Constructing Flavor: Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate Deck For Me

Constructing Flavor focuses on Magic decks built around a particular flavor or lore theme. These can be focused around a particular tribe, storyline, character, or concept; if it’s flavorful, we wanna see it! If you have a themed deck you’d like to see featured in this column, send the list to

All Images © 1995 - 2013 Wizards of the Coast LLC

All Images © 1995 – 2013 Wizards of the Coast LLC

There comes a time in every Vorthos’ life when he of she says, “You know, this lore is great, but MtG is kind of a card game. I should try to play it.” They put together a deck, based around some lore hook or another that attracts them, and they take it to the races.

It loses. Badly. What happened? Most likely, the deck was full of good flavor but poor gameplay. This is the true burden of the Vorthos: some of the most flavorful cards simply aren’t very good in constructed decks. Jar of Eyeballs, Hired Torturer, Murder Investigation, Ambush Viper… the list goes on. The cards are thematic, the effects are ho-hum.

I’d like to take this time to share with you the process I go through when I decide to build thematic decks. Hopefully, my step-by-step instructions will help you discover some new ways to sling spells while maintaining flavor.

Step One: Identify Your Theme

This is the easiest part and probably the most fun one too. Just pick something you like, and say “I’m gonna build a deck around that.” This can be a character, a plane, a concept, an archetype of a wizard you’d like to roleplay as, a creature tribe, a real-world concept… the Multiverse is at your fingertips. MtG currently has a library of over 15,000 cards, and it’s only getting bigger, so chances are you will be able to find more than enough cards to fit your goals. As you may have guessed, my theme for this deck is pirates and pirate culture. I was inspired when I saw Ramirez DePitero for the first time. A flamboyantly feminine pirate captain? Man, you gotta love Legends.

Step Two: Find Thematic Footholds

We’re still on the fun steps! This is the part where you examine your concept and find the elements within it that truly define it. When I sat down with Captain Ramirez and the goal of raising pirate havoc, I thought about the recurring tropes that appear in pirate movies, TV shows, stage productions, and books. I came up with the following short list:

  • Stealing: pirates take. It’s what they do. If you have it, they want it.
  • Treasure: the primary thing pirates take. Gold, jewels, other ships, slaves, weapons, food, and so forth.
  • Naval Adventures: pirates friggin’ love the sea and everything to do with it.
  • Sea Critters: when pirates aren’t eating them, they can be found either fighting or befriending them. A pirate’s relationship with aquatic fauna is complicated.
  • Deception: pirates aren’t your friends. They’re barely each others’ friends.

Once you’ve got a sufficient amount of tropes to adhere to, you get to do the real brunt of the work…

Step Three: Translate Into Mechanics, Start Gathering

Figure out what some of those footholds you identified would look like in-game. This is easier than it seems, specifically if you’re familiar with where mechanics fall on the color pie.

Once you’ve got a feel for the types of cards you’re looking for, you can easily plug choice terms into Gatherer to filter out cards that might be useful.

Step Four: Make Necessary Concessions

For a true Vorthos, this is the hardest step. You’ll probably have a nice shell of a deck to plug things into at this point, but in order to make it truly functional, some flavor concessions may have to be made. To use my deck as an example, I was crushed when I had to remove Flying Pirates from my list. But unfortunately, a 1/1 that can’t block on the ground isn’t really what I want to be doing on any turn of a Commander game.

Similarly, some cards may fit within your mechanical theme but not your flavor one. Depending on how much of an egregious offense this is, you may or may not want to add some of them anyway. In my case, a particular point of contention was the inclusion of Nightveil Specter. A ghost knight riding a dragon… thing doesn’t exactly scream “pirate”, especially considering that pirates are typically highly superstitious and wouldn’t hang out with ghosts. But its ability fits the theme of piracy to a T, so I may end up including it after all if and when I get my hands on one.

For other decks, this may mean stretching flavor on things like removal spells or support creatures. You’re not going to get a chance to play all your awesome flavorful cards if your opponent can disrupt your every plan. Adding cards that help you play the spells you actually like can end up being a huge improvement to your deck in the long run.

Here’s the deck I eventually came up with. I’m still in the process of tweaking, and many of the cards on that list are ones that I do not actually own. But when I look at the deck as a whole, the theme absolutely shines through to me. I consider it a success in progress.

Hopefully, this advice has helped some aspiring Vorthosi build decks that convey flavor while occasionally winning a game. If you have your own themed deck you’d like featured in this column, shoot me an email at, or tweet me at @setheweinstein. We’re always on the lookout for new, fun ways to display the awesome flavor of the game we all love.

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