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One Plus One Equals Three

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Building a good deck is more than throwing every good card from a color into a pile and shuffling them together. As somebody who has built many, many decks, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that starting a deck with the idea of playing a specific card or color tends to lead to much weaker decks than building around particular interactions and synergies.

When Bitterblossom was first released I immediately knew that I wanted to play the card. For the most part, however, I jammed it into black decks that didn’t take any advantage of it besides it being a very powerful two-drop. If I was smart I would’ve just built Faeries from the get-go. It turns out that the deck built around Bitterblossom is much stronger than a deck that simply includes it.

Now and again the best cards have some inherent synergies that make this principle somewhat difficult to observe. UW Delver, for example, might look to some like it’s just a pile of strong cards. Upon closer inspection, Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets have more in common than might be initially perceived. It’s obvious that the two are intended to be played with a high Instant/Sorcery count, but the specific Instants and Sorceries that get played with these cards are picked because of how well they play with each - not just in order to establish a threshold.

Vapor Snag is the card that really exemplifies this point. It’s not a particularly powerful card, but it plays excessively well with the best cards in the deck. I’ve heard people remark about how something as simple as the loss of one life turned the unplayable Unsummon into a format all-star, but the one life really didn’t have much at all to do with it. It had a lot more to do with the fact that it turned on your 3/2 flyer while often allowing you to Time Walk with your Tiagos.

The importance of such synergies is the principle of deck building that I see players neglect on the most regular basis.

I’ve seen a lot of Trading Post brews recently, and most lists that I’ve seen have been guilty of this. From my experience Posting I have drawn two very important conclusions with regard to building around Trading Post:

  1. Trading Post + Wurmcoil Engine is the best endgame you’ll ever need.
  2. It often takes a long time to set up this endgame.

In light of this, slots that aren’t occupied by Posts and Wurms should be dedicated to ensuring that a player survives to cast these spells. This is why my Counter Repost deck features Snapcaster Mage and Vapor Snag. In a fashion not terribly dissimilar from UW Delver, these cards function as Time Walks so that I can survive long enough to start making Wurms.

Considering these points, I found Brad Nelson’s GW Post list to be rather vexing.

In this list he supplements his Post engine with, for the most part, a lot of big spells. Thragtusk doesn’t make much of any sense with Trading Post to me. It just does the things that the deck is already trying to do in a much smaller way and with a card that doesn’t do much with Trading Post.

A singular Thragtusk just doesn’t do as much offensively or defensively as a Wurmcoil Engine, and I really don’t see why you would want any ‘Tusks before you had at least two Wurms. Additionally, if we’re into life gain and five drops, where are the other two Pristine Talismans? The inclusions of Thragtusk reads to me as just playing a good card because it’s good.

The Jund Rule

Of course, there are times when you should just jam the best cards. The most obvious deck that was mostly just a pile of strong spells in my mind was Standard Jund. Basically, Bloodbraid Elf was too good. So what exactly is the threshold for going out of one’s way to play good spells?

I would argue that it falls somewhere between a three for one and Bloodbraid Elf.

In case I lost you there, here is what Bloodbraid Elf was often the equivalent of:


While the individual cards wouldn’t combine terribly well, a Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning was about four cards worth of value. Certainly higher than three. And if your opponent had a Planeswalker, it could be closer to five…

It’s true that Jund did make some exceptions in the name of synergy. For example, without Cascade I’m certain that Lavalanche would have been very widely played. I mean, it’s Bonfire of the Damned… But for the most part Jund just jammed Bloodbraid Elf and every other good on-color card, most of which being two-for-ones - all of which being considerably weaker than BBE.

It’s easy to see how a card that generates around three cards of value is worth eschewing synergy for raw power, but what about playing a deck full of two-for-ones? What about…

The Deadguy Ale Dilemna

If you don’t know a lot about tier 3 Legacy decks with obscure names, Deadguy Ale is a Black/White deck that utilizes cards like Hymn to Tourach and Stoneforge Mystic to grind out marginal advantage in a world of efficiency and degeneracy.

Deadguy Ale is a deck that is doomed to stay a lower-tiered deck because it simply mashes good cards. Hymn to Tourach and Dark Confidant are strong, to be sure, and they play well enough together, but they’re not exactly synergistic. As I alluded to in the Jund section, playing a lot of two-for-ones is not the same thing as synergy. This only works out if the value cards that you’re playing are more powerful than the format at large.

When it comes to being more powerful that the Legacy format, decks that don’t include this card are questionable at best:


Does Deadguy Ale do anything that is remotely as powerful as Brainstorm? Sure, Stoneforge Mystic and Dark Confidant can generate a great deal of value, but it’s not immediate and there are a lot more Lightning Bolts and Swords to Plowshares than there are Red Elemental Blasts. The simple fact of the matter is that Brainstorm does a much better Ancestral Recall impression than any other card in Magic.

It’s true that Deadguy Ale Top 8’d a recent SCG Open, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Esper Stoneblade won that event. In a match between the two, Esper should win the vast majority of the matches. Brainstorm is far and away the strongest card in either deck and Jace the Mind Sculptor is capable of generating more value than most cards ever.

tl;dr

Specific examples aside, the basic messages that I’m driving at are these:

First, it’s better to find cards that play well together than cards that are simply good. This is unless, of course, the good card in question crosses a threshold of being worth approximately three or so cards.

Most importantly, if you feel the need to just jam good cards, make sure that you’re jamming the best good cards. Don’t bring a Thragtusk to a Wurmcoil Engine fight.

Play decks. Don’t play cards.

-Ryan Overturf

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