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Building with Flavor

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Around the release of Rise of the Eldrazi, my small casual playgroup had a problem. Although we all loved playing Magic together, we were playing with decks of wildly unequal power levels. This was a big problem when our favorite way to play was three or four player games. It turned out, we all loved playing Magic in different ways, and some of us just weren't deck-builders or didn't have the budget (or desire) to buy singles to power-up their decks.

So what do we do? Do we let everyone get annoyed that the same decks (or the same players) are winning too often? Or do we come up with a more creative solution?

Why Build With Flavor?

Maybe you have a situation like I described above? Maybe you're bored of the way your deck currently plays? Maybe you just want to embrace your inner Vorthos. There are a lot of reasons to build with flavor, and all of them are good. The truth is, you don't really need a reason other than it sounds fun or interesting to you. A themed deck is one of the most popular kinds of decks - look at the success of Planeswalker Decks or Guild Kits. You'd be hard pressed to find a Commander group where a chunk of players don't love the characters commanding their decks as much as the deck itself.

What Is Building With Flavor?

My solution to the deck power problem was to start powering down my strongest decks by imposing creative restrictions on what each deck could feature. Instead of being the groan-worthy deck, it was one of my various theme decks. How you actually decide to go about this will ultimately be up to you, but there are some pretty simple themes most people focus on. Let's talk about a few!

Character Theme

A character theme is perhaps one of the easiest to understand and build (especially if you pick a big character). You can buy a ready-built character theme in a Planeswalker deck, but Commander and Brawl are also really good places for this kind of deck because, by default, you're picking a character to be the face of your deck. You could build a whole deck with only cards depicting Jace Beleren. Which character appeals to you in Magic, either from the art, lore, or mechanics? For instance, I like Saheeli, the Gifted a lot, and have her recent Commander 2018 version as one of my artifact deck Commanders. I like using Saheeli themed cards in it, even if they're not optimal. There aren't that many though, so I have to expand my flavor a little bit...

Saheeli, the Gifted
Sharuum the Hegemon
Krenko, Mob Boss

Plane Theme

Another easily understood and built themed deck is building around a plane. Many Magic players have a favorite plane (or two) and restricting deck-building to the sets taking place on those planes brings some interesting challenges. Using my Kaladesh example from before, sometimes flavoring to a plane means using alternate art like the Duel Decks: Elves vs Inventors Thopter Assembly rather than the Mirran version). Of course, there's no reason every card has to be set on that specific plane, but I prefer to have enough that it's obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Don't forget the basics from that plane as well!

Faction Theme

The faction theme overlaps a lot with plane or character themes, especially if the character belongs to a certain faction. A faction theme and a plane theme can look very similar, with some distinct differences. Let's say I wanted to build a Sharuum the Hegemon deck because I love the Esper theme. I wouldn't just be using cards from Shards of Alara, I'd be using a smaller subset flavored as taking place on or being from the Esper shard. Usually that's pretty obvious, it would be a poor faction set that doesn't make it easy to distinguish between them. For more recent sets, they usually include watermarks. The various factions from Alara, Tarkir, Ixalan, and Ravnica all have basics aligned with themselves. Even the Mirrodin basics show an obvious difference before and after New Phyrexia takes over.

Don't necessarily limit yourself to cards that are explicitly in a faction. It would be really painful in an Esper deck to include Thopter Foundry but not Sword of the Meek. An Izzet deck is probably going to include a lot of spells from outside Ravnica sets. Just include enough to make it clear to anyone that this is a deck based on your faction.

But what about factions that overlap in either play style, colors, or both? For instance, is it wrong to combine Dusk Legion and Orzhov Syndicate cards? Not at all! Remember, the goal for this is to be fun for you. You decide how far the theme stretches.

Art Theme

Of course, a flavorful deck doesn't have to take itself quite as seriously as restricting itself based on the lore. I see a lot of cute decks out there devoted to, say, only artwork that depicts a certain kind of object, like a lantern or a shield. This is a great way to bring some humor and whimsy to a game. Or maybe you love a specific artist and only want to include cards by that artists. There's even a whole casual format around that last one! Vintage Artist Constructed is a format popularized by known associate Mike Linnemann. Being able to build VAC decks is his one quirk, so check out the article I linked above if the idea of that intrigues you.

Of course, if you just want to build a Surrak Dragonclaw deck about punching things, that works too.

