Fundamentals of Deckbuilding part 1

A (not so) recent Twitter poll revealed this topic to be one many wished to see explored. I refer to deckbuilding not only as the practice of constructing a deck from scratch, but tweaking or tuning an archetype/variant in reaction to a change or metagame. In the case of tuning over creation, each fundamental should be applied as ‘does this still apply?’ so one can still refer to this guide in those cases. This is Part 1 as a nod to the fact that this has been nearly finished for ages, the fact I don’t know everything, and as a backdoor if I forgot anything.

 

Having a Plan

Usually this is pretty intuitive. In a defined metagame it’s a lot easier, for example – ‘a Crusader-based aggro deck that wins before Conscription or Ox and can go underneath current aggressive decks’ or ‘a Yellow control deck that has an edge vs the other slow decks.’ In an undefined or new metagame, control will be a lot harder because you don’t know what you’re trying to control, thus the threats you’re answering so it usually begins with ‘what is the quickest clock I can assemble that doesn’t completely fold to resistance.’ There is the more adaptive, like ‘Nix Ox Assassin got killed by the nerf, I wonder if the ramp and tutors in Telvanni are good enough’ to the experimental ‘let’s jam good cards/synergies in a deck and see what works.’ The latter is accepting that you don’t really have a plan, and Vivec-willing, one eventually presents itself. Otherwise, having a plan is a great place to start and at times, return to.

 

 

The Curve

A curve refers to the distribution of magicka costs in your deck. There’s certainly an entire article (or more) that could be written on the subject, but the basic idea is that you want to be advancing the aforementioned plan as early as possible and continue doing so each turn until your eventual victory. An aggro deck for example, wants to always play a 2 drop (and most midrange too) into a 3 then a 4 (or 2 2s.) Presenting threats ‘on curve’ advances your game plan and hopefully denies your opponent the chance to advance theirs (playing Tree Minder or Indoril Mastermind) and requires them to instead answer your threats. If you don’t play enough 2s then you’ll curve out in fewer games and be easier to either race or control. For reactive decks the same is true. Having a wide range of answers at varying magicka costs allows you to answer threats at any stage of the game. The flip side of this is having too many expensive cards. Not enough and you have no late game, too much and you’ll die with Alduin in hand :p. ‘Too many ‘ is of course an imprecise way to express it, so in lieu of demonstrating my poor maths skills I’ll give an example (Thanks to Karakondzhul for this). Using this calculator I determined that in a 75 card deck, the chance of drawing a 2 drop 5 turn 2 is 75% for 18 2 drops, 81.6% for 21 and 86% for 24. I’m not a huge fan of odds calculators but you get the idea. There are great decks like Mid BM or old Uprising Scout with awful curves, but it’s still a very lens to look through when deckbuilding.

 

 

1, 2, or 3?

I have a great love for super tight lists with all 3ofs, and for the most part I think it’s correct to do so for cards that are part of the core strategy. If you don’t want to draw the card very often, why is it in your list? I’m thinking it might be more useful to list reasons why one might choose to play 1 or 2 copies. Because you don’t want to draw more than one is a very valid reason, but the why of that has many reasons. In some cases you never want to draw it. Looking at you, Laaneth.

  • You’re playing a toolbox deck and have a lot of cycle/recursion. Mummify, Shadowfen Priest or Hallowed Deathpriest in Shout Scout fit the bill perfectly.
  • You have ways to tutor (search from deck.) Mentor’s Ring in Nix Ox is a fine example of this. Sure some folks run more than that, but when you’re comboing, Laaneths are involved so acquiring that ring is easy while reducing the likelihood of drawing it naturally.
  • Curve considerations. Karakond’ single Triumphant Jarl is this. You only ever want to draw one in a low curve deck. Aspect of Hircine is a 1 or 2 in many mid bm lists. 3 would probably be too many – it’s a bastard to draw early.
  • It’s conditional. Triumphant Jarl fits here again. If you’re behind it really sucks (more than usual.)
  • Redundancy. Let’s say you run 3 Reverberating Strike but want 4 or 5 of that effect. Enter 1 or 2 copies of crushing blow, and boom! You’re way more likely to kill Cornerclub Gamblers before they draw cards(for example.) Same goes for other very similar cards. Piercing Javelin/Cast into Time(though 3 of each seems good right now), Emperor’s Blade/Hive Defender, Steel Scimitar/Dagoth Dagger.
  • Some of the above reasons, but also for a slight edge in open decklist tournaments, to force them to always play around it.
  • Testing purposes. When you’re trying a new card you want to draw it more often. 3 can be too much for a tech card or narrow tool, and 1 can be too slow for gathering data.
  • Diversifying threats. We live in a Cast into Time world. You don’t want to find yourself without a way to win, or handicapped cos your deck is built around 1 card (ordiniran Necromancer) so having a few 1s or 2s can help alleviate this weakness.
  • You don’t own 3 copies. Incomplete collection is real for many. Make do the best you can 🙂
  • Space! As much as this rule is broken, I assure you that deck space is a finite resource. Play the minimum number of cards, and sometimes your flex slots will lead to adding 1 or 2 of a card.

