Building_on_a_Budget

Green/White gets the vote from the readers.

Selesnya United: Tokens On My Table

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The letter I! begin today with two confessions.

First, I miscalculated my dates. Because of the Wizards move (and subsequent week-long shutdown of this site), I submitted last week's article two weeks in advance. That article had the kickoff poll for my Ravnica: City of Guilds preconstructed deck evolution, an evolution that begins today. The problem? Ravnica also makes its online debut today, so I didn't exactly have time to log games for my deck evolution. Oops. Today is still the kickoff of my series, but I've had to modify my usual process as a result of the timing.

Second, I feel I must tell you all that I have an extreme affinity for the guild structure of Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension. I vow here and now that it's my intention to make at least one Building on a Budget deck for each of the ten guilds. Sometimes, like today, I'll start with a preconstructed deck as a base. Sometimes, as I did with Blood Clock, I'll start with a single card. At least once I'll try something a little kookier. Not all of the decks will require three-week evolutions. Regardless of the origins, though, expect a bunch of guild decks. This means that those of you who fretted over me excluding House Dimir and the Golgari from last week's poll can relax. I'll get to your favorite guild, eventually.

Speaking of last week's poll...

Poll: Which deck with Jay evolve next?
Selesnya United 3061 50.3%
Charge of the Boros 3026 49.7%
Total 6087 100.0%

Talk about close! Now my task is to take the Selesnya United preconstructed deck and slowly modify it over the next three weeks into an UNSTOPPABLE, POLISHED WRECKING BALL! Actually, not. I'm not a tournament player and this column is not about tournament decks, so my goal is simply to end up with a fun, respectable, budget deck. If it's fun to play, wins more than it loses, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg to assemble, then I'm happy.

I'm also happy if these articles inspire you to make your own decks. You won't agree with the choices I make each week, nor should you. This is my deck, and if you want to make a better (or different) one, then I say go for it. Even better, post your ideas on the Message Boards so everyone can benefit from your wisdom. As you've discovered by now, if I think your deck has good logic behind it then there's a decent chance I'll post it in the last “Paths Not Taken” installment.

Most of you know the drill by now, but for those new to the column, here are the guidelines I'll use for the next three weeks:

  • Start with a preconstructed deck, unedited, and play it.
  • Don't make changes until playing the deck in at least five games.
  • Change no more than five cards at a time.
  • Build a respectable deck that's fun to play.
  • Build an affordable deck.

Remember that these are guidelines rather than rules. The one I seem to break fairly regularly (at least once per series) is the “five card” guideline. If I'm adding a new color, making a right-turn in deck design, or retracing my steps in some way you can expect a slightly bigger chunk of changes. For the most part, though, the idea of the five-games/five-cards formula is to force me to go slow and really focus on the impact of changing each card.

Selesnya United First Takes

Now that Ravnica: City of Guilds is here, I'm excited to dust off a deck and start playing. Before I do, it's worth taking some time to look at the deck right out of the box and evaluate it. Here's the deck you get for purchasing the Selesnya United preconstructed deck, sorted into type of card, number, and cost:

There's obviously a lot going on in this deck. Below is an attempt to organize my thoughts around Selesnya United. You'll find that if you go back and read this section after the final deck is finished, you'll see a lot of the reasoning behind the path I chose from these first impressions.

1) Deck Themes: Personally, I always find it useful to identify what major and minor themes are happening in a deck. I'm not talking flavorful themes like Wolves and Unity; I'm talking about ways the deck is trying to bend the game of Magic to its will. These themes are strategies that help the deck win, and each is pulling on the deck and demanding that some cards be included while others be excluded. As I evolve the Selesnya United deck, I'll be expanding some of these themes while diluting (or outright demolishing) others. Here is how I see the themes for this particular preconstructed deck:

  • Major theme: Lots of little critters. One of the things that Selesnya United deck should excel at doing is putting a lot of dinky little creatures into play. Most of the creatures in the deck -- like Elvish Skysweeper and Caregiver -- are small and quick on their own. More important, though, are the array of cards that make tokens, like Fists of Ironwood, Selesnya Evangel, Tolsimir Wolfblood, Selesnya Guildmage, Scatter the Seeds, and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. The emphasis is quantity of creatures over quality. Scion of the Wild, Dryad's Caress, and Conclave Phalanx take direct advantage of this theme, while others like Sandsower and Nullmage Shepherd rely on it.
  • Major theme: Convoke. The Selesnya Conclave's signature mechanic, convoke obviously plays a major role in this deck. Fourteen cards have convoke, and this theme benefits greatly from the first theme of creature creation. A way of expanding this theme is to describe it as tapping my own creatures for some effect, which includes Sandsower and Nullmage Shepherd. Mostly, though, the idea here is to accelerate into big, expensive spells via convoke.
  • Minor theme: Lifegain. I suppose that the longer the deck survives, the more creatures it can generate and the sicker things it can do. To that end, the deck can gain quite a bit of life via Conclave Phalanx, Centaur Safeguard, and Dryad's Caress. The deck doesn't have anything to directly do with this life (a la Well of Lost Dreams) other than hoard it, which is a bit of a shame.
  • Minor theme: Creature pumping. If you have a lot of small creatures, it's nice to make them not-so-small. Overwhelm, Gather Courage, Root-Kin Ally, Selesnya Guildmage, and Tolsimir Wolfblood all help out here. I guess Conclave's Blessing falls into this category from a defensive point of view.
  • Minor theme: Auras. This one is peculiar. The deck has five enchant creature cards (Fists of Ironwood and Conclave's Blessing) and Dowsing Shaman to recycle them. The idea, I guess, is to keep replaying Fists of Ironwood as a way of generating more tokens.
  • A few truly minor themes like enchantment/artifact destruction, anti-flier stuff, trample, damage prevention, and sacrificing creatures are in there too, but none have more than a card or two dedicated to them. Otherwise, Selesnya United is fairly focused for a preconstructed deck. Look back at Spirit Flames as an example of how many themes can get packed into a single deck. I guess the Selesnyans really are united!

2) Mana: Theoretically, the deck should be better off than most preconstructed decks because of the convoke mechanic and twenty-four land. On the other hand, two-color decks are always hard to pull off without good multi-color lands. Hybrid cards and Selesnya Sanctuary should help a little, but I still worry about getting manascrewed. The deck has four gold cards and a whopping ten Green ManaGreen Mana cards with no mana fixers like Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, Birds of Paradise, Brushland, or Temple Garden in sight. My guess is that until I address the mana, I'm going to run into mana troubles a lot more often than my opponents.

The other thing I worry about from a mana perspective is the fact that without creatures, the deck is just stuffed full of expensive cards. Scatter the Seeds can power out a Siege Wurm quickly, sure, but how quickly can I cast it? If my opponents have a lot of creature removal, they can really slow me down to the point of being completely ineffective.

3) Consistency: Selesnya United surprised me by actually showcasing four copies of one of its cards: Fists of Ironwood. Otherwise it uses the typical preconstructed structure of one- and two-copies of its cards. This makes the deck inconsistent and unreliable, especially when powerful (Watchwolf), interesting (Selesnya Guildmage), and unique (Dowsing Shaman) cards tend to be single copies. The good news is that the various cards represent relatively few deck themes, so the hope is that Selesnya United will play pretty consistently even if it's using different cards each game.

4) Power: The good news is that I love the deck's two rares and expect them to stick around for a long time.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this deck from a power perspective and both concern convoke. First, convoke is an inherently weak mechanic in Constructed. Any control deck worth its salt is going to be packing Wrath of God, Shard Phoenix, Kagemaro, First to Suffer, Hideous Laughter, Ryusei, the Falling Star, Necroplasm, or any other number of cards designed to take out creature swarms. Selesnya United simply won't be effective unless it can amass creatures, and most solid Constructed decks can handle a table full of 1/1s. I'm not saying that the situation is hopeless, only that it's good to be aware of convoke's limitations and plan accordingly.

