K.I.S.S. - A Deckbuilding Rule

Feature Article from Conley Woods
Conley Woods
2/14/2011 9:48:00 AM
submit to reddit » Print «

For the last couple of weeks I have either mentioned, or focused on Necrotic Ooze in some capacity. The majority of this has been focused on the combo he provides in Extended to push decks that can accommodate it over the edge. That combo, for anyone not in the know, requires the following:

Necrotic Ooze in play
Devoted Druid plus Grim Poppet in the Graveyard

This set up allows you to add a counter on to the Ooze via the Druid and then remove it via the Poppet to begin killing all of the opponent's men. Once you get an untap step with the Ooze, he now gets to tap for a Green mana during each iteration of the ability. If you can use the stack properly and respond to each removing of a counter by tapping it again etc, you generate infinite mana and infinite untaps of your Ooze this way.

From there the job is made easy as any number of scenarios can occur. With a Fauna Shaman in the yard you get to tutor every single creature into the yard. With a Merfolk Looter you get to mill your whole deck. This inevitably ends up in some way to utilize the infinite mana, like a Molten-Tail Masticore or a Quillspike.

While those may be the win conditions I have mentioned, the fact is that the combo is fairly open ended and can utilize any card that wants a bunch of untaps or mana. A lot of these suggestions have come up in the forums or in person when talking about the deck. Everything from Spikeshot Elder to Scrib Nibblers has been given out as an idea and while none of them fail at winning and they all work, they also tend to be extraneous in application. K.I.S.S. Is an acronym used in a lot of things that stands for Keep It Simple (&) Stupid and just like in most things, Magic can easily borrow that lesson here as well.

Some time ago there was an article written titled “The Danger of Cool Things.” That article described the exact pitfall we are going to discuss today. Essentially, players tend to choose decks, plays, or lines of thinking that fall under the “cool” category even when there are better choices involved. We play to our own egos more than we should and as a result we tend to value things that have no actual value.

Today, I want to limit that discussion purely to deck building as I see this problem happen all of the time, and even used to fall into the trap a little too often myself. You can only be so clever before you begin to hinder your chances at success because you are just trying to show off. You found something cool and unique, there is no reason to continue down that path until you have something totally unplayable and hyper-unique.

When building decks, the goal is to keep things as streamlined and to the point as possible. If we can maximize both the application of our deck while minimizing the fluff that it takes to get going, we are rewarded with efficiency To understand this best, you can begin looking at an combo ever. Lets go to a fairly simple one in Dredge.

Dredge may not seem like a combo deck right off the bat, but it was in fact trying to assemble a combo. Instead of most combo decks that want to draw their pieces, Dredge looked to mill them. Dredge had a pretty efficient combo of getting a bunch of Bridge from Belows into their yard, using the flashback portion of a Dread Return to get back a Flame-Kin Zealot and then attacking for a ton. There was no written rule that this had to be the win mechanism though.

Imagine instead that the combo required those same Bridge from Belows in the graveyard, but now to win, you needed to flashback 3 separate Dread Returns targeting a Juniper Order Ranger, a Nantuko Husk, and a Murderous Redcap. With this sequence, you get to sacrifice your Murderous Redcap infinite times to Shock the opponent for each iteration. Technically you are still winning the game but I think it is a fair assumption that most everyone recognizes this second sequence to be much worse.

But why?

You see, it is pretty easy to recognize the problem when it is laid out in such an extreme example,but yet players miss it all the time when they do it in their own brews. K.I.S.S. Is very much something that applies here and yet the mistake to forget about it is made over and over again. Let's break down some of the reasons that the Juniper kill is inferior out of Dredge.

Maximize Deck Capacity

Decks are only 60 cards and there are a lot of sweet cards printed these days, so robbing yourself of space if probably not the best move. If you just look at the two combo kills from a pure numbers perspective you can see a huge difference. If we account for the parts of the combo that both decks share and remove the from the equation, we are left with one deck utilizing:

1 Flame-Kin Zealot

While the other deck decides to utilize:

1 Juniper Order Ranger, 1 Murderous Redcap, 1 Nantuko Husk

That is 3 times the deck space being used over the first example despite both accomplishing the same goal. In addition, it is likely that the first list only runs 3 Dread Return while the later absolutely requires 4. With a slim downed combo, we are able to run more enablers or dredgers which is important for our consistency. Think about the fact that Dredge hates drawing its combo pieces due to them having essentially a zero impact in your opening hand.

In the first scenario we are simply less likely to do so. This allows for more explosive draws that actually accomplish something as opposed to clunky hands with a bunch of our combo that we most certainly want in the graveyard. Logistically, it is just a nightmare to waste this type of space, but obviously the numbers are not the only deterrent.

The Durdle Factor

So I may have stole LSV's term, but I think it applies aptly here. Basically the Durdle factor is the amount of steps it takes to get from point A, which is a normal state of Magic, to point B, which is your opponent being dead. The longer in between these two points, or the more durdling that occurs, the more chances your opponent has to interact with you and thus disrupt or even stop your combo.

