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MDV Featured Article - The Science of Magic: Genetic Engineering. - by Amadeus - originally posted 9/6/07 - reposted 10/7/09 - discuss here

We humans have always affected our environment, shaping it according to our will in order to improve our chances of survival. As a species, we have moved from hunters and gatherers to herders and farmers, domesticating both plant and animal species that had once lived out their lives in the wild. Unsatisfied with dominating that which God deemed fit to populate the Earth, we unlocked the secrets of genetics and DNA, creating plant species that produced greater yields and animal species that produced more milk or wool or meat. But what if this knowledge was used not for the good of the species? What if a single species was created to dominate all others?

I am purely a casual player. This means that I do not build decks to win tournaments. I do not enter tournaments. In fact, I have never even been to a tournament. It also means that I am always looking at new ways to enjoy the game at home. One aspect of Magic: the Gathering (MtG) that I do not see much information about is the flavor of the game. As a casual player I suppose that I fall into the Timmy-Johnny stereotype. I like to build interesting decks from a casual perspective and they are certainly engineered to win in their target environment, but I also like my decks to win in a certain way. Part of the way in which I like to win has to do with flavor.

Call it my own particular neurosis, but if I were a powerful wizard with vast knowledge at my fingertips, I do not think that I would want to summon a bunch of creatures and hide behind them while they attack my opponent - often giving their lives in the process. I think that I would prefer to exert my power more directly on my opponent, either by attacking them directly or by some other magical convolution. For this reason, along with the fact that I actually like my games of magic to last more than a couple of minutes, my decks tend to lean toward control and some combo, with burn forming the primary source of aggression. Creatures almost always play a supporting role, usually for some activated or triggered ability that they bring to the table.

However, since returning to MtG after a long time away, I have also become a student of the game and I know deep down that learning to deal with creatures must form part of the core curriculum regardless of my chosen specialty. With this in mind, I spawned a contest on the Magic Deck Vortex (MDV) Forum. This contest has two undeniable characteristics: it is casual, and it is creature-oriented. What follows is the introduction to this contest, followed by some of my own musings. Part Two of this article will present the long-awaited contest results.  [This contest was started and finished prior to this article being posted.  ~Streetz~]


When I stopped playing Magic: the Gathering more than 10 years ago, Slivers did not yet exist. I recall that there were a few Thrulls around, which I found rather bizarre and, frankly, useless. When I started playing again within the last year, I treated Slivers with disdain - some of which I picked up from others through comments in articles and in the forums and I think that I also simply equated them with Thrulls. Ultimately, however, this disdain was based on ignorance rather than a true understanding of any reasons for which I might not like them.

Recently, I was building a deck and trying to create creatures with vigilance and some form of evasion, such as flying or even unblockability. In typical fashion, I completely ignored Slivers. Several days later, frustrated at being unable to get my deck to work, I clicked on Synchronous Sliver - the only blue creature with vigilance that I had not yet tried in my deck. All Slivers have vigilance. What else do I need? How about all Slivers have flying (see Winged Sliver), or perhaps unblockability (see Shifting Sliver)? I could also use some mana acceleration similar to Birds of Paradise. Gemhide Sliver is looking handy. The more I looked through the Slivers that are out there, the more interested I became.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that building a Sliver deck is very much like a project we had to do back in my university days. I studied Computer Engineering at the university, and in one of our programming courses our professor developed an interesting project. He created a program that acted as an 'environment', or 'world', and our task was to create an insect to populate this world. The programming part of the exercise, of course, was to create the intelligence behind any of the decisions that our particular bug would have to make. But there was also a common interface with the environment that allowed our bugs to interact with the world around them in order to survive and thrive. It has been (quite!) a few years now, and I do not remember all of the details, but bugs could do things like eat plant material or each other to gain energy, reproduce, grow bigger, create poison pellets, and engage in combat with rival species. Yes, our creation was ultimately judged by putting two species into the test world and letting them fight for survival. Our grade was partially based on how well our species of insect survived against other species.

Essentially, each activity other than eating burned the energy which was gained from eating, so the task was primarily to weigh the trade-offs of each activity in order to determine the best approach to dominating the other species and assuming control of the environment. The result was an interesting variety of species. Some people created venomous insects that avoided a fight (venomous insects dropped poison pellets that other species would mistake for food). Some species spent energy to gain resistance to poisons. Some insects grew very large before reproducing so that they would dominate combat with rival species. Some species reproduced quickly. Some grew large and then divided, creating 2 equal insects, each with identical statistics. Others created insects with a massive queen that produced much smaller offspring which did the fighting. Obviously, anyone could create an insect species that could defeat another particular species, but nobody knew how the other species would behave.

To some degree, constructing any creature-based deck for Magic: the Gathering has some element of this genetic engineering approach. In fact, constructing any type of deck has the engineering element at its core. However, sliver decks match up with this genetic engineering concept almost perfectly. You have limited resources in mana; in terms of both number and color. You are ultimately trying to create a sliver variant species that has the particular qualities that will allow you to dominate your opponent. The 'world' is of course a game of Magic: the Gathering with all of the various rules that apply, and slivers work within that environment to achieve their goal.

Now, ultimately, Slivers were not what I needed for my deck. What I needed was to spend money on the mana base to properly support a 3-color deck (I had been trying to build it 2-color with a reasonably cheap mana base). However, my interest in Slivers had been piqued. I wondered whether I could re-create the feel of that programming project using Magic cards and Slivers.

Genetic Engineering

The next obvious thing to do for any deck engineer, when given a concept, is to try your hand at building a deck. The first thing that I did was create a list of all the Sliver cards available to me. It came out something like this:

White Blue Black Red Green
Armor Sliver
Essence Sliver
Lymph Sliver
Plated Sliver
Pulmonic Sliver
Poultice Sliver
Quilled Sliver
Sidewinder Sliver
Sinew Sliver
Talon Sliver
Ward Sliver
Watcher Sliver
Mesmeric Sliver
Mistform Sliver
Mnemonic Sliver
Psionic Sliver
Screeching Sliver
Shadow Sliver
Shifting Sliver
Synapse Sliver
Synchronous Sliver
Telekinetic Sliver
Winged Sliver
Basal Sliver
Clot Sliver
Crypt Sliver
Frenzy Sliver
Mindlash Sliver
Mindwhip Sliver
Plague Sliver
Spectral Sliver
Spitting Sliver
Toxin Sliver
Vampiric Sliver
Barbed Sliver
Battering Sliver
Blade Sliver
Bonesplitter Sliver
Fury Sliver
Heart Sliver
Homing Sliver
Hunter Sliver
Magma Sliver
Sedge Sliver
Two-Headed Sliver
Brood Sliver
Fungus Sliver
Gemhide Sliver
Horned Sliver
Might Sliver
Muscle Sliver
Quick Sliver
Reflex Sliver
Root Sliver
Spinneret Sliver
Virulent Sliver
Artifact Multi-Colored
Metallic Sliver
Venserís Sliver
Acidic Sliver (BR)
Ghostflame Sliver (BR)
Cautery Sliver (RW)
Crystalline Sliver (WU)
Opaline Sliver (WU)
Darkheart Sliver (BG)
Dementia Sliver (UB)
Hibernation Sliver (UB)
Dormant Sliver (GU)
Firewake Sliver (RG)
Spined Sliver (RG)
Frenetic Sliver (UR)
Harmonic Sliver (GW)
Victual Sliver (GW)
Necrotic Sliver (WB)
Sliver Legion (WUBRG)
Sliver Overlord (WUBRG)
Sliver Queen (WUBRG)

The first thing that I noticed is that each color has roughly the same number of Sliver creatures, and each color pair has at least one multi-colored Sliver, though some have two. Finally, there are the three five-color Slivers (Sliver Queen, Sliver Overlord and Sliver Legion). I decided that I had seen too many five-color Sliver decks on the internet and thought I'd narrow my own colors to two or three at most.

It was at this point I realized that I really only knew one thing about constructing a creature-focused deck: look for efficient creatures. Efficiency is defined as a creature that has power equal to or greater than its converted casting cost. So, with no other specific path to follow, I set about analyzing the relative efficiency of each Sliver. An important observation that arose from this was that there is no single Sliver creature that is hyper-efficient - in other words there is no Sliver equivalent to Savannah Lions out there. But what also became clear is that while there are several Slivers that are efficient in and of themselves, in combination they become much more efficient. A few that jumped to the top of the pile here included Muscle Sliver, Sinew Sliver and Blade Sliver. Green, White and Red - no real surprise there. However, looking at Muscle Sliver and Sinew Sliver quickened my pulse a little. These guys each have a converted mana cost of 2, and with each one that you drop, all Slivers become more efficient. I also decided that, all around, these were the two best overall Sliver cards from the point of view of building a Zoo-style deck in Sliverland. Since these two are also essentially identical except for color, it also means that I have 8 of the same card in my deck. That's the type of redundancy that can make any deck successful.

Now, I had written up a few paragraphs describing my Green/White Sliver deck based on these two cards. However, since one of the contest submissions was very similar, I decided not to steal its thunder. It should suffice to note here that Red, Green and White are the colors for fast, efficient Sliver attacks, and a deck made in any combination of these colors should fare well. In fact, the deck submissions for the contest contain one each of Red/Green, Red/White and Green/White decks based primarily on the use of efficient creatures. Note also that Red has Heart Sliver and the Red/Green combination has Firewake Sliver, both of which bring Haste to the table. Efficiency, pump and haste is certainly a lethal combination.

I should also note that for a tribal deck like Slivers, if you are using Green, then Alpha Status makes a lot of sense. Once you have pump and Alpha Status, you might want to consider Trample (Horned Sliver). Well, you can see where that headed.

So that was my first attempt. However, this was not enough for me. In fact, I am working on creating a Sliver deck based on each 2-color combination in a sort of Ravnica-style Sliver world. There are a lot of interesting card combinations that can be used to build around (for example, take a look at the synergy between Vampiric Sliver and Toxin Sliver). I won't bore you with all of the details. However, I will present one more deck.

At some point I think that most of us have attempted to make a poison counter deck. Similarly, most of us have probably been disappointed due to the lack of cards available to us (for good reason). Now, I am not the first person to realize that Virulent Sliver makes a poison counter deck viable, nor will I be the last. In fact, while writing this article, Virulent Sliver was made famous by winning the Two-Headed Giant format at Pro Tour San Diego. However, this did not deter me as I attempted to make the poison counter victory a reality for my Slivers.

I have to confess that in the past I was working on an Insect deck and thought that it would be not only useful but also a cool effect if I could give all of my Insects flying by stealing the old UG Madness trick of discarding Wonder into my graveyard. The imagery there is somehow satisfying. Well, I never got that deck working, but fast-forward to my Sliver deck and the first thing that I will note about Virulent Sliver is that it is not very resilient, and it is really only effective if it is dealing damage to a player. So we really don't want our Virulent Slivers getting caught up in combat, making evasion a key here. We have a few options in blue, but I think that Winged Sliver is enough. Now I have my flying species and it is poisonous to boot. Shadow Sliver could also help as a backup. Shifting Sliver is good, but I want my deck to be as fast as possible, so for now it will not make the cut.

So, with Virulent Sliver, all of our Slivers can leave a poison counter behind when they deal damage. In addition, if you have more than one Virulent Sliver in play, the effect is cumulative. What we are looking for to compete with reasonably fast decks like those that we can expect in Red, Green and White is to get as many Virulent Slivers on the table as we can, as quickly as we can, and then attack with evasion. This means that we want to have a number of ways to search our library for Virulent Sliver, copy Virulent Sliver if we can, and even bring our superstar back from the graveyard if necessary. A number of cards are useful here including Mask of the Mimic, Cytoshape, Worldly Tutor, and Evolution Charm.

Now, I had originally intended this deck to be Blue/Green. However, testing showed that my Slivers were so fragile that they could not even block in the early rounds when I needed them to without losing key players. As a result, I chose to splash White, adding in Plated Sliver and Watcher Sliver, along with some additional creature fetching in Congregation at Dawn.

Believe it or not, this deck tested fairly well against the deck submissions for the contest. It did, however, run into trouble against decks that used burn to target and exterminate the Virulent Slivers. The obvious fix is to introduce Crystalline Sliver to prevent such shenanigans. This change has been reflected in the deck list below.

Here is the result:


 [back to top]


Hornet Slivers.
TRIBAL: Slivers - Virulent Sliver /Cytoshape

7 Forest
6 Island
4 Plains
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Simic Growth Chamber
1 Selesnya Sanctuary
1 Azorius Chancery

4 Virulent Sliver
4 Winged Sliver
4 Metallic Sliver
3 Shadow Sliver
4 Plated Sliver
3 Crystalline Sliver
Other Spells
2 Congregation at Dawn
3 Mask of the Mimic
3 Cytoshape
3 Worldly Tutor
3 Evolution Charm
by Amadeus

I chose to drop Watcher Sliver from the initial build in order to make room for Crystalline Sliver. You can also see that all forteen of the non-Land, non-Sliver cards in the deck are dedicated to fetching Slivers. This is fine for an environment in which we are pitting one Sliver deck against another. However, if I wanted this deck to stand on its own, I would likely want to trim the total fetch count and replace some of them with counter magic. These would be held back primarily for use against global removal Ė essentially insurance against acts of God (a.k.a. Wrath of God, or in some cases, Damnation).

The final change that I would make would be to introduce some multi-lands in order to smooth out the mana base a little. As we all know, this costs money, and as a casual player you constantly have to ask yourself whether itís worth the extra investment.

For now, Iím happy with my Hornet Slivers, and with my own musings out of the way, we can turn our thoughts to the contest itself. Part Two of this article will present the contest rules, the MDV member submissions, the results as offered by our inexperienced judges, and finally, the contest winner!


You can discuss this article in the MDV forums here.
Find other articles by this author here.
Find other articles from this series here.

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Articles Spotlights from 2007:
Lorwyn Theme Week Intro & Schedule of Events
Blink And Bounce: Timing is Key
Going Blind: XCB Metagaming - A Prolonged Conclusion.
The Science of Magic: Genetic Engineering, Part Two.
Shifting Lineaments: Casual Metagaming (Pt. 2).
The Dungeon Of Malefict: Pure Evil!
Combofusion: Legends Timeshifted.
Land Week Introduction & Schedule.
One Card to Rule Them All: Coastal Piracy
Irrational Love: Chimeras. The Lego's of Magic.

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Magic Deck Vortex (www.magicdeckvortex.com) is a service provided by John Streetz to promote the knowledge, enjoyment and awareness of Magic: the Gathering as a collectible card game (CCG). This is a free site that does not generate any profit for its owner. Magic Deck Vortex is based out of Chicagoland, Illinois and has been around since August 2002.

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