The Perilous Pitfalls of Pioneering

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So you love Friday Night Magic but you are tired of net decking. You want to bring your own crazy brew to the table and still be competitive. Or perhaps you want to take it further and be successful at designing a deck you can even take to a PTQ and top-8 or better! Where do you start? You can start with a mana base, or a theme, or figure out a way to attack the metagame you think you'll play. Me... I like to design a dream. It's not the best place to start from a super competitive standpoint, but I've done pretty well for myself at FNMs. And I am going to go over some of the mistakes I've made over the years and the decks, as best I can remember, that taught me these hard fought lessons.

With 22 Land

The Dream: To attack with an Order of Whiteclay and other things that look pretty innocuous and then slam a Doran out of your graveyard with the untap ability (they probably didn't see), then hit for lethal!

Now let's assume that we ignore the fact that this list is pretty much insane for a second. I mean, there are a ton of things that are wrong with this list. Some are so obvious they aren't even worth talking about. One of the more subtle things I didn't catch on to until later was the lack of turn one Green mana. It seems so simple a thing now to have missed it, but I filled this deck with so many Vivids so as to cast super janky cards in this deck like Cryptic Command and Firespout in the board that I didn't have very many ways to power out a turn two Doran, the Siege Tower. On a more uplifting note, this deck is the deck that made me love competitive Magic. I won my first tournament with this deck at FNM. I love everything about this deck. And I do mean everything. From Kinshipping rips off the top to win games, to pulling out Kitchen Finks out of your yard with Order of Whiteclay before the persist trigger resolves, to even winning a game because I lived The Dream! I played against another Treefolk deck, a Burn deck, a White/Green Aggro deck, Fish and something else. This deck makes me giggle with glee. The stories it would tell you if it could speak. But what lesson did it teach me? Well you've seen the list. It could have taught me any number of about 10 things, but the thing I walked away with most at the end of two weeks with this baby was Pitfall 1.

Pitfall 1: Tunnel Vision

This is a mistake my playtest partner and I make a lot. We playtest against each other over and over, and then make changes based on the games we played. Now this seems like a good idea on the surface. Try things, then if they don't work, fix them. What's wrong with that? The problem can be that you add something to your deck to make the matchup you are focussed on better. But sometimes this can make the rest of your deck a lot worse versus the rest of the field. I ended up adding the Firespouts from the board to the maindeck after a week of this because I had boarded them in every single game the week before. I went 5-0 with the deck one week and made changes to make it better, like cutting out the silly Cryptic Command, and proceeded to sideboard out Firespouts every game the next week. I made a decision based on the fact that I played lots of Aggro decks the week prior, then I played a bunch of Control and Combo decks the next week and had a bunch of dead cards! I guess that is why it's good to test postboard, but its hard sometimes to dedicate the proper amount of playtesting required. Watch out for this one: it can be pretty sneaky.

On to list two:

With 24 Land

The Dream: To have a Devoted Druid and a Wall of Reverence in play, then have people shrug and tap out to put a huge threat, allowing you to drop a Quillspike and gain infinite life. And then proceed with the grinning. Alternatively is to attack with a Quillspike, have them use a removal spell, and Angel of Condemnation it in response.

I am going to start you off with saying this is my favorite list. Ever. Hands down. I play a list three times at an FNM if I am in absolute love with it. I think I played this deck something like eight times plus a PTQ. As an added bonus I think I learned the most from it! I learned at least three major things from it, but I only want to go into two of them with this list as I think other lists will better illustrate the last point.

Pitfall 2: Focus

This deck never could quite figure out how it wanted to kill you. This deck has synergies coming out of its ears, but for every synergy it has a desynergy. I definately got there on Chameleon Colossus and Wall of Reverence a lot, but for every time I gained 16 or even 32 life with a Chameleon Colossus, I had to put a Chameleon Colossus out there only to Wrath of God it away a turn later. Either that or hope and pray that my opponent just overextended like crazy. Wishful thinking is not a way to play competitive Magic. Turn two I never could decide whether or not I should keep Broken Ambitions mana open or drop a Devoted Druid. I liked the flexibility of having both but Broken Ambitions is no Mana Leak. If you don't keep all of your mana open for it, people just wait for you to tap out to cast their big spells. And when you have to be the one to react to a turn two Bitterblossom when they were on the play you put yourself in a very bad position. It was fun and it was a blast, and I would still like to work on an Extended version of this deck, but until I work out the kinks it is probably not even worth taking to an FNM. I think it has potential still though and I would still love to see that look of horror on a Control players face as you stick a Glen Elendra Archmage and a Quillspike post board. I really would hug this deck if I could; which brings me to my next point.

Pitfall 3: Love

This is a hard one to admit to myself even now. This deck just isn't that great. Sure, it's good, but it just isn't up to snuff in a competitive environment. I loved this deck too much. I still love this deck too much. I fought and fought to make this deck super competitive. I worked too hard to try to make this deck good and it clogged my creative juices. It demanded to be played at the expense of everything else and didn't allow me to branch out into other decks. I should have been creating something new instead of trying to make this deck better. Fine tuning a deck is good, but at some point you have to be able to admit to yourself that a deck isn't quite as good as you think it is. There is always unexplored territory to find, even if the old territory is what makes Magic worth playing.

With 28 land

The Dream: Casting Emrakul. That is the dream of most decks running the big boy. It doesn't get much better than that! I guess this deck taught me two lessons, too. The second is the more significant point I think.

