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Posted by on Nov 25, 2017

Giving your deck an identity

Giving your deck an identity

In a lot of ways this article is going to be an homage to someone who continuously inspires me, and I assume a lot of others—Gerry Thompson. No matter what you choose to spend your time obsessing over, whether it’s sports, Magic, esports or exercise there will always be minds that push the collective dialogue and that push your personal dialogue.

When it comes to Magic, and more specifically writing about Magic, Gerry pushes my dialogue. His articles, decklists and podcasting are the single most pronounced voice in the back of my head when I’m participating in that oh-so-therapeutic inner-debate about what the 60th maindeck card should be.

Gerry recently wrote an article about how he feels like he’s been getting his edges in Magic, and one of his major talking points was the concept of velocity, and I’m going to attempt to build on that. Not because I think that he’s wrong but because I think there’s value in localizing ideas so ManaDeprived’s readers can get some of Gerry’s advice and because as a writer I feel obliged to contribute ideas to the Magic hivemind. Gerry obviously inspired me, and by contributing to his perspective hopefully someone else can contribute to mine. Pay the knowledge forward, or something.

To start, here’s Gerry’s take on velocity:

“Velocity is the rate of which you see additional cards. Velocity, in essence, is about card flow but not necessarily card advantage. Having more options, which is why you typically want to use your higher casting cost spells first, so then you have more options on subsequent turns with your cheaper spells.

Gaining velocity helps give you more options, especially since it leads to you making most of your land drops. Having more options allows you to react favourably to a multitude of situations, which means you’ll rarely run into a situation you can’t handle.” via StarcityGames.com

In short, I agree with everything he’s said here. But I’d like to build on it, because I think there’s more going on with this philosophy that really gets to the heart of good versus bad deckbuilding. I believe that gaining velocity not only gives you more options but also should alter the impact of additional cards in your deck in a way that contributes to an overarching theme or sub-theme of your strategy. More simply put: not only should casting a card increase your options if you’re looking to maximize velocity, but it should also increase the quality of the impact of more cards in your deck. So with each passing turn, your deck gets better. Think of this like the various gems and coins you collect in video games, while completing one task (casting your spells) you contribute to a larger goal and can one day purchase that giant sword you’ve been saving up for.

I think this is a quality that you can strive for with all of your decks, midrange decks in particular. So, I’m going to walk you through a couple examples of what I mean from various formats and then we can take it from there.

Temur Energy, Shahar Shenhar- 1st Place Grand Prix Portland

Energy is certainly the most obvious way to show you the way velocity can and should contribute to a larger overarching strategy. It’s pretty simple here, you cast Rogue Refiner you start getting some cards flowing and start ticking some dice up. Now, when you cast that Refiner, every Bristling Hydra, Whirler Virtuoso and Longtusk Cub in your deck immediately become more powerful. The text on those cards just starts to get amplified with each energy card you cast, and now your velocity is churning.

I think energy is a good place to start because while it does illustrate the core concept of velocity well, I also think its place in this standard format can also show the problems associated with a lack of velocity in a midrange deck.

Let’s compare the Shahar’s deck above with Team ChannelFireball’s Pro Tour Ixalan deck:

4C Energy, Mike Sigrist- Top 8 Pro Tour Ixalan

When I look at these two decklists, I think one of the key takeaways we can make about velocity and the topic at-hand is that it can wash out. When your deck has an energy theme, and your opponents does then the advantage you’re gaining by playing your energy spells does kind of disappear. Granted, you don’t just play more spells than them. For this reason, given everyone was playing energy, teams needed to find another way to find an edge in these mirrors headed into the Pro Tour.
If you both have energy in your deck, and you both play perfectly, and you both draw well these games are so often going to come down to who just draws and casts more spells. So where’s the edge?

Enter The Scarab God. Vraska’s cool, but God is the reason to have a swamp in your deck. This allows you to go from being a midrange creature deck in the mid-game that wants to hit infinite land-drops and cast big spells, but then later on you can still place value on your eighth land-drop that bolsters your Turn 80 play of The Scarab God where everything changes. It’s important to note that this wouldn’t be possible if the card wasn’t virtually unkillable because it wouldn’t make sense to make such an egregious deckbuilding change without being able to guarantee that if your draw it, you can enter a Scarab God sub-game.
The bottom line is that it is just so powerful to be able to say to your opponent, “I have something to do with my eighth land, and you don’t.”

