Basic Theory: Building and Playtesting a Deck

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To play .hack//ENEMY, you have to build a deck. I know, not exactly an epiphany. But it’s surprising how many people don’t put any time into deck construction. No matter how experienced you are, you can’t just grab 60 cards, and expect to do well in a tournament. Good deck builders come up with ingenious ideas to build a deck around, but great deck builders make those ideas work. The most critical part of making a deck work is playtesting it against proven decks. This article will cover all of the steps of building a deck, from brainstorming, to bringing it to your first tournament. I will also be including one of my personal decks that I’ve built and taken through this process.

Step 1: Know What You’re Doing

Read the rulebook. Read the CRD. You don’t want to build a deck around [D] Hidden, Forbidden, Holy Ground (2P3) and then realize that it was banned (banned for good reason I might add). If you have any questions, ask on the message boards. There is no excuse for not knowing the rules. Or rather, there is no excuse that will get a tournament director to permit your doing something illegal. ;)

Step 2: Brainstorm

What do you want your deck to do? A simple, yet difficult question. The easiest way to come up with an idea is to think of something cool you want your deck to do and work from there. Alternatively, you can think about what decks you normally see when playing with your friends or attending local tournaments. Try to come up with a way to target that deck and use that as your idea.

For example, my playing area was being dominated by Gomora decks. So I wanted a way to attack Gomoras that were in play that were waiting to be used to pay for Cubia (2X125) or waiting to be used in a swarm attack with Repth Gomora (2U63). I decided to do this by basing my deck around Lamia Hunter (2S116) and Orochi (2R95) and their rewards.

Once you have your idea, you need to flesh it out. What kind of PCs or monsters will work with your idea? Usually this will be rather easy to figure out. If you want to build a deck around Summon Goblin (2R107), you’ll clearly need to play Goblins. If you want to abuse Wiseman (2C6) and your single copy of Coma (1T1), you’ll probably want to play Wavemasters. Occasionally, you’ll have some difficulty deciding, but this will usually be caused by starting with a vague idea. If your idea is to swarm your opponent’s PCs, you’ll need to go back and dig a little deeper. Do you want to score seven points in one turn with Dark Witch (1R89) and some Headhunters (1C26) or do you want your swarm to replace itself with cards like Hobgoblin (1C29) and Cannibal (1U57)?

For my deck I had two good options. I could either go with a “best of” Earth deck full of all the good Earth monsters or I could go with Goblins. I selected the former since the Fire element Goblins in the latter would slow down my ability to get four or eight Earth on the table.

Now comes the hard part. Pairing some PCs with your decided monsters or pairing some monsters with your decided PCs can be a problem. If your idea is to create a destiny manipulation deck with Twin Blades like Natsume (1C5), what kind of monsters do you use? Returning to the Summon Goblin idea, what PCs will hold Goblin Items the best? From my personal experience, here’s what each PC class is good at, along with their main weaknesses:

+Good at drawing cards and accessing cards with BT (1X120) and Wiseman
+Good at manipulating hidden cards
+Tsukasa’s Guardian (2X124)
-Limited item selection

+High destiny PCs
+Good game texts
-They have to win to use their game text
-Their level 2 weapons (Merman Spear (2C11) and Lavaman Spear (1U45) are difficult to use.

Twin Blades
+Excellent destiny manipulation with Natsume, Moonstone (2R84)
+Cards like Sora (1X123) and Hell’s Gate (1R77) mess with your opponent
-The actual destiny of their items tends to be somewhat low (i.e. Fishskin (2R75)

+PCs like Marlo (2X120) and Yuji (1U40) provide extra card plays
+Level 2 weapons are easy to play in the right deck (i.e. Ensui (1U43)
+Ginkan (1P1)
-Abilities tend to be dependent on what you draw for destiny
-Their best PCs are X-Rares or Promos (Marlo, Bear (1X119), and Ginkan)

Heavy Blades
+Mimiru (1X122) is the best PC in the game.
+Sanjuro (2S109) and Micino (2C3) are excellent
+Rairaku (2C20) is one of the best pumps
+Shanato (1U47), Shidan (1U48), and Earthian Sword (2U41) give you access to your discard pile
+Demonic Sword (2R73) can potentially destroy almost any non-PC card in the game
-Their level 2 weapons aren’t playable early, unless you discard your hand first turn
-At times, Rairaku gives an unimpressive +1

