Building_on_a_Budget

Demons and Ogres take center stage

Dark Devotion: Of Hunger and Thirst

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The letter G!reetings and welcome to the beginning of another preconstructed evolution!

Before we get there, though, a couple of notes about last week. People seemed to enjoy the “junk rare” look of my first Interlude. Actually, you all flooded me with e-mail piling on further suggestions. Most ideas fell into two buckets:

Nicely done, everyone!

Okay, now let's get back to preconstructed decks. Here is the poll from two weeks ago:

Which deck is Jay going to play and change next?
Dark Devotion 3311 38.8%
Rat's Nest 2745 32.2%
Spiritcraft 2479 29.0%
Total 8535 100.0%

The goal for the next three weeks will be to take the Dark Devotion preconstructed deck and evolve it into a fun, respectable Standard deck. On one hand, I'm excited because Demons and Ogres are full of flavor and have the potential to make a very cool deck. On the other hand, I'm a little apprehensive because I wonder whether a budget Demon deck is even possible. As a result, I expect a wild, twisting ride. Woo!

First, though, remember the Guidelines (also remember that these are “guidelines” rather than “rules” because I expect occasionally to stray from them):

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

Remember, too, that the point of these deckbuilding series is to enjoy the journey. You will often disagree with my personal card evaluations or choices. That's okay -- healthy, in fact -- and I hope you take your differing opinion and turn it into a killer deck.

Dark Devotion First Takes

Here is what you get if you buy the Dark Devotion preconstructed deck. As always, I've done some sorting of the cards, separating land from creatures from non-land/non-creatures and sorting roughly on number of copies and cost. To me, this is the easiest way to eyeball the deck and see what's going on.

Before I play any games, it's worth reflecting on my first-impressions of the deck and its cards. Like all preconstructed decks, you can expect me to be a little critical of what I see. This isn't an indictment of the deck or its potential, but it helps illustrate why precons generally struggle against more polished constructed decks. It also helps me organize my thoughts about where to look for initial changes to the deck.

1) Deck Themes: I first try to figure out the major and minor themes in the deck. Each of these themes are pulling the deck in a direction, and each is a possible path to follow when making changes. It's always good to be conscious of your deck themes so that any changes you make are consistent. Understanding deck themes is also a good explanation for why two deckbuilders can start with the same precon and end up with two very different final decks.

In any case, here are the themes in Dark Devotion as I see them:

  • Major theme: Demons and Ogres. Most of what Dark Devotion is trying to do is use those conditional clauses on a lot of Demons (Scourge of Numai) and Ogres (Villainous Ogre) to make superior creatures that kick butt. The more the deck can exploit Demon-Ogre interactions, theoretically the more it is dominating a game. Mark of the Oni and Oni Possession are also around to enhance this theme.
  • Major theme: Beef. Dark Devotion isn't trying to win with a horde of one- and two-power creatures. It's trying to overwhelm an opponent with solid creatures of three or more mana. As a result, power-to-cost ratio is something the deck is trying to maximize to the exclusion of everything else. Notice that with very few exceptions, the deck's creatures have power equal to their converted mana cost. Also notice that except for Bile Urchin and Hearth Kami, all of the creatures cost more than two mana.
  • Minor theme: Creature elimination. Forget all of that Ninja-bouncing nonsense, Dark Devotion wants to flat-out destroy opposing creatures. Bloodthirsty Ogre, Initiate of Blood, Call for Blood, Swallowing Plague, and Torrent of Stone are there to blast away blockers and let your Demons run free.
  • Minor theme: Sacrificial lambs. I'm not sure what to make of this theme, but there are a lot of cards (Yukora the Prisoner, Painwracker Oni, Oni Possession, Call for Blood) that have you sacrificing your hard-earned creatures. Maybe this is just a side effect of Ogre blood-magic, but it's shame there aren't any cards focusing on graveyard animation (other than a lone Blood Speaker), token generation, etc. to take advantage of these cards or make them easier to handle.
  • A few other minor themes exist, like stealing life, stealing creatures, and enchanting creatures. By far the most entertaining of these minor themes is the interaction of Heartless Hidetsugu and Overblaze.

The good news is that there are very few directions pulling on the deck. That is, the vast majority of the cards are aligned with one or more of the dominant themes I've outlined above. The two major themes are also highly compatible, since if you want to focus on Demon-Ogre interactions you're probably also trying to overwhelm an opponent with fatties.

