Coherence in Deck Construction

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Unfortunately for Pauper and prospective Pauper fans I’m not yet ready to roll out another deck as of yet. I burned a lot of time preparing for the Indianapolis Invitational this weekend which didn’t leave much time to think about Pauper. Instead for this week I would like to talk about the deck-building concept of coherence.

What Means This “Coherence”?

In a deckbuilding capacity, coherence refers to how the cards in a deck work together to execute a plan. The concept lies somewhere between consistency and synergy. A perfectly consistent deck would be one filled entirely with cards that fulfil the same role- say all Lightning Bolts. A perfectly Synergistic deck would consist of all spells that benefit from the other spells in the deck- say, all Lord of Atlantis.

Coherency takes things a step further, and asks whether every card in the deck is “on plan”. The Lightning Bolt deck has the clear plan of burning the opponent out with some wiggle room for interacting with problematic creatures/Planeswalkers and the Lord of Atlantis deck’s plan is all about attacking and blocking. Intermingling the two spells leads to drops in consistency and direct synergy, but better promotes the plan of defeating a non-goldfish opponent. A mix of these two spells leads to a deck with a coherent focus of attacking/blocking well while being able to interact with opposing creatures/planeswalkers/life totals.

How About Some… Realer Examples

Fair. The above was an abstract oversimplification that doesn’t have a good amount of value. For a better example of coherence, let’s talk about my original submission for Pauper Rats! While working on this deck I wanted to find a way to make Gray Merchant of Asphodel work, but in all of my testing the card felt pretty weak, while Belbe, Corrupted Observer tested much better. The major reason for this was that Belbe, Corrupted Observer coheres much better with the strategy of a removal-heavy control deck. One can sit back, kill opposing creatures, make land drops and eventually Belbe, Corrupted Observer will be lethal. Better yet, non-lethal copies will serve to buy time for the lethal ones.

Alternatively, if all you’re doing is throwing around Victim of Nights, Gray Merchant isn’t gaining any value. The simple inclusion of Oubliette dramatically altered the coherence of the deck. Now, instead of just binning cards on both sides of the battlefield the deck features a removal spell that simultaneously advances the removal plan and the lethal devotion plan- or makes the decks A and B plans better cohere with one another, if you will.

My favorite example of a coherent deck is, to the surprise of no one, RUG Delver. The spell suite in the deck works extremely well at operating on very few lands while simultaneously forcing opponents to attempt the same. The trifecta of Stifle, Wasteland and Daze are seen by many as something of a “Free Win” engine, as they heavily restrict opposing resources, but more so Stifle and Daze allow the RUG player to function on as few of its own lands as possible.

Daze serves the primary function of crippling the opponent’s tempo, but it’s also quite valuable at allowing the RUG player to manage his/her own mana. In RUG, you generally only hit your third land drop to fight counter wars or because you want to set up a Brainstorm + Fetchland. In these circumstances, Daze then will allow the RUG player to Brainstorm away the land that they never really wanted to play in the first place.

Stifle plays a similar role in the deck. Typically heralded as a piece of mana denial, Stifle gets considerably less credit for the other important role it plays of countering opposing Wastelands. If not for Stifle a deck with as few lands as RUG would be extremely weak to Wasteland. Stifle demands opponents play more lands while at the same time allowing RUG to play fewer.

While we’re on the topic or RUG, this seems like as good a time as any to call out a trend that I find baffling. Gitaxian Probe is wildly incoherent with the rest of RUG’s strategy. RUG’s playability is entirely dependent on its spells interacting positively with those of its opponents. The deck is built in a way so that all of its spells are efficient enough to advance its own game play while interacting with opponents on most turns of the game. Nowhere in any of this strategy does the deck care much at all what the opponent has in hand.

