I brew a lot of bad decks. Like many of you, I hitch my wagon to particular cards and ride it as far into the sunset as possible. A wheel falls off? My daughter dies of dysentery? So what, I’m playing my wagon at FNM and I don’t care who complains about a wagon taking up their play space. Eventually though, reality sets in and, as other wagons pass me, I wonder why I wasted the wood and canvas.
So, I dig under the proverbial hood and find nothing obviously wrong. It’s not like I added Grafdigger’s Cage to the sideboard of a deck with Madcap Experiment or Goblin Dark-Dwellers. Those are nonbos, and should be easy to catch. After taking it for a few more laps, I start to notice, whether I’m passing or being passed by other wagons, mine just doesn’t feel right. It feels awkward.
As I mentioned, I’m not a good deck designer. When I invented Modern RG Ponza, it was a right-place, right-time kind of achievement. I was the blind pig in the basic forest that still had to get help from a teammate to find those truffles. Since, I’ve tinkered and tweaked the archetype, trying this new thing or that. Additionally, I love brewing in Modern and, by jamming many bad decks and comparing them to good decks, I’ve discovered a few of the traits of highly successful archetypes.
‘Tension’ is what results from playing two cards, or sets of cards, that ask your deck to do fundamentally different things. It’s not often an apparent problem, but to a novice deckbuilder like me, it’s a mistake I repeatedly make, especially in the early drafts of a build. It’s not as obvious as a non-bo, where you play cards that obviously don’t work together. It’s subtler and requires a deeper understanding of the game. Tension, to me at least, becomes apparent only after I’ve played a few games with the deck and it manifests as a feeling of being pulled in two directions. Some cards want me to use one resource one way, but then I draw the other cards and they somehow feel worse. That’s tension.
Tension became apparent to me when Tireless Tracker was added to Ponza and companioned with Bonfire of the Damned. Sure, they have some synergy. Tracker starts small and doesn’t have evasion, so, if it can attack at all, it runs the risk of getting chumped. Tracker is best in a deck with lots of removal. You’re playing the cards necessary to smash in when it’s a 3/2. Then, it allows you to draw more removal so you can better pressure your opponent with a threat that’s just getting bigger. Ponza is not removal-packed, so a card like Bonfire clears the way while saving your creatures. Another benefit of playing the two cards together is that you can get your opponent by sacrificing a clue during their turn to get another shot at a miraculous Bonfire. But, while they may mesh, they aren’t exactly chocolate and peanut butter.
Tension appears later in the game. You have a few lands in your hand, but either a Tracker has died or you haven’t drawn it yet. You have an Arbor Elf and four lands on the battlefield. You want to make sure you can play a land and play a six-mana Inferno Titan if you draw one, but you have that covered with the two lands in your hand. Here’s where the tension starts to appear. Bonfire is a mana-hungry card and rewards you for playing your lands. Tracker, on the other hand, rewards you for keeping them in your hand. This is tension. It can be worked around in certain situations where one card is valued more than the other, but it’s undeniably there.
Tension has also shown itself when I brew with Hazoret the Fervent. I ran across a spicy All-In Red deck online and wanted to try it out. You got to do insane things like cast a Chandra, Torch of Defiance turn one, into a Blood Moon on turn two. While playing the flamin’ hot brew, I asked myself why Hazoret wasn’t included. It seemed like a strong card in a mono red deck that could empty its hand quickly. Additionally, the thought of casting it turn two was extra sexy.
As I theoretically added Hazoret, the tension appeared. Yes, it can empty its hand, often in the process of casting Hazoret. Yes, it can cast it earlier than usual. But, the deck had a land count of 19 as it relied mostly on Pyretic Ritual, Desperate Ritual, Simian Spirit Guide, and Chancellor of the Tangle for mana. So, when you cast Hazoret, you will get to attack one, maybe two turns, before your hand is choked with cards because it’s reasonably likely you’ve only drawn one or two lands. Skred is similar to Hazoret, in that I’ve tried it in a few too many decks and found it to have tension with other cards that want me to play fewer lands.
Another recent example from the Ponza archetype is the combination of Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Eternal Witness. Both cards interact with the same resource: cards in your graveyard. But Witness is cheaper and can therefore be played sooner, potentially depriving your big, blind goblin of the dark in which they dwell. Tension.
I enjoy deckbuiling in Commander and I frequently encounter tension in that format. Living Death is a card I’ve loved for many years, but it’s also one that’s frequently cut because it has tension with other cards and strategies. It rewards you for filling your graveyard, maintaining a modest board, and keeping your opponent’s graveyards empty. It’s not a great card if your goal is to keep your opponent hellbent or if you’re trying to slowly gain an advantage through attrition.
I’ve built many suboptimal versions of Meren of Clan Nel Toth because I misunderstood how cards like Living Death or even Twilight’s Call fit in the strategy. The first bit of tension you have to address is the fact that Living Death is a wrath effect and Meren wants to firmly stay on the battlefield, but that can be mitigated. Understanding the tension between cards allows you to design your deck in unique ways and possibly combine strategies to account for it. This tension can inform your card choices, inspiring you to favor cards like Merciless Executioner, Fleshbag Marauder, or Slum Reaper for their ability to keep you at an advantage post Living Death. Or maybe you’d rather play more effects that exile creatures or cards in hand rather than destroy or discard? If you know Living Death is a plan you can execute, a card like Mind Swords might be better than Syphon Mind.
When designing new decks, it’s important you look at how your cards interact, especially when they interact with your resources. Ask yourself what your cards want you to do with them and see if those answers jive across your 75. What examples of tension have you encountered on your trail?