After two weeks of fulfilling my desire for creative writing, I'd like to get back to deckbuilding today. A lot of decks I build—and I assume a ton of others too—aren't exactly true originals. Instead, they're developed when I take a look at other formats and try to make a strategy that has proven its mettle there work in the format I'm actually interested in (usually Legacy). That's what we in the business call "porting."
Independent of the actual deck being built, there are some basic techniques involved, which are what I'd like to cover today. As pure theory is quite dry, though, I'll use an example to illustrate what I'm talking about. I wonder if you can guess what the example might be by looking at the title above... Alright, let's get started.
Before you decide to port a deck, you need to have a reason to do so. Otherwise, you'll just end up wasting your time.
There are two rather similar reasons to try porting an archetype. The first is the most obvious: the archetype is totally busted in the (smaller) format where it's legal, meaning it might have what it needs to succeed in a larger format, too. One great example of this is Caw-Blade. Originally a Standard deck, the combination of Stoneforge Mystic / Batterskull and Jace, the Mind Sculptor was powerful enough to prompt bannings in multiple formats. Sure sounds like something worth cribbing, and you can easily see how that turned out by looking at Legacy Top 8s throughout the last year.
The second and more common reason—truly busted decks are somewhat rare, after all—is potential. What I mean by that is that the deck in question exhibits traits that could very well be powerful enough to make it viable in the format we're bringing it into. The existence of obvious additions from the larger card pool that will help the deck adjust to the higher-powered environment helps too. Some typical indicators for a deck worth porting are the ability to kill as early as the new format's fastest decks, overwhelming card advantage potential, or tempo-generating plays on the level of what is already viable in your target format.
One Modern deck I think has potential in Legacy is Infect. Check out these two lists, one from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and the other Ari Lax's 19th place deck from Grand Prix Chicago:
Why do I think this deck has potential? Well, first and foremost, it wins on turn 3 reasonably often, which is exactly the sweet spot a Legacy combo deck needs to be viable. It also has to be more resilient to spot removal than it appears on first sight, otherwise it wouldn't have been able to slog through fields full of Jund.
Secondly, there are a number of cards in Legacy that the deck doesn't have access to in Modern that should be able to make it better than it is in that format. The two obvious cards are Invigorate, a zero-mana pump spell that allows any of your creatures to put the opponent half dead in a single swing, and good old Berserk, which is weak as a sole pump spell but powerful enough combined with a +4/+4 effect to make its target instantly lethal.
Now, I realize people have been working on Infect Stompy decks since the mechanic was first revealed, and the next thing I usually do once I reach this point is check out the mtgthesource.com thread on the deck to compare notes. That would kind of defeat the purpose of the article, though, and I luckily haven't actually paid attention to that thread, so I'll continue onward like I usually would when trying to port something.
Starting the Process
Looking at the two lists above, I'm instantly more interested in porting Kelvin's list. Ari has black for Thoughtseize and Plague Stinger; given that I already have an idea of how to deal with the "we need enough good infect creatures" problem, Plague Stinger isn't that enticing. The fact that Kelvin's list includes a large set of cantrips is another argument for using it as my baseline. Legacy's better cantrips allow for more upgrades in card quality, not to mention the fact that I love heavy cantrip decks for their consistency.
Note: I won't worry about the sideboard at this point. Once I've updated the maindeck for the new format and done some testing, I'll start thinking about the sideboard. Up to that point, it's a waste of time as it might turn out that porting the archetype doesn't work out. Also, the metagames—and as a result sideboards—are very different in the two formats.
Now that we've a list to work with, let's break it down into functional subgroups and make the obvious updates first:
Poison Creatures (aka Combo Piece #1)
Pump (aka Combo Piece #2)
Given that Kelvin stated that Rancor was the worst pump effect in his deck and my assumption that the biggest draw to the card is probably the trample (allowing you to punch poison through blockers), that seems like the right spot to fit in some Berserks.
I'm not unhappy playing just three Berserks actually. Given that it's mostly dead on its own, having one as your "finisher" seems reasonable while hedging against the possibility of drawing all Berserks as your pump spells.
Replacing the Awkward Cards
One easy swap comes from looking at the mana base: the second Forest seems unnecessary (it was probably meant for less painful fetching in the Modern mana base) and in Legacy can easily be turned into a Tropical Island to provide a little more color consistency.
Time to think about Ichorclaw Myr. We'd really like to be able to play more copies of the actually good Infect creatures in these slots, gaining either speed or making them harder to block.
It took me a little while, but I realized we actually do have the ability to play more copies of one of them: Inkmoth Nexus being a land makes it perfectly eligible to be found by Crop Rotation. Turn 1 Crop Rotation into Nexus is much better than dropping Ichorclaw on turn 2, if only because it's a flier. This does mean we're slightly more vulnerable to Wasteland than we'd otherwise be, but at least a backup Crop Rotation will allow us to answer the Waste by turning the targeted Nexus into a new one.
Crop Rotation also has awesome flexibility compared to being another poison guy. If you're already beating down, you can use it to find a Pendelhaven to make the threat you have hit harder, and by replacing the second Pendelhaven with a Centaur Garden we get the ability to turn it into a full Giant Growth at essentially no cost. Those seem like solid switches.
