Monday, July 16, 2012

"If I Had Roughly Seventy-One Dollars" - A Budget Standard Deck

Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment folks; the world economy is going to hell in a hand-basket as I'm typing this here today. I won't get into the particulars of why this is happening (that's a very serious subject) but I think it's safe to assume that budgets are shrinking all over the planet right now. Times are tough and they're only going to get tougher; soon we may see a day where players might have to choose between foiling out their EDH decks and the latest completely useless Apple product on the market! Okay, obviously I'm joking with you guys a little bit here but the truth is that not everyone in our community can afford to run out and buy "the best Standard deck" in Magic at the drop of a hat. Whether it's due to age, a lack of employment or because psychotic bankers/tax collectors stole your money, a sudden lack of "liquidity" shouldn't prevent you from enjoying small Magic tournaments and FNMs.

Of course, this is the part where you sarcastically roll your eyes at me and stop listening. Right now you're thinking "well that's all fine and dandy Nina but not everyone enjoys getting their ass handed to them by internet savvy munchkins who can bankroll their decks on mom and dad's credit card". Relax, I understand that losing isn't very much fun and that part of "enjoying" a Magic tournament is believing you have some chance to win the damn thing; or at least be competitive. While nobody can change the law of supply and demand as it pertains to Magic singles, building a competitive deck on a budget has become something of an online "Holy Grail" recently. In the past six months there has been a mini explosion of articles on the "Magical Internets" specifically catering to the FNM or MtGO player on a budget. Some of my personal favorites include Jon Corpora's 52 FNMs (when he's writing about a budget list), @Tangent's MtGO Hero and of course FNM Hero by Jon Medina. The efforts of these gentlemen on behalf of budget Magic players everywhere are truly "heroic" (forgive me!) and I strongly recommend you add these articles to your regular reading list if you're grinding FNMs. Of course it never hurts to have options and in this vein I'd like to share the budget deck I've been working on with you today:

"Hungry Like the Wolf" - Gruul Aggro (Standard Budget):

Creatures -26

4x Llanowar Elf 
3x Arbor Elf
4x Bird of Paradise
4x Flinthoof Boar
3x Stormblood Berserkers
4x Strangleroot Geist
4x Wolfir Avenger  
Spells - 14

4x Rancor
3x Pillar of Flame
3x Incinerate
4x Beast Within

Lands - 20

4x Copperline Gorge
6x Mountain
10x Forest

Sideboard - 15:

3x Autumn's Veil
2x Ancient Grudge
3x Arc Trail
3x Combust
2x Crushing Vines
2x Overrun

Now, before go any further please allow me to confess that I haven't playtested this deck very much, yet. As those of you who follow me on Twitter are aware I've spent most of the past week either working or writing; aside from a bunch of Sealed matches to test the format, I haven't been playing much Magic at all. I have however been sneaking in literally hundreds of "goldfish" draws when I'm alone at work and it's easily won the few matches I've played on a popular online emulator that shall not be named. At this point I feel that both the deck concept and it's basic framework are fundamentally sound. Ultimately the final build may change slightly but this list is a good starting point for the "budget" G/R aggro player at a bare minimum.

Taking a closer look at the deck the first thing you should notice is that it's ridiculously cheap. There are only 8 rares in the entire build and they are about to rotate out of Standard in 3 months so it should be easy to pick them up on the cheap; for either cash or trade value. Additionally there are a few cards that I would define as "premium" uncommons in this build: Strangleroot Geist, Rancor and to a lesser degree Beast Within/Wolfir Avenger all come to mind. Despite these issues, I was able to price this entire deck out at just under $71 on Star City Games and I'm certain that a resourceful trader could easily come in $10-15 under this price by acquiring the commons/uncommons in bulk. This is assuming that you don't actually own any of the cards on the list already; I mean who doesn't have Llanowar Elves and basic lands? In other words, even if you bought this entire deck at full retail from a convention dealer's table it's probably cheaper than a night out with your drinking buddies.

Naturally just being inexpensive isn't going to be good enough here; after all if you were just looking for the cheapest possible way to play Magic you could buy an intro deck and some penny sleeves for about 12-15 dollars. No, we're looking for some sort of return on our investment folks and that means building decks that can legitimately 3-1 a small tournament or X-2 a longer event to ensure we earn some prizes. We like prizes because winning them means we have to buy less product to remain competitive and thus reduces our overall cost of enjoying tournament Magic. So how does this deck give us realistic chance against all of the other decks we can't afford to build?  I'm glad you asked, let's take a look at some of the core ideas this deck is built on:

