The Kitchen Table #270 - Playing With A Big Deck
by Abe Sargent

Hello folks and welcome back to the series that explores the casual. Over the years I have written on all sorts of topics from the grand to the tiny. I’ve written on decks and strategies; cards and opinions. I’ve created my own base sets. I’ve spent article after article on Five Color Peasant and other formats. From rare drafting to MagicShop and Shandalar to the Magic RPG I’ve tried to come up with new ways of looking at the game. I’ve given you ideas to trigger your own deck building. I’ve even explored topics like Vanguard cards and tokens. However I have never not once written an article like today’s offering.

I recently wrote a series of several articles all on big decks almost in a row. (They were articles 253 255 257 259 and 262.) It just happened that these topics were what were on my mind and that list includes two online Prismatic articles and entry for the Compendium of Alternate formats that includes Five Color a combination of Five Color and New York format plus a Five Color review of Shards. There were lots of big decks flying around.

I like playing with big decks and there are a lot of reasons why. First of all you can play more cards. I know that 60-card decks are great and all that but there is something primal and pleasing about having a smaller number of decks with a lot more cards in each. Right now I have my Limited 250 a Mono-Black highlander control deck at 200 Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy a 60 card reanimator with Nether Shadows and whatnot Aggro 250 and Equinaut assembled. That’s it. Only two of these six decks are at 60 cards.

Now I know that there are a lot of casual players out there who love to build deck after deck after deck and they have 20 decks in their deck boxes and they label them or make sure each is in its own box with its own sleeves. They love building decks and finding new decks with an emphasis on "new decks." For them finding the newest deck idea is paramount and they will devour my articles where I go off the beaten path to use some odd cards and unusual decks. Some of these people loved Supplicating Clerics from a few articles ago where I built a cleric deck around Freylise’s Supplicant. They like seeing me combine Remembrance and Mortuary or Platinum Angel and Amulet of Quoz or Thran Weaponry and Retribution of the Meek.

You can certainly have a lot of decks with a few being on the bigger side of decks. You can have 12 decks with two larger than life.

Earlier this month I had someone tell me that they enjoyed EDH but the format was getting stale. I made one recommendation. Increase the minimum deck size to 500. Now they love it even more. Big decks are fun.

I play them because I have fun doing so. I have a lot of answers so tutors are less common but more powerful. I can dedicate slots to narrow answers knowing it’s unlikely I will draw one when I don’t need it. I can focus on getting just one copy of a card instead of more because I usually combine highlander with my big decks. (Not for my Aggro 250 obviously. That’s a real deck).

There’s no greater feeling then grabbing a section of your deck out of the deckbox and seeing people’s eyes light up. Then you pull out another section and their eyes get bigger. Then you pull out the next section and they remark – "Is that whole thing your deck?" You say yes then calmly get out two more long deck boxes full of your deck. You won already. You didn’t win the game but you caused an event. You made Magic memorable.

I began playing bigger and bigger decks and highlander usually because it made things fair. I recently talked about how my table had players of much different skill. Playing a gigantic deck of much size introduces significant inconsistencies to your game which gives others a chance to win.

It also gives rise to one of the greatest insults of all time. I have about 1500 cards in Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy. If I see a card in someone’s 300 card deck that I think is a poor choice I can say this: "I don’t even play that in my deck." Massive insult-ery ensues.

Perhaps big decks aren’t for you. That’s fine. However a lot of people over the years have said "I wouldn’t know where to start." That’s why twice I’ve written a series of articles about how to build that first Five Color deck. Whether you want to play 5c or not it’s a good primer for figuring out how to begin. (For more on Five Color check out the website here.)

You’ve got a big deck. How do you shuffle it? You’ve got a big deck. How do you tutor it? You’ve got a big deck. How do you find sleeves or table space for it? These were some questions raised by readers in the past so today I want to address these issues.

How to Shuffle a Big Deck – This is the banner issue for some about the mechanics of playing larger decks. Not all issues are wrapped around this however. Some issues come about when players first start playing the deck and then realize something they didn’t think of raises its head. However for most this issue lies first and foremost in their mind. If you can’t even shuffle your deck how could you even play it?

The first thing to realize is that not all big decks are created equal. If you have 250 cards unsleeved it’s not hard at all to shuffle. Even sleeved shuffling takes no longer than a minute. In these cases shuffling is not as much of a chore as you might think. Just cut your deck into sections shuffle those sections then intermingle the sections and do it again. Your deck is now shuffled.