Actually thinking about it, Crop Rotation might turn out to merit even more slots. It enables a sweet sideboard toolbox (Wasteland to deal with Maze of Ith or Glacial Chasm, Bojuka Bog against Dredge and Reanimator, Karakas against Emrakul, Griselbrand, and Elesh Norn). Something to keep in mind for later.
Finally, the two Apostle's Blessings seem like incredibly weak cards, so I'd like to replace them with something better. One option here is to add a Sejiri Steppe and the third Crop Rotation, which will grant a similar effect but with more flexibility.
Another is to look at what the Blessings are meant to do: protect your creatures from removal. One card that will do that exceptionally well while also protecting the deck from Legacy's even faster combo decks is Force of Will, which is especially good because zero mana is so much less than one.
My default approach to Legacy decks with blue cards is: "Hey, cool, I can run FoW. I probably should," so that's what I'll start off with. I'd actually like to fit in the other two copies, but first let's take a look at what our product looks like so far:
Poison Creatures (aka Combo Piece #1)
Pump (aka Combo Piece #2)
Now that we've finished the one for one porting changes, I usually take a moment or two to adjust awkward numbers and make a few minor changes. In this case, I'd like to hedge a little more against Wasteland by having more access to basic Island. To do that, I'll replace two of the Verdant Catacombs with some kind of blue fetchland, probably Flooded Strand to resemble Bant when I go fetch into Hierarch.
In addition, I'd really like to make room for the other two Force of Wills. It'll be easy to see if the deck can't actually support them, and giving your combo deck access to a zero-mana counter is usually quite powerful. The question is what can I cut for them?
Given the higher digging power of Legacy cantrips, I feel rather comfortable cutting a land from the deck—with the Hierarchs we still have 22 mana sources—and because I simply don't know what else will underperform, I'll cut the third Probe for the time being.
Probe is good because it lets you know if going all-in is safe but the security blanket of Force of Will often fills the same role. As for which land to cut, the newly added Flooded Strands feel the most expandable, so I'll get rid of one. This leaves me with:
Poison Creatures (aka Combo Piece #1)
Pump (aka Combo Piece #2)
At this point, like I would with a totally new deck, I usually jam a number of two-fisted games (games where I play both decks) against a few top-tier decks to see if the deck works ok, if some cards stick out as particularly awkward, and how the list interacts with typical cards from the other side of the table. The main point here is to get a general feel for the deck, to figure out which cards are pulling their weight and which seem lackluster, and if there's anything else I need to take into consideration. We're not looking to understand its matchups; we just want a first impression of how the deck is doing at this point.
That being said, if the deck feels reasonably fluid and powerful, I know it's worth investing more time in. If it crashes and burns, I'll focus my energy elsewhere or wait for some new idea to come up.
Here's what the above list delivered:
RUG Delver 3-2
One of the wins by RUG could have been avoided by choosing a different line of play. Either way, this result against the format's premier aggro-control deck definitely makes Infect seem reasonable. One thing of note is that I had Infect go first and it won every game it was on the play, leading to the 3:2 result. Pump spells countering Lightning Bolts were pretty big.
A straight up race and one that Infect essentially tied (once again ending up ahead by going first). Surprisingly enough, the Infect deck's Forces were generally pointless since the Show and Tell deck had more than enough ways to punch its combo through. Stopping all pump effects proved more difficult.
Finally, some general observations after playing these games, which is the main reason I played them:
- Force of Will is extremely awkward in the Infect deck. The blue count simply isn't as high as I'd want it to be.
- The deck wants more threats. Even with the cantrips, finding a (replacement) creature was sometimes hard once removal and Wastelands were involved. Also, not having a creature to deploy by turn 2 is the worst.
- Inkmoth Nexus is actually worse than one would think simply because of its activation cost. Spending mana on anything but pump spells the turn you plan to attack is pretty disruptive to the deck's plan.
- Noble Hierarch was good if I drew one but quite weak in multiples.
Infect definitely has enough raw power to be worth another look, and if this style of deck is up your alley, investing serious tuning efforts could well be merited.
Force of Will on the other hand, as much as I enjoy playing with it, is probably not worth it in here. The two things I'd look at testing next are Daze (in the games I played, the opponent was consistently forced into tapping out by the deck's threat potential) and the other two Crop Rotations in combination with Sejiri Steppe. Being able to turn Crop Rotation into either a Falter or a shroud effect would have been useful more than once. Nicely enough, more Rotations also means more access to infect creatures, another point the list felt weak on as mentioned.
The other direction I'd look to explore is porting a list closer to Ari's BUG Infect. Thoughtseize could be the kind of disruption the deck needs (Thoughtseize on 1, Infect guy on 2 seems quite good) without requiring the awkward high blue count FoW does. Just having more creatures should also make the deck faster. Now that I've experienced how awkward Inkmoth Nexus can be in game, I'd actually enjoy having another infect guy or two that I don't have to pay to activate.
All of these thoughts aren't really part of the porting process anymore, though, but the actual tuning phase. As such, this is where I'll stop today and leave you to do whatever you want with the deck. There are a lot of directions to go from here.
I hope you enjoyed reading another deckbuilding article. Let me know what you like and dislike about my work in the comments. I always read them, even if I don't always respond. Until next time, let someone else do the work for you!