The Perfect Mix: A Deckbuilding Primer

Hey all, sorry for the long wait on content.  I have to admit, I was having some trouble motivating myself to write back when the Dragon Express combo deck was the big thing, because I find decks like that really tiresome.  Also, other things happened.  You know, life.

But I’m back!  I’ve had several article ideas in the last month or so, and I’m eager to get at least some of them out.   I haven’t tested a lot of decks extensively enough to write about a post-Crystal Games deck, let alone digesting the impact of the bannings, so today I’m going to talk more general theory.  Specifically, I want to talk about deckbuilding.  This article is likely to be primarily of interest to new players, but I hope even veterans might find something to think about.

My plan is to go through my usual process of deck construction, outlining what I think about, and what pitfalls I think come up most often.  I’m focusing mostly on building a constructed deck from a fairly large collection.  If you’re building a sealed or draft deck, or don’t have many cards, much of this will still apply, but you’ll be constricted on some of it, particularly the concept.

I’ll be talking about plenty of competitive decks in this article, just because those are the ones I’ve examined before on the site, but good deckbuilding isn’t just about winning tournaments.  Even if your deck idea is more fun than powerful, making it do whatever it does as effectively as possible maximizes its chances of success.  If your deck just wants to make people shuffle their decks a lot, or play as many different Pinkie Pies as possible, you want to build it so that it has the best chance of achieving that goal on the table.

Step 1: Concept 
Obviously the first step in building a deck is figuring out what kind of deck you want it to be.  How detailed your original idea is can vary a lot.  For the deck that originally became Charlotte’s Tower, the very first idea was “we want a deck that maximizes the value of the DJ main.”  For Dream Quest, the original inspiration was the realization that adding a third color to the pink/white decks others had been using would be both easy and explosive.  I made a recent casual deck (a version of which I believe Enterplay is going to post on their Facebook someday) just based on “I  like Raven, unicorn battlemages seem cool, let’s see what we can do with this.”

The point is, the initial inspiration for a deck can come from almost anywhere, and be incredibly sketchy.  But before you sit down and start building a deck for real, you need to have more than that.  By the time I’m done concepting a deck, I want to know at least the following, each of which I’ll talk about below:

  • How does the deck aim to win?
  • What colors do I think will serve this deck best?
  • What color do I want my main character to be?
  • What kinds of cards am I going to be looking to use in this deck?

How does the deck aim to win?  There are a couple of distinct ways to win pony games, some of which I talk about in my first theory article.  The most straightforward is through the score phase: confronting problems and winning problem faceoffs, and trying to do that faster than your opponent does.  It isn’t the only way, though.  You can also try to win via troublemakers by beating up your own villains, or via your main phase, relying on things like Fashion Week (most of the combo decks do this).  You can even plan on winning however’s convenient after shutting the opponent down, like Charlotte’s Tower does.

Most decks are going to want to at least be able to confront a problem from time to time, since those VPs are often close to free, but remembering your primary source of victory dictates a lot about future decisions.  For example, if you’re planning to aggressively confront problems, you need more friends, and more cheap friends, in your deck than if you’re trying to stall the game out with troublemakers or defeat villains with a powerful main character.  Conversely, in a score phase deck, you likely don’t want any troublemakers at all, certainly not many, whereas in a slower deck they’re critical to slow your opponent down.

What colors do I think will serve the deck best?  You probably already know some of these from your initial concept, but often not all of them, and it’s useful to know them all before you start building in earnest, just because it helps to narrow down the field!  Often the best way to decide this is to look at the combination of concept and victory condition and think about how they interact.

For example, when we were designing Charlotte’s Tower, we decided that we’d try to stall the game out, because DJ generates a card every turn, so she creates more value the longer the game goes.  (It’s an open question as to whether we were right that this truly maximizes DJ specifically, but we certainly ended up with a strong deck from it.)  Certainly before Crystal Games and probably even now, purple was bar-none the best color for extending the game, since the move-home cards like Twilight Sparkle – Ursa Vanquisher and I Just Can’t Decide! are so good at defending troublemakers.  So by thinking about the concept, we determined the victory method, and that led us to purple as a second color.

