June 7, 2012
By ANDY aka GHoooSTS
A wise man once spoke in the value of using restrictions while building decks. This guy did too. Well, it seems lots of people do so. I would sincerely hope that people have started to explore using restrictions in deckbuilding, not just because it’s fun but because without them, building EDH decks is actually kind of boring.
In fact, our own Brionne seems to struggle with keeping decks restricted and casual. As one of the few certified lady-bosses of the Internet MtG Commander game, seeing this I knew the problem had to be worse than I’d imagined. I still get emails pretty frequently asking, “Andy, I want to build a new deck but I don’t really have any ideas. Can you help me?”
Problem 1: Asking me for deckbuilding help. Here is a directory of people who can provide you with real ideas, instead of “yo lands+spellz homie”
Sean: Swordstoplow(at)gmail(dot)com: The Grand Royal Surgeon General of Deck Doctoring at CommanderCast. Has converted some of my own trash-ass decks into ass-trashing murder machines. You can check out his body of work here.
Judson: judsonjg(at)yahoo(dot)com: lol using Yahoo still. But anyway, if you don’t want a deck that will necessarily end friendships but rather something fun and quirky, I openly challenge somebody to present a better person to consult than Jud. I don’t have any idea what’s going on in his mind, but it inspired a Golden Girls/Star Wars Crossover Sen Triplets alter. I want some of what this guy is smoking before I build a deck, but if you’re one of those “I don’t do illegal drugs” types, an e-mail asking Jud for help has the same effect I think. Also, you can read his articles I guess.
Cassidy Silver: (at)Writerofwrong on Twitter. Cassidy is running shit on TCGPlayer.com, where he gives people Fat Stacks of deckbuilding knowledge. If you have an existing deck and want it tuned up (maybe in the public eye), I can’t endorse Cassidy enough.
With that out of the way, let’s examine…
Problem 2: I’m about as creatively bankrupt as it comes in terms of deck ideas, so I’ve turned to using combinations of restrictions to keep deckbuilding fun and interesting.
Fortunately, as somebody who owns a LOT of decks, this means I’ve spent a lot of time thinking up new ways to gimp myself in terms of deck construction. Putting limitations on my deckbuilding process is the only way I can keep making new EDH decks a fun and thought-provoking exercise. This probably sounds wrong, but this is the kind of gimping that makes something awesome. …it’s rare, I know. But stay with me here.
“Why impose limitations on my deckbuilding process, when EDH is already full of restrictions?”
This is a fair question. The fact is, most of the idea that EDH is heavily restricted is illusory. I know that makes me sound like a crackhead, but when you get past very surface-level thinking, it’s true. The biggest ‘restriction’ in Commander is the Highlander rule (which is watered down anyway), only allowing single copies of a given card in a deck. But we’ve compensated for that by having the most absurdly open banned list in any widely-played Magic format. There’s a lot of reasons EDH is not and will never be fit for competitive play, and this banned list is one. Personally, I like this, but it does mean the idea that the singleton restriction carries any real gravity is kind of absurd once you have $100 to spend. The availability of tutor cards that were Mirrodin block-level design mistakes in Commander, for no drawback or cost, almost totally nullifies the idea that singleton matters. When you can so easily access the key cards in your deck, it stops being a concern.
Of course, this transitions nicely into the second illusory restriction, colour identity. Maybe you don’t want to play black, green, blue, white or… well, maybe you’re playing mono-red, so you can’t necessarily tutor up your best cards consistently. So that’s quite the limitation, right? You can only play cards inside your colours. Well, not really. Since you can just opt to use fucking Atogatog and never play it, is this a real restriction, or is it something we’ve mostly chosen to regulate ourselves with of our own volition? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
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Beyond that, we have the flip side of the coin: what about Commanders who are tutors like Captain Sisay, or combo pieces themselves like Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind? The idea that you can guarantee an opening hand with a combo piece is amazing, or that you can have a tutor machine in hand for your favourite lock pieces every time makes my inner tryhard spring table-flipping boners.