Where I think people have questions is about larger decks such as Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy.

When you have a large deck you need to know is that you don’t shuffle it like you do a small one. In fact you often don’t shuffle a big deck at all. There are several side issues here. First you do need to randomize your deck. I’d say about every month or so I give my deck a good shuffle. During the week perhaps when I am watching sports or a movie or the news I get out Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy and begin the shuffling process. What I do is divide my deck into around ten stacks. I then pull a small section off each and shuffle them together. Once I have a large shuffled stack made of the former ten stacks I set it aside. I continue like this until I have a fully shuffled stack. Then I do it again. I repeat this process until I feel my deck is completely randomized.

Therefore when I show up with my deck at Magic nights I have a fully shuffled and randomized deck (usually although as I said I only shuffle about once a month fully).

During a game I can grab my deck and start playing. There are no questions that my deck is shuffled at this point. After the game I shuffle the cards that I used that game to create a randomly shuffled stack but one that is separate from the rest of the deck. Then I take that stack and put it on the bottom of my deck and start the next game from the newly shuffled section on the top.

Now my deck is not technically shuffled. If I drew Wheel of Fortune in my last game I know that I am not going to in this game. That means it is no longer truly random. However what are the chances of me drawing it anyway? It’s probably not that high. Again I’ll play out this game with my deck and again I’ll shuffle those cards used at the end of the game before putting it under the last game’s cards and starting anew from the top.

The result is a constantly changing set of cards for each game and fully randomized stacks of cards which are not randomized between each other.

When you need to shuffle in-game the answer is simple. You cut to a section of the deck not in use and start from there. Better yet I can create a random pile with cards from both sections of the deck which resembles true randomization without truly replicating it. So for example suppose that the bottom half of a 400-card deck are cards I’ve played with previously and the top half are those I have not. I am required to shuffle my deck. I might take twenty cards or so from each section of the deck shuffle them together and create a new section on top. Sure it’s not truly randomized but I can "shuffle" my deck more quickly than you can an EDH deck for example.

How to Tutor a Big Deck – You might think shuffling is the major issue facing large decks but it’s not. Tutoring is by far the biggest issue. When you need an answer and you are tutoring how to you find it? Well I have used several strategies over the years and based on what you need some or others are recommended.

Tutor Early – The most important thing to do is to begin tutoring early. For example suppose I draw a Krosan Tusker but I had to play something else on my turn like a defensive creature. I know I’m using that Tusker sooner or later so go ahead and search for the basics I might want in a turn or two set them aside and then when you Tusker it can be clean and quick. In fact I’d recommend this for all players tutoring in multiplayer. Resolve these things early.

If I have a tutor where I can get multiple things depending on the situation I’ll search ahead of time pull out many possibilities and keep them in a little face-down stack. For example if I get out my Sunforger then I might create a little stack of options for it so that it works much more quickly. Sometimes you draw a tutor and immediately use it so this is not always an option but I regularly search my deck for the right cards early on in order to expedite the game as much as possible.

Tutor Just Your Stack – There are games where I will pull out part of my deck and I’ll state ahead of time that except in extreme emergencies I’ll just tutor that stack for things. Then I have a smaller subsection of my deck to search through which can easily speed up the process by a lot. If you have a 400-card deck consider cutting it in half playing one half and just tutoring that half. Or perhaps you have a "play half" and a "tutor half." Whatever works to speed things up.

Take The First One – Another option is to search until you come to the first good card and then end. I’ll play a creature tutor and then just search until I find something good instead of finding the bestest card ever. Sometimes you need the perfect card because then you can take out both the Academy Rector and destroy the Mind’s Eye (see Thornscape Battlemage) or sacrifice the False Prophet to remove everything from the game. However I will often just take the first good thing and then we can move on. I am never upset to get a Sylvan Library off an Idyllic Tutor even if it means I don’t take that Mirari’s Wake or Future Sight. When you tutor like this you need to use your satisificing skills. (Apparently my Word does not recognize "satisfice" as a word. Find out about this decision-making process here).

Make it Up – Sometimes you want a highly specific card and you doubt you will reuse it. Then if you know it’s in your deck you can just say that you’ve tutored for it and shuffle. Sometimes I need just one card to avert a problematic situation such as Akroma’s Vengeance or Final Judgment. I have tutored for Cunning Wish to get False Cure. Why search my deck for the Cunning Wish when it removes itself from the game anyway? Then if you happen to draw the tutored card or come across it while you are searching you can grab it and toss in it the graveyard in case you want to Regrowth it.

