Misadventures in Magic Deckbuilding

Jordan

If you’ve been reading the Wistia blog regularly for a few years now, there’s a chance that you remember a not-so-recent post I wrote about my love for Magic: the Gathering (the collectible card game). Well, I’m back to write about Magic yet again, but this time in a much more in-depth way. Fair warning: this is geared toward people familiar with playing the game of Magic, at least a little bit, so be forewarned!


What I’ll be writing about is called a primer, which is a guide to a specific sort of deck archetype in Magic. This is generally specific to a format of the game and talks through a number of different lines of play and strategies to expect. Mine is a bit different, however, as I’ll be doing the primer based on a deck of my own design that’s not really proven as a major player (nor will it be, in all likelihood). Many primers talk through both the core and potential variants of the deck.
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Notes about the format

The deck I’m writing about is a standard deck, which I have affectionately named “Rage Rhinos” — it’s a four color deck based primarily around getting a Siege Rhino into play and doing work with it. Before I get too far into that specifically, though, it’s worth knowing a bit about the format itself, since it’s a somewhat unique situation to most standard seasons. Currently there are five legal sets in the format: Khans of Tarkir, Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, Magic: Origins, and Battle for Zendikar. Khans brought back a competitive player’s favorite: fetch lands. These lands allow you to search for one other land in your deck that matches one of two options. These were great, but didn’t really do all that much to diversify manabases in decks. That was, until Battle For Zendikar came out and included two-color fetchable lands. This means you could have a fetch land that normally would get you a white or green mana, and could fetch a land that would produce blue/white mana, green/white mana, or black/blue mana, effectively giving you four possible options of color mana from a single land. This has caused a dramatic shift in decks, where decks can often afford to play “five color goodstuff” in some respects, simply playing the best in class cards of a number of things.

So here we are, four months away from Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged rotating out of standard, taking fetch lands and a number of other format-defining cards, in addition it’s taking a bunch of my recent favorite cards with it: Siege Rhino, Monastery Mentor, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Soulfire Grand Master, Mantis Rider, etc. In my mind, I want to find a way to play as many of these cards as possible before they’re gone from standard and I’m forced to move to something else in the format. I think I’ve finally arrived at that deck. Without further adieu, here’s the deck list for Rage Rhinos™:

Rage Rhinos Deck List

Creatures (19): Spells (17): Lands (24): Sideboard:
4 Dragonmaster Outcast
4 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Monastery Mentor
4 Siege Rhino
3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
1 Crater’s Claws
3 Wild Slash
2 Dromoka’s Command
2 Rolling Thunder
1 Exquisite Firecraft
2 Abzan Charm
2 Crackling Doom
2 Kolaghan’s Command
2 Mardu Charm
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Swamp
2 Canopy Vista
3 Cinder Glade
3 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Smoldering Marsh
4 Windswept Heath
2 Despise
1 Surge of Righteousness
1 Ultimate Price
2 Hallowed Moonlight
2 Roast
2 Valorous Stance
1 Utter End
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
2 Murderous Cut

Card selection choices

Alright, now to explain what the heck is actually going on here. I’ll go section by section and explain my overall thinking, and specific card selection when it’s of note. As far as creatures go, Siege Rhino, Monastery Mentor, Tasigur and Soulfire Grand Master were the creatures I wanted to try to build around, and I added Dragonmaster Outcast as a cheap value creature for mid to late game. The goal of this creature build was to extend games and extract value from playing reactively in the early game. I’m not running an aggro package, so the decks in the format that run out early threats like Atarka Red can race under me, winning the game before I’m established. The creatures I put out earlier in the game need to have that in mind, since I’m not playing a pure control deck. The strength of my creature list is that each of these creatures can be very strong on its own, so I don’t really need to slam down a lot of creatures to be in control of the game. Siege Rhino is great at making up lost ground, Monastery Mentor is great for piling up defenses, Tasigur can be a cheap beater if I’ve exhausted some resources already.

