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Two Case Studies in Tweaking a Deck


Sometimes, you like a deck, but it just isn't quite what you want it to be. "I should fix this!" you think.

Monkeying with a deck is tricky business. Decks tend to be filled with some degree of 'technology', and they function through an interrelated number of strange pieces that, perhaps, you might not understand. Hall of Famer Bob Maher has often told me one of the real difficulties of my decks for others is that there are subtle choices that other people don't understand the intricacies of, and so they tend to not squeeze every little inch out of a deck I've built.

He said that about my Pro Tour Top 8 deck for Dragons of Tarkir, and he said it about this deck, which took me back to the Pro Tour after a bit of an absence:

I loved this deck. I was dispatched quite skillfully by Jadine Klomparens in the semi-finals playing Black Devotion, a deck I'd beaten three times in the Swiss. But so it goes.

Looking at the list, above, there are a great many 'fun-ofs' - single copies of a card - and if you decided you liked my deck, you might think, "I know what I'll do, I'll streamline the deck!" A lot of people did this, cutting out one card like Celestial Flare for another copy of a card that was an analog for it, like Last Breath, or dropping a Render Silent for another Dissolve.

In this case, this is one of those rare lists where I'd say to them, "No, any change to this main deck would be wrong." In the sideboard, there was room to play, but in the main deck, I feel like I had it perfectly well set up.

Compare that to this Jund deck that I gave to my friend David Williams; this is a deck from way back in the day, for Invasion/Planeshift Constructed at Pro Tour Tokyo, built with Brian Kowal and some help from Dustin Stern:

Yes, that is a 20-card sideboard. I'm a big fan of trying to 'overbuild' decks, where you push beyond 60 and 75, and then pare down for the environment that you're in.

Here's what the deck ended up looking like.

Jund Midrange ("BRg v.3.3") | Invasion/Planeshift Constructed | David Williams, 3rd Place, Pro Tour Tokyo

So, the biggest change that David made was moving the Terminate in the board to the main and replacing it with Scorching Lava; for me, I'd included main deck Scorching Lava because I'd come to the opinion that Crypt Angel and Pyre Zombie would be big cards in the format - both cards that cared about the distinction between a graveyard and exile. As Maher would later tell me, they shifted these over to Terminate because, "Maybe if everyone dived deep into the format, they'd get as subtle as that - we want the power of 'kill it all'."

Fair enough.

This change also necessitated another change: going further into Terminate meant that the mana needed to be a little more stable on Black, hence an Urborg Volcano replacing a Shivan Oasis.

The other change was one I tried to talk them out of: Void.

Void was a card that was 'fine', but mostly underwhelming. I'd started out working on the deck with four Void, but over time, I just kept dropping it down. At the very end I was down to one, but I had them in the sideboard, specifically because of decks that were "anti" decks, because Mike Hron had developed one such deck (a much rougher version of what Zvi Mowshowitz would win that Pro Tour with, a Blue/White barely Aggro-Control deck called "The Solution". After playing against a few anti-rg decks, I came to the conclusion that Void was necessary, but only because it answered the otherwise unanswerable, and mostly it wasn't good enough. David would later tell me that his decision to include the card was his biggest regret, because there weren't decks to use it against profitably.

Later, however, The Solution would be common enough that Void became necessary.

Much of the rest of the sideboarding involved cards that were designed to exploit the metagame they expected, fair enough.

Shortly thereafter, Williams would end up in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Moscow, entirely cutting the Green, and finding room for Shivan Zombie. Later, long after that format, after Apocalypse was introduced, Brian Kowal and I were walking around Madison in an insomniac jaunt all over the city, and we were discussing the deck. The format was over, but we just can't help ourselves. That decision that Williams made to include Shivan Zombie was intriguing, but, ultimately, we still felt it was wrong. Then one of us - I think Brian, but I can't recall - stopped dead in their tracks as we walked.

"Holy @&#^%,!" one of us exclaimed.

