Hey y’all! It’s been busy since I’ve last written an article – I recently got a promotion, and my new position has been busy. My sister-in-law, however, bought me and her husband almost every valuable uncommon in Ravnica and Guildpact for my birthday (four Lightning Helix, Putrefy, Mortify, Moroii, Watchwolf, Electrolyze, Savage Twister, and more – nice!); and after kicking around some games with him, I realized it was about time I write another article.
Different than my usual grind, I decided to write an article aimed at beginners. If there’s one thing I seem to find, it’s that there aren’t enough “tip sheet” articles for newbies. There’s a story here, so pardon me while I fill your heads with useless information:
As I was cleaning my itsy-bitsy apartment that I rent from my brother-in-law, I (read: my wife) decided that it was time to rid myself of some of my Magic collection. I mean, c’mon – how many Craw Wurms does a guy need? Twelve should be more than enough – the other sixty or so don’t have to take up space in my closet. So I started going through my commons and uncommons and getting rid of the stuff I will never use – I’m talking about stuff like Burrowing, Crowd Favorites, and even a few Inquisitions left over from The Dark. Anything I had more than twelve of, I threw in, too; so it wasn’t all trash; but it had basically zero sales value – it was basically worth peanuts. Any decent Magic player either already had this stuff, or really wouldn’t want it.
After neatly packing a shoe box and an additional card box with lands that I will never need (by now, I use all non-basics, foils, or at least black-bordered lands), I decide to follow FrummyChick’s suggestion to post them on a local “free stuff” web site, with certain caveats. I stipulated that the cards were only available to kids age fifteen and under; and I would give preference to a family with multiple kids. The only exception was a family with a sick child (e.g. cancer) who was into Magic, which I would donate as long as the child wasn’t out of high school. That seemed reasonable.
So before I posted the notice, I did a little math and guesstimation to determine that the boxes numbered somewhere around five to seven thousand cards. I received about 400 requests for the cards (most of whom didn’t fit the criteria), but ultimately I gave them to some nice single mom whose three kids really wanted to get into Magic. She said that they had learned from friends, but she couldn’t afford the cards so they didn’t have any. We exchanged some emails, and she came to pick them up. I chatted with her for a while – really nice woman who was a nurse in a local hospital – and I felt really good about my nice little donation.
I rewarded myself for my good behavior by buying four Morphlings when SCG had them on sale (awesome deal, by the way), since I had traded mine away.
(No, I promise you they didn’t pay me to say that. Although I really wish they did… Watch the editor other cut out this sentence or insert some random snark.) [Hey, my snarks are never random. – Craig]
Anyway, I left a little note in the box for the kids that told them to check out this here site where I was a featured writer (I still am, right?), so they could learn more about Magic and the Magic community. That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks:
These kids, and probably many others, could probably use some tips to help them get started.
There are lots of great articles on this site for beginners – Chris Romeo articles are not only free, but funny and chock full of goodness (with nice, er, “illustrations” *cough* cheesecake *cough*); but there’s little out there aimed at getting people started on their own. Anybody can copy a deck, it’s another thing to design and build it yourself. The preconstructed-customization series that Jay Moldy-Salamander are great, but it’s not the same as started with a pile of cards someone just gifted you.
So that’s what I decided to do – and here I am. Today’s “lesson” is all about the introduction to the fundamentals of deck design, with my beginner’s tips. Remember, this is aimed at those who may have just started playing (or those who may need a refresher course), so don’t go ape on me if I seem a little light on theory here, seem a bit formulaic, or don’t go over every deck tweak that could possibly exist. I’ll also try to stick to commons, maybe a few uncommons; so that beginners should have an easy time putting something together (although recognize that’s not always easy or even possible). If you think a novice lesson is above you, you’re welcome to skip down to my bonus section towards the bottom, for a recap on my experience at the Dissension pre-release and how every drafter at my table was a moron.
Deckbuilding 101: Getting Started
So let’s start simple: Magic decks are nine cards.
That’s right, you heard me. Nine cards.
Most people will tell you that you need sixty cards. That’s true, but it’s misleading. You see, you don’t actually need to select sixty cards in the process of deckbuilding. You must ultimately have sixty cards, but when it comes to building the most simplistic deckbuilding procedure, it’s only about nine cards. For example:
See – nine cards. Get four of each – that makes 36 cards in your deck – add 24 Forests, and voila – you’ve got Mono-Green Aggro, commonly abbreviated as MGA.
Let’s try the same trick all over again:
Nine cards – get a playset of each, add 24 Plains, you’ve got White Weenie all ready to go.