So, clearly, we’re not too restricted here. Most players are already gimping their decks on purpose, whether they realize it or not. By choosing not to build the fastest 5-Colour tutor-heavy fun-destroying deck possible, you’ve already exhibited the admirable restraint that is the glue holding this format together. But once you’ve done a lot of deckbuilding, you start to wonder where to go next. You’ve already built a silly deck that relies on killing people with Szadek, Lord of Secrets. You need a new deckbuilding challenge. Maybe you’re in a new playgroup and your current decks are overpowering less experience or invested players. What’s next?
You take some of the restrictions below and start building decks with them. This is kind of my personal master-list of restrictions, and these days I usually consult it before building a new deck. I often combine them to make something that really makes me work to build a workable and fun deck. This helps me retain an interest in Commander deck construction, something that would have long ago died out if not for self-imposed restrictions. Now, with this article, you can use these restrictions yourself if you’re so inclined. This means you don’t have to email me to ask about it anymore (not that I discourage you emailing me, it’s one of the best things about the site), and I can direct people to one article where I’ve cleanly laid out my thoughts on the topic.
…well, semi-cleanly, anyway. Here we go:
Card Type Omission:
One of the simplest and most linear restrictions is to decide you’re going to exclude an entire card type from your deck. This is easy because there’s absolutely no subjectivity to it, you just look at that little bar on the card’s left hand. If it’s a Sorcery and you’re rolling with a No Sorceries (and no, you can’t allow one), guess what? It’s not going into the deck. There’s a lot of decks running around with this restriction. Sometimes, it actually just makes sense; for example, you tend to see a lot of creature-only Animar, Soul of Elements decks to maximize the value of Mr. Idyllic Landscape Hat himself. In general, taking one of these restrictions can be pretty easy to deal with, but when you start excluding two types of cards, things get a bit crazier.
That said, you’re automatically granted boss status if you build a No Lands deck. That’s just straight up untouchable.
A wise man once said, “Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dolla dolla billz y’alllll”.
Another easy-to-understand restriction is a budgetary one. This is a great choice for a myriad of reasons: if forces you to ignore really expensive staple cards or truly evaluate whether you want them, it lets you save real money, and it encourages you to look at less expensive alternative cards to discover their true value to your decks. If you have a group of friends who are all willing to agree on a cash restriction, then it’s also fun to see who can build the best performing deck for the least monies.
But for something usually as black-and-white as dolla dolla billz y’all, the monetary restriction is surprisingly ambiguous. The issue is because everyone in the world is selling Magic cards at different prices, so what is a $35 deck at one shop might be a $50 deck at another (shittier) shop. Even if you use an agreed-upon metric like TCGPlayer.com as your price point, this can suddenly leave a player screwed because traders and speculators decided a given card in the deck is ‘worth more’ (apparently, they can psychically infuse more gold into the cardboard or something). Then your whole joint is out of whack.
My suggestion is to just use the middle price on Magiccards.info and never check back. If somebody is pedantic enough to call you on a price fluctuation violating your deck’s restriction, you can just say “they’re only worth $X in my heart, and that’s what counts.”
As far as actually setting a price point, I consider the bottom-barrel discount price of building a reasonable EDH deck $30. The precons are like $25, so if you tack five bucks on there you give yourself some breathing room for originality. I’m a bit biased since I built my $30 Wrexial. the Risen Deep deck way back in Season One, but I think it’s a good price point. That said, my man GU Doug aka Mr. Journey to Nowhere built a $20 Brion Stoutarm deck that apparently splits wigs full-time, though even he eventually upgraded it to $35. Just establish a price point that will let you have fun without breaking the bank. For more ideas on this, check out Sean’s articles on building on a budget here (Zedruu), here (Ghave), and here (Azami) where he shows you how a deck benefits and changes as it’s dollar value is allowed to escalate.