Faster than a Snapcaster:  One of the simplest ways to overcome an opponent who's deck is significantly more powerful than yours is to simply outrun him. To be fair, this isn't exactly easy in the current Standard environment because most of the good decks are actually pretty fast.  Pretty fast isn't the same as a single-minded devotion to the "cult of speed" however and this deck has two distinct ways of "going faster" than other builds in the format. First it's built on an extremely cheap mana curve; there are 18 spells that cost 1, 14 spells that costs 2 and a mere 8 spells that cost 3 mana in this design. Additionally, there are absolutely no 4 drops in the entire deck. Finally because we've frontloaded all of our spells into the first 3 turns we don't need nearly as many lands as our opponents; leaving more room for hyper efficient 1,2 and 3 mana spells. By building our deck this way we not only improve overall consistency but we also maximize our chances of having a "live" play of the appropriate cost on turns 1-3. The plan here is to guarantee that we not only draw better opening hands than our opponents but also that we're casting more powerful spells than they are during these key first 3 turns. Naturally the drawback here is that for every turn the game goes past 4; odds are pretty good that our opponents will be casting more powerful spells than we are. If we can't capitalize on the early lead we generate in the first 3 turns we will all but assuredly be eventually buried under a pile of enemy mythic rares. This build also generates speed by threatening damage "out of nowhere" with the haste trait (Geist, Boar), the Flash mechanic (Wolfir Avenger) and powerful instants (Incinerate, Beast Within). The idea is to make it extremely difficult for your opponent to properly estimate combat damage because he never knows how much damage he's facing or even how many attacking creatures there will be by the start of your next attack phase.

One Inch Punch: Do you know what else most of these 1-3 casting cost, seemingly innocuous little spells have in common? They are almost to a man undercosted and/or overpowered by traditional Magic standards. All things being equal you aren't supposed to get 3/3's for 2 mana without significant drawbacks, your creatures and auras as supposed to stay dead when they're killed and your opponent usually gets a main phase to deal with your monsters before they come crashing in on his life total. This deck breaks these "rules" on a fundamental level and for the most part it does so with creatures that have beneficial abilities rather than debilitating drawbacks. The best example of a card that "breaks the rules" in this deck however isn't a creature at all, it's M13 reprint Rancor. I won't get into a full review of all the sick things Rancor can do here because I've already written about it elsewhere but suffice to say drawing and casting an early Rancor will significantly increase your chances of winning games with this deck. In short despite this build's lack of expensive rares and focus on low casting cost options it's actually surprisingly powerful as a whole. It's not the most "broken" deck in Standard but you aren't exactly showing up to battle with the cardboard equivalent of a slingshot either.

A Can of Whoop-Ass: While there's really no way to account for every opposing deck you'll face at a given FNM there are certain universal truths these events share in common. For example no matter where you play Magic you'll probably have to kill some Restoration Angels if you want to win your FNM. Likewise there's a good chance you'll face opponents running Mana Leak, you'll have to kill a creature that just won't die, you'll have to destroy a Sword of Why Won't You Just Rotate Already and you'll probably have to deal with Spirit Tokens of one form or another.  These are the among the most popular cards in Standard for a reason folks; because their damn good at winning games of Magic. Rather than complain about a lack of creativity however I prefer to use this slavish devotion to netdecking to our advantage and specifically tailor our deck to deal with these commonly played cards. To some degree this is accomplished already in the main deck; we're running Pillar to trump Undying, our mana curve renders counterspells largely irrelevant and Rancor tramples over Spirit Tokens with shocking ease. Unfortunately no 60 card pile can answer everything and that's where our highly targeted sideboard hate package comes in. Got a Sword of War and Peace problem? Bring in a couple of Ancient Grudges and a Crushing Vines in game 2. Did you struggle against Restoration Angel or Hero of Bladehold? Combust is ready and waiting in your sideboard. Do you expect your opponent to sideboard in Timely Reinforcements for game 2? Grab your Arc Trails and Overruns to make his Soldier tokens purely academic. No sideboard strategy is perfect but by specifically attacking cards we're absolutely certain we'll play against at FNM we maximize our chances of "stealing" some prize money with our budget deck.

What do ya say gang? Do I have your attention yet? This deck is fast, powerful and specifically tuned to perform well in the current Standard environment. What's more, it can be easily adapted to address outliers at your own FNM because both red and green have access to a number of quality common and uncommon "silver bullet" sideboard cards. Just drop the cards in your sideboard that you aren't bringing in and replace them with whatever you need to solve the problem at hand. All's fair in love and FNM; there's no rule against tailoring your decks to beat the players and builds you know you'll face week in, week out in your environment. For those of you actually interested in giving the deck a spin this Friday, I've included some play tips based on my (admittedly limited) experiences with the deck below:

