Weapon of Choice: The IKEA Approach

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Since the dawn of the internet, it has become so easy to disseminate information that there are encyclopedic volumes of text available on almost every subject. If someone types “Magic: the Gathering” into Google, they will be bombarded by an endless list of articles, editorials, primers, and deck lists. If that someone has just learned the difference between instant and sorcery – this flood of information is undoubtedly terrifying.

Now imagine someone who has just gotten used to the idea of Standard – of keeping up with the two most recent blocks; they know how many Caryatids vs. Coursers they need and what the best Thoughtseize targets are. Now imagine that they type “Commander” into Google. Suddenly they have found a format in which a working knowledge of basically every card in the game’s history is an asset.

They like the sound of the diverse play environment the format offers, but they have no idea where to begin – until they come across someone like this guy:

KrenkoMobBoss

Suddenly things start to make sense again.

“Ok, this is a guy that works good with other goblins.”

Our hypothetical newbie types “mtg goblins” into Google. Suddenly they have gone from being stupefied to excited. They have a subset of cards within which to shop, a locus around which to safely explore. A bite-sized chunk of infinity to chew on.

Made With Swedish Efficiency

Some Magic decks build like IKEA furniture. They consist of well-designed parts that are created specifically to intermesh with one another. Everyone has seen these intuitive building blocks before. They look like Mesa Enchantress and Tolarian Academy – cards that indicate quite clearly which other cards they are supposed to connect with.

I have spent many (many!) words in my articles expounding on the value of creative deckbuilding. It may seem odd that I am going to spend today praising decks that practically build themselves. Well, if there’s one thing that’s more important to a format than creativity, it’s accessibility.

Obvious synergies and Tribal decks play an important part in helping newer Magic players understand card interactions. Once you see why Elvish Archdruid goes really well with Nettle Sentinel, it will be a little easier to see why Delver of Secrets goes so well with Brainstorm.

Not to say that the kind of in-your-face synergies I will be discussing today only appeal to newer players – there is plenty of nuance to be found in even the most obvious places. To uncover that nuance, it’s time to delve into some detail.

Tribal

One of the oldest and most beloved methods of deck construction is the Tribal approach. For those that don’t know, a Tribal deck revolves around the idea of using a creature type shared among your creatures to an advantage. Not every creature type is a “tribe”, but there are enough that they can be found across every colour and every archetype – there are Control tribes and there are Aggro tribes.

For today’s Tribal example, we are turning to Adrienne and her elves:

Awww Yeah, Here’s Some Elves – Adrienne S

Tribes appeal to players for the same reason sets like Ravnica and Khans of Tarkir do – they give players the chance to identify with something. The same way a player can be a Golgari player or a Sultai player, they can also be a zombie player.

Tribal decks are strange. They are both more versatile and more narrow than other decks that share their colours. They are made more narrow by their requirement to play cards that work with their tribe. They are made more versatile by cards like this:

Wellwisher

Gaining life is usually what black and white do best. Green has always had a little bit of extra life here and there – thanks to the printing of Stream of Life way back when – but as time has gone on, it has become less and less of a thing. Gaining a bunch of life all at once is definitely more of a white thing than anything else.

In an elf deck, Wellwisher gains its controller a huge amount of life every time it taps; it definitely feels more like a white card than a green card. The reason green gets away with Wellwisher is because having it work only with elves makes it more green, because elves are a green tribe. The internal logic might be a little bit shaky, but damn if it doesn’t make for some solid gameplay.

All tribes have some examples of cards that stretch the limits of their colour’s abilities. Since some tribes are considered to have an inherent connection to a given colour, they automatically make whatever they’re doing “more” of that colour. Catapult Master makes unconditional removal “more white” because he is a solider and Skirk Prospector makes reliable mana ramp “more red” because it is a goblin.

In addition to the strong sense of identity and the intuitive synergies provided by a Tribal deck, there is a lot to be said for the raw power they can throw around.

A perfect example is Priest of Titania. It costs two mana to cast because it only works with elves, but if it comes down on the second turn – as planned – and you have played an elf on turn one, it ramps you two turns ahead. The more elves you play, the further you get.

In Adrienne’s deck, she will usually channel all of that mana into something like Joraga Warcaller or Sylvan Offering, but other popular choices are Genesis Wave and Wurmcalling. Either way, an innocent-seeming, two-mana elf will frequently be responsible for ending the game.