So again, if we look at our Dredge example and remove the common set up from both sides, we are left with the following:

Deck A: Mill a single Dread Return and Flame-Kin Zealot. Flash back Dread Return targeting Flame-Kin Zealot. Attack

Here, we can see that our opponent has an opportunity to interact with us in three areas. 1- They are given a finite amount of time to remove our graveyard or the Dread Return equal to the time it takes us to find a Dread Return plus a Zealot. 2- They are given the ability to interact with us flashing back the Dread Return via something like a Counterspell. 3- They supply some type of Fog effect or way to not die in combat and then answer your token swarm before the following turn. Now obviously all of these scenarios are awkward, but there are always going to be interaction points in Magic. Compare this to the other kill mechanism.

Deck B: Mill 3 Dread Returns, 1 Juniper Order Ranger, Nantuko Husk, and Murderous Redcap. Flashback Dread Return targeting Juniper Order Range, again on Nantuko Husk, and again on Murderous Redcap. Sacrifice your Murderous Redcap to your Nantuko Husk and use the triggered ability from Juniper Order Ranger to repeat the process.

Here we are taking so many additional steps to get from point A to point B (or Durdling, as it were) that our opponent is given more opportunity to interact with us. Because we have to mill 3 times the amount of cards to successfully pull off our interaction, they are given more time to find graveyard hate. Then, because we are flashing back 3 Dread Returns, our opponent is given more time to counter one (and unlike the previous example, if one does get countered, we likely do not have a spare to cast again) and even given additional cards to do so (Mindbreak Trap stops the second scenario but not the first). To top all of that off, because we are relying on 3 different individual creatures, the opponent can even remove our Juniper Order Ranger while the first Persist trigger is on the stack to stop us from winning, giving them an entirely different point of interaction not available in the first scenario.

To refine our idea, it is best to keep the durdling to a minimum (I had to, sorry). The more steps we add to our combo, the more likely our opponent is going to be able to interact with us which is a bad thing. Keep things streamlined and simple and the opponent has less cards and less opportunity to spoil all of your fun.

Maximize Speed

While this idea piggybacks off of the durdle factor, it does incorporate some new ideas into the mix. Once again, lets reference the various scenarios each deck must meet to fully combo off on the opponent. In this case, since the vehicle is the same, as we are looking to dredge all of our pieces, lets look at how many passengers are going on the trip, factoring out the common pieces like Narcomoeba and Bridge from Below

Deck A: 1 Dread Return, 1 Flame Kin Zealot

Deck B: 3 Dread Return, 1 Juniper Order Ranger, 1 Nantuko Husk, 1 Murderous Redcap.

If we then make the very short Leap to see that the amount of cards required in the yard is directly correlated to the amount of time it takes to get them there, we begin to see more issues with the second deck. We have essentially tripled the time, on average, that it is going to take us to find what we need. This means that the durdle effect not only has more time to be put into action, but our opponent also just has a better chance of being able to kill us before we finish showing off.

If all combo decks began to give the aggressive decks 3 times the amount of time to win in, combo decks would basically be obsolete. A combo like dredge relies on its consistency and speed to overtake aggro decks and sneak under the interactive spells from a control player. If we slow down our combo by doing extraneous things, we invite both of those scenarios to take form.

A Better Card is a Better Card

When all things are equal, the better card is usually the right way to go. This doesn't apply so much to our dredge scenario, as all things are certainly not equal with different numbers and kill mechanisms, so lets go back to the Necrotic Ooze combo to wrap this up.

Once we have untapped with an Ooze in play and the combo in our yard, we are en route to winning that turn. In the original list, Quillspike and Molten-Tail Masticore were the designated kills and both had their own benefits as the Masticore allowed you to win without going to combo (important due to Condemn, Great Sable Stag etc) while the Quillspike beat cards like Leyline of Sanctity. This means that while we had multiple ways to win, each had a unique role to. For now, lets focus on the Molten-Tail Masticore though.

It is totally possible that a player could replace the Masticore with just about anything. Scrib Nibblers is an option just as Spawnsire of Ulamog is one. On the one hand, both of these other options does only require 1 slot in the main deck (the Spawnsire requires 1 additional sideboard slot), so thus far, all things are equal. Why then, did we choose the Masticore over the Nibblers? Well, the Masticore is just better.

In almost all situations, if I told you that you could draw a Molten-Tail Masticore or a Scrib Nibblers with the intention of casting it, you would choose the Masticore. While it is true that during your actual combo both pieces work equally well, the Scrib Nibblers is just a non-factor in every other scenario while the Masticore can legitimately win games by itself at times.

Throwing a card like Scrib Nibblers into your deck may seem cute, and I suppose it is, but it is unnecessary and essentially just worse than a Masticore. Avoid doing the cool thing just because it is cool and your record will thank you at the end of the day.


It is easy to get caught up in the fray when working on decks. These are your creations after all and you want to use them to express yourself. While all of that is understood, there is a bottom line here too and that is winning. When you begin to do things just for the sake of doing them, your winning percentage drops as a result. Every card choice in your deck should be made in a calculated to defined way.

If I were to ask you why you were running Scrib Nibblers over Molten-Tail Masticore as your win condition and you could not give a valid reason that leads to more wins, switch it! There are reasons to make card choices but “I like them” is not one of them. Keep it simple and stupid and good things will happen. Thanks for reading!

--Conley Woods--

submit to reddit » Print «