Innovations - Meddling with Flaws, Curves, and Beauty: A Deckbuilding Masterclass
“Name Volcanic Fallout? Why are you naming Volcanic Fallout…? I thought you were playing a Standard Faeries deck…?”
People show me a variety of decklists to review some closer to established archetypes some a little further from the beaten trail. Today I intended to write up a few of the decklists people have shown me recently and talk about how I would change them but once I got started I sort of veered away from this theme. Besides until Alara Reborn is fully spoiled Standard is too close to a major shift to spend too much time breaking it down any more than has already been done.
Seriously how many times can I really just like a Five Color Control deck and espouse its virtues? I also like the Doran deck designed by Mike Long and myself and Faeries and R/W are okay but the format is due for a shake up and it looks like Alara Reborn is just what we ordered.
First let’s start by looking at a decklist that a friend of mine recently showed me and talk about ways to identify flaws that should be addressed as well as strengths that can be accentuated.
It is not enough to just say “Trim it down to 60 cards” or “Add a land.” Today we are going to examine some of the thought processes behind reviewing a decklist and what questions to ask yourself so that you can better figure out how to tune the deck you are working on or perhaps a decklist that you have come upon recently. I know this example is just another Reflecting Pool control deck but the point is to help think of strategies to use for determining what aspects of a deck to examine.
Five Color Control variant 0.1
4 Broken Ambitions
2 Remove Soul
2 Volcanic Fallout
2 Jace Beleren
1 Ajani Vengeant
1 Elspeth Knight-Errant
3 Wrath of God
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Cryptic Command
2 Cruel Ultimatum
1 Nicol Bolas Planeswalker
This is another take on the Five-Color Control archetype or in this case a four-color control deck. This list is made without Green apparently figuring that Broodmate Dragon is not worth “messing up the mana for.”
This build is obviously heavy on countermagic and Planeswalkers changing around the anti-creature suite to take advantage of Wrath of God in the pilot’s local metagame.
The card draw is somewhat predictable with the only interesting point being the complete exclusion of Esper Charm in favor of Jace and other Planeswalkers. It is a bit of an odd list to look at as it is almost jarring when one first takes in that somehow this build has over half a dozen Planeswalkers twelve counterspells and maindeck Wraths. How is this possible?
It was only upon closer examination of the manabase that all became clear. This list contains only 24 land (out of 61 cards).
It is a classic deck building mistake to chronically “cheat on lands” in order to make room for everything that you want to play. The idea is that if you make room for an Elspeth or some Negates or a Nicol Bolas they will do more to win the game for you than just drawing a random land.
The misunderstanding comes from people not fully appreciating the decklist as a whole. It is not a question of what would you like to draw on turn 10. It is a question of what mixture of cards do you want to draw over the course of the game. You may think it is harmless to cut a land for an Elspeth maybe another land for a Negate but why stop there?
We could cut 24 more land and make room for ALL KINDS OF COOL CARDS.
Ah but then we wouldn’t be able to play our spells? That is the exact problem with playing too few lands regardless of how many you are off by. It is just math. If you play 24 land you can’t expect to reliably hit all your land drops.
Nassif played 27/61 in Kyoto and still banked on 4 Esper Charms in addition to his Mulldrifters in order to hit his first 7 land drops. This deck needs to go a step further and even has an eight-drop.
In order to better gauge how many lands your deck should have it is often useful to compare your list to established lists that have similar properties.
For instance look at decks that have similar cards as their most difficult to cast (such as Cryptic Command Cruel Ultimatum and Wrath of God). How many lands do they play? How many of these come into play tapped? How many Filter? How many Pain? How many basics?
If you take a look at the Reflecting Pool control decks that have been enjoying success lately you will notice that they can range anywhere between 26/60 27/60 to 27/61 as far as their land count goes. This should be a clue to you that unless you have a compelling reason to buck the established wisdom there seems to be a pretty narrow range of possible land counts for a deck like this.
The fact that this deck does not contain Broodmate Dragon is almost trivial as Vivids make it almost assured that by the time you have six land you have access to Green. As a matter of fact the designer of this deck almost assuredly assumes that being able to play Arcane Sanctum and Crumbling Necropolis is a plus to this build.
One of the things to look for in a deck is the nature of its Semi-Soft Locks. Semi-Soft Locks are essentially conditions that you can create that will usually lead to victory. This can be a simple combination or perhaps even just a key card.
