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The Brawl Project: Lessons Learned

Howdy Brawlers! Instead of doing my usual feature-a-commander-and-build-around-it, I’m going to do something a little different over the next two weeks. Today will be all about general lessons I’ve learned from Brawling nonstop over the last seven weeks, and next week I’ll have an update to my deck list database. You may remember my thread on Reddit with a compilation of deck lists I had built prior to the release of Brawl on MTG Arena, but missing from it are hits like Basically Jeskai Fires and the Golos, But Not Red deck that I played in the recently recorded MerchantMTG Brawl Hall video. It needs an update, and I’ll be consolidating all of the new decks (especially Historic decks) I’ve built since the original post over the span of the next week.

But enough about that, and more about the lessons that I’ve learned since the October 24 release of Brawl on MTG Arena. Since then, I think it’s pretty safe to say that over 90% of the Magic I’ve played has been Brawl. Games I’ve played have ranged from just-for-fun matches with friends, to multiplayer Brawls at CommandFest Seattle, to the competitive 1v1 games you might see in the MTG Arena queues on Wednesdays. While I realize not everybody is looking to maximize their competitive output, streamlined deck construction is something I think everybody can appreciate, and that’s a big focus of what I’ll be talking about today.

Hold up, there’s a giveaway!

While I’m plugging things, here is your weekly reminder that https://www.arenabrawl.net/ can find you a match for both Standard and Historic Brawl for MTG Arena any day of the week! I use it all the time and have been very satisfied with my experience, and this isn’t even a sponsored message. Wednesday may be Brawlday, but so is Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday!

Note: this article turned out to be (very) wordy. If you’re looking for the ten-second version, I wrote a succinct tl;dr at the bottom.

I wrote about my top ten cards in the current Brawl format nearly a month ago, and for the most part that still stands (though Realm-Cloaked Giant has dropped off a bit). Today, we’ll be focusing more on general lessons and deckbuilding for the format. Here we go!

Lesson 1: Mana, Mana, Mana

Efficient development and usage of mana is paramount to success in Brawl. This is a basic tenant of Magic that I’m sure most of you are familiar with, but it’s even more critical in Brawl. The singleton deckbuilding restriction leads to curves that are higher than normal in Standard, and that along with the ability to replay your commander with a tax means that you’re going to need more mana than normal. Furthermore, life totals are higher, challenging aggressive strategies find redundancy, opening up the door for strategies that play more expensive spells. Fortunately, everybody gets access to Arcane Signet. While it doesn’t go in literally every deck, I have a hard time coming up with strategies that don’t want it, beyond Torbran, Thane of Red Fell and green decks which focus heavily on creature synergies (which play Paradise Druid et al. anyway).

With all of this in mind, the player who can use up more mana-making relevant plays over the course of the game will generally have the advantage. Standard is full of pushed cards that can threaten to end the game in short order (the Core Set 2020 Cavalier cycle, commanders, the legendary artifacts from Throne of Eldraine) and having the mana to be able to do so is often the deciding factor in who wins and who loses. So, play those mana rocks (Arcane Signet, Mana Geode), mana creatures (Paradise Druid, Leafkin Druid), accelerants (Circuitous Route, Fertile Footsteps from Beanstalk Giant), and find ways to cheat on mana (Fires of Invention, Ugin, the Ineffable) to gain an edge!

Lesson 2: Battlefield Development is Key

As Brawl decks are singleton decks, the prevalence of efficient sweepers is lower than normal. A player can only play one Deafening Clarion or one Kaya’s Wrath—in order to play more, they have to play less effective sweepers (like Flame Sweep) or more expensive ones (like Cast Off from Realm-Cloaked Giant). Since it’s more difficult to reset the battlefield, the player that is ahead tends to get further ahead. Efficient removal such as Price of Fame, Unsummon, Prison Realm, or Rabid Bite are excellent ways of trading up on mana and battling for position. Furthermore, with so many planeswalkers in the format, it is crucial to fight to get ahead on board to both protect your planeswalkers and pressure your opponent’s planeswalkers. Creatures that can attack, block, and have relevant abilities when they are on the battlefield are at the core of Brawl, which leads to interesting gameplay.

Single CombatPlanar Cleansing

This all isn’t to say sweepers are bad in Brawl; in fact they are very good. Two white sweepers I don’t see often—Single Combat and Planar Cleansing—have impressed me, though admittedly it can be difficult to fit into a strategy as white decks tend to be so permanent-based.

I want to emphasize the importance of impacting the battlefield in this format. It’s tough to rationalize “taking a turn off” to cast a card like Precognitive Perception or Shared Summons, powerful as those effects may be. If no sweepers are in sight, the tempo advantage from being better developed than an opponent will lead to a greater overall advantage than even the best of the dedicated draw spells. The fundamental “two-for-one”s such as Divination (Winged Words) and Mind Rot are largely meaningless in this format for their inability to impact the battlefield. Similarly, when faced with the decision to do nothing versus to do anything (for instance, casting Murder on a low-priority creature like Healer’s Hawk or Agent of Treachery on a land), I find that doing anything is the better line. Sure, it feels bad, but I’ve found that more often than not, players have the ability to leverage even small threats, and there are enough things to do with your mana in the format that you might never get another chance to make that play.

