Deckbuilding – Reimagining Dragons for a Friend

Say a friend comes over for game night, and you really really want them to play Magic with you, but there are obstacles.

They don’t know how to play, or they don’t have cards, or they aren’t interested in building decks, or they don’t have time to invest into the kind of clever, nuanced niche-format deckbuilding you wish the rest of the world would just get off its butt and catch up to you on….

Those are a lot of problems. It’s tough to get friends involved in your hobby. Sometimes the coolest Magic tricks look completely overwhelming to somebody just getting acquainted with the game. Try explaining how Goblin Charbelcher kills an opponent on turn 1 to a newbie, or what TES (The Epic Storm) means, or even why people still talk about Splinter Twin. Sometimes they’ll be amazed and intrigued, but sometimes the opposite. Be careful, and always make sure to tell them that’s not how all decks, formats, and Magic are, and you don’t need to do that stuff to win, compete, or just have a good time.

Magic has also had a strange gamut of public relations issues over the years, and must look to a lot of casual observers like a rabbit hole glittering with globs of brightly-coloured oozes.

But, as more people stay home, and discover games as a terrific way to have fun and pass the time with close friends and family, more people are going to play Magic and love it. It’s an extraordinary game and you can always tailor your formats and metas to the kind of Magic experience that suits you.

In my sphere of friends, there are enough experienced Commander players/deckbuilders, and those who have their feet wet, that I seldom lack for quality games.

Another friend has joined us as a regular recently, and would like to in future. This person got started in Magic in high school on the Cafeteria Table, which is like the Kitchen Table, but much less clean and much more hotly contested. They have fond memories, and a still-impressive collection, though it’s mostly 60-card decks from the late 90s. While I totally think they’ll one day build a fantastic Commander deck that they’ll get lots of enjoyment out of it, that’s a bit of a stretch right now.

Commander is the biggest card pool, the widest range of cards, and full of people who love to leverage the most bizarre strategies and interactions going. And you play against three of them. How does one even approach a format like that?

You can point people to internet resources, get them started on Arena, all that jazz, but the best thing to do in this situation is hand this person a deck. I have several Commander decks, and that’s a primary reason why. Despite being maddening complex, Commander shows off the best of Magic, and operates on the fundamentals for the most part, and it continues to be one of the best ways to learn about Magic in general.

So the other night we did just that, and I handed them my deck based on old exploration TV show tropes, like Land of the Lost, Lost in Space, Jonny Quest, Valley of the Dinosaurs, and even more modern adaptations like Venture Brothers.

It’s a fun deck, and fairly thematic, but watching someone else play it gave me a window into what’s been frustrating my about it. It’s slow, it’s non-interactive, it plays cool dinosaurs, but they have minimal synergy and unfocused payoffs, and worst of all, it doesn’t really create either any Exciting Dinosaur Feel, or any Heartpounding Adventure Feel. It was closer to an Uninteractive Museum Exhibit. Still cool, but the dinosaurs just sit there, glassy-eyed and wait for the Star of Extinction.

I’m going to hold on deconstructing it, because Zendikar is on the horizon, but for now, I needed to figure out a different deck for our friend to play next time. I chose the dinosaurs deck for this particular person because back in the day, and even now, they clearly gravitate to ‘Gruul Monsters.’

Gruul Monsters means big, awesome, red and green creatures. Back in the day, it meant Shivan Dragon, Force of Nature, and even the mighty Scaled Wurm.

I love those decks too. That’s what I wanted my dinosaur deck to be, at heart. But since it didn’t get there, I decided to build something new that would play to this friend’s strengths, and not drive them crazy with stuff that would satisfy my need for janky interactions but be incomprehensible to most other people.

This friend and I have a foundational card in common. We both had a Shivan Dragon or two in the days when that meant something. Before I had one, I was in awe of the sound of it. I had no idea what it did, but I knew they were out there and were the boss. When I finally heard what the card did, I was little disappointed that it didn’t win the game on the spot. Or be a 9/9 with trample or something. 5/5 with flying and firebreathing was cool, and right on for a big ol’ dragon, but secretly I was a little dismayed that this card with this reputation ‘only’ did that. Then I opened one. And another. They were the scourge of my little meta for ages to come.

I currently own a Revised Shivan Dragon, and that became my starting point for the deck. It’s dragons, Commanded by Saskia the Unyielding.

