Today, I’d like to tackle a deckbuilding topic that’s going to be super relevant for the cEDH community but is really more of a thought experiment for the larger EDH community. Today, we’re going to talk about optimization, aspiration, and continuous improvement. Shout out to /u/BigLupu on /r/competitiveedh for inspiring me to write this.
Being the Best You Can Be
This is something you can think about regardless of budget, regardless of the style of your playgroup, and regardless of how competitive you want to be. It’s generally a really great idea to create a deck-list for your deck that ignores all external restrictions that are imposed on you, from a deck-building perspective. I like to call this an aspirational deck-list, because it’s everything your deck aspires to be.
Have you always wanted to see what it’s like to run a Gaea’s Cradle in your Ezuri, Renegade Leader elf-ball list? (It’s everything you wanted it to be and more – I promise). Throw it on your aspirational list. It’s totally possible that you might never own a Gaea’s Cradle in your life, but EDH is a format that offers nearly unbounded deck-building freedom, so bear with me at least until the end of this article.
This exercise accomplishes a few things:
It lets you explore the design space of your deck’s strategy or theme
When I first started building EDH decks I would grab a commander and a pile of cards in its colour identity and cobble together something that worked. I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively large collection, so most of the time this just involved me riffling through a stack of bulk. After that, I’d take my new deck to my LGS and talk to the staff about cards that might synergize with the themes that materialized. I’d buy half a dozen cards that help the theme gel, and I’m off to the races to play-test. My primary external deck-building restrictions were my budget, the knowledge of my LGS employees, and the cards that I already had in my possession.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with building a deck this way, and I think this is how a lot of people get their start in EDH. The sandbox is so much bigger, though, and I find it immensely satisfying to uncover a diamond on the 35th page of my gatherer search results.
It lets you explore the design space of your deck’s commander
Commanders often lend themselves to a number of different builds. I’ve seen Narset, Enlightened Master run as burn/group slug, Jeskai Ascendancy combo, and superfriends, in addition to the signature “Oops All Turns” build we all know and love (and hate). Ignoring external deck-building restrictions and putting together a list on paper sometimes lets you use a commander to brew a creative new take on a solved commander.
It helps you prioritize upgrades to your deck
With tax season wrapping up, I’ve seen quite a few posts asking about where to spend their goodies. I’ll let the financial experts talk about prudent investments and stick to what I know – spending tons of money on magic cards. Building an aspirational version of your decklist does two things to help your pocketbook – it helps you focus on things that will have the biggest immediate impact on how your deck runs and it helps you discover budget alternatives to the expensive cards you want.
It helps you understand good strategies that other people might be running
This one is a side benefit of the research you do while putting together an aspirational list. Reading primers, looking at gatherer, and talking to people can give you a great idea of how to build a deck well. While you’re doing this, try to focus on other commanders (even if they’re not identical colours) that are trying to accomplish similar things to what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re building a deck that makes tokens, look at other token-production-themed decks to see how they create them, or how they leverage the tokens once they’re created. With my competitive Nin, the Pain Artist deck, I drew a lot of inspiration from a very similar commander – Oona, Queen of the Fae. By incorporating elements of Oona decks I found, I now understand Oona decks just a bit better – even though I’ve never piloted one or played against one.
Stop rambling, Jim – show me!
In past articles, I’ve referenced my competitive Nin, the Pain Artist deck. The list and primer can be found here:
One thing you’ll note is the first sentence in the introduction:
(Edit: I’ve since updated the linked deck-list and primer to reflect my aspirational decklist. Take my word for the fact that this line was there when I wrote this article.)