2) Mana: I have two concerns with the deck's mana and both are significant ones. First, the deck is trying to both be aggressive and balance two colors. This is a tricky equation and something I'll need to spend a lot of time thinking about. Say goodbye to the elegant lack of mana issues from a monocolored deck and hello to manascrew, colorscrew, and the need to drop double-cost cards (for example, Swallowing Plague) for single-cost alternatives (for example, Fireball).

My second concern is about the deck's manacurve in general. Dark Devotion looks like it's doing next to nothing in the early turns and hoping its midgame will overpower whatever an opponent has planned. The fact that almost a third of the deck costs more than three mana strikes me as a Very Bad Thing, especially when the deck has no mana-acceleration whatsoever.

3) Consistency: There isn't a single four-of card in the deck, and only three cards (Takenuma Bleeder, Hearth Kami, and Villainous Ogre) with three copies. Instead, the deck is stuffed full of one- and two-of cards without the benefit of any card-drawing or library manipulation at all. Blood Speaker is the deck's one tutor, yet again there's only one of them in the deck. As a result, I expect Dark Devotion to be highly inconsistent with its draws and performance. This is, unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of a preconstructed deck.

4) Power: Probably the best thing about Dark Devotion is its overall power level. In fact, the whole idea of the deck is to make creatures that are more than your opponent can handle. From common to uncommon to rare, the deck is using very respectable cards. Better options exist in Standard for a lot of what the deck is trying to do -- and some omissions like Ogre Recluse are bizarre -- but given that it's cobbled together from Champions and Betrayers only, you have to like what's in there. In fact, this is probably one of the only precons that is likely to not only retain its two rares (Yukora the Prisoner and Heartless Hidetsugu) but want more copies of each.

5) Fun: What's not fun about bashing face with Demons and Ogres? Besides, there is something satisfying about building a deck around creatures with natural synergy like Scourge of Numai and Villainous Ogre, much like eating a sandwich the just the right bread and spread (hrm...or maybe I'm just hungry). The point is that if you can actually build a successful deck around beefy Demons and their Ogre supplicants, you're probably having fun and getting an opportunity to practice your maniacal laugh to boot.

Those are first impressions. Let's see how the deck does in practice, shall we? For those new to this column, I play all of my games in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online with the account name “BuildingOnABudget”. I'm on pretty much every day at random times, so feel free to stop by and either watch or play a game.

Playing With Devotion

I've been ambivalent about the “game log” sections of these articles. Some people have written to say they are boring and detract from the content. Other have written that they're the best part of each article. I'm keeping them because I think it's important to understand what cards are winning me games, losing me games, and what sort of decks I'm facing. I try to put just enough detail into the logs to get this information across without bogging you down with a play-by-play. Expect there to be more detail early on in the series and less as the deck becomes more predictable in its performance.

Game 1: Red-white Equip

I started out with a pair of Bile Urchins while he started out with a pair of Goblin Strikers and a Bonesplitter. Things looked bad when he added Leonin Den-Guard to the mix, but I drew and played Hearth Kami. My Kami killed his axe, then Yukora the Prisoner entered the fray. My opponent failed to draw more equipment, so one by one his creatures became Yukora speed bumps. Frost Ogre joined in the fun, eating two Spikeshot Goblin chump-blockers and generally causing mayhem. Finally, an Oni Possession on Yukora overpowered his last Samurai of the Pale Curtain blocker to deal lethal damage.

Game 2: Monoblack Rats

At first, I was sure his Nezumi Cutthroat would be rendered useless by my Bile Urchin. Then he played Grafted Wargear. That was okay, though, because I had Takenuma Bleeder. Then he played another Wargear. Okay...I tried Villainous Ogre and Scourge of Numai. We both momentarily forgot that neither his Rat nor my Ogre could block, then we started wailing on each other and racing for the win. He played Umezawa's Jitte, then Grave Pact, and all of my creatures died to mass-blocking. Two Torrent of Stones killed two more of his Rats, but eventually another 8/5 Jitte-slinging Cutthroat showed up to finish me off.