The second problem from a power perspective is how relatively unimpressive the deck's convoke spells are. Siege Wurm is cool, yes, but Green can summon a 5/5 trampler for four mana via Iwamori of the Open Fist or Stampeding Serow. Lifegain is fine, but Conclave Phalanx is mostly just a 2/4. Gather Courage is a weak and tricky Giant Growth. The only truly devastating convoke card is Overwhelm, and I would rather not be using convoke to cast it. It's a dilemma, and one I'll have to address. I want people to fear my 1/1s!

5) Fun: On the flip side of the power argument, tokens have always been fun, especially--for some reason--when they're Saprolings. Casting huge spells has always been fun. Stomping an opponent with trample has always been fun. For these reasons, I think, Selesnya United won last week's poll. If I can somehow make this deck work consistently, I almost guarantee it will be fun to play.

The question is... Is it fun to play right now?

Playing With Selesnya United

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “Didn't he say that since Ravnica hits Magic Online today that there wouldn't be games?” Not exactly. I said I needed to change my process as a result of the timing mix-up. While it's true that I will play the rest of my games of this series in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online, today's games were played at my dining room table.

You see, I happen to be married to a mighty fine Magic player. In fact, Sarah is a much better player than me. She's a cutthroat competitor, for one thing, but she also happens to have a genius IQ (honestly... Valedictorian in her college class, three Master's degrees, and a great mind for strategy). Although Sarah doesn't play a ton, we've made it a standard practice to get a set of preconstructed decks with every set release.

Thus the five games I log today will all be against Sarah, and all will involve the Selesnya United preconstructed deck against the other three Ravnica precons. This gives me enough early information to figure out which cards I like in the deck and which cards I don't. Next week I'll start up with a big batch of Magic Online Standard games against anonymous opponents.

Game 1: Dimir Intrigues

I came out of the gates with a Caregiver, but Sarah had a Lore Broker to fend it off. I tried Selesnya Evangel, but it got Disemboweled. Another Lore Broker followed, then a Lurking Informant. Luckily, the Brokers' deck sifting was working to my advantage, so I was able to convoke out a Conclave Phalanx, then Scatter the Seeds, then another Phalanx to put me at twenty-eight life. Not that it mattered much. When two Belltower Sphinxes showed up to block I started to realize I was in real danger of running out of cards. I convoked a Siege Wurm into play, then played Sandsower to tap one of the Sphinxes and drop Sarah to eleven life. Now it was a race, with Sarah Psychic Draining me for four while I attacked with my Phalanxes and Wurm. Cool card after cool card fell into my graveyard, with Sarah cackling all along. Luckily I drew a second Wurm, then Fists of Ironwood. Thanks to Sandsower I could lock down her Sphinxes and overwhelm her collection of 1/2 blockers. The game ended with me having twelve cards in my library.

“Cute idea for a deck,” Sarah commented. “But maybe a little too tricky for me right now. Are there any straightforward bash-face guilds?”

Game 2: Charge of the Boros

She started with Boros Swiftblade and Skyknight Legionnaire to my Watchwolf and Selesnya Evangel. Sarah tried to Lightning Helix my Watchwolf, but I had a sneaky Gather Courage to save it. We both stalled at three land. The difference was that I had an expensive hand (Dryad's Caress, Tolsimir Wolfblood, Overwhelm, Dowsing Shaman) while she kept dropping cheap threats. She found a land and Dogpiled one of my two Evangels, and I could feel the game slipping away from me. Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion gave her Legionnaire double strike, and the game ended pretty quickly after that.

“How did this deck lose the vote?” she asked. “Me likey.”