What I’m referencing here is the notable difference between my actual list and my aspirational list. In this specific situation, the two lists are very similar – my actual list cuts a land and probably Voltaic Key in favour of Mishra’s Workshop and Expedition Map. The two lists are close because I’ve been actively acquiring the cards I need over the past year and a half or so. This wasn’t always the case, so let’s head back in time to a previous iteration of the deck that I happen to have kept a list for:
This version started out pretty budget until I brought in 300 better-than-bulk rares to my LGS and ended up with my first ABUR dual – a Volcanic Island. The differences between this list and my current list are about as drastic as you can get while playing the same commander. My journey to creating an aspirational list was inspired by a few main sources:
Brian Weissman’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/bekele2617)
Brian Weissman – one of the premier control players of all time – happens to play a lot of Nin in 1v1. Watching his channel opened my eyes to an entirely different way of thinking about Nin. In the past, I’d focused so much on using Nin as removal (gifting my opponents card advantage) and keeping Nin alive that I was totally ignoring what she does best. Weissman uses Nin in 1v1 as a draw-X spell in the command zone, rather than leaning on crappy creatures like Stuffy Doll and Darksteel Myr to keep Nin alive for more than one activation.
I e-mailed Brian with a list of questions about his card choices and am super grateful for his responses. I think he remains skeptical about Nin’s viability in 4-player pods, but he was able to give me a ton of great information.
Oona, Queen of the Fae
This one is kind of interesting. Oona lists were my first brush with the Rings of Brighthearth / Basalt Monolith and Power Artifact / Grim Monolith combos. Prior to that, I had cobbled together a slightly more awkward combo of Doubling Cube and Mind Over Matter that – when combined with Nin, allowed me to draw my deck and play Laboratory Maniac for the win. Check out Sleepy’s Oona primer here to see what I mean.
It’s no secret that the most competitive decks in the game of Magic involve a tight suite of 0- and 1-drop mana rocks. I threw them on my aspirational list and they were my first priority to purchase. I was so blown away at how much of a difference they made that it pushed me into a heavy artifact theme with the deck, leading to the eventual development of my Tezzeret the Seeker package. Talking to people about land packages also helped me to realize that most lands that enter the battlefield tapped are actually terrible budget alternatives for things like ABUR duals, shocks, and fetches. Wizards apparently has a torrid love affair with Rupture Spire and Transguild Promenade, but these cards should generally be cut before you even sleeve and shuffle up for your first game. Seriously. Take a trip to your LGS’ land station and grab basics instead. Understanding what made cards like these bad helped me run better budget alternatives.
I’ve got an aspirational list – what now?
Show it to people! Aspirational lists are the best lists to get comments and criticism on. Rather than responding “sorry, that’s not in the budget” or “I’m trying to take this in a different direction” to comments on your actual paper list, discussing an aspirational list is one of the best ways to get top notch deckbuilding advice. If you want to start imposing your external deckbuilding restrictions like budget or playgroup preference, you’ve got a starting point to work from. Questions like “Here’s my list – how do I tone this down for casual play?” on the /r/edh subreddit or “Here’s my list – how do I accomplish this strategy using a budget of $X” on the /r/competitiveedh subreddit is sure to go over better – especially if you keep an open mind about the advice you receive.
From my personal experience, I’m always more willing to provide advice to people when they’ve demonstrated that they’re open to suggestions, have put some thought into what they’re trying to accomplish, and have specific questions to guide the discussion. If someone submits a low-effort, generic selfpost like “How do I make my list better?” I’ll generally downvote them and be on my way, because I don’t think it’s a good starting point for a discussion about anything worthwhile. If a player posts their aspirational list and asks things like “Do you think this counterspell package is appropriate to protect my game-winning combo against 2 control players in a 4-player pod?” or “How can I increase the consistency of hitting my win condition?”, I’ll happily write a few pages on their options.
This process of tuning, discussion, introspection, and more tuning is one of the best ways to get better as a deckbuilder. This is essentially the deckbuilding equivalent of the gameplay topics I discussed in my recent article, Lessons Losers Learn. It’s also worth noting here that the process works regardless of what your ultimate goal is. My aspirational Nin decklist embodies what I think will be the most competitive version of Nin that I can muster. Your aspirational list might be a vorthos-esque journey of storytelling through art, or a case study of how good old mechanics like phasing can be, or it could be something else entirely.
Talk to your group about proxies!
