Why Nonbos Aren't Always a Bad Thing

Rich Cali
October 17, 2018

Synergy is a critically important aspect of deck building in Magic. Ensuring that the cards in your deck work well together helps ensure that the deck can have a strong, cohesive game plan.

Stand Alone

Of course, not every deck maximizes synergy with every card choice. For example, Grixis Control can utilize the interaction of Kolaghan’s Command and Snapcaster Mage as a powerful engine. Other than that, though, it is mostly consisted of great cards in those colors, so it feels like a relatively low synergy deck. On the other hand, decks like Death and Taxes push this concept to the limit, and every card follows up the last in order to execute a cohesive plan across a game.

Or Stand Together

Contrary to this, some decks have inclusions that appear to work against each other. These nonbos are often the target of criticism from players. In a world of decks like Temur Delver that are single-minded and extremely cohesive, this type of criticism makes a lot of sense.

Won’t a deck with cards that work contrary to its plan perform worse than one where every card is a part of a consistent machine?

I don’t think this is always the case, and this week I want to discuss why some nonbos warrant inclusion. I think choices that work in opposition of a perceived plan often get a bad reputation, and I want to shed some light on these situations and break down why these types of choices should be made from time to time.

Some Decks Have Malleable Plans

Some of the best decks that Legacy has to offer have very focused game plans. Every card in decks like Temur Delver, BR Reanimator, and Eldrazi work towards their game plans. These decks don’t really go off-plan at any point, and the way that they are constructed means that they really can’t.

However, not every deck seeks to accomplish a single plan in every game. Take UW Delver Blade, for instance:


This deck has 2 distinct nonbos: Swords to Plowshares/Delver of Secrets and Daze/ Jace, the Mind Sculptor. On paper, this looks absurd. Why give them life while you are attacking with a 3/2? Why return a land to your hand when the goal is to resolve a 4-drop?

The answer is that this deck can adjust its game plan on the fly, which gives it versatility. By including Delver, this deck can take the role of the aggressor early and put its opponent to the test. By being able to follow it up with powerful threats like Stoneforge and True-Name, this deck can really leverage the power of Daze and begin to choke its opponents out early and force them into a corner.

At this point, the fact that the opponent’s life total was under pressure for the first 3 turns likely forced them to make a certain set of choices. For instance, their cantrips might have been aggressively cast to find removal spells just to survive your early game. This deck’s late game is just as potent, however, and suddenly being able to resolve a Jace, the Mind Sculptor completely changes the course of the game. It doesn’t matter if you spent the first 3 turns attacking their life total because you were able to force them into a spot that allowed you seamlessly change game plans.

On top of this, these cards work together in slightly less conventional ways. A late game Delver can pick up a Batterskull, a Swords to Plowshares can still clear the way for a key attack, Daze can still protect a Jace when you tap out.

This kind of malleability affords versatility across match ups, as well. Having access to a Delver/Daze game plan goes a long way against combo decks. Jace is excellent against Miracles. Playing so many cards that require such different answers make opponent’s sideboarding more difficult, and affords you a lot of different choices based on how the games have played out.

Some Decks Need to Solve Specific Problems

While Delver Blade is much more common these days, one of the most pervasive offenders of the nonbo issue in Legacy was Jeskai Delver:


Without such a commitment to a late game strategy this deck is even more absurd on paper than Delver Blade. This deck’s only real way to win is to get its opponent to 0 life, and it plays a lot of the Delver cards that accomplish that goal, like Lightning Bolt and Delver of Secrets. Even with some slower cards mixed in, Swords to Plowshares laughs at that game plan and seems like a huge setback.

However, this deck came out at a time when Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman decks were everywhere. Temur Delver was the premier Delver deck at the time, but it had an incredibly tough time keeping up with Deathrite, and could almost never remove a resolved Tarmogoyf.

Thus, Jeskai Delver was built as a response to this metagame. The cards didn’t really work together nearly as well as Temur, but being able to remove a Tarmogoyf at a mana advantage was a huge deal. It definitely mattered that they gained 3-5 life, but the alternative of never being able to remove a Tarmogoyf was much worse. The extra 4 removal spells went a long way towards mitigating the effect that Deathrite had in a game, as well. Being able to kill it so consistently offset the downside of a less cohesive game plan.

Another example of this is Shardless Sultai:















Shardless had a lot of trouble dealing with various combo decks, most notably Storm and Sneak and Show. Thus, it became common to include Flusterstorm in the sideboard as a powerful, efficient way to help against both of those decks.

While this was certainly a risk, the upside far outweighed the occasionally whiff on a Shardless Agent. It helped against two of the most difficult matchups, and the downside of an increased chance to whiff was overshadowed by the benefits it provided.

Not every deck is always able to have access to an answer for an important problem that works well with the deck’s strategy. Sometimes concessions have to be made and non-synergistic cards can solve some difficult issues.

Some Decks Are More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Contrary to the first point, nonbos can be a part of a weirdly specific game plan. To illustrate, let’s take a deck i’ve been playing a lot of recently:


Dark Confidant/Force of Will, Daze/Assassins Trophy, Liliana of the Veil/countermagic. These cards don’t really work together on paper. Holding onto Force of Will when you want to use Liliana’s +1 is certainly awkward. As is taking 5 off of Bob, or even giving them the land to play their spell through Daze.


However, the power and function of these cards in the deck warrant the lack of synergy. This deck is trying to execute a strategy, and all of the pieces come together to execute that. Daze and Force of Will allow this deck to push through an early Bob. Liliana is a potent threat that can turn poor cards in hand into a meaningful advantage. Assassin’s Trophy lets this deck answer anything at a premium cost.

Force and Daze are also a very important part of this deck when it comes to breaking serve. So many of the cards cost 2 mana that using a ‘free’ card allows this deck to pull ahead.

This importance on breaking serve is what helps justify including both Trophy and Daze at the same time, as well. They definitely work in opposition with each other in the early game, but the importance of having 1 Daze early is very high, as it allows this deck to more easily resolve a key threat. Having a 2 mana catch-all, on the other hand, allows this deck to get a mana advantage as the game goes long.

At its core, this deck are trying to execute a specific game plan, and the card choices end up being far more than the interaction between 2 cards alone.

Don’t Dismiss the Nonbo

This all being said, some of the best decks Legacy has ever seen have been chock full of synergistic pieces. The aforementioned Sultai deck i’ve been playing is still a fringe deck and can collapse on itself sometimes. Meanwhile, Grixis Control gets to play more cards that work well together, and continues to be a dominant force.

It is nice when every card in the deck works seamlessly with the rest of the deck. That can’t always be the case, though, and can even be a part of a larger plan. Keeping this in mind can help deck builders be more open minded to cards they might not otherwise consider.