Deckbuilding With Horses And Hummingbirds
This started out as an article about deckbuilding. The first point I wanted to make was that there are two kinds of cards; one of the most important facets of deckbuilding is making sure that the ratios between them are correct and that there's appropriate synergy between them and that you can still function with mostly one or the other. Then I realized I had so much to say about this model I use, for everything from building decks to evaluating cards to mulliganing hands, that it should just be an article on its own. Since the hippo and bear analogy was so popular, I'll continue with zoological metaphors and call these two types of cards Horses and Hummingbirds.
A Horse generally has the following attributes:
1. It can win the game on its own.
2. It's rarely, if ever, dead.
3. It's necessary (although usually not sufficient) for the deck to function.
Creatures are usually Horses: Stromkirk Noble, Blade Splicer, and Champion of the Parish in Standard; Villagers of Estwald, Deranged Assistant, and Elder Cathar in Limited. Horses are the basic, driving power behind a deck; they keep you trotting along. They don't often do anything flashy, but they're the fundamental units that keep a deck functioning. The games in which you don't cast Horses are the games you lose without even putting up a fight, and as such, you never want to keep a hand without castable Horses. If you mulligan to six and keep Darkthicket Wolf, Prey Upon, four land, and your Wolf becomes the Victim of Night while you rip land, Blazing Torch, Travel Preparations, and Spidery Grasp, that's a game you lost because you drew just one Horse and way too many Hummingbirds.
So what is a Hummingbird? Well, I'm glad you asked:
1. It's potentially very powerful but also potentially useless.
2. It's dependent on other cards to function properly.
3. It's not strictly necessary for the deck to function—but without it, the deck is not very impressive.
Expensive spells, tricks, and removal are usually Hummingbirds: White Sun's Zenith, Dismember, and Incinerate in Standard; Moment of Heroism, Travel Preparations, and Nightbird's Clutches in Limited. Hummingbirds go very fast and can do all sorts of nifty and nimble things, but they can't carry the weight of a deck on their shoulders. You can't win a game of Standard if all you do is cast Incinerates, but once your early creatures have already done them a bit of damage, Incinerate becomes much better than, for example, Stromkirk Noble. There's almost nothing worse than drawing two Nightbird's Clutches and no creatures in your opener. But ripping a Clutches on turn 6 when you each have a couple of creatures in play is much better than ripping Village Ironsmith. Usually Hummingbirds are better later while Horses are necessary early.
Of course, things are not nearly so clear-cut; otherwise this whole “Horses and Hummingbirds” theory would merely be a cool way of renaming “creatures and combat tricks.” Shrine of Burning Rage, for example, is not a creature, but it's certainly a Horse. Stormblood Berserker, on the other hand, is a Hummingbird. Shrine is not reliant on other spells, whereas Stormblood is pretty bad if you don't have another, cheaper creature. If you have Shrine and some generic burn, that can go all the way by itself, whereas Stormblood needs to be part of a curve. But when Stormblood works, it really works. There's a reason turn 1 Stromkirk Noble, turn 2 Stormblood Berserker is the most dangerous curve in Standard, much more so than Stromkirk Noble into Shrine of Burning Rage.
Control decks have an entirely different set of animals. The Horses (the cards that keep your deck running that you can't work without) are the cheap removal and counterspells that allow you to buy time against aggro: Mana Leak, Doom Blade, Day of Judgment. Of course, you're not going to beat anyone by just killing their guys one-for-one a lot, and that's where your Hummingbirds come in: Snapcaster Mage, Think Twice, Forbidden Alchemy, Consecrated Sphinx. Recall the rule of thumb that if you don't have castable Horses, mulligan: this is exactly why Snapcaster Mage, Think Twice, five land is not keepable, but Doom Blade, Think Twice, five land is.
Another way of putting it is that Horses are what provides a threat base, while Hummingbirds build on it. You absolutely need to have some sort of creature in play to win a game of Limited. But once your board already contains a Darkthicket Wolf and a Villagers of Estwald, you'd rather have Travel Preparations than a second Wolf. Essentially, while Travel Preparations is more situationally powerful than Darkthicket Wolf, it also has a much greater capacity to be underwhelming or flat-out useless. So although the averages of Horses and Hummingbirds are roughly similar (maybe Horses score a little higher), Hummingbirds have much more variance. On a scale of card quality where one is useless and ten is amazing, Horses range from five to eight while Hummingbirds vary from one to ten.
