Kaervek Relearns How to Read a Decklist
What’s the best way to write a Commander deck list?
I realize this is not necessarily something regular folks lose sleep about, especially after release week. There’s a brand new, super-exciting set, and all the other writers are trying to figure out which guild got the goodies (obviously Golgari), whether or not Assassin’s Trophy is really as good as Rich Cali says it is (yes), or what’s the best sleeper hit (it’s Underrealm Lich).
Still, it’s a question that perturbs me. I feel like if we want to be good writers, communicators, and salesmen, then we should have a strong format for sharing the most basic information about a Magic deck. I don’t think we’re there. Currently, there’s three main formats for sharing a decklist -- type, mana curve, or function -- and none of them really tell the full story for a Commander list. So, I’d like to tear into some of the problems with them, using my old buddy Kaervek the Merciless as an example as we re-learn how to write.
So, when you think about a decklist, most players immediately think of something like this:
The General Purpose Decklist
To my way of thinking, this is an outdated way for players to examine a decklist; a hold-over from the days when “20 lands, 20 spells, 20 creatures,” was the mantra for how to build a deck. (Note that this almost never resulted in a good deck, but “common knowledge” is hard to kill… if you internet search for how to build a Magic deck, you’ll probably still stumble on this piece of immortal bad advice). It remains partly because it’s how to fill out a tournament deck list, and partly because no one’s come up with anything better.
This method does work ok for 60 cards decks. A reader can pretty quickly get a sense for how the deck plays based on the quantity of a particular card, and the number of lands it plays. If the list has 23 lands and a high count of 4-of creatures and spells, it’s probably some kind of aggressive deck. Higher land count, 1- and 2-ofs? Probably something more controlling. From there the reader can figure out which archetype bucket the deck best fits into, and then read through the specific cards to get a better idea of how the deck plays. With somewhere between 20 to 30 lines of information to parse, it’s an ok way to get a sense of how the deck really operates.
These elements don’t work for a Commander list. Since the format gets to play with top tier mana rocks, most lists fall into a narrow range of lands, so it’s hard to get an idea of how it plays just from the mana base. And since it’s a singleton format, it’s hard to figure out the priority cards in the deck. Finally, most Commander decklists end up with 70-90 lines to try to process, which is well past the “eyes-glaze-over-wait-what-was-I-doing-again” point for most readers. (For record, I include myself in the group of most readers; I’m generally very attentive to detail, and I study A LOT of decklists, but even then, it’s not always easy to see the synergies between cards.)
If you look at the list above, what do you read? I’m guessing most people will read an odd sort of RB control-punisher list, with strangely little recursion and some questionable choices on creatures and mana rocks. What’s actually going on here? Is it just a bad deck? (Probably, but that’s beside the point).
The Mana Curve List
This method isn’t as popular as the general purpose list, but quite a lot of people still lay out their cards by mana cost (if not specifically by card name, then at least by the number of cards at each spot on the curve). This is a fantastic way to build a better deck in Limited, and I can see a certain logic behind wanting to look at a Commander deck that way. After all, you’re probably playing 1-ofs, your land count is relatively fixed, and it seems like it might be a good way to look at a deck. And although deck lists don’t necessarily get written out long-hand by mana, the popularity of the average converted mana cost metric on various list builder websites suggest that many players feel like this says something meaningful about a deck.
I see a couple problems with reading a deck by mana cost. The first should be obvious; it doesn’t take into account the Commander tax. So even though yes, Kaervek is technically CMC 7, he also fits at 9, at 11, at 13, etc. For the deck I’ve listed, this is a big deal. Kaervek’s the strongest finisher, and I need to stretch my mana curve out far beyond what the deck would otherwise require.
X-costed spells pose another problem for looking at decks by mana cost. Green Sun’s Zenith is the best example of how a card can scramble a mana-curve. If you’re building sensibly, you’re likely to include a relevant green creature at every reasonable mana cost. So when you run your list through your favorite deck builder, is it relevant that Green Sun’s Zenith is CMC 1? Maybe when you need to fetch Dryad Arbor. But ‘Zenith is also 2, and 3, and 4, and so on, probably at least up until 9 where you could fetch Craterhoof Behemoth. Similarly, looking at my Kaervek list here with 5 different X-spells starts to seriously throw the math.