"What?" the other asked.

"I know what the card was! What we should have had in the deck!"


"Thunderscape Familiar."

There was stunned silence. Then the other person - me, I think - said, "Yeah. Damn. That was the card."

Thunderscape Familiar

Innocuous though it was, the aggressive decks were full of X/1 creatures and would absolutely struggle against a 1/1 first striker, but more importantly, the deck itself was hungry for more copies of mana acceleration. Nightscape Familiar was "the good card", but more cards that did what it did were important. Casting a turn three Blazing Specter mattered.

Now, months after the fact, the format essentially 'dead', we'd figured it out. We'd played that format extensively, and we'd played the subsequent format extensively as well. But it was only now that we saw it.

I share this story to pose the question: if two people steeped in a format, both of whom made decks in that format that became mainstays, only figured out what small tweak to make in a deck much later than was relevant, how much confidence should you have that glancing at a decklist, you know what it takes to make a change?

For Williams and Maher (and a slew of other Pro Tour luminaries of the time), the changes they made to the deck weren't made at a glance, but were made with the benefit of a large team working together, the pooling together of a lot of experience, and the hard work of testing. I still think they misstepped slightly (Void) and they improved the deck (Terminate). But it took work.

To me, the lesson is simple, and it's one I've held to for a long time:

Don't change people's lists until you've tried them, unless you think they've made an egregious mistake - and if you think they did, really, really, really think it through before you change it without testing it.

Now, that is an ideal solution, of course. Given a lack of time, maybe you'll need to skip ahead. But you need to know that when you do that, you could well be making a very serious error. Likely a lot of thought has been put into deck decisions; this isn't always true, but it usually is.

Let's take a pair of examples.

First up, one of my current favorite decks in Standard:

I love Levunga's deck.

My initial thought about the deck was that I didn't care for it only running three Chemister's Insight and no other large card draw spell, whether it was that fourth Chemister's Insight or something else, but this was a minor quibble.

I played the deck as is.

I could have sarted making changes sooner, but I decided to just hold off until enough time had passed. A deck like this can win with any old thing, and if it just ran Callous Dismissal, that would be painful, but it would be enough, such is the power of Scryb Sprite Recursion. I liked that it included a main deck Nissa, Who Shakes the World as a means to both finish the game and accelerate the mana.

And as time passed, I grew to resent the Callous Dismissal.

Yes, it could finish the game, but so could Nissa. Going through the possibilities, I thought, "What would be the cost of cutting Callous Dismissal?" I came to the conclusion that there were some corner cases - mostly exile effects, be it from Kaya, Orzhov Usurper on a Nissa in the graveyard, or more direct causes like Vraska's Contempt or Despark. After thinking this problem through, I realized that even without countermagic, holding back to use a Blink of an Eye would be sufficient to protect a Nissa, or, barring that, another card could be used as an alternate finisher, like, for example, Hydroid Krasis or Lazotep Plating, or, in Scryb Sprite Recursion fashion, anything, really. (Though that being said, some choices aren't ideal.)

My final version of the main deck was basically exactly this main deck, only with two Blink of an Eye, instead of a one/one split between Blink and Dismissal. The sideboard I shifted this way and that, with only Biogenic Ooze being a constant, but that main deck, wherever it came from, was basically as I found it when I saw Levunga's list.

On the other hand, let's take another list I saw and then ground it out with just today.

Okay. This is an exciting and strange deck.

The first time I saw it, I imagined this as a kind of Big Jund Midrange-Aggro deck. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized just what a metagame deck this is.

Teferi, Time Raveler

This is an anti-Teferi, Time Raveler deck.

Not only that, it is a deck that preys upon a world of deck where they very well might not have a creature in play. Demanding Dragon is a truly cruel card in a creature-light world. Moreover, it is a card that comes paired with a lot of potential pain - five damage is nothing to laugh at!

