Monday, December 30, 2013

Monday Magic - Building a Standard Deck (Budget Red Deck Wins)

While traveling for the holidays, I decided to check out a Friday Night Magic event at a game shop near where I grew up.  Unfortunately, when I looked into FNM venues, it seemed that none of them featured any drafts, and I had never played standard in a sanctioned event.  Determined to attend an FNM at a new place, I opted to put together a cheap deck just to give it a shot.

I had wanted to build a hyper aggro deck for a while, so this setup seemed to be the perfect opportunity to make it work.  As this is the first competitive deck I've really tried to put together, I thought I'd describe the design process in some detail.  I'm not much of a deckbuilder, but it might be a nice jumping off point for further discussions, and it might be fun to see the evolution of a novice deck designer.

The basic premise is simple: Overwhelm your opponent early in the game, forcing damage through with quick, efficient creatures, sprinkling burn spells as necessary.  In line with that strategy, the deck needs to focus on mana-efficient damage.  We want each mana that we spend to deal damage almost immediately, and we need to avoid drawing lands as much as possible - we want to be able to dump our hand in the first few turns and draw only spells beyond that.  If we even reach the midgame, a win may already be beyond reach.

To blast through the first couple turns, we need all of our spells to be cheap - two converted mana cost or less - otherwise we run the risk of being unable to do much of anything early on.  Combine that with the need for fast bursts of damage, and we have a narrow gameplan.

Since we want to burst out of the gate, we definitely need several one-costing creatures.  Rakdos Cackler seems like a good choice, as it gives us two power for one mana; Firedrinker Satyr fits the bill, too. We're planning to drop a bunch of creatures in the first few turns, so Foundry Street Denizen may even deal more damage than a Cackler on turns two and three, depending on the plays we have available.  Legion Loyalist is great because it can smash through on turn one, plus its Batallion effect makes for more efficient attackers later on (with the added bonus of nullifying creature tokens from Pack Rat, Master of Waves, and Elspeth, if the game goes that far).

We want to follow that up with powerful two-drops.  Ash Zealot is a fantastic choice for two hasty damage.  Burning-Tree Emissary can make the Denizens huge for only two mana, as you can chain them on turn two (and then have even more power on turn three).  Another two-power-for-two creature, Goblin Shortcutter, can force some extra damage through an opponent's blocker, so it seems like a nice addition.  A two-drop that can bring more than two power to the field is pretty important, and Gore-House Chainwalker seems like a nice fit.

With a little army of efficient one- and two-costing creatures, we need some more ways to boost their damage.  Titan's Strength is a great choice, as it not only pumps but the extra Scry can help avoid unwanted land draws.  As a red, offensive-only Giant Growth, Rubblebelt Maaka's Bloodrush ability is an excellent combat trick.  Madcap Skills is a bit of a risk, as most Auras are, but it not only gives three extra power, but it can take a blocker out of the fight, too, so it has a pretty big payoff.  And, of course, Lightning Strike is just a solid burn spell, and it can eliminate most early-game blockers in the format.

Putting all those spells together makes for a pretty solid main deck, and none of those cards are too expensive, so it's a lot cheaper to throw together than a deck with Sphinx's Revelations or Nightveil Specters.

Main Deck
3 Ash Zealot
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Foundry Street Denizen
3 Goblin Shortcutter
2 Gore-House Chainwalker
4 Legion Loyalist
4 Rakdos Cackler
2 Rubblebelt Maaka

4 Lightning Strike
4 Titan's Strength

4 Madcap Skills

18 Mountain

Sideboarding is another benefit of my first real excursion into standard.  I had never really thought much about designing a sideboard for any constructed decks I've put together (mostly because I primarily play casual, and it's impossible to have sideboard options for every random matchup I could have), so this gave me a nice chance to think about how to prepare for specific matchups.