Game 3: Monoblue Ninjas

You got it, I faced off against a Ninja deck inspired by my last series. And you know what? He destroyed me. I had a Villainous Ogre and Takenuma Bleeder, but his Spire Golem, Higure, Sage Owl, Mistblade Shinobi business smacked me around turn after turn. I had Hidetsugu and Overblaze in hand, but could never find a second Mountain to go with my five Swamps. I also had Kumano's Blessing in hand, which was less than useless.

Game 4: Black-blue Blinkmoth Urn deck

His deck was trying to do something scary, putting artifacts like Talismans, Gemstone Array, Chromatic Sphere, and Darksteel Ingot into play along with Blinkmoth Urn. I cast an early Bile Urchin, then followed it up with Villainous Ogre and Deathcurse Ogre. Both of my Ogres met Swallowing Plague deaths, but I started drawing a lot of creatures at the same time my opponent started drawing a lot of land. My Urchin was joined by another Villainous Ogre, Initiate of Blood, and Scourge of Numai to end the game while my opponent had something like 40 counters on Gemstone Array. Whew.

Game 5: Green-blue Azusa (?) deck

For the first time in five games, I actually won the die roll. I think my opponent was playing an Azusa, Lost But Seeking deck, or maybe it had Rude Awakening, or maybe both. He used Kodama's Reach, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Wayfarer's Bauble to get lots of land into play with Sensei's Divining Top looking for...something. Anyway, I didn't do anything for the first three turns, but then dropped Scourge of Numai, Frost Ogre, and Villainous Ogre. That was game.

Starting 3-2 isn't the worst for a pure preconstructed deck, but all I learned from two of the wins was that I can beat a defenseless opponent. The good news is that I'm starting to get a feel for the deck, so it's time to make some changes . . .

Those (Mana) Hungry Ogres

There is a lot I want to do with this deck right out of the chutes, much more so than with Ninjutsu. Let me start by addressing the obvious drops...

OUT: 1 Kumano's Blessing

I'm starting to suspect that each preconstructed deck contains one truly horrible card just to see if you're paying attention. In Ninjutsu, that card was Field of Reality. In Dark Devotion, it's Kumano's Blessing. I honestly have no idea what I'm supposed to do with the Blessing nor how I am supposed to play it in the deck. I suppose technically it could disrupt an opponent with Spirits or some other sort of graveyard recursion, but this is far too narrow a mechanic to have maindeck. Besides, this deck wants to pound people senseless, not worry about tricks like removing cards from graveyards. Consider Nezumi Graverobber as a card that would perform a similar function with a lot more synergy in the deck. Heck, Yamabushi's Flame is the same cost and a lot more useful. Whatever you do, keep Kumano's Blessing away from me.

OUT: 1 Deathcurse Ogre

A lot of really cool, beefy Ogres exist in Standard these days, but Deathcurse Ogre isn't one of them. Six mana is way, way, way too much to spend for a 3/3 body attached to a marginal ability that could hurt you as much as your opponent. For one less mana, you can have Heartless Hidetsugu. For two less mana, you can have Ogre Recluse. For half the mana, you can have Takenuma Bleeder. If you had some sort of graveyard recursion in your deck, Deathcurse Ogre becomes slightly more attractive, but only slightly since Kokusho, the Evening Star is a much better ability for the same cost. All in all, we can do better here.

OUT: 1 Sokenzan Bruiser

I refer you to my discussion of Deathcurse Ogre to understand why I'm dropping Sokenzan Bruiser. He's one less mana than Deathcurse and his mountainwalk ability will sometimes win games, but there are a lot better options for Ogres and a heck of a lot better options for a five-mana spell.

OUT: 2 Bile Urchin

Bile Urchin isn't the worst card in the deck by a long shot but it seems completely out of place. On one hand, Bile Urchin is one of the only plays Dark Devotion has in the first two turns. On the other hand, I think there are about a hundred other things I'd rather do on the first turn than play a 1/1 Spirit. Out he goes, mostly to make room for some mana acceleration.

IN: 1 Takenuma Bleeder

I think, though I'm not yet sure, that Takenuma Bleeder is the best three-mana Ogre available in Standard right now. It certainly has the right power and toughness for three mana, and its drawback isn't debilitating even without the presence of a Demon. The one black mana makes it very easy to cast in a two-color deck as well. I'm pretty sure that of the existing cards in the deck, this is a four-copy gem.