Once I had that frame in mind, the Viashino Pyromancer began to make a little more sense, though I wasn't in love with it. As a body, 2/1 is a bit anemic at 2 mana, especially if it isn't backied up by a lot of faster cards, and this deck was coming over a bit more slow and lumbering.

As I looked at the deck, it began to occur to me that this deck was basically a new build of the "top-and-bottom" Red I liked in Theros Standard that I'd played in my Barely Boros Aggro deck, back before uw Control was fully ripe. Demanding Dragon and Stormbreath Dragon weren't analogs, but they did decidedly have a bit in common. The big difference was that this deck ultimately started on the second turn, which meant it could never put someone on the back foot from moment one.

Were there ways to solve this? Perhaps. The cards that came to mind meant stretching the mana more, but were both in the realm of possibility; they were Warriors, which meant Unclaimed Territory could help. Pelt Collector and Gutterbones might add to the potential speed, but probably not in a good way - the cost would be their relative weakness to Teferi, Time Raveler.

Goblin Motivator also came to mind, and actually held a lot of appeal, despite the massive diminshing returns on the card.

Also in the mix in my mind was Dire Fleet Daredevil, which wouldn't help push the damage plan, but might be a better choice than Viashino Pyromancer.

As I contemplated these choices, playing the deck was truly intriguing. The Rix Maadi Reveler definitely had me thinking about Jody Keith's Big Rakdos deck that he used to win Grand Prix Memphis. Cycling through the fun-ofs in the deck that weren't appropriate felt fairly powerful, but it mostly felt powerful because I was getting rid of a card that wasn't great at the moment. They still felt right somehow, but I wondered how much of that was because "getting to the good stuff" was helping so much, and how much better the deck might be if it just had the good stuff.

Still, I wanted to examine the power of the most powerful cards, and the damage they could muster. Demanding Dragon was warping my thoughts, and while I didn't want to be swung too wildly by it, it was definitely having an effect.

While the cheaper creatures were a struggle, I found myself hating all of the Planeswalkers, even though, in other contexts I'd had liked several of them. They just felt too weak for what they were doing in a deck that could hit so hard.

I still haven't finished, but here's what I've come to:

So what was it that I shifted around?

The first thing is that I wanted to have a little bit of haste in the deck. I started out with a single Goblin Motivator - the only number that doesn't have diminishing returns - and a single Rhythm of the Wild. The Rhythm of the Wild surprised me in how powerful it was, but it also made me feel horrible when I drew it in multiples and didn't have an otherwise powerful draw. Eventually I was inspired to add in Ilharg, the Raze-Boar after it beat my head in while I played another match and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it interacted with my many enters-the-battlefield effects, and after dropping a Demanding Dragon into play with it, I was sold.

I vaguely streamlined the instants. Ultimately, I think about three Shock-like cards are correct, and I'm open to running a Carnival // Carnage over one, but perhaps it should be another. I want to run another Collision // Colossus, but over time have felt like the extra Lightning Strike is a necessity.

Shaving the 2-drops to find room for a pair of Dire Fleet Daredevil felt good, but I still feel like I must be missing something. Is it Zhur-Taa Goblin? Is it Dreadhorde Butcher? I'm not sure, but it is distinctly possible that the card I'm looking for doesn't exist.

Most of the deck is pretty intact as I found it, though, despite my initial feelings that I was going to have to strip it down and start over, and in spite of that, I'm still not certain that the instants weren't better as KO_Mak had them.

The important thing, though, is the approach: you need to respect that there may have been a reason that choices were made, and take some time to delve into what they were going for before throwing it aside. I don't know if this deck is correct, but I do know that every game that I played Rekindling Phoenix into Demanding Dragon, it felt very cruel, and I feel like an aggressive shell could well make use of these two cards together.

You won't know these things until you play them out. Changing a deck is tricky business. If you just rip out pieces without understanding why they work, you could be ripping out the heart of the technology that makes a deck the powerful machine it can be.

- Adrian Sullivan

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