Today I’m going to talk about deckbuilding.
I’ll be keeping things general, rather than concentrating on any one deck. The idea is to help people come to build
their own decks, and to help them understand why a particular deck is good or bad. I’m going to be focusing on building
top-level decks for tournament play, but plenty of the information will be pretty general and can be applied to
building any type of deck for any occasion.
When building a deck, the first thing you need to consider is… why? Why are you bothering to build a new deck at all?
Often, there will be plenty of good existing decks in the format, so why not just play one of those?
Some people like to play their own rogue decks just to be different, but if you are a serious player, or if you would
like to be, then you need a better reason than “wanting to be different.”
Luckily, building a new deck does bring a number of advantages with it. First, your new deck might just be better than
the other existing decks, giving you a large advantage over the other players at your event. It is pretty hard to
deduce whether your deck is better overall, but quite often you do know the makeup of the metagame for your event, and
your deck might have better matchups against the top-level decks than the existing top-level decks can muster. Even if
your deck is roughly the same power level as the top tier, or slightly lower, you still gain an edge from your
opponents not knowing exactly what your deck contains and what your game plan is.
However, you do need to be careful here and not become too attached to your masterpiece, as often the deck will simply
not be good enough to beat the other popular decks. At this point you need to admit your deck needs to be scraped or
changed, and if you don’t have time, just play a good deck. While I have played my own decks at most
high-level events, sometimes you just have to play a stock list, and plenty of top level players have done well at
event just playing what everyone knows is the best deck.
So, say you have a format like Standard, with lots of decks. You want something new and powerful, to give you an edge
at your Nationals. What’s the first step?
You need to figure out a basic plan for your deck.
Are you a fast aggro deck with burns spells, or a slow control deck that wins with a few large creatures? To see what
is on offer, you need to look at what cards are available in the format. Often there will be powerful cards that no one
is playing, for some unexplained reason. Sometimes these cards are simply not as good as they look, but sometimes they
are very powerful and just need the right deck to support them.
I’m now going to present a Standard deck that shows some of the common deckbuilding errors made, and explain why you
need to avoid them.
4 Troll Ascetic
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Dark Confidant
4 Call of the Herd
1 Grave-Shell Scarab
4 Wall of Roots
4 Vinelasher Kudzu
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Llanowar Wastes
3 Treetop Village
Looking at this deck, you can see that almost all of the cards are good… so it must be fine, right?
This deck is terrible.
First, it’s clearly built with no plan at all. What is this deck’s goal in a normal game? It isn’t a fast beatdown
deck, but it doesn’t really have any disruption at all… so it’s just a slow beatdown deck with no way of finishing the
game off. It simply plays out good cards, and prays. The cards on their own are powerful, but they have no synergy with
each other at all.
Second, there’s a problem with the mana curve. This deck has far too many three-drops, resulting in lots of draws where
you waste mana each turn. On turn 3 you play a three-mana spell, then on turn four you end up playing another
three-mana spell rather than a four-drop. In fact, the Wall of Roots does pretty much nothing other than ramp you from
two to four mana, but you don’t have any four-mana spells to cast!
Still on mana, this deck really doesn’t need Birds of Paradise, as it is only two colors with eight dual lands. Elves
of Deep Shadow would be a much better fit, as at least they can attack.
The lesson to learn here is you need to think about what you want to achieve before you build a deck. Just throwing
good cards together won’t make a good deck. The cards need to interact with each other, and you need to be careful to
ensure your deck has a reasonable mana curve.
In existing formats, it is pretty hard to come up with a utterly new beatdown deck, as people will build stuff like R/G
Aggro immediately. You won’t exactly be shocking people with your new deck. However, this is not to say you can’t
improve existing decks, at least for your own local metagame. If you think most people will be playing more controlling
decks, then you want more cards like Flames of the Blood Hand main deck. If there are more aggressive decks, you want
more cards like Seal of Fire or Shock. This means there is often no right build of any particular archetype, and it all
depends on what you expect to face down in your event. You do need to be careful not to swing your deck too far in one
direction, as even if 80% of the field is control you will still play against some aggressive decks, and if you can’t
beat them you will struggle to win any event. You can, however, use your sideboard to improve these matchups, giving
yourself the best deck against most of the field game 1, and then sideboarding to beat the less popular decks.