Broodmate Dragon is a classic example of a Semi-Soft Lock. Unlike a Soft Lock that denotes a situation where your opponent has very few possible ways to possibly escape whatever predicament you have put them in a Semi-Soft Lock is nowhere near as secure. It merely leads you to be at a sizable advantage. Contrast this with a true Hard Lock where your opponent has no real counterplay.
When you play Broodmate Dragon against a deck without Cryptic Command they usually are in big trouble. It is not just enough to say that Broodmate Dragon is a strong card. Rather Broodmate Dragon is usually the factor that tips the scales in your favor in these matchups much like how Wrath of God can against many decks or Bitterblossom or Jace do against others.
Not all decks must be built full of Semi-Soft Locks but it is still important to understand those that you do use as well as the ones you don’t that others do.
The truth is unless your deck is three or fewer colors tri-lands pale in comparison to Vivids. It is just too important to be able to tap your Arcane Sanctum to cast Fallout or your Crumbling Necropolis to cast Wrath to resort to lands like these. They are decent no question but you just don’t need to cut off your options. The vast majority of the time you will never run out of Vivid counters. It doesn’t matter if you can tap Arcane Sanctum for U three times B three times and W three times. What matters is that you are able to cast your spells.
The Vivids do a better job of ensuring that you will be able to cast your spells as the Vivid counters running out is far less relevant than the ability to produce that fourth color.
Besides all of this is moot when you consider that Broodmate Dragon is one of the primary reasons to play Five-Color Control at all. If it were not for him I would just play Faeries. He didn’t get to be called The Savior for nothing!
I don’t want to get too hung up on the lands in this build as there is plenty to talk about but I would also like to add that Ice Age / Apocalypse Painlands are not really what Reflecting Pool control decks should be up to these days. You can do better you really can. Also Mutavault and Cruel Ultimatum are not the best of friends. At least a Treetop Village can mesh with a Flooded Grove or something.
Finally is there enough Black in this build? I am not even sure this version will be able to cast Cruel Ultimatum reliably once it has seven mana but that is not as big a concern to me as the fact that we do not have access to Scepter of Fugue or anything along those lines. This is not a dealbreaker but it has me taking notice.
My initial inclination is to work in two more land after reviewing the rest of the deck.
While the land that he ran came to me from a Top Down perspective the next thing I notice about this list is actually something I observe from the Upside Down way of thinking. It is not so much what is in this list but rather what is not. In this case there is a somewhat disturbing lack of ways to deal with a Figure of Destiny efficiently.
Technically the Wrath of Gods actually ensure that you have many answers but I would be a little nervous bringing a deck that relies on two Incinerates and two Plumeveils to deal with a possible turn 1 Figure. I often mulliganed based on my ability to deal with a turn 1 Figure and with this deck I would have to keep hands that have a Wrath as their answer despite the fact that it commits me to taking ten damage from the Figure before I tap out to deal with it…
I get that Incinerate offers additional Planeswalker protection but I just don’t think it does enough as it is not really going to be a reliable answer to Elspeth Ajani or Garruk.
I really think you want to make room for some cards like Terror Celestial Purge Path to Exile Pithing Needle and so on. Even more Plumeveils would help. Terminate promises to offer a fantastic new option for control players and beatdown players alike.
Pithing Needle is actually somewhat misunderstood in this regards as it is actually a bit of an answer to Figure of Destiny (turn 1 stopping pumps is plenty good enough for the most part as it turns four of the best cards in their deck into Mons’s Goblin Raiders) as well as functioning as an answer to difficult problem cards like Mutavault or Planeswalkers or even Glen Elendra Archmage.
Sower of Temptation is technically a bit of an answer but the problem with Sower of Temptation in a deck like this is that most opponents are going to have some form of creature removal. If you don’t have any other creatures then they are just going to be sitting there with a fist full of creature kill waiting for a target. This deck doesn’t even feature Reveillark to undo the damage done by creature kill.
How can I be so sure that Sower of Temptation is out of place in this build? First of all there are just far too many four drops to value this guy highly. On top of that you should always watch for “nombos” or “non-bos” combinations of cards in your deck that do not work well together.
In this case we have Sower of Temptation conflicting with sweepers like Fallout as well as the conflict between the Walls and the Wraths.
Some other classic examples of nombos include:
Runed Halo and Planeswalkers
Condemn and Mystic Gate
Blightning and Voices from the Void
Thoughtseize and Vivid lands
Figure of Destiny and Mutavault
Kitchen Finks and Reveillark
Stillmoon Cavalier and Doran
Loxodon Warhammer and Doran
Profane Command and Gaddock Teeg
Profane Command and Chameleon Colossus
Cloudthresher and Glen Elendra Archmage
Cloudthresher and Bitterblossom
And so on…
The point is pay attention to the interactions in your deck that are not favorable. This is not to say that you have to cut them out but rather you need to be mindful of the constraints that they put you under.
