How to Tune your Brew: Sticking it Out Through Initial Failures

The fire of a brewer’s heart burns strong. In the first part of this short series, Servotoken goes over how to stay on track to perfecting your brew.

Manage Your Expectations

Every Magic player wants to make their mark in the game. Whether they have aspirations of Pro Tour success, create the best content that’s ever been made, drafting some wicked art to blow away fans, or something as small as being known as “The [X Deck Archetype] Guy”, we all long for some form of recognition from this hobby that we pour our hours of attention and portions of our paychecks into. For the longest time, I chased the Johnny dream of creating my own archetype, tuning it and perfecting it inch by inch — just as Michaelangelo sculpted David. As the years went on and my many attempts failed to gain any genuine traction, discouragement grew and attentions were shifted elsewhere. These days, that fire of a brewer’s heart is still burning strong, but it’s been stored away for more important projects. I know that many feel just as I once did, and still do today, longing to birth that perfect brew into the scene and relish in the glory that comes with it. This short series will take a look at the brewing process in its entirety, and analyze each step as well as the successes and pitfalls that come with them.

Commit to the Bit

First things first, all brews need to begin somewhere. Whether it’s around a mechanic designed for Limited play, a cool mythic pulled from a pack, or an otherwise underexplored synergy available in the format, a brew needs to be built around something or have some sort of theme. Throughout this series, I will be referencing one of my current projects, a deck built around Prime Speaker Vannifar. The reasoning behind the drive to assemble a brew can realistically be anything, but I chose this specific project due to its perceived cohesiveness with my overall play style as a pilot. The first modern deck that I had ever felt the call of that “this is the deck for me” was Birthing Pod, and I have years of experience in chasing that high — so the Pioneer version seemed like a perfect fit.

Deciding on an idea to pursue is the first major stepping stone in the deck construction process. One resource that I highly recommend following up on is the Faithless Brewing podcast, where each week they dive into the specific benefits of an individual card or theme and branch out to discover the possibilities that lie within. Like most other facets of life, experience can be easily gained by observing a master at work in that area, and I have never personally seen such a consistent and high calibur example of deck brewing than what’s put on display on that show. While i’m sure that there is a master’s thesis or two available about discovering passion and creating a goal for a project, I am nowhere near qualified enough to delve further into the topic. For the sake of flow, we will just assume that everyone is capable of finding a muse and picking a theme to chase after. If this isn’t the case, adopting the Faithless Brewing method of picking underexplored cards from the new set is an excellent way to go.

The most important prerequisite for brewing is an in-depth knowledge of the cards available in a given format. Whether that be obtained via years of Standard play, hours delving into the Scryfall catalogs (Not Sponsored), or a vast and well organized personal collection, it is not possible to begin drawing lines between cards if we don’t know what all of our possibilities are. For me, I am one of those that has gotten very good at Scryfall Searching. When looking into the possibilities of cards to pair with my given goal on a project, I first break down the keywords and phrases that make up the subject that i’m working with. In the case of Vannifar, the obvious things that come to mind are an efficient mana curve that works well on its own that can be bolstered by her ability, the potential for an explosive combo that she can tutor for, and cards that provide additional utility when interacting with Vannifar. Working on a mana curve is relatively straightforward and something that can be kept in the back of the mind while constructing the final draft of the deck, so let’s shift focus more toward the other two which are far more easily quantified. 

Additional Utility:

Vannifar’s is an ability that demands sacrifice. Having seen other examples of synergy derived from sacrifice, I know that I can search for things like Text: “When Dies”, with additional modifiers like “When Creature Dies” to find creature synergies or “When Dies Search”, “When Dies Token”, or “When Dies Return” to search for a specific thing that I want to happen upon sacrificing my creature to Vannifar. “Create Token”, “When Return Graveyard [Hand / Battlefield]”, “When [Tap / Untap]” are all common effects that value oriented creatures might have. “When” of course being shorthand for “When [X] enters the battlefield…”. 

Vannifar also lets us move up the mana curve with her ability. This means that we can search for specific mana values at each step along the way and assembly of the different abilities that we want to have access to at each point along the curve will be straightforward as each mana value can be isolated in our searches. This can be performed in the same search as the text search mentioned above. 

To find the sorts of additional utility that we want access to via Vannifar, we can look at any of the myriad sources online to see what other players are up to. Sites like EDHRec and MTGDecks.net are easily searched by specific card and can produce some fruitful results. MTGDecks will simply show you each tournament-submitted deck featuring your specific card or strategy to show what other players might be up to, while EDHRec I use more frequently to observe the sorts of themes that the deck should have access to on the whole due to a gap in legality. For example, on the Vannifar EDHRec page, you can see that a Vannifar deck might want access to card draw creatures, graveyard recursion creatures, additional tutors, creatures that untap vannifar, and cards to protect Vannifar. We can then take these general themes and apply them to our Scryfall searches to help guide the deck to where it might want to be.