Legacy is a format filled with dramatically more “must counter”s and “never counters”s than it is “sometimes counter”s. The success of a RUG pilot is dependent on careful execution of this turn in preparation for the next. Without knowing the top card of an opponent’s library, or worse the three that they Brainstorm/Aerial Responder into, knowledge of their hand doesn’t give a RUG player a ton of value. The deck is built to have a fighting chance against anything. Knowing what that thing is doesn’t make your chances better, it just tells you whether the game is possible or not.

This is not to bemoan the power of information, even in a format such as Legacy, it’s just to say that Probe is much more coherent in decks with a focus of this turn. If you cast Gitaxian Probe and see that the coast is clear for your Tarmogoyf now you gain fairly minimal advantage, whereas Probe will allow a Storm/Sneak and Show player to know if their opponent is dead right now.

That all said, sometimes incoherence can be to your benefit.

Strategic Incoherence

The most powerful (and dominant) deck to follow incoherent gameplans was the Dark Depths Thopter decks of the now dead Extended format. For reference:

It’s slightly misleading to say that this deck is incoherent without any qualifiers. The deck is very clearly a focused combo deck, with a coherent focus of killing opponents with discard/counter backup. The incoherence comes from what the opponent must do to properly interact with the deck.

A timely Path to Exile could deal with a Merit Lage token, but was laughably bad against Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek. Pithing Needle could hit one combo, but not both.

By comboing out in two unique ways, DDT’s minor incoherence forced opponents to try to interact in ways that were generally much less coherent.

Of course, such strategic incoherencies tend to be exploitable only in certain environments. In Legacy the Oops all Spells deck gains a small edge by turning from a graveyard deck in game one to Belcher in sideboarded games, but all combos in that format are comparably weak to counterspells.

Wolf Run Ramp from a couple years back was another strong example, as the best card in the deck was a giant monster (Primeval Titan) while the second best was a land (Kessig Wolf Run). Interacting positively with both forced control players to play a range of spells that fluctuated dramatically in power by game. Sure, Pithing Needle stopped Wolf Run, but you can’t afford to draw too many needles while facing down a 6/6 beater.

Coherence and Limited

The place where I see deck coherence most often neglected is in limited. Many players, new players especially, tend to focus on the “bombs” featured in their limited decks. Unfortunately for players with such a focus, most of their deck is going to be comprised of commons. This tends to be what holds these players back in Cube as well- with a fistful of bombs they forget that they’re trying to build an actual deck.

The more you draft and the more sealed you play, the more you start to value your commons. The less you complain about not drawing “cardname” and the more you focus on executing a particular strategy.

Scars of Mirrodin was a terrific draft environment for learning about coherence. While it was often excusable to play a deck featuring creatures with and without the Infect mechanic, it was usually wrong to be aggressive with a mix of both. Cystbearer made for an awesome early blocker for a Dinosaurs style deck, but a miserable attacker for a faster damage-based deck.

One of the best decks I ever drafted in Scars block was a UR Infect deck featuring four of each Blighted Agent and Razor Swine, in addition to double Corpse Cur. My first pick in this draft was a Batterskull. Batterskull was among the best cards in the format, and easily the least valuable card in my deck.

By the time I was making my fifth land drop, my opponents were dead or damn near it. Batterskull was still fine (obviously) as it could recover games where I fell behind fairly easily on its own, but I’m not convinced that a six drop, say Wurmcoil Engine, would’ve been at all playable in the deck. Batterskull at the very least could suit up to an Infect creature and advance the plan I was on all along. While Wurmcoil Engine was known for winning games on its own, it can’t do that every game and such a deck demands that it does so to be worth a slot at all.

Ultimately, every article ever written on drafting particular limited archetypes has in some capacity explored deck coherence in terms of limited. Developing pick orders and the understanding the contexts for which such orders should be altered are fundamental elements of building coherent limited decks and becoming better at drafting.


Next week I fully intend to get right back into Pauper. Hopefully what I’ve written here is of some value to deck builders, aspiring deck builders and drafters alike. Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter

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