If I were planning to make a deck that wins the game through winning Fashion Weeks (and bringing them back with cards like Eff Stop), I’d obviously be using white as one color.  In theory, of course, since I want to get most of my points through white’s cards that generate them in the main phase, I could just run only white cards.  Alternately, I’d want to look for a second color that patches some issues that I think are likely with the main plan, or provides cards that work well with it.  (And being able to confront your own problem so you don’t need the full 15 Fashion Week points is usually nice, too.)  In this case, blue and purple seem like good options at first glance.  Blue provides cards that get better in faceoffs, like Hairpin Turn, which are especially good at winning Fashion Weeks.  Purple provides powerful events and cards which reward you for playing events, both of which work well with Eff Stop.  Orange is also a possibility, with Plum Tuckered Out and Out of Action making sure you have excellent targets for Fashion Week.  Each will produce a distinct deck, but it’s important to pick one early, lest you drown in options.

What color do I want my main character to be?  Again, many decks start with the main character or a key card with relatively high requirement, and so often you already know this.  In some cases, though, it’s not always clear.  For example, with the previous white deck, Eff Stop and Fashion Week are cards with relatively low requirements that don’t form the backbone of an early game.  Meanwhile, most of white’s main characters aren’t very powerful, and none of them contribute directly to advancing the game plan.  Blue isn’t a lot better off, so if you’ve decided to run that as your secondary you might be stuck, but purple has a main character tailor made to run lots of events: Twilight Sparkle – Gala Greeter.

It’s important to decide on your main’s color early, if not on the exact card, since starting with 1 power of a certain color on the table opens up different options for the cards you hope to play in the early game or use to meet higher requirements.  In most cases, especially given the relatively low number of good main characters currently available, determining your main’s color also determines your specific main character, but it doesn’t always.  Purple in particular has a swarm of fine-but-unspectacular main characters to choose from.

What kinds of cards am I looking to use in this deck?  With only 45 cards in your deck, you can’t just throw things in willy-nilly, even if your deck is only one color.  It’s really helpful to have a rough idea of the kinds of cards you’ll want.  For Tower, we knew we wanted:

  • At least a few powerful troublemakers, in a mix of villain and non-villain (so we could attempt to score points ourselves) and including Nightmare Moon
  • Several good ways to defend those troublemakers
  • 6-9 ways to open up purple
  • Cards to enhance or support our troublemakers
  • Some way to win the game once the opponent was locked out

Obviously this is nowhere near a complete deck, but it’s really helpful to know what kinds of cards to pull out in the initial pass to form the skeleton of the deck.

For our Fashion Week deck, the list probably looks something like:

  • The maximum number of Fashion Weeks
  • Cards that want to be in faceoffs or benefit from winning them
  • Cards that help us win faceoffs
  • Cards that bring Fashion Week back to use again
  • Some cards to prevent our opponent from winning while we’re setting this up
  • 6-9 cards to unlock our secondary color (if we have one)

Step 2: Initial Construction 
Once you’ve finished with the deck concept, I find the best plan is usually to just dig through your binders, card box, ponyhead, or whatever and pull out everything that fits your list of things you want.  Don’t worry if you get more than you need – it’s much easier to look at everything at once and then cut cards later.  Once you’ve done that, you want to figure out how many of each type of card you want.  This is more an art than a science, but here are some guidelines.

Copies of Individual Cards: I almost always run 3 copies of cards I want in my deck at all, but this isn’t always right, and it’s possible I do it more often than I should.  Clearly any card that is key to your strategy should probably be a 3-of, doubly so for cards that you want to draw multiple copies of, like events.  If there’s a card you want to draw one of, but you don’t need it early in most games, and you’d rather not draw more, two is a reasonable number.  The Bell Tower in early versions of Charlotte’s Tower is a good example, or Monstrous Manual in some decks.  I almost never run single copies of cards, but there are a few cases where I might consider it.  The first is if I have ways to search my deck for it or increase my chances of seeing it, like Gyro or Applejack – Farm Foremare.  The second is if I’m not sure if the card is something I want in the deck or not, and I’m trying it out.