Most of us have played a traditional Constructed format at some time in our lives, so we’re familiar with the idea of only being allowed to use a certain card pool as determined by set releases; for example, Standard only uses the two most recently released expansions plus the most recent core set, while Extended allowed the last four expansions and the core sets in that same timeframe. Don’t be scared; this isn’t anything like Extended. But you can apply the same principle to Commander; you can build a Standard EDH deck, Extended, Modern, or even Block if you’re crazy and like the recent Legends. Block would probably be a bit too radical and restricting, but Standard is totally doable; my man MistVeilPlains is known to blow up the spot with standard-legal EDH decks from time to time, even winning FNM games with them.
But we don’t need to limit ourselves to Wizard’s poopy restriction timeframes. You can decide, “yo, I like Mundungu and Ur-Drago. They’re my two favourite cards. I’m going to build a Legends/Mirage crossover deck.” That’s awesome. In fairness, you might want to throw in a core set, say, 6th Edition. But you get the idea. Be creative with your choices of blocks or your timeline. You could probably do a sick Weatherlight Saga deck with all the blocks from Mirage to Invasion. If you have a ballin’ collection, you could even roll dice and pick blocks at random to team up; just be sure to hit up Magiccards.info (and never Gatherer) to make sure there’s a Legend inside your restriction that you want to play.
Really, I think the rougher the reputation for the sets you’re choosing, the more clout the restriction carries and the more I have to respect the guy playing it. In all likelihood, nobody’s going to be impressed by your Urza/Mirrodin block deck, but your Ice Age/Homelands (with a pinch of 8th edition) would really be like saying as an intro before every game, “Fucks given: 0. Let’s do this.”
My personal favourite restriction on product caps is stuff like “Duel Decks Only” or “Commander Product plus Planechase”. It lets you use all that junk in the presealed decks, and really, a lot of those cards are totes functional anyway. If you want to really give yourself a miserable time, try building an EDH deck out of Odyssey and Kamigawa block precons. Just don’t blame me when you end up jamming cards in your eyelids out of frustration.
No Actions On Your Own Turn:
This is a tough restriction, but I think it’d be real art to see somebody build a deck where you never play anything on your own turn. This one was introduced to me by my man Alex aka Ban Ki-Moon from the Rules Committee while we were bullshitting during a podcast recording. I think this is a super-rad restriction that’s going to force you to evaluate your cards so differently, there’s no way this deck will be boring. Your own Main Phases are traditionally where the biggest power plays in Magic take place; how does a deck function without them, at all? Try your hand at this restriction and find out.
Personally, I’d like to try it, but I don’t have the balls. I ended up thinking Esper would probably be the ideal combination of colours because of the density of quality Flash creatures, but then there’s no Commanders with flash in that combo. If you just do U/B thing, you can use Wydwen, the Biting Gale and she has Flash (plus she’s super-hot… DEM CRICKET LEGS DAYUM) but you lose the truly sexcellent Flash dudes like Seht’s Tiger, plus a whole spectrum of white Instants. A tough decision to be sure. There’s also the Grixis angle, but I love red sorceries too much to try it.
Art theme (strict):
This is a ‘soft restriction’, where the actual rules and mechanics of cards don’t enter the equation. A strict art theme means you pick some element in the pictures on your cards for this deck and don’t deviate. I suppose using only cards from certain artists would fit into this category, but I’m more thinking of stuff like GU Doug’s “Geriatric” theme deck with Zur at the helm. Every picture contains an old guy in it. What else could you do along these lines? Well, I’ve never built a deck like this, but off the top of my head I could imagine decks themed after various types of terrain (jungles, oceans, whatever), religion and faith (tons of clerics, symbols, and so on), muscular guys wi-… forget that last one.
