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7.5 Thoughts from GP Vegas


I was lucky enough to attend Grand Prix Las Vegas this last week and it's taking some time for things to get back to normal. I didn't sleep much, I ate like a barbarian, and I played too many games of Magic to count, from Cube to Battlebond and, yes, even some Commander. Lots and lots of Commander. I won a few games and lost a lot more and generally had a great time meeting people who were fans of this column or Brainstorm Brewery or EDHREC and wanted to sit down and play some cards. 75% deck-building isn't for everyone, but a lot of people came up to me in Vegas and told me something I hear quite a bit -- they were always building this way and I was just the first person to give it a name. It's gratifying to me that I get to feel like I tapped into something unspoken that a lot of people were feeling but never articulated. My 75% theory as it has developed over the course of this series is far from perfect, but I think it resonates with a lot of people, especially people in the situation I often was in Vegas -- a pod with 3 strangers with various levels of competitiveness and no idea what anyone else was playing.

Since I got to play more Commander in a week (I went for a whole week, how could you not?) than I usually get to play in the other 51 weeks in a year, I had a lot of epiphanies that I normally spread out over a longer time period condensed into a brief, frenetic window and I want to make sure I get them all committed to text before I forget any of them. I have some notes from the weekend about Commander in general and 75% building specifically and I'm going to share them and maybe even ply you all with a decklist at the end. Here's what happens when I cram a year worth of games into one crazy week.

1. I don't update old decks enough

Golgari Guildgate
I keep about 10 decks together at any given time and a few of the newer decks I have built are 90% finished, unsleeved just sitting on the corner of a desk, waiting for me to care enough about them to buy the mana base they need. This means when I haul decks to a GP, I'm hauling 10 decks that I built when I knew less about deck-building and was less dissatisfied with a janky mana base. I don't consider my Prossh deck 75% because it has tutors and infinite combos in it but I can't really play it against decks on the top end of the spectrum of decks you're likely to face from an unknown opponent because it has cards like Golgari Guildgate in it. If I want it not to be 75%, which is fine because not all of your decks need be, I shouldn't have a mana base with a ton of lands that come into play tapped. I haven't updated the mana of the Prossh deck since I built it using the precon and a box of EDH staples I had in a box I traveled with to GP Montreal years ago. I built the mana for the deck in a hotel room from a box of scraps which is kind of admirable, especially since the deck wins so much, but even Tony Stark updated his arc reactor. I'm not saying the mana base of a deck is as important as a giant magnet that keeps pieces of shrapnel from going through the walls of your heart and killing you, I'm saying it's more important than that.

There are plenty of new lands the Prossh deck could benefit from, and I picked them up in GP Vegas. Out goes Gruul Guildgate and Rakdos Guildgate, in goes Spire Garden and Luxury Suite. Out goes Evolving Wilds, in goes Ash Barrens.

It's not just the mana, either. There are plenty of new spells that need to go in the deck such as Torgaar, Famine Incarnate. Maybe you update your old decks, but I sure don't and since I have about 20 decks in various states of disrepair and only carry 10 decks with me, I should make sure the ones I'm taking with me are up to date. I can probably find a better card for Prossh than Druidic Satchel. Vegas reminded me I need to spend some time updating old decks rather than just building new ones, especially if I don't even bother to finish the new ones.

2. Ruination is the perfect 75% spell

I don't really like Mass Land Destruction in a situation where the person who does it doesn't have a way to win the game. It's miserable for a game to drag on forever because everyone was nuked back to the stone age but was otherwise unscathed, and if that Armageddon follows a Wrath or Shatterstorm for everyone's rocks, it's even worse. Winter Orb is a card I don't particularly care for, either, but at least that lets you use rocks and it lets you save up to do something and puts everyone equally behind, except the player who knew it was coming and cast the Orb, I guess.

Ruination solves everything I don't like about Armageddon and it takes care of a pesky problem that I see a lot and will discuss later. You benefit by being a deck with a lot of basics (I tend to like a lot of basics in my decks because I really like cards like Perilous Forays and Boundless Realms) and you also set other people back but not out of the game unless they have a greedy, expensive mana base. Blowing up Gaea's Cradle to keep someone from going nuts but leaving them basic Forest so they aren't just drawing and discarding every turn for a few turns seems like a good balance to me. I was aware of Ruination and I may have even mentioned the card in a past article but I am really beginning to come around and view it as important rather than just acceptable. Ruination solves a problem without creating another one and I think that makes it worthy of a second look in a few of my decks. Not only that, Ruination is one way to deal with the fact that . . . 

