Raw Power and Synergy
Deckbuilding usually starts with an idea. The idea is what directs your card selections and drives your creativity and thinking process. Today I want to discuss one of the basic concepts that should be taken into account when you get an idea how to build a deck. The first question that you answer explicitly or implicitly is “What do I focus on? Power of individual cards or all these nice interactions between them?”
Let’s put unfair combo decks aside for a moment. They usually follow their own rules of deckbuilding, and these rules almost always include good amount of card selection/protection spells and that doesn’t make any sense in non-combo decks. This article covers only fair decks, the ones that typically win by playing creatures and attacking with them, and doesn’t need to play specific combination of cards to win games. All good fair decks could be roughly divided into 2 groups: the ones that mostly rely on synergies between cards to create winning positions, and the ones that rely on raw power of individual cards.
By synergy I mean some sort of interaction between two or more cards that generates card or tempo advantage. That doesn’t mean these cards are blanks by themselves, but only that the combined value of cards is much higher than just a sum of individual card values. Good example of card advantage synergy could be hard-to-kill Deathmist Raptor in a deck full of morphs and manifests, whereas tempo-based synergy could be something like Foundry Street Denizen plus Hordeling Outburst and Dragon Fodder. 4/1 for 1 mana? Hell yeah! As for decks, Mono Red is a good example of “synergy” deck, other examples could be Odjutai Bant and Heroic, although the former deck also heavily relies on raw power and latter is closer to combo deck than to fair deck.
Decks that are focused on raw power usually play cards that do not interact with each other well but rather individually powerful. Your Siege Rhino’s don’t really make your Hero’s Downfalls and Tasigur, the Golden Fang better, all of these cards are just good by themselves and that’s enough. “Raw power” decks don’t really care about drawing right combination of cards; they just need right combination of spells and lands and make sure they don’t run out of cards. Good examples of such decks are “classic” Standard Abzan decks. Abzan Control runs good threats (Siege Rhino, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Tasigur, the Golden Fang), efficient answers (Thoughtseize, Hero’s Downfall) and good amount of card advantage spells ([/card]Abzan Charm[/card], Crux of Fate, Read the Bones), whereas Abzan Aggro simply plays the most cost efficient aggressive creatures backed by universal disruption spells.
Format knowledge implications
Knowing what the available options for both kinds of decks are is one of the keys for successful deckbuilding.
First, there are formats where one of these two kinds of decks is highly prevalent. Sometimes individual cards are so powerful that it doesn’t make sense to build nice combinations since all these combinations are still less powerful than best cards alone. Good example from the past is previous Standard format that was all around “one card combos” Pack Rat and Sphinx’s Revelation. Usually it means that format is simply not healthy enough.
Second, knowledge what are the most common synergies to break usually dictates the answers you need to focus on. This is something that doesn’t really need to be explained further. Everyone’s playing Affinity again? Bring your Stony Silences and Shatterstorms with you. Burn is back after heavy Pro Tour presence? I guess, it is time for Kitchen Finks in the main deck and Kor Firewalkers in the sideboard.
Third, knowing what the most common answers in the format are may help you build your deck around them. Take a look at GP Miami breakout deck Green-White Devotion. One of the problems that green devotion decks had in the past was that they didn’t play well against the most common answer control decks played: they just folded to mass removal spells. In order to beat that, devotion added white splash for cards like Fleecemane Lion that survive wrath effects and for cards like Mastery of the Unseen that cannot be answered by commonly-played kind of answers.
Let’s take a look at the popular constructed formats to see how synergies match with the individual threats and answers.
Standard looks pretty balanced right now. Most of the synergistic card interactions are powerful but not broken; there are also good tools to disrupt each one of them. Going back to the examples above, Deathmist Raptor shenanigans can be either stopped by Abzan Charm, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Anafenza, the Foremost, or can simply be ignored by attacking with 12/12 battle raged hero. The Mono-Red business can be handled by specific sideboard answers like Drown in Sorrow or Arashin Cleric, it can also be overwhelmed by blockers that provide lifegain like Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino or by token generators such as Hordeling Outburst and Brimaz, King of Oreskos.
On the other hand, individual threats are also fair enough not to win the game by themselves. Luckily there’s no Jace, the Mindsculptor or Arcbound Ravager in this format. Disruption and removal spells are also have their own weaknesses: Hero’s Downfall is good but cannot stop Whip of Erebos or deal with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon without trading many-to-one; Thoughtseize loses its value the longer game goes and is also weak against consistent decks and decks that punish lifeloss hard.
This is what makes the format dynamic and prevents it from being stale. In order to succeed in the next premier tournament, players need to figure out what will be the most common synergies and answers, and make card/deck selection based on that. For instance, deck to beat for Grand Prix Toronto last weekend was clearly Esper Dragons, we also saw some success of Heroic and Whip decks in the last SCG Opens, so that was something players should be prepared for. I am not surprised that we saw quite a few Den Protector decks in top 8 since aggressive decks with mid-game card advantage are favored against blue control decks. I am also not surprised by Mardu Dragons deck making top 8, the deck has all the best answers against Heroic and can ignore Deathmist Raptors with help of hasty flyers, while also having reasonable game against Esper Dragons.
Modern is a format dominated by raw power for a very long time. Threats like Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze are super-efficient. Answers like Lightning Bolt, Abrupt Decay, Path to Exile, and Cryptic Command are versatile. Not to mention that there are cards like Liliana of the Veil that serve as both threat and answer. The format adapted to that by either overwhelming raw power decks with huge amount of similar threats or by playing threats that require very specific answers. Good example of the former could be burn decks, example of the latter is Tron, and some decks like Affinity could do both. So if you are a Modern player, you have an option to stay with the same “raw power” deck and try to choose correct sideboard answers for every tournament, or to play synergistic decks you feel no one is ready for.
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Legacy at the first glance looks like a raw power format as well. The format has the best threats ever while Force of Will and Swords to Plowshares serve as unique answers that break pretty much everything. Nevertheless Legacy is the format where synergies dominate, and here are the reasons why. First, card selection in Legacy is insanely good. Brainstorm and Ponder help in finding missing pieces and also protect them from disruption. Second, synergistic decks typically run disruption spells as well in order to beat combo decks, such disruption helps in pushing synergies through. And finally, synergies are just so powerful, it is usually worth taking the risk because establishing some specific card combinations usually means that the game is technically over. Take Miracles as an example. The deck runs all the good answers, but card combinations are what makes the deck extremely powerful. Both Sensei’s Divining Top + Counterbalance and Terminus/Entreat the Angels + Sensei’s Divining Top/Brainstorm mini-combos just finish games. Please also note that these synergies are hard to stop since both top and balance are non-creature permanents and miracle spells are immune to discard.
Emm, ughmm. Sorry, but I am not involved in this format at all. If you have thoughts about “raw power – synergies” balance in this format, please let me know by commenting below in the comments!
I guess, the article has a little bit more theory than straight practical advices and decklists, but I strongly believe that knowing the overall directions and principles is as important as knowing how to sideboard in specific matches, etc. I covered only basics in regards of the topic and I will be more than happy to answer all of the questions you have.
Good luck in your next tournament and enjoy playing Magic!