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Oscar Tan Doesn’t Like Your EDH Deck


This was Robby's first article on ManaNation, originally posted near the start of November 2010.

Sneak AttackBack in the early days of Magic, there was a theorist by the name of Oscar Tan. As far as I know, once he finished his law degree he stopped writing about Magic. If you ever want to see the building blocks of early Magic theory and card evaluations, I suggest checking out his work on StarCityGames.com (Trick, if he ever was on Mananation, you know I'd pimp it out here too, right?). He was a Type 1 enthusiast, before it was called Vintage, and created many theories that have since been combined with others or aren't taught as often anymore, which is a shame since I believe more people would benefit from these concepts.

EDH is not a Spike-oriented format, but why would a guy who hasn't written since 2004 (which might be longer than a majority of readers have been playing, scary thought), hate your EDH deck?

Don't worry; he probably hates my EDH decks too.

If you're looking for a deck list today, I apologize in advance, that's not going to happen. If you're not into theory and how you can improve your deck building skills, I suggest you skip over this (one heck of an introduction, "don't read my stuff if you don't like what I'm going to talk about"). While I'm not going to be going over mana curves and actual cost versus printed cost (both relevant, but not for this post), this is something I think all players should keep in mind.

One of the key components of Magic is deck building; it doesn't matter if you're getting ready for the local PTQ or wanting to throw down with your friends during lunch. Anyone can throw a number of cards together to build a deck. But if you want to make something focused, it's a little harder to do. It's also very easy to fall into that trap of focusing too much.

And he lays all this blame on Sneak Attack.

If you've never seen Sneak Attack or played against someone who's casted it against you, you'll look at that card and nearly want to order some of those right now (Hey, I'm good at this selling thing). Yes, this card is seeing play in Legacy thanks to the 15/15 Eldrazi that will wreck a board if it hits the battlefield. Sneak Attack is a very powerful card letting you cheat big creatures way before you could cast them and win faster. However, in Oscar's long winded titled post: You CAN Play Type I #137 - Back to Basics, Part XIV: Six Beginner's Delusions You Meet in Heaven, he talks about the Sneak Attack problem:

Be critical of cards that make a deck spectacular, but leave you with a whole lot of "dead" cards before it enters play.

That's right, Sneak Attack has two problems:

  1. You have to fill your deck with large/powerful creatures. If you don't, there's no reason to sneak them into play early. If you don't have those creatures in your hand, you have nothing to sneak and it sits there useless.
  2. If you don't have Sneak Attack in play, you can't put those large/powerful creatures in your hand because you can't cost them otherwise. So, those cards in your hand are now useless.

Yes, it's a horrible Catch-22; you live by the combo, you die by the combo. If you tailor your deck to do something, like putting your large creatures into play early, then if you don't have either of the two pieces, your deck doesn't work and you're stuck unable to do anything. Your opponents start to beat your face in while you sit there with a hand of unusable cards.

EDH has a unique way of getting around this problem: The General.

If your General gets killed, you can move him/her/it to your Command Zone and cast them again. It's with this concept of almost always having 1 piece of your combo together that players generally build around their General. In fact, there's a General that a good number of people hate when they see her because she's a great deal like Sneak Attack:

Jhoira of the GhituJhoira of the Ghitu1ru

Legendary Creature – Human

2, Exile a nonland card from your hand: Put four time counters on the exiled card. If it doesn't have suspends, it gains suspend.


By having Jhoira in play, one can suspend their high casting cost cards in their hand as an instant and get them 4 turns later. It's an undercosted powerful bomb once you get her out of the Command Zone.

And that's the key. She has to hit the battlefield and stick before you can use her.

While most casual players will roll their eyes and say, "Who cares, that's just Spike tournament-type thinking anyway," I believe that this is a very important lesson you should take a look at when building or editing your EDH decks.

Let's say that you do have a Jhoira deck; what Blue/Red/Colorless spells do you might have in there? Time Stretch, Inkwell Leviathan, Grozoth, Tidespout Tyrant, Stormtide Leviathan, Obliterate, Insurrection, Bogardan Hellkite, etc. What do these cards have in common?

They're all game-altering cards.

They all cost 8+ mana.

Experienced players will see that you have Jhoira and make you their main target. Suddenly, you'll be lucky if you General resolves, or even survives enough for you to suspend even one card. All of those high casting cards in your hand do nothing if you can't cast/cheat any of them.

If you're getting beat down, you can't cast anything, I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that you're not having any fun.

It's not like only your deck has that issue. I tend to get overly cute with one of my favorite Generals as well:

Sygg, River CutthroatSygg, River Cutthroat ubub

Legendary Creature – Merfolk Rogue

At the beginning of each end step, if an opponent lost 3 or more life this turn, you may draw a card.


With Sygg, the obvious thing it to have opponents lose life (remember that doing damage does cause loss of life). Black is very good at bleeding life one or two life a turn, but to reach that three is a little more difficult. Seriously, it's a odd threshold of cards you have when you have opponents lose 3 or more life in Black or Blue.

So, with my current build (All EDH decks are current builds since they can change all the time), I filled cards that have allowed me to do make opponents lose life. Subversion, Megrim, Liliana's Curse, Scepter of Fugue, Pestilence, Syphon Life, Bloodchief Ascension, all of them at one time or another can help with the 3 loss of life. Since so many of the Black spells that make opponents lose life make you gain it (like a lifelink effect), I put in Sanguine Bond, and Well of the Lost Dreams, to capitalize on the gaining life.

But if you noticed, these are all very small controlling steps. If I'm playing against decks that have fast, explosive starts or turns, I can be completely wiped out. While the deck is very synergistic if it doesn't have Sygg on the board I feel as if I'm constantly playing catch up since so many of my cards are devoted to my General working properly.

I suffer from the same problem as the Jhoira deck: if things aren't working, I can't do anything.

Sure, I've packed my deck with traditional good spells, but if you've ever played multi-player you know that sometimes that won't work (Abe Sargent wrote a great piece on this last week and I'll be covering it in a future topic). My sixth turn Duress doesn't look so hot against a board full of creatures. While that's sometimes the pitfall of having a 100 card deck, it can be avoided.

What to do? Do we stop playing EDH, or maybe if we didn't want to be this drastic, this General in particular?

Of course not.

As I've been reworking my decks since the release of Scars of Mirrodin, I always go back and see if there's something I can tweak about the deck to make it better. No, not more Spike-like, but better over all. I've needed to really work on my Sygg deck and with Oscar Tan shaking his head at my deck, I'm changing things up. What is the suggestion?

Have a back-up plan to win.

Your General isn't always going to be in the battlefield for you to mess around with; removal's common and stealing effects are so powerful. By having an alternate route to victory, you can quickly change your play-style and your decisions to help counteract your opponent's disruption. Players do (and should) pack removal to deal with your stuff (and that's something we'll discuss in a future column), so you have to be ready for it. Even though the General is a nice piece that allows you to almost always have an important piece of your deck available for you to play, you're not always going to have that other side of the equation.

With a back-up plan, it allows to still survive and compete while you're waiting for your real plan to set up. This practice started becoming more popular with the competitive constructed players when Cranial Extraction was printed (or Memorcide if you weren't around then). What that one card did was change the way decks were constructed. No longer where you trying to win by one way, but you have to follow the advice of Wu Tang Financial and diversify.

There are a great number of ways to remove the General from the battlefield that don't involve putting it into the Command Zone; be sure your deck can survive that. If your play group sees your Jhoira, they're tired of your shenanigans and decide they want to Oblation it, go a different route.

When they zig, you zag.

Your deck has to be able to run without your General because of this exact situation. It's not just a principal of deck building, but surviving and having fun. Players will think they have the upper hand on you when you're already adjusting on how to strike back.

My Sygg deck should have a back-up plan, but it currently doesn't. This doesn't mean that I'm tearing out all of my interactions with Sygg, it's just that I have to decide which ones help me out the best. Patron of the Nezumi is a great idea, a big beefy creature that also helps with loss of life. But if I don't have mass removal then it doesn't matter. That back-up plan, while cute, won't help me survive if Sygg isn't on the board. I need to find another route.

This idea just doesn't close itself off to Generals that don't attack, but ones that especially get into the red zone. Scion of the Ur-Dragon; Uril, the Miststalker; Lorthos, the Tidemaker; all off can have decks built around them as well and fall into that Oscar Tan realm. If you focus too much on them dependant on the battlefield you're opening yourself up to disaster. If you're playing a multiplayer game, each of those Generals only focus on one player when you attack, what about the other opponents? Surely, they just won't wait around for you to attack them as well (No they won't, and stop calling me Shirley).

I wouldn't.

I'd help your opponents take you down when you're at your weakest.

I love EDH decks with synergy since I believe that sometimes the sum of the parts outweigh the whole. Of course, that may just be the Johnny in me, but I believe that your deck should function together no matter if your General is on the board. Your back-up plan doesn't have to be completely different than what your General or main way of winning is; dove-tailing those strategies into each other are a nice touch. It all comes from having your options open and not relying on one card to be in your hand or on the battlefield.

Please note: never once did I say that you shouldn't play fun, casual theme EDH decks if you don't want to. Having an EDH deck is an expression of how you play, and I wouldn't want to take that away from you at all. Even though I offered advice that a competitive player said about a card that casual players love doesn't mean you shouldn't play with those "Casual" cards. All I ask you to do is recognize the downfalls when you have those types of cards in your deck. I highly encourage you to play your Ur-Dragons, your Jhoiras, your Sneak Attacks.

Don't be mad if I blow them up and leave you with a hand full of unusable cards.

Just beat me with your back-up plan.

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