly recommend NOT reading them all, but on the other hand, you have to know the basics. If you have to ask about a ruling during a game, make a point of reading that section of the rules before your next game night. If a card is confusing, check out the individual card rulings on Gatherer or ask a question on the message boards.

Conclusion

Magic is about more than winning, and winning is about more than powerful cards or even powerful decks, but if you want to win more then you need to be honest with yourself about why aren’t winning as much as you want. If you aren’t sure, ask someone who wins more than you if you can play one of their decks, just to see how the other half lives, or sit out a game and just watch how the other players make their decisions (and ask them why they made the decisions they did, preferably without telegraphing what they have in hand or otherwise being annoying). If the answer is that your cards, decks or skills aren’t quite up to scratch (relative to who you play with), then I hope you’ve found some of these suggestions to be helpful. If so, don’t forget to point new players towards this article in the future; if not, speak up in the message boards with specific problems or specific solutions that I didn’t mention here.

Next week I’ll be in New Orleans for a conference, meaning that I’ll more or less be glued to either a textbook or a PowerPoint screen for the next week. We’ll have a super-special-secret-mystery-bonus author next week, followed by my own unique take on a set/color review on July 18th – a must-read for all you necromancers out there! After that, I’ll finally get around to the next stage of the Jor Kadeen project, so you have until about the 15th to get in any more card suggestions or comments.


[1] For the record, I am slightly higher than the middle of the pack in terms of the power level of my decks, slightly lower in terms of consistently making the right plays, but slightly higher in terms of multiplayer strategy. I consistently kick my buddy Stephen’s ass with my old-school decks against his, but he likes to play Standard-legal casual decks, and I struggle to hold my own when we play with newer decks. I think that’s a fair assessment, although I also want to see if Stephen reads my blog!

[2] For the most part, this means spot removal! Don’t forget to include some way of sending your opponents’ key cards to the grumper – and milling doesn’t count (alright, it might count if you can recur Moratorium Stone enough times, but generally it means killing permanents).

[3] Definition: a deck is “classic” if it hasn’t changed for a long time, but still wins; a deck is “stagnant” if it hasn’t changed for a long time, but hasn’t won a game since Homelands.

[4] More than one fun and successful casual deck has been made purely on the basis of an Oracle change that tweaked how a card worked in combination with something else.

[5] Legal Disclaimer: this ruling is only effective in regions where I am worshiped as a god. If you are not playing in Hokkaido, Oceania or certain remote areas of the Amazon River basin, seek legal advice before delivering your righteous smiting.

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About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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