The first deck that I ever built was mono-white, consisting of maybe 20 Plains and every single white card that I owned.
The last deck that I ever built was mono-green with a very similar structure to my white deck.
I've only ever built five decks.
Can you guess the other three?
Suffice to say, I would not exactly consider myself a deckbuilder in the same vein as Gerry Thompson or Travis Woo. I've made my way in this game grinding with extremely refined known quantities or piloting tours de force sculpted by one of the aforementioned masters. I can play a few games on Magic Online or fan through a deck and articulate what I think are the issues with a given list with beautiful clarity that I can only explain as a “feel” developed through experience, but I lack the capacity to draw up a full 75 from scratch. Some may view this as a hole in my repertoire as a mage, or it could simply be chalked up to laziness, but the fact remains that you'll never hear about me embarrassing myself with a pile of my own creation—until now.
When Lauren Lee posted in search of volunteers for the latest rendition of the Battle Royale series, I immediately threw my hand up. Part of me just wanted to write again (I lack the creativity to explore a topic any more sophisticated than a tournament report on my own), but I also wanted to see how my deckbuilding talents held up against some of the game's finest in a competitive but low-stakes environment. After being selected, I slowly began the brew process in an attempt to draw up a crafty creation.
I started with doing some homework. I read up on the previous Battle Royale pieces, both to see the decks that they ended up with but more importantly get an idea of their approach to the format. I checked out JVL's archive on the Mothership for further discussions on budget deckbuilding and deck ideas, and then finally got in contact with Bryan Gottlieb.
While you probably have not heard of this man outside of my constant attempts to squeeze his name into every crack of internet space that I take up, he is a true brew master with the skeleton of decks such as PT Amsterdam Dredge, Survival Ooze, and PesterTwin to his credit. After some conversation with Bryan and further deliberations with Tim Landale on the way down to SCG Baltimore, we arrived at a rough list of starting points for archetypes worth possibly exploring:
- Pyromancer Ascension boarding into Trinket Mage/Shape Anew
- Mono-Green Beatdown a la PT San Juan with Lead the Stampede
- Patrick Sullivan's Mono Red minus the fetchlands
- Glistener Elf/Immolating Souleater with Assault Strobe and various pump spells
- Mono-Black Control centered around Lashwrithe and Mind Sludge
- Tempered Steel Beatdown
- Mono-Black Vampires with Nantuko Shade and Eldrazi Monument
- Splinter Twin (likely with only three copies of its namesake card due to budget constraints)
- Mindcrank/Bloodchief Ascension combo
- “Bad” Eldrazi, mostly in G/W iterations
As you can see, these ideas range from legitimate Tier 2 Standard decks to just downright embarrassing—I don't even want to play Glistener Elf in my draft decks. You'll also notice an absence of control decks in this list, as we believed them to rely on too many expensive cards to function well under the given constraints (this was before the budget was raised from $40 to $50, however). I began drawing up lists and fooling around with some of these decks, but most of my attempts were pretty pathetic. I quickly found myself content with settling on playing Pyromancer Ascension, an uninspired but reasonable choice that would give me the best chance to win the competition and walk away with what little dignity I had still intact.
Luckily, all of that terrible thinking was salvaged while I was strolling out and about with my dog. The biggest problem with my approach was that I was trying to build decks that most closely resembled something that I would play in an actual Standard tournament. While that may be the goal of JVL's column, my aim was to walk away a winner.
Mono Red was probably the strongest available deck in a vacuum, but because the majority of cheap decks were beatdown, everyone should have a reasonable plan to beat you. The same went for known quantities such as Splinter Twin and Ascension, which while not as easily hateable as aggro decks, also suffered due to budgeting.
Everything in Magic is contextual, so some days you are better off casting Kor Cartographers and not Preordains. However, please don't start cutting Contagion Engine from your Limited deck, even if you are a Pro Tour champion.
Tim was really pushing me to play the G/W Eldrazi list we had drawn up, and though I eventually chose against it, our brainstormings led me to a few critical breakthroughs.
First, I definitely wanted to be as controlling as reasonably possible. Reid (or more specifically, Ian) Duke mentioned in his article that “you want to be either much faster or a little bit slower than your opponent,” and I certainly did not want to get caught up in trying to race past some Goblin Guides or Vampire Lacerators.
Second, we discovered Day of Judgment as a cornerstone. The main issue was trying to integrate the sweeper with the other 56 cards in a deck, as God apparently doesn't care about his Overgrown Battlements, but that was a bridge we would cross when we got there.
Third, we discovered the power of lands. Beyond the fact that control decks needed expensive planeswalkers or finishers to function (though Gavin proved us otherwise), they also became increasingly awkward without the availability of special lands to compensate for high land counts or to fix their mana early on. However, I had completely missed the cost-effectiveness of cards such as Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple in the early going and began to consider what other possibilities remained unexplored.