The next issue that jumps out at me is the fourteen four-drops. Fourteen four-drops is even a lot in a ramp deck that uses cards like Rampant Growth to skip to four mana. A deck like this cannot possibly support this many as you will first of all just be hoping to play lands for the first four turns then you will end up just playing more four-drops on turns 5 and 6.
The mana curve is a subject that has evolved quite a bit over the years. Most are familiar with it to a degree but it still very misunderstood by the majority of tournament players.
Here is the original “Sligh deck” (Geeba) created by Jay Schneider that Paul Sligh finished second (at a two slot) PTQ with.
Sligh by Paul Sligh
Yes that’s right this deck introduced Jay Schneider’s mana curve to the world complete with the devastating combo of Dwarven Traders and Goblins of the Flarg. Seriously! It is not enough to play 1/1s for R with no ability they have to also kill your other 1/1s for R! Talk about a nombo!
At the time Standard had a bit of a twist where you had to play with five cards from each set which is why Sligh went to the trouble of including Goblins of the Flarg and Dwarven Trader (meeting his Homelands and Chronicles requirements). It should be noted that Dwarven Pony was legal at the time which could have offered a 1/1 for R that did not kill the Goblins of the Flarg but also would not have synergy with Dwarven Lieutenant.
My friends that is the very definition of “mediocre beats.”
The strategy behind the deck was that the optimal distribution of mana costs in a deck was actually a very mathematical concept maximizing the utility of your mana every turn. You want to play a one-drop on one a two-drop on two a three-drop on three but it is much better to have a two-drop on three than to be stuck holding an extra three-drop on turn 2.
The original Mana Curve Formula:
1 mana slot: 9-13
2 mana slot: 6-8
3 mana slot: 3-5
4 mana slot: 1-3
X spell: 2-3
While strategy continues to twist and turn revolving around the new cards that are printed many many decks to this day are somewhat inspired by this mana curve or other variations of the mana curve. Take for instance Nassif’s build of Five-Color Control.
He uses 11 Vivid lands which occupy the one-drop spot on the curve. He played 4 Broken Ambitions a Terror and a Celestial Purge occupying the two-spot on the curve. It is important to note that Paul Sligh did not intend to cast Incinerate on turn 2 so it would not have been one of his two-drops whereas in a control deck that is not deploying early men it is much more important to be able to interact early with removal spells for creatures like Figure of Destiny.
The similarities began to diverge at the three spot as Nassif’s 4 Esper Charms 4 Mulldrifters 4 Volcanic Fallouts and 3 Plumeveils represent a great deal more three-drops but control decks like this actually come from a somewhat different model of mana efficiency.
In a controlling deck we are not as concerned with spending all of our mana every turn as we are with playing the right card to counteract our opponent’s efforts. For instance we will not use a Cryptic Command on turn 4 instead of a Celestial Purge just because it uses all of our mana while our opponent is beating us down with a Figure of Destiny.
The more cards you play at the same casting cost the less valuable they often will be but in the case of Nassif’s build he is willing to play as many three-drops as he is because they have more utility later. Mulldrifter gains added value when played for five. Volcanic Fallout is a sweeper that can be worth multiple cards when you wait until an opportune moment. Esper Charm can draw you into even more gas making it an ideal draw even when you have far more than three mana.
The problem with the four-drop selection in the deck listed is that you have far too many things you want to do on turn 4 and not nearly enough added value to the cards if you play them on any other turn.
The fact that Wrath of God and Wall of Reverence don’t really play that nicely together let alone Sower of Temptation and Fallout should be considered but is not as important as the fact that this deck is missing the Broodmate Dragon element of Nassif’s build.
Obviously the Broodmate Dragons have limited value during the first five turns of the game whereas having more options for four-drops is nice but starting turn 6 you are typically going to prefer to draw Broodmate Dragon than Elspeth or Ajani. Nicol Bolas is actually sort of in this slot though on the wrong side of the mana curve but the truth is that Nicol Bolas is not even clearly as good as Cruel Ultimatum despite costing more. Broodmate Dragon’s strength is that while it is not as strong as Cruel Ultimatum in many situations it is the strongest thing you can do with six mana in this format.
