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75% - What's in a Theme?


We are gaining some traction, readers. Submissions are coming in at a decent rate, and people who have been building 75% decks since long before the concept had a name are recognizing how some of their own tendencies can inform the project moving forward. I’d like to thank the EDH subreddit for their continued support and decklists—you guys are making this project possible with your continued input.

As much as I thought it would be a bit of a challenge to create a mono-colored 75% deck, it is likely to be equally tough to create a five-colored one. With so many cards to choose from, it’s hard to find only ninety-nine cards you want to play. Once you have a deck together, it’s hard to keep it from becoming overpowered as you tweak it—the only cards excluded from the deck are the ones on the banned list. With such a large card pool to choose from, how do you keep from the deck creeping toward 100%? Don’t get me wrong; having at least one 100% deck is something everyone should consider, but if we set out to make a 75% deck, let’s make a 75% deck. Is there a way to make a 75% deck that is going to stay 75%? Redditor Hibernian thinks he has found a way.

"Sliver Overlord Commander Deck"

  • Commander (0)

|1 Aluren |1 Asceticism |1 Aura Shards |1 Into the Wilds |1 Mana Echoes |1 Prismatic Omen |1 Training Grounds |1 Unnatural Selection |1 Wild Pair |1 Amoeboid Changeling |1 Basal Sliver |1 Blur Sliver |1 Brood Sliver |1 Clot Sliver |1 Crypt Sliver |1 Crystalline Sliver |1 Essence Sliver |1 Frenetic Sliver |1 Fury Sliver |1 Galerider Sliver |1 Gemhide Sliver |1 Harmonic Sliver |1 Heart Sliver |1 Hibernation Sliver |1 Homing Sliver |1 Hunter Sliver |1 Magma Sliver |1 Manaweft Sliver |1 Megantic Sliver |1 Mesmeric Sliver |1 Mnemonic Sliver |1 Necrotic Sliver |1 Opaline Sliver |1 Pulmonic Sliver |1 Quick Sliver |1 Root Sliver |1 Shifting Sliver |1 Sliver Legion |1 Sliver Queen |1 Synapse Sliver |1 Talon Sliver |1 Taurean Mauler |1 Telekinetic Sliver |1 Toxin Sliver |1 Two-Headed Sliver |1 Ward Sliver |1 Arcane Sanctum |1 Blood Crypt |1 Breeding Pool |1 Cavern of Souls |1 Clifftop Retreat |1 Command Tower |1 Crumbling Necropolis |1 Crystal Quarry |1 Dragonskull Summit |1 Drowned Catacomb |1 Evolving Wilds |1 Exotic Orchard |1 Forest |1 Glacial Fortress |1 Godless Shrine |1 Hallowed Fountain |1 Hinterland Harbor |1 Island |1 Isolated Chapel |1 Jungle Shrine |1 Mountain |1 Mutavault |1 Overgrown Tomb |1 Plains |1 Rootbound Crag |1 Rupture Spire |1 Sacred Foundry |1 Savage Lands |1 Seaside Citadel |1 Steam Vents |1 Stomping Ground |1 Sulfur Falls |1 Sunpetal Grove |1 Swamp |1 Temple Garden |1 Terramorphic Expanse |1 Watery Grave |1 Woodland Cemetery ">

How long have you played the deck?

I built it this past fall, so I’ve played it for about six months now. I took my wife to go on The Price Is Right for her birthday, and we received some gift cards for being in the audience. She was able to spin the big wheel on national TV, and I bought a new Commander deck.

Is there an existing principle of 75% deck-building this embodies or is there one you think we should create?

It's difficult to adhere to normal 75% deck-building rules when your commander is a tutor on legs. So one thing I did to skew away from consistency is not run any tutors for the other card types necessary to combo out. So perhaps an add-on to the consistency rule might be: If your commander creates consistency in one area of play, skew further away from consistency in other areas.

Apart from just aggroing out with Slivers, my other win conditions are either big, splashy spells like Primal Surge and Titanic Ultimatum or combo pieces like Mana Echoes and Ashnod's Altar. The spells are vulnerable to being countered or, worse, stolen. And the combo pieces require multiple cards to "go off" and are difficult to dig for. It turns every Commander game with this deck into a mini puzzle game, in which I have to respond to both my opponents' board states and my own draws.

