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The Web of Playability


When it comes to building Magic decks, especially decks in older formats like Pioneer or Modern, the core of the process is new every time as you look to combine cards in unique ways to make a playable and potentially powerful deck. On the other hand, some aspects of deck building are surprisingly similar from deck to deck. While the core will change, utility cards and sideboard cards often stay mostly the same because they offer effects that most decks need to function. 

Deck building takes a lot of time and effort, and part of building good decks is learning how to spend your finite time and effort in the right places. When you sit down to build a new deck, almost all of your effort should go into the deck's core—the part of the deck that is new and unique and changes every build. On the other hand, you want to spend as little time as possible choosing utility cards and filling sideboard slots, not because these cards are less important to your deck's success but because the choices become almost automatic once you learn what cards are available to fill specific roles in each format. The less time and effort you spend on these choices, the more time and effort you have to spend on the core of the deck. 

Perhaps the easiest way to become familiar with and eventually choose the right role-players for your deck in an efficient manner is what I call the web of playability. This is a deck-building technique that is extremely helpful for filling out sideboards and utility card slots in every deck you build. While the web varies from format to format because the card pool varies from format to format, once you have built your web, choosing the right cards to fill out your deck becomes quick and easy. For an example of the web of playability and how it can be put to use, let's turn to Modern and talk about green artifact- and enchantment-destruction spells.

Most decks in Modern will want some ways to deal with artifacts and enchantments in their sideboard because there are powerful decks built around these cards types (like Urza decks, Hardened Scales, etc.) and because these card types feature some of the most powerful hate cards and hosers in the format (Blood Moon, Choke, Leyline of the Void, Chalice of the Void, Ensnaring Bridge, etc.). The problem is that there are a ton of artifact- and enchantment-destruction options to choose from. Even if we limit our search to just green cards (because, for the sake of this example, we're building a green-based deck), there are 47 artifact- and enchantment-destruction spells available in the Modern format. Going through this list of 47 cards every time you build a deck to pick the right options simply isn't practical. It might be ideal if you had infinite time, but in a world where our time and effort are finite, every minute you spend scouring the list of 47 green cards that destroy artifacts and enchantments is a minute you can't spend working on your deck's core. The opportunity cost of the "go through every card every time" method is simply too high to use in practice. This is where the web of playability comes in. While our example today will involve green artifact- and enchantment-destruction spells, the same process can be used for basically any common category and color of cards.

Step 1: Set the Baseline

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The first step to building a web of playability is to find a baseline card. For green artifact and enchantment removal, this card has traditionally been Naturalize: two mana, instant speed, destroy any artifact or enchantment. The baseline is the absolute worst version of an effect that you would be willing to play in a deck. Basically, if you're super lazy and uninspired, you can toss Naturalize into your sideboard as your artifact and enchantment removal, and while it probably isn't the best option for your deck, it's also not completely embarrassing.

However, one thing about the baseline is that it moves as new cards are printed. While Naturalize was my baseline green artifact- / enchantment-removal spell a year ago, two strictly better versions have been printed over the past year. Wilt does everything that Naturalize does and cycles, while Return to Nature is Naturalize except it can also exile a card from a graveyard. As such, Naturalize is no longer the baseline effect. In fact, Naturalize is no longer playable in Modern or Pioneer. With our current card pool, it would be embarrassing to show up with Naturalize in your sideboard because there is a strictly better option available (and in this case, there are multiple). The new baseline is Wilt (although I can see an argument for Return to Nature, in general, cycling is more valuable than being able to exile a card from a graveyard).

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There are two reasons why setting a baseline is important. First, it allows us to drop any card that is strictly or mostly worse than our baseline effect from our list of possible playables. This is a huge time saver. If Wilt is our baseline, then there is no reason to even think about cards like Artisan's Sorrow or Appetite for the Unnatural (along with a bunch of other cards) since they do the same thing as our baseline card but in a less powerful and / or more expensive manner. Setting Wilt as our baseline effect for green artifact- and enchantment-removal cards immediately drops the number of potentially playable options from 47 down to around 10—a much more manageable number.

Second, setting a baseline allows us to build our web of playability. The web itself consists of cards that do the same thing as Wilt (destroy an artifact or enchantment) and are not strictly or mostly worse than Wilt (since those cards have been dropped from our list—we don't need to even think about them anymore). This leaves us with a list of cards that are situationally better than Wilt, meaning that depending on the theme of our deck's core, they might be the right choice for the slot that Wilt takes by default as our baseline card. Here's an example of my web for green artifact / enchantment removal.