In general spell selection, there are two main things in mind: dealing with threats that my creatures have a hard time handling on their own, providing value for Soulfire Grand Master and Monastery Mentor throughout the game. The modal spells like Domoka’s Command, Kolaghan’s Command and Abzan Charm provide me with a ton of lines of play during the game–not just options, though, really good options. In addition to the variety of lines of play, my spell selection is meant to account for whatever holes or weaknesses my deck’s creature selection has. As mentioned before, decks that are fast aggro builds will often be able to out race me before my deck gets going, so I’ve included some cheap, efficient and wide removal options. Wild Slash is the primary option in the first couple turns, but Kolaghan’s Command can also fit the bill there. If a deck is especially heavy on small, fast threads I can sideboard in things like Roast and Surge of Righteousness, which are better than things like Rolling Thunder (which is more utilitarian and better in more scenarios).

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The most difficult part of playing this deck (and building it, for that matter) is getting the lands right. Since the color requirements for a number of spells in the deck are intensely specific and require a lot of focus during games to not mess up horrifically. As a deck that really needs to pick its spots and hit the right stuff at the right time, misplaying your manabase is a critical slip up that will definitely cost you games. In terms of priority, you will want access to black and red mana early, potentially white depending on what your opponent is up to, followed by green (which is the splash color here, and you will almost never need before turn 4/5). The ratio of lands in the deck mostly resembles this fact.

Your general gameplan

Keeping your opponent off their curve through the first couple turns of a game should almost always be the default for this deck, since it’s the only strategy that seems to consistently dominate the deck when not prepared for it. Playing a Wild Slash, followed by a Monastery Mentor and waiting around for more mana, playing mostly spells to load up your board and throw your opponent off their plan is a grade-A plan. Play Siege Rhino whenever you have one (and if you have more than one, definitely play those too). The only matchup you’ll need to be worried about putting too much on the board is Esper Dragons, which loves to throw board wipes at you.

A quintessential theory in playing magic is “knowing when you’re the beatdown” — I’ll spare you the full explanation here, but it basically means that you should know what situations you should be the aggressor in, and when you should avoid being the aggressor (check out this article if you’re interested in a more thorough definition). One of the major advantages as well as pitfalls of this deck is that it’s pretty good at doing both. The most important deciding factor in play testing thus far is how likely you think you are to be losing the on-board threat game to an opponent. If you have a couple creatures on board and know you can’t play others for a bit, and your opponent seems primed and ready to play a fourth 4/4 dragon to attack you with, chances are you are not the beatdown in this scenario, and your focus should shift to board control and sustainability. Gain life, remove key threats and turn on the jets after the situation is under control.

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Sideboard options

Right now, the most prevalent decks in standard are Abzan Aggro, Atarka Red, Dark Jeskai, and Esper Dragons. In my local metagame, there are also a number of Temur Midrange and Black/Green Aristocrats players to be concerned with. Among those decks, there are some threats my deck doesn’t really do well with by default. First and foremost, cards allow you to put creatures into play from your graveyard or without casting them (Aristocrats and Ramp, I’m looking at you) are deadly, so Hallowed Moonlight is a must-have for me you will probably not see in too many other lists. In some matchups, like Abzan Aggro and Atarka red, you might find that your puny burn spells only do so much, and Dromoka’s Command doesn’t let you favorably trade enough — this is when you bring in the more clear-cut removal spells from the sideboard, like Murderous Cut and Utter End. If you find that it’s hard to make up ground and have blockers against a deck (like Abzan Aggro), Sorin, Solemn Visitor will be your friend since it comes with built-in lifelink and can make blockers for you if need be. Roast is your best friend against enemy Tasigur and Siege Rhino (which you will most definitely see).  

Generally speaking, though, you’ll want to side out regularly, removing inefficient and ineffective cards for more versatile removal (or stuff that is more specifically pointed at what you’re concerned with).

Future and alternate considerations

There do not seem to be any backbreakers for this deck, generally speaking, since it doesn’t need much to stay in a game. I’ve considered, though, including things like Infinite Obliteration as a sideboard card against Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Hangarback Walker, and Zulaport Cutthroat–by the time these cards hit the table, they’re already getting insane value. It’s in our best interest to be proactive in preventing that from being the case. Duress is another card that seems like it could almost always be useful — it allows you to proactively get rid of planeswalkers like Ugin, The Spirit Dragon, timely removal spells, See The Unwritten, Aristocrats’ biggest win con (Rally the Ancestors), board wipes, or any other sort of spell that seems generally not in your favor. Bonus result of Duress is that you get to see your opponent’s hand, which lets your decision tree get a lot clearer.

If you’re an avid Magic player, what are your favorite decks? 

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