Willie Sutton was a notorious bankrobber during the early 20th century. Standing at 5’7″, he would dress as a maintenance worker, carry an unloaded tommy-gun, and arrive just before the bank opened to relieve its operators of its contents. Finally, after stealing over $2 million and being sentenced to a lifetime of prison for his fourth [caught] offense, he was asked by the media, “Why do you rob so many banks?” His legendary answer, and the reason he is a law’s namesake:
“Because that’s where all the money is.”
What else should he be robbing, if what he wants is money? If the goal were for him to get clothes, then he would rob a clothing store.
This principle is taught to medical students, not to encourage them to get into plastic surgery, but to teach them to focus on the obvious problems when diagnosing. No matter what someone may have learned from the TV show, House, if a patient is suffering from pain in the feet, a doctor should not conduct a lung x-ray or head scan. Look at the feet!
How can we apply this to Magic? And hint, this is not a finance article. Instead, I want to apply this to how we build decks. I think that players do themselves a disservice when they hope to win by finding a card, combo, or engine and say, “Let’s build around this.” They’re often looking in the wrong place for wins.
First, let’s review the ways to win a game of Magic: The Gathering:
1) Reduce your opponent’s life total to zero.
2) Give your opponent ten poison counters.
3) Force your opponent to draw a card when there are zero cards left in their library.
4) Trigger an alternate victory condition that reads, “You win the game.”
If you start your deck-building process with any goal other than one of these, then you are doing it wrong. You do not consistently win with a deck that aims to destroy all your opponent’s creatures. You do not consistently win by preventing creatures from attacking, or spells from being played, or lands from untapping. If you want to win, then look for where the wins are.
Build a deck around winning, not around a theme.
Before I go too far, let me specify that in this article, I’m really talking about Modern. In Legacy and Vintage, there are decks that are designed to lock your opponents out of the game, and they consistently succeed. The requisite number of design mistakes that make this possible in those formats do not exist yet in Modern.
Looking at the history of Modern, then, consider the Merfolk deck. Tribal strategies are easy to build. Wizards has practically done the work for us! People, for whatever reason, love tribal decks. They are aggressive, flavorful, and easy to pilot. Someone along the way said that they were going to build a deck with the goal of swarming with Merfolk, including the multiple 2-mana lords that boost each other member of the team.
Now, it could just be that the 2-mana lords put Merfolk over other tribes like Goblins and Elves. Or it could be that Spreading Seas plus the Islandwalk ability from the Merfolk lords puts the tribe over the top. But Slivers have more two-mana lords than Merfolk do, and they have evasion that doesn’t require a combo. Goblins have access to Blood Moon and Goblin King for lordship and evasion, and we don’t see these cards in conjunction with one another.
No, I think that somewhere along the line, someone asked themselves what decisions they were making in deck-building that had to do with Merfolk and what decisions they were making for the sake of winning. This train of thought brings the question, “What is keeping me from winning?” and, instead of, “What Merfolk do we play?” they asked, “How can I keep winning?”
Do you see the subtle nuance? Today, Kira, Great Glass Spinner is seen main-deck in Merfolk decks despite not being of the namesake tribe. Why? Because Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, and Dismember were the cards keeping Merfolk from winning, and someone started making better deck-building decisions. It is for this reason that I think Merfolk outperforms other tribal strategies in Modern.
So if you want to take your casual strategy to the next level, or if you’ve attempted to make something competitive out of a line of thinking that doesn’t start with how you’re winning, then whether you’re making the deckbuilding decisions in order to win or not is something for you to consider. Ask yourself questions like, “Does my Goblins deck need Eidolon of the Great Revel in order to compete?” or maybe even, “Should Goblins be mid-range instead of all-out aggro?”
I hope this has helped you reconsider your brews, and that you get success as a result.