This deck's single biggest worry, I think, is lifegain; if our opponent is able to gain life, even if just enough to stay alive for one more turn, we may be dead in the water.  Skullcrack is therefore an important part of the sideboard, as it can inhibit Revelation's ability to buy more time (while also giving a way to sneak past Master of Waves' protection in some circumstances).

The next biggest problem is blockers.  Seismic Stomp seems useful, too, particularly when dealing with weenie decks, as it gets blockers out of the way of our relentless assault.  Some additional burn spells give us a little less longevity, but they can clear out some of the peskier early-game creatures.  Shock and Electrickery are thus useful additions, too.  To round out the anti-blocker suite, Act of Treason can both open the path for our side of the board to wreak havoc and increase our damage output by stealing a powerful creature - a nice option against a deck with some really problematic creatures.

2 Act of Treason
4 Electrickery
2 Seismic Stomp
4 Shock
3 Skullcrack

Trial by Fire
Last Friday, I took this deck to an FNM, where a total of 28 people registered.  While it wasn't the biggest event, I know that some of the participants are pretty competitive, so I figure it was probably a decent example of your average FNM environment (which, of course, is almost purely speculation).

My overall record for the five rounds was 3-2.  Here's how it performed:

In round 1, I played a blue-green flash deck, which fell to our deck 2-1.  Even with Prophet of Kruphix, the only real threat in my opponent's deck was Polukranos, World Eater because a 5/5 blocker by turn four plus its Sylvan Caryatid backup stop our aggressive creatures without much trouble.  Act of Treason can turn the hydra against its master, nullifying that threat, and nothing else posed much of a problem, so I think our deck was pretty well suited against this one.

Round 2 brought a red devotion deck that slaughtered ours 0-2.  Boros Reckoner really ruins our day, especially when a couple hit the field on turn three thanks to Burning-Tree Emissaries and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.  Again I think Act of Treason is our best option, but I ended up mana flooded in game two, bringing the match to a close.  He also splashed white to play Chained to the Rocks, which effectively slowed our early game to allow the Reckoner blowout.  It's probably worth thinking about the mono-red matchup in some more detail and adjusting the sideboard accordingly.

I thoroughly trounced a black green deck 2-0 in round 3.  Both games were incredibly quick, and I only saw a total of three nonland cards in his list.  Abrupt Decay kills all our creatures, but losing a dude doesn't slow our gameplan too much, and his defensive creatures were too slow to stop once we get going.  His deck may have been terrible, but whether it was or not, it didn't give enough resistance to influence deck design.

In round 4, I faced the mono-blue devotion deck and ultimately won 2-1.  Lightning Strike clears Nightveil Specter and Skullcrack can handle Master of Waves, so I think we're in a good position against mono-blue post-board.  We lost game two because we couldn't answer Master without losing our entire board presence, allowing our opponent to whittle us down.  I probably misplayed somewhere along the line, but I still think that matchup is pretty solid.

It all came tumbling down in round 5, though, with a quick 0-2 loss.  Fleecemane Lion turn two, Unflinching Courage on the Lion turn three, and Boros Charm to give him double strike on turn four is pretty much the worst possible scenario for our deck - gaining 10 life puts our opponent pretty solidly out of our range.  The biggest problem here, I think, is that I just wasn't prepared to deal with this kind of deck.

The overall future of this deck is good, though.  A 3-2 record isn't bad (particularly for my first ever standard event), and I think the main deck is pretty solid.  The sideboard needs some work, as Electrickery doesn't seem to be too useful (it's probably best for the mirror-match or for wiping Master tokens, so a couple copies are likely worth having), and I never even considered using Seismic Stomp except against the Reckoners, where I think Act would've been a better choice.

Basically, while the sideboard definitely needs to be tweaked, I think this performance serves as a proof-of-concept for this particular deck. It's nice to see a deck that costs less than $20 compete with some of the dominant archetypes in the current metagame, and I'm excited to see how this particular deck evolves in the future.

For now, I have some deck tweaking to do.