Building your sideboard is often overlooked. Some folk simply throw fifteen random hate cards together, and cross their
fingers. What you should be doing is working out what cards you need to take out from your main deck… the dead (or
nearly dead) cards. Then you can move onto other cards you would like to take out, the weaker but not useless ones. In
your sideboard, for any specific matchup, you want have a number of cards that lies between those two numbers (number
of dead cards, number of weak cards), so you can remove all the dead cards without having more cards to bring in than
you want to take out.
For example, you are playing U/B Teachings in block, and you want to have a good sideboard for the mirror. You need to
take out four Damnation, and you want to take out maybe 2/3 other cards. This means you want, at most, seven cards for
this matchup. Any more are pretty much wasted.
After you have gone through all the popular decks and worked out what you want to take out, then you can try and figure
out what you want to bring in. Cards that only come in for one matchup need to be very powerful, as they take up a lot
of space. On the flip side, cards that can come in against any aggressive deck don’t need to be so powerful to be worth
Also, make sure you know why the cards you are bringing in are so good. They have to have a noticeable effect on the
match; “slightly improving” a matchup is just a waste of a sideboard slot.
If you have tuned your main deck against other decks, and are relying on your sideboard to help you out, you need to
make sure that the ten cards you’re bringing in really do swing the matchup in your favor so you can win games
2 and 3, and the only way to figure this out is through testing.
So you’ve built your amazing new deck, and you think it can beat all the top level decks… now what do you do?
To really find out if your deck is worthy, you need to playtest, against the best players you can find playing all the
different decks you are expecting. You want at least twenty games against each deck, ten of which should be after
sideboarding. Then you have a reasonable amount of information to work with, and you can see how your deck has
performed. If you are sideboarding out certain cards in almost every matchup, then maybe you should move them to your
sideboard or cut them altogether.
If your deck is below a 50% win ration against these decks, you need to make changes to improve at least some of these
matchups. Try not to get too attached to your deck here, as if you can’t beat the other good decks and you can’t figure
out how to change your deck to help this problem, you need to consider building a new deck. Between testing sessions
you need to think about how your deck played out. Was it too slow at times? Did it run out of cards and fail to finish
people off? Think about why you won and why you lost, and then work out what changes you could make to help you win
more games. If you are always beating a certain deck, maybe you can afford to remove cards that are good against that
deck and add cards that are good against decks you are struggling against. You do need to be careful here, and not just
assume you still beat a deck after you have changed eight cards; playing a few test games after making changes helps a
lot. Although it is temping to try and play all the games with you playing your own deck, it is often better to let
another person play some games with your new creation. This will give you another perspective on what changes could be
made. Also, the chance to play against your own deck lets you look for weaknesses from the other side of the table.
To playtest effectively, you need to face other people with the types of decks you predict will be popular at the
upcoming tournament. The ideal scenario sees you as part of a group of players at a similar skill level, players who
are willing to play a number of games either in person or online. If you don’t have a group, playing games on Magic
Online (in Premier Events or eight-man queues) is also fine. This also has the advantage of forcing you to play real
matches, with sideboards, against unknown decks.
Of course, it is best test against all the matchups as thoroughly as you can, but it is perfectly possible to simply
build a deck on Magic Online, play a number of rounds, then go on to win a PTQ. When you are testing, it is important
to make sure at least one of the decks is a fairly standard and expected deck. There isn’t much point in playing two
decks you built yourself against each other. And while you test, remember that while the results are important, it is
also important to look at how the games played out, to consider what your deck needs in order to win, and to notice the
cards with which it struggles.
One of the aspects of deckbuilding that a lot of people overlook is perfecting the manabase. While spells are a lot
more exciting than lands and Signets, without the right mana even the best decks will struggle. Currently we have a
wealth of different mana sources available for use. Take, for example, a U/R/W deck. You’re creating the manabase, and
you’ve decided how many sources of each color it needs. Even then, there is a big difference between Island and Sacred
Foundry against Plains and Steam Vents… One of those two land configurations allows you to cast Lightning Helix, while
the other doesn’t, despite the fact that both groupings add one mana source of each color. Similarly, a Boros Signet
powered off an Island lets you cast Lightning Helix, but not a Remand.
