Flow of Ideas - Choosing Your Numbers
If you lose a game of Magic you made a mistake somewhere. It can be in play in mulligan decisions or in deckbuilding. While a lot of people focus on the first two deckbuilding errors even minor ones pile up over time and lead to a lot more game losses than people may realize. By building your deck better you can give yourself the tools to play better.
Of all the deckbuilding errors repeated every day one-of the most egregious has to do not with the cards in the deck but the quantity of each card. There are reasons to choose – and not to choose – one two three or four copies of any given card and choosing the wrong number can add up to numerous losses over time. While a single card may not seem to make a difference in the abstract over the course of a tournament or even a couple tournaments the difference is profound.
Remember all of those times you drew your one-of Loxodon Warhammer in Faeries to seal the deal against Red? Now imagine it was just been another Broken Ambitions. That’s the difference a single card choice can have. The same exact situation happens over and over every single game. You don’t know it because the cards don’t look or act different like the Loxodon Warhammer did but that fourth Baneslayer Angel you added has pulled you out of numerous games and that third Mutavault has crashed in alongside Wizened Cenn to deal just enough damage to kill your opponent a few times. Having the right number of each can be – and often is – the difference between a win and a loss.
Time and time again I scan over decklists people have sent me with numbers which seem generated purely so that they can have a multitude of card names show up on their decklist when a more compounded strategy would be better. Other times I look at decklists full of four-ofs but that should be running a split on two specific cards or could use a spicy one-of to help close the game. This article serves to do two things. First it’s to help you in deckbuilding so that your numbers on cards better reflect how often you want to draw them. Second it’s to help understand choices when looking at others’ decklists. A singleton Jace may look fairly stray to the untrained eye for example but when you look closer you might notice it’s acting as a fifth Mulldrifter. Hopefully this article will cultivate both of these crucial skills.
Four-ofs: The Building Blocks
Four-ofs are the core components of any deck. Even in Vintage where one-ofs abound four copies of a card like Force of Will make up the glue that holds numerous Blue decks together. Most of the strongest decks in Magic’s history are littered with four-ofs. (At least of cards they are allowed to play four of.) There are a few reasons why a card should be a four-of.
1. You always want to see this card in your opening hand
It should be obvious to any Magic player that the more copies of a card you play in your deck the higher chance you have of seeing it. What this means though is that if you always want to have a card in your opening hand it should be a four-of. Why would you want a card to always be in your opening hand? Because it’s good early on of course! Early drops or any kind of card which is only effective in the early game should comprise your four-of slots. A card like Spell Snare for example is at its strongest when in your opening hand because you can Snare their opening two-drop. Of course unlike other early drops Spell Snare is still effective later on which leads me to point number two…
2. The card has an effect on the game both early or late
Spell Snare still does something relevant early game and late game. On turn 2 it can catch your opponent’s Tarmogoyf and on turn 10 it can still catch your opponent’s Tarmogoyf. Unlike a card like Force Spike (a card I’ll talk more about later) which is only good early on Spell Snare retains its value throughout the game. If you jam your deck full of a four-of which is only good on turns 1 through 3 you’re going to be very sad when you pluck it on turn 10 while you’re trying to close the game. Of course in beatdown decks this is less applicable because your goal is to end the game quickly but you still want to play cards that are good if some opponent forces you to play a longer game.
3. The card is busted and you always want to draw as many as possible in every matchup
Sometimes a card is so good that four is just the right number to play. Maybe you can’t cast Baneslayer Angel or Reveillark until turn 5 but when you resolve one of them the card’s effect on the game is so pronounced that the game could end right there if your opponent can’t deal with the threat you’ve presented. Alternatively and on the cheaper side of the scale Wild Nacatl isn’t as impressive on turn 6 or 7 but on turn 1 in Extended it’s one of the best cards you can play. If you draw multiples and open into double Nacatl it’s even scarier. Michael Jacob once said (paraphrased) “a four-of is a card you can’t ever complain about if you draw three of.” Make sure all of your four-ofs are cards you won’t be upset to draw three of over the course of the game.
4. The card gets better in multiples
A good example of a card like this is Path to Exile. If you have a Path in your opener against a deck with an abundance of creatures and send it toward one of their creatures it bumps them up a turn so they can play scarier threats. If you have two Paths though you can take care of whatever they have next too.
