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Adapting Winning Decks

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Sometimes, you see a deck that looks really appealing in those 5-0 finishes, but something looks off to you. "Why would they choose this card?" you ask, or "Is that really the right path?" you wonder.

Typically, the correct path is to play the deck, as is, without making any changes. This is the best path to take as a preliminary step, because there may be some surprising interactions you didn't expect, and only by playing cards together can you learn these lessons. Of course, sometimes, whether out of haste or some other motivation, you just rush on in and make changes.

There is a right way to do this, and a wrong way to do this. I'm going to walk you through that process using a recent example, Caleb Durward's 5-0 Shaman list in Modern.

Shamans!

The Base Deck

First of all, you find your list. In this case, I was a bit excited and astounded to see Rage Forger in a 5-0 list. Looking at the name, I saw it was piloted by one "CalebD", the one and only Caleb Durward.

Checking out a name is important. You shouldn't just be moved by the authority of a big name, but you should think about who that person is, if you have any idea. Caleb, for example, is absolutely willing to try out wild ideas, and try to make big things happen with them. Other players have other kinds of personalities. For example, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa is very likely to have a very honed deck, but he is also much more averse to unconventional ideas. Some players are more apt to try last minute audibles, based on their instincts and experience thus far (a choice I, for example, am loathe to make).

You might not recognize the name of a deck's pilot, either, and that's okay. If you have any information at all, it is just one more drop on one side of the scales or the other, helping to inform you about how to proceed.

Seeing Caleb's name associated with a deck immediately made me look up his Twitch stream to see if he talked about his deck at all. It turns out he had, and had recorded his Shaman deck in a video, though you had to delve deep - about five hours - to get to it.

Here, I learned something important: this 5-0 deck was fairly haphazardly put together based on Caleb's intuition. Caleb's a great innovator, so that means that he can make great shots from the hip at times, but at the same time, it did lead me to the impression that improvements could be made.

Here is that base list:


So, what are my initial concerns?

They are simple: Marginal Spell Selection and Mana.

Marginal Spell Selection

Flamekin Harbinger
To say that there are cards in this deck that feel marginal is probably no surprise to most of you. But, when you're playing Flamekin Harbinger, you have to be willing to think about what the real concerns are.

The first is color. Not all decks are going to have such a strict color concern, but this is a two-color deck that morphed into a three-color deck. What are the cards you should be splashing for? In this deck, it is obvious that the deck is base-Red, so, what are we doing with the rest of it?

In a deck where the splash is Green, then obviously Collected Company is a powerful incentive, but what about these other cards? Where most might not, I respect Bosk Banneret, though I don't think it is a card I'd want to especially splash for. Similarly, do I really want to splash Elvish Visionary?

On the other hand, the splash of Black for Judith, the Scourge Diva doesn't feel half bad. It immediately does a ton to increase the damage output of the deck. The extra payoff from Rix Maadi Reveler also feels intriguing. I'm not so inclined to cut into these cards.

Just thinking about the cards from a pure power perspective, I feel immediately that I want to shave down the Green. We've already seen in Bant Spirits that you can have Green be wildly minimal - perhaps only a mana creature and Collected Company - and still have it be worth it. For me, in this deck, I think this is just such an example.

If I'm going to cut out Bosk Banerret and Elvish Visionary, what are the immediately obvious replacements?

First, we start with some brainstorming. Are there any Shaman (or Elemental) creatures that we'd be interested in getting in the deck?

To be good enough, they'd have to be working toward the general goals of the deck; in this case, we're looking at an aggressive deck that uses Collected Company and Rage Forger to accomplish a lot of surprising damage. Keeping this in mind will keep certain cards out of the mix. Ashling the Pilgrim is a super-cool card, but it doesn't really make much sense in the context of what this deck is hoping to accomplish.

Another thing to remember is that we want some fundamental principles of the deck to continue to function. We could replace all of the removed cards with three-casting cost creatures, but by upping the curve too much, we could fundamentally shift the power of the deck. Lean and mean makes sense.

Metallic Mimic
This eliminates some really cool Shamans. Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh seems really cool, and also very likely to flip in this deck, but at the same time, do you really hope to be flipping a Chandra? Pyrewild Shaman doesn't seem effective enough. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is wildly cool but doesn't jive with Collected Company. Prophetic Flamespeaker seems quite intriguing, especially with some means to pump it, but probably isn't what the deck needs to do.

The original build of this deck had Metallic Mimic in it. This card is particularly exciting in combination with Rage Forger, and it already had an initial home in the deck. I'm compelled to place it back in, especially because I do think it increases the aggression level of the deck.

Rix Maadi Reveler makes for a semi-analog to Elvish Visionary. Going up to the full four seems completely reasonable.

This still leaves some room, and we've lost a few neat tricks the deck used to have (Spikeshot Elder and Pendelhaven used to be in the deck, for example). One possible way to reintroduce this element is Stonewright, a solid little card that can do a lot to increase the damage output of the deck, and has a great combo with the little Goblin.

Another card I find myself wanting to find room for is Stigma Lasher. As both an Elemental and a Shaman, the card can be searched for with Flamekin Harbinger and also gains the benefits of Shaman-hood from the multitudes of other cards. In a way, this is a bit of pre-sideboarding, but there are a significant number of decks that include relevant lifegain in the main, and an almost vanilla 2/2 is still relevant in this deck when all of the synergies are considered.

Mana

The mana feels like it is just slightly off to me.

First of all, this is a Collected Company deck. Most Bant Spirits decks, for example, only play a maximum of three lands that can't cast Collected Company on turn four.

Take this as an example:


Zodiacek, like many players, minimized the count of cards that might cause a stutter in the playing of Collected Company. Unlike the Shaman deck, this deck has the benefit of mana acceleration so that a Botanical Sanctum or Seachrome Coast could help cast a Collected Company the turn it is played through the assistance of a mana dork like Noble Hierarch.

Shamans has no such card (though it could use Rattleclaw Mystic to help in this regard).

It helps that we're reducing the color requirements for Green, but we don't want to go so far down that path that we start failing to be able to cast Collected Company at all; at least some degree of caution is necessary.

One possible space to dip into is a choice I've used in the past with decks like this: Reflecting Pool. Especially when joined by other multicolored land, your options get pretty impressive pretty quickly. Unclaimed Territory and Reflecting Pool make for great pals, and as long as you don't have too many Reflecting Pools, you can usually easily power out your spells.

The typical counts on Reflecting Pool tend to be one, two, and four. One is the safest, and unless you are supporting a massively multicolored mana-base, you probably shouldn't go to the larger numbers. Four is all about being five-colors, and this is only barely three, so we can keep it pretty simple.

The First Revision

All of this brings us to the "first revision":


There are some other paths that this deck could go down. Perhaps the deck wants to be a full-on four Metallic Mimic deck. Perhaps the deck would actually prefer to jettison the Black in favor of a return to the Green that Caleb had started as. Perhaps, using the Unclaimed Territory/Cavern of Souls/Reflecting Pool package, the deck could fully embrace more colors (probably requiring Mana Confluence as well).

When you get surprised by a crazy 5-0 deck, but you sense there are some things you should do to play with it, it is important to be thoughtful. Decks can get lucky and just win, but if you presume that the pilot had no idea what they are doing, you could ultimately change the deck into a shadow of itself.

Speaking as someone who has seen people lose with shadow-versions of his own deck, I'm here to tell you, make sure to tread cautiously on changes.

And whatever else you do, when you find the time, play that original list to see if you missed something.

- Adrian Sullivan

Follow me on Twitter! @@drianLSullivan

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