Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Big Deck Energy

a guest post by Wobbles
A recent Twitter conversation made me realize that a popular casual format played by my friends may not be widely known. It certainly wasn't when I went to look for an article to describe it! So let me let you all in on a great format known as 
Big Deck Magic

The premise of Big Deck Magic is simple: players play a standard multiplayer game off of one large single deck that they all share. Our Big Deck is a five color monstrosity of approximately 600 cards. As an introduction to the format, I'm going to walk through some of the advantages of Big Deck when compared to other casual formats and then discuss how you can build your own.

Selling Points

The main advantages of Big Deck are the ease of set up, power level and complex game play the format allows. Unlike Cube, in Big Deck you're ready to play right from the start with any group of people. That makes big deck an easy way to pass time between rounds at a tournament because it's straight forward to get going and quick to play. The fact that it doesn't require players to already have a prebuilt deck is also a nice feature if there's a range of experience levels.

Better than Elder Dragons?!?
Not only does it allow players to be included that might be newer to the game, it's also much easier to control the power level than playing Commander with a new group of people. I find Commander to be best once a group has a common understanding of the power level, otherwise some people get annoyed with one shot combos or hexproof generals or Sol Ring or excessive counterspells. With Big Deck, these sort of play design issues pretty quickly work themselves out because it's equally likely that your opponent's going to wind up with an unfun, overpowered card as you are. That's not to say that you can't load your Big Deck up with any combination of planeswalkers, broken combos, hexproof creatures and Moxen if you want, just that your opponents are going to wind up with the same chance of drawing those cards as you are.

The final nice advantage of Big Deck is that it leads to complex game play depending on the kind of cards you want to include. For example, our big deck features a lot of morphs. Like, basically most  every above average morphs ever printed. As a result, there's a huge range of possibilities when an opponent plays a face down creature and a lot of great moments for surprise. Other cards like Tainted Pact or Spectral Grasp also really have a chance to shine in a format with a lot of variability and a lower power level than the typical Commander game. Other interesting dynamics include the way a card like Memory Lapse counters a spells and actually gives it to the next player to draw a card rather than the caster. Our deck typically avoids having too much Scrying or Memory Lapse style effects just because it can make these cards so much stronger, however you can play around with what your group enjoys.

How to Build a Big Deck
That leads me to how to build a Big Deck. Our current configuration breaks down approtimately like this, although you can scale it to be proportional to how large your deck is:

40% - Lands
15% - Other Mana Fixing cards (including basic land cyclers!)
35% - Creatures
10% - Other Non-creature Spells

These numbers are obviously approximate, although the mana base is the most important. Because we aren't "cheating" by using separate mana piles or Type 4 rules, providing plenty of dual lands and fixing helps tremendously to ensure that players are able to play their cards. Fortunately, the best dual lands are some of the cheapest: Ravnica "Karoo" lands, Cycling lands, Evolving Wilds, Panoramas/Tri-Colored lands, Vivid Lands,  Khans/Zen Block ETBT life gain lands are all fantastic. The Karoo lands and Cycling Lands are particularly nice because having even one karoo and a basic land ensures a player has at least 3 land drops and cycling lands help prevent flooding out. Karoo lands even allow you to reset vivid lands or cycle a land later in the game. About half of the mana base should be filled out with basic lands to help ensure that there's always plenty of each land for search effects and so that you have enough lands that enter the battlefield untapped to play a reasonable curve.
The other mana fixing is mostly in the form of Land Cyclers, Signets, and other colorless ways to help players hit their requirements. These cards are great in providing interesting strategic choices of when and what to cycle, as well as ways to make up for the loss of tempo if you have a draw heavy with lands that enter play tapped. Search effects like Basic Land Cycling can be frustrating, but a benefit of having a common library is that everyone can help look for the card without worrying about giving away information. Typically, we'll just announce what type of land we're looking for and each player will grab a chunk of the deck to start looking. Once a player finds it, every one shuffles the cards they've seen and puts them all back in any order.

The creature/spell mix really depends on the style of deck you're looking to construct. Our group really enjoys the guessing game of the morphs, but there are also a mix of Monarch granting Conspiracy creatures, Multicolored Nephalim/Dragons, and fun multiplayer spells. Morphs are another way to ease color requirements by giving players early creatures to play, while also setting goals about what kinds of lands to be grabbing. The more taxing multicolored cards help give players big payoffs for their mana fixing. This is a good trade off and creates a tension of asking players to not just have more mana, but actually get to specific combinations like 3WGR or WUBR in order to cast the most powerful spells in the stack.

The non-ramp spells in our build tend to be the standard multiplayer variety with a slight preference for splashy cards and cards with multiple modes. The standard cards largely fall into the categories of Card Drawing (Like Allied Strategies, Fathom Trawl, Rush of Knowledge, Etched Oracle), Board Wipes (Austere/Incendiary Command, Oblivion Stone, Wrath of God), and flexible removal (Resounding Wave, Lignify, Faith's Fetters, Vows, Faceless Butcher). The more these cards have answers themselves or are diplomatic, the better the back and forth of the game play will be.

The best multiplayer card ever?
The lower power level also allows cards like Polymorph, Spelljack, or Radiate to shine in ways they can't in more cutthroat Commander environments. Those goofy one off cards that never quite make sense anywhere else become interesting in a Big Deck.

Finally, when it comes to utility spells, flexibility is key. Cards like Charms, Split cards, cycling and other modal spells are fantastic because you really want players to have a wide variety of options. Because players don't have the same options in deck building as they would otherwise, it's up to you as a designer to make sure that players are making compelling choices during the gameplay itself. As a big deck builder, it's important to remember that you're really designing an environment rather than a single deck. This provides a lot of interesting options (like the possibility of including your own Custom Card creations in for easy testing, or using the big deck for 2HG or Planechase or Archfriendamies), and it also means listening to feedback about which cards work and which don't.

I hope you give the building a big deck a try. I find the easiest way to start might be just taking bulk commons and uncommons from a recent Masters set and starting there, or using a multicolored Commander Precon as a jumping off point. There's no wrong way to build a big deck!

Other big deck resources: Crypt Rat, an MTG salvation user has been brainstorming on similar lines, although his decks have stronger themes and custom rules involved. https://www.mtgsalvation.com/forums/the-game/other-formats/homebrew-and-variant-formats/787056-magic-as-a-board-game-feat-panglacial-wurm


  1. Cool! How does the deck handle tutor effects, given it's size? Is there a "reach" limitation to prevent people from searching the deck for 30 minutes while looking for something?

    1. I don't include tutor effects beyond basic land tutoring, so problem solved.

  2. Thanks for this great introduction to a real classic, Wobbles!

    1. Do you have any links to other articles about the format? It doesn't have a particularly SEO friendly name

    2. TCG Player covered it in 2005.

      There's an MTG Salvation post that claims Wizards calls Big Deck Fat Stack but its link is broken and this Wikipedia page has me thinking it's really not the same.

    3. Wizards Tower is close, but not quite.

    4. Wizards Tower is also fun! But it's more of limited format than Big Deck