Titanic Ultimatum
Mana Echoes

Another thing to consider is that I truly went tribal with it. A lot of people start with a tribal theme such as Slivers, Goblins, Elves, or the like and then start replacing those tribal bits with stronger creatures and better "good stuff" so the deck is only half-tribal. Look at most Sliver Queen and Sliver Overlord combo lists, and huge portions of the decks are just standard, five-color combo pieces, such as Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker with Pestermite and a bunch of tutors. By sticking to my theme, I did reduce the power a bit, but I increased the fun. So perhaps a new rule I could propose for the 75% deck-building is: Stick to your theme, even if it reduces your power level.

A great example of that is my friend's Kangee, Aerie Keeper deck, seen here.

Every card in the deck is either a Bird or depicts a bird in the art. It's seriously among the most fun decks to play against in our playgroup, so I imagine it’s pretty fun to play with, too, and it definitely adheres to what I'd call 75% deck-building rules.

Kangee, Aerie Keeper
Sliver Overlord

How is this deck received by your group when you play it? Are you winning roughly 1 out of every X games, where X is the number of players?

At first, people groaned a lot about the idea of me playing Slivers. Even the people on reddit gave me a hard time about building Slivers at all. They provide so much value on each cast, and so many Sliver decks are noninteractive combo decks that people weren't happy to play against.

But once I played a few games with it, people seemed to enjoy seeing the deck at the table. That's not to say they ignore me. Sometimes, if I come off to a good start, I end up as the table archnemesis and playing one-versus-three. But I actually win less than my fair share of matches, and that's okay. The times I've almost won before someone strikes back to eliminate me have made for the most fun and memorable games I've played with the deck.

Would you say this deck can beat 100% decks through power or consistency?

This deck can certainly win games against 100% decks through power and consistency if my early draws are solid. I've had games in which I hit Primal Surge for half my deck and won the game on turn five thanks to an early Ashnod's Altar giving me the mana I needed to cast it. But those moments are rare, and the nice thing about winning that fast is that we can just shuffle up and play a second game immediately.

Primal Surge
Ashnod's Altar

Right off the bat, Hibernian discovers on his own a new principle we can add to our list: If you build around a theme and stick to it, you’ll naturally avoid skewing too far toward 100% because you won’t be able to add the most powerful card in each slot.

Now, when your deck is a Ramirez DiPietro pirate deck with Coastal Piracy and Dancing Scimitar, you’re going to be a 50% deck if you stick to the theme. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that is how it is. Some themes lend themselves to being durdle decks, and there is nothing you can really do to improve them without deviating from the theme too much. However, if your theme is Slivers, sticking to a theme is going to make the deck naturally gravitate toward 75%, and I think I know why.

Ramirez dePietro
Bubbling Beebles

A pirate theme or a card-art-with-pictures-of-Beebles theme is going to require you to play cards that are disparate and are united on odd criteria that are not related to how the cards play. But if your theme is tribal, what you sacrifice in not being able to select the most powerful cards from all of Magic, you gain in synergy. Synergy is what makes a Slivers deck so good: Each additional Sliver adds to the power and complexity of the Slivers out there. Picking the best cards within the theme is not going to feel so limiting because, when you’re building around synergy, the best cards within the theme are the best cards in Magic.

The other cards in the deck become support cards to the theme, so while you could add any combo you wanted because your deck is five colors, the cards that will help most often are the ones that serve the theme. Final Judgment is a very good Wrath in Commander, as are Decree of Pain, Supreme Verdict, and Merciless Eviction. However, you can hit them harder than you hit you by selecting Harsh Mercy. While those other cards are better in a vacuum, and your color selection allows you to run them if you’d like, Harsh Mercy is better for the theme and therefore an excellent 75% card. It’s more powerful in your deck than it is in general, which makes it skew above 50%, unlike other, weaker Wrath variants, but it’s not objectively the most powerful Wrath ever, making it skew below 100%. A card that is best in your specific deck is a great 75% card. I think Patriarch's Bidding, Mana Echoes, and Distant Melody are excellent examples of other such cards. Mana Echoes especially is finding homes in tribal and themed Commander decks lately, and its price has doubled to $6 in the last few months.