This is what I eventually submitted:
- 4 Pilgrim's Eye
- 2 Glimmerpoint Stag
- 1 Kor Cartographer
- 2 Kor Sanctifiers
- 2 Kor Skyfisher
- 1 Leonin Relic-Warder
- 4 Lone Missionary
- 4 Sun Titan
- 4 Wall of Omens
- 1 War Priest of Thune
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
This deck solved almost all of my aforementioned concerns. It had a nigh-unbeatable endgame with enough early threats to let me safely reach that point. It was able to profitably cast Day of Judgment despite playing 26 creatures because they all had 187 effects and could be recurred via Sun Titan or Emeria. The deck abuses a land (an all-but indisruptable resource in budget battling) and will almost never lose to mana issues because of its high land count (which the deck wants for a variety of reasons), cantrip/land search effects, and for being monocolor.
Here's a few other intricacies I'd like to point out for no less than the satisfaction of feeling like a witty deckbuilder with all sorts of cute little tricks engineered into their masterpiece (please consider for a moment that my “defining work” contains 19 Plains…):
- Terramorphic Expanse thins your deck to avoid being punished for playing so many lands and ensures that you'll be activating Emeria if you have a Sun Titan in play. Also, it was deliberately chosen over Evolving Wilds for reasons that cannot be properly communicated in writing but rather only by a performance of song and dance.
- Kor Sanctifiers, Leonin Relic-Warder, and War Priest of Thune all have various issues, so a clean mix was chosen for appropriate mising. Sanctifiers does not function with either of the deck's centerpieces but covers all the angles and has a nice backend, while Relic-Warder is too unreliable and War Priest too narrow. I also wanted to make life difficult on myself when choosing which target to reanimate, promptly selecting the most suboptimal card about 90% of the time.
- The 3 DOJ / 1 Phyrexian Rebirth split was mainly due to some last-minute budget shavings, but the possible upside of Rebirth, in addition to making my opponents play around an additional card, cemented my decision. I may have actually been better off playing four Rebirths because of how many early drops I had (alleviating concerns of just being “run over”), but I wasn't quite feeling that frisky.
- Mortarpod was one of the first cards that I wanted to cut after scouring through some old lists, but it turned out to be one of the best cards in the deck. Beyond its blatant application of machine-gunning down weenies and opponents, it allows you to make sure all of your reanimation triggers are full-value (unless I'm piloting).
- The Elesh Norn slot could have been a Baneslayer or Iona, so similar to how I chose which college to attend, I simply rolled a d6 and called it a day.
- Survival Cache was initially cut because we were originally playing Oust, but almost assuredly should have found its way back in when we moved to a full boat of Lone Missionaries. The lack of Tezzeret's Gambit is simply embarrassing.
- The sideboard was kind of a hodgepodge, but largely accounted for a keen vulnerability to Splinter Twin (nice Demystify, bro) and shoring up any possible weaknesses to all imaginable aggro decks. I also had some Luminarch Ascensions which would have been insane, but was forced to cut them due to their costs and my inability to conceive anyone else playing a control deck. Tectonic Edges were never even considered by the same logic. Imagine my surprise…
The battling itself was pretty uneventful, conjuring memories of watching handicapped midgets fighting in a boxing ring for a crowd of three due to the miserable nature of our control decks.
My match with Gavin was incredibly awkward, as I felt like I needed to be beating down early despite having inevitability because his deck peaked a full three or so turns before mine. Additionally, with his superior deck manipulation and controlling elements, I felt like he would always reach his endgame while I had to “naturally” (read: skillfully) draw into mine. I pretty much wanted to die every time I made the “Lone Missionary, GUI” play, and he had an EOT Jace's Ingenuity, but I guess that's what I get for registering too many cards that have “gain life” in the text. Taking out a Liliana Vess with Devout Lightcaster was easily worth all of my troubles, though.
My match with Ben was pretty much determined by the fact that he could only actually afford to play a single copy of Emrakul. Thus, when I was able to trap the flying spaghetti monster under a Journey to Nowhere, victory was easily attained.
While I feel like Sean had the most creative deck, I'm pretty sure I could not lose our match in a thousand years. The “little bit slower” mantra held true in every aspect of this matchup, as my DOJs were effective while his were poor, and as long as I avoided being ninja'd by a massive White Sun Zenith, I would never be close to actually dying before my Emeria engine was online.
Despite not making a clean sweep of the round robin tournament, I was crowned champion due to tiebreakers/miracle forces/the pity of Lauren Lee, all of which are acceptable reasons for declaring me the champion of anything. This title certainly provides me a huge ego and morale boost that will keep me wanting to play Magic for the next two years, or at least until everyone forgets that I ever won this or anything else in my tragic “career.”
Good luck with any of your own brewing ventures, and thanks for taking the time to read this.