Pitfall 4: Revisitation

Never throw out an idea. Keep them around. You never know when a metagame is going to change and, all of a sudden with some tweaks, a deck is going to be killer! This deck started out as okay but with some changes to the environment and some changes to the deck you can take a deck to the next level. Oh, if only I could have seen into the future to make tweaks accordingly! Which brings me to point 5.

Pitfall 5: Underselling cards

Underselling cards. You know what is wrong with this deck? It ran the wrong Titan. Sun Titan is awesome in this deck: It pulls back Tectonic Edge, Wall of Omens, Knight of the Reliquary. Seems pretty good. But! On a scale of 1-10, Primeval Titan in this deck would have been somewhere between amazing and ridiculous. I think I was too focussed on the ability to Tectonic Edge every turn with Sun Titan to even see Primeval Titan. But if I had, I think this deck would have been taken to the next level. My point is that while there are good cards and better cards in Magic, often times cards get overlooked. And if you overlook a card just because it has always been looked upon as "not very good" you will never come up with crazy decks like Soul Sisters or even Cruel Control in its first incarnation running Wall of Reverence.

With 22 Land

The dream: Turn two Cephalid Constable, turn three Wings of Velis Vel, bounce all your permanents, and ride him to victory! Ah this deck brings back memories. The problem with this deck is two-fold. One lone Figure of Destiny ruins your day. Once you're, spent you're spent. Second, ideally you want to bounce all their lands, including the land you just turned into an Island so that your stuff is no longer unblockable!

Pitfall 6: New set, new goodies

Thinking a deck can still be good because nothing major rotated out. I stopped playing this deck because I thought that, without a reliable way to make Constable unblockable, it wasn't worth it. Unfortunately I missed out on running Ignoble Hierarchs and Elspeth. So, this deck got a bunch of new goodies, why wouldn't you play it? It was the other decks that rotated out though that made this deck unviable! A lot less removal was being run during Time Spiral due to so many Combo decks and people not wanting oft-dead cards. As soon as it rotated out, Angel of Condemnation was being used a lot more as well as lots of other removal. Three months later Path to Exile entered the picture. There was no hope for this deck after that. In an ever-changing metagame, you need to pay as much attention to what decks are leaving as to what cards are coming in. I am a little sad I never picked up the deck again after Shards of Alara came out, but in the end I think it was the right call.

With 26 land.

The Dream: Ultimate Venser. Ride it to victory.

Pitfall 7: Overselling cards.

Overselling is overestimating the value of a card. So what two cards did I overestimate the value of here? I'll give you a hint: I still think Contagion Clasp is an underrated card. I overestimated the value of Venser and Wall of Omens. Both are terrible in this deck. Now if you've made it this far stick with me a little longer and I'll explain to you why I think Wall of Omens is a terrible card. When it came out, Wall of Omens was a great card. It gave new life to Control decks that were floundering hard. It bought them time, it replaced itself... it was great! Now there are very few Aggro decks to slow down. Everything is midrange these days, and an 0/4 Wall only blocks Vengevine once. On top of that Mana Leak is almost always a better bluff than casting a Wall of Omens.

Additionally, Venser is better when you run more Wall of Omens. The problem with Venser is that he doesn't impact the game until he Ultimates. Best case? He comes into play and draws you a card. Sometimes if you're really lucky he gives your Baneslayer "Vigilance". If you can get him to Ultimate it's very hard to lose, but in Control, you generally want to play cards that help you catch up. Venser can be completely ignored if you are on the cusp of death, which makes him a poor card choice. Especially if he eats four slots! I think I needed more time to fine tune this deck but States hit pretty quick after the new set came out.

If this article does anything I hope it just gets you excited for the new Extended format and even might stir up a few new ideas. Building a Magic deck is kind of like art. Throw enough spaghetti in your opponent's face, and some of it might stick.

Alex Ruggeri

3 thoughts on “The Perilous Pitfalls of Pioneering

  1. I think you had the wrong mentality about the Venser deck. Try playing it again with these changes, grouped together for convenience:

    -7 Countermagic
    +3 Sea Gate Oracle
    +3 Tumble Magnet
    +1 Wall of Omens

    -3 Baneslayer Angel
    +2 Gideon Jura
    +1 Sun Titan

    -1 Volition Reins
    -2 Condemn
    +1 Contagion Clasp
    +1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
    +1 Gideon Jura

    -2 Day of Judgment
    +2 Sunblast Angel

    Philosphy behind changes:
    Being tied to playing countermagic is holding Venser deck back. The Venser deck wants to keep augmenting its board position whenever it can and counters add nothing. People will still respect your Mana Leak mana unless they know the list. You want to build the deck to just not even care about what other decks are doing. And then when you do have to care, you have the tools to deal with the threats. That can lead to awkward game 1's versus Valakut but you have access to stuff like Leyline of Sanctity for them.

    Your deck now plays a lot of game-winners. Tumble Magnet protects them. Gideon Jura doesn't need an introduction but he's also still a baller when it comes to protecting other planeswalkers. Gideon also sets the table for Sunblast Angel, who is actually better than Day of Judgment in this deck. Ultimating Venser is game-winning, but in reality the mere threat of ultimating Venser (7 counters) just overloads their resources. Countering spells can be annoying for you but you play so many cards that they have to answer AND you can get out of Leak range easily.

    The deck seems to be cold to opposing Jaces but your plan against that line of attack is to laugh at their one good card with your well-oiled machine. Post board you can bring in Belerens to keep their Jaces down.

    Sun Titan gets back Tectonic Edge and dead cantrippers. His slot is optional but I like having it.

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