Heavy Axemen
+Subaru (1X124) helps you know when to flip actions
+They tend to be stronger than PCs of other classes
-Bad destiny
-Their weapons are hard to play and depend on drawing them in the correct order

Your PCs should do one of three things for your monsters. These “pairing principles” are: Cover their weaknesses, provide cards to spot, or take advantage of their strengths. Covering weaknesses is pretty straightforward. Figure out what your monsters have problems with (or what problems your PCs can solve) and use that to make your selection. For example, a Twin Blade deck based around A-20 (2X119) can cover for low destiny monsters. Or if you’re playing a Wavemaster deck, you could choose a strong but easily hand-clogged group of monsters (Wavemasters will help you cycle the monsters as needed).

The second pairing principle is the most common. Play PCs and monsters whose elements match. The best part of this principle is that it can work both ways. Your Darkness can spot Heavy Axemen items or your Blademasters can spot your Lizards to play Komura (1U44). It doesn’t have to be just elements either. A Hirameki (2C18) based deck can provide hidden cards to spot for Water or your Coma deck can easily provide 3 PCs with items for Goil Menhir (1P2), since that’s what it’s doing anyway.

The final pairing principle is the most dangerous, but also has the greatest potential reward. By selecting a matching strength you can often overwhelm your opponent’s ability to handle that strength. A great example is the Longarm Rainbow deck that was popular before Distortion came out. Cards were selected solely on their destiny. It made the deck somewhat weak in a long game or a game where a large opposing PC hit the table early, but the destiny was so high that it could often win early enough to prevent that weakness from mattering. “All Monster” decks usually fall in this category too. Natsume with an Enou (1U42) isn’t a very intimidating sight, but her destiny adding ability helped the aggressive nature of the deck.

For my deck, I recalled some of my experiences playing other decks where I had cards that required spotting 4 to 8 of an element. I never enjoyed staring at a hand full of unplayable cards, so I opted for the second principle. I also used a little bit of the third principle to amplify my ability to fight off Gomoras. So, I selected Heavy Blades. Shanato, Earthian Sword, and Wyrm Hide (1C15) provide me extra Earth to spot. Additionally, Mimiru, Rairaku, and Demonic Sword (to destroy Repth Gomora) provide me with further defense against Gomoras.

Step 3: Build a Formulaic Deck using “Staples”

Don’t start flashy. Start with something simple. Use accepted ratios of PCs to monsters and use cards that are clearly good. Obviously, you might have to use unpopular cards that are critical to your strategy (such as Summon Goblin), but try to keep the total number of such cards down. I’ve included my rough deck outline below. Not all decks will be able to fit into it, but most can. You can vary slightly from these numbers, but not too far. 23 monsters can work, but 20 is often too few.

11 PCs
4 Level two weapons
3 Level three weapons
2 Level four weapons
4 Level one armors
10 Actions / Events / Fields / Additional Items
26 monsters

It’s important for the first build of your deck to be conservative. You need to make sure that your idea has the potential to work. You don’t want your deck to be crippled by an insufficient number of either PCs or monsters. Your deck has to be able to survive the early game and win in the late game. You don’t want your opponent to win on his/her 7th turn by playing seven monsters in a row and you don’t want to last until the 30th turn and not have enough monsters to win. Even if you want to make an exceptionally aggressive or defensive deck, you’ll want to start balanced and tweak it from there.

I can’t emphasize enough that you need to use good cards. Phoenix Queen (1X128) might be your favorite card, but that doesn’t mean you should put it in your deck. Use PCs with better text (Subaru over Piros (1C6) or better destiny (Natsume over Sora). For monsters, use ones that you’ll actually be able to play in a majority of match-ups (Don’t play Magus (2X130) if you only have a couple armors in your deck). Also, try to avoid small monsters that aren’t storable (like Goblin Wiz (1C25)). Finally, try to avoid having too many low destiny cards in your deck, especially ones. When the average destiny of most decks is three or more, a one is a really good way to lose a fight. Here’s the first iteration of my Earth deck:

“The Rock”
PCs (11)
4 Mimiru
4 Sanjuro
3 Micino

Weapons (9)
4 Shanato
3 Earthian Sword
2 Demonic Sword
Armor (4)
4 Wyrm Hide

Fields / Events / Actions / Other Items (11)
2 Snow Panther (2C14)
2 Rairaku
3 Gott Statue (1R105)
1 Coma
3 [Delta] Indiscreet, Gluttonous, Pilgrimage (1U68)

Monsters (25)
4 Goblin (1C24)
4 Metal Emperor (2S117)
4 Metal Eraser (2R94)
4 Killer Snaker (2C28)
4 Lamia Hunter
3 Orochi
2 Goil Menhir

Average Destiny: 3.12

Strategy Build up your PCs and the number of Earth you can spot. Metal Emperors can swarm with the Erasers and the Killer Snakers can swarm with the Lamia Hunters and Orochis. Use Goil Menhir to double Metal Emperor’s reward. Snow Panthers are included to either play the Rairakus, to sacrifice to the Golems, or to return a Shanato or Earthian Sword to hand so that you can get cards back from your discard pile.

Step 4: Playtest the Deck

Now that you’ve built your deck, it’s ready for a tournament, right? No, it isn’t. At this stage, I wouldn’t even bring it to a casual play night. What you need to do is test it against other decks. Some of these decks can be your other decks, but you need at least one deck that has been “proven”. A proven deck is one that has won a PSQ, TOC, or a number of local tournaments. You can find some here on if you dig a little. Other options include asking a local player or on the message boards for a successful deck list.

Build these decks (use proxies if you have to) and play several matches with each deck against your newly constructed deck. At this point you’re testing to see if your strategy has potential. Your deck doesn’t even have to win a lot of games at this point. But it can’t roll over and die. If you can’t get your strategy to come together, you need to reevaluate it and look for a new strategy by returning to step 2. But if your deck is working and you can score some points, win some fights with your PCs, or get really close to setting up your combo (such as Wiseman and Coma) you’re ready to move on.

My deck worked about as well as I could expect in my playtesting. Since it’s designed to beat Gomoras, I mainly focused on playing against Gomoras. My Mimirus and Sanjuros with Rairakus could defeat Gomora Swarms and most of the time I could eventually score 7 points. But I was having a major problem. The games were dragging on quite long. My monsters couldn’t finish the job. I couldn’t score enough early points, so I depended almost entirely on Orochis and Metal Erasers to eventually get 7 points through. By that time the Gomora swarm could often mount a second attack, which I couldn’t beat. Shanato and Earthian Sword also caused problems. While trying to load up 3 PCs for Goil Menhir or Coma, I was constantly stacking cards on top of my deck. It got to the point where I wasn’t seeing any new cards.

Step 5: Tweak your Strategy

Now is the time to change your deck ratios. If your deck was too aggressive, drop monsters and add some more PCs. If it was too defensive, drop PCs and add monsters. But those aren’t all the possible changes. For example, you might find that your A-20 deck has too many actions. Or you might find that your opponent is scoring too many points when you play Net Slum (2P5) in your deck built around it.

There’s usually multiple ways to fix each problem. In the A-20 example, you could play fewer skills or you could include more cards with clock icons (like Snow Panther). For Net Slum, you could either add cards to destroy monsters (like King Snakoid (2S115)) or ways to empty out your opponents discard pile (like Strormer Spear (1R80) or Setback (2U49)). At this point the most common changes include playing less items and playing more monsters. Another important change can be changing the composition of your monsters. If you’re completely switching elements you should be in step 2, but you can often make some elemental changes or species changes. For example, a Fire deck might change some of the smaller monsters from Hounds to Lizards (i.e. Replacing Hell Doberman (1C28) with Snakoid 2C34)) or a Goblin deck might play more Fire goblins so that it can use [L] Lightless, Distant, Dead Lands (2R102).

My changes focused on making the deck more aggressive. To accomplish this, I decreased the number of PCs and dropped my level 2 weapons completely. Instead, I depended on Earthian Sword to beef up my PCs and so I play a deck that is starting to resemble an all monster deck more than a balanced deck. I was forced to drop Coma and Goil Menhir, but I made sure to add another copy of Rairaku to compensate for my slightly weaker defense. I filled the extra deck slots with Hobgoblins and Guardians (1U59) for some more early game strength and some more Earth to spot.

“The More Aggressive Rock”
PCs (8)
4 Mimiru
4 Sanjuro

Weapons (6)
4 Earthian Sword
2 Demonic Sword

Armor (4)
4 Wyrm Hide

Fields / Events / Actions / Other Items (11)
2 Snow Panther
3 Rairaku
3 Gott Statue
3 [Delta] Indiscreet, Gluttonous, Pilgrimage

Monsters (31)
4 Goblin
4 Hobgoblin
4 Guardian
4 Metal Emperor
4 Metal Eraser
4 Killer Snaker
4 Lamia Hunter
3 Orochi

Average Destiny: 3.10

Step 6: Playtest Again

Mostly do what you did in step 4. The main difference at this point is that instead of watching for strategic failures, you’re watching for tactical failures. Which cards tend to work really well in certain situations (Repth (1C16) against wounding decks)? Which cards become liabilities in certain situations (Speed Charm (2R106) against Corrupted Field (1T2))? Do certain cards clog your hand (Shidan against a Thunder deck)? Do you actually use the text on your PCs (Bear when playing with a deck low on actions)? Are you losing too many destiny draws (Heavy Axemen often have this problem)? Does your opponent having a certain card cause you to lose (Escape (1R83) against Gomoras)?

The changes I made helped my deck and I was winning more games, but I was still having some problems. I was still having trouble scoring my 7th point and my hand was clogging up with various cards I couldn’t play at the time. I needed a few more large monsters and some ways to get extra cards out of my hand. I could already hide cards to sacrifice to Golems, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Step 7: Include “Bad” Cards

This step is where you replace “good” cards with “bad” cards that happen to work better in your deck. These “bad” cards aren’t necessarily weak cards, but rather cards that have very specific uses or wouldn’t normally fit into your type of deck. Using the above examples:

Cards that work well in certain situations In this case you need to decide how important the given situation is. A card that works well when your opponent attacks with a Fiend Menhir (1C22), a King Snakoid, a Phoenix Queen, and a Deadly Moth (1C20) isn’t that important to your deck. But a card that helps you win against one of your deck’s bad match-ups is important. For the Repth example, you might want to add more copies of Repth. Alternatively, you could add copies of Woman in White (1R108) or Other Servers (cards that usually don’t belong in a deck) to help you get copies of Repth out.

Cards that become liabilities The best way to deal with a liability is to substitute it for another card that works in a similar fashion. A card like Speed Charm could be replaced by a weaker, but safer, card like Let Us Walk Together (2S111).

Cards that clog your hand There are four ways to deal with hand clogging cards. Make them easier to play, remove them from your deck, create ways to discard these cards, or add ways to draw new cards. The third is my personal favorite, but all four (especially the first) can work. Using the previous example, Shidan can be made easier to play by including cards like Gate Hacking (1P4) to get cards in your discard pile or you could just play cards like Plate Armor (1C11) to discard it when you can’t play it.

PCs whose text isn’t used Some PCs (like Bear) are great cards that just don’t work in some decks. You’ll often be better with a weaker PC whose text comes up more often (like Mia (1C4)).

Losing too many destiny draws Sometimes the average destiny of your deck is just too low. To fix this you’ll have to replace good low destiny cards with inferior high destiny cards. A Heavy Axemen deck might want to replace Benkei (1U37) with Terajima Ryoko (2S110), even though Benkei’s gametext is much better. Other examples include replacing Rai Repulse (1U52) with Vak Wipe (2C21) or Heavy Metal (1C27) with Swordmanoid (1C36).

Cards your deck is weak against Gomoras have serious issues against Mimiru and Escape. Water can have problems when Fire destroys their hidden cards. Sometimes a weakness (like Gomoras against Mimiru) is better off ignored. I know someone who included a 3-card combo in his Gomora deck to combat Mimiru. The combo worked, but it diluted his deck so much that his deck actually got worse. However, if you can compensate for a weakness with only one card, go for it. I have Rachel (2C5) in my current Gomora deck and she’s helped me win games by destroying Escapes and Rairakus. She’s not a really good card, but you would be surprised how often she works.

