Building Better – Identifying Strategy and Means

Alrighty then, we’re back with the second column of Building Better. Last column we started slowly by examining how I, the author, think about deckbuilding. This time we’re going to build on what we discussed, by using the topics we examined in the previous column to break down an existing decklist. You need to learn to walk before you can run, and you need to understand how other people built their decklists before you can effectively build your own.

I chose Big Combrei for this week’s breakdown because it is a deck that most players will be familiar with but hasn’t already been covered over and over like Rakano or Stonescar Burn. Additionally, it is not an aggressive deck, which adds a layer of complexity to breaking the deck down. Most aggressive decks follow the relatively simple plan of [core strategy] -> [hope you win], but slower decks generally play out more like [gain control of the game] -> [implement primary gameplan] -> [win condition]. This week’s decklist has been provided by AngryChicken, who has two ETS top 8s this season with the deck. Without further ado, let’s break it down.


Step One: Identify the deck’s strategy, if possible

In the case of Big Combrei and many other decks, the deck doesn’t fall into an easily identifiable strategy pattern like aggro or midrange. Therefore, we’re going to need to examine the deck’s means in order to figure out its strategy. If this was a simple, linear deck, we would be able to identify its core strategy quite easily and then move on to the means. As this is a deck with a more complex game plan, we’re going to need to look at the means in order to figure out the strategy – that is, figure out what the deck is doing to figure out what the deck is trying to do.

Step Two: Examine the means

How is the deck trying to win the game? Answering this question will determine one of two things: either the entire deck will be dedicated to winning the game (generally aggressive strategies) or there will be a smaller subset of cards that are “win conditions”. Exactly how many of these cards are included can vary from deck to deck, from single card finishers (Icaria in Icaria Blue) to a set of specific cards (generally combo decks, like Champion of Cunning in old Party Hour) to nothing at all (the “kill ’em with whatever” strategy of some Feln Control decks).


In Big Combrei’s case, there are three main cards it generally uses to win the game: Siraf, Great Parliament, and Mystic Ascendant. Setting aside Mystic Ascendant for the moment, both Siraf and Great Parliament only ‘turn on’ once the deck reaches 8 power and above. This gives us a clue to the deck’s strategy – it needs to survive until 8 power in order to win the game. If you examine the rest of the deck, you’ll see that it is mainly geared at surviving until 8 power: Harsh Rules, Combrei Healers, etc. Therefore, we propose that the strategy of Big Combrei is “survive until eight power, then take over the game”.

Step Three: Re-examine the deck’s Strategy

Once we’ve got a strategic direction from examining the means, we need to check it against the entire decklist to make sure that we’ve found the correct strategy. It’s possible to be misled by a deck’s finisher as to a deck’s actual Strategy – Icaria plays vastly different roles in Icaria Blue and Traditional Armory. Therefore, even when we think we’ve got the right strategy it’s wise to make sure we’re not married to our initial impression. Many decks are abandoned because players try to play them incorrectly and then abandon them as a “bad deck”. Let’s go back through Big Combrei.

In the means, we completely set aside Mystic Ascendant and only examined two of the deck’s win conditions. Mystic Ascendant doesn’t care if you’re playing your eighth power or your fiftieth, so it doesn’t really ‘turn on’ at eight power the same way Siraf and Great Parliament do. Additionally, the other “eight power matters” card, Xenan Obelisk, is entirely absent from the decklist. We’re not playing any 8 drops either, so only those two cards care about eight power. Some of the decklist choices are at odds with the strategy we assumed, so perhaps we’ve been misinterpreting the message the win conditions are trying to send?

Please note that occasionally players may include a backup strategy that works contrary to their primary strategy, or choose to diversify their win conditions. These are difficult to spot and even more difficult to build effectively. Generally, when you find cards that are at odds with what you think the deck’s strategy is, you may have misinterpreted the strategy.

Let’s take a step back and look at what else is similar between Big Combrei’s win conditions. Mystic Ascendant is a must-answer threat that replaces itself immediately and takes over the game if left unchecked. Siraf is a must-answer threat that can add another unit immediately and takes over the game if left unchecked. Great Parliament puts several units into play and threatens to end the game in two or three attacks. All three of these cards contribute more than just a single unit when you play them and demand immediate answers from your opponent. If any of these cards get to survive, the Big Combrei player has a strong chance of winning the game. Each win conditions taxes your opponent’s resources and sets up the next win condition to have an even better chance of winning the game. If we look at these win conditions in this way, we come to an alternative conclusion: the strategy of this Big Combrei deck is to outvalue its opponents.

This may be unintuitive to some readers – isn’t grinding your opponents out with two-for-ones the strategy of a hard control deck? Is Big Combrei a hard control deck? The answer to these questions is both yes and no. Value comes in many different forms, from simple card advantage (often generated through the beloved two-for-one) to hard-to-define tempo advantages.  In Big Combrei’s case, the value comes from cards that replace themselves. Taking a broader look at the deck, this strategy appears to hold up. Temple Scribe replaces itself, Find the Way gets two power for one card, Marshal Ironthorn gives you double value out of your power drops, Harsh Rule is the ultimate potential two-for-one… Even cards that don’t immediately replace themselves often demand an answer from the opponent, like Sandstorm Titan. The Big Combrei deck seeks to stall its opponent’s threats, run its opponents out of answers, then take over the game with a single win condition. This is the means by which Big Combrei accomplishes its strategy of outvaluing its opponent.


Step Four: Strengths

Now that we’ve figured out what the deck does, it’s time to look at a broader perspective – what is this deck good at doing? We must look at the original decklist in depth to determine the deck’s strengths and weaknesses, so I’ve included it again here to save you some scrolling. The easiest way to find a deck’s strengths is to start with its strategy and work outwards. In the case of Big Combrei, a strength of the deck is card advantage – so many of the deck’s cards generate value and demand answers that the deck is generally going to be up on cards against most decks. Trying to run Big Combrei out of resources is a daunting task. Another strength of the deck that’s tied to its strategy is strong late game top decks. Since Big Combrei wants to play a single card and take over the game with it, it can draw powerful cards that win the game by themselves in late game scenarios, giving it the edge against decks with less powerful cards when the game goes long.

To find the other strengths of the decks, we need to examine the cards that make up it. Often these card-based strengths will be fairly obvious, like a 4x Steward and 4x Maiden deck being strong against void strategies. In Big Combrei’s case, its 8 silence effects make it strong against decks relying on unit abilities, and it’s good at clogging up the ground. For this particular deck, these strengths are somewhat obvious and well known, but other decks can have less obvious strengths.

Step Five: Weaknesses

The easiest way to look at the weakness of a deck is to look at what it can’t do. Looking at this decklist, an obvious omission is an inability to deal with relics, especially something high impact like Xenan Obelisk or Staff of Stories. Regular relic weapons can be solved just by shoving large units in front, but Big Combrei really doesn’t want to see something like Azindel’s Gift. Another weakness of the deck is it’s limited life gain and zero spell interaction – clogging up the board is all well and good but doesn’t serve you well when you get Flame Blasted for 12. Finally, and while this is more something to keep in mind than a weakness per se, Big Combrei must eventually attack to win the game. That means games can go long if the board clogs up and they don’t have good attacks, and they can eventually get defeated by an opponent able to go over the top of a board stall.

Closing Thoughts

So in this article, we took a look at a lesser examined deck and identified all the core concepts of the deck. Next week we’ll dive into the trade-offs of a deck, going through card by card and comparing all the card choices to their alternatives. We’ll look at how card choices impact the core concepts and how a single swap can drastically change a deck’s strategy. Until next time!

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