Just Find That Type – There are times when you want to do something. There might be a card you really want for the effect but just take the first one that works so this is sort of similar to the strategy two steps above this one only there you just take the first good card because you don’t need something in particular. Here you do need something in particular. Suppose you are getting attacked by Darksteel Colossus. You cast an instant tutor and begin searching. Sure your ideal removal spell might be Exile so you can both remove it from the game and gain eleven life. However you come across Swords to Plowshares. Just take it and use it. (Or alternatively you could use the strategy above to get that Exile immediately).

Create a Tutor Stack – Some cards are tutored for more than others. In order to facilitate this I created a stack with the 26 most tutored for cards in my deck. I have this stack aside so every time I tutor if I want to get one of these cards I can. What are the 26 most tutored for cards in my stack?

20 dual lands. Akroma the Elder. Darksteel Colossus. Panglacial Wurm. Cheatyface. Mirari’s Wake. Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil.

Why these 26 cards? Well trust me no card gets tutored for as much as the duals. I want both sets in my stack because I might want that pair of color twice (Suppose I had Akroma the Red and Blatant Thievery in hand. I might want both Steam Vents and Volcanic Island). I then have the broken Wake as my normal enchantment tutor. I can get either Akroma or Darksteel whoever is right for the situation (or both off Tooth and Nail). I can try to sneak Cheatyface into play. I can also grab Panglacial Wurm or use Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil while searching putting them in a nice spot.

In order to remember not to put them back in my deck I use gold sleeves instead of my normal purple metallics. I used to use my white bordered duals and try to keep the rest of my cards black or silver bordered but it never worked as well as it should have because I have some pretty black bordered duals and I got a bunch of Three Kingdoms cards added to my deck a few years back.

Having a tutor stack also helps for when a Bribery Grinning Totem or Acquire comes your way.

With these various strategies you should be able to keep tutor time to a minimum and keep your multiplayer game hopping.

How to Manage the Table Space with a Big Deck – One minor issue with a big deck is the table space it takes up. Not everyone’s kitchen table is as large as it should be. Very few gamers have true gaming tables it seems. You want to be able to slap down your whole deck but it takes a while could get knocked over etc. My solution? I just pull out one long box and play it for a few games. Perhaps I’ll just play one long box for the entire night. When I add new cards from a set I add them to just one long box and then play it for a few weeks until I am comfortable with the new cards and I know which should stay and which should go.

It’s an easy fix to a minor problem but I thought I’d mention it now.

How to Handle the Sleeves of a Big Deck – This is an issue for some and not for others. We have one player who recently just said "Screw it." He built a big deck with old sleeves of various colors all mixed together. It is funny and cheap. You could also play sleeveless.

For those who want a consistency of look and to protect their cards allow me to recommend that you get a color that defines you. We give each player at the table a color for their main multiplayer highlander 250 deck. The good colors were taken early so people ended up with jank like carnation pink which is really funny. I was the first to pick a color so I was able to get my favorite one (purple).

You want different colors for things like Blatant Thievery Insurrection Reins of Power and so forth. It really helps to know whose card you have by sleeve color.

If the expense of getting massive amounts of sleeves hurts you just get whatever they have on sale in bulk. I once bought a ton of basic black sleeves from a generic company at a buck a pack on sale. There you can sleeve 500 cards for just ten bucks and 1000 cards for just twenty. That’s not a major financial hit.

Note that over time your sleeves will get worn and you’ll have to replace them. I have several extra packs of my classic Purples just so I can replace them when a sleeve splits or starts to wear really hard.

As you can see some think there might be mechanical problems with the building of larger and larger decks. Sure the occasional pebble lies in your way but today hopefully shows that it’s no stumbling block just a speed bump on the road to awesomeness. I hope that you enjoyed this trek into the realm of big decks. Enjoy the madness!

Until later...

Abe Sargent

Editor’s Section - Vote For Abe!

It’s Awards season and time for you to make your votes heard! The poll below contains five of Abe’s most popular articles from 2008. Cast your vote before Sunday and choose your favorite… it’ll then go head-to-head with a host of other articles to determine the 2008 Article of the Year!

Thanks for your input on this guys. Every article this week will contain a similar poll so be sure to vote for your favorites!