Deckbuilding 101 – Conception

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“Art” is a controversial word. Plenty of people smarter than me have spent many hours trying to convince people that a thing so commonplace and almost banal as video games can be defined as “art”, much like other non-interactive mediums – literature, film, music. I, however, I think deckbuilding is an art. And it’s a tough one to boot.

In a series of posts beginning with this one, I intend to break down my method for deck construction in EDH. To exemplify, I’m also going to present my latest protect – Pharika, God of Affliction. To start off, I want to make a few things clear, using some truisms:

purphoros,godoftheforge.hqa) There are no such things, practically, as a “solved” EDH deck. Another label which one needs to be very careful with is “finished”. There are commanders that tend to be linear in their strategy – meaning they lend themselves to some strategies more easily. An example of this could be Purphoros, God of the Forge. Practically all Purphoros decks want to do more or less the same thing – drop Purphoros, make a whole bunch of tokens and kill everyone else at the table as soon as possible. It’s a linear strategy in a commander that more or less builds itself, and though every list will have variations, many will contain the same core strategy. Even then, it’s hard to argue that this list or that list is the perfect Purphoros 99; local variations always exist in individual metagames, and that has to be taken into account during the deckbuilding progress.

To clarify – let’s say you play Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Some metagames might be very cutthroat, so you put in all the extra turn spells you can, in hopes of regrowing them until you have either an unbeatable board state, or everyone else is plain dead. Other metagames might be more casual and the opponents will play less powerful decks, meaning every game ends with you taking 4+ turns in a row, regrowing your time walks, and winning. This will either get you kicked out of the playgroup, or targeted first in every game, neither situation is preferable.

These two considerations leads me to always fine-tune and make changes to my decks, with the waxing and waning of my local paper metagame. This, obviously, isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a thing to take to heart – you won’t likely sleeve up your 99, say “done” and play that same 99 until you retire the deck.

winterorb.hqb) EDH is, by its very nature, a very broken format. The object is very rarely to find a list that will combo-kill or lock down the table on turn 5 every game. The reasons for this is mostly the same as before – people may outright refuse to play against your deck, or target your first, turning your game into Archenemy.

Here, we get into a murky territory, but the object of your deckbuilding will, in many cases, be to find something that is “fun” to both play with and against. Granted, “fun” is a subjective experience, but I can say from my 20+ years of playing the game (this is an argument from authority, disregard that) that the games that I enjoy and find memorable are games where interactions and agency are important aspects. Games where someone blows up all the lands might be memorable, but not fun, since you can’t interact without mana. Games where someone kills you with a spectacular storm combo on turn 5 or 6 might be memorable for the sheer spectacle, but it’s hardly interactive, and losing to a nigh-masturbatory combo gets boring very quickly.

Don’t get me wrong – if you want to play in a metagame where people are playing die-hard, cutthroat, mass-land-destructing, storm-comboing steamrollers, then by all means. If you enjoy that, and if you find a group of people who enjoy that, knock yourselves out. However, from my experience both of online and paper metagames, most groups are not like that. Jason Alt’s 75% deckbuilding theory might be applicable to your local paper metagame, if you’re playing in anything similar to mine.


With all this in mind – today I want to talk about deck concepts. This isn’t a hard thing, per-se, but I want to stress the importance of a central theme or thought right from the get-go. Your concept could be almost anything, a few examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Tribal X (tribal dragons, tribal merfolk, tribal zombie, tribal elves)
  • Commander-based (Voltron, commander-based combos)
  • Vorthos decks (story-based decks)
  • Good-stuff (control, ramp or mid range)
  • Colour(s) (certain colour, colour pairs, shards, wedges etc.)

vowofdutyTo start off you need to think about what sort of deck you want to build. Then, use that central idea as a filter for when looking for cards. A card that might be underpowered in one deck might fit like a glove in another. To give an example from my own decks – one of the most powerful cards in my Ojutai deck is Vow of Duty. The Vow of-cycle, first printed in the original Commander product, are all interesting – they give +2/+2 and  grant a static ability, and if they’re cast targeting an opponent’s creature, that can’t attack you. This leads to interesting multiplayer situations, no doubt. In Ojutai, however, Vow of Duty grants Ojutai not only Vigilance, an underrated ability in a format where you have to block potentially three or four times for every time you attack, it also turns on his permanent Hexproof and boosts his power to the important threshold of 7 – enough to kill in exactly three swings. I’ve played many, many white Commander decks since the printing of Vow of Duty, but only in Ojutai do I consider it one of the best cards in the deck.

pharikasnakePharika has a few cards of similar calibre that I had to buy to put the deck together – most notably Eidolon of Blossoms and Doomwake Giant, which both triggers on Pharika’s activated ability, since the Snake tokens she puts onto the battlefield are Enchantment Creatures.

What I’m trying to get at with all this rambling is that it’s good to have a theme, and it’s even better to keep focus on that theme. I built Pharika very recently, the deck is only about six games old, but I’ve had a blast playing with it, and I will surely continue to work on it while I write this series. My initial thought, my central theme was quite simple – I wanted an interactive, good-stuff build that utilized some of the cool cards Golgari has to offer in EDH, and I wanted Pharika to be sufficiently different from Meren of Clan Nel Toth, which I played extensively from the release of Commander 2015 up until this spring, when Meren became the most popular Golgari general on EDHREC.com. Pharika, on the other hand, has only 66 registered decks, compared to Meren’s 485. I wanted something hipster, and I wanted something weird, and in brainstorming with Grim Lavamancer, I tossed around the idea of Pharika. So far so good.Lavamancer

I want to finish today with a few select words from our very own friendly neighbourhood Grim Lavamancer – take it away. Your homework until next time is to think about a concept for a new EDH build.

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2 Comments

  1. Grim Lavamancer

     /  July 3, 2016

    Excellent article! Fortunately, figuring out a central concept in EDH is easier than in most other formats since the birth of a deck often begins with choosing a commander. That usually gives you a pretty good idea about what you want the deck to do – which is great, because the fundamental nature of the format (100 cards, each unique except for the basic lands) often leaves you overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices you have. So it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of direction right of the bat.

    Also. I have no idea who thar bloke in the rocking chair is, but he sure seems to have the wisdom of the ages!

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  1. Deckbuilding 101 – Card evaluation | Goyf Wars

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