Punch Drunk Dragons

Commander (1)
Saskia the Unyielding

Land (37)
Cascading Cataracts
Castle Embereth
City of Brass
Command Tower
Darigaaz’s Caldera
Evolving Wilds
Grixis Panorama
Haven of the Spirit Dragon
Jund Panorama
Jungle Shrine
Mountain Valley
Naya Panorama
Nomad Outpost
Rith’s Grove
Rocky Tar Pit
Sandsteppe Citadel
Savage Lands
Snow-Covered Forest
Snow-Covered Mountain
Snow-Covered Plains
Snow-Covered Swamp
Spinerock Knoll
Unclaimed Territory
Warped Landscape

Dragons (24)
Atarka, World Render
Backdraft Hellkite
Bladewing the Risen
Demanding Dragon
Destructor Dragon
Dragonlord Dromoka
Flameblast Dragon
Harbinger of the Hunt
Hellkite Charger
Hellkite Tyrant
Jugan, the Rising Star
Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury
Mirrorwing Dragon
Nesting Dragon
Ryusei, the Falling Star
Savage Ventmaw
Shivan Dragon
Skyline Despot
Steel Hellkite
Sunscorch Regent
Teneb, the Harvester
Tyrant’s Familiar
Wardscale Dragon

Dragon Friends (2)
Atla Palani, Nest Tender
Dragonmaster Outcast

The Hoard (19)
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Astral Cornucopia
Atarka Monument
Boros Signet
Chromatic Lantern
Curse of Opulence
Dragon’s Hoard
Firemind Vessel
Dromoka Monument
Gruul Signet
Hedonist’s Trove
Kolaghan Monument
Prismatic Geoscope
Quicksilver Amulet
Rakdos Signet
Sol Ring
Talisman of Conviction
Talisman of Impulse
Trove of Temptation

Draconic Deeds (17)
Casualties of War
Chaos Warp
Crux of Fate
Dragon Tempest
Fearsome Awakening
Furious Rise
Guild Feud
Harsh Mercy
Kindred Charge
Kindred Dominance
Might Makes Right
Offspring’s Revenge
Outpost Siege
Selvala’s Stampede

Unapologetic, unsubtle, big awesome dragons. But there’s also plenty of cool synergies to discover and some fun and splashy trope cards like Hedonist’s Trove, Offspring’s Revenge, and Atla Palani, Nest Tender.

It also likes treasure, and wants to make a huge pile of artifacts to snooze on, and help play more dragons.

The list is also here, on Archidekt. I gave it a test run against some pretty solid other decks, and it held up and did what I hoped it would do. I called it Punch-Drunk Dragons, because it has a pugilist’s mentality. It comes out swinging!

I’m also super pleased to report that in the game I played with the deck last night, Shivan Dragon was my first play of the game (barring mana rocks). The deck was very strong, as dragons offer really high individual card quality, and prevailed after a long battle.

There are a few guideposts that I used to build this deck that I think are good takeaways for anyone trying to build a deck for a friend who doesn’t have a lot of Commander experience.

Keep the shuffling to a minimum. While this deck has a fair amount of mana-fixing, it’s not planning to spend the first 3-4 turns of the game searching its library for basics and reshuffling. I chose a lot of fixer lands that could also be tapped for {C} so they could just be played as a regular land a lot of the time and not hinge on shuffling and searching. These are big piles. Many people struggle with shuffling. This deck does just fine with mana rocks for ramp.

No Tutors. If you’ve read my stuff before, you might know that I do not like Tutors, and I think it’s kind of foolish to ask someone to search a deck they’ve never seen before for who knows what. A Tutor in a deck like this might be like an unanswerable riddle. If there’s a specific thing that they have to get to make the deck function, and it’s not self explanatory, that’s probably not good. And no Tutors means less shuffling.

Don’t give them to much to remember or keep track of. Decks that put tons of counters on things, or have crazy amounts of triggers, or force you remember a lot of stuff, like Morph decks, can be too much for new players. If you’re constantly pointing out things that that player has to do, or reminding them of how much has to happen at the start of upkeep, or what is an optional trigger and what isn’t, you might be stressing them out. And kind of playing for them.

Don’t force them to play too much on the stack. This is a complicated thing. The stack is a complicated thing. Knowing the subtleties of the stack is what makes Hall of Fame Magic careers, for both players and judges.

Imagine the mentality of a player newer to Commander who is holding an instant-speed answer. For example, a Counterspell, a simple, singular answer to almost any cast spell in MtG. In Commander, what on earth would you use it on?

I think that’s possibly the biggest hurdle for newer players in the format. I wouldn’t leave home without a Path to Exile or Swords to Plowshares in most decks that can cast it. Or Anguished Unmaking, Beast Within, Chaos Warp, etc. I have them for Lab Maniacs, Voltron Commanders, Combo pieces, etc.

But that’s because I’ve played this format for years, read up on it regularly, and know what the big threats are and how they operate. Other players may not, and may even be attached to Magic strategies that might be inappropriate for Commander. In the specific example of the dragon deck, I knew the person I was building it for played heavily during an era where the phrase ‘Bolt the Bird’ was common. That means kill your opponent’s turn 1 Birds of Paradise with your Lightning Bolt immediately, because the value it generates far outweighs the fact that you spent a premium piece of removal on a 0/1.

The more subtle mentality present in Bolt the Bird is that you should use your removal liberally. That’s often true in 60 card, 2 player Constructed. Bolting that Bird might be like a Stone Rain and a Timewalk rolled into one. You probably have 3 more Lightning Bolts in the deck.

