“Originality” in Deckbuilding: Taking a Look in the Mirror

zack hineI've been playing a lot of Kaijudo in recent weeks, but it feels different than it did last year.

Typically I'm ruminating on how to classify and chronicle the top decks, or trying to tech against said decks, or trying to fine-tune version 47.5 of my oft-disappointing (but always fun) Corrupted deck. I'm a neurotic person when it comes to TCGs; I always want to be the first one to discover the next big thing. That aspect of my personality is never going to change, but I'm starting to realize that any tournament player who categorizes themselves primarily as a "brewer" and secondarily as a competitor would probably be better served sleeving up a netdeck and taking it for a spin for a couple weeks.

A player who sticks to just playing established, well-documented top tier decks will likely experience more consistent tournament results than a self-proclaimed deckbuilder. These players may be behind the curve when a new trend emerges, but it only takes a single tournament failure to observe a shift and play that new deck yourself. Someone who is always brewing up a new deck, on the other hand, likely hasn't put in the practice time necessary to (a) understand all the ins-and-outs of the deck they are trying to metagame against, and (b) likely hasn't mastered their own brew. Notice that most career deckbuilders change their deck of choice from week to week, and most identify with the role of "innovator." Consistent tournament results aren't as important to this type of player as the possibility of getting recognized for one of their creations.

I've fallen prey to overzealous brewing on numerous occasions. I played a fat control deck at the Massachusetts KMC back in season 1, and I was on point with the inclusion of Nature ramp before it had become commonplace. Still, I didn't come properly equipped (no [ccProd]Aqua Strider[/ccProd]s, not enough [ccProd]Keeper of Laws[/ccProd]), and I had only slapped the deck together the night before, so I almost missed my Tritonus trigger on two separate occasions. Fast forward to the PA KMC a few weeks later, and I was on LFN Megabugs with [ccProd]Steamtank Kryon[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Gilaflame the Assaulter[/ccProd]. I played against Greed Dragons all day. I really only tested against giant Tritonus decks since they were so prevalent at the previous event. I, of course, lost two of those Dragon matches in soulcrushing fashion.

My best finishes are 13th place in Poughkeepsie, 9th place in Torrington, and a Top 8 at the Winter Championship LCQs. What do all those finishes have in common? I played an established deck.

"Originality" is a Myth

We all play this game for various reasons. These reasons are weighted differently depending on the player, but we all have one thing in common: we like to win. Trading card games give us seemingly limitless possibilities for how to go about achieving a win, and therein lies the trap. Somewhere along the line, a large contingent of players have deluded themselves into somehow thinking that a win is cheapened if it comes via an established strategy.

"Everybody plays Light cards, so I refuse to stoop that low."

"I'm playing Dragons, but I have a totally original build with [ccProd]Hammer Dragon Foulbyrn[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Ironvine Dragon[/ccProd]. It's nothing like all those other netdecks."

"I used to love playing Megabugs, but now they've become too mainstream so I can't play them anymore." 

These are all 100% truthful statements that I have overheard. I just don't understand this line of thinking. Why limit your enjoyment of the game based off some arbitrary criteria that you've constructed for yourself?

This phenomenon extends well beyond TCGs into all corners of competitive gaming. Hop on any first person shooter and you'll immediately hear players moaning about "campers" or snipers that are "too afraid to come out and face them."

Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that the rules of the game stated that I was forbidden from staying in one place. I guess my desired path toward victory is flawed.

How about when you're watching a fighting game and you see a player expertly block and counter with a throw? Or sit back and anti-air an opponent who excessively jumps? Or evade the opponent and throw fireballs the whole match? I'm more inclined to look on in awe at the technical prowess of such a player, but scroll down to the comments and you'll undoubtedly read stern condemnations about how "cheap" and "unskilled" they are for choosing character X or employing strategy Y. It's mindnumbingly stupid.

"How the game is actually played at a high level" oftentimes gets confused with "how you think the game should be played in your perfect world," to depressing results.

The beautiful thing about TCGs is that there are a million different ways to play. Maybe [ccProd]Ironvine Dragon[/ccProd] is your favorite card for some reason. No one should ever fault you for including that card in your red/green 47-card deck. If they do, they're a jerk. You're free to play whatever you want.

As soon as you hand in your entry fee for a tournament, though, you've forfeited the right to complain about a poor result with that deck, assuming those complaints are pointed at your competitors. You knowingly chose to pilot a deck that matches up poorly against an existing strategy. If there are prizes on the line, be it a Duel Day promo, a KMC flight, the Championship trophy, or even just XP in your video game of choice, you should expect other players to play what wins.

If your pet deck can't beat what wins, it's OK to put it on the backburner for awhile. You're not a failure for trying a new deck and falling short. Just head back to the drawing board and try again, if that's how you like to play.

This is why playing Kaijudo feels less stressful for me lately. I've been playing a lot of Booster Brawl and Cube Drafting, and it's been loads of fun. If I want to first pick/first pack that [ccProd]Fearfeather the Scavenger[/ccProd], by God I'm gonna do it, and hilarity will ensue. In TCGs, you have the freedom to cater the format toward the way you like to play. Just grab some buddies and a few drinks and snacks, and suddenly you can craft a format where your craziest deck idea is viable.