Combos with Vannifar:

The first thing that a repetitive tutor like Vannifar brings to mind is the ability to assemble a creature based combo just as similar cards have done in the past for decks built around them. Observing some earlier attempts at Vannifar decks on MTGDecks.net yields that there is a combo available wherein creatures that untap Vannifar upon entry can then be sacrificed to continue the chain somehow. Renegade Rallier and Corridor Monitor can work together to put a fair amount of power into play to begin the chain (with Monitor untapping Vannifar, Vannifar sacrifices Monitor to find Rallier, Rallier brings back Monitor, repeat x4). I happen to have been experimenting with a newly printed card in Extraction Specialist when taking up this brew, which performs a similar role to Rallier in this chain of events. By including Specialist, Vannifar is capable of putting twenty-four power worth of creatures into play for free. From there, those summoning sick creatures are going to need a way to win the game. Thinking about the board state available at this point in the combo, there is a Corridor Monitor to work with, as well as any number of three mana value creatures to sacrifice, so the simplest option would be a three-mana creature that gives all of the Ralliers and Specialists haste to attack in for lethal. Other versions of the combo that have existed in the past rely on continuing up the chain tutoring for things like Bounding Krasis, Breaching Hippocamp, and some tremendous threat at five mana-value to cap off the chain. Experimentation with all of the different possibilities is definitely required to get a full understanding of how these cards and this aspect of the deck work together.

Attempt. Iterate. Repeat.

With the hypothetical core of the deck assembled and this article already three pages deep, let’s move on to the name of the thing that we’re here for. To put things bluntly, your first draft is almost guaranteed to not be the same as your last. Despite our highest wishes, most of us aren’t the 5-head 10d Chess geniuses that we think we are, and the majority of our successes will come from an arduous slog of trial and error should they even come at all. 

Not all Brews will be successful:

There are several formulas for “decks that work” as far as Magic deck building goes. On that same coin, there are a near infinite number of different card combinations, most of which don’t end up under the umbrella of “competitively viable”, or “cohesive and well thought out”, or “even remotely playable… what are you doing dude… like for real”. Suffice to say, making a Magic deck is more difficult than it seems. Frequently, they will all be steps along the path of discovery, where each iteration reveals something else about the nature of the theme that’s being worked with. With each change that’s made to a list, I like to keep notes on why the cards I’m removing are worse than the cards I’m putting in. Instead of randomly jamming cards into a deck list, success is easier found when moves are made with purpose. 

Thorough testing reveals all:

Most of us aren’t good enough at the game to work out how a card will react against the meta-game upon jamming it into a list. Even the best deck builders and pilots from Saffron Olive to Reid Duke spend a great deal of time testing and modifying the decks that they’re playing and showcasing. There’s no shame in running a couple of cards through some games to see how they perform, even if there’s a common consensus around them already. For example, toward the beginning and in the early days of the format, Karn, the Great Creator was classified as a flat out bad card. It came down too late, there weren’t enough reasonable cards to grab with it, and the format was generally hostile to planeswalkers with how many creatures were around. It seems silly to think that Karn is anything shy of amazing today, but a couple of years ago his inclusion in lists was completely laughable. People did some testing though, they continued to stick him into various shells, and eventually he became the key piece of one of the most powerful and oppressive decks in the format. Learning what’s good and what works takes time. This is a very long winded way of saying that our first thoughts aren’t always necessarily correct, and that changes and shifts can make cards that we thought were bad good again. If a brew isn’t working, it’s ok to make changes to the core concept, to start over from the beginning of the process, and to make iterative changes. Keeping notes will help with organization, but it’s all a journey of discovery and growth as a deck builder.

Your first draft probably won’t be your last:

This was covered earlier, but it bears repeating. Your deck list will always be changing. Even “perfect” or “solved” decks shift and sway with the ever-evolving meta game. At the moment, my Vannifar deck is at a place that i’m happy with, but just last week I saw a 5-0 list of someone who was following a similar train of thought, and it completely changed how I was looking at the deck. New information comes in all the time, and it’s your job as a brewer and tuner to translate that into the changes that your deck requires – and it always needs changes. I’ll close with where my Vannifar list is at today. It’s far from perfect, and the more I play the deck, the more holes I see. The more holes I see, the more I think about how to patch them… which in turn creates even more holes further down the line. It’s a constantly evolving process, but I’m happy with where it’s at right now.

Long story short, the deck building process is one that requires time, patience, practice, and commitment to perfect, and even then you’ll never perfect it. Its about the journey of growth as a player, about learning from your own and other’s mistakes, and reflecting on your work constantly to see where improvements can fit in. Even the best and most efficient lists undergo constant changes and scrutiny. The more you brew, the better you’ll do, and the more attention that a project gets the more streamlined it becomes. Don’t be discouraged if the first, second, or ninth attempts weren’t “the one”. Just ask my thirty-eight pages of decks on my MTGGoldfish page. Good things don’t come to those who wait, good things come to those who try and fail and try again. It’s my hope that your brewer’s journey is just as much about the trip as it is the destination.

That’s all for this one. This will be a recurring series here on the site as we go deeper into the world of deck building. If there are any aspects of the topic that you want to see covered, drop me a line and we can steer in that direction! As always, I love and appreciate your feedback, and I hope you enjoy the content. Until next time, stay safe, play smart, and thanks for reading. 

  • Publisher

    ServoToken has been playing competitive magic since 2011, spending a majority of that time living in the shoes of a player on a strict budget. After investing a lot of time learning how to make the best of a bad situation, his goals today are to spread those lessons to the often-ignored population of Magic players who can’t afford to drop a car payment on a new deck every couple of months. His mantra is that “You don’t need to play mono-red to do well on a budget”. These days, you can typically find him deep in the archives of Scryfall searching for new cards to brew around or making tweaks to the Pioneer Budget deck spreadsheet on his unending mission to bring his favorite format to the people on the cheap.

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