 

Synergy

Synergy refers to cards and interactions that work together favourably, or get better due to each other’s presence. An obvious example is tribal strategies. A 0/1 MurkwaterGoblin  is pretty trash on face value, but when used in tandem with other Goblin cards they reach critical mass, providing an effect stronger than the sum of its parts. Token producers with Fervor/Fifth Legion/Resolute Ally. Breton conjurer with wards and ways to break them. Tower Alchemist/cauldron keeper and supports. Get this right and reap the rewards. Dependant synergy has its downsides too though. Don’t draw Murkwater Skirmisher? Nice Goblin deck! It can lead to needing to draw the right cards at the right time, where ‘good stuff’ decks like Tribunal Control aren’t broken up so easily(unless they have WHC.) The Dagoth ‘5 power matters’ mechanic is a simple one to grok. You have cards that benefit from having a 5 in play -Ash Berserker, Awakened Dreamer etc and in addition to creatures that have 5 attack naturally, you run Scimitar, Morkul Gatekeeper, Crown Quartermaster to help turn them on. It’s much harder to break up this kind of synergy because you’re getting rewarded for what you want to be doing anyway, playing big creatures and leveraging continued value from them. The better your cards work together, the more powerful and streamlined your deck is going to be. Synergy alone often isn’t enough though. You want your cards to work well alone too. There’s a reason Blighted Werebat sees no play.

Quadrant Theory

This is an method of card/interaction analysis. I find it useful for determining a card’s value and considering its inclusion. The four quadrants are – good early, good late, good when ahead, good when behind. It can be a little reductive but sometimes that’s needed.  A critical mass of cards from any one quadrant will usually lead to an inconsistent deck, and cards that live in multiple quadrants are among the best and most versatile cards in the game.

 

Building around the Mulligan (Credit to Emikaela for this paragraph)
This is related to curve and to quadrant theory, but could deserve its own section. It’s useful to keep in mind what your ideal opening hand looks like (in general as well as in specific matchups) and build the deck in a way that produces that kind of hand as consistently as possible. For aggressive curve decks this is not very complicated, you just want to open with threats that you can play using your magicka efficiently. it gets more involved with slower decks built around synergies. do you intend to hold word wall in your shout based control deck? better make sure you have plenty of ways to draw into those shouts then. you could also plan to hard mulligan for (= throw back everything but) a small number of cards, and adjust the rest of the deck to accommodate that.

 

Netdecking

When I was a lot younger, I had a huge sense of netdecking elitism. I could only be satisfied if I won with something I made. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to forge your own path and succeed with it. It’s also exceedingly rare. But when I dispensed with that nonsense ( and believe me, it is nonsense) I started winning a lot more. More importantly, I started learning a lot more. Most netdecks have been through hours and hours of testing and hundreds of games. Playing every netdeck that you can not only helps you defeat those strategies, but playing an optimised deck will teach you how good decks function – thus informing your own deckbuilding skills. After you get to know that deck you start to tinker with it, or even take some lessons learnt into your own brews. By all means build your own decks, but if you want to achieve a well rounded knowledge base and skill set, netdeck hard. Finally, whatever you do don’t look down on people that do play meta decks. Some don’t have the time, resources, ability or inclination to make their own, and you just sound like a wanker. By all means take pride in your own creations; it’s very rewarding; but stick your judgment up your bum. It’s harmful and discourages people from learning and sharing.

 

Perseverance

At the risk of sounding like a self help guru, perseverance is a prerequisite. It takes a ton of work and does not come easy. Your drafts will suck and you’ll lose a lot. Sometimes shelving an idea and returning to it after time has passed (or new cards released) will get those brew juices flowing (gross.) Sadly you can expect to get some emote spam if you’re trying something offbeat too, so prepare thyself and push through it. Give up on Slay Scout though. It’s not going to happen. :p

 

Running a Gauntlet

Personally I mostly test on ladder. If I want to get multiple games in vs one deck my lovely teammates are happy to oblige (and vice versa). More useful when preparing for a big event – develop a gauntlet of the most popular decks and run through them all. That’s what you need to beat so if it’s comin up short you’ll know quick sticks. It’s hard to get enough games in to offset variance and confirmation bias, but more on that later.

