Five Deck-Building Challenges for Magic Jedi

Some of my favorite scenes in the Star Wars canon take place on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. I love these scenes mostly because of Yoda’s dialog. Depending on the moment he’s either pretending to be an unassuming local — “How you get so big eating food of this kind?” Or he’s a curmudgeonly old mystic — “My own council will I keep on who is to be trained.”

These scenes show Luke Skywalker being challenged as part of his training to become a Jedi. He’s challenged to focus his mind in new ways and feel the force like he hasn’t before. He’s encouraged to face his fears and he’s even put through physical tests. (Geek rabbit trail: Do you think he and Yoda sparred with lightsabers back then? They must have, right? How else would Luke have learned to fight with one? So it follows then, that Luke saw Yoda jump around with his tiny green lightsaber the way he is shown to fight in Episodes II and III. Right? Anyway, back to Magic . . . )

In the spirit of training to become a master, what follows are five deck-building challenges for you and your friends to try. These are casual variants of Magic, perfect for the kitchen table, the dorm room, or the countertop of your local game store. They are not necessarily restricted by any of the official ban lists (Legacy, Vintage, Modern, etc.), but those lists could be used if you and your friends decide to do so.

Test your deck-building skills with these challenges. They may stretch you to think about Magic in new ways and help you along the path to becoming a Magic Jedi.

1. Rares Only

Skirsdag High Priest
Basic rules: Construct a 60-card deck using only rare cards, mythic rare cards, and basic land cards.

When my friend and I tried this we had an unspoken agreement not to buy anything specifically for this deck. The point of this challenge was to brew something up with the extra rares that hadn’t found a home in one of our other decks. I went with a Grixis deck just because I had a fair amount of rare creatures with low mana costs in {B}{U}{R}. Entrails Feaster, Skirsdag High Priest, and a pair of Mardu Strike Leader paved the way for bombs to play later like Phyrexian Ingester and Lorthos, the Tidemaker. After we started building, we ended up amending our rules in order to allow for common and uncommon mana-fixing lands, like the dual lands from Khans of Tarkir.

This is a fun variant and a great way to play with unused bombs, jank rares, and other miscellany. This challenge reminded me of one of the things that makes Magic such a great game: many of the most playable cards in the game are not rares.

Basic, yet powerful, removal spells like Doom Blade, Sword to Plowshares, Mana Leak, and Lightning Bolt are not rares. Staple creatures and spells like Elvish Mystic, Rampant Growth, Typhoid Rats, Acidic Slime, and Reckless Scholar are not rares. So, it was truly challenging to build a deck that really worked.

However, the challenge is what made it fun! Give this format a try. If your group really likes it, and if you all are willing to invest time (and maybe money) into your brews, I’m sure you will come up with some powerhouse decks.

2. Four or More

Silverglade Elemental
Basic rules: Construct a 60-card deck using only cards with a converted mana cost of 4 or higher.

Like the Rares Only challenge, decks in this format will not have many Magic staples available to it. I ended up building a creature-heavy Jund deck. I tried to cast mana-ramping creatures on turns four and five, and removal on turns six and seven. Creatures like Silverglade Elemental and Deepfire Elemental made my list as utility creatures. The games were fun, big-bruiser creature battles. My opponent and I found that these games often ended quickly. One of us would establish more presence on the board and swing in once or twice for the kill. We also found that missing a land drop in this format is devastating.

My friend and I wanted to have battles with big creatures, so that’s what we built our decks with. But like all of the challenges listed here, with some time and thought this could probably become a faster, more competitive format. I didn’t think of it at the time, but what if I’d run token producing lands like Khalni Garden? Drop a few of those early on, when you know your opponent won’t be attacking, and then cast Overrun spells that bump your tokens’ power and toughness. Or what about “man lands” in the early turns like Stalking Stones, Faerie Conclave, or Inkmoth Nexus? Or how about creatures with alternative casting costs that could be used earlier? What combos are lurking in this format? I’m sure they’re out there.

3. Vanilla Bean

Basic rules: Construct a 60-card deck that includes 12 vanilla creatures.