Patriarch's Bidding
Summoner's Pact

In the same vein, the subject of tutors is a bit less murky when your tutor targets are themed cards. I think “face-up” tutors are generally preferable to “face-down” tutors. In his article about tutors that inspired the Mayael installment of this series, Bennie Smith said he didn’t like the concept of secretly digging through your deck and making everyone wait for you to do something secret. I agree that this is a feature of Commander I don’t like as much. I will argue that a commander like Sliver Overlord that is essentially a tutor with meat hooks dodges the two main pitfalls associated with tutors. The first we talked about already: Face-up tutors that allow your opponents to see what you’re tutoring for are less antisocial. The other pitfall is that using tutors is going to make your deck skew a bit too powerful.

I feel a build like this can dodge that second pitfall and that this specific build does. I said in the Mayael the Anima article that it’s not tutors that are inherently “bad” for Commander or that they are inherently not 75% cards, it’s all how they are used. One way to make sure tutors aren’t abused is by limiting the range of cards the tutors can go find. That is why I am in favor of using Worldly Tutor to stash an answer on top so that you can put it out there with Mayael but am not in favor of using Demonic Tutor. A card like Sliver Overlord can tutor, but it’s going to tutor face-up, meaning its power is attenuated by the information you give the table, and it’s also only capable of tutoring for Sliver cards. This means the power level is limited inherently, which means you can find the exact answer you need to help you win a game against 100% decks, but you won’t durdle every turn while making secret plans and ruining the experience for everyone against 50% decks. Sliver Overlord is only as good as your deck, and since we skew toward synergy rather than raw power, it’s only as good as your board state and what it can do to improve it.

Demonic Tutor

Not only that, but Hibernian mentioned that he took special care to avoid using any other kind of tutor—and not just because the deck doesn’t really need them. Cards like Sliver Overlord, Goblin Recruiter, Moggcatcher, and the like seem to be very good 75% cards. These cards can upset the power–consistency balance, but since you are limited in the scope of cards you can fetch, they aren’t going to make the deck overly powerful, and sometimes, skewing toward consistency can help the deck in its 100% matchups if the power level of the deck is limited the way a theme deck is. In your 50% matchups, you aren’t likely to need to use the tutoring unless you’re in danger of losing, and that means that if you start annoying the table, you did so by choice. A build with roughly the same power level as the other decks, but with more synergy, shouldn’t need tutors to win, it should do it by accomplishing the deck’s aims.

Alternate win conditions in the form of big, powerful spells are fine in 75% decks. With no way to tutor for Titanic Ultimatum or Primal Surge, these are cards that will likely pop up in 1 ÷ X games. Having the occasional oops-I-win moment isn’t counter to the 75% philosophy; like Hibernian says, people just shuffle up and are glad you can play another game quickly. If you don’t have those cards overly often, people will chalk it up to a lucky top-deck, not to an unfair deck. Titanic Ultimatum is a nice finisher in that regard because it is a bit of a win-more and won’t really pull games out of the toilet, meaning no one is going to become too upset if you wrap up a game you were winning anyway. Titanic Ultimatum is good at breaking up board parity, and I like it a lot. Besides, if I think Insurrection is a fine 75% card; I certainly won’t object to the occasional Primal Surge.

Harsh Mercy

After the first few installments, our list of guiding principles was:

  • Scalable spells help tailor your cards to the power level of your opponents' decks.
  • Always start weak and improve the deck—never weaken a better deck.
  • You can skew toward power provided you skew away from consistency.
  • It is better to punish everyone equally for doing something rather than prevent them from doing it.

Let’s add one more

  • Building around a theme will keep the power level from skewing too high.

With all that in mind, I think we can wrap things up for the week, and I’ll let you chew on some of the conclusions we came to this week. I am still very eager to receive feedback from players in other communities than just reddit, so if you have a deck you think is a good example of the 75% philosophy, send it in. Also, if you have a deck you think is either too far above or too far below 75%, I think we are coming to a point at which we’ll have enough principles lined out that we can start suggesting some changes, so send decks like that in, too.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to tell me in the comments section if you agree or disagree with our list of principles or any conclusions we’ve come to so far.

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