Tribal Theme

I'm choosing to include a tribal theme here because it's one of those weird fusions of mechanics and flavor that make Magic so much fun. We're not just picking elves or vampires or goblins because we like the mechanics, but because we like the flavor those creatures bring to the table as well. But when talking about a tribal theme, frequently tribal decks make a lot of off-flavor decisions. For instance, I'm a huge fan of Krenko, Mob Boss. It's my favorite EDH deck, to the point where I've even written the Krenko primer over at MTGS. It's obviously a flavorful goblin deck, but slowly over time I brought more and more cards that just didn't match the flavor. There's a lot of combo potential in a deck that focuses on untapping, and while Combat Celebrant is a great add mechanically... thematically it doesn't work as well.

I made the choice to remove some unflavorful corner cases like that to focus on the goblin theme of the deck. It didn't make the deck worse - the combo pieces tended to be long shots most of the time anyway in terms of getting all the pieces of the combo engine out. But overall I have a lot more fun when my deck focuses on making fun plays with crazy goblins rather than adding another unnecessary win con. Krenko can still grind your bones to bake his bread.

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Combat Celebrant
Zealous Conscripts

Story Theme

Relating to much of the above, another way to build your deck is have it tell a story. Maybe it's not just about one character, but an epic adventure? The adventures of the Gatewatch or the Weatherlight Saga tend to be great targets for this, but maybe the story you're telling is an original one using Magic cards. Maybe it's about the brave Knights who befriended rather than slayed their dragon. Maybe it's about the young lovers torn apart and reunited through necromancy. Having your deck tell a story through flavor and mechanics can be a fun way to express yourself, and then only limit is your imagination.

Outside Lore Theme

One of the most interesting ways I've seen people flavor their decks is using outside lore and expressing it through Magic cards. Dragon Ball seems to be a popular topic, and I've seen Surrak decks about Goku (that SMASHED their way through me, I'm looking at you Russel) and Experiment Kraj decks about Perfect Cell. Most of the cards in those decks are picked for their relation to a specific character or event in the outside lore. And even more fun, the card alters that go along with it!

Now, there are a lot of ways to flavor your deck, and I've only named the ones I could think of off the top of my head. But I think what most people are asking at this point is, I don't know the first thing about flavor. How do I do this?

How Do I Start?

There are a few tools out there to get you started, whether you're an experienced Vorthos or someone new to it and just wants a change of pace. The first and most important tool is Scryfall. Their advanced options are fantastic for tracking down lore references. Under their advanced search, near the bottom, are fields for searching by Artist, Flavor Text, and the all-important Lore Finder. The Lore Finder searches every part of a card for references, so if you don't want to have to do separate searches for every card that mentions goblins (in mechanical or flavor text), this can simplify things a great deal. Some of their other fields will let you search based on watermark and other flavorful characteristics, so play around!

The second tool is also from Scryfall, and that's the Scryfall Tagger. You want every piece of art that features a torch? Here you go. You want every piece of art a specific character appears in? You can find that too. Note that this is crowd sourced, so there might be things missing, but it's a fantastic tool to get you started or help you finish finding things that meet your needs.

The Gamepedia Wiki is another great resource, as most character pages include a list of cards those characters are represented, depicted, or referenced in. Many of them may also be on the Scryfall Tagger, but it never hurts to double-check. The wiki is another crowd sourced work, so the usual disclaimers to accuracy apply, but if you're building a Chandra deck, for instance, and want to pull from any plane she's visited, it can be a great tool for filling out your deck. It might even be the place you start, finding inspiration from the lore to build a deck.

What's Next?

If you're looking to even out your power level for a group, start with which theme you want to go with. Which direction does your deck already lean? From there, figure out which cards might not work as well with the flavor, and search for a version that does. For instance, if you've got a burn deck with a Chandra planeswalker, maybe lean into it a bit. Replace some of those Lightning Bolts with the Chandra art Incinerate. If it turns out you went too far into flavorville and now your deck can't compete, it's easy to experiment with how much flavor you can inject while still staying in your group's meta power level.

Ultimately, however, this is all about you. My own preferences are for decks that skew pretty heavily toward flavor or focus on an overarching theme, because if I don't I usually use too many degenerate tricks. But that doesn't mean yours have to. Maybe you've got a whimsical deck for when you're playing with newer people. Maybe you just have one super flavorful deck for your favorite character. Maybe building for flavor sounds stupid to you, and you hate this article and my face. All of those things are fine, so long as you're having fun!

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