Lesson 3: Hard to Swallow Pills

Hard to Swallow pills meme, the second frame says "You Need More Lands in Your Commander Deck"

Holllllllld up there, just hear me out before you close this tab. The worst feeling in Magic is to flood out, drawing land turn after turn with nothing to spend your mana on, and die a slow painful death at the hand of a 2/2 or whatever random creature your opponent has. An opening hand of five lands and two spells is especially prone to this, and is an instant mulligan.

Unless you have a commander.

Meme that says "Five lands/Two Spells" (No), "Five Lands/Two Spells in Commander" (Yes)

“But Sunyveil, that’s still a terrible hand!”

In Commander formats, you secretly get to draw extra cards in your opener. No, I’m not counting “peek at the top card during mulligan decisions,” but rather, your commander functions as an eighth card. In fact, it’s also a ninth and tenth card, but with the appropriate commander tax added to its cost. The vast majority of removal spells send the commander back to the command zone, so you’ll almost always have a spell to play, albeit an expensive one.

Mountain (343)Plains (331)Plains (331)Healer's HawkTrapped in the TowerSkyknight LegionnaireBoros ChallengerTajic, Legion's Edge

Tajic, Legion's Edge with altered mana cost 3RW

Tajic, Legion's Edge with altered mana cost 5RW

 

 

 

 

 

 

A typical hand from a Tajic, Legion’s Edge Brawl deck.

So that five-land, two-spell hand I described earlier essentially has a third spell at its normal cost, a fourth overpriced spell, and a fifth very expensive spell. If they’re not killing your commander, you might not have access to those more expensive spells, but that’s usually really good for you.

Say you’re playing a classic Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God control deck. You draw your opening hand and it’s five lands, Price of Fame, and Ionize. Think about how your turns are going to play out. On turn 3 you can Ionize their play, on turn 4 you can cast Price of Fame, and on turn 5 you can play Nicol Bolas. That’s a solid curve! Hopefully by turn 6 you’ve found something else to spend your mana on, and then on turn 7 you’ll have access to Nicol Bolas again. Assuming you find something to play on turn 6 (which isn’t much to ask), that hand works out about as well as you could hope for. No amount of extra cards* will make that curve better, so long as you can play a land and use up all your mana each turn. All we needed in this hypothetical scenario is to have three spells but seven lands from our deck to assemble our game plan.

*Okay, some of you may have pointed out that more spells in hand translates to more options for what you play that turn. This is true and will increase the quality of your plays by a marginal amount in the opening stages of the game. Why marginal? Well, in Constructed, most of your cards that cost 3 are going to be more powerful than most of your cards that cost 2, the cards that cost 4 are going to be more powerful than the cards that cost 3, and so on, even in a singleton format. This isn’t necessarily the case in Limited when the disparity in power level between the cards in your deck is high (bombs vs. chaff), but hopefully you’re happy to see most of the cards in your Constructed deck. The ability to use up all your available mana for each turn tends to be far more important than having an abundance of options, at least for the first several turns of the game.

When I started building decks for Brawl, I set 26 lands as my default for decks that want to play some spells that cost 5 and 6 mana (see: Ondrej Strasky’s Mythic Championship winning deck list). However, I often found myself in situations where I would lose a game with spells in hand while missing land drops—the telltale sign that a deck has too few lands. Even 27 and 28 lands doesn’t feel like enough at times, and I lose because I’m missing my land drops much more frequently than losing to flooding out.

I’ve heard many arguments about “My deck with X lands runs just fine with all the mana ramp in it!” I’m not about to advocate for removing ramp spells from your Commander decks, but just consider this: Manalith is a fine card, and variations of it find homes in Brawl all the time (Fertile Footsteps, Mana Geode, Chromatic Lantern, etc.). Each time you hit a land drop, you cast a Manalith for free. On turns that you don’t play a land from your hand, casting a Manalith is way worse than if the card were a land—you’re spending mana you otherwise wouldn’t have to! If you start the turn with 5 mana, a land would allow you to play something that costs 6 while a Chromatic Lantern will only allow you to play something that costs 3, and both set you up to have 6 mana at the start of the next turn. That’s why it’s so critical—especially in a fast-paced format like Brawl—to hit your lands and not stumble on mana. Land drops are tech!

Okay, that was long, but really important. Ramp spells are great, but unless you’re hitting your land drop for the turn, lands are much better. If you want to hit your seventh land drop, a count of 28 lands in deck gives you roughly a 50% chance of doing so. If you’re skeptical about my numbers, just keep this in the back of your mind during your next Brawl session. Back to the rest of the article!