Don't keep bad hands: Yes, this is probably just a good rule in general if you want to be successful at tournament Magic. In this case however it is especially important that you learn how to properly and sometimes even aggressively mulligan with this deck. Face it; you don't draw cards, your deck is geared entirely towards turns 1-4 and if at all possible you've like to cast at least one copy of Rancor per game. You don't have time to draw into the right cards and while you can probably win games without playing a 1 drop, you will be dead in the water on any opening hand that doesn't start attacking until turn 4. Your ideal hand probably has a mana dork, 2 lands, 2 "beaters" a removal spell and a Rancor but obviously not every hand you have to keep will be this strong. You simply can't keep hands like 4 land, 2 mana dorks and a Beast Within however and expect to win with this deck. If you absolutely, positively must tempt fate by keeping loose hands full of random 1/1 dudes at least make sure you've got a Rancor handy to simulate a "threat-like substance". 

Think ahead: If there's any real trick to playing this deck successfully it's knowing how to properly sequence your early plays to set up more effective attacks later in the game. Quick, you're on the play, you have Gorge, Forest, Arbor Elf and Bird in hand; what's your first turn play? Relax, it's not a fair question because you need to know what the other 3 cards in your hand are to determine the correct line of play.You probably said Gorge into Bird and you'd be right the vast majority of the time, unless your other 3 cards were Stormblood Berserker, Beast Within and Wolfir Avenger. With that hand you'd obviously want to lead with the Arbor Elf to give you the option of pumping up the turn 2 Berserker. Maybe you'll topdeck a Strangleroot Geist and maybe you won't but by leading with the Elf you'll have a legitimate line of play either way. Let's try a harder one. It's turn 2, you have 2x Forest and a Bird of Paradise in play. Your opponent has no blockers, an untapped Island, an untapped Plains and 6 cards in hand. You have the option of casting Flinthoof Boar as a 2/2 and giving him haste with the Bird of Paradise or casting Strangleroot Geist and a post combat Arbor Elf.  What do you do? This one is a little trickier because the temptation will be to lead with the Geist and cast the Elf to maximize our future options. What's more, you won't be thrilled about casting the pig because you don't have a Mountain yet so he's still a crummy "bear". The problem here is that our opponent is clearly representing Mana Leak and since the Geist effectively counts as 2 cards once he resolves we'll be offering our opponent a virtual 2 for 1 if he does have it. By casting the Flinthoof Boar we minimize the damage our opponent can do with his counter. If he chooses to Leak the boar we're trading 1 for 1 and we can still play the elf. If he doesn't we effectively simulate casting the Geist with our 2/2 pig by giving it haste. This is all a very complicated way of saying that despite it's apparent simplicity this deck does not play itself. I'd strongly recommend repeated goldfishing and at least a couple of practice matches with it before you take it to FNM. 

Keep some in reserve: Look, I know that the temptation to flood the board with undercosted beaters and go to town with this deck is intense. You're on a short clock most matches and the casting costs in your deck make it possible to spew your hand out onto the table with frightening ease. To some degree that's even a part of how the deck wins, by overwhelming your opponent with 3/3 beaters and burn spells. Truthfully however Rancor is going to win you a lot more games than putting a 3rd "Watchwolf" into play will and frankly Rancor doesn't work without a creature to attach it to. In this vein I strongly advise you sandbag at least 1 creature over the course of the game; peferably a Boar or Strangleroot Geist but a random Elf will do in pinch. This will allow you to continue applying Rancor flavored beats to your opponent even if he stalls the game out with boardsweepers or heavy removal. 

Unleash your Beast Within: Do you like "tricks"? If you answered yes it's a pretty safe bet that Beast Within is going to be your favorite card in this deck before too long. You probably already know about the one where you Beast Within your own tapped land to make a 3/3 before blocks and ambush one of your opponent's guys. It's a pretty cute trick but it's been lurking around since Beast Within was printed so I wouldn't blame you for shrugging your shoulders here. Have you also thought about how Beast Within interacts with the "return from graveyard" clause on Rancor? Frankly neither had I but after @jjflipped mentioned it on my Twitter feed, I took perverse delight in targeting my own Rancor on the opponent's endstep to set up an easy 5/3 trampler on my next turn. In fact you can replicate this effect with Wolfir Avenger by activating his Regeneration bubble in response to the Beast Within, although this takes 5 mana to pull off and isn't nearly as shocking or elegant as the Rancor play. Of course you're going to spend some Beast Withins on your opponent's permanents when the gamestate calls for it but try to remeber that in this build it's included to target your stuff almost as often as theirs.

Brooklyn, go hard: If there is a final piece of advice I can give you to help you win games with this deck it's to be aggressive. Your deck is fast, it's powerful and your going to win a lot of games based on how the first 3-4 turns play out. Playing smart is important but playing timidly absolutely will lead you to lose winnable games and matches. Come out hard on the bell and try to knock your opponent out with a flurry of punches before the game drags out and he can wear you down with more powerful cards. In the words of my favorite writer, "don't take any guff from these swine!"