In Commander if you Bolt the Bird however, you might have spent your game-saver on a random mana-dork. And I think new players are aware of the potential for waste, too. Bolt the Bird is pretty intuitive after a while. But they can also see 3 opponents developing resources, and cards like Swords to Plowshares and Counterspell can stop one plan, but not 3.

All this adds up to say that the awesome instant-speed interaction that experienced players take for granted might be overwhelming for new players. They don’t always know what to target or how to assess threats, and they might be avoiding the stack because it looks like a complicated mess that should tap for {B}.

I think some instant-speed interaction is critical. But in this case, and in general for newer players, splashy sweepers are a more friendly option. Cards like Decimate and Casualties of War even help new players identify what the worst offenders are on the board, and help them assess threats in future.

That kind of leads into the next thing: Don’t force them to single someone out all the time. Sweepers, unlike surgically-precise instant-speed removal, don’t single anybody out. While you can really crush somebody with Decimate, new players will likely hear it from the table and spread the decimation around. Learning that political gaming is a thing is part of the appeal of the format, and reveals how much of the game is actually played without the cards.

Giving a new player a Voltron deck might be trouble as well, because they have to choose someone to target. Voltron decks load up a singular threat, usually the Commander, with Equipment and totem Auras and stuff, and try to smash one player down at a time. I see many players of all experience levels, myself included, playing Voltron, and spreading the damage around from turn cycle to turn cycle.

That is really inefficient Voltron. While you can dance around incurring the table’s wrath, and whittle them down, at some point you have to finish them off, and your deck is likely built to do that in a couple of attacks. If you are a new player, and your gracious host has handed you a deck, and the deck immediately presents you with the opportunity to kill someone real dead, and one of the options is that host, and the cards they’ve already played makes it clear you should do that, and the other players are talking loudly about someone having to do that, but the host is nice, and you’re new, and it seems like being invited back might hinge on not doing that… you may have a feel bad. And you might play poorly on purpose, or avoid doing anything. Not really the point of being invited over and being handed a deck.

I want my friends to feel confident about taking down my life points with my own cards. Voltron decks can be really cool, and I’ve seen some amazing creations over the years. But I’d generally avoid giving a new player that kind of deck, or anything that forces them to heap it on one other player or else play badly.

As a quick aside in an already long post, I’m going to single out the game of Risk. You know, tabletop warfare with tiny plastic googahs. Maybe yours is Game of Crowns or Space Trek themed. If you’ve played a few games of Risk, you have likely encountered the scenario where one person bows out in the early going, and then is forced to sit and watch while the rest fight over one territory in Asia for three hours to draw cards until you all run out of pieces. I’m pretty sure that’s almost every game of Risk I’ve ever played, actually.

If your friend who has been handed the deck is a gamer, and has played a game like Risk, they may want to avoid that scenario by not singling someone out for an early exit, or drawing too much attention lest it be them. Playing with several experienced players can be like swimming with a bunch of sharks. Maybe punching them in the nose will work, and maybe they’ll just bite your hand off at the shoulder. But nothing’s as bad as watching from the boat while everybody else swims around and has a good time.

One final thing to offer new players when handing them a deck is Make sure the Deck gets going. Make sure they have enough mana, and the right kinds. Don’t make them have to mulligan just to find a hand with more than 2 lands. Make sure they can draw some cards and not get into topdeck mode too easily or too quickly. Make sure the deck does its thing early and often, and not after a long chain of non-intuitive, carefully sequenced things, no matter how otherworldly the payoff. Use Haste. Use ETB effects. Use the massive, diverse backlog of enablers in Magic’s history to make your support cards fun and thematic. Have it well shuffled when they arrive so they can toss it again if they want or just plunk down and play.

Beyond that, the best thing you can do is Know your Friends. And if you don’t, get to know them. Figure out what they like best to play. That might not always be the thing you gave them to try. Remember that in giving them a deck they didn’t like, you might have saved them the huge cost of building that deck themselves and then learning the hard way that it’s not for them. And if you know a card will totally cause them to flip out and wonder how that ever got printed or why it’s legal, maybe leave it out. I didn’t want to try and justify Utvara Hellkite because I’m not sure I can. That’s why it and some others didn’t make the deck.

I don’t want my friends to apologize for the card they’re about to play. I don’t want them to hold back, or question the game mechanics, or sit and do nothing. I don’t want them to struggle with the stack, or with too many triggers or with too many decisions to make. I don’t want them to decide that poor play is a better alternative to winning, because they’d rather keep the friendly vibe. I don’t want them to complain about shuffling, and if they can’t, I don’t want to have to constantly reach into their game space and fiddle with their cards when I can just build their deck to focus on drawing cards from the top, not the middle.

I don’t want my friends to think I’m dumbing down their experience because they’re new either. Because this is not that. Magic is an absurdly complicated game, and we’re all still figuring it out. At some point I expect our friend to lament the lack of instant speed interaction in the Dragon deck, or look for something with more complicated synergy, or best of all, build a deck of their own.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at building a deck for someone new. As a deckbuilder myself, I got a real kick out of the process. Thanks for reading!


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