Endless Ranks of the Dead | Ryan Yee
What is a Linear Deck?
A linear deck is a specific variety of synergy deck. Like other synergy decks, linear decks have payoff cards that get stronger when combined with other cards in the deck. Linear decks are distinguished by the types of payoffs they are built around. Linear payoffs increase in strength with greater numbers of enablers. For example, compare two different payoffs for the humans deck in Shadows Over Innistrad, Intrepid Provisioner and Thalia's Lieutenant. The Provisioner, as long as it has a target, always provides the same fixed bonus. Whether your board has one human or five, you will be getting +2/+2. On the other hand, the Lieutenant's effect scales with the number of humans on your board, giving you five counters on the five-human board instead of just one. Both are human synergy cards, but the Lieutenant distinguishes between having humans and having a lot of humans, thus making it stronger the more linear your deck's commitment to the human theme. Linear decks take a few of this type of payoff and try to win by maximizing their effect.
Why Draft a Linear Deck?
The main reason to draft a linear deck is simply that they have a very high peak power level. A normal synergy deck will get only fixed payoffs, perhaps making its overall card quality about 1.5x as strong when it is working. A linear deck when built correctly can get much larger payoffs, making its cards closer to 3-4x as strong. This means that you can often go over the top of normal midrange strategies and get amounts of resource advantage that even good decks will have a difficult time coping with.
This higher power-level multiplier can also make cards which are bad to mediocre in other archetypes into cards that are good in the linear archetype. For example, most blue decks in Shadows Over Innistrad don't value the card Nagging Thoughts. You can often get them with 3-4 cards left in the pack even when there are other blue drafters at the table, because the peak power of that card is fairly low in a normal midrange strategy. If you are the UR spells drafter, the peak power of that card is much higher because it can generate extra value when cast and later from the graveyard. Because you care about cards that other people don't, you get to continue making meaningful picks later into packs than other players do.
So how do we go about drafting linear decks to gain these advantages?
Exclude Non-Synergistic Cards Entirely
In other kinds of synergy decks, you often play your synergy cards alongside filler cards that don't relate to your synergistic strategy. A delirium deck in Shadows might feature something like 3-5 cards with delirium, 3-5 cards that are explicit delirium enablers, and then 14-16 cards midrange value cards like Dauntless Cathar and Accursed Witch that have little to do either way with delirium. In a linear deck, you want to actively minimize this last category of cards. In very good linear decks, you will have about 0-5 value cards that are not contributing to the linear strategy. Compare these two undefeated decklists. I've divided each into three categories: enablers, payoffs, and value cards, and listed them in that order. The first list is a non-linear BW delirium deck, and the second is a highly linear UR spells deck.
Notice that the ratio between enablers and value cards is essentially reversed in the two decks. This is the key difference between a linear deck and other synergy decks. The linear deck cares much less about cards that don't directly contribute to its strategy, and should actively avoid them in the draft. The stronger the payoffs and the more of them you have, the more true this is. If your deck isn't quite getting there on the big payoffs, you can backdoor into playing more value cards, but the better your linear payoffs are, the more you should exclude all cards that don't fit into the linear plan.
Ignore Normal Pick Orders
That brings us to the second part of our plan of action for drafting a linear deck, which is to simply throw out what you know about the relative value of cards in the draft. Instead, the evaluation tool you want to use is how well the cards interact with your payoff cards. For example, in the format in general, Mad Prophet is a much stronger card and a higher pick than Tormenting Voice. Once you are sure that you are trying to maximize Rise From the Tides and Pyre Hound as your win conditions, this is no longer the case. Tormenting Voice's cheaper cost, faster deck velocity, and sorcery card type make it a much more desirable card for you, as it lets you cast multiple spells per turn and rapidly fill your graveyard with instants and sorceries while digging to your win conditions. In a good linear deck, you can happily ignore premium cards in favor of cards that interact with more of the payoffs in your deck because of the card power multiplier that we talked about earlier. If Mad Prophet is normally a 7 and Tormenting Voice is normally a 4, once we apply the 3-4x power multiplier, Tormenting Voice is clearly the better card. Don't be afraid to pass cards in your colors that you think are very good if they are not specifically very good for the archetype you are drafting. People often give the advice, "Don't draft cards, draft a deck." It's always good advice, but it's even better advice when you are playing a linear strategy. Your specific plan is much more important to you than any individual card's power level.
The Big Picture
Once you know what a linear deck is and how to draft one, how do you translate that into winning more drafts? Learning to draft a specific linear deck is about giving yourself a way to use the cards that your neighbors are not drafting. If you can identify that most people don't like certain support commons for a linear deck and they seem to frequently go late in packs, learning to draft that deck can allow you to have a good deck in a seat where you couldn't have drafted a good midrange value deck. Some linear decks are difficult to draft or are perceived as high-risk, and therefore a lot of players stay away from them, giving you an opportunity to move in. Be cautious of the opposite effect, that some linear decks are extremely fun and thus become overdrafted once they are known decks, but if you are seeing cards for linear archetypes go late, you want to be the one to reap the rewards. When looking at a set early in a format, go through the commons and uncommons and identify the linear payoff cards. If any of them seem like cards that could win the game on their own in a deck with 13-15 enablers, make a mental note of them. Then look for commons that are weak in other archetypes but strong with that payoff card. If you can find several connected cards like this, chances are there is a linear deck there that can be drafted. If the deck is good, learning to draft it when other people don't know how can give you a strong way to beat the metagame.