Thran Utopia #11: My deckbuilding process (part 1 of 2)
Hello all and welcome back to my humble abode (Tomb Raider reference!). Last week’s article was a breath of fresh air, a step away from decklists and deckbuilding. Today, however, we dive right back in. This time, instead of giving you a decklist and motivational choices afterwards, I want to get into the process. No, I mean really get into the process. Showing you a deck and discussing card choices is one thing, explicitly explaining every step along the way is another. I will guide you from rough unpolished idea to the finalized decklist in the way I usually do. Not only do I hope to give you a cool decklist to work with, I hope you’ll be able to take something away from the way I tackle things and how I try to nurture each and every idea that pops in my cranium.
Step 1: Idea
Before you start making a deck, you need to actually have an idea. Even Pro players need to have an idea, vague or specific, before they can start brewing. For example, one could start by wanting to make a deck that fights X-Blade decks with point removal that also has more mass removal for the more aggressive decks. There’s your idea (which is probably a horrible overgeneralisation of the Standard metagame, so excuse me for that).
My ideas aren’t born out of the metagame, although I’ve toyed with the idea to do so. In my metagame, artifact removal and especially enchantment removal are pretty scarce, so if I where to exploit my meta, that would be the place for me to start. The amount of creature-based decks is also pretty high, so another approach would be to gear my deck towards that. But that’s not what this section is for. Here, I want to give you a few ways to generate ideas for new decks, centered around the card I’m interested in today – Rage Extractor.
Spoiler or preview
I get most of my ideas from a Visual Spoiler of from a card preview, during the two or three weeks in which a new set is being slowly spoiled (except for New Phyrexia, ofcourse). Rage Extractor falls in one of my weakness-categories: build-around-me’s (Maelstrom Nexus, Ire of Kaminari), and Legendary creatures and Planeswalkers (Glissa the Traitor, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas). Whenever I see a cool card in either category, I basically have to contain myself not to start (pre-)ordering cards right away.
Rage Extractor begs for Phyrexian mana-cards. As there are cards in all five colors, but you don’t actually have to have all five colors, deckbuilding is really open-ended here (in contrast to, say, Ire of Kaminari). Still, you have only a subset from a small expansion to work with.
General advice: write down every single card that looks promising to you! You cannot expect to remember every card you saw on your screen. Have a notepad handy (a real one or a digital one) and write down every card that comes along that you would like to try out. It is better to write down too much than to instantly dismiss cool ideas that would’ve been perfect.
When I see a could card during spoiler season, there are a few things I check.
* The article or source of spoiling. This is a place that is dedicated to finding cool synergies. Most of the cards I like are previewed by Noel deCordova, who gives a lot of different ideas to jumpstart deckbuilding.
* The accompanying thread. This is where readers try to find a lot of different cool ideas for card X. Mostly this is Standard-related, but cool interactions beyond Standard won’t go unnoticed. For example, Glissa’s synergy with Executioner’s Capsule was something I found out about this way.
* Google it! Google is a wonderful way to find just the deck you are looking for. What I like to do is search for ‘<cardname> deck’ and work from there. You ctrl-click (or cmd-click for my fellow Mac-lovers) a few links and use card ideas to further supplement your query. After a few go-rounds, you should have a pretty good list of cards to work with.
* Sites where you have access to a lot of decks. In Holland, this is Nedermagic. In the US, I generally resort to TCGPlayer for a whole bunch of decks. Sites like this become more and more sophisticated, in that you can narrow your search down into oblivion. Again, the key here is repetition: just try a query and change or remove parts if the query came back empty.
Random card search
This method could be called a desperate measure, actively going out on a limb to find a neat idea. Whenever I want to look at a number of random cards, I go here and I keep F5’ing until I’ve had enough. Maybe you see a cool card. Maybe you see a card that makes you think of another card. Maybe you come across a mechanic that happens to work brilliantly with a newer or older mechanic (think of the interaction between Golgari’s dredge and Grixis’ unearth).
This method is more of a way to find a new idea rather than supplement an existing one (unless you get lucky, ofcourse). So for Rage Extractor.dec, I did not use this one.
Hidden gem during a query
Sometimes you are looking for a card, or a special type of card. You have composed a search query and suddenly, there’s a card that contains everything you’ve searched for but in another way than you were looking for.
For example, I wanted my Rage Extractor to have a solid base of mana and life. I wanted to be able to cast spells with or without Phi-mana, and this means you need either good mana or a healthy buffer of life. So I started looking for cards that had the words ‘whenever gain life’ on them, with the intention of finding cards with lifelink and cards with something similar to lifelink. I did, however, saw Angelheart Vial come by, and noted how she has a cool interaction with proliferate. I might not immediately build a deck with this card, but I have a textfile for exactly these circumstances. Whenever I’m bored, I open this text file and see if there’s a deck in there I could start building. In the case of the Vial, it could be that proliferate pushes it into playability. But again, and let me stress this again, write down every single card that looks promising to you!
A draft is where cards shine that usually don’t have a place to do so. You also see more different cards, because there is a limited supply of cards and people still need to get at least 40 cards together. This brings you opportunities to see different cards in action in ways you might not have expected. Even something as simple as rare-picking afterwards can create ideas. When we did a Time Spiral – Planar Chaos – Planar Chaos draft back in the day, I snatched up three Maguses of the Library. When I saw Scryb Ranger amidst my draft pile, a nifty little idea was born.
