Essentials in Deck Building for EDH

Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) presents a lot of interesting deck building challenges to a Magic player unfamiliar with singleton, multi-player, and/or legacy formats. Your standard jarhead Magic player may look around at the large, engulfing world of 15 years of Magic cards, spanning back to Alpha and Beta, and feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of Magical ground they would have to cover in order to exhaust the possibilities for deck building in a format like EDH. I was once there… a wide-eyed snot-nosed newbie intrigued by this new and exciting format yet feeling lost and ill-equipped to construct a deck and take part in this wonderful celebration of Magic and community. If you are in that position or are simply wondering why your EDH deck doesn’t seem to be performing as well as you would like at your community card shop, fear not! For today I would like to impart some of my experience deck building and playing in this format to those who may feel intimidated or a little lost when first beginning to formulate exactly how their first EDH decks are going to look.

When considering your deck make-up, the very first question (and arguably the most important question) is: Who is your general? There are a lot of things to consider when attempting to choose which card is essentially the representation of your deck. First and foremost there are colors. Your legendary general limits your deck in that you may only play cards that share colors in the general’s casting cost. Unfortunately hybrid mana that mixes with a color not in your general’s casting cost is out. What I would suggest, especially if you’re like me (in college, read: poor), and don’t have a playset of Timewalks and visions, is limit yourself to two colors. Pick the two strongest colors in your collection and try and find a general that will allow you to play one or both of those colors. That way, you will be able to play powerful cards you already have, and singles shopping won’t force you into ramen noodle breakfasts for the next three weeks.

The next thing you need to think about when selecting your general is what larger effect does the individual card have on the playing board? This is your general, the commander of your army, the representation of your deck and the one card in the deck guaranteed to have the opportunity to see play time every game. You need to think about exactly what it does, and more importantly, what it helps you do to your opponents. Look, I like Jasmine Boreal as much as the next guy (I even have a soft spot for red heads), but the fact of the matter is, she does nothing except present a reasonably priced 4/5 body. We’re looking for game effects here people, something with a little bit more pizazz. And not just a larger game effect, but perhaps a larger theme that you can build around. Let’s take a look at my good friend Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper. A decent 4/3 creature you will be able to drop at turn 5 every game and a cool ability that allows you to play around with sac’ing shenanigans, and who doesn’t love to sac and be rewarded for it? A good general in EDH will be much like a good general in war; they will bring out the synergies of their individual troops and facilitate working towards a larger goal.

Aside from the general, specific card choice for your deck is also something that needs to be thought about and decided carefully. In the previous paragraph I mentioned briefly building around a theme in your EDH deck that often times features your general as your centerpiece. This is different from building around a “combo”, say for example in type II or other similar constructed formats, this speaks more to how well your cards “play together”. The fact is, you are using approximately 60 non-land cards in your deck and there can be no more than one copy of each individual card. This means that you will have to find cards that work well together even though you can not guarantee that you will see any of those individual cards in any given game. And so, I would like to put forth to you the six gospels of Trent for EDH deck construction:

Card Advantage:

Often times this word is thrown around by great strategy Magic authors like Mike Flores and, in EDH in particular, this is for good reason. It is a good concept to familiarize yourself with: how to get the most bang for your buck out of your cards. This may be through straight up card drawing or permanents that allow you to activate abilities while still in play or through cards that are just incredibly streamlined in their cost and what they accomplished (see: Tarmogoyf… and yes, he really is worth $50 for this exact reason). EDH games tend to last much longer than normal magic games with greater starting life, and often, greater amount of opponents. Card advantage is essentially the Gatorade that’s going to provide your deck with the stamina to last and give you consistent play options through the end of the game. A great individual card example would be Urza’s Factory. It’s a colorless land but as soon as you hit your 8th land drop (and believe me, in EDH that almost always happens) it gives you the option of making 2/2 mans whenever you so please. Land + dude production = card advantage. Pretty simple.

Card Quality:

Plain and simple, your cards need to be good. You have very little control over specifically which cards you will be seeing over the course of any given game and so you need to be choosing cards that you will be about as happy to see as most other cards in your deck. When considering card quality also think about what “departments” your cards fall into and what purpose they serve in the larger scheme of the deck. You are going to need to be able to draw cards, you are going to need to be able to remove threats, and you are going to need to be able to deal damage. Tutors are especially helpful in this format. Anything that allows you to pick a situationally specific card out of your deck is wonderful in a world of such uncertainty. Tutors in and of themselves improve the card quality of your deck.

Versatility:

Your deck needs to be able to respond to very different situations. It’s wonderful to have a deck that is able to set up an army of thallids and saprolings and do wonderful, fanciful things once you have X amount. But what if someone pops your token producing bubble when you are halfway to critical mass? What is going to allow you to respond appropriately and effectively to the plays that your opponents are making? Removal or recovery is a great way to improve versatility (aka: killing their guys and recurring your played/destroyed cards). I’m going to use the example of Spike Feeder as a great way to illustrate versatility. My friend Charles believes he is a poor choice for my EDH deck; let’s take a few seconds and see why he is wrong. Spike Feeder hits the board as a 2/2 for three mana (pretty standard). However, with Spike Feeder, you have the option of a creature that can chump block or pressure attack as well as pump another creature at combat-trick speed or just straight up gain 4 life as he leaves play. Lots of choices depending on what any given situation brings forth, that is the essence of versatility.

Mana Curve:

You need to make sure your deck runs smoothly. I’ve always likened mana curve to gear ratios in a car. The gear ratios need to be delicately tuned in order to maximize the power and potency a car exudes during a race. Your deck is similar in that there needs to be a smart balance of early drops, mid drops, and late drops in order for you to be playing consistently in any given match. Because of the nature of the beast, this is especially important in EDH. You are not going to want to have lots of cards over seven or eight casting cost because, frankly, your deck will stall out early and not be able to deal with the threats your opponents are throwing at you. And the same is true if you are overloading on two or three casting cost spells. EDH matches generally last longer than most constructed formats and so if your deck burns out early, you will stand no chance at lasting to the later rounds that will decide critically who will win the match.

Win Conditions:

This is a pretty simple one: which cards are going to carry you home. Creatures with evasion or creatures that are hard to kill are great examples of win conditions. Permanents like Stormbind that can convert one of your play resources into points of damage in a recurring fashion are also great examples of win conditions. Very simply, your deck will not win if it lacks the capacity to.

Tempo:

Tempo is something that you will hear talked about for as long as you play magic. It basically designates who is in control of the board at any given point in a game. Tempo does not often reflect directly upon life totals, but instead resources that individual players have at their finger tips (whether that be through creatures on the board, cards in hand, or outlets for recurring effects). You need to have cards that are able to not only insure that you can have tempo advantage over your opponents, but cards that are able to take away tempo from your opponents when they get on a roll. Mass removal is especially important when it comes to tempo in an EDH game. More often than not, armies of dudes will beat out most other win conditions in EDH. With Mass removal you have the ability to come back from an otherwise unfavorable board position by attempting to level the playing field. Being able to deal with tempo shifts during a match is critical to any successful EDH deck.

In all likelihood, many EDH decks may be built out of simply wanting to play some cards players received through drafts/sealed events or cracked in packs in a casual and fun environment. Let me just say, I am all for that. However, as the format evolves and starts to be taken more seriously, I believe the strategy involved in EDH needs to be taken more seriously as well. I believe these six principles are strong foundations to be keeping in mind and will produce greater quality and consistency in deck play. Next week I’m going to be taking a look at my first EDH deck and discuss a little bit about the inner-working mechanics of the deck and what it hopes to accomplish.

Until Then,
Trent