Hitting the Wall: How to Renew Deckbuilding Inspiration

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In a way, It's kind of surprising that the formats with the largest card pools, like Commander and Vintage, often have the least diversity. This is an expected but counter-intuitive circumstance exhibited by larger card pools: the presence of a very few, very powerful cards edges out a ton of the more interesting, less powerful fringe strategies.

The analogue to this in Commander is the same issue I discussed last week. Even though there are a near-infinite number of things that you can do, most decks are built form a pool of maybe 400ish cards from all those legal - the ones given staple-status.

Furthermore, most of the decks built from these cards fall into one of three categories:

  • Blue-based combo-control,
  • Green-based ramp/combo, or
  • Black- or White-based recursion or attrition.

Let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with a format like that, but it does have some natural implications.

What this means is that people who are told to try Commander because of its staggering diversity and Johnny-Timmy emphasis are going to be really excited about their first few games, but quickly realize that many of the decks are the same. It also meas that it is increasingly important for deckbuilders to remove their "blinders," whatever they may be, and expand the pool of cards and strategies that they consider during deckbuilding. Expanding your horizons, finding hidden gems, and figuring out new ways to use old tools - these are the way that you gain edges in this format. More importantly, this is the way you find new, awesome things to do.

As someone who builds a fairly unique deck every week, I frequently hit the wall with regards to deckbuilding to the point where I just can't think of something interesting to do. This week, for example, was supposed to be about a five-color Superfriends deck, with a million Planeswalkers. But I'd get 50 or so cards into the list and realize it looked just like every other Planeswalker deck, which means it's a fine, solid deck.

It also means it's not for me.

Full disclosure: I'll build three or four articles worth of decks in a day or two, then spend three or four weeks looking for emails to talk about or trying to come up with three more decks. I assume I'm not the only one who has trouble figuring out where to start with a deck, so I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some of the methods I use to figure out what I want to do.

Give Something Old a New Twist

Pick your favorite Commander or one of your favorite cards. At different points during your Commander career, you must have seen something interesting that either you or someone else's deck was capable of doing that your deck either didn't emphasize or run.

Maybe a new set has been released that encourages new interactions with the card you have in mind and there's one you want to build around. A few examples:

There are always powerful cards that have good, generic applications. The thing is, these cards also have even more powerful corner-case interactions that are very exciting to build around and play with. Once you stop thinking about cards as doing one particular thing, like Altar's Reap being a value card or Lullmage Mentor existing solely for Merfolk-heavy decks, you can do much more interesting things with them. They still play that role, but you're focusing more on what the card actually does as opposed to how it most frequently get played.

Just Try Something New

Maybe there's always been a card or Commander you've wanted to play with but never got a chance to. This is a format where you can do anything you want do. You can play with cards that aren't very good and still do fin and you can experiment with cards you've never had a chance to play with anywhere else.

I can't tell you how many Hatching Plans and Lullmage Mentor decks I've built trying to get them to do something powerful.

There's generally two ways to go about this. As said above, you can either pick a card or a Commander to start with. If you pick a card, then I'd first go to your favorite Magic card database to see if there are any other cards with similar effects. Then just skim through the 473 Legendary Creatures in the game.

Go, it doesn't take as long as you think!

Maybe one of them jumps out at you because of a powerful interaction, or there could be one that you haven't seen someone play with and you'd like to. Either way, it's not too difficult to find the basis of a deck this way. Alternatively, you can start with a Legend and start searching for the kinds of effects you want to play with.

Here are two examples, the first starting with a card and the second with a Commander:

1) Ertai, the Corrupted

I wanted to build a Lullmage Mentor deck in the worst way.

I built one forever ago with Sygg, River Guide, but that really wasn't a great place for Mentor, even if it was a Merfolk tribal deck.

So I looked through the Legendary Creatures, keeping Mentor in my mind, and saw Ertai, the Corrupted. There's a reasonable interaction with these two, but, after taking a minute to think, the pieces started coming together.

Thornbite Staff, Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek, and Hatching Plans. There are a lot of interesting interactions that let you leverage the synergy between Ertai and Mentor into a position where you can counter every spell that anyone plays for the rest of the game.

Not the most fun way to end a game, but it would require so many pieces that I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

2) Jugan, the Rising Star

I've played decks geaturing every single one of the Kamigawa Dragons and had a ton of fun with them. Kamigawa was my favorite block by a fairly large margin, bringing such favorites as Gifts Ungiven and Tallowisp, and I've been trying to find a way to take advantage of Jugan for the longest time. The deck certainly wouldn't be very good, but maybe there's something tricksy that you can do, right?

The first step is actually fairly easy. If Jugan is going to your graveyard instead of to your Command Zone, then you need ways to get him back. There're the easy answers, like Nim Deathmantle and Arachnogenesis, but there's also Soulshift!