3. People don't deal with Lands enough

Field of Ruin
EDHREC's creator, Donald Miner, was in Las Vegas with me and it was great to meet him in person finally as well as see his deck-building style for the first time. I was far from the only person to have lots of epiphanies in Vegas because he realized almost all of his decks had a lot of Stax cards in them. That's fine, but it's funny to see someone realize that they had deck-building "tells" they weren't consciously aware of. I have a lot of my own as well and, luckily, dissecting my own lists when I started this project helped me figure out why I built the way I built and if it meant anything.

Don won a game against some EDHREC fans and told me about it later. One of the participants in the game was a little disappointed that he lost the game to a large Exsanguinate. I get it. It's not the most whelming way to lose a game and it feels like you were deprived of the opportunity to interact with the win condition the way you could a creature or artifact or fragile combo. But did the table really lose to the Exsanguinate? I used to study to be a Forensic Scientist and I learned that Medical Examiners use two different terms to describe a death, the cause and the manner. The cause of death in this case may have been Exsanguination but the manner of death was suicide -- leaving a Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth alone for multiple turns is basically suicide in Commander because Black decks have lots of fun ways to use a ton of mana like Exsanguinate, Pestilence, and giant Demon creatures with powerful abilities.

Strip Mine, Dust Bowl, Ghost Quarter, Tectonic Edge, and Field of Ruin are all colorless and can go in any deck. Being able to deal with a pesky land like Reliquary Tower or Serra's Sanctum can keep you from losing a game and is much less oppressive to everyone than a poorly-timed Armageddon. Everyone does a good job of remembering to deal with mana rocks but sometimes lands can generate far more mana than any rock, so it's important to remember to be equipped to deal with lands, too and it never hurts to be reminded of that.

4. I underrated a few Battebond partners

Regna, the Redeemer
Krav, the Unredeemed

I got the chance to draft Battlebond several times over the course of the trip and it was a blast. Sealed is a fine way to build it (GP Vegas even had Battlebond events that were sealed and gave each team an entire box to build their decks from. The matches looked a lot more like Brawl than like Limited) but drafting two cards from each pack and trying to keep a balance between the two potential decks is a great challenge and a lot of fun. Since it's better to be lucky than to be good, one of the drafts I ended up with Ley Weaver/Lore Weaver and Regna, the Redeemer/Krav, the Unredeemed in the deck. I will admit I slept on those last two because of their high mana costs and how inconsequential it seemed to be to make two measly tokens on a turn where you had to find a way to gain life. I need to go back through and look at every "partners with" pair again because I think I underrated a few of them. Regna and Krav are likely still too expensive (Krav is going in my Prossh deck, though -- the deck can use more sac outlets and card draw). Pir and Toothy are still pretty boring to me because while they're strong, they're also nothing all that new in terms of what Simic always does. Pir, though, should probably go in Atraxa decks and other decks that could use a Hardened Scales that can put a counter on any kind of permanent, not just creatures.

Not only did I overlook some of the pairings, I feel like I overlooked the usefulness of a few of the cards in the 99 of a deck where they can do some work. Battlebond is basically being overshadowed already by M19 previews and people are starting to get over drafting it and boxes aren't all that attractive so we could be seeing Battlebond prices on singles start to go up, soon. I'd get what I needed from the set and that could mean testing out a few partner cards to see if there is anywhere you could use them. I slept on a few and maybe you did, too.

5. I like cool interactions and tend to forget the basics

My current favorite deck is Rubinia Soulsinger Enchantress. You play a few Enchantress spells and then start casting spells like Treachery, Mind Control, and Take Possession. You beat them with their own creatures while Enchantresses keep your hand full. It's a lot of fun to play and it's very frustrating for fair, creature decks who find themselves robbed of their win conditions. The problem was that when I finally played against 3 players, all of whom ran a lot of combo elements and very few creatures, I realized I didn't have any other way to win the game. I run Plea for Guidance and any two enchantments I could go and get were just more of the one basic strategy. One of my deck-building weaknesses is that I really like to load up on redundant ways for the deck to do the thing the deck does. That's OK, but I don't tend to leave much room for the basics that every deck should have. I have a tendency to cut Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves because they bore me, but there were plenty of times I found myself wanting a creature to have haste or Hexproof/Shroud, or both. Basics are in the deck for a reason and decks should have a few boilerplate inclusions. Decks should have ways to draw extra cards, enough land, some mana rocks, some ways to protect your Commander if the Commander is central to the deck's win condition and the deck should have multiple win conditions. It's fine not to run Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood in a deck with Plea for Guidance but I don't think it's the end of the world, especially since that combo gives players time to deal with it. Rubinia can't run those spells, but it could run some manner of win condition, even if it's Helix Pinnacle.

