Hello everyone, and welcome to the first ever edition of Building Better, my new deckbuilding column. I want to stress that while this column will be primarily about decks and building thereof, this is not a column specifically aimed at deckbuilders. At some point, even the most hardcore of netdeckers is going to want to change a card or two, and even those that never look beyond the initial list will still be able to learn valuable lessons from this column. However, to get the most out of these lessons, I’m going to need to lay some groundwork in this initial column about how I think about deckbuilding.
Basic Principles of Deckbuilding
All (good) decks are built with two things: strategy and means. The strategy is the goal of the deck. Often, this is how the deck wants to win the game, but doesn’t need to be. Some decks simply have the goal of running their opponent out of resources, and they’ll figure out how to win from there. Other decks are built with a specific goal in mind that does not involve winning (Icaria Crown). The means is the cards by which the deck seeks to facilitate and execute its strategy – some cards will be more core to the strategy than others, but in a well-built deck most of the cards will make up the means. We’ll go into more detail of these first two terms with our first example.
Example One: Rakano Warcry
Yes, we’ll be starting with a simple linear aggressive deck. Most players will have played the deck at one time or another, and should be familiar with the core concepts, which makes it an excellent illustration. I haven’t included a decklist for this example as it is easy to get bogged down in details of a list. Rather, we’ll just look at the Rakano deck in general. First, we ask ourselves, what is the Rakano decks’ strategy? That is, how is the Rakano deck trying to win the game? In the case of this deck, Rakano wants to win the game by playing early units and overwhelming its opponent with aggression. Now this is the plan of a lot of aggro decks, and not particularly interesting. However, the means is where Rakano really sets itself apart from other aggressive decks – the way by which it goes about this. In Rakano’s case, it seeks to accomplish its strategy by using the Warcry mechanic to make future units stronger and playing weapons to enhance its units. Cards that are not part of this core strategy generally still support it (removal spells) or cover the deck’s potential weaknesses (finishers).
The question that many players will now ask is, so what? We already know what Rakano’s trying to do, so why do we care if we’re not trying to tweak it? Understanding a deck’s strategy and means will give you a huge leg up when you’re trying to play the deck or play against the deck, in addition to being absolutely critical when changing a deck. Suppose we weren’t talking about Rakano, but rather an unknown, off-meta deck. Its turn 4 and you have an Argenport Instigator in play, but it can’t attack through your opponent’s blocker. Is it correct to Deathstrike the blocker and push in for damage? The answer to this question depends a lot on your deck’s strategy (and your opponent’s). If you’re a late game control deck, throwing away that removal spell to push for damage is a terrible play. However, if you’re aggressive and locking to close the game out with burn, Deathstriking could be the correct line. It all depends on a solid understanding of your deck – if you don’t know what your deck is trying to do, you’ll only ever play correctly by accident.
Understanding strategy and means is critical for playing decks, but there is a third element that is core to deckbuilding and tweaking – trade-offs. Decks can only contain a limited number of cards, so any card in the deck is taking a space away from a theoretical second card. Collectively, you’re including some cards in your deck but not others – understanding the strengths and weaknesses of that decision is at the very core of trade-offs.
To give you an example of trade-offs, let’s look at a decision that players regularly make when building decks – Deathtrike verses Feeding Time. Assume that you’re already in the Feln colors, so influence isn’t an issue. Both spells fill the same role (killing a single unit) so it’s their differences where the trade-off occurs. Deathstrike is a fast spell while Feeding Time is not, but has the advantage of transforming the enemy unit into a pig, preventing both entombs and recursion. In practice, most players have found the fast speed more useful than the transform in most situations, and have preferred to put Deathstrike in their decks. However, shrewd deckbuilders are aware of the trade-off that they are making and include a card like Steward of the Past to cover their weakness to entombs/recursion, mitigating the trade-off of choosing Deathstrike. Deckbuilding is all about juggling trade-offs and trying to maximize your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses.
Trade-offs don’t just apply to individual card choices, they also apply to decklists. Generally, these kinds of trade-offs are known as the strengths and weaknesses of the deck, and I’m going to continue using that terminology. Let’s think about that Rakano deck from the first example. What are the strengths of Rakano? It has a quick clock, is good at punishing slow starts, and has some resilience to removal. It also includes some late game finishers (which take different forms) to close out the game if it happens to slow down. Conversely, Rakano decks are not very good at playing from behind – they need to be attacking to be successful. They also have tight influence requirements but function best on low power, and have no card filtering or draw – they’re extra vulnerable to power screw or flood. The primary trade off that (most) Rakano decks make, compared to other aggressive decks, is that they generally have limited reach (non-unit damage) and few comeback tools – they rely on getting ahead and staying ahead to win the game.
Very Simple Deckbuilding Example
Let’s say you’re a Rakano player and you’re unhappy with the lack of reach in a Rakano deck. The obvious conclusion would be to add in a card like Flame Blast or Obliterate. However, to add a card, you need to take out a card, so what do we take out? For this example, let’s say we take out Oni Ronin. What will this do to our deck? Well, our deck will have access to more late game reach to help bail it out when the board stalls – however, it will also be prone to slower starts and more reliant on Fire Influence. With no one-drop Warcry unit, Rakano must wait until its third turn to get in its first Warcry attack. On the draw, your opponent could easily have a blocker in place by that time slow you down further. This version of Rakano will be much slower than the previous one, because what we have done is exchanged an early game snowball card for a late game finisher. I would consider Oni Ronin to be a core part of the Rakano deck’s means, as it allows them to start the Warcry train on turn one. Therefore, removing it will fundamentally shift how the deck operates – this new deck has a higher curve, slower starts, and may want more power. Just by changing one card, we’ve fundamentally shifted how the deck plays. Trying to play it like the older, Oni Ronin version of the deck will not result in success, because you’re not playing that version of the deck. A new version requires a slightly different playstyle.
To illustrate how a single card change can completely swing a matchup, let’s look at the premier anti-control card, Azindel’s Gift. Control players often like to build up large hands and run their opponent out of resources before eventually winning the game. Azindel’s Gift turns that on its head by discarding your opponent’s entire hand every turn. Gift is an extremely powerful card against control, and including it in your deck gives you a much better chance to beat control. Even with just a single copy, if you do draw and play your Gift, your opponent will be sent down to 0 cards in hand and you’ll be on even footing at worst. Without Gift in your deck, you’ll have no reset card in the case that your opponent builds up a huge hand, and you’ll have to play the matchup differently.
Thank you for reading the first article of my regular column. Next week, we’ll do our first deck breakdown and look at the strategy, means, strengths and weaknesses of an existing deck. If you have any suggestions for what deck we should do, I’d love to hear them – a linear deck like Rakano is probably too simple, even for our first breakdown. I hope I could present these concepts in a simple manner that everyone can understand, and that there is material here for everyone to learn from, even if they are not or don’t wish to be a deckbuilder. Veteran deckbuilders, fear not – after a few introductory articles, we’ll get down to the nitty gritty of some interesting tech choices and even the legendary transformative sideboard.