Saskia the Unyielding | Greg Opalinski
Hello Commander fans! This week, we’re going to talk about the part of the game that is, in my personal opinion, the most fun - making a new deck. People brew for different reasons. Maybe it’s the thrill of discovering something new or the interaction with the community as you perfect your list. Maybe you just see a meta weakness and you want to take advantage of it. Regardless of the reason, there’s something satisfying about playing with a deck you’ve made yourself.
In traditional competitive formats, brewing is almost dead. In Standard, where each new block changes the meta significantly, there’s a fair window of time where the meta isn’t yet decided, but once people have figured out the top decks, it’s very rare to see a rogue deck do well at a tournament. In Modern, you occasionally see a new deck pop up, and there’s room for spicy brews especially at smaller tournaments, but it’s very hard to do well with them at larger events. In Legacy and Vintage, brewing is a lost art, and the vast, vast majority of tournament-placing decks are known quantities.
In Commander, new decks are affecting the metagame all the time. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is that the format is relatively unsolved - there are lots and lots of Legacy players, but relatively few that play EDH competitively. Legacy has also been played for a long time, so you only need to adjust for the once-a-year Legacy-playable card, and you’re in good shape. Competitive EDH has really only taken off in the past few years, and it gets playable cards all the time. We get new legendary creatures all the time who provide new possibilities - The Gitrog Monster is a brand-new additions that most agree will see play at top tables, and there probably will be at least one or two new top decks from the new commanders.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you can “brew” a deck that some people already play or whose commander has existed for a while. For example, you might try and perfect Mizzix of the Izmagnus storm. Even though a cursory look at the card suggest a storm build, and the storm build has been explored a bit, I would still say that it’s pretty open-ended and the deck is by no means solved. Through fine tuning, innovation, and introducing your original ideas, you’re still “brewing” a deck. However, you’ve already skipped halfway through the article! My next few paragraphs will assume that we’re building a deck from scratch.
There are two general methods I use to build a rough draft, which I will refer to as top-down design and bottom-up design. A top-down design will start with a certain goal the deck wants to accomplish, then chooses cards that will help the deck accomplish the goal. A bottom-up design is just the opposite - first, the deck’s “theme” or general pattern of synergy is collected, and the decks’ goals are decided from there.
If you already have a concept of what deck you want to brew, you probably have already selected top-down or bottom-up design. If your concept is “This combo is really cool! What sort of deck could make it competitive, and what cards would that deck have to include?” you’re building top-down. If your concept is “The artifact synergy in Izzet plus counterspell backup would make for a powerful midrange deck,” you’re building from the bottom up. The first step of a brew is to develop a concept for your deck and determine if that concept makes the deck a bottom-up or a top-down design. The answer will determine how you build your first rough draft.
If you’re a top-down design, your deck is inherently goal-oriented. Most of the time, your deck’s concept will be a win-condition or something that gives you a pretty unstoppable advantage. You’ll want to work backwards from there. What is the most efficient way to assemble your goal? What is the most consistent way to make sure you can always get the assembling card? These questions should be asked in context of what other cards are available to you. Addressing the critical questions first will give you a feel for where the deck is going, which will help you with the details later on.
Not so long ago, I was designing The Gitrog Monster. I decided that I was going all-in on the main combo, which requires me to have my commander, a discard outlet, and Dakmor Salvage. That meant including all the tutors possible, including things like Sylvan Scrying and Expedition Map. Playing so many land tutors meant that I would have consistent access to Bazaar of Baghdad. Similarly, I decided early on in the brewing process that I was going to be an Ad Nauseam deck. Making those decisions early on made a lot of later choices much easier. How much card advantage is necessary? Enough to keep my Bazaar active so I can activate it every turn. Should I play Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion as a backup combo? No, because adding two six-drops plus a seven-drop (Tooth and Nail) does not make for a good Ad Nauseam deck.
Bottom-up decks also answer the important questions first, but which questions are important differs. A bottom-up deck is going to come up with a general gameplan first. For example, a few years ago, I was designing a stax deck to prey upon my local metagame, which at the time was defined by creature-based decks. To slow the dorks-based decks down, I wanted to include four or five Wrath of God effects. This led me to three conclusions - I needed White in the deck, I needed to be playing a deck that doesn’t play its own mana dorks, and I couldn’t rely on my commander coming into the game early. I figured I’d brew a blue/white stax variant similar to Grand Arbiter or Brago. GAA4 and Brago both want to come out in the early-game to be effective, and both decks need consistent access to their commander. Since both commanders wanted to come out in the early game, and neither gave me the long-term utility I had in mind for the deck, I decided on Hanna, Ship’s Navigator. From here, the core of my deck had been decided, and the deck’s general gameplan started to take form in my mind. Start off by using fast mana to play stax pieces before anyone else can do anything crazy, put out some card-advantage permanents like Rhystic Study, take control of the midgame with sweepers and counterspells, and finally win by putting together cards that were useful outside of being combo pieces. Time Warp + Codex Shredder + Hanna activation costs a lot of mana, but the deck made the games last so long that it wasn’t unreasonable.
Now that you’ve got a good feel of what you want the deck to look like, start a list of cards that could be in the deck. This isn’t a rough draft, just a raw list of options. I generally start by looking at other decks with similar strategies. If I’m brewing Yidris storm, I’ll probably take a gander at Jeleva lists and note the cards that seem like they would work well in Yidris decks. Similarly, if I decide to make a Jund graveyard deck, I’ll start off by looking at successful Abzan, Sultai, and Golgari graveyard decks.
Now that you’ve got all the staples and the archetype’s must-haves, you’ll want to think about what is different about your deck. Often, this stage is just “what do I get out of splashing this color?” In the above examples, Yidris storm would add the best green ramp spells and cards that work well with cascade like Manamorphose, and the Jund graveyard deck would add Worldgorger Dragon and cards that synergize with their commander.
Finally, create a skeleton for your deck by deciding how many slots you want to dedicate to each role. First, how many lands should you play? A faster deck doesn’t need to make many land drops, so you can often get away with fewer than 30 lands, but a slower deck will want to be playing somewhere between 32 and 35. Next, divide up the remaining slots between various packages of cards - your kill cons, your removal spells, your card draw, etc. Go through the your of cards and fill out your skeleton.
Add your manabase and finish fleshing out the deck until you have your first draft. Right now, the deck is probably pretty bad. How do we improve it? Nothing substitutes for playtesting. If you built your deck to exploit a specific metagame, it’s much better to playtest within that metagame. If you can’t do that - maybe the metagame is an upcoming tournament or you want to keep your list secret for a league - playing against random opponents will have to do.
While you’re playing these games, try and make observations about the general deck composition, and about the efficiency of several of your gameplans. Maybe you have too many bomby topdecks that make your opening hands bad. Maybe you can’t draw enough lands to fuel your late-game. Maybe you keeping ending up with removal spells in your hand without a great target.
Whatever it is, noticing these patterns in the first games you play will let you cut some cards. When you know what cards you want out, go back to your list and find suitable replacements for them. I always keep an active list of all the cards that I would like to try out. Keeping such a list will keep your ideas fresh and will mean you’ll never have to think about what should replace a given card.
Finally, remember that a deck is a living document and is never finished. You’ll want to continuously adjust to an evolving metagame, whether that meta is your local playgroup or a wider audience. Keeping in contact with other people who play the same deck is a great way to get new ideas, so I highly recommend you look for a thread on MTGSalvation discussing the deck, and create one if there isn’t one already.
Thanks for reading.