Two Principles That Will Make You a Smarter Deck Builder

June 2, 2013 | Posted by Dee

This weekend, Brad Nelson destroyed the field at the Starcitygames Standard Open in Baltimore. In the 10 Swiss rounds, he only lost one match. Then, in the top eight, he mowed through every single opponent without losing a game to capture the trophy.

His deck of choice was the under-the-radar Green/White/Black Varolz Midrange deck, also known as Junk Aristocrats. I really like it because it illustrates two important deck building concepts.

Check out Brad’s decklist below and then let’s talk about the two principles.

Junk Aristocrats
Creatures (24)
Spells (11)
Lands (25)
Sideboard (15)

Click the links below to buy cards from this deck on eBay.

Principle #1: Multiple Angles of Attack

Whenever I try to figure out how good a deck is, one of the questions I ask is “How does the deck win?”

The more avenues to victory a deck has, the harder it is to develop a strategy to beat it. You may stop its Plan A, but if the deck has a strong Plan B, you’re still in danger of losing. Junk Aristocrats shows off this concept very well because it can win in a variety of ways.

You’ve got the Blood Artist kill of sacrificing a bunch of Spirit and Vampire tokens to the sac outlets, Cartel Aristocrat and Varolz, the Scar-Striped. You can create a couple big 5/5 Demon flyers with Skirsdag High Priest.

You can launch another aerial assault with Lingering Souls while buffing up the Spirit tokens with Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and Gavony Township. If the game goes long, Varolz’s scavenge ability can be game-winning by making your creatures huge. Putting many +1/+1 counters on Cartel Aristocrat is especially good because she can protect herself and become unblockable.

Not only do multiple angles of attack make a deck hard to beat, but many players will underrate it. For example, Junk Reanimator dominated Standard for a while because too many players thought they could beat it by just sideboarding graveyard hate. They didn’t realize that the deck didn’t need Unburial Rites to win.

It had a very strong Plan B, crush you by ramping to Thragtusks and Angels of Serenity. In fact, some players had so much faith in Plan B, they actually boarded out 1-2 Unburial Rites. When more people started to play midrange and control decks, the deck even developed a Plan C, destroy your lands with Acidic Slime and Restoration Angel.

Human Reanimator was the premier Unburial Rites deck in Gatecrash Standard but it was quickly displaced by Junk Reanimator because it only had one angle of attack.

Don’t make the same mistake as the players that tried to beat Junk Reanimator with just graveyard hate cards. It takes a lot more deck building effort to beat a strong deck that can win in a variety of ways.

For example, you might look at Junk Aristocrats and think it’s vulnerable to Pillar of Flame. Exiling Voice of Resurgence for one mana is pretty sweet so you build a deck with 4 Pillars and 4 Snapcaster Mage. Seems like a good plan, right?

However, Pillar is awful against Cartel Aristocrat and Lingering Souls so your strategy can easily backfire. Not to mention, smart players will play a sacrifice outlet first before Voice of Resurgence. Then, if you try to exile the green/white creature, they will simply sac it to gain a ton of value.

Principle #2: Synergy

While having a couple different ways to win is a good guideline, it can get you in a lot of trouble if you’re not careful. It’s actually not too hard to build a deck that can do multiple things.

A common beginner and even intermediate mistake is building a deck that does a lot of different things but those things don’t have much synergy with each other. Here’s an extreme example.

Imagine a deck with counterspells, Unburial Rites, Ethereal Armor, and just for kicks, let’s throw in Boros Reckoner and Blasphemous Act. This deck has many avenues to victory, but of course, it’s a total mess. The different parts of the deck do not interact well with each other. There is no synergy.

Now you don’t have to build something like that to lose an advantage by not maximizing synergy. For example, let’s say you’re building a Naya Blitz deck. You notice more players are playing Supreme Verdict so you want to include a main deck card to beat it.

For many players, they will go with Boros Charm but Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is better. Both cards give you another angle of attack by wrecking Supreme Verdict but Thalia has more synergy with the rest of the deck.

She’s much easier to cast with a mana base that includes 3-4 Cavern of Souls. Plus, she interacts better with Boros Elite, Experiment One, Champion of the Parish, Lightning Mauler, Mayor of Avabruck, and Frontline Medic.

Brad Nelson’s Junk Aristocrats deck is a great example of synergy. Every single card just fits and combos well with the other cards.