Three-ofs: One is Enough
Three-ofs fit a much different category than four-ofs. While four-ofs are cards you want to unconditionally see three-ofs are cards you want to conditionally see. What do I mean? Well there are a few good reasons why you might want to conditionally see a card.
1. This card is good but expensive
Once you start to reach the upper limit of mana (often six in Standard) you really can’t afford to have your hand clogged by cards which are only active on turn 6 plus. At that point you often just need to play one to swing the game in your favor. The best example of this is with something like the Kamigawa dragons or the more recent Cruel Ultimatum. They’re very powerful and can have a game-changing effect but if your opening hand has two then you’re basically staring at a mulligan. In the control decks which are going to play three-ofs usually you have some kind of card drawing or filtering to find one by the time you hit turn 6 or 7. In the beatdown decks it could be a card like Blistering Firecat which is at the top of your curve and can ruin your early game efficiency if you draw too many early.
2. This card is bad in multiples
If a card is bad in multiples you don’t want to draw copious amounts of them. In many respects this follows on the footsteps of point #1 because expensive cards are often bad in multiples but this point also pays respects to other areas like legendary creatures. A legendary creature has to die a lot to make playing four worthwhile. If your opening hand had three Isamarus you have one or two cards you’re not going to be able to play until they probably no longer matter in the scope of the game. Occasionally there is a legend you can play four of (Vendilion Clique) but cards which scale to be weaker in multiples like legends are most often best in quantities of three.
3. This card is a control card that is only good early game
The classic example of this is Force Spike. For the longest time I was baffled as a deckbuilder: Force Spike is a card you always wanted to have in your opening hand and was great on turns 1 through 3 so why did a lot of successful decks play only three (or two!) Force Spikes? It took me a long time and many decks with four copies of Force Spike before I finally figured it out. While Force Spike is absurd in the early game if you peel them late game then you are drawing something that is worse than a land. At the time I was a proponent of four copies of Force Spike I figured it was just an opportunity cost of playing Force Spike but over time I realized you could just play three not have your hand clogged with Spikes late game and use them effectively when they happened to show up in your opening hand. Of course this principle mostly applies to control decks since beatdown decks primarily play cards which are good in the early game.
4. This card is situational
If a card is situationally good based on what other cards you draw you don’t want to draw too many of them without being in the situation where it is good. For example unless an aura is really really good you don’t want to play four. What if your hand ends up being three auras and no creatures? If a card is good but situational three is often the right number to play.
5. The 3/1 split
Sometimes you want to split up a four-of into a 3/1 split just to have some extra variance in card selection. Maybe instead of solely pinpointing non-creatures with four Negates you want to be able to counter a creature now and then too so you move to three Negates and an Essence Scatter or Broken Ambitions. When you see a three-of in a decklist see if you can pair it up with a one-of somewhere else in the deck.
Two-ofs: Just in Case
Two-ofs are a card class you have to be very careful with. Playing with too many two-ofs is one-of Magic’s most classic blunders second only to making sure you never become involved in a land war in Otaria. Whenever I see a deck riddled with two-ofs I almost always feel something has been done wrong; often two-ofs are the result of not knowing which cards are good. Still there are a few reasons to play them but in general I would try and stay far away from two-ofs.
1. You have two slots left
“4 8 12 16 20 24 28 32 hmm I have two slots left in my 26 land control deck…” Sometimes you just have two extra slots and two-of the same card sounds better than two one-ofs. (Have you considered another land?)
2. This card is really situational (The maindeck sideboard card gambit.)
Sometimes there is a card you want to play that is really situational. Not just situational in the context of what cards you draw but situational in the context of what your opponent is playing. Maybe it’s because of the metagame or maybe it’s because it’s a bad matchup and you’d like some extra firepower but it’s situational nonetheless Because you don’t have any control over what your opponent is playing you can’t afford to be playing three or four copies of a card which is going to be dead in numerous other matchups. Some recent examples have been a few brave individuals who have maindecked a pair of cards like Burrenton Forge-tender and Flashfreeze. Draw them in the right matchups and they’re great but draw them in the wrong matchups and you might have well just drawn an ace of spades.
3. The 2/2 split
Similar to the 3/1 split sometimes you’re not sure about what to expect so you want to split up your numbers to maximize versatility. For example you could play two Essence Scatters and two Negates instead of four copies of either one. Sometimes one card is better than another but is more situational so you want to split them up 2/2 so you don’t draw too many of the situational one. (Like two Broken Ambitions and two Negates/Scatters.)