The Web of Playability: Green Artifact / Enchantment Removal

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When to Play over Wilt: In decks that don't care about their opponent's life total. Nature's Claim is Wilt for one less mana but with the drawback of giving the opponent four life. If you are an aggressive deck, then you don't want to play Nature's Claim since giving the opponent life is a big drawback—in these decks, it's better to just stick with the baseline effect. On the other hand, if you are a combo deck that doesn't care about your opponent's life total (perhaps because you're winning in another way or because you can deal infinite damage when you combo), then Nature's Claim is better than our Wilt baseline.

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When to Play over Wilt: In token decks. While cycling is a strong ability, if you are playing a deck that's adding big tokens to the battlefield, then getting a free copy of one of your tokens thanks to populate is a stronger ability, making Sundering Growth better than the baseline Wilt in these decks.

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When to Play over Wilt: In decks that care about permanents. For example, let's say your deck has Lurrus of the Dream Den as its companion. Even though Seal of Primordium has some drawbacks (you have to cast it at sorcery speed), the ability to recast it from your graveyard with Lurrus of the Dream Den makes it better than Wilt. Along the same lines, maybe the deck you are building cares about a specific type of permanent like enchantments. If you're deck is playing cards like Setessan Champion or Eidolon of Blossoms, then Seal of Primordium is clearly better than our baseline effect.

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When to Play over Wilt: Your deck cares about creatures. While Reclamation Sage costs an additional mana compared to Wilt, being a creature is a huge advantage if you have cards like Chord of Calling or Collected Company, enough of an advantage to make up for Reclamation Sage's higher mana cost. The same is true if you are playing something like Umori, the Collector and need your deck to be all creatures to meet its restriction. For a top-tier example of this concept, see Amulet Titan decks, which typically play Reclamation Sage as their artifact / enchantment hate because they can tutor it up with Summoner's Pact

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When to Play over Wilt: This is where we start to get to the most questionable part of our list. In theory, Krosan Grip could be better than Wilt in a metagame that has a lot of counterspells or instant-speed artifact shenanigans (like Arcbound Ravager sacrificing stuff for value), but in practice, I'm not sure that Krosan Grip will beat out Wilt in any current Modern deck. Still, it's relevant enough that we should keep it in mind because unlike a card like Artisan's Sorrow, Krosan Grip could be the right choice in the right deck (and in the right Modern meta).

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When to Play over Wilt: When you are building a heavy-green deck (to pay Force of Vigor's alternate cost) and are playing a fast (likely combo or aggro) deck that doesn't especially care about the card disadvantage that Force of Vigor represents. 

The Fringe

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Finally, at the bottom of the web of playability, I usually have a list of fringe cards that might be right in very specific decks, situations, or metas but that are generally not better than the baseline effects for a huge, huge percentage of decks. For green artifact and enchantment removal, I have three fringe cards: Acidic Slime (occasionally but very rarely better than the baseline in decks featuring blink, like Soulherder- or Panharmonicon-style decks), Natural State (sometimes better than the baseline if the metagame skews toward very cheap artifacts and enchantments but not especially playable in a Modern format where various Leylines, Wurmcoil Engine, and Wilderness Reclamation see heavy play), and Gemrazer (which would theoretically be better than our Wilt baseline if a deck that cares about mutating ever emerged in Modern). 

Using the Web of Playability

As you can see from our web, we've effectively narrowed the number of playable green artifact- / enchantment-removal options in the Modern format from 47 down to seven (or at most 10, if we include the three fringe options). This means that when we sit down to build a deck, we only have to think about a small, manageable list, rather than having to shift through a huge pile of cards. 

The most practical application of the web of playability is to use it like a checklist. Let's say you sit down to build a deck and need a green artifact- and enchantment-removal spell. You tentatively put Wilt into that slot and then simply go through the web. Nature's Claim: Does my deck care about my opponent's life total? Yes? Stick with Wilt. No? Switch Wilt to Nature's Claim. Does my deck care about creatures? Yes? Switch Wilt to Reclamation Sage. No? Stick with Wilt

The end result should be that you end up with the best choice for your deck but in a really quick and easy manner. Even better, the choices will become automatic after using this process a few times. For example, when you build a combo deck, you'll just automatically put Nature's Claim in the Wilt slot, or when you build a Chord of Calling deck, you'll naturally gravitate to Reclamation Sage, making the process even faster. 

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As the number of webs you build and use expands to white removal spells (Path to Exile > Winds of Abandon > Condemn > Declaration in Stone > Oblivion Ring), black discard spells (Thoughtseize > Inquisition of Kozilek > Duress > Agonizing Remorse), or graveyard hate spells (Leyline of the Void / Rest in Peace > Grafdigger's Cage > Relic of Progenitus, Tormod's Crypt > Scavenging Ooze / Yixlid Jailer / Loaming Shaman > Nihil Spellbomb > Soul-Guide Lantern), you will not only simplify the deck-building process but also improve it. Basically, by using webs of playability, you not only end up making choices faster (giving you more time to work on the core of your deck) but also make the best choices more often as well.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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