“How do I make a deck?”
“I have no idea what this deck needs.”
“This deck isn’t fun anymore.”
“I didn’t know that card existed!”
If you’ve caught yourself saying any of those statements, then I’m writing to you. This article’s intended for all players, but it’s especially for newer players and Johnnies to build decks with principles instead of guesswork. The principles aren’t a panacea, but they’re a foundation I’ve only been recently able to articulate, despite playing for eight years. After you read this, you should be better equipped to come up with good deck ideas, find the cards you need, and fix your deck when it isn’t working. (This article is lengthy because I intend to be fairly comprehensive, but if you’re only interested in
building deck cores,
fleshing out a deck,
learning how to fix a deck,
feel free to skip down to those sections.)
I’m going to break down one of my favorite creations, building it organically from the first few cards and from my basic philosophies, giving the decklist at the end. Note that this is one process that led to one result; if you branch off the decision tree at any point and go somewhere else logical, the same process can yield something equally effective. Magic is the Choose Your Own Adventure of games, and that’s what’s so inspiring about it.
Find A Cool Card And Figure Out What It Does
The first step to a fun/good deck is finding cool cards. It may be a huge creature, a weird enchantment, or something else, but after seeing enough cards, your curiosity will be piqued by one of them. Once you find it, figure out what it does. This doesn’t involve big rules knowledge; it just involves analyzing Magicese, as you’ll see below.
Resolving a spell is like passing a bill; you’ve laid down a law for your board that affects a ton of stuff. And like a bill, each card has several elements to break down. In our case, let’s look at Capricious Efreet, one of my favorite weird rares. It’s
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Red,
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Six mana, and
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â An Efreet, with
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Six power and
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Four toughness.
Good to know, but we can get 80% of that out of Axegrinder Giant, and that’s not an exciting card. What else?
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â At the beginning of your upkeep,
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Choose target nonland permanent you control and
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Up to two target nonland permanents you don’t control.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Destroy one of them
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â At random.
You just saw all those things if you put your cursor on the card name, but those two sentences are really five relevant directions. Learn to isolate parts of a card and you’ll see far more potential in your collection than you’re seeing now.
So let’s say you’re like me and want to build a deck around Capricious Efreet. I’ve seen ten things I might be able to work with. At this point, in a vacuum, I don’t know what I’m going to put with it; I just know the parts of the card and hope there’s something cool to go with them.
Newer players I’ve known tend to stumble across cards piecemeal rather than find them with purpose, and that isn’t very effective. But with so many cards, where do you start? Here’s how I go about finding the right cards:
Within the set or block, first in the card’s colors, and then elsewhere.
The cards are designed in batches and meant to interact with each other. In basic sets like Magic 2010, we’re at a slight disadