Deckmaster: A MTG Variant Format, by Jim Bowie

Yo Mama: the Gathering- Standard and Level Up by Jim Bowie

Deckmaster: A Magic: The Gathering Variant Format

Earlier today, I unveiled to the world the variant format known as Deckmaster, a game combining the spell-slinging, land-tapping Magic you know and live with deckbuilding games like Dominion or Brian Kibler’s more recent hit Ascension. Well, for those who may have missed it (and you probably have), here it is again.


Magic: the Gathering: Deckmaster

At their heart, DB games have an acute similarity to MtG’s Cube drafting, in which players prepare their own stacks of cards to draft with, creating their own limited format. Both are games that give the sensation of drafting without the financial wound of three packs a piece every game. The difference is that while Cube Drafting offers the Magic experience we all know, it also takes an exceptional amount of time. The large benefit to games like Ascension is the time factor- you’re both drafting your deck and playing the cards at the same time. So I thought, why has no one combined the two?

If you’re familiar with Dominion or Ascension or the like, then this should be fairly easy for you. However, I’ll write this assuming you’re unfamiliar with any of those games, so anyone should be able to start up some play without experience in the genre. My apologies to those whose time I waste.

Deckmaster plays like a regular game of magic, with a small handful of exceptions. You still have 20 life, play one land a turn, tap them to cast spells, and swing with your dudes, all the normal rules are in place except one- you can’t lose by running out of cards.

Each player starts with a 15 land deck- three of each basic land type. At the beginning of each player’s draw step, instead of conducting a normal draw, you draw cards until you have a 5 card hand. If you have more than 5 cards, then nothing happens. If you attempt to draw a card and there’s nothing in your deck, then shuffle up your graveyard and make a new library for yourself and keep drawing until you have 5.

So how do you play the game with just lands? This isn’t Momir, after all.

That’s where the ‘Master Deck‘ comes in, for lack of a better name. The Master Deck is a large stack of cards (depending on the number of players, I recommend 100 for two people), preferably divided among the five colors evenly. At the start of the game, six cards are dealt out alongside the Master Deck within easy view of all players. It is from these cards that players will construct their decks.

At any time you could cast a sorcery, you may discard X cards, where X is equal to the converted mana cost of one of the face-up Master Deck cards. If you do, place that card in your discard pile and flip over the next card of the Master Deck to replace it. This is referred to as ‘buying’ a card.

  • You can discard both land and nonland cards in this way.
  • You may do this any number of times in a turn, if you wish to do so at all.
  • You do not have to match any color identities or mana symbols or whatnot in the discarded cards. Just remember that you have to be able to pay the card’s actual mana cost when casting it later on.
  • You do not have to tap any lands to buy cards.

By using this ability, you’re only adding cards to your graveyard, not your hand. But remember, you draw up to five cards a turn and when your deck’s out, you get to shuffle your newly bought cards in. In this way, you get to build up a deck from the same open card pool as your opponent and play a game with the deck at the same time.

Also, during your discard phase (not your opponent’s), you may discard any number of cards from your hand, if any. In this way, you get to decide if you want to save what you have or draw more cards the next turn. This adds an extra layer of strategy, especially for those who buy countermagic, but all players need to consider what color land they want to play the next turn and if it’s worth risking not having it. Discarding down to zero each end step will dig deepest into your deck, but you will leave yourself wide open and you can’t plan ahead as you could otherwise.

The Master Deck should have a plethora of cards among all colors (and artifacts) to make all 15 lands equally viable. Cards that cost 0 as well as cards that cost X should not be in the deck, such as Ornithopter or Fireball. The player who flips them simply gains so much value at little to no cost and this tactic should be avoided. Cards that cost more than 5 should also be avoided, since they can’t be bought without pitching the entire hand after a Divination. Cards that do cost 5 should well be avoided, since a high enough count of them may force multiple players to skip their first land drops just to buy something. Cards at 4cmc should be most of your game’s finishers, while 3cmc is best for the sake of tempo. With 3cmc, you can hit your land drop, buy  the card and still have a spell left to cast as well from your hand of five. Cards that cost 2 and 1 allow both multiple buys and multiple casts if you get them in early turns, but since you won’t ever cast spells in this game until you get up to four mana, that’s not as much power as you might think. They still make your deck much more consistent, since you’ll have more spells than land very quickly as opposed to buying one card a turn, so they have more value than one might think.

NOTE: I think personally that most X spells are okay if they cost three colored mana of one type and your pool doesn’t have a lot of fixing. So, like, you don’t want to add Green Sun’s Zenith but Genesis Wave is okay even if the effect might be better in many situations.

Cards to avoid – Consider this a banlist or a don’t-be-a-douche list or whatever, I don’t care. I just think some of these are worth a mention.

Grimoire Thief – This guy exiles the top three cards of an opponent’s deck blind- enough to lock your opponent out of a color or double colored cost if he hits some basic lands. And he gets to go it multiple times. Stupid good.

Path to Exile/Swords to Plowshares – Again, exile is a bad effect, especially if your Master Deck is on the small end and has 1-2ofs of bombs. Condemn is a much better option if you really want a card like this in your pool.

