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.)



  1. I've finally gotten round to giving this a try & wow it's quick! 2 games & all have been won by the 6th round. I'm looking forward to taking this to my local club & giving it a thorough going over. :o)

  2. I don't know how I feel about beast within in a deck looking to be the beatdown,

    1. During my somewhat limited playtesting this was always the highest variance card by a long shot. I was too sick to play in any tournaments or write about it but eventually we cut Beast Within down to 3 and then 2. In the context of the format it was supremely important that we have an answer that didn't care about toughness so they had to stay but yes you are right; 4 was not the correct choice here.

      Nobody's perfect :)