Say Hello to the Robots

While you will get the occasional Call to the Grave, Tribal decks are all about creatures that work well with other creatures. Over the course of creating their wonderful game, Wizards has realized that there are fans of all the various types of permanents that can help you win.

Right from the beginning, artifacts were recognized as one of the most popular – it probably helped that 6 of the Power 9 were artifacts. Antiquities was the second proper expansion for the game and it attempted to capitalize early on the popularity of the permanent type. Its success was mixed.

Let’s just say that artifacts have come a long way since then:

Of Sisters and Steel – Zach RH

Commander
Lands
Spells
Creatures

Wizards knows that people love artifacts – ever since they took tournaments by storm in the days of Urza, they have been a recurring theme for not only sets, but whole blocks. When something is beloved, Wizards likes to make sure that it gets played. The best way to make sure that something gets played is to make it really good.

Cards like Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, and Darksteel Forge have made “artifacts + artifacts” into a powerful, winning, equation across basically every format. Much like with Tribal decks, you can have Aggro, Control, and Combo artifact decks.

The deck above, forged by my friend Zach, is an excellent example of an artifact based Control deck. Its early game plan relies on casting mana-producing artifacts like Vessel of Endless Rest, Chromatic Lantern, and Commander’s Sphere. These are joined by cards like Howling Mine and Scroll Rack that allow the deck to assemble the resources it needs to eventually win the game.

These game-winning resources usually resemble cards like Ethersworn Adjudicator, Colossus of Akros, and Sphinx of the Steel Wind. The deck’s powerful beatdown win conditions are supported by traditional Control staples like Counterspell and Path to Exile.

Because artifacts have been put in focus so many times over the years, you will find cool effects that benefit them across all five colours (thank you, Mirrodin). Dispatch, for example, gives you access to one of white’s most powerful effects at a steep discount thanks to a caveat that should be no problem for a deck like this one.

Another benefit of the variety that comes with the wide spectrum of available artifacts is the ability to choose the right colours for you. If you want to play a certain tribe, it is very hard to avoid limiting the colours you have to play. Artifacts, on the other hand, can come in many different shades – from this Sen Triplets list, to the Jor Kadeen deck that I displayed when talking about Aggro, to graveyard-based Glissa the Traitor lists.

Linear Equations

While Commander can be a daunting format, it makes itself a little more approachable by giving players another nexus to build around – the Commander itself.

There are some Commanders that lend themselves to a seemingly endless number of strategies. A newer player trying to build an effective Ghave or Zedruu deck will probably find themselves quickly overwhelmed. Meanwhile, if those same players pick up a copy of Kaalia or Nekusar, they will have a relatively easy time putting a deck together.

In fact, here is a deck list I jotted down in five minutes:

A lot of people deride Commanders like Nekusar because of how decks with him – and similar Commanders – at the head “build themselves”. For a lot of people, violating the creative imperative of Commander is an unforgivable sin. I definitely treasure the depth of variety encouraged by the format, but I don’t think that Nekusar – or any other Commander like him – is inherently inferior.

Linear Commanders are great starting points for format newcomers for a couple of reasons. First, they make getting started a lot less intimidating; they let people narrow down their crop of usable cards and focus on just the best things for their decks. Second, a lot of the more linear Commanders encourage a focus on unusual cards.

Using the Nekusar list above as an example – cards like Dream Fracture, Font of Mythos, and Whirlpool Warrior are not traditionally powerful cards. However, in the deck above, they can shine. It’s good to encourage outside the box thinking early-on in one’s time with Commander because there are so many oddities in the format. To embrace and expect the unconventional is one of the most valuable lessons for any aspiring Commander player.

All There in the Manual

Having “plug-and-play” strategies is great because they provide both an easy access point for new players, and a way to express one’s creativity as a deckbuilder through imposing greater restrictions.

A new player can use Arcum Dagsson and his or her favourite artifacts to learn the ins-and-outs of playing Combo, while a more experienced player can try and figure out what the differences between a zombie Control and a zombie Aggro deck feel like.

Magic is wonderful because it has both low-hanging and hard-to-reach creative fruit for deck builders to pluck. The more you learn about the game and grow your skill, the better you can become at customizing the level of challenge you feel comfortable with. No matter what you’re trying to get out of the game, you will always find cards that will make you feel welcome.

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