IN: 4 Wayfarer's Bauble

Dropping Deathcurse Ogre and Sokenzan Bruiser starts to bring the deck's manacurve into reasonable territory, but this is a deck still desperately in need of mana acceleration. There are three straightforward ways to get this acceleration in a black-red deck: 1) Talisman of Indulgence, 2) Iron Myr and/or Leaden Myr, and 3) Wayfarer's Bauble. All three options are going to let you play a four-mana creature on Turn 3. Let me try and explain why I want to try Wayfarer's Bauble first...

Talisman of Indulgence is good because it gives access to both black and red mana and can be used right away. The downsides are: a) it hurts you to use colored mana, b) it gives opposing decks something to kill with artifact destruction, and c) it doesn't do anything on its own. This last one is particularly annoying, since the last thing you want to do in the mid- or late-game is draw a Talisman of Indulgence. The real reason to not use it, though, is that you will almost never be able to use it the turn you cast it because all of your cards are so expensive, thus negating one of its big benefits.

Not being able to use the Talisman right away makes Iron and Leaden Myr more attractive. After all, they can actually attack and block while providing the same mana boost as the Talisman. The downside is that they're fragile and only give access to one color mana. Still, these are cards that hurt a lot less to draw later in the game.

Wayfarer's Bauble is difficult to compare to the Myr because it's neither a creature nor a mana-producer on its own. On the other hand, it thins land from your library and can search for black or red mana as needed. If you know anything about my deckbuilding proclivities, you know that I love land-thinning. Since the deck is doing very little else in the early turns, I would rather have land taken from my library than balance my hopes on a fragile 1/1 artifact creature. Thus I think the Bauble is more reliable mana acceleration and sets up your deck better in the late-game. We'll see, I suppose.

So how go the changes? Did I speed up my deck at all? Let's see...

Game 6: White-green Super Samurai

Well, my opponent certainly sped up his deck. He had Sakura-Tribe Elders and Kodama's Reach to go along with Sensei's Divining Top. I had an early Hearth Kami and Bloodthirsty Ogre, which was forced to accumulate devotion counters because of his Elders. Eventually my opponent played Takeno, Samurai General. I responded with Torrent of Stone and started swinging for the fences with my two creatures plus Scourge of Numai. My Ogre killed his Konda's Hatamoto thanks to Oni devotion and I kept swinging. Eventually my opponent played Konda, Lord of Eiganjo and believed he stabilized. What he didn't realize was that my Ogre could kill his master Samurai (indestructibility doesn't help if you're 0/0). Besides, I could have just rushed him for two turns to win.

Honestly, for some reason I thought you lost the devotion counters when you used Bloodthirsty Ogre's -X/-X ability. The fact that the counters stay make it a much more interesting card. Hmm.

Game 7: White-red-green Samurai

The red was for burn and a few Samurai, but mostly it was a “super samurai” deck like the one above. I killed Nagao, Bound By Honor with Torrent of Stone, allowing my Takenuma Bleeder and Scourge of Numai to attack with abandon. His Battle-Mad Ronin plinked away at me for one damage a turn. Eventually he dropped Konda, Lord of Eiganjo which stalled my attack. His double (spliced) Glacial Ray killed my Bleeder, meaning I was taking damage from the Scourge. I drew Painwracker Oni with just enough time to eat the Scourge and attack for the win. Whew. Wayfarer's Bauble made an appearance early, helping me fix my mana.

Game 8: Green-red Aggro

I felt like a boy among men in this game. I got a decent start with Hearth Kami and Villainous Ogre, but it all came screeching to a halt when he killed my Kami with Magma Jet, then put Bonesplitter on a Spikeshot Goblin. One by one my Ogres died, stranding my Painwracker Oni in hand. He cast Kumano, Master Yamabushi then Eternal Witness to retrieve the Magma Jet, meaning that even a Torrent of Stone on his Goblin wouldn't have helped. Just to end the game a turn faster, I cast Overblaze on an attacking Kumano.

I made an important discovery in this game: I hate self-sacrifice cards if I don't have a way to exploit them. Oni Possession, Call for Blood, Painwracker Oni...these cards seem unnecessarily harsh and stressful. In a constructed format, I should often be willing to pay the creature-cost if I'm playing those cards, and currently it rarely feels like a fair trade.

