This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Back in the beginning of November Uncle Landdrops put up a piece on his approach to crafting proper mana curves for his decks. First off: read the article. It isn’t so much a technical discussion of how mana curves shape the strategy of your decks, as it is a spiritual guide to creating your ideal mana curve by building one that best expresses your goals and desires for the deck. It’s a great read and well worth the time. Don’t worry, this article will still be here when you get back. I was so fond of UL’s discussion that I was inspired to put down my own thoughts about mana curves.

 

When most people talk about mana curves, they’re usually just worried about having the right number of two drops in their Aggro deck or enough early plays in a booster draft. There is no one single mana curve that’s optimal for every deck, but one overarching principle guides the refinement of all mana curve development processes:

 

Every game has an early game. Not every game has a late game.” – Mike “Husky” Lamond

 

If your deck doesn’t have enough early interaction, you might not live to cast your more expensive spells. It’s easy to get drawn in by the allure of having your dessert first, so to speak, but this can seriously jeopardize your deck’s ability to compete effectively. As my office manager likes to say, “Don’t put the cart ahead of the horse. The horse might tell you to go jump in a lake.” Tim is a weird dude.

 

When I approach building a deck, I like to start at the end, which you can tell by the tagline from one of my first articles on CommanderCast.  This means I start thinking about my deck by first considering how I want to end the game. How I plan to end the game will lay out the framework for what I need to have accomplished in the early game and what I need to protect myself from in the mid-game. How I choose to interact in each phase of the game informs my card choices. If I was to rely on resolving an expensive sorcery to win, let’s use Cruel Ultimatum as an example, I would want to make sure that I could cast that spell both ahead of schedule and with protection. So there we have the basic points of the plan:

 

  • We win when we resolve Cruel. The fundamental turn in our deck is whenever we can reliably put the game into a victory state. Let’s say that’s going to be turn seven as a base; when we cast Cruel.

  • The faster we cast Cruel, the faster the game turns in our favor. To speed this process up, we want to accelerate our mana development and ensure that we never miss a land drop before turn seven. This can help bring about our fundamental turn sooner. Which will help us defeat slower decks.

  • We want to have some amount of disruption in our deck to improve our odds of resolving Cruel. So, counterspells and targeted discard like Duress are going to play a key role in our deck. Disruption will stop our opponent from interacting favorably with us and delay their fundamental turn. This will help us slow down faster decks that might be able to kill us before our big Cruel turn.

  • A special consideration with Cruel Ultimatum is that it has extreme color requirements. Mana problems could slow us down significantly. I would want very few basic lands in this deck, because I need to have perfect color distributions on every turn. I would be playing a fetch-dual mana base with Lorwyn-Shadowmoor filter lands, and few lands that enter the battlefield tapped. We need our mana available during the early turns to ramp and interact. Additionally, Sol Ring is great, but it’s never cast an Ultimatum in its life. Signets will help us ramp, sort out our color requirements, and don’t require any special colors of their own to cast, so they would be a good match for this kind of strategy.

  • We may also need some type of creature removal to stabilize the board pre-Ultimatum, like Damnation. This is a necessary evil and will really just be eating up space in our deck. To conserve those precious deck slots for the needed countermagic and extra lands, I recommend playing 7-10 tutor effects and only 3-4 removal spells. Remember, redundancy is the enemy of a tuned deck (more on this later). I’d also want to include a couple of extra win conditions as well, but not too many.

 

With that, I’ve laid out just about every card that we will need for the deck. I won’t have space for a lot of creativity and shenanigans, but I could assemble a loose decklist in about 15 minutes by following that thought process. At this stage though, the list would be very raw and I don’t have a good way to fine tune the exact numbers that I need of each card. It is tough to perfect a decklist like this without collecting tons of data from gameplay. There is a better way to proceed. I   have overlooked a very important part of the planning process. Here’s a hint: we haven’t even talked about mana curves yet.

 

Scripting

Once I have a basic sketch of what I want my deck to do and how I’m going to accomplish that, it’s time to add some detail to the plan. I start by making a script of my game plan (refer to this article for more info about scripts) that builds upon the framework I laid out above and will provide critical information about where each type of card fits into my mana curve. A sample script for our Grixis control deck might look like this:

 

Turn:

  1. Fetchland for Blue/Black land, cast Thoughtseize.

  2. Any untapped land, cast a Signet.

  3. Play tap land, hold up countermagic.

  4. Play any land, cast board sweeper/card draw

  5. Play tap land, use any remaining removal or disruption to prompt answers from opponent. Decoys force opponent to expend answers and tap mana on their own turn to rebuild their board.

  6. If opponent is unable to interact, cast Cruel. If the coast isn’t clear, repeat goals from turn 5.

 

There are a couple things to notice about this script. First, it incorporates expected plays from my opponent. You don’t play games in a vacuum. Your opponent has cards of their own that they expect to win with. Think about where your script is vulnerable to disruption. Think about when you are available to use disruption of your own. If your plan can be broken apart by one card or one play, then you need to build your deck to compensate.