Memoricide – Okay, you get the picture. I just thought it worth a mention for those considering this a banlist. This also includes any Extripate effect, such as Surgical Exctaction.

Zombie Infestation/Treasure Hunt – Both of these cards are horribly infuriating and deserve a banning even by themselves, but together, horrible horrible things ensue. If your first turn is to play an Island or Swamp and buy both of these, everyone else in the game might as well concede. If you want to build a combo pool like that, then go ahead and do it, but don’t expect people to enjoy playing with you for long.

Sylvan Library – Should be obvious. The extra two cards to buy with is great, and planning for your next turn while still discarding down to zero is stupid as well.

Animate Dead – This goes for any Disentomb, Zombify, or whatever effect, as well as noncreature recursion like mnemonic wall. Since your buys go into your discard, these reanimates will essentially allow you to play off the Master Deck, which is another one of those things that just makes people not want to play anymore. You won’t make a lot of friends by dredging up anything either. If you want to test out a strategy like this, like with maybe say Rise from the Grave, then be my guest, but for a beginner I wouldn’t recommend it.

Temple Bell – or any card that allows both players to draw. Since you get no benefit from drawing after your turn is done other than instants (you draw to 5 at the start of each turn), the downside to cards like this are almost completely eliminated. Temple Bell just gives the owner an extra buy a turn, which is really powerful for the typical Master Deck.

Tutors – Just… Tutors. Everything from Diabolic to Demonic to Idyllic. This also includes Merchant Scrolls, Survival of the Fittest, Bribery, Tinker, Ranger of Eos, the Lorwyn Harbingers, all of it. The only exception is any card that searches for a basic land, such as Rampant Growth. That way, you aren’t searching for any of your singleton buys. If you want to get around a restriction like this, my suggestion is Polymorph, Bituminous Blast or Genesis Wave. These cards flip through the library for permanents without specifically pulling them. Again, if you want to build a really combo-y pool, and whoever you play with is cool with that, then go ahead and play all the search effects you want. I’m just assuming for the sake of typicality that most players want variance in their limited games. If they didn’t, they’d play constructed.

Beacons – Or Zeniths, any spell (not permanent) that shuffles back into the deck after resolving. By keeping four cards in your hand and the shuffler being the fifth, like Beacon of Destruction, You can just get in 5 damage a turn, every turn, while your opponent digs for something to counter it. That’s the kind of dick move abusing the rules of the variant that makes people not want to play.

Evacuation – Or any card that returns a large amount of permanents to hand at once. You get to buy a bunch and then refill to 5 next turn, while your opponent misses their draw for their turn because you filled their hand up.

Time Warp – Or any extra turn effect that does not get exiled as part of the cost. It’s all too easy in this variant to go infinite with cards like this.

In general, if you want to add a card to your Master Deck, consider how it can be played around. If the other four colors all have an efficient answer, then give them all those answers. That way, you’re sure to hold a healthy game of Deckmaster.

Here’s an easily buildable 100-card Master Deck on any budget for two players that want a quick way to test out the format. It also makes a good starting point for those out there with an interest in building their own deck.

4 Elite Vanguard
2 Condemn
4 Suture Priest
2 Glorious Anthem
4 Griffin Sentinel
1 Day of Judgment
2 Stonehorn Dignitary
1 Serra Angel

4 Zephyr Sprite
2 Unsummon
4 Mana Leak
2 Cancel
4 Divination
1 Thieving Magpie
2 Nevermaker
1 Chasm Drake

4 Vampire Lacerator
2 Horrifying Revelation
4 Doom Blade
2 Liliana’s Specter
4 Last Kiss
1 Skinrender
2 Nether Horror
1 Rotting Legion

4 Raging Goblin
2 Lightning Bolt
4 Dragon Fodder
2 Koth’s Courier
4 Blisterstick Shaman
1 Chain Reaction
2 Artillerize
1 Lava Axe

4 Llanowar Elves
2 Giant Growth
4 Elvish Visionary
2 Elvish Champion
4 Awakener Druid
1 Harmonize
2 Elvish Promenade
1 Elvish Riders

This pool is rather flexible in that there’s a plethora of aggressive cards that can provide a cheap army, while at the same time there’s plenty of potent removal to be had. Each color has cards that work well together, like Artillerize and Dragon Fodder, and also colors that interact well, like Harmonize, Elvish Visionary and Divination allowing for a large turn of buys. Some colors are naturally suited to counter others as well, such as white’s Day of Judgement and Suture Priests countering green’s Elvish Promenades and black’s discard effects getting around blue’s countermagic. There’s a lot more that you won’t see just by reading the list, and even after hours of play there’s new things with the build to discover. Any strategy is realistically achievable with this pool, providing almost MaRo-like variance and it should serve you well.

If you have any questions at all about this new way to play, drop a comment, ask me on Twitter or Facebook or drop me an email at I’d love to get some support for this project and really get the variant in circulation out there.


Deckmaster: A MTG Variant Format, by Jim Bowie
Earlier today, I unveiled to the world the variant format known as Deckmaster, a game combining the spell-slinging, land-tapping Magic you know and live with deckbuilding games like Dominion or Brian Kibler's more recent hit Ascension. Well, for those who may have missed it (and you probably have), here it is again.

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