This restriction has a few hangups. One of them is lands. How important is it that your lands have, say, old guys in it? I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to collect specific lands, but sometimes it’s tricky (SUPERLIMINAL MESSAGE: SEND ME YOUR TEMPEST MOUNTAINS). There’s also the issue that the vast majority of lands throughout Magic’s history have been incredibly boring, and so there’s a great chance your theme won’t be represented on a land.
The other issue is altered cards. We all know alters are strictly for ballers, but what about when you do something like get a card altered to fit your theme? Does it still count? I’d say hell yes, but maybe you hate alters. And freedom. In which case, go to hell.
Can you build a deck that doesn’t make you shuffle it once? Probably, but why would you want to? You have to leave out tutors, fetchlands, mana fixing, and all kinds of other goodies. But then, did Rocky need steroids and advanced workout machines with sick graphs and science to beat Ivan Drago into Communist Hell? No, he kept it real and did it the gritty way: with logs, rocks, and Hearts on Fire. Every time you shuffle your deck, you’re taking a shortcut to victory. You might as well take that ‘performance enhancer’ the deck doctor’s offering you. For you young’uns and tasteless out there, take a break from this intellectual overstimulation and watch this clip:
But if you’re interested in taking your deck’s manliness to the next level, stop being a ‘roid raging freak and lose the shuffle effects. Find your cards the hard way. I bet it’s really rewarding.
…what? Hell no I haven’t done it myself. I need all the help I can get.
Let’s be real; you can probably build Salamander tribal these days. Wizards has gone out of their way to print all kinds of generic tribal support over the years, and we’ve reached a critical mass of it. Now, that Tribal Ouphe deck can be a reality. Add a Coat of Arms and you’re ready to rock; just ask Christian. But, if you’re tired of having your decks hand-fed to you or like actually making decisions on what your tribal deck consists of instead of like twenty creatures and then generic enablers, how about doing a strict tribal theme?
Consider, for example, the lowly Skeleton tribe. It doesn’t have much support. You can only use Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon (calling him Skittles should cost you a broken finger each time you do it) or Skeleton Ship. Now, building a Skeleton Ship deck is admirable without any restriction, but what if you decide to go with a strict Tribal them? Well, kiss your Coat of Arms goodbye. There’s no Skeletons on there. Adaptive Automaton? Wow, those dudes better be the best-fed skeletons I’ve ever seen, otherwise you can forget his robotic ass. You get the idea… only put in cards that either have an image of the tribe, or speak of the tribe.
For example, Scotty Mac once had a strict tribal Sphinx deck. He pussied out and violated the theme for ‘playability’, and I held a private funeral service for his cool. But before the deck got ruined, it had Onyx Goblet in there. While there’s no Sphinx on the card, and it’s not an Artifact – Sphinx Cup, the flavour text does refer to a sphinx. That lets a card qualify for a strict tribal deck.
If you’re tried to building a tried-and-true, played-out tribal deck using the tools Wizards is practically throwing at you, going for a more strict tribal theme might help spice up the deck and renew your interest.
This isn’t a theme or anything, but rather a challenge to your own knowledge of your collection, your ability to think fast, and above all a test of your organization skills. How well sorted is your Magic collection? I find MtG players sit on two fully polarized ends of a spectrum in my experience: they either have cards meticulously sorted by colours, sets, and so on down to the last card…
…or they have a bunch of shit lying around and can’t be bothered to care as the piles of cardboard threaten to become a new housing project for undiscovered species of pests. People in the middle ground are scarce. If you sit on the ‘piles of cards’ end of this spectrum, then you might want to slide towards ‘obsessive card-organizing hermit who uses an organized collection to compensate for a lack of control in the rest of his life, bec-’ …excuse me, getting personal here. In any case, if you have an adequately organized collection, here’s a fun restriction: build your deck in an hour. From scratch. Start up an stopclock of some kind and go nuts. You can go longer than or shorter than one hour, but of the times I’ve done this I’ve found an hour is a wonderful sweet spot between ‘too much’ time and ‘not enough’ time.