 

In the example, I’m trying to do something big on a later turn, so I’ve worked in a spot on the curve where I’m just going to empty my guns at the opponent trying to get them to expend resources. If both players are hellbent when I cast Cruel Ultimatum, I’m going to jump way ahead and sail off into the sunset on a Treasure Cruise of card advantage. I’ve it set up in my plan that I’m going to get into a fight every game on a turn where it’s convenient for me to do so. All this, just to grind down my opponent’s resources a bit.

 

The second important thing to take away from this script is that it’s reasonable. Ideally, I want to start every game by casting Bribery or Mind Twist on turn two, but I can’t always have the nut draw. The cards in my script are replaceable. I’ll have 3-4 alternatives for Thoughtseize, like Duress, Inquisition of Kozilek, maybe even Stifle if I’m feeling particularly saucy that day. With multiple copies in my deck I can more regularly draw the cards that I’m relying on to execute my core game plan.

 

Interchangeability of Role Players

As you can see from the script, there are a few distinct groups of cards that support my strategy. We have one mana disruption, two mana ramp, two mana counterspells, taplands, etc. The cards within each of those groups should be interchangeable. That is, they should do substantially the same thing as other group members and they should have the same converted mana cost. The script shows me doing specific things on specific turns. If my cards don’t do the right thing or don’t cost the right amount, I could end up with a ‘clunky’ draw.

 

You hear that word used a lot when people draw the “wrong cards.” So often we blame things on bad luck when we could have influenced the outcome.  What really happened is the deck was built improperly and the designer didn’t even know it. Drawing a hand that doesn’t fit your script will lower your chances of winning precipitously. Think about how good the Modern Burn deck is when it plays Goblin Guide on turn one. Probably 60% or better against the format in game one. But if they don’t play anything on turn one, the burn deck is probably closer to 30% to win. The script is solid, but the trick is getting your deck to consistently fit the script.

 

You can’t play 16 Goblin Guides in a Modern legal deck, but it’s still critically important to play a one drop. So, you play some amount of substitutes. These cards are not going to be as good as your number one pick, but they should still be close enough to the real mccoy that you can get by. If there’s no solid replacement for your card, it probably isn’t a good idea to count on it in your script. The best approach in that situation is to overload on card draw and tutors to find that one important card. A good example would be Counterbalance in the Legacy Miracles deck. Nothing compares to the genuine article, so rather than try to ‘fake it’ with Hesitation, they just play a deck full of cantrips to maximize their chances of finding one copy of Counterbalance on time.

 

Redundancy and interchangeability are related concepts, and indeed they arise out of the need for the same thing: consistency. To be interchangeable is a desirable characteristic for effects that you need extra copies of, but if the quality of those extra copies drops off significantly the cost of that redundancy could be too high.

 

How do you know when you have too much of single type of effect? If your script calls for a two-drop ramp spell, how do you know when to stop adding the next marginal ramp card? The answer requires a great deal of experience with your deck and massive data collection…or really good intuition. You see, interchangeable parts improve your deck by adding consistency, but you can easily swing too far in the other direction. Redundancy is bad because the card quality in your deck incrementally decreases when you can’t find an adequate substitute for a key card. However, if you truly need multiple copies of a certain type of effect, you can’t afford not to play your second and third string. This would seem to be a catch-22. You want to sit right on the inflection point: The maximum consistency that you can get, without dropping off in card quality. This presents a new restriction for building your deck. If you only have eight quality ramp spells to work with, you need to design a strategy that needs only eight ramp spells to consistently develop on script, otherwise you will not be able to piece together an efficient mana curve and more of your draws will be clunky.

 

This is where interchangeability is key. The more substantially equivalent your cards are within a certain group, the less drop off you will have in card quality and the better overall flow your deck will achieve. Counterspell and Cancel fall into the same category, but a more expensive counter simply won’t cut it if you only have two mana available on a given turn. That high quality flow state your deck experiences when everything develops on script is at the heart of my design process for mana curves. I aim to maximize my chances of getting into that position. To this end, I allow higher levels of redundancy for cards that are important to my script. I would rather have a Counterspell than a Mana Leak, but if it came down to the wire I would still rather have the Mana Leak than have to burn a tutor to search out a counter. I want to use my tutors to break the game wide open with a silver bullet. If I need to use multiple tutors just to get my normal strategy up and running, that’s a signal to me that I need more interchangeable script pieces. If those pieces aren’t available in Magic, I might need to rework the deck.

 

I’m at my word count for this week, but I have much more to say on this topic. This article presented a theoretical approach to deck design: You can assemble a rough skeleton of your entire deck by making a few simple decisions about what your deck wants to achieve. The rubber meets the road next week when we get into the details of how apply some numerical analysis to answer three questions:

 

  1. How many copies of each effect do I need for my script to work?

  2. How many cards do I need at each mana cost to reliably curve out?

  3. How to decide which cards/groups of cards to include at each mana cost?

 

This will include some non-trivial mathematics. You have been warned.

 

-GG

“Decksplanations” is all about sharing my deckbuilding philosophy. If you want to change how you behave, you must change how you think. The same is true of your decks. My goal is you give you the foundation to analyze and improve your decks. In each article I’ll share one idea that shapes how I approach creating a new deck.

 

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