Working out how many sources of each color you need not only depends on how many spells of each color you have, but
also how cheap they are and when in the game you are looking to cast them. You really want the ability to play spells
like Spell Snare or Birds of Paradise on turn 1, so you need a lot of sources of that color, while for Demonfire you
can get away with a much smaller number of sources as you want to cast it right at the end of the game. It can be hard
to really tell if you have the right number of sources even after a large number of games, so I generally go with past
experience with other decks, and gut feeling. For example, I’d want at least ten sources of Green for Birds of
Paradise, and preferably more. Remember that some sources are more reliable than others – people kill Birds of Paradise
a lot more than basic Mountains, and Signets and bounce lands aren’t much use for playing two-drops on turn 2.
While all this theory is good in the abstract, you need to use this stuff in order to build real decks. Last
year, for Extended at Worlds, the metagame was relatively unknown. Therefore a beatdown or combo deck was likely to be
the best option, as control decks needs defined answers to the threats of the format. This can be difficult when you
are uncertain what you will be facing. After some thought, I decided that Destructive Flow was a very powerful card
that was currently underused, and I decided deserved a deck. (Remember — look for powerful and underused cards!)
For reference, here is the list:
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Wild Mongrel
- 4 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Elves of Deep Shadow
- 2 Shadow Guildmage
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 2 Tin Street Hooligan
As Destructive Flow is only a support card, and clearly can’t kill someone on its own, I wanted a beatdown deck that
could finish people off quickly while Destructive Flow disrupted them. As the colors for this deck were already locked
in, I looked at the best creatures and burns spells available to Red, Green, and Black.
My plan was to beat them down while they were jostled by the Flow. Thus, I needed aggro. To be a fast aggro deck, you
need a certain number of one-drops and this deck really wanted to make one every single game. Therefore it not only
played the very powerful Kird Ape, Grim Lavamancer, and the synergistic Elves of Deep Shadow, it also had Shadow
Guildmage, who is less powerful… but his inclusion meant we had enough one-drop creatures to rely on seeing one in our
opening hand. For two-drops we had two very powerful creatures in Wild Mongrel and Dark Confidant (Tarmogoyf was still
a pipe dream, alas). Although we have nothing like Madness to go with Wild Mongrel, he still lets you trade extra lands
for damage and powers up Grim Lavamancer. Next up, I added Tin Street Hooligan. Again, Tin Street Hooligan is less
powerful than other options, and rather situational, but he works well with the mana denial element of Destructive
As this format was very fast, I didn’t want too many more expensive drops, so I played just two Call of the Herd to
help against other aggressive decks and to give us a little bit of a late game power. This deck would rather play
multiple one and two drops in the later turns anyway. I wanted to try and avoid potentially dead cards in my fast aggro
deck, so rather than removal spells like Smother, this deck is played all burn spells, with Lava Dark and Firebolt
being cheap and effective, and Sudden Shock dealing with a lot of problem creatures (such a Psychatog and Arcbound
Ravager). This deck did start with Cabal Therapy main deck, but in testing I found that I wanted to play out my
creatures first, and Cabal Therapy was just slowing me down. The manabase was constructed around Destructive Flow,
resulting with a lot of fetchlands, which also powered up Grim Lavamancer. As this deck has a very low curve it needed
to be able to cast its spells, so losing a few lands to Destructive Flow was fine. In hindsight this deck probably
should have played an extra Mountain over a Swamp, as you often wanted multiple Red sources in play.
The idea with this article was to give some general guidelines to aid you in building decks for any format or event,
without being so general as to be useless. I would appreciate feedback as to whether this type of article is useful to
people — would you like more articles of this type? Even the best players don’t build amazing decks every time, so if
your deck doesn’t quite work you can always just build another and try again. It doesn’t matter if nineteen decks are
terrible, as long as deck number twenty breaks the format. Often just building new decks and playing them will give you
a better idea of how a format works, even if the decks themselves aren’t good enough to make a difference. You can then
use this information to build a new better deck.
Deckbuilding is more an art than a science, and the best teacher is experience, so you always gain something from
trying to build new decks. This means it is hard to give strict rules about deckbuilding, and you just need to feel
what is right.
Now go out there and build new decks!