The sac outlets turn on the morbid of Tragic Slip and Skirsdag High Priest. Voice of Resurgence, Young Wolf, and Doomed Traveler are ideal creatures to sac. As you’re sacrificing creatures, Blood Artist nugs your opponents and gains you life. Sorin and Lingering Souls ensure you have many creatures to sac. All those token creatures fuel Skirsdag High Priest and Blood Artist.

If you want to build a strong deck with staying power, the key is implementing both principles, not just one of them. Human Reanimator had a lot of synergy but it could never be more than a metagame deck because it was too easy to hate.

Every time you build a deck or modify one, ask yourself if each card is pulling its weight. Is it adding or diluting synergy? Does it enable another angle of attack? By keeping these two principles in mind, you’ll improve your deck building skill and create more powerful decks.

Deck Price Tag

Here’s the price tag of the deck. I used the prices of a popular online store.

Click the links below to buy the cards on eBay.

Total Deck Price: $531.16

QTYCard NameAvg. PriceTotal Price
Total Deck Price:$531.16
4Doomed Traveler$0.21$0.84
2Young Wolf$0.15$0.30
4Voice of Resurgence$44.88$179.52
4Cartel Aristocrat$0.35$1.40
4Blood Artist$1.89$7.56
3Skirsdag High Priest$0.81$2.43
3Varolz, the Scar-Striped$3.75$11.25
4Tragic Slip$0.69$2.76
4Lingering Souls$1.79$7.16
3Sorin, Lord of Innistrad$9.96$29.88
4Temple Garden$10.78$43.12
2Sunpetal Grove$5.04$10.08
4Overgrown Tomb$8.61$34.44
4Woodland Cemetery$7.49$29.96
4Godless Shrine$8.99$35.96
4Isolated Chapel$11.19$44.76
2Gavony Township$1.40$2.80
4Deathrite Shaman$12.55$50.20
1Appetite for Brains$0.24$0.24
3Sin Collector$0.53$1.59
2Garruk Relentless$8.16$16.32
2Abrupt Decay$8.50$17.00
3Unflinching Courage$0.53$1.59

8 Responses to “Two Principles That Will Make You a Smarter Deck Builder”

  1. thg on June 3rd, 2013 10:19 am

    Nice article. I watched the final match of this tournament Sunday morning and thought similar things about synergy when I read the deck list. Seems like a really well put together deck.

  2. Rob on June 3rd, 2013 11:14 am

    This deck is crazy cool.

  3. Steeve on June 4th, 2013 7:08 am

    Hey guys,

    Any sideboarding thougths strategies on this deck?

    Synergy is so good that wrong sideboarding choices can affect synergy a lot.

    Let me know what you think.



  4. Dee on June 4th, 2013 5:32 pm
  5. Steeve on June 4th, 2013 8:07 pm

    Thanks! Great advice!

  6. thg on June 10th, 2013 10:34 am

    I’m sure I haven’t fully grasped the multiple avenues to a win, but I have been playing this (pre-SB) against a Junk Reanimator deck and have been unimpressed. I’m sure the sideboard makes a big difference…

    I have a question though: Does Blood Artist’s ability trigger during a phase in which it dies? Simply: if Blood Artist blocks and dies, do you gain one life and your opponent lose one life?

    I was watching a video in which a player had three Blood Artists on the battle field. He cast a Blasphemous Act killing many creatures and it appeared that for each creature sent to the graveyard, three damage/three life gain was done. Seemed odd to me.

  7. Dee on June 10th, 2013 11:10 am


    Sideboard does make a big difference because you bring in 4 Deathrite Shaman and 1 Appetite for Brains. Check out for sb plans.

    Blood Artist’s ability does trigger when it dies. Regarding multiple Blood Artists on the board, all their abilities stack so the video you saw was correct. If you have three Blood Artists on the board and you cast Blasphemous Act, every creature that dies causes your opponent to lose 3 life and you gain 3 life.

    Multiple Blood Artists are very powerful. They can kill your opponent out of nowhere when you cast a mass removal spell. :)

    Here’s the ruling:

  8. thg on June 10th, 2013 12:25 pm

    Yeah, obviously they trigger when they die themselves. D’oh. Thanks for the pointer to the ruling about other creatures dying at the same time.