Well folks, my boyfriend is tugging on my arm and asking for his computer back so that tells me that we're out of time for today. As always I'd like to thank everyone for reading and offer an additional appology for posting a deck I haven't tested much. While I have supreme confidence that this build is the real deal in terms of budget FNM play, I also plan to devote considerable amount of time to playtesting this week. Assuming everything goes well, I intend to take this deck to my local FNM and come back with a full report on it's performance next Monday. Never let it be said that the Cardboard Witch is afraid to put her money where her mouth is and if I'm asking you to try out an untested build the least I can do is offer myself up to the grand experiment as well. Until next time always remember that FNM doesn't have to be a rich man's game and keep it weird.

(PS: If you're still interested in that part about the world enconomy going to hell in a handbasket please feel free to check out Max Keiser's Financial War Reports and in particular the Keiser Report with Max and Stacey Herbert. It won't make you happy, in fact it might make you furious but I promise the material is presented in an entertaining manner and it's absolutely worth watching. I'm not campaigning for anything here, it's just a news program that's genuinely honest about the financial crisis.)


Friday, July 13, 2012

Checking in with the Cardboard Witch

Hey gang; it's Nina. I know it's been a little while since I checked in here on the blog so hopefully ya'll haven't assumed I've run back off to grind PTQs. My foot is still a little wonky, work has been kinda busy and as I mentioned last time I've been toiling away on a big project for another website. Thankfully as of 11 PM yesterday evening that project was completed with at best an hour to spare before the deadline. I'm a sucker for drama I guess and it wouldn't be a Cardboard Witch article if it wasn't handed in seconds before it was due in my opinion! :)

In fact completing that article is one of the major reasons I'm writing to you guys today; thanks to the heroic efforts of editor Dave Mantel (@writer1007 on Twitter) my complete guide to drafting M13 was published around 12 AM this morning by For those of you who aren't regular readers of Legitmtg you can check out my article here ; feel free to stay a while and check out the website. Frankly this is one of my favorite MtG sites on the internet because the Legit crew works so far to provide fun, informative and most importantly free Magic content on an almost daily basis. In particular I'm fond of Jon Medina's FNM Hero articles and Heather Dawn's hilarious, thought provoking, regular feature 20 Tweets . I'd also be much obliged if you guys would leave some comments on my article using Facebook; simply put it's be nice to have some tangible evidence people are reading my stuff to convince the editors over there to publish more of my work. Help a girl out fellas (and ladies)? :)

Of course, while I'm here I might as well share some sick brags. Last week I managed to finally hobble out for FNM after roughly 6 weeks without tournaments. I was a little worried that I'd be rusty/out of touch with the current environment but as it turned out I was fine.  I went 7-0 (14-3) over the course of two tournaments with a slightly modified version of Scott MacCallum's (@mrscottymac on Twitter) "Esper Angels" deck and managed to pick up a couple foil copies of Forbidden Alchemy to give away as gifts to friends. Overally I was mostly just happy to get back to playing "real" Magic after sitting out so many tournaments with a mangled foot. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend FNM tonight because of work issues but I did get a pretty nice "pick me up" today, read 'em and weep boys:

Regrettably, due to work, health and "still not having a passport" reasons I won't be able to actually attend the FNM Championships even with WotC volunteering to pick up my tab. I'm a little bummed out about that of course but to be honest with you getting the invite is still pretty gratifying anyways. I'm also a little ashamed to admit it but this is the coolest thing I've "won" in Magic after my invite to last year's Canadian Nationals. It's not the worlds greatest accomplishment but I guess it's nice to have something to prove that I'm at least getting better at magic after all of this time.

Finally I'd like to remind all of you out there that we still have a contest going on here on The Cardboard Witch.  As mentioned previously on this blog I'm still looking for a mono blue casual deck to complete my set of 5 Demo decks.  The rules are posted in the the link above and entries are accepted in the comments section of that article.  The contest closes August 1st and the best choice as judged by the love of my life (Leon) will earn it's author an absolute free, shipped copy of Entreat the Angels and Tamiyo the Moon Sage.  Right now there's only about 7-8 entries so you still have a VERY good chance of winning prize if you show off your "casual" deckbuilding skills before August 1st.
Well folks that's about all my fingers can take for the moment. I'm sorry this wasn't a real blog post so much as a quick update but I promise to make my way back here soon; I've got a couple of new Standard decks I want to talk about and there's at least 15 cards in M13 that have caught my eye for constructed play. Unfortunately there's only so many hours in the day so these things are going to have to wait until next time. For those of you following me on social media I'm finally on Facebook at: nina.illingworth.7 .  To be honest I'm not using the account much so far except to comment on my own articles at but you're more than welcome to send me a "Magical" friend request if it strikes you fancy. Until next time folks always remember to keep it weird and to never take candy from strangers. Unless it's really good candy and the stranger it question seems like a nice man who just happens to own a walk in freezer.