Numbers of Cards of a Type: Sometimes you want more than three of a certain type of broad effect in your deck, so just running three of the best card won’t cut it.  Most often this happens with entry in your secondary color, but it can also come up with things like troublemakers in a slow deck, or support events in your score phase deck.  There’s no substitute for testing, of course, but the rule of thumb for entry into a second color is 6-9 copies, which should give you a good idea of the frequency of those.  (I personally usually go for seven.)  For something where it isn’t just important that you get one early, but that you one or more early and several over the course of the game, like troublemakers in a very defensive deck like Charlotte’s Tower, I personally like between 10 and 15 copies.  For backbone cards where you just want scads, like friends in score phase decks, you might be leery of going below 24 or so.  For all this stuff, some math can help a lot.  Calculating the odds of drawing something within a certain number of cards is done using hypergeometric distribution, which is apparently pretty complicated math, but thankfully since we live in the future, there’s an excellent automated online calculator.  (Edit: vikingerik over on Reddit made one with some clearer card game terms you might want to try instead.)  Using it can really help you get a feel for these kinds of numbers.  For example, if we wanted to check out the math on my preferred seven entry cards plan, we’d find out that I have around a 66% chance of getting an entry friend in my opening hand, and that that chance rises to 81% by the time I’ve drawn three more cards.  At the end of the day testing is always the best answer, but the math can help you get a good idea of where to start.  Of course, if there simply aren’t enough cards of the appropriate type, or the ones available are unacceptably low powered, you may have to settle for fewer or rethink the concept.  (This could happen early on for entry in some colors, especially blue and orange.)

While I’m pulling these cards, I also generally put aside cards that I think might make the deck that I didn’t think to note.  In some cases these are just cards in-color that are generically good, like Two Bits.  In other cases, they’re cards that seem like they might be good in the deck but I forgot about – this is how Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot! ended up in Charlotte’s Tower.

One way or another, you want to end up with all of the cards that might be in the first draft of the deck laid out in front of you.  Once you’re done with that, cut it down to 45 cards.  (Obviously I can’t make you run 45, but it’s really the best plan, I promise.  Even in a deck designed primarily to be fun, you’ll likely have more fun if your deck does its thing more often, and the best way to do that is run 45.)

Cutting down can be a real pain.  You’ll often end up wanting to run far more cards than really fit.  Here are some suggestions for how to sort it out.

Play the Best of Each Type: It seems obvious once you figure it out, but surprisingly often I see decks that violate this one.  Every card in your deck has a job within the deck.  You should make sure that you’re using the best card for the job.  In our theoretical Fashion Week deck, for example, we might have put aside Eff Stop,  Carousel Boutique, and Rarity – Nest Weaver as options for recurring our Fashion Weeks.  We don’t want nine cards that do that, though, and probably would rather spend as few slots on it as possible.  Because of this, Eff Stop seems like the best choice.  The 2-power body on Nest Weaver isn’t likely to do much useful, whereas Eff Stop’s repeated use potential might come in handy, and you can probably run two rather than three since you can re-use it.  Carousel Boutique is also defensible.  It flips high, which is nice since you want to win Fashion Week, and is a bit cheaper.  You’d probably pick based on the rest of the deck, and exactly how you plan to give yourself the edge in the showdowns.

Build to Synergy: Just because you’re building a deck with a specific goal in mind doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace minor combos when they come up.  This is especially true when you’re otherwise not sure which card is better.  For example, Nightmare Moon‘s reveal trigger automatically flips the DJ main.  This doesn’t mean you should run Nightmare Moon in every DJ deck (I’ve in fact cut it from some versions of Tower), but it does mean that if you’re on DJ and want a villain, but aren’t sure which to use, Nightmare Moon gets more appealing.  Pink friend dismissal cards are similar.  There are a lot of them, with lots of different advantages and disadvantages, and many of these depend on other things in your deck.  Rock. Paper, Scissors, Shoot! becomes better  if you’re already planning to win faceoffs, if your deck’s flip value is high, or if you’re running cards that exhaust your opponent’s friends.  Cheese Sandwich – Heavy Artillery becomes stronger if you’re planning to send your opponent’s friends home with purple cards, or keep them there with white ones.