It is like the old Keiga-tap-out approach that Flores pushed for so long. You can tap out to play Broodmate because you know that whatever your opponent does it isn’t going to be as good as a Broodmate.
It is hard to critique a decklist that is so similar in concept to an existing deck but has fundamental differences that you think are inherently inferior. For instance my honest advise if Bucher were to show me this list would be to just change it to be mostly like Nassif’s build.
In this case I think there is a better way to build Five-Color Control than presented which is why we play it the way we do. That said if I were sticking to the general ideas behind this build I would try something like this (keep in mind that in this player’s metagame he doesn’t expect much Faeries but instead anticipates a field soft to Wrath of God).
Five Color Variant 0.2
2 Wall of Reverence
2 Broodmate Dragon
Of course long time readers will notice that most of the changes that I have suggested are just adaptations of elements of Nassif’s build but that is simply because I think that that is a superior style of Five-Color. I have moved some of the cards to the maindeck that I think are needed to buy time to compete as well as increasing the land count and adding some Dragons.
Wydwen is too good not to play right now but honestly I am not even that enthusiastic about the Banefire as Wall of Reverence really diminishes the value of it as a tool. Still there is a good chance people will sideboard their Walls out so perhaps it is valid. Besides it is certainly a nice tool versus the Fae.
While we are on the topic of Wydwen have you guys tried her in a Faeries deck? It is kind of sweet that she is so hard to kill and has a three toughness. I know the four spot is crowded but you should give her a chance.
While I originally intended this article to be a more in depth discussion of how to tune decks this example really has just reminded me of how important it is to know the field you are preparing to beat when building a Five Color Control deck. Until we know more about Alara Reborn it is going to be hard to advise on what build to play. It is not enough to just look at the Alara Reborn spoiler. Thought must be given to what sort of decks people will be piloting given the new toys.
Succeeding with Five Color control is all about figuring out the right answers to the right problems.
Since we don’t know what problems are going to need to be addressed let’s flow over to a more proactive experiment with deck building.
2 Broodmate Dragon
3 Swans of Bryn Argoll
This is just my first draft of a sort of Five-Color Control + Shuhei Swans Hybrid exploiting the new Bifuminous Blast card from Alara Reborn.
Deal 4 damage to target creature.
Cascade (When you play Bifuminous Blast reveal the top cards of your library until you reveal a non-land card with a lower converted manacost. You may play that spell without paying its casting cost. Put the revealed cards on the bottom of your library in random order).
This card showcases the new Cascade mechanic from Alara Reborn that is going to be huge. I know this card is fairly unassuming but after a week of playing with it I have come to the conclusion that it is amazing and that Cascade as a mechanic is far stronger than meets the eye.
Imagine dealing 4 damage to your opponent’s Rhox War Monk in response to the Exalted trigger flipping up a Jace Seismic Assault or Swans. Even if you just flip up an Esper Charm to double cantrip you can really appreciate the strength of this mechanic.
Personally I am thrilled to see what Cascade cards ending up being printed. The mechanic is absolutely beautiful. I love card advantage abilities like buyback unearth flashback kicker cantrip and so on and this is one of the most interesting directions taken yet.
What are the deck building implications? How abusable is the mechanic? What cards will rise in value (Ancestral Vision)? What cards will diminish (Broken Ambitions)? What will it feel like to play with Cascade cards? I haven’t been this excited for a new mechanic since the introduction of Planeswalkers.
To begin with Cascade is sort of an uncounterable cantrip added on top of the spell. Next we see that it never hits land so there is an element of selection involved. On top of that you get the spell for free so you often get a discount of 3-4 mana making the card have an abusable feel that is reminiscent of the “free mechanic” such as Cloud of Faeries Frantic Search and Time Spiral.
The fact that you can play sorceries and creatures during your opponent’s attack phase or Cascade into other Cascade cards (that cost less) is just icing on the cake. I think Bifuminous Blast has the potential to be a very strong card on its own but more importantly I think we need to all pay very close attention to whatever Cascade cards are printed. This mechanic seems to me to be up there with Storm Dredge and the “Free Mechanic.”
I am not one prone to say that the sky is falling but let me just go on record as saying that the Cascade Mechanic has the potential to really change the way we play. Try throwing this card into your existing decks. I was not in love with this block format a month ago but what little of Alara Reborn has been spoiled has already proven capable of revolutionizing the format particularly because of this one card.
“Oh I get it you need to name a non-land card when your guy comes into play. Well I guess Volcanic Fallout is a pretty good card to name…”