Note that certain cards actually fit both categories. An example is Doom Blade in M12 Limited. It's never dead, and having a castable Doom Blade certainly inclines you towards keeping the hand. But it's also potentially very powerful, and it's great to draw at a crucial moment. (Yeah, so it turns out that Doom Blade is really good—who'da thunk?) In contrast, removal in Innistrad is almost all Hummingbirds. You could happily keep Shock, Doom Blade, Zombie Goliath, four land in M12 Limited, but in Innistrad you can't keep Prey Upon, Blazing Torch, Grizzled Outcasts, four land, nor Harvest Pyre, Corpse Lunge, Pitchburn Devils, four land. (This makes Horses, in the form of cheap creatures, particularly important.)
Let's ask the important question – what makes a Horse good?
1. The ability to carry the game by itself. A Dark Confidant left unanswered for a couple turns puts its controller massively in front. Similarly with Stoneforge Mystic; sometimes, Mystic for Batterskull wins the game singlehandedly, or with only a Mana Leak as backup. Stromkirk Noble can deal ten damage singlehandedly if unchecked; Geist of Saint Traft sometimes does 18.
2. Still having utility later on. Jade Mage and Azure Mage were the premier two-drops in M12 Limited because they fulfilled the dual role of providing a body early and grinding the game out late. Runeclaw Bear is a Horse; you'd rather have it in your opener than not, but drawing a Runeclaw Bear on turn 8 is kind of poor. But unconditional, cheap removal like Incinerate is great, much better than Runeclaw Bear. They might trade on turn 2, but Incinerate is a ton better to draw on turn 8.
3. Synergy with your Hummingbirds. Doom Blade is better than Sensory Deprivation in a deck with Snapcaster Mages. (Don't laugh! We tested Sensory Deprivation for Worlds this year, and some of our team ended up playing it; it stops Mirran Crusader.) I like Blade Splicer better than Mirran Crusader in G/W Tokens for this reason: your Hummingbirds include cards like Mikaeus, Gavony Township, and Overrun, so the extra body is very relevant.
And what makes a Hummingbird good? Similar sorts of factors, actually:
1. Raw power. Overrun, for example. You need to draw a few creatures, or else it's useless, but if you do, it just wins the game. Expensive bombs often fall into the Hummingbird category, in that you need your cheaper spells to buy time until they get there, but once you resolve that Elesh Norn, the game is over.
2. Versatility. Bant Charm is a great example. It's one of the most expensive spells in the Zoo deck, and it doesn't actively win you the game, so its playability rests on its versatility—the rare ability to either kill Knight of the Reliquary or counter Cryptic Command. Lightning Bolt as well takes out an opposing Wild Nacatl or goes to the face in the control matchups. You want to avoid having dead cards whenever possible, and maximizing versatility of Hummingbirds is a great way to do that. (How many writers do you think have included the phrase “maximizing versatility of hummingbirds” in an article before? I bet it's not many.)
3. Synergy. As before, with Horses. It's more important for your two classes of cards to synergize with each other than with other cards from the same class because you never want to draw too many of the same sort of card anyway. Overrun is never going to synergize particularly with Frost Breath, but you can draft the sort of creatures that make either card very good.
Hopefully the similarities are evident. In both cases, these cards are good when they have a high potential upside and low potential downside, although potential upside vs. downside is evaluated differently in each case. For Horses, a high upside means a better chance of singlehandedly getting you there, and low downside means utility when Horses wouldn't ordinarily be great. And a great Hummingbird provides a massively game-swinging effect under the right circumstances (high upside) and is rarely or never useless (low downside.)
Evaluating cards has to take both of these factors into account. Weaker players have a habit of being too optimistic. They think only about the best draws their deck can give them, not the average draws, and still less the bad ones. This causes a tendency to overrate Hummingbirds; if you only think about how good Endless Ranks of the Dead is going to be when it does something, you will have severely overrated the card. While it's excellent when it's not a brick, the fact is that far too often it is a brick, such that its huge downside usually outweighs its substantial upside. Another classic mistake is to build a deck centered around a certain card, like Heartless Summoning, that simply can't function without that card. In such cases, practically the whole deck becomes Hummingbirds, and the draws where you don't find the piece you need you can scarcely put up a fight.