Vanilla creatures allowed in this variant are common creatures with no abilities or keywords, so creatures like Leatherback Baloth and Elite Vanguard cannot be used. There are vanilla creatures at other levels of rarity (see here and here). However, for the purposes of this challenge, it’s important to keep all vanilla creatures on a level playing field. Limiting the vanilla creatures to commons also creates a greater challenge for players.

The genesis of this variant is three-fold:

  • I’m a sucker for the blogging on the Magic homepage during previews weeks. I love hearing about the design of a new set, the story, the art, the mechanics, and how the folks at Wizards work hard to make every single card feel like a vibrant part of any given plane. This includes vanilla creatures. I get geeked about cards like Armored Warhorse and Zombie Goliath because the flavor on these cards is so strong.
  • I’ve had the opportunity to teach many different people how to play Magic. Most of them begin with decks that include vanilla creatures because they’re still learning the game and they don’t yet understand how to assess a card’s value. So I like to keep low power decks on-hand to teach the game to newbies.
  • Back to flavor: other than draft formats that use boosters, we never get to play with these awesomely-flavored creations. I love Walking Corpse, Grizzly Bears, and Giant Octopus! I must have a format that allows them!

There are lots of fun ways to boost vanilla creatures. You can build tribal decks. (Ezuri, Renegade Leader enjoys boosting Cylian Elf, and Elvish Ranger just much as any other elf.) You can build color-based decks. (Devoted Hero and Glory Seeker aren’t bad in this format when comboed with Paragon of New Dawns.) Or if you like cards from the Un-Sets, you can build decks based on the artist or card number. (See First Come, First Served.) Cards like Aven Shrine, Locket of Yesterdays, and Twinning Glass will also help you eek out more value from your cards.

(If you like vanilla creatures as much as I do, don’t miss Abe Sargent’s recent article about another vanilla-based variant: “Vanilla Wars.”)

4. White Border Only

Basic rules: Construct a 60-card deck using only cards with White borders. This includes cards from Unlimited, Revised, Chronicles, Fourth Edition, Fifth Edition, Sixth Edition, Seventh Edition, Eighth Edition, Ninth Edition, as well as the special releases: Anthologies, Battle Royale Box Set, Portal: Three Kingdoms, Starter 1999, Starter 2000, Deckmasters 2001, and cards from the Salvat products (which were not printed in English).

I’ve been working on the following deck for a few years. I began by constructing a Mono-Red deck with whatever white-bordered cards I happened to have at the time. So cards like Goblin Hero and Goblin Elite Infantry made the list. The deck has evolved as I’ve made purchases here and there over time. Rather than immediately buying the best deck, I decided to improve the deck a card at a time as I stumble upon good cards. This usually happens while I’m buying cards for another deck. (It was while building a Commander deck around Ruric Thar, the Unbowed that I realized Goblin War Drums was printed with a white border.)


5. The Theros Challenge Decks — All Three at Once!

Basic Rules: Set up all three Challenge decks at a table. Each deck is considered a player. You and at least one other player then play a multiplayer game against the decks. You share a life total. Your goal is to defeat all three decks.

This is tricky, and it requires a lot of space, but it’s fun. It also requires you and your teammates to make the rules of the three challenge decks fit together. It’s not perfect. You’ll end up hodge-podging things in order to make it work, but I’ve played this variant multiple times and it has provided a new and interesting Magic game every time.

An added bonus: because each challenge deck includes a paper playmat, this variant feels something like a board game. It felt like me and my friend were squaring off against three different tribes — the minotaur, the hydra, and the satyrs — as we were spread across the table with various playmats. Super cool.

“Vader. You must confront Vader.”

These words from Master Yoda marked the final challenge Luke Skywalker had to face in order to fulfill his destiny. While I don’t think any of these deck-building challenges are quite as difficult as facing your estranged, power-driven, Dark-Lord-of-the-Sith-Dad in a duel to the death, I hope they inspire you to your own version of greatness.

Have you ever created a deck-building challenge for you and your friends? What did you come up with? How did it actually play out?


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