There're thirteen cards with Soulshift in Green, four of which can get Jugan back no matter what, and Kodama of the Center Tree, which gets him back conditionally.

The problem of what to actually do with the +1/+1 counters is actually much more difficult. Normally you'd just say that you'll put them on your Commander and Voltron people to death that way. That doesn't work out so well for Jugan. Poison is kind of like Commander damage though. Throw in some pump spells and poison guys, and that sounds like a solid framework for a deck to me!

Look for Inspiration in Other Places

The more Magic you play, especially different kinds, the more interactions you're exposed to.

As you see more cards used in more ways, not only do you become a better player, but you increase your knowledge and familiarity with the game. This makes it easier to think in multiple directions and easier to get inspiration for sweet Commander decks!

This is the reason that my advice for new players to the format is this: think about what your favorite constructed deck is in any format, whether it's Caw-Blade from last Standard season, Legacy Reanimator, or anything else, and try to build that deck in 99 card singleton.

If you do that, then you start with interactions you're mostly familiar with, you're playing with cards you know you like. It pretty much guarantees that you'll at least enjoy yourself while you're playing, that you aren't diving into a completely alien format, and that your deck will be built on a solid fundamental idea.

The two best examples I have of this are my Child of Alara 56 land deck and my [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] Caw-Blade deck. I felt like those decks captured the essence of the idea of their constructed counterparts very well, all while being powerful, synergistic, and a ton of fun to play!

Put Restrictions on your Deckbuilding Process

"Restrictions breed creativity."

This idea has been repeated ad nauseam in all kinds of contexts, but it also applies here. If you find yourself playing the same cards or same kinds of decks over and over, then force yourself to build something else.

The kind of restrictions you want to put on yourself obviously depends on the types of decks you tend to play. Maybe you only play Blue-based decks. If that's the case, you should try avoiding the color. Maybe you play with a very small pool of cards. Then you can build a deck that can't contain any cards that are already in a deck you own.

There are also restrictions of theme rather than just archetype, color, or cards. You can build pauper decks, tribal decks, or cards with all one artist. There's no end to the kinds of interesting ways you can force yourself to be creative.

I have two examples of this that I've been working on recently and am hoping to finish soon. The first is a Kresh, the Bloodbraided deck, since I don't tend to play Black decks and almost every deck I own plays White. That deck has a theme of Morbid, with all of the cards like Reaper from the Abyss along with Ancient Lumberknot and Algae Gharial to bring the beats.

The second deck I've been working on is a Spirit tribal deck with Isperia the Inscrutable at the helm, just so I have an excuse to play my foil Angel of Flight Alabaster and use it to recur a foil Yosei, the Morning Star! This kind of deckbuilding also lead Donovan (@d0su on Twitter) to build the much reviled Pauper Dreamcrusher.

In Conclusion

The point of all of this is that sometimes we have to look at things other than what we're most comfortable with. It helps us to grow as players, as deckbuilders, and leads to more interesting and dynamic games.

Try something different and see what happens! It helps bring back the enthusiasm and wonder that newer players have and veteran players tend to lose sight of once they start taking the game more and more seriously.

Commander is a chance to do some of your favorite things involving complex interactions and stack manipulation, your favorite infinite combos and hard locks. But it's also a place where you can recall the times where casting Scaled Wurm was exciting or where you were casting Ghost Council of Orzhova[/cad] with [card]Tallowisp in play for infinite value.

The cute plays and interactions that make people smile are just as important as the epic ones that people remember for weeks after. Those are the reasons I play the format, at least.

Next week will be a return to form. We'll be looking at the five-color planeswalker control deck that I promised Becca I'd build for her, talking about the different directions these decks can go in, and figuring out which planeswalkers are the best or worst for this kind of deck! Besides that, I've got a couple of exciting ideas in the works for a couple more less formulaic articles, so be sure to check back in!

I'll see you in the Lab!

Carlos Gutierrez
@cag5383 on Twitter

2 thoughts on “Hitting the Wall: How to Renew Deckbuilding Inspiration

  1. Perhaps the best advice you've said is putting restriction on your deck building process. It really forces you to get creative and keeps you away from your staple card choices. It was refreshing for me to build my 5color all gold deck since I didn't have access to my usual card choices.

  2. I've found that one limit that really helps make my decks more interesting is forcibly removing any "vanilla" cards. Big ugly monsters like Akroma (either version), which are just a pile of good abilities are usually the first to go. After that I usually get rid of powerful but boring spells (I rarely play wrath, day of judgement, or damnation because they're just not interesting). If a card doesn't do something you can't find on other cards I cut it. I also cut eldrazi and the colossi (blight and dark steel) because there's not reason to play colorless cards in commander unless they're on theme.

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