Of course, some deckbuilding errors are more subtle. It's a truism of Magic that decks that can function on a little or a lot of land are much better than decks that need a specific amount, and that's why cards like Preordain in Constructed and landcyclers in Limited are so useful. Similarly, decks that can function with five Horses and one Hummingbird or with two Horses and five Hummingbirds are much better than decks that need exactly three of each. This is why I don't like Affinity in current Modern. If it draws exactly three lands, exactly three of Memnite, Ornithopter, Signal Pest, and Vault Skirge, and exactly three of Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, and Master of Etherium, it's unstoppable. If it draws five of the latter category, it's clunky and bad, and if it draws three Ornithopters and gets its Master Mana Leaked, it does absolutely nothing. Compare this to Zoo, which can function equally well with a mono-creature draw and one burn spell or a two-creature, five burn spell hand. It's less broken when everything comes together, but its mediocre draws will win far more often.
In striking the correct balance between the animals, the most common mistake is to play too many Hummingbirds and neglect Horses. If you take only one thing away from this article, make it this: you need to play enough Horses! If you don't play stuff that gets you there, you will not win the game, however much durdling and tricks you have. This is especially common after sideboard, when players want to bring in a lot of stuff but don't know what to board out, so they trim the fundamentals. Say you are playing Splinter Twin and you want to have access to Spellskite, Echoing Truth, Dispel, AND Pact of Negation post-board; you're going to have difficulty fitting it all in, so it's tempting to start cutting Serum Visions. Do not do this. Instead, only play three Spellskites, two Pacts, whatever. Remember that if you don't find your combo, all the Dispels in the world do absolutely nothing, so that needs to be your #1 priority.
In closing, let's try a quick thought experiment: You're building a 40-card Limited deck with as many copies as you want each of Villagers of Estwald, Spidery Grasp, and Forest. No other cards are allowed. What does your deck look like?
I built it as follows:
but I could see arguments for slight deviations; in particular I'm not sure exactly how many lands is correct for a deck that's entirely three-drops. I think 17 is reasonable, since you will almost always hit your third land drop and not infrequently your sixth, which are the two very important milestones, but since getting to three on turn 3 is all-important, it might be right to have an 18th in there. In building this deck, you're trying to balance a number of requirements:
- You have to have at least three Forests by turn three,
- You must have at least one Villagers of Estwald (and preferably two in case the first one dies), and
- At least one Spidery Grasp is preferable, although not absolutely necessary in the same way that the first Villagers is. However, if you don't draw one, you'll struggle against quicker curves that include cards like Chapel Geist and Moon Heron.
From those three principles comes roughly the decklist you see above. It's generally realized that 13 to 14 creatures is the bare minimum you need in a Limited deck; I like to run 15 or 16, but Villagers is quite resilient to most removal spells. Still, I couldn't fault a 15-8 split.
The optimal Villagers of Estwald:Spidery Grasp ratio is about 4:3. The actual ratio in the deck given is a little higher than that because you always need a Villagers. Remember to play enough Horses! You can always draw the first Grasp on turn 3 or 4 and have it be fine, but you'll have to mulligan any hand that doesn't have the first Villagers. Build your deck accordingly.
This extremely simple analogy extends to much more complex models. The deck above has 35% Horses, and a good rule of thumb when building a new deck is that it should have at least that. If you're running about 40% lands, that means you have room for a maximum of 25% Hummingbirds. Realistically, you can function very well on a 50/50 Horse/Hummingbird split, but since you can't function at all without Horses, you need to run more of those to counteract negative variance. It's the same with lands; if you were to draw the perfect land/spell ratio every game, you could get away playing at least a land less in most decks, but since it's so important to draw a certain number of lands to begin with, you have to run a couple more than you would in the mythical perfectly-average universe.
Okay, I think this about concludes my thoughts on arbitrary and ridiculous animals. Make sure to tune in next week, where I introduce the okapi and the platypus!
Until next time,