Lesson 4: Green is Comically Good

Paradise DruidQuesting BeastNissa, Who Shakes the WorldThorn Mammoth - Brawl Deck Exclusive

Arcane Signet is great, and green gets to play six copies of it (Leafkin Druid, Paradise Druid, Arboreal Grazer, Gilded Goose, Incubation Druid, and even Woodland Mystic). The normal drawback for these cards—that they are weak to sweepers—is even mitigated in Brawl for the reasons I discussed. Blue for card draw? Nah, how about Guardian Project and The Great Henge—they end up drawing more cards anyway. If you’re looking for haste, you don’t even need red; you have Questing Beast, Shifting Ceratops, and Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and if that’s not enough you can just play Crashing Drawbridge (which has impressed me!) to give all your creatures haste. Nissa also doubles as an absurd enabler for anything that wants a ton of mana. Nekretaal variants aren’t in the format… except for Voracious Hydra and Thorn Mammoth. And if there’s anything you can’t deal with, you still have Ugin, the Ineffable and Meteor Golem as catchalls.

If you’ve been following Standard, this is no surprise to you, but it’s a good time to be playing green.

Lesson 5: Red… is Not.

I’ve really struggled with red in Brawl. Fires of Invention is obviously insane (and my best friend), Cavalier of Flame hits like a truck, and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell makes for a fearsome deck, but beyond that I find myself unimpressed by most red cards. Black and white have much better removal, green has better haste creatures, and every color has access to fast mana. The ramp targets in other colors are better, too. Players even start at higher life totals, so direct damage is less effective. It’s sad to say, but red is in a tough spot right now.

Lesson 6: Commanders are Explosive

Yarok, the DesecratedChulane, Teller of Tales - Foil - Brawl Deck ExclusiveKorvold, Fae-Cursed King - Foil - Brawl Deck ExclusiveFeather, the RedeemedGolos, Tireless PilgrimKykar, Wind's Fury

Yarok, the Desecrated; Chulane, Teller of Tales; Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; Feather, the Redeemed; Golos, Tireless Pilgrim; and Kykar, Wind’s Fury. These are just a few commanders that are absolutely devastating if a player is allowed to untap with them, and the game will often hinge on whether they are removed or not. As commanders, a player’s deck is often built to maximize explosiveness for when they are in play, and “letting a player untap with Chulane” becomes “they have ten lands and six creatures on the battlefield” pretty quickly. Price of Fame, Murderous Rider, Prison Realm, Frogify, and even temporary measures such as Unsummon are crucial to hold these at bay, and most decks should be prepared to answer one of these on turn 4.

Price of FameMurderous Rider // Swift EndPrison RealmFrogifyUnsummon

One thing about these build-around decks is that while they are explosive if they get to do their thing, sometimes removal on the commander two or three times puts them too far back to recover. That’s an arbitrary mark for sure, but trading removal for a 4-mana spell, then a 6-mana spell, and finally an 8-mana spell yields a huge mana advantage.

Lesson 7: Planeswalkers are Strong

Liliana, Dreadhorde GeneralUgin, the IneffableGarruk, Cursed Huntsman - BorderlessTeferi, Time Raveler

There are a lot of planeswalkers in Brawl. That’s awesome! Many players have planeswalkers as their commanders, but also cards like Ugin, the Ineffable; Vivien, Arkbow Ranger; and Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer become pretty playable once you’re playing a singleton format where you have to dig a little deeper in your collection. You’ll never have to worry about the planeswalker uniqueness rule, either! Figuring out how to activate planeswalkers and how to attack and defend them leads to really interesting gameplay.

Mobilized DistrictThe Elderspell

Two cards that help deal with planeswalkers are Mobilized District and The Elderspell. Mobilized District sits around in play generating mana, and when necessary can finish off a planeswalker at low loyalty. Even the threat of the creature land can cause players to take lines of play they otherwise wouldn’t want to, and it’s an easy include in decks that otherwise have trouble with planeswalkers. I didn’t think The Elderspell would be playable, but I’ve seen battlefields with three or even four planeswalkers on a side, and any time you kill more than one planeswalker with the card it’s an absolute blowout.

Lesson 8: Have a Good Time!

The current Brawl format, in a word, is fantastic. We’re seven weeks in and I’m still finding new things to do with the available cards. I play a new deck on just about every stream and yet I still haven’t even gotten to all of the common commanders. The format is incredibly diverse as people are mostly just looking to have a good time, and succeeding at doing so!

Korvold, Fae-Cursed King - Foil - Brawl Deck ExclusiveKrenko, Tin Street KingpinRoalesk, Apex HybridRankle, Master of Pranks - Extended ArtNissa, Who Shakes the World

We’re about two-thirds of the way through Throne of Eldraine’s tenure as the most recent Magic set, and while I’m excited to see what Theros: Beyond Death brings to Brawl, I’m also looking forward to another month of exploring what we already have. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin; and Roalesk, Apex Hybrid are just a few among the many commanders I have yet to really dig into, and I’m hoping to have time to do so before we’re flooded with all of the legendary creatures and planeswalkers from the next set.

TL;DR

  • Accelerate or find ways to cheat on mana to play powerful cards.
  • Play more lands!
  • Focus on making plays that affect the battlefield, rather than Divination/Mind Rot effects.
  • Keep a board presence to pressure planeswalkers.
  • Green is strong, red is not.
  • Don’t let people untap with Chulane/Korvold/Kykar etc.
  • Have fun!

Next week we’ll be taking a look at an absolute ton of decklists. See you then!

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