The fundamental point here is not only consistency but simplicity. Deckbuilding can be a rigorous process with challenging tweaking and tuning, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
It can be hard trying to “hand-pick” sixty cards to go into your deck. The biggest problem that beginners have is that they try to cram in every cool card they have into a sixty-card deck, skimp on lands in order to make room, and then wonder why it doesn’t work. Then, when they have to go back and pull out cards for lands, they don’t know what to do – they don’t have a framework of what makes a good deck yet.
The key is not to just build a deck – it’s to design a deck.
The “nine card deck” framework is all about that. Ignoring the underlying theories that explain why nine card decks tend to operate in a stable manner (enough mana, deck consistency), the simple explanation as to why the nine-card deck works is because it helps newcomers understand the basic structure of a deck better.
When you think about a deck as nine cards, it’s a lot easier to see the implicit strategy. Compare the following two “nine card decks”:
Obviously, the Red set is a deck that ultimately revolves around land destruction. It has small creatures that come down before the mana denial becomes active, and they whittle away the opponent while you eliminate their opportunity to play spells with your mana disruption.
The Blue set is clearly a control deck, aimed at countering spells, bouncing creatures, and finally dropping a free or difficult-to-remove flier or two to seal the deal. It anticipates a longer game and tries to gain critical mass as it builds resources until it’s too late for the opponent to do anything about it.
A quick word about the “24 lands” thing – why that’s recommended is beyond the scope of this article. Some decks will need less, some will need more. Multicolor decks will need to consider proportions of each color. The fundamental idea under discussion in this article is not the complexities of manabase design, but rather about operational design – how to make sure the deck does its thing without being impeded by “external issues” like mana trouble. So for now, just take it for granted that sixty-card decks should have 24 lands.
After a bit of practice with a deck, though, consider going up or down by up to two lands; that is, mana-hungry decks may want 26 and mana-light decks can afford to drop to 22. If you’re a beginner, I don’t recommend going beyond those ranges; 22 – 26 lands should be the right amount for 90% of the decks that are built for formats other than Vintage, where Moxen skew the numbers.
Deckbuilding 102: Choosing the Right Set of Nine Cards
Using the “Rule of Nine,” or Ro9, beginners can start building their own decks quite easily – but it’s important to point out that while Ro9 reduces the number of decisions you’ll need to make, it doesn’t eliminate them. You still need to pick a good set of nine cards. For example, which of the following would you rather use as the basis for a new deck:
Obviously, you want the zombies. The zombie nine-card deck (“9CD”) is clearly more cohesive, more synergistic even though not perfect (Gempalm Polluter and Twisted Abominations would be great); and clearly the pile of Blue cards is just that – a pile of Blue cards.
So what makes the basis of a good 9CD? As with any Constructed deck, you have to use good cards. Most of the cards in the Blue pile above are all terrible. So what about this deck:
Those are all good cards, right? Shouldn’t that be a good deck?
If you’re a beginner, you might say yes, but since you’re probably smart enough to know that I’m setting you up, it’s clear that this deck isn’t very good. The problem should be obvious – there are gaping holes in the mana curve.
Skippable tangent – If you aren’t familiar with the term “Mana Curve”:
“Mana curve” is a basic Magic term that talks about the distribution of mana costs in your deck. Magic is ultimately a game of resource utilization; he or she who can play the most of his or her cards in a beneficial way wins.
The simplest way to think about it is the Relentless Rats problem. If you’ve hypothetically got nothing but Swamps and Relentless Rats (which is actually a legal deck), then you have no mana curve; just a flat line. If you don’t have at least three mana, you can’t play any rats. You also can’t play more than one rat per turn until you have six lands. Compare the following openings:
Turn 1: Swamp.
Turn 2: Swamp.
Turn 3: Swamp. Relentless Rats.
Turn 4: Swamp. Relentless Rats. Attack for 3.
Turn 5: Swamp. Relentless Rats. Attack for 8.
Turn 6: Swamp. Relentless Rats. Attack for 15.
Turn 7: Relentless Rats. Relentless Rats. Attack for 28.
~ vs. Gruul:
Turn 1: Mountain. Kird Ape.
Turn 2: Forest. Attack for 2. Scab-Clan Mauler (3/3).
Turn 3: Forest. Attack for 5. Burning-Tree Shaman.
Turn 4: Forest. Attack for 8. Rumbling Slum.
Turn 5: Take 1 from Slum during upkeep. Attack for 13.