Of course, what good is doing this if you already know what deck you want to build and have traded for a bunch of the pieces? And herein lay the heart of the challenge; you need to randomize the Commander. Build a stack of Legendary creatures across various colours. Make sure they’re interesting or fun enough to actually warrant playing (remember, even if you have a miserable time you don’t even get any precious Planeswalker Points), and that they represent a variety of play styles and colours. When you’ve built this pile, shuffle it up and flip one off the top. Start the timer and build away.
I’ve done this three times now, once building Nemata, Grove Guardian and then Vhati Il-Dal; after doing green twice, I took anything with green out of the pile of Legends and ended up pulling Lord of Tresserhorn. The deck I built threw the clearly labelled ‘Beast Mode’ switch so hard it broke in the ‘ON’ position. It’s still more or less intact today. I’ve never gone over the time limit, and I don’t have a very impressive collection… and it’s certainly not a pile of Commander ‘staples’ sitting around. Playing with these decks taught me the value of all kinds of great new cards I’d have never given a second look if I wasn’t more or less being forced to do so under pressure. Like any good limitation, this deckbuilding restriction expands your mind almost as much as LSD, without the risk of sawing your hand in half to produce a ‘sweet bihand’.
If you end up doing this, let me know your results. I imagine this would be a fun exercise to do with a bunch of friends as well; you all draw from the same pile of Legends and have a week to build decks or something. How sick would that be?
One thing I will say is that this is one of the few cases in life where you’ll enjoy yourself less if you already possess vast material wealth; if you have a huge collection loaded up with staple Commander cards, a perfect array of utility commons and uncommons, and so on, then this will be boring. Probably.
This is pretty simple; you choose a ceiling for your mana curve, and don’t violate it with any card. Again, an easy, empirical theme and anybody can see and follow. The most extreme version I’ve seen is the one-drop EDH deck I keep talking about but don’t have the balls to build myself, but hey, somebody out there probably has the giant stones to build a 0-cost EDH deck (and would probably somehow still beat me). The lower the established top of the curve, the cooler this restriction becomes.
There’s just one issue with these decks: what happens with the Commander? How do you treat them? In Coda’s deck, she uses a generic 5-colour Legend, but simply won’t cast it to retain that theme. If you move beyond a CMC ceiling of 1, of course, you have more options, but I’d imagine even at CMC 2, being able to only pick spells of CMC 0 to 2 in two colours would be pretty stifling. Plus, you’re probably not going to have a lot of options on Commanders. So, perhaps you allow your CMC to go beyond the established top of your deck’s curve, but then it feels like you’re cheating yourself. I think a CMC of 3 would be the sweet spot between maintaining purity and playability, but I’ll let you know after I try it for sure.
Funnily enough, this is a theme for that Commander had in it’s infancy before being dumbed down for the slack-jawed masses and it was still cool. <takes off thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans… nothing on underneath>
But for reals, if you want to try and build a real Highlander deck and see how those poor, isolated bastards up in Alaska built their EDH decks back in the day, try building a true Highlander deck. None of this pussy “oh you can have multiple copies of a basic land, that’s cool of course”. You poor, coddled wimp. No duplicates, at all. People who build Karn, Silver Golem decks already have a leg up on everyone in this kind of deck construction. The rest of us NORMAL folk might struggle a bit at first, though I’d imagine that given the breadth of cards available, this might not be too much trouble. Just keep your stink-eye game right for the guy who casts Ruination.
<puts hipster gear back on> On the MTG Salvation forums, a user named soceri has gone ahead and done the closest thing to real research Commander will probably ever see as a format: he’s compiled a bunch of statistics on card usage based on the MTGS deck database. The results? He produced what he’s called the ‘Real Top 50‘, a list of cards that are the most used in Commander according to the frequency with which they appear in the deck database. It’s a impressive piece of work, and if you have some free time it’s kind of cool to flip though and see what is used the most in what colours. But, for the sake of this article, it also provides an interesting restriction: you can build a hipster deck where you avoid using the most popular cards.