You can also make changes you would make in step 5 to your deck, but I would recommend against making any drastic changes. You might find that you need a few more monsters or another item or two. This step is also where you can start including splash cards like Mistral (1U39) or King Snakoid if you find your deck needs to support its strategy.

For “The Rock” I decided that I had a large number of cards that clogged my hand. To combat this I looked for cards that didn’t disrupt the deck, but that could help cycle my hand. I decided that Black Rose (1S109) (though normally a weak PC) allowed me to see a few more cards every game, which gave me more chances to ditch cards. I also selected Goblin Boots (2U42) to get a few extra card plays while still providing Earth for me to spot. I also decided to include a few copies of King Snakoid to support my late game.

The first cards I removed were some of the offending cards. I removed a Gott Statue since I would often draw it without items. I also took out the Rairakus and Snow Panthers since their defensive nature clashed with the aggressive nature of my deck. Finally, I removed the copies of Sanjuro because the abundance of Earth items makes it hard for him to get his bonus (since Wood very rarely shows up in my area). My final decklist:

“The Rock They Broke Themselves Against”
PCs (8)
4 Mimiru
4 Black Rose

Weapons (6)
4 Earthian Sword
2 Demonic Sword

Armor (4)
4 Wyrm Hide

Fields / Events / Actions / Other Items (8)
3 Goblin Boots
2 Gott Statue
3 [D] Indiscreet, Gluttonous, Pilgrimage

Monsters (34)
4 Goblin
4 Hobgoblin
4 Guardian
4 Metal Emperor
4 Metal Eraser
4 Killer Snaker
4 Lamia Hunter
3 Orochi
3 King Snakoid

Average Destiny: 2.99

Strategy Throw down a PC and you’ll rarely want to avoid. Black Rose will let you draw a card and Mimiru will slow down your opponent’s deck. Additionally, the frequency of fights will get Earth cards into your discard pile for Earthian Sword. Play the monsters aggressively. Often you’ll want to use the Metal Emperor or Metal Erasers reward to simply hide another card to help you play your next Golem. After a couple turns you’ll want to start storing your Goblins instead of attacking. Try to avoid playing Goblin Boots when you don’t have a Goblin. If you wait, you can not only get an extra card draw, but you can get an extra card out on the table for you to either spot or sacrifice to a Golem.

Step 8: Tournament Play

Your deck is now ready for a tournament. You might do really well or you might do quite poorly. Some decks work well in playtesting and end up flopping in tournaments. But make sure to remember that even good decks can lose. If you end up facing all of your worst match-ups in a single tournament you’re going to lose. If that’s the case, you can just shelve the deck until the metagame shifts and people stop playing those decks. But sometimes you’ll have to abandon a deck. Even good ideas can fail. But if you don’t abandon the deck, you’ll usually want to go back to step 7. Use the experience you gained in the tournament to improve the deck. Personally, I was lucky. “The Rock” has managed to win all of its tournament games so far. Not all my creations have been so successful. To an extent, deckbuilding is hit and miss. To get a high quality deck, you often have to build several bad ones.

Step 9: Look Ahead

As soon as a new set starts to be revealed, you should watch for cards that’ll fit in your deck. Watch for cards that will fill a weakness (like how Sleipnir (3R60) will allow Long Arms to avoid their bad level 2 weapons) or that are simply better than cards you’re already using (Mad Grass Patch (3C20) over Chicken Hand (1C18)). Sometimes, cards will let you go a completely different way with a strategy you’re already using (a demon deck might want to focus on the new Fire demons instead of Darkness demons).

Since I built “The Rock” over a month ago, Epidemic is the set I’m looking to for additions. I like the look of Earth Elementals. They could take the deck in a slightly different direction and potentially add some more strength to the deck. Sand Hill (3U50) and Mystery Rock (3U48) especially interest me. I’m also excited about the level 2 PCs, especially Puchi (3P1). She can help me clear out my hand, load my discard pile for Earthian Sword, and simply be a point of strength higher. Snakey Grunty (3U40) also looks to have a lot of promise. I should be able to feed it very quickly, providing me with additional portal destruction. Plus it’ll give Puchi her bonus. Gregory Austin is a player of .hack, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek. A resident of Apex, NC he has a Computer Science degree from NC State University. He also has far too much free time on his hands.

Last Updated: Sunday, June 06, 2004