It should be clear that while Relentless Rats can eventually get out of hand after it gets started, a deck with nothing but three-mana (commonly abbreviated as “3cc” for “Three-Casting-Cost”) creatures clearly has some tempo problems. Even if you assume that the Relentless Rats deck goes first in a face-off of these two openings, it still loses. On turn 3, when Rats plays its first creature, Gruul has already got a 2/3 and a 3/3 on the table. While Rats is waiting around, Gruul is tapping out all of its mana each turn to play the biggest, baddest thing it can – it’s going to win because it’s got better resource utilization.
That’s not to say that a good Relentless Rats deck couldn’t theoretically be built, but it would need to address those holes first.
End of tangent, back to the regularly scheduled program
Mana curve matters no matter what type of deck you’re building; but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll start with aggro decks (i.e. decks that win primarily through attacking creatures and other aggressive strategies). In case you haven’t noted it yet, the simple Ro9 formula I used for the MGA, White Weenie and Zombies lists above used the following mana curve:
Ro9 Aggro Template
1cc Creatures: 2x
2cc Creatures: 2x
3cc Creatures: 2x
1cc-2cc Spells: 2x
Anything else: 1x
That gives you eight or more possible turn 1 plays, sixteen or more turn 2 plays, etc. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a nice convention for initial deckbuilding; particularly when you’re playing a straight aggro deck.
Advice for the Beginner: Start with Aggro
If you’re new to Magic or think you need to work on your play and deck development skills, I highly recommend starting with aggro decks. Aggro is relatively easy to build, easy to play, and has the fewest repercussions for a mistake in deckbuilding decisions.
Ultimately, it won’t matter too much if you play Greater Mossdog or War Mammoth in your 4cc slot; they’re roughly the same. Agonizing over whether you want Frostling or Scorched Rusalka is not going to have a super-sized impact when trying to get a handle on what a good aggro deck does.
For Those Who Are Ready for Something More Challenging
Aggro decks are pretty simple when you follow the nine card formula. If you’re looking for something a bit more advanced, try using the Ro9 to design an aggro-control deck.
Aggro-control decks, or decks aimed at disrupting an opponent enough to keep them from interfering with your assault, tend to be less creature-centric and have more spell slots. As an example, here’s the breakdown of the Red 9CD mana denial deck above:
1cc Creatures: 2x
2cc Creatures: 2x
3cc Creatures: 1x
1cc Spells: 1x
3cc Spells: 2x
4cc Spells: 1x
Honestly, it’s not much of a deviation from the aggro template above. Let’s look at some more noteworthy example of aggro-control decks, like an old-world Vintage Suicide Black variant (contrived for this article). It has a distinctly different mana curve than aggro decks:
1cc Spells: 2x (Dark Ritual, Duress)
2cc Spells: 3x (Hymn to Tourach, Sinkhole, Diabolic Edict)
2cc Creatures: 2x (Nantuko Shade, Withered Wretch)
3cc Creatures: 2x (Hypnotic Specter, Phyrexian Negator)
Note that there is heavy use of the 2cc slot – over five of the nine cards in the above 9CD cost two mana. This is because of the Dark Rituals in the 1cc slot; which can be used to play two 2cc cards on turn 2 (if not used to play a 3cc spell on turn 1).
In practice, aggro-control decks have various deck structures and mana curves, so any time you build a nine-card aggro-control deck, be aware that you will probably have to tune it a bit. In any case, here’s what I recommend to get started:
Ro9 Aggro-Control Template
1cc – 2cc Creatures: 2x
3cc – 4cc Creatures: 2x
Additional Creatures: ½x (2 out of a maximum of 4 cards in a 60 card deck)
0cc – 2cc Spells: 2x
2cc – 3cc Spells: 2x
Additional Spells: ½x
Here’s a good practical example of aggro-control templating, and what can be done to work with the build (pardon the use of a few uncommons):
Ultimately, the deck has four slots of creature-based threats, four slots of disruption, and finally, the ninth set of the deck is split between a pair of creatures and additional disruption. If you notice the breakdown, it’s about 18 creatures to 18 disruptive spells, to make an even 36; just right to fit in 24 Swamps.
You may be asking right now why I’m characterizing it as a nine-card deck when clearly it has ten different cards in it. The implicit answer is that you’ve really got 9 x 4 cards to work with; so you have to think about your deck structure within the limitations of the rule of four.
Beyond True Novices – Control: When You’ve Got the Hang Of It
Control decks are notoriously difficult to build. They take a lot of tweaking and tuning. Most people learn to play control by copying a decent decklist and practicing with it, and only much later begin to try and design their own.