Another person’s deck
Like during a draft, sometimes someone brings a new deck that has cards that you have never seen before. It might not be those exact cards that make you want to build a deck, but it might be something within you that triggers another concept. For example, my friend Jeroen has a Bird deck, and seeing it in action after Scars came out gave me the idea to work on Soulcatcher’s Aerie in tandem with Thrummingbird, a card that’s both a Bird and a way to pump my Aerie. Another way someone else’s deck can inspire you is when you see a card that could totally change the way one of your existing decks functions. Even a change as small as replacing one playset with another can have an enormous impact on your deck. This is another valuable lesson: often you don’t need a new deck, but what you need is to remove the cobwebs from an old deck and see what X years/months of sets could do for that deck. I know my Mishra-deck got a huge boost from Shards block, and I’m not even at the point of looking for new stuff for it in Scars block! Or take my Wither deck, which I am still in the process of remodeling with all the good stuff in, again, Scars block.
Step 2: Search
This step ties to a lot of the stuff above. When you finally have an idea, you can start for ways to support said idea. I have to say, the division between steps 1 and 2 is a little less clear than how it might appear here. We cannot help but make connections with a new object in terms of other objects. When you hear a new record by one of your favorite bands, you cannot help but compare it to other records from the same band or from another one. Seeing a card works pretty much the same, in that you create a context in which you can gauge what the card does and how you can help the cause. So when I saw Rage Extractor, I tried to fit it into a conceptual framework in which it would work and I would be happy to play it.
As I demonstrated above, I immediately placed Rage Extractor in a shell of good mana and lifegain, to help the Phy-mana cards in two ways. When you ‘shell’ your idea in the form you want your deck to become, you’re all set to do some searching. (Take note that I didn’t want to go the Eason-route with Death’s Shadow and all. This is another option, but your search queries will ofcourse be totally different.)
When you have this shell in place, it’s time to think of ways you can search for cards on your preferred search engine to generate the best results. Try to look for even the narrowest cards because you never now what you might find down there. And again, as was mentioned in Step 1, usually searching is the starting point for other queries that you didn’t think of right from the start.
To give you an example, I started looking for cards that gained life. This means searching for ‘lifelink’, but also for cards that just said ‘gain life’ on them. I got a lot of results and narrowed it down to two queries that looked for repeated lifegain, one with ‘whenever’ and the other with ‘upkeep’, to look for upkeep-triggers.
The trick is to know both how you can find what you’re looking for in search engines, but also to have places where you can return time after time, set after set. TCGPlayer and Nedermagic have deck archives. Magic Deck Vortex has archives sorted by archetype. The Wizards– and MTGSalvation-forums are filled to the brim with new card discussions (and I also like the Casual forum on MTGSalvation).
Back to extracting rage. Just lifegain and mana won’t do it, so I need more. I read an article at The Brewery that explored the more controlling side of Phi-mana, and I was sold. My deck, however, was gonna have more white for lifegain.
The lifegain was nothing special until I saw Dega Sanctuary. With just a Veinfire Borderpost on the battlefield, I could be gaining four life a turn, which is the equivalent of two mana in a Phi-mana deck. Fabricate would be the card to tie everything together, except for the Sanctuaries (I find Enlightened Tutor to be too expensive, especially since I would need a playset of it). Both for that, you have Tezzeret’s Gambit and Thirst for Knowledge. Gambit proliferates Vivid lands and Sphere of the Suns, which makes that card so good for this deck. I was thinking, this deck is gonna start with four each of Rage Extractor and Tezzeret’s Gambit and go from there.
I also decided that green was out, because it’s Phi-mana cards where nothing special. (Yes, Birthing Pod actually is something special, but not in a supporting role.) And besides, with mana artifacts and carddraw and and Vivid lands, I don’t even need green for fixing. Even with a deck as open-ended as Phyrexian mana, it doesn’t hurt to limit yourself, but only after you’ve considered anything. (I’m saying this to prevent contradicting myself, since somewhere early I mentioned that it’s better to have a lot of options – but that’s only when you are making your so-called Pile of Possibililties and not your actual deck.)
You see what I’m doing here? I’m visualizing the deck in which I’m gonna play Rage Extractor. When you do this, you pick the gameplan you like the most. This gameplan is very important but oftentimes forgotten by (casual) deckbuilders. How can you play your deck correctly when you haven’t even set the gameplan of the deck straight? Without a gameplan, a deck is nothing more than a mixture of various cards with varying degrees of synergy. With a gameplan, your deck gains an explicit goal that goes further than ‘kill the opponent before he kills me’. Mine is something like ‘use lifegaining cards and a five-color mana base to play a lot of different Phi-mana cards that can make Rage Extractor do the killing’. This is still a bit vague, which is because the final gameplan is determined by your final sixty.
In the light of my already above-2000 word count and my lack of more time, I’ve decided to cut this article in two. Next week you will see the final decklist and how I got there after my various searches. I’m going to leave you with all the cards I’m gonna work with to make a sixty card deck. Please note that some cards fit into more than one category and that I’ve fit them into the one I feel fits most with their role in this deck. Also, (LG) stands for lifegain and (PH) for Phyrexian mana.
Thanks for reading people! Shoot me a comment if you have cards I’ve missed, if you have a Rage Extractor-deck of your own, or if you want to take a stab at making a deck out of the cards I proposed. See you in seven!