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Magic is an Extremely Diverse Game
Stompy, Combo, Permission, RDW, Suicide Black, Manaless Dredge—the list goes on and on. Magic has the best names when it comes to deck names and archetypes and none of this would be possible if the game were not truly diverse.
Today I'm going to talk about a less considered but still important deck archetype; the degenerate deck. What makes a deck degenerate you say? In a word; simplicity. The entire essence of the deck has been distilled, reductio ad absurdum, to a singular form with singular purpose. Are these decks or are they thought experiments? Both, really!
Fluctuator, which is still a combo deck in the pre-Modern format, was the first truly degenerate deck that I ever owned. I still have it to this day and continue to tinker with and update it. Read an awesome primer on Fluctuator by Kyle Monson here! Essentially, you play a Fluctuator and then cycle your entire deck into the graveyard and combo off from there. Will this deck ever be a Tier One deck in any format? It's not likely. Is it still my go-to deck when showing new players to Magic just how absolutely bonkers the game can be? Yes, it is.
Ever been to tournaments with no ban lists or deck-building restrictions whatsoever? I have! These are some of the most fun, zany events I've ever had the pleasure of attending. Without *any restrictions* there has got to be a perfect deck that automatically wins, right? My go-to when explaining this is the 60 Chancellor of the Dross deck.
What a beautiful theoretical deck. During the beginning of the game, you reveal seven Chancellors of the Dross and your opponent takes 21 damage and is dead. Your opponent, whether they go first or not, dies before drawing for turn or playing a land! Unbeatable, right? Well, not exactly. If the Chancellor deck ever took off people might start to play Nourishing Shoal in their sideboard or the maindeck of a Neobrand/Grishoalbrand deck. Thus, to win a best of three against a deck that could gain even two life, the Chancellor deck would be forced to have a game plan in the sideboard to defeat it. Adding any cards into a deck like this makes it no longer function, thus, it's not perfect and it's far from unbeatable!
Threats and Answers
An old, but still very true, Magic concept is that cards in your deck represent either Threats or Answers. If a deck is not functioning well one easy fix is to adjust the amounts of both. Degenerate decks completely remove all answers and simply try to end the game as efficiently as possible; they have no interaction and they fold to any interaction; they are the most all-in of any all in deck because when they fail it's spectacular.
The Importance of Degenerate Decks
These decks offer inspiration for future builds, show how to find a way to defeat an "unbeatable" strategy, and chip away at our idea of what counts as unfair, overpowered, or just plain silly. Gaining perspective and experience helps us become better Magic players. It might seem like decks that can attempt to win turn five every single game are unfair, but, until you actually play one how can you really know?
Whether your Commander is Maralen of the Mornsong or Sidisi, Undead Vizier or Varragoth, Bloodsky Sire the game plan is exactly the same; play Swamp until you cast your Commander, use your Commander to search for Ad Nauseam then draw your entire deck. The degeneracy is that you know you cannot die from Ad Nauseam because your deck is almost entirely Swamps.
One of the easiest finishers is Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, and then Sickening Dreams discarding Swamps to finish off the entire table while using Dark Sphere to not die yourself. Because of the extremely high amount of Swamps, it's impossible not to hit your land drops and if you happen to draw one of the cards you would search for, you can just search for another instead.
Adding cards like Duress or Thoughtseize allows you to fight blue but the simple fact is that if you have done nothing for four turns, not had your Commander killed or countered, resolved Ad Nauseam and drawn your entire deck you probably are getting a win and a lot of dirty looks with or without discards.
Another deck full of lands, The First Sliver uses 97 in fact. The only non-land cards in the deck are the banned in Modern Tibalt's Trickery and the completely cool and non-threatening Cultivator Colossus. The game plan is exceedingly simple; hit five lands, cast your Commander, cascade into Tibalt's Trickery which counters your The First Sliver, and then pseudo-cascade into Cultivator Colossus. You can then play your entire deck of lands including Maze's End and all the Guild Gates and then activate it during your upkeep and win! At $40 it's a pretty budget-friendly deck and entertaining for the two minutes or so it takes to play it.
Entirely degenerate and a bit hilarious as you convince everyone at the table that it's your new Slivers deck. While the deck runs fine off of basic lands and gates, you can put in a lot of utility lands to try and make the deck significantly more legitimate. My favorite tech are the indestructible artifact lands, Phrexian Core, and Academy Ruins, to prevent me from decking out if I am somehow allowed to continue playing after a failed win attempt. The backup plan at that point is to kill someone with any creature land and Kessig Wolf Run.
Once anyone knows your game plan, your chance of victory should be roughly 0%. If you're really a degenerate of culture, play an actual Sliver deck with The First Sliver for a couple of weeks before switching to the Trickery.
A degenerate classic, the deck needs absolutely zero explanation, which is exactly how powerful the deck actually is. It's one of the slower degens at turn eight, but, I include it to talk about the potential. When I first saw Maelstrom Wanderer this is exactly where I went with the deck—entirely thought experiment level. I don't think I ever won a game with it while demonstrating Wanderer. However, over time, I experimented with some ideas and they changed the rules for cascade and split cards with regards to cascade, which lead to more cards being playable in it, and also, they added Keruga, the Macrosage which can be played as a companion for laughs. I have the same style of deck but it plays a lot more non-land cards that cannot be cascaded into that have some form of use such as Magma Opus. This way it looks like I'm doing something, but really, I'm just trying to kill everyone with Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.
The Rest of the Gang
There are more examples out there like Kaho, Minamo Historian, and the ever famous The Gitrog Monster. In particular, Gitrog is really cool because it relies on rules knowledge of the cleanup step to function; if you've never seen it or your opponents have never seen it, prepare to learn about End of Turn and Cleanup. A Gitrog primer could make a good rules article for the future.
Should I Bring one of These to Play?
That depends on your group. If no one has ever seen the gimmick and you know they like Magic for all of its highs and lows, then definitely try it. If your group is laid back, really casual and just wants to tap lands and cast spells it's likely to just frustrate people. What about as an extremely budget-friendly, yet, competitive deck? Honestly? It's not that bad of an idea.
If you're struggling to come up with ideas for decks, or have never felt competitive but want to get into cEDH you should try one of these extremely all-in decks. You have an, albeit low, chance at winning but, more importantly, you will learn something each game. What you learn will prove to be invaluable for future deck design. You will appreciate firsthand how a competitive deck needs to function on both offense and defense to take down both careful, controlling opponents, and reckless all in decks. This is the kind of experience that you cannot get just from theory crafting and really need to experience as a player. Remember, no plan survives contact with the enemy.
Plus, it's not that these decks can't win, it's that they should never be *allowed* to win. So go out there, steal a game off someone and promise to never, ever do it again... until a new degenerate Commander gets printed.