Nonetheless, at some point, you might want to try designing your own control deck; and you’re going to need to start somewhere. In my opinion, there’s no harm in starting from a template and then working your way through it. Here’s my general suggestion, although if you’re new at this, you may want to wait until you feel more comfortable with your deckbuilding skills:
Ro9 Control Template
4cc – 6cc Creatures: 1½x
1cc – 3cc Spells: 4x
3cc – 6cc Spells: 2½x
Additional mana development: 1x
While good control decks are fairly difficult to build using only commons and uncommons, here’s an implementation for about as little cash as you can probably go and still expect to function well enough to play:
1. Air Elemental / Jetting Glasskite (3 of each)
2. Serum Visions
4. Mana Leak
7. Wrath of God [For the cash-strapped, Rout works; although not as good]
8. Final Judgement (only 2) [Kirtar’s Wrath is a nice inexpensive alternative]
9. Wayfarer’s Bauble
The conventional control strategy is to use spells, artifacts, or enchantments to hold off opposing resources until you can charge back with some big beef and end it quickly. (That’s a generalization; it doesn’t necessarily indicate that control decks don’t have other strategies.)
Control decks need early game resource advantages in order not to fall prey to aggro decks, so they often need draw and mana acceleration in order to find and crank out their responses, like mass creature destruction (a la Wrath) or evasive, powerful creatures (e.g. Jetting Glasskite as our budget example, but think along the lines of Meloku, Exalted Angel, Verdant Force, Rorix, Avatar of Woe, etc).
While not a particularly good control deck, the list above does establish a certain base metric. Control decks tend to rely on roughly 6 finishers, have somewhere in the range of around 18 control-based spells, 8 or so draw spells, and 4 mana accelerants. Land counts could be higher, too; particularly if you don’t have any mana acceleration.
Another note about control decks’ structure: When I personally design a control deck, I tend to think about it terms of 6 x 6 cards. Six lateral sections of six cards each – 6 finishers, 3 * 6 control elements, 6 draw spells, 6 additional mana slots and/or miscellaneous additions.
Here’s another control deck that started as a nine card deck, with as much of the expensive stuff torn out as possible (I’ve published a similar list before when I did an SCG Daily):
1. Twisted Abomination
2. Noble Templar
4. Gempalm Polluter
5. Temple Acolyte
6. Nekrataal (Keening Banshee works, too; although not as well)
7. Astral Slide
8. Oversold Cemetery (Even 2 is enough, with something else to fill in the space)
9. Chittering Rats
Your finishers are basically Twisted Abomination and Noble Templar, although often you can just attack with Nekrataals and Gravediggers after you have eliminated the defense. Nekrataal, Chittering Rats, and Astral Slide disrupt the opponent; Gravedigger and Oversold Cemetery give you card advantage, and the rest of deck aids the engine to essentially recycle the deck so that it wins by attrition.
For the Truly Brave of Heart – Combo
Of all types of decks to build, combo is probably the hardest. Deck designs are completely different; depending on the type of combo, how many cards it requires, and how difficult it can be to assemble. Since combo decks vary widely, it’s hard to craft a template that will actually work. Regardless, for the sake of completeness, I present a basic combo template here:
Ro9 Combo Template
Core Combo Cards: 3x
Draw & Tutor Spells: 3x
Supplemental Utility: 1x
For starters, let me note that any combo requiring more than three cards is completely unviable. Three-card combos themselves are actually quite difficult to perfect, as well. (Two card combos are usually not cheap, so I don’t even mention them here.) As a very rough example of the application of the above template, I suggest a completely untested version of the Arcanizzet deck (a.k.a. the cheapest possible combo deck I could think of):
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Arcanizzet, your basic plan is to splice Arcane Ritual onto Lava Spike, and then replicate it using the Izzet Guildmage. After the replication resolves, it will net you three Red mana; which you can use to replicate the original spell still on the stack. Repeat ad-nauseam until you’ve done 48 kajillion damage. You could also add Eye of Nowhere to bounce all of your opponent’s permanents (after you splice the Ritual and copy it using the Guildmage) or Ideas Unbound to draw through your deck, digging for the combo.
While clearly not a great combo deck by any means, it’s a loose start for the uninitiated. If you’re going to learn to play combo, it’s got the basic elements – draw/search and counterspells for disrupting the opponent long enough to pull off your combo. I’m not professing that this version of the deck will ever really win a whole lot – after all, it’s a completely untested list – but it’s certainly a starting point for those who may want to get a head start on combo. Here’s another untested and relatively cheap combo deck implementation, merely for illustrative purposes (although this one can win without the combo):
Obvious, right? Here’s the “combo”:
The basic idea is to dig out all four Myr Servitor (preferably three in your graveyard and then one in hand) with a Genesis Chamber and a Grinding Station in play. During your upkeep, your Servitors come back into play one by one, triggering Genesis Chamber, which puts a Myr token into play that would untap your grinding station. Before the token trigger resolves, sacrifice the returning Servitor to use the Grinding Station; then let the token resolve which untaps it again. Before next Servitor returns to play, sacrifice the new Myr token to activate the Station, and then it will untap when the next servitor’s trigger resolves and it returns to play. Repeat this process for as many Servitors as you have in your graveyard (the maximum thus being three). It’s possible to grind away 24 cards in one turn; and you can certainly do more than that if you have multiple Genesis Chambers.