Bonus Content:

So, as it turns out I have some of the coolest friends on the planet. I was pretty bummed out last night about missing FNM and I resigned myself to an evening without Magic sometime just after 6PM. Just as I was about to settle into a massive funk and start binging on junk food 3 of my friends/teammates stopped by the shop randomly to chat about Magic. One thing lead to another and pretty soon we had an impromptu 4-man M13 sealed tournament going and it was quickly agreed that once again this tournament was for the title of Champion of the Universe. Team Dickwolf doesn't screw around folks and after 3 epic rounds that may or may not have featured my opponent's constantly mana flooding I was able to win said title. While unfortunately I've already sorted the sideboard/pool back into my collection as it turns out I still have the actual deck in front of me so I thought I'd share it with you guys:

"My Kingdom for a Jungle Shrine"- Champion of the Universe Winner

Creatures - 12:

1x Flinthoof Boar
2x Arms Dealer
1x Reckless Brute
1x Yeva's Forcemage
1x Bladetusk Boar
2x Primal Huntbeast
1x Sublime Archangel
1x Fire Elemental
1x Garruk's Packleader
1x Captain of the Watch

Spells - 11:

2x Prey Upon
1x Rancor
1x Farseek
3x Krenko's Command
1x Flames of the Firebrand
1x Oblivion Ring
1x Captain's Call
1x Turn to Slag

Lands - 17:

6x Forest
6x Mountain
3x Plains
1x Evolving Wilds
1x Sunpetal Grove

Analysis: As far as pools go this one was a classic case of opening strong cards in all 5 colors but lacking the depth to easily commit to any 2 of them. Believe it or not this pool also had a Vampire Knighthawk, a Talrand's Invocation and 2 Welken Terns. Unfortunately my remaining black/blue playables were pretty awful overall and I eventually realized I had 2 choices.  I could play a G/W deck with about a billion 2/x white "Bears" (2x Silvercoat Lion, 2x Ajani's Sunstriker) and splash the Flames of the Firebrand or I could just refuse to play all of my marginal white cards and go G/R splashing 2x WWX bombs instead. As you can see I chose the raw power of the Naya build and I'm pretty happy with the results. This deck looks really clunky but it actually has a tremendous amount of synergy and multiple ways to actively win the game. Whether it's a tokens + Exalted victory, a Packmaster + Hill Giants draw engine or just combining Arms Dealer and random Krenko's Command tokens this deck has a LOT of amazing things going on during game play. More importantly it was riotously fun to play; even if I was hanging around with a bunch of Dickwolves. :)

Goodnight folks

-nina (actually going to bed this time)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Casually Competitive - The Lorwyn/Shadowmoor No-Rares Project

Hello ladies and gentlemen; hopefully you're all having a fine Canada Day/Independence Day holiday and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch. As regular readers of this blog may remember in my last article I talked about my lifelong obsession with "Watchwolves", and in doing so accidentally revealed that I do in fact play casual Magic from time to time. In my mind this wasn't really much of a "confession"; after all most people start out playing Magic casually before they move on to tournament play and technically every practice match and non-sanctioned draft I've ever played in counts as casual Magic. Despite this I met with some good-natured skepticism from my friends, teammates and fellow "Twit-ites" on the internet after I wrote about my "casual" decks. Some of my compatriots joked about ostracizing me while others simply refused to believe I ever played Magic just for the fun of it. To be fair, I can't really blame them; I'm a hardcore "Spike" when it comes to Magic and I really don't spend a lot of time talking about my casual decks while playing cards in a competitive setting.

Well, today that's going to change folks; thanks to an email by a longtime reader and a number of discussions in both real life and on Twitter I've been convinced to write about a few of the casual decks I loved enough to keep after all of these years. In particular, I'd like to focus on 4 mono-colored Lorwyn-Shadowmoor era decks I built as a way to both stay involved in Magic and help new players at my store break into the game. Naturally I realize that this may only be interesting to a small segment of this blog's usual audience; I promise to get back to writing about competitive Magic as soon as I get a chance to play in tournaments again. As of this very moment my foot is actually feeling much better and I think there's at least a reasonable chance that I'll be able to go to FNM this Friday and the M13 Pre-Release event on Saturday at the Hairy T North. Until then I thought it might be fun to go back down the rabbit hole and share what are quite truthfully some of the coolest decks I've ever built in all my years playing Magic.

