Thanks to Anthony Alongi’s animals, the multiplayer world has plenty of terms for evaluating cards, but it has few terms for evaluating decks. Since I write so often about deck-building, for which you can’t say, “Eight rattlesnakes plus four gorillas plus five planktons,” and make a deck, I worked on the problem last June and wrote about it the one time to positive response. This is my streamlined, refined version of the Decktagon—a visualization of what your deck’s good at, aided by headings from Orbital’s self-titled Brown Album for reasons known only to myself . . . at most.
Planet of the Shapes
The first non-intro thing is to produce the picture. Here it is:
The perfect deck doesn’t exist. More realistically, a deck might look something like this:
Since decks have a fixed number of cards, no deck can do everything optimally; instead, you make tradeoffs in deck-building based on what you have in your collection, what’s in your colors, your group’s metagame, personal preference, and so on. The shape of a deck will be lopsided in some way or another, but that’s fine.
In order to understand the axes, you have to define Plan A—the primary win condition—for your deck. A burn deck’s Plan A is sending burn spells to the face. A reanimator deck’s Plan A is its biggest creatures. In Legacy, a Hive Mind deck’s Plan A is casting a Pact of Something-or-other with Hive Mind on the board. Plan A can range from simple to Rube Goldberg, but it’s whatever you’re building the deck to do.
The six axes of the Decktagon gain their context from Plan A—whatever that may be—like so:
- Power – How well does Plan A kill people? Door to Nothingness is high in power because its effect literally kills someone. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is high in power because it ends games quickly. Lightning Bolt is low in power because drawing your top card only leaves your opponent down a few life. Most players prefer Lightning Bolt to Door to Nothingness, but not because of power level; given the choice of pointing 3 damage or one game loss at an opponent, you’d choose the second. Power doesn’t care about practicality or ease of access; it cares about what happens when it works.
- Speed – How fast does Plan A show up? Burn decks are really fast since you can Lightning Bolt or Spark Elemental somebody on the first turn. Door to Nothingness is abysmally slow in most cases—so slow that it’s normally considered unplayable. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn normally is a slow plan, so decks featuring it usually try to cheat on the speed bit. Rampant Growth and other forms of ramp are designed to play as much as power as possible without taking the usual hit on speed.
- Consistency – How often does Plan A execute? Again, with burn, this is every time, since everything in the deck is a burn spell. Blue control, which usually aims for a power plan (some awesome finisher or another), increases its consistency with card-draw.
- Depth – What’s Plan B, and how close is it to Plan A? Is there a Plan C? If a white weenie deck’s Plan A is swinging with creatures and having Glorious Anthem, Plan B is swinging with creatures without a Glorious Anthem. That’s pretty close, and it conveniently runs the same cards. Primeval Titan fetching Kessig Wolf Run and Inkmoth Nexus gives Plan A (Titan plus Wolf Run) and Plan B (Nexus plus Wolf Run) at the same time. Any time you can say, “This deck has multiple angles of attack,” you’re speaking to depth.
- Flexibility – How does your deck attack other plans? Acidic Slime can enter the battlefield and take out a noncreature permanent while sitting around deathtouchily to handle a creature. That’s about as flexible as it gets. Multiplayer traditionally craves flexibility; I tend to favor other axes, but there’s nothing wrong with starting every green list with four Krosan Grips.
- Resilience – How does your deck defend itself against other plans? If your opponent’s plan involves Day of Judgment, you’ll be happy for that Dauntless Escort. Drogskol Captain, undying, and Creeping Renaissance are all Innistrad examples of resilience.
I listed them in this order rather than going around the chart because these six axes are in fundamental tension with their opposites. Normally, you have to pay good mana for power; this takes away from speed. Memory Jar and Megrim was so fast for its power that it received an emergency banning—read more here if you like. Similarly, consistency of Plan A is at definitional odds with having a Plan B. Flexibility and resilience aren’t as opposed as the others, but they’re about offense and defense, and since these usually show up as support spells, there’s only so much room for either. A deck good at one normally will have difficulty being good at the other, so they’re considered opposites.
The Decktagon’s best use is to figure out why your deck’s misfiring so you can determine how to fix it. Painting in broad strokes, here are some diagnostic tips.
Power problems are the easiest to spot. If Plan A involves Giant Warthog while your opponent’s involves Inferno Titan, in the abstract, you have a power problem. That can be compensated for on other axes, but the easiest fix is to find a better 6-drop.
Speed problems invoke the classic, “I would have gotten you next turn.” If that keeps happening to your deck, you could add ramp or lower your curve for starters. (If you’re building around specific irreplaceable creatures, you’ll probably need the mana acceleration). Remember: If that awesome card in your hand stays in your hand, it might as well be a tips and tricks card for all the good it does you.