Assembling the combo is somewhat tricky; but Genesis Chamber and Ghostly Prison will buy you time until you can get things going, either with slowing down assaults or providing plenty of chump blockers. Artificer’s Intuition simplifies the process of digging up Servitors, which is why you can’t get away without it in your deck. There’s plenty of draw available, and Leonin Squire can be used to recover if your last Servitor is killed.
Again, not a great combo deck – not even remotely good, probably – but an example of how you could start approaching a build with just nine cards in mind.
Note that there is a relatively straightforward correlation between creatures and deck type in the templates – the number of creatures increases the more you plan on attacking early and often; the number decreases as combat becomes a less important aspect of your deck. Aggro decks tend to have more than 40% creatures (24/60) – which is, in our terms, 6/9 cards or more. Aggro-control decks are around 30% creatures (18/60), or half of the Ro9; control decks tend to have only 10% creatures (6/60), and combo decks tend to have none or very, very few.
While creature counts are sometimes irrelevant in terms of whether a deck is aggro or control – for example, a control deck may contain several defensive creatures like Drift of Phantasm or other walls – but for the most part it’s a good indication of your overall strategy. Keep that in mind when you put together your deck – focus on what your overarching strategy is; and try to keep it simple your first go-around.
Bonus Material: My Dissension Prerelease Experience, and Morons at the Draft
So I went to the Dissension prerelease up in NYC and participated in a triple-Dissension draft event that turned out to be either Awesome McAwesomeness or Stupid McStupidness. Here was my set of picks:
Twinstrike – SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET (pass a Rain of Gore)
Research/Development – Splashed for Development, was a total bomb all day long.
Drekavac – Mediocre pack elsewise.
Demon’s Jester – You’ve got to be kidding me.
Demon’s Jester – The sky is falling.
Rakdos Guildmage – I’m Mr. Lucky today (pass Pride of the Clouds or whatever it’s called)
Rakdos Guildmage – Why not HATE-DRAFT at this point?
Rakdos Carnarium – My second at this point.
Rakdos the Defiler – I kid you not. One Big D, Mon’.
Cackling Flames – How is this even possible?
I also picked up two very late-pick Ghost Quarter. They were the uber-nuts. I manahosed people at least twice by hitting bouncelands, and my second round opponent who was trying to splash for five-color sided out almost half of his deck into straight Simic after my round 1 opponent told him I had two New Wastelands in my deck.
It turned out there were three(!) Simic and Azorius drafters each at this table. The only other Rakdos drafter was all the way on the other side of the table. He had first picked Terry Soh, and ended up drafting a super-aggressive Hellbent deck. So I got every good piece of everything else from all of the packs at the table. How that even remotely happened, I have no idea.
Yeah, my deck was insane. I had no Gobhobbler Rats, Hellhole Rats, nor any Rakdos Ickspitter; no Utvara Scalpers, no Riot Spikes or Taste for Mayhem, and no Jagged Poppets – but I had about 4 Entropic Eidolons, and they were just absolutely busted.
I won that draft – big time. First time I ever won a prerelease draft – I’ve split the finals before, barely making it there; but never won. This time, though, I stomped people all day long – 6 wins, no losses.
I remember at one point, I had used Twinstrike to take out two opposing Rakdos Ickspitter; returning three Entropic Eidolons to my hand. Now that’s card advantage. Kindle the Carnage is ree-donk-u-lous bombtastical, by the way – against a fast U/W aggro opponent in the first round, I took out four creatures when Kindle pitched Entropic Eidolon. I even got my Eidolon back when I played a Guildmage the next turn. Yeah, those Eidolons are pretty busted.
I only drew Lyzolda once and I had to sac her right away, but Mr. Defiler had a nice time chewing my U/G finals opponent to shreds. He just marched right in over a Zeppelid and within two turns, my opponent was gone. Right after that, I was opening up nine prize packs.
Wow… winning sure is fun for a change. It must be awesome not to suck like I usually do.
This article brought to you by the Cult of Rakdos – where the expression “crash and burn” has an altogether violent meaning.