With those caveats out of the way, let's talk a little bit about the "Lorywn-Shadowmoor No Rares Project" itself. I originally started the project back in the summer of 2008 as a way of promoting constructed Magic at the game store I manage here in Toronto (The Hairy Tarantula). At the time our resident "Magic guy" had recently moved on to one of those real life jobs that pay 10 times more than working in a game store ever could. I personally was drafting 2-3 times a week but other responsibilities in my life made playing constructed Magic difficult and this created a noticeable void at the shop before too long. While our draft scene remained healthy and vibrant it became difficult to promote constructed events and single card sales were beginning to lag a bit as a result. What's more I wasn't having much luck talking new players into trying Magic; despite my general opinion that the absolute best way to learn Magic is through Limited play, the $15 it takes to draft proved a very daunting barrier for beginners. Eventually I got tired of banging my head against a wall of apathy and I realized that if I wanted people to be excited about constructed Magic I was going to have to show them why constructed Magic was exciting. I immediately resolved to build a couple of "demo" decks out of my leftover draft cards as both a way of promoting Magic at the shop and to provide an excuse for playing Magic at work. Clever, yes?

Fortunately for me Lorwyn-Shadowmoor was a very special block; sitting down to look through my cards I quickly realized that these sets had an unprecedented level of power and synergy in the common and uncommon slots. This was primarily due to the numerous tribal interactions that drove limited decks in this format but a surprising number of these cards were actually quite playable in a constructed setting. While I doubted their ability to compete effectively in Time Spiral-era constructed tournaments, I felt that you could easily build an almost unlimited number of simple, powerful, effective and most importantly interesting tribal aggro decks entirely out of cards from this block. Naturally, I had neither unlimited funds or cardstock so I decided to maintain a few simple rules during the deck construction process:
  1. No rares. This one was simple enough; since I wasn't playing constructed Magic back then, I'd been selling back most of my rares to the shop to fund more drafts. I didn't have very many rares left anyway.
  2. The decks had to be mono-color and use only basic lands. Since I intended to use the decks primarily to help demo Magic to new customers I wanted to keep them as simple as possible without sacrificing overall playability and power. One of my major gripes with the majority of the demo products used to teach Magic is that they're mostly just a random pile of cards that do little to help a new player understand the sheer joy that comes from building your own Magic decks. I wanted synergistic, powerful and most importantly fun decks that would help me sell players on the Magic experience while simultaneously teaching basic rules and mechanics.
  3. The decks had to be balanced in terms of power, function and form. At the time I started the project my initial intention was to build one deck in each of the 5 colors and let my opponent choose his favorite color at the start of the demo. If my opponent enjoyed the first game I would then offer to let him try some of the other colors out and rotate decks myself as appropriate. Of course, since I never knew which deck my opponent would choose in advance it became very important to ensure that all 5 decks were both easy to pilot and could function together in a reasonable game of Magic.
  4. Each deck would built using the same design theory. In order to keep the decks more or less homogeneous I built each of them around fast creatures, cantrips and an extremely tight mana curve typically ending at 3. This allowed me to cheat a little bit in terms of mana sources to ensure the decks would always be "live" during game play. In my experience nothing can turn a new player off of Magic quicker than a rash of mana-flooding/mana-screw and so these decks were designed to minimize the chances of either phenomena before the match even started.   
  5. Ideally each deck should be Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block Constructed.  Though ultimately I would be forced to break this rule a couple of times one of my primary goals during deck-building was to keep each design as accessible as possible. My hope was that new players might enjoy the deck and be persuaded to build their own versions, so it was extremely important to me that the decks be built with readily available cards they could easily purchase/trade for.
  6. Ideally each deck should be built around a single tribe and simple themes. One of the hardest parts of demoing a game is convincing people to actually participate in the demo. I wanted each deck to be easy to explain in a single, dynamic sentence that actively encouraged people to try the game. By focusing on tribal traits and simple themes I felt it would be much easier to advertise the demo to my target demographic; namely people who'd never played Magic before. To be fair this wasn't a hard and fast rule so much as a guideline and I cheated it a couple of times in the name of producing a better overall deck by the time the project was complete.
Naturally, savy readers will notice that while I promised to talk about 4 decks I clearly mention attempting to build 5 decks here in the rules section. Unfortunately during the entire length of the project I was never quite able to make a functioning mono-Blue deck that could compete on even footing with the other 4 decks I'd built. Many of the best Blue cards in the block were rare and the color was plagued by a general lack of relevant 1 drops; a fatal flaw as it turned out in the made up "Nina-demo" format. Over time I tried Fae, Merfolk and "the Evasion tribe", to no avail. Eventually I simply chose the Blue deck for myself during demos while explaining that it was "not as good as the other 4 so it will help keep the match even until you learn how the game works". For the most part this suited new players just fine and when I retired the decks later I just never bothered to keep the Blue one together, so I can't include a list here. Just trust me, all of them were bad. Let's take a look at the decks I did keep over the years:

"Ghostface Kithkin"

Creatures: 24

4x Goldmeadow Harrier
4x Goldmeadow Stalwart
4x Mosquito Guard
4x Knight of the Meadowgrain
4x Somnomancer
4x Wizened Cenn

Spells: 16

4x Niveous Wisps
4x Surge of Thoughtweft
4x Oblivion Ring
4x Spectral Procession

Lands: 20

20x Plains

Analysis: From a design perspective this deck was by far the easiest to build under my project guidelines. The Kithkin tribe naturally lent itself to building aggressive "White Weenies" decks and I was never forced to stray out of block during deck construction. Thematically, the deck focuses on tapping down opposing creatures, mass pump effects and swarming your opponent under a never-ending rain of pesky white monsters. Knight of the Meadowgain and Spectral Procession do most of the heavy lifting here while Oblivion Ring provides a catch all answer for when tapping enemy monsters simply will not do. Overall I'd have to say this deck was a smashing success; it was an extremely popular choice during demos amongst female players in particular and by comparing Kithkin to "Hobbits" I was frequently able to interest fantasy fans in taking it for a test drive at the counter. The simple nature of the deck typically made it very easy to grasp for new players and the only really tricky interaction I recall involved Surge of Thoughtweft and Spectral Procession. For some reason nobody ever seemed to realize that Surge would give +1+1 bonuses to the Spirt Tokens as well and that only the cantrip effect was tied to the "Kithin" trait whatsoever.

"Common Theives"

Creatures: 24

4x Nightshade Stinger
4x Prickly Boggart
4x Inkfathom Infiltrator
4x Oona's Blackguard
4x Squeaking Pie Sneak
4x Stinkdrinker Bandit

Spells: 16

4x Peppersmoke
4x Nameless Inversion
4x Warren Weirding
4x Morsel Theft

Lands: 20

20x Swamp

Analysis: If Ghostface Kithin is the easiest of the demo decks to play there is little doubt that Common Thieves is the hardest. Rather than being focused on a single racial trait this deck revolves around the Rogue class and features numerous forms of evasive creatures to take maximum advantage of the Prowl mechanic. Additionally since both of the "Lords" (Oona's Blackguard, Stinkdrinker Bandit) work very differently than those in other tribes, playing this deck requires slightly better math skills than it takes to pilot the others. Finally I should mention that because the deck frequently references both Fairies and Goblins, players would sometimes struggle with proper play-sequencing at first and end up trapping key cards in their hand as the game progressed. Despite these issues, Common Thieves was extremely rewarding for a player prepared to put in the necessary time and thought to squeeze maximum value out of the design. This build has by and large the most "play" I've ever seen in a commons/demo deck and beginners who enjoyed it would usually turn out to be "Spikes" once they moved on to regular Magic.

"Hillbilly BBQ"

Creatures: 24

4x Spark Elemental
4x Tattermunge Maniac
4x Adder-Staf Boggart
4x Keldon Marauders
4x Ashenmoor Gouger
4x Boggart Ram-Gang

Spells: 16

4x Shock
4x Incinerate
4x Lash Out
4x Flame Javelin

Lands: 20

20x Mountain

Analysis: Of the four decks in this article, Hillybilly BBQ is the one I'm least proud of overall. To be fair it's certainly a very good deck; the combination of hyper-efficient burn spells and a bunch of undercosted hasty beaters will pretty much always produce a viable deck in Magic. Additionally despite Red's general lack of cantrips at the time, this build makes tremendous use of the Clash mechanic to move either towards it's 3rd land or away from it's 4th. This "mana-smoothing" effect is actually more important than winning the Clash itself and allows Hillybilly BBQ to find a constant stream of monsters and burn as the game progresses. Unfortunately it's also the deck where I broke the most of my own self-imposed rules; 16 cards in the build are from outside of the Lowryn-Shadowmoor block, there's no consistent tribe throughout the deck and finally it's not all that much fun to play against. I almost never found myself playing this deck simply because I was afraid it would do more to scare off potential players than attract them. On the plus side, it was very popular with kids and it almost always destroyed whatever mono Blue pile I was rocking at the time so it ultimately served it's function as a demo deck perfectly.