Game 3: Charge of the Boros

She got a quick Boros Recruit, and on the third turn I found a Plains for Caregiver. I blocked, then used Gather Courage, but my Caregiver died to Lightning Helix in response. I then played Sandsower and Root-Kin Ally to beef up my defense. My Ally blocked a 4/1 Viashino Slasher thanks to Rally the Righteous. At the end of her turn, I made three Scatter the Seeds tokens and tapped her Recruit, then followed that up with a Siege Wurm on my turn. Sarah tapped my Wurm once with Cyclopean Snare, then played Greater Forgeling. I untapped, attacked with my Wurm, then brought a Centaur Safeguard and Selesnya Guildmage onto the table. Things were looking up. Although Sarah had enough mana to keep tapping my Wurm with the Snare, I could tap down her creatures with Sandsower, attack with my Centaur, and make a Guildmage token at the end of her turn. She drew nothing but land, and soon I swarmed past her tapped Recruit and Forgeling.

“So you're going to try and make that deck do that more often?” Sarah asked.

“That's the hope,” I said.

Game 4: Golgari Deathcreep

My hand looked good, with land, token generators, and convoke beasties. Sarah started strong with Elves of Deep Shadow and two Golgari Brownscales to my Elvish Skysweeper and Centaur Safeguard. Two Stinkweed Imps then held off my attack, but Scatter the Seeds enabled me to play Siege Wurm and Conclave Phalanx. After that, I was able to enjoy a long game and see a lot of different cards from my deck. My Wurm held off the Brownscales, an Imp held off my Wurm while its Imp brother plinked away at me. Eventually, feeling cocky, I started my endless token assault to whittle her life away, sacrificing my bigger creatures to force her to slowly dredge her Imps back into play. It was funny to watch Sarah agonize over whether to dredge or draw, then complain (loudly) when the dredges put good cards into her graveyard.

I played an 8/8 Scion of the Wild, then made it 10/10 when I enchanted it with Fists of Ironwood. It was clear that I could sacrifice my Elvish Skysweeper to kill her dredged Imp, so Sarah finally decided to draw a card. It was a Swamp. This sent her into a long and quite eloquent tantrum that ended in “I don't like this deck!,” then “The deck doesn't like me, either!” Much trampling ensued, and I won at seven life.

“That was fun,” my wife said while shuffling. “In an I-don't-like-dredge sort of way.”

Oddly enough, Sarah decided to play the Golgari deck again. When I asked her why, she replied “I said it was fun. I'm just not going to dredge anymore.” Ooookay, then.

Game 5: Golgari Deathcreep

Sarah had nothing but land early, while I had Watchwolf and Centaur Safeguard. Last Gasp killed my Watchwolf, while Elvish Skysweeper held off my Safeguard. She played Savra, Queen of the Golgari and I convoked a Conclave Phalanx for one life to give myself some offense. I then played Root-Kin Ally, feeling the game was swinging in my favor. In a clever move, Sarah then played Svogthos, the Restless Tomb then Golgari Grave-Troll with no creatures in her graveyard. “Why would you...” I began, then “Oh. Dredge 6. Got it. But you said no more dredge!” Apparently, she lied. Sarah dredged the Troll back into her hand and into play, then let it block and die to do it again. Both the Troll and Svogthos became huge, another Last Gasp killed my Ally when I wasn't looking, and eventually the eternal blackness of death swallowed me.

Satisfied that she wouldn't look like a loser in my article, Sarah excused herself from the table to go watch West Wing DVDs as I sat and pondered my deck.

One-Drops and Wolves

My mind is awhirl with Standard cards I'd like to add to this deck. In fact, right now the list of cards I want to put into the deck is much longer than the cards I want to take out. The hope is that my games next week will help me figure out the cards that are vital to the deck's survival and those that are either nice-to-have or just a bad fit. Some of these decisions will also get clearer as I decide which direction I want to take the deck. Right now I can see several paths I might take.