Being kind enough to provide us with an overall Top 200 and Top 50s in each colour, you can easily use soceri’s list to make sure your deck isn’t using any of the most popular cards. If you’re the kind of person who complains about staples and auto-includes, then you should be using this restriction or something similar, unless you’re really into being a hypocrite. The resource is there, so there’s no reason for the average player to be unable to avoid these cards now. Even for the average player, though, this restriction is neat because if you’re starting to forget what decks without Phyrexian Metamorph and Eternal Witness look like, this will let you experience it again.
You can also spin this restriction a few ways: maybe you’re just avoiding the Top 200 overall cards. Maybe you’re looking at each individual colour and avoiding their Top 50. What about artifacts? I’d think it’d be a bit of a waste of time to try and use this restriction without counting the colourless list, but hey, I can’t enforce my will across the internet or this world would be a different (and probably substantially worse) place.
The counterpoint to the populist Top 50 compiled by soceri is the original Top 50 list on MTGS maintained by Byron, which can be found here. This is the ‘classic’ list where cards have been evaluated as being among the 50 most powerful cards in their respective colours and is further broken down into a few categories. It’s not based on research or anything like soceri’s list, but rather a subjective examination by the MTGS community on what’s the ‘best’ in each category. At the end of the day, to me this is basically the list of ‘Commander Staples’ that all players are likely familiar with and use on the regular.
So, leave all these cards out of your deck next time you build one. This restriction has a lot of overlap with the above, but some of the cards are different. The end result might largely be the same (the lists do deviate, and Byron’s is a bit more oriented towards diehard Commander players).
Also, I’ll keep you guys posted on the details for the Top 50 Texas Strap Match between Byron and soceri. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE TOP 50 CHAMPION
Are you one of these guys/gals (kidding, no girls on the internet!) who compulsively lists all of their decks somewhere? The legendary MrMoeMagic, king of angry mid-draft Tweets pictured to your right, has just under one million Commander decks. He’s listed the contents of every one in a spreadsheet, so he can easily index and cross-index them, do science to them, etc. With the sheer number of decks he has, what’s your excuse for not having done the same? (Mine is laziness, but let’s not point fingers) In any case, one of the biggest benefits of this bookkeeping practice is that it enables you to do your own sort of Top 50 list. With this restriction, you use the listing of your deck’s contents to build a new deck that shares 0 cards with your previous efforts (except basic lands I guess).
Like the two restrictions above, this one will fill similar purposes, but also will force you to use your own collection of cards more fully. I’ve spoken in the past on the fact that most Magic players have literally thousands of cards just chilling around their house, doing absolutely nothing. If you tell me you feel no guilt or shame about this, then you’re either lying or wasteful. Personally, I try really hard to find uses for my cards. This restriction can really force you to look at what you’ve got and improvise. Can’t use that Demonic Tutor? Where’s the Night Dealings at? No Avenger of Zendikar, since you’re using it in all your other green decks? Grab dat Verdeloth the Ancient, it’s going down. You might surprise yourself with some of the stuff you end up using as alternatives, or you might even end up changing the direction you intended the deck to go in altogether.
BAM. Thirteen restrictions that hopefully help kickstart some inspiration for Commander deck construction. You can mix and match these restrictions to give yourself a real stiff challenge, something like a $35 deck with a mana curve that tops out at 3 that you only have 60 minutes to build. How awesome does that sound?
If you have your own restrictions, feel free to list them in the comments section below to give others ideas that read this article. After getting their mind clouded with my poisonous ideas, I’m sure they’d welcome some sanity.
Thanks for reading. Next time you’re looking to build a new stack of cards, don’t forget to gimp yourself first!