Sometimes, convoluted decks run into speed problems when they need a specific sequence of events to occur. The individual pieces might be cheap, but the plan doesn’t come together because the mana isn’t meshing or because Plan A doesn’t receive enough fuel from the other cards. If Creeping Renaissance is your trump card, it needs to be the trump card for things that have gone to the graveyard; it won’t do anything if your permanents are good at staying on the board. Your plan might be solid, but it’s too slow because you’re waiting for too much to happen. Equipment and spare mana issues run the same way. This is different than a consistency issue in that your deck might lack the capacity to run at the desired speed ever.
But while we’re on the subject, consistency issues are easy to spot, but it normally takes a few games to get a handle on which way to fix them. All-in decks tend to have power and speed but lack consistency. I’ve been fiddling with Grand Architect to see if there’s a deck with it—other than with Heartless Summoning—in Standard, and consistency is the trademark issue with Architect decks. Plan A (use Architect and other blue creatures to ramp into awesome artifacts) has both power and speed, but unless all the pieces come to the party, there’s no party. I miss Augury Owl; scry 3 was vital for finding whatever I didn’t have at the time, be it an Island, an Architect, or an awesome artifact. As Ponder is not a blue creature, it is no Augury Owl for this deck’s purposes, leaving my dreams of a fourth-turn Myr Battlesphere too often in the pipe from whence they came.
If your deck’s a glass cannon (and Grand Architect runs into that, too), you can add Plan B (depth) or try to preserve Plan A (resilience). As with flexibility, what you need depends heavily on your metagame. A creature curve is basic depth, but resilience can help if Day of Judgment feels like the rule rather than the exception when you play. Undying has added a lot here.
Here are some past all-stars in combining traits. While the paradigm’s meant for decks, certain cards give good examples of these axes, so here they are.
Power–Speed – Doran, the Siege Tower. It’s Plan A for Doran Zoo and conveniently can come down on turn two. Also, Treefolk are cool, though the Decktagon sadly cannot measure that.
Power–Depth – There are few good cards here, but Wurmcoil Engine fits the bill. In the Engine’s case, the depth is also resilience, since they both come off the same death trigger.
Power–Flexibility – Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the most obvious example. The ultimate says, “I win,” and having three other serviceable abilities means Jace can help with whatever you need. The Brainstorm ability added consistency as well. Constructed rarely sees this combination, which is why it took a while for people to see the ban-writing on the wall. It wasn’t ban-worthy on the traditional axes of power–speed, but it was ridiculous all the same.
Power–Resilience – Wurmcoil Engine here, too, as discussed. If you can stand out on three axes, you get played without question.
Speed–Consistency – Magma Jet is a burn spell with scry. For burn decks, that defines these axes. The Scars of Mirrodin dual lands go here for most decks they’re in.
Speed–Depth – The best cards in this line also add something else. Dark Confidant normally is part of fast plans—adding consistency to the speed—but a 2/1 is okay depth, too.
Speed–Resilience – Viridian Emissary trades with a creature and ramps you in the process. That’s about as good as you’ll get here. I realize I’ve been naming a lot of expensive powerhouses rather than cards to help casual decks, but power and speed are the biggest deals to tournament players, so it can’t be helped.
Consistency–Depth – Fan favorite Krosan Tusker. Early cycling finds you a land and a card, while a 6/5 in the late game’s never bad.
Consistency–Flexibility – Puresteel Paladin gives consistency all the time, and it gives flexibility when you have metalcraft. Akroma's Vengeance goes here, too—hitting three types of permanents lets it hit opposing game plans from several angles . . . and the cycling’s a nice option.
Consistency–Resilience – Solemn Simulacrum is the poster robot here. It can add to consistency coming and going, and its normal use in combat is as line of defense.
Depth–Flexibility – Acidic Slime. Creeping Mold was already flexible, but adding a 2/2 deathtouch gives you even more flexibility while occasionally getting in for damage. Really, any creature that takes down a permanent when it enters the battlefield can go here—from Nekrataal to Kor Sanctifiers.
Depth–Resilience – Loxodon Hierarch offers a 4/4 body and two forms of resilience: life-gain and mass regeneration. Green normally scores well on depth because most of its plans involve creatures. If you’re like me and stick the Hierarch in a deck with Verdant Succession, you’re taking the Extreme Depth–Resilience Challenge.
Flexibility–Resilience – Like power–speed and consistency–depth, these are opposing axes and therefore have few cards on them. If there were an undying Clone, that would rule this category. As it is, Mimic Vat does a passable impersonation.
At least in some time zones, you’ll catch my article next Monday. (Yes, that was weak; I’m running out of song titles.) Until then, may you find the cards that, in context of your deck, fulfill multiple roles with aplomb. Almost any card is good in the right context; it’s finding that context that can bring the most fun as a deck-builder and player.
Feel free to ask for clarification or whatever in the comments, though you’ll probably get clarification before you get whatever from me. (Terms and conditions may vary. Void where prohibited. And by “Void” I mean the card Void.)