4. You want this card in some matchups but not others
Similar to the maindeck sideboard card gambit are cards which are good in some matchups but considerably weaker in others. For example in Legacy a card like Wrath of God is really only good in certain matchups and fairly dead in others so you don’t want to overload on them. It might still do something against something like Threshold but it’s still not great against them.
5. This card is a late game finisher
You can play two copies of a card which aims to finish the game if necessary. It’s not as powerful or crucial to the deck as a “powerful but expensive” card that would normally be a three-of but important enough that you want to find one to help close the game if your Plan A doesn’t get the job done.
6. The fifth and sixth copy of a four-of
For the same reason four copies of a card is good six copies can be even better. While the cards are often not completely identical a card can do a similar enough job to be considered extra copies of a four-of. For example you might have two Jace to supplement your four Mulldrifters or two Duress to supplement your four Thoughtseize. While they don’t do the same thing they accomplish similar roles.
One-ofs: How Lucky!
I don’t know about you but I love a good one-of. Unlike the awkward “sometimes I might need this” feeling of two-ofs one-ofs are often game changers when drawn and used effectively. There are several reasons why you might want the number one sitting next to the name of a card on your decklist.
1. The strategic miser’s copy
While sometimes one-ofs are tossed in without much consideration if done correctly they can make a huge difference in the game. The strategic one-of is traditionally a card which is expensive and can be a little clunky but if drawn late game is very strong. A common example would be something like the aforementioned Loxodon Warhammer in pre-M10 Faeries. It costs a lot of mana to become active and can be situational and clunky but when it worked man it worked. A similar thing can be said of the single Dragon Broodmother or Cruel Ultimatum in the 5CB decks at Grand Prix Seattle. The best one-ofs should be cards that when drawn and turned online can completely change the game but are unwieldy enough that you can’t really play more of them.
2. The tutor target
This one is kind of obvious: if you have a tutor engine in your deck playing a toolbox of targets is worthwhile. As a side note for those building decks with tutors if you have one spot left in your deck and some kind of tutoring engine I believe contrary to what Sam Black and Steve Sadin may have said in the past that it is best spent on a tutorable card. For the price of one slot in your deck you gain an entire additional card into your tutor package. While I do praise having miser one-ofs I feel like I would much rather play a card which fits into my tutor package so I have more consistent access to it via tutoring than a card which is good when I draw it but cannot be tutored for.
3. Threat diversification
In many decks (or even formats depending on the popularity of cards like Cranial Extraction) you want to diversify your endgame threats. Sometimes it’s just to have variance others maybe you want different threats because of some reason which makes sense in context of your deck but sometimes one Broodmate Dragon one Baneslayer Angel and one Karrthus Tyrant of Jund is the way to go.
4. Answer diversification
Sometimes the threats in a format are so different that you want to play a bunch of different answers instead of three narrow ones which answer one threat but not another. In Five Color you can play a package such as one Doom Blade one Lightning Bolt and one Essence Scatter (or even Pithing Needle if you’re Gabriel Nassif) and have a variety of answers. In most cases they will each deal with the right creature but in situations where your opponent plays a creature which would be impervious to any one-of those three cards you have two others in your deck that you can use against it.
5. A fifth copy of a four-of
This point is the same as the “fifth and sixth copy of a four-of” in the two-of section only instead of two extra copies you just want one extra copy. Additionally sometimes with one-ofs you can blend the fifth copy of a card and the idea of a miser’s one-of and play something which is a more expensive but more powerful copy of a four-of you have. For example instead of supplementing Mulldrifter with Jace you might opt to play a one-of Fathom Trawl instead. When you find your one-of hopefully it will be later in the game where you can cast the more expensive spell and have it make an impact.
6. The 3/1 split
See the section on three-ofs for more information.
I hope that you enjoyed this article and please let me know what you have to think. I tried to be as comprehensive and all-encompassing with my categories as possible but if you think I missed one please post in the forums or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. It’s been great to hear from all of you and I look forward to continuing to receive your feedback. The amount of e-mails I have been receiving have been truly astounding and it’s been great to both hear your ideas and talk about your views on my ideas and decks. Talk to you soon!
Team Unknown Stars
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