In the meantime, I can target those cards I know would never survive a final decklist:

OUT: 2 Caregiver

Caregiver is the first and most obvious card to drop from the deck for two reasons. First, it is incredibly underpowered. A 1/1 for one mana is fine but needs an added bonus to make it worth a place in any deck. So how does Caregiver's ability stack up? Not only does its damage-prevention ability cost mana to use, it also costs me a creature. This is way too steep a cost to prevent one damage, especially in a deck that wants as many creatures on the board as possible. In other words, it's a small creature with a marginal ability that costs way too much to use.

The second reason to drop it is that White is really the secondary color in this deck. I almost never want to include a Turn 1 card in a secondary color because I will often only have the mana to cast it on the second, third, or even later turns. If I really loved Caregiver, then, I would need to bend the deck more towards White to allow for it. Since I don't love Caregiver, it's outta here.

OUT: 2 Elvish Skysweeper

I like the idea behind Elvish Skysweeper, since it fills a valuable role of allowing the deck to combat flying creatures. Destroying a creature outright is certainly a worthy ability, especially for a measly one-mana Green creature. The problem is that the ability is so expensive to use. Most 1/1s won't survive until the fifth turn, and this deck has no mana-acceleration to ensure I have five mana before the fifth turn. It's deceiving--the deck can pump out seven-cost 5/5 tramplers with regularity, but it has a hard time reliably finding five mana. If the Skysweeper's ability could get lessened via convoke then I would probably want four in the deck. As it is, I think I can do better for my one mana.

IN: 4 Traproot Kami

Usually I look for cards already in the deck to add as a way of making the preconstructed deck more reliable. In this case, though, I was looking for something very specific: A one-mana creature worthy of my new deck. Clearly the best non-rare one-drop in Green and White is Llanowar Elves, but since the idea behind convoke is to transform all of my creatures into Elves, they seemed strangely redundant. I then thought about Soul Warden, a creature perfect for the deck's themes but White. Since I believe this deck is going to be most effective if it sticks to Green as a base, I reluctantly skipped Soul Warden.

I decided instead on Traproot Kami, a creature that should be able to block all day long and help out with convoke whenever needed. Here is my (non-lethal, admittedly) answer to fliers, replacing the often-dicey Elvish Skysweeper. Traproot Kami signals two things for my deck design: First, that the deck needs a good number of Forests in it and thus will be primarily Green, and second that I care about defense early so that I can set up my larger spells later. If Traproot Kami doesn't work out and fliers continue to be a problem, I think Matsu-Tribe Sniper is another option.

OUT: 1 Conclave's Blessing

Except for the fact that it has convoke, I'm not sure I see the point of Conclave's Blessing. It's there for defense, I guess, since it can make one of my blockers more difficult to kill. Generally speaking, though, Auras need to be very high quality to get played in Constructed because they are ripe for card disadvantage, giving my opponent a two-for-one trade if they happen to have something like Dark Banishing. Pumping toughness simply isn't worth the risk. Compare the Blessing with, say, Manriki-Gusari. Sure my creature will usually have higher toughness under the Blessing, but a Manriki-Gusari can jump from creature to creature, pump my creature's power, and kill Umezawa's Jitte. In searching for powerful ways to exploit lots of creatures and the convoke mechanic, Conclave's Blessing is pretty weak.

IN: 1 Watchwolf

Don't kid yourself: Watchwolf is the best uncommon Green/White has to offer. If I'm making a Green/White aggressive deck or a Green/White control deck, I'm using four copies of Watchwolf. Read Zvi's early analysis if you're unconvinced. I might as well start adding my Watchwolves now, with two more sure to follow soon.

That leaves me here to start next week:

By the end of next week's article, after loads of games and changes, you should have a pretty solid idea where the deck is headed. For now, feel free to post your ideas on the Message Boards about which cards should get dropped and which budget cards from Standard should make an appearance.

Think hard and have fun,

-jms

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