"Elvish Eugenics"

Creatures: 26

4x Llanowar Elves
4x Nettle Sentinel
4x Bramblewood Paragon
4x Elvish Warrior
4x Wren's Run Vanquisher
4x Imperious Perfect
2x  Civic Wayfinder

Spells: 13

4x Giant Growth
3x Obsidian Battle-Axe
3x Snakeform
3x Tower Above

Lands: 21

21x Forest

Analysis:  I know that a mother isn't supposed to play favorites but I have to admit that I like this deck just a little bit better than the others in this article. For starters it makes effective use of two of my favorite elf cards in the history of Magic; Imperious Perfect and Wren's Run Vanquisher. It's also the only deck on the list built around both a tribe (Elves) and a class (Warriors). Finally it's the only deck on the list with a real sense of inevitability and is therefore just different enough from the others to function as a teaching tool for new players. Of course for inevitability to matter you still have to get to the end game; this deck is a little slower than the other 3 and slightly more prone to mana-flooding because it runs 21 land and only 3 "cantrip" spells (Snakeform). Like most elf builds however it's riotously fun to play and the vast majority of beginners who chose Elvish Eugenics for their first demo stuck around for more than one game as I recall. Unfortunately I did have to venture outside the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block to finish the deck but somehow it felt right to include iconic cards like Llanowar Elves and Giant Growth in a demo deck, so I didn't mind.

Overall I would have to say that the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor No-Rares Project was mostly successful. On one hand I never did find a viable mono-Blue deck to complete the set and only 2 of the 4 decks I managed to build actually turned out to be entirely from the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block. On the other hand the 4 decks I did build allowed me to introduce a whole new generation of players to Magic the Gathering over the next couple of years. While I haven't exactly kept meticulous records I would say I've easily played hundreds of games with each of these decks and even to this day I still find them exciting/interesting to play overall. More importantly they helped dozens of new players break into Magic and thus in some small way helped both my shop and the game I love to grow. Perhaps I'm biased but I genuinely feel that these decks are beautifully designed and in many ways I credit the success I had building them with eventually bringing me back to constructed Magic in 2010.  These days I'm a little too busy for demos at work but I've still kept all 4 of these decks in my office for years now; just in case the need to teach someone else the beauty of Magic should ever arise. I've also spent the time and money to "foil" them out over the years and I'm proud to say I'm down to only 11 cards in total that don't shine:
  • 2x Imperious Perfect
  • 2x Warren Weirding
  • 2x Wizened Cenn
  • 2x Shock
  • 2x Incinerate
  • 1x Tatermunge Maniac
I've even gone to the trouble to ensure that every single foil basic land in each deck has a different picture; it's not OCD when you're in love folks. As for the missing foils, to be honest I'm in no rush. I've spent the past 4 years slowly collecting shiny cards for these decks as they came along and the price was right; this isn't an investment so much as a labor of love. Actually, I'm no longer even sure if finding the last foil is going to be a happy moment; after all as long as I'm still trading for foils I still have an excuse to mess around with my casual decks right?

Well gang, that's unfortunately about all the time we have at the moment. My boyfriend wants his computer back and as previously mentioned, I have some tournaments to prepare for this upcoming weekend. I'm also hoping to finish a freelance article I've been working on for the past couple of weeks soon and as a result it may be a little while before I make it back here to The Cardboard Witch. Don't worry, I'll probably be back in a week or so and in the meantime I've devised an ingenious contest to keep you all busy in the comments. I'm prepared to offer up two of my favorite cards in Avacyn Restored (Tamiyo the Moon Sage and Entreat the Angels) in exchange for a mono-Blue deck list to complete my set of Demo decks. The rules are simple:

  • The deck has to be mono-Blue and can use only basic lands.
  • The deck can contain only common and uncommon cards from non-promotional sets; no rares and no Planechase/Archenemy/Commander only cards.
  • The deck has to be composed primarily of cards from a single block with any outliers coming from base sets that were legal at the same time.  Two cards from different blocks that were legal together in the same Standard can be used but doing so will cost you some consideration with the judge.
  • Ideally the deck should be tribal or at least built around a similar theme/concept for the purposes of teaching Magic.
  • Ideally the deck should be well balanced against the other decks listed in this article.
The contest will be open until August 1st, 2012 and entrants are expected to post both their decks and a brief explanation of how their build works/meets the criteria in the comments section. Originality will be a strong factor in choosing an ultimate winner; the comments are timestamped so there's no point in copying someone else's deck and hoping to get lucky in some sort of raffle. Just to ensure a fair playing field I've asked my boyfriend (Leon) to judge the contest and I'll be providing him the lists with no names attached, thereby making it impossible for subjective considerations to affect the outcome. Once a winner is chosen I'll announce it here on the blog and ship both cards free of charge as soon as you email me your contact info. It doesn't get much easier than that does it folks?

Until next time, thanks for reading my blog; this is the Cardboard Witch signing off and reminding you to always keep it weird guys.