The Basics of Deckbuilding

A few months ago, some friends and I broke out the Magic decks for some fun casual play. My roommate was playing his burn deck, relatively un-noteworthy except that it pioneered the local players into using Everlasting Torment as a -1/-1 counter generator through Pyroclasms. Kev and I were playing Dimir decks, mine emphasizing mill and discard elements. I started off strong by dropping a Glimpse the Unthinkable on both, one per turn, before dropping a Jester’s Cap on Kev’s deck to see what was in it. Digging through, I pulled out the first rares I found–an Oona, a Jace, and a Painter’s Servant. When Kev started swearing uncontrollably, I realized I’d just castrated his deck; the other Oona was in his graveyard, and he’d just hard-cast his other Jace.

The rest of the game is unimportant, and not just because I lost after getting hammered on by everyone else. The game is important because Kev’s deck showcased every “what not to do” you can attempt while building a Magic deck. After playing a few other new players, I realized how many people in my play environment have no idea how to make a functioning Magic deck.

1 – Stay as close to 60 cards as possible. The only reason a 120-card wunderdeck works is because it’s full of nothing but awesome cards, mana fix, and various tutors/card fetch.  The smaller the deck, the more likely you are to draw the cards you want, which is critical.

2 – Put 4 of each card in your deck. Kev was trying for the Oona/Painter’s Servant combo, to make everything in his opponents’ decks color X, which he’d then mill with Oona. The problem was, he had no way to fetch out the one (1) Painter’s Servant or the two (2) Oona’s; he was running some Transmute cards to find them, but even then, if I’d killed the Servant, it’d be game over anyways. In other words, more times than not, Kev would sit around taking it in the teeth for numerous rounds, and would probably lose before he got the combo to work.

3 – Revise, revise, revise. One of the largest flaws I see is people never change their decks. To some degree, this is unavoidable; some decks are good enough as-is, and others get the necessary cards several sets later. Fail to revision, though, can be a real downfall. At one point, Matt and I were building decks simply to deal with one other player’s janky combo decks. By failing to revise, the players whose decks we were deliberately hosing fell into the trap every time they pulled out their cards. Revision can be expensive–replacing Morales with Glorious Anthems or Crusades, for example–but are necessary for some decks. My roommate keeps falling out of Magic because he won’t spend the money to twink his decks all the way to awesomeville; he considers his otherwise decent decks are considered “terrible” because they don’t interact with the play environment like they did a year or two ago when he built them.

4 – Have a general theme/focus, and go for it. Kev’s Oona/Servant deck didn’t actually have a solid theme other than the one combo, and the rest of the carsd showed it. Instead of putting in good support cards which fit the two colors’ strengths–Terror, Cancel, Perplex–he put in other cards which had various combos with Jace. Instead of focusing, he spread out too much, and put in a variety of combos which would never work.

5 – When you playtest, playtest for real. I’m not a huge fan of proxies, but I see their value as long as they’re eventually replaced with real cards, and your deck doesn’t become a $120 tournament deck made up of printer paper. (4-5 years ago, we had players around here who did that.) Kev’s large arguments when making decks, and something Matt falls into too, is that they’re merely “playtesting it,” so it doesn’t require rares, and they’ll add more if they get any. This makes no sense to me: usually the deck doesn’t work because it lacks the right cards, not because it lacks a good combo or solid punch. Kev’s deck probably would have worked if he’d invested the time and money in getting the cards he needed, but instead he dis-assembled it because it didn’t work with the cards he had. Magic is expensive, but at the same time, there are numerous budget decks which are competitve yet still cost under $20 or $30.

6 – Watch the mana curve. My roommate’s burn deck was almost entirely cheap burn spells, which meant he had an empty hand and did nothing for the entirety of the game, while Kev’s mana curve required about five turns of playing lands before he could get it off the ground. In the meantime, through abuse of Ravnica bouncelands and signets, I’d pulled off the two Glimpses and a third-turn Jester’s Cap. Decks require a lot of tweaking, and it’s a good idea to keep the curve nicely balanced with both low-mana and high-mana cards.

7 – Play to have fun. Obviously, we all like winning, but if you just play to play, or play to have fun, you’ll have a lot fewer times where you swear out your opponents for getting a good opening hand or having a balanced mana curve. Some decks just don’t play well together; try playing a mill deck against a dredge deck some time. I end up losing a little over half the time. To be honest, all losses do is show the weaknesses of a deck, going back to the concept of revision and making your deck both better and less predictable.

Obviously this is not an intensive strategy session, and there are other links out there I’m sure, hopefully this is a good enough overview of things to keep in mind when building Magic decks.

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