I know this is a pretty sensitive topic in the community, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. If you’ve settled on what you think is a pretty good aspirational list, I would recommend proxying up the cards (whether they’re cheap or expensive) and play the deck a few times against a willing opponent to get a feel for how the deck does. Encourage the people you’re playing against to do the same for their lists. It’s pretty tough to get a feel for how a deck plays just by looking at a list. I don’t recommend doing this as a permanent solution, but it really is the best way to make informed purchasing decisions when it comes to expensive cards.
The whole point of this exercise is to determine whether your aspirational list is something you actually want to aspire towards. If someone had told me to netdeck my current Nin list while I was stumbling around with my old Nin list, I’d be looking at a $2000 gamble on a deck I might not even like.
I’d like to include a quick note on the deckbuilding philosophy of Competitive EDH, for any of you out there who might want to try it out.
I often fall into the trap of using the terms “competitive” and “casual” in my articles in the interests of economy of language, but I don’t think the terms are used consistently throughout the larger Magic community.
In the larger Magic community, “competitive” is often used in the context of Competitive Rules Enforcement Level – an application of the rules at Magic events like the Pro Tour and Grand Prixs. Competitive REL is different from Regular REL in ways that enforce clear player-to-player communication, minimize potential for cheating, and are integral for running tournaments smoothly.
“Competitive” can also refer to the Spike psychographic profile that values winning above everything else in Magic, like satisfaction in executing specific types of strategies regardless of the outcome.
“Competitive” in the EDH sense tends to take heavy influences from the Spike psychographic profile and blends it with the social nature of EDH. This usually means min/maxing a deck to perform a specific function in an efficient and consistent way. It leverages EDH’s deck-building freedom to utilize high-powered cards and in-depth rules knowledge. If I can editorialize a bit here, I’m going to say that my competitive EDH games are some of the most fulfilling and challenging experiences I’ve had playing Magic for a couple reasons:
- Disparity of power level between decks tends to be much smaller, because everyone explicitly has the same goal.
- Sometimes games are decided based on subtleties in the rules that give an experienced player a clear-cut advantage over the rest of the table. Failing to hold priority when you activate Necropotence – as an example – leaves it open to Trickbind and Krosan Grip. That’s a mistake you only make once, and it’s one that contributes to a deeper understanding of the rules of the game. Similarly, I just learned about comprehensive rule 800.4h, which states:If a player leaves the game during his or her turn, that turn continues to its completion without an active player. If the active player would receive priority, instead the next player in turn order receives priority, or the top object on the stack resolves, or the phase or step ends, whichever is appropriate.I always thought that when a player scoops on his or her turn, the next action would be the next player in turn order untapping!
To steal a line from the EDH Rules Committee, cEDH creates a “variable, interactive, and epic multiplayer game”. The challenges presented by deck-building with a no-holds-barred attitude are amplified by the in-game knowledge that anything is possible, including land destruction, stax, and other such strategies. When all players shuffle up with the understanding that a game is going to be no holds barred, there is nothing but ego preventing them from interacting socially. I don’t see the two deck-building philosophies as being at-odds aside from the fact that playing one against the other tends to be pretty miserable for everyone involved.
Incidentally, this is true in other games as well. My friends would be insulted if they found out I pulled punches in Catan or Monopoly or Super Smash Bros. or anything else. They’re smart people who are capable of beating me in a fair contest, so I treat them as such.
I’m not saying any of this to suggest that Competitive EDH is the best or only way to play the format. Rather, I’m suggesting that “competitive” and “social” are not on opposite sides of the spectrum; they’re not on the same spectrum at all. I play high-powered and low-powered games with several different groups of people, and my most fulfilling games tend to be with people who don’t let their ego get in the way of a night out with the buds.
If you’ve got a playgroup that you think will be receptive to it, a competitive-minded approach to deckbuilding is definitely worth trying. In my opinion, having a competitive deck in your bag can be just as important as having a casual deck in your bag (as we discussed in my previous article, “Fun with Friends”).