I like how the deck runs most of the time, but I played it 5 games in Vegas and that was enough times to run into a pod I couldn't do much against. Even decks whose win condition is dozens of ways to steal their creatures needs a way on its own to close the game out and ways to protect its permanents.

6. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

People miss things. I have my own bias going into deck-building, I have a finite number of things occur to me regarding any given deck, especially when I have lots of other decks and there are only so many online resources for any given deck. Playing with a lot of people outside your playgroup can help fill in some of the gaps. Getting together with a regular group is fun and it's my favorite way to play Commander but it does limit you a bit. You get in such a rut with a regular playgroup that I don't advocate building a 75% deck for a known meta since you can just tailor your deck to your friends.

Playing with unknown people not only lets you make new friends (sometimes, depending on whether you play Winter Orb or Exsanguinate) it exposes you to new tech. It could be as simple as seeing someone running Warp World in their Krenko deck and it could be as complicated as seeing someone running Repercussion and Blasphemous Act to deal you 260 damage after you resolve a Warp World in your Krenko deck. Play groups are great but insularity is an issue we need to be conscious of and getting out there and meeting new people can really broaden our deck-building horizons.

7. Just take the deck apart

Sometimes decks just don't work. You can try to optimize the mana base and include unfair cards like Mana Crypt to help you get far enough ahead that the deck's inherent weaknesses will be masked by sheer advantage, but at the end of the day, sometimes a deck just can't hack it. A few of my "chosen ten" are getting permanently decommissioned this week and their parts will be cannibalized by other waiting, incomplete decks or they will be buylisted to buy other stuff. It doesn't benefit anyone for you to have a deck you never want to use. Do you have a deck that you keep lugging with you but every time you're about to play a new game, you ignore or pass over every time? If you have a deck you don't ever want to play, maybe it's time to give something else another spot in the rotation. If you have the opposite problem, maybe it's time to build a new deck because you're bored with the old one. Either way, I wasn't giving myself permission to take apart decks I didn't really like and that was a problem. Having an influx of cards that were previously tied up in a boring deck can be exciting and is way better than keeping together a deck you don't like anymore out of stubbornness. I'm officially retiring my Nath deck because I always seem to dump my hand and can't quite seem to keep it full despite running multiple Collective Unconscious effects and cards like Phyrexian Arena. I'm taking apart Vorel Hydras because it's my worst deck and it no longer has the benefit of being my pet deck now that I have another (awkward and getting reworked) deck in Rubinia and I'm taking apart Kydele/Thrasios finally because I won every game I played with it and enjoyed winning none of them. I'll have some open slots for stuff to include in their absence and I'm excited to build new decks, especially with M19 finally making Crucible of Worlds cheaper for me like I've been wanting for years.

7.5. I promised a decklist

I recently updated my Riku deck to make it Temur Energy and while that could be OK in Brawl, it's not going to cut it anymore. I had another idea for Riku -- jam a bunch of alternate win condition cards into one deck and see if you can win with any of them. Here's what I came up with.

Riku 3.0 -- Commander | Jason Alt

This is a pretty rough draft and it's similar to a deck I built before, but I think this is going to be a lot of fun. I'm going to build this deck next, with the pieces of the decks I'm taking apart. It's going to be pretty gratifying to repurpose some cards that were languishing in unused decks and turn them into something new and exciting. This deck has lots of ways to win including Mechanized Production, Biovisionary or Kiki-Jiki combo with Pestermite or Zealous Conscripts. I even jammed our old friend, Helix Pinnacle in there to join Hellkite Tyrant. This has a lot of ways to win that I don't think interfere with each other.

That's all for me this week. It took a week of intensive playing of Commander to jog my imagination and give me some lessons to spend the next few weeks digesting so while we are looking at M19 previews and speculating about what will be in Commander 2018, I'll be thinking about ways to improve the 75% theory and my own game in general. Thanks so much for reading, as always, and next time we're at the same GP, come say hi and play a game or two with me. I promise I'll have lots of new decks by then. Until next time!

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