Here’s a little flashback to help further this example:

BUG Midrange, Aleksa Telarov- Top 8 GP Pittsburgh 2016

When you look at this do you actually become the “heart eyes” emoji face like I do? This deck was at its core a beacon of every point I’ve tried to make so far here. Tireless Tracker is this GOAT of velocity like Gerry alludes to in his article, and gives you options early that the feed into your greater late-game plan of hitting land-drops to power-up The Gitrog Monster and Nisaa, Vastwood Seer. This deck didn’t flood, it wasn’t capable of it and everything worked seamlessly together. Even the megamorph package might as well be a metaphor for this article.
Early-on you’d be behind the powerful synergies of Bant Coco and you’d get back in the game by using all of your mana every turn and acrewing an incremental advantage that was insurmountable by Turn 10.

***

It’s with that phrase, “incremental advantage,” that I’m going to get off-track here for just a second. I believe that language is very important to being good at the game of Magic. The game is flooded with buzzwords and phrases like the one above and deciphering what you and others actually mean when you use them is a key skill to develop. I challenge you to think back to this article when you hear “I got flooded,” “incremental advantage,” “sub-theme” and “tempo deck.” Just try to take the situation you heard that in and apply these principles of velocity to the situation. Think about how you could have built or played differently to maximize the options you had and the way your cards worked together. Maybe, we’ll all win a little more.

***

If I was sitting in your seat after reading this far, I’d being saying to myself, “okay energy is powerful and I should reduce my ability to flood-out. That’s all great but I can’t possibly build this into all my decks.” It’s for this reason that I’m going to give you two more examples, but this time of deck that find more unique and less obvious ways of exploiting velocity.
To start Death’s Shadow:

Grxis Death’s Shadow, Dylan Donegan- 1st Place StarCityGames Baltimore Open

5C Death’s Shadow, Clay Spickelmire- Top 8 StarCityGames Cincinnati Open

Both iterations of the Death’s Shadow operate with two different ways of maximizing velocity throughout the game. The first is enabling Death’s Shadow. When you cast Thoughtseize within the context of this deck it’s broken and should be banned, the same goes with fetchlands. Because of the fact that every time you deal yourself damage you’re enabling the best card in your deck to be even better, you get to use card’s downsides as upsides — that is so powerful. The card Thoughtseize in your deck is just so much better than in a deck without Death’s Shadow, it’s almost impossible to oversell just how good that is. Velocity is the contributing factor to that feeling you get, you know the one, when they’re at 13 on Turn 1 and all they’ve done is taken a card from your hand, but somehow you just feel like more has happened, like your further behind– velocity.
Death’s Shadow also uses its graveyard as an engine in both versions. In Grixis it’s with card quantity in the form of Thought Scour and in Jund it’s with card types to power-up delirium. This is just another flex of velocity, they pass the turn with five cards in their yard and you know they now have one-mana Tarmogoyfs and one-mana Negates in their deck. Again, it’s just that feeling you get, when things are churning for Death’s Shadow like their deck’s juiced-up–that’s velocity.

One more, even more unique example:

RUG Delver, Jadine Klomparens- 28th Place StarcityGames Washington Open

These Stifle Delver strategies create their own special and more volatile form of velocity through tempo and resource denial. When you Wasteland your opponent’s land on Turn 2 the text in relation to the game on the copy if Stifle sitting in your hand might as well start glowing. This kind of velocity doesn’t give you more cards or more selection, but it does provide the overarching impact to your deck and the cards in it that I’ve been describing. It is also the reason why that stifle looks so bad on Turn 7 when they have four lands in play, because that underlying tempo strategy has failed.

How do I apply this to deckbuilding and will it ALWAYS make my decks better?

Abzan, Keith Capstick

Abzan Traverse, Keith Capstick

These two decklists do a very good job at answering this question. The first, is a fairly stock version of Abzan in Modern with a bunch of individually powerful cards that don’t necessarily work together in any specific way. The second is an Abzan deck powered up by the velocity associated with the Traverse the Ulvenwald package that I wrote about earlier.
The reason I think this is a good example, is because it shows you velocity and how you are able to add it to your deck, but it also shows that it doesn’t always result in a better deck. The Traverse deck needs things to go right to run at full speed, it’s worse against graveyard hate, there are less powerful cards like Mishra’s Bauble to enable it’s engine.

Basically, adding velocity to you deck is not guaranteed to make your deck more powerful, or win you more games, but I do believe the vast majority of dominating and format-defining decks are going to feature this kind of deckbuilding and that’s why when you build, you should always strive to incorporate it. I mean, doesn’t it just feel so good when you’re taking three or four game-actions a turn and your deck feels like it just crushed two cans of Red Bull, that’s what Magic is all about.

Like Keith’s articles and have the yearning to play some Magic? Whether your format is Standard, Modern or Legacy grab a couple friends and come out to Seneca College in Toronto next Saturday, Dec.2 to participate in our Team Trios Open !