Consider Problems and Deck Context: Most of us play with the same people from week to week.  If we’re planning to attend a major event, on the other hand, we likely expect to play strangers, but also likely have done enough research to have some idea what to expect.  In all cases, looking at cards or strategies you expect to face can help you decide which specific cards to run.  When we were putting Charlotte’s Tower together, I originally tried several cards (Monstrous Manual, Princess Luna – Mare in the Moon) because I was worried about being able to beat similar decks.  As a bonus, you sometimes discover cards are better or more useful than you expected, as we did with both of those two.  This principle can also help with things like choosing your blue movement events, or pink removal.  Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot! is great if you’re expecting a lot of exhaust utility cards like Twilight Sparkle- All-Team Organizer, but Cheese Sandwich or Yoink! is much more likely to see off Applejack – Carbo-Loader.  Similarly, Fears Must be Faced compares well to Ten. Seconds. Flat. if you’re expecting lots of troublemakers or want to frequently double confront, whereas Ten. Seconds. Flat. is better if you find yourself wanting to play a more reactive game.

Put it All Together: Remember that these factors all work together, and sometimes at cross-purposes.  I played a blue/white score phase deck for the 2014 Regional and Store Championship season, featuring Rainbow Dash – Hanging Out as the main.  A lot of decks of that type at the time were running Bulk Biceps, but my build ran Scootaloo – Fan Club Founder instead.  Bulk is in many ways a more powerful card overall, but in the context of my deck and the problems I expected it to face, Scootaloo was  a great choice (originally suggested by Charlotte).  Both Bulk and Scootaloo work well with Hanging Out’s ability to ready a friend at the start of a faceoff, but I was expecting to face almost exclusively yellow/white Friend to Animals-based score phase decks, and villain-based decks of various colors.  Against the yellow/white decks, I found that it was almost impossible to win faceoffs on the opponent’s turn, and similarly almost impossible for them to win faceoffs on your turn, just because both decks featured so many efficient friends.  Neither Bulk nor Scootaloo were notably better here, because the difficulty was confronting problems, not having power at faceoffs.  Against the villain decks, though, my plan was to use Fears Must be Faced to move a big chain of friends (via Holly Dash and Wild Fire) in during the troublemaker phase an wipe out the problem.  Scootaloo’s way better than Bulk for that plan because she doesn’t end the chain – she moves for free when Rainbow Dash does.  Figuring out when your deck or the expected opposition trump raw card power can be tricky, but I find it incredibly satisfying when it happens.

Split the Difference: Sometimes you just can’t decide.  Either you really want to run two cards but only have space for one, you’re not sure about what will be present at the event, or you just can see potential upsides to both options.  In this case, it often makes sense to run less than you normally would of each card, and just run all of them.  If you can’t figure out if you want Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!, Cheese Sandwich, or Yoink! in your last slot, just run one of each.  In most cases this isn’t optimal, but most decks are living things.  You almost never plan to play a deck for just one event (and if you do, it’s likely important enough that you’ll want to test the deck first) so doing this can help you figure the issue out with science.  Just keep the debate in the back of your mind, and when you draw one, consider if you wish you’d drawn a different one.  Sometimes you’ll find that there’s a clear practical choice, and sometimes you’ll discover that having a few of each actually does work out well.

Step 3: Evolution 
Again, decks are almost always living, changing things.  Following the above steps should get you to a good first draft of your deck, but the only way to get a great final version is to see how it does in the wild.

My only advice for this stage is to be ready for that, and view each game as an opportunity.  Once you start playing with the deck, keep notes in the back of your mind about what is and isn’t working.  When you’re doing well, figure out why.  If you aren’t doing well, notice what’s missing or what isn’t coming together as you expected.  Look at which cards you’re not playing often, or which ones sit in your hand at the end of games.  When you draw a card and it excites you, remember that, ditto if you draw a card and are sad about it.

If you’re playing pickup games, or in an event where you’re allowed to change your deck between games, consider bringing a few other likely cards along with you, and swap them in for a few games to try out.  If it won’t annoy your opponent, like if you’re playtesting for an upcoming event, keep notes.

That’s all I’ve got for today.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to sit down with a few deck concepts over the next few days and write something up about purple decks, including post-Crystal Games Charlotte’s Tower builds.  Until then, may your decks always be getting better, and have fun!

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