Game 9: Blue-red-white Arcane deck

My opponent played Isochron Scepter with Dampen Thought beneath it, which I killed with Hearth Kami. Then he played another Scepter with another Dampen Thought, which I killed with another Hearth Kami. He gave up on milling me out of cards and instead focused on splicing first one, then two, Glacial Rays at my head. Luckily I had Yukora the Prisoner flexing his muscles. Unluckily, he kept bouncing Yukora with Consuming Vortex and Boomerang. Yukora hit once. Then eventually twice. I finally played Frost Ogre to go along with my Demon. During my attack my opponent tapped out to kill the Ogre with double-spliced Ray on Reach Through Mists, so I played Overblaze on Yukora for the win. I ended the game at 10 life.

Game 10: Red-green Land Destruction

It's rare to see a dedicated LD deck in the Casual room of Magic Online, and you would think it would be death to my deck. My Hearth Kami was Shocked, and I used Torrent of Stone on his Vine Trellis. My Takenuma Bleeder and Bloodthirsty Ogre started beating down while my opponent played one, then two, then three Stone Rains on my only Swamps. When I found another Swamp he used Creeping Mold on it. I was sort of annoyed since had he not played even one of those cards I could have dropped Heartless Hidetsugu (or, with two Swamps, Painwracker Oni). I was eating his life in chunks, though, and while a Rootrunner blocked my Bleeder and a Shock killed my Ogre, I found the mana for Hidetsugu and one swing from him ended the game.

Time for a few more changes for cards I never seem to be happy to draw...

Thirsty?

OUT: 2 Oni Possession

Oni Possession is, surprisingly, my least favorite card still in the deck. Don't get me wrong: I like the +3/+3, I love the trample, and I can even see the use of turning things into Demons (though I once got myself into trouble by making an Ogre a Demon Spirit and thus losing a creature to Painwracker Oni). What I dislike is the “At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice a creature” bit. This deck never has a surplus of creatures -- often only one or two on the table at a time -- and so I have never found it acceptable to use Oni Possession as more than a finisher, a sort of Giant Growth for the last, lethal points of damage. Oni Possession is too slow and too expensive to be used as a Giant Growth, and so I can find better things for this card slot.

Note, though, that another way to go would be to keep the Possession and add something like Genesis Chamber to the deck. If you really like Oni Possession and think it's cool, you can certainly bend your deck to make sacrificing creatures less of a burden and to add non-Ogre creatures that can become Demons. The Myr look like better acceleration than Wayfarer's Bauble in a deck like this, too.

IN: 2 Scourge of Numai

With Wayfarer's Bauble, the deck hopes to ramp up to four mana by turn three. The best four-mana card in the deck is Yukora the Prisoner, so you should expect I'll be taking a hard look at balancing the fact that he's an expensive rare with the deck's need for Demon beef. In the meantime, the second-best four-mana card is Scourge of Numai. The life-loss can be a pain (heh), but a 4/4 body for four mana can do a lot of damage, especially on the third turn.

OUT: 3 Villainous Ogre

I love that Villainous Ogre is a third-turn, three-power Ogre. I can't abide a creature that doesn't block, though. This deck isn't so aggressive that it doesn't care about blocking, and the regeneration ability seems almost out of place on a creature that can only attack. If he was able to block with a Demon on the table, I would probably keep him. The fact that he can never block, though, has me wanting to use these slots for a different three-mana Ogre...

IN: 3 Bloodthirsty Ogre

I'm intrigued by Bloodthirsty Ogre. I think in a monoblack deck (which is still a possibility for this experiment) I would rather have Ogre Marauder, but the one time I actually had a chance to see Bloodthirsty Ogre hoard devotion counters I was very impressed. I worry about his toughness, obviously, but I'm willing to see if he's as good as the one game I actually played him.

Which leaves me here for today:

I still think there is a lot to do with this deck, and unlike Ninjutsu I think I may eventually undo some of the changes I've already made. Still, we're on our way.

Next week I'll start out with some game logs and then take a look at the creature removal in the deck. Right now (excluding Bloodthirsty Ogre), I'm relying on Swallowing Plague, Call for Blood, and Torrent of Stone as creature removal. These are undoubtedly inferior to what Standard has to offer, but there are a lot of options in Standard. Speak up on the Message Boards about what you would do with these slots (and why) and I'll make my own decision next week.

Oh, and as always... Have fun!

-jms

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