The truth is this, though: in a constructed tournament setting, the only limitations in front of you as a player are the rules of the game and the available cardpool. Anything else is peripheral and unimportant.

Never Stop Dreaming

You should never be satisfied with the metagame. Oftentimes, rumors of a format being "solved" are greatly exaggerated.

"Wait a second. You just spent two sections telling us about what an idiot you were for playing original decks in the past, and took a dump on players that like to play original decks, yet you think you can get away with telling us that the metagame is wide open? You're a total hypocrite! Also you're ugly and I hate you!"

Whoa! Slow down there, valued reader. I said no such thing. The metagame is most assuredly not "wide open." Two-time champion Bobby Brake has stated in his most recent article that he introduces Kaijudo to new players as a game where "any deck can win." While I see what he means (there are powerful cards in every color), I have to wholeheartedly disagree. It's nice to live in Magical Christmas Land on occasion -- I vacation there a few times a year myself -- but in reality, a competitive metagame will always weed out an extraordinary large number of decks that simply cannot compete. Bobby has taken it upon himself to try to craft decks without the Light civilization. While I think that is a noble goal, I think it's also important to realize that Bobby has knowingly self-imposed this constraint, just to see what he can come up with. When it came down to crunch time, though, Bobby opted to play tried and true cards at each of the past two Championships, and they served him well to say the least. Sure, he had a few tech choices in each of his decks, but the core of each deck was well-established before he took them all the way to the top.

The format is not wide open. As much as I love [ccProd]Silver Fist[/ccProd], you won't see me playing Mono Nature any time soon.

That being said, every single tournament player should identify as a deckbuilder, at least in some capacity. Maybe it isn't your forte, and that's fine, but crafting concise lists to combat top tier decks is a skill that the community can never have too much of. We should all strive to get better at deckbuilding, whether it be tweaking existing lists or coming up with something entirely new. Just make sure it isn't at the expense of your tournament success.

Remember when I said I played Greed Dragons in Poughkeepsie, and that it was an established deck? Well, it was only an established deck because my fellow local Kaijudists traveled to Kentucky in a previous weekend and tore up the competition. The Greed Dragon deck didn't come together as some grand measure against the existing Esper Control metagame, though; we were all responsible for pieces of that deck's composition, since all we did was try to one-up each other. We all assumed other players would be on similar decks. Who gets the credit for Greed Dragons? I know Rob Wolinsky and Ryan Valentino were splashing the [ccProd]Root Trap[/ccProd]s before I was. I know I stuffed 3 Andromeda and 3 Infernus in my deck from the jump, but only because I acquired them first. Does that mean I get some credit? What about my brother Tyler, who was a huge proponent of [ccProd]Spellbane Dragon[/ccProd]? What about Steve Silverman, who got the list down to a more concise 44 cards, or Brian Durkin, who expertly piloted it to a KMC win? The real answer is that it doesn't matter. Other players don't go out of their way to always credit the Philly players as the deck's originators.

There's no lasting glory to be found if you innovate the new best deck. The only satisfaction to be gained is the feeling of personal validation you get for playing some small part in the process. It's all in how you look at it.

Sometimes I get this big notion in my head that I'm onto something huge with a new deck, and play games with the wrong mindset. You need to be extremely critical of your creations and ready to drop them like a bad habit at a moment's notice. Instead, half the time I'm only playing test games so that I can cross my fingers and hope that it wins enough games that I can justify playing it to myself. And then what happens? You get 2 or 3 losses at a KMC against known foes, and you feel like an idiot.

Take the KMC in Pittsburgh that I mentioned as an example. I knew [ccProd]The Hive Queen[/ccProd] was a great card, and I was dead set on playing Megabugs. Right then and there, I should've known I was destined for failure. Turns out, I was on the right track; Carl Miciotto ran train on control decks all day with his Water/Light/Nature version, and took the whole event down. That should have been a cool discovery for me after a day of grinding Dragon matchups that I was at least comfortable with. I could go home and try out Carl's build on my own time. Instead, I just settled for the best Megabug deck I could find at the time, even though Fire was clearly incorrect.

Again, it's all in how you look at it. If you set out with the idea that you're definitely going to play a pet deck and only use your testing to help justify your already made-up mind, your results are going to be skewed. If you approach deckbuilding with an open mind, but are quick to toss away any idea that doesn't meet the high-level criteria necessary to be a top tier deck, you'll be happier with yourself.

When all you do is test pet decks, your default reaction is frustration. When you play with the best decks and throw a few spicy ideas into the mix every once in awhile, your default reaction is indifference. But, once in a blue moon, when you stumble upon that next great idea, your reaction will be one of elation.


Don't narrowly define yourself as an "aggressive player" or a "control player." Don't limit yourself to only playing certain civilizations. Don't shy away from top tier decks in competitive play (if budget is not an issue, of course). Being original for the sake of being original will only leave you frustrated with the realization that TCGs will never be completely balanced. If you approach new decks with an open mind and a quick stage hook, though, you'll be much happier.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go sleeve up version 48.00 of Corrupted. It's going to be the truth, I promise.

Until next time, Play Hard or Go Home!