Multi-modal spells cause a similar problem. If I asked someone to name the most expensive cards in the deck by converted mana cost, one of the answers would be Decree of Pain. A better answer though would be Promise of Power; I end up cycling and hardcasting Decree of Pain in more or less equal amounts, whereas with Promise of Power I almost always try to hold it until I can pay the entwine. And how should we count a card like Cut // Ribbons? It’s mana cost should be uh, what?
The last element that I think people fail to consider when they’re trying to analyze decks based on CMC is a deck’s activated abilities. My Kaervek list has 20 different cards with non-mana-producing activated abilities, ranging from the mostly innocuous Kher Keep, to the potentially devastating Demon of Dark Schemes.
If I tried to list and calculate all the different costs, modes, and abilities here, it would be incomprehensible soup. If I bothered to calculate the average CMC of the cards, it would be a meaningless number.
This is the go-to method for most writers who want to share and discuss Commander decks. Again, I don’t think it works out well, but it tends to be the least bad of options available. It tends to look something like this (for sake of clarity, the example is italicized):
Mana Sources: Expedition Map, Surveyor's Scope, Rakdos Keyrune, Wayfarer's Bauble, Sol Ring, Darksteel Ingot, Foriysian Totem, Phyrexian Totem, Thran Dynamo, Gilded Lotus, Armillary Sphere, Rakdos Signet, Kolaghan Monument
Kaervek the Merciless is a high-CMC general, and my list in particular focuses on high-CMC sorceries and creatures to help keep the board clear and put combat pressure on my opponents. I included a variety of different mana sources to help power out my cards and keep pace with green midrange and combo/ramp decks.
This will be the slowest deck at most tables, so it needs to take a strong control presence. I’ve picked a variety of flexible sweepers that I can play at multiple points in the game, and I’ve prioritized Earthquakes to help me control opponent’s life totals as well.
Demons do double duty in this deck. Not only do they help maintain control of the board, they also push through combat damage later on. Even though Kaervek’s the control deck, there’s not really an instant win combo, so the deck needs to rely on combat damage to support direct fire from Kaervek and the assorted bleed and burn spells. The one instant win is Liliana’s Contract, and it’s a long shot.
Does this seem like good writing? It must, because it keeps getting published. I think this has some major barriers, and it’s time to get critical theory on it.
The first stumbling block is a classic case of missing the Forest for the trees. I told you that I’ve picked flexible sweepers that also deal damage, but what information does that actually give you? I essentially just read the cards back to you, “Earthquake is a spell with a variable mana cost that deals damage to creatures and players.” What I didn’t answer -- and what most functional lists don’t tell you -- is why the deck needs those cards in the first place.
The more pernicious problem is that in a highly synergistic deck, there are going to be cards that serve multiple different roles. The best example from above is a card like Promise of Power. Earlier, I mentioned that I would count Promise of Power as a 9 mana card, because my goal is to play it with the entwine cost. Here, I count it as a demon, because that’s how I play it most often; I either need a midrange body to fend off the rush, or I need a late game bomb to give me both card advantage and face punching. But that’s not to say the card draw mode is bad or that I don’t use it; on the contrary, it’s great (follow-up Malfegor, find an answer, generate crushing card advantage, etc.)!
That might be overlooked by someone else though. If one of my readers is looking through the list by function, they might get the misimpression that playing its card draw mode is a misplay. Or assuming I have a section with “Card draw effects,” they might miss it entirely. Finally, a player looking to replace the card in their own list is likely to pick a poor fit by choosing either a card draw effect, or another creature. The point of the having a card like Promise of Power in this deck isn’t to do either of those things, it’s to provide a multi-function card that is useful in different ways at different points of the game.
How do you capture that idea of a multifunction card in a list arranged by functional? Well, the way we write currently, we don’t. There’s an old timer element in the Commander community that routinely complains about stale cards and routine combos, and blames the player base for it. If there’s a lack of card diversity in Commander, it’s not because of the players -- it’s because the way we produce written content for those players. Instead of writing in a way that describes our card choices, we choose our cards based on the way we write.*
Is there a better way?
Probably not, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.
(Notes: If you’re into communication or organizational theory, this is effectively an example of Conway’s Law, where our deck design ability is constrained by the way we communicate about deck design.)
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