 

Redundancy

Something I touched on earlier, redundancy is the practice of having cards that fulfill the same purpose. The Reverb strike/Crushing blow example holds true. Doppelgänger and Divayth’s experiments are tools to the same end. Even Ordiniran Necromancer counts, as, aside from its other benefits it lets you play the same card multiple times without having multiple copies. You may only have 3 copies of Indoril Mastermind, but with Necromancer you can play a lot more than that. It lets you have a greater chance of being able to advance your gameplan each turn, whether that is running your opponent out of cards by trading resources too they have none left, or in the case of scimitar/dagoth dagger, make more favourable trades/dodge AoE/turn on Ash Berserker. While it is of course sometimes correct to take no action in a turn, we all know the sting of doing nothing while your opponent advances their plan.

 

Greed

Most of what I could say about greed has been touched on already. I see it as playing late game cards at the expense of being able to defend yourself, for the most part. It’s a trap too. Greed is often used to describe something you just lost to, though it is useful to look at your deck through this lens. I haven’t made up my mind on the best way to evangelise about greed yet, but this Twitter thread has a lot of opinions worth parsing!

 

Checks and Balances

These are questions I find it useful to ask myself before playing a deck or when trying to improve it. If your goal is to find the best version of a deck you can, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny. These aren’t hard and fast rules but they’ll be useful.

 

Is this a worse version of something else? Why don’t you just play that if so? Sometimes you can’t help it being true. Let’s say your tournament lineup is telvanni control and tribunal control, and you’re considering Mage control. Mage is in almost every way a worse version of tribunal, but if you have a workable build then it can be hard to ban you out. If you didn’t have tribunal control there at all though, you might want to ask yourself why.

 

Am I achieving what I set out to achieve?

It’s nice to check in, see if you’ve stayed the course. This being untrue is no great crime, as decks can morph into something else altogether but ask it anyway. This is most closely linked to Having a Plan.

 

Meaningful data set/intuition

It is difficult to get enough games in to truly test each choice, especially in 75 card decks. That great bottleneck, time, makes fools of us all. Don’t focus too heavily on win rate, stats, or numbers in general and instead try to temper it with intuition and experience. We’ve all seen it, or been guilty of it – ‘I went 15-2 with this, therefore it’s good.’ There is no practice more harmful than relying on results alone. Having a good win rate with a deck can be *one* indicator of a good build, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Intuition is honed by experience. There’s a whole article (or more) that could be written on this, but just as the best player doesn’t always win the tournament, the best deck doesn’t always win. 

 

Can I upgrade any choices? AKA maximising utility.

This can be as simple as recognising that Phalanx Exemplar is a strictly better Dren Bodyguard, but I like the Crushing Blow/Reverb Strike example, yet again. One has a higher ceiling when it comes to controlling the board, the other can go face. Depending on the metagame you’re in, one can be better than the other. I used to have Eclipse Baronness at 8 and Paarthurnax at 12 in Telvanni Nix Ox, but it became quite obvious that Ancano was a better 8 and after the Drain Vitality nerf and the rise of Conscription, Odaviing became a more useful 12. Maybe it always was.

 

Other people’s opinions

This can be a tough one to navigate. In our team we have a system where we post decks we’re working on in sections for that class/house and I’m fortunate enough to get feedback/be asked many of these questions which helps immeasurably in getting decks we work on to a better place. Not everyone has this luxury of course, but there are many people you can talk to who’d be delighted to give feedback. Most streamers are very helpful, and I know I’ll help if I have the time. The flipside of this is that humans are very fallible. We have a tendency to shun the experimental and sometimes the feedback you receive should be taken with a grain of salt. But realistically if you’re seeking advice from others you’re on the right path.

 

Accepting bad matchups

Sometimes a matchup will be so bad that you have to sacrifice too much functionality to improve it. An example of this is Control vs most Combo, but particularly Telvanni Nix Ox. Keep at it, of course, but sometimes you just have to focus on what you are trying to beat and accept that you’ll likely lose that matchup (or ban it in tournaments.)

Am I dying with x in hand?

Full credit to Emikaela for this one. One good way to weed out extraneous cards is to take note of what cards you have in hand when you die, or what you consistently don’t have time to play.

 

That’s all for now. Remember that as helpful as these ‘rules’ are, throw them out of the window whenever you like. Sometimes that’s how innovation happens. It’s more of a ‘break the rules once you learn them’ kinda deal. Disagree with me? Think I missed something? Want clarification? Shoot!  Feedback is most welcome and hopefully we can keep learning and publishing the theory together. <3

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1 Comment » for Fundamentals of Deckbuilding part 1
  1. pimliOprentiss says:

    Thanks for this article. I get extremely frustrated in not being able to put together enough wins to rank higher (currently stuck on mage). Wins definitely aren’t everything, though. I have incomplete collection and less time to play than I’d like. Most important, I’m going to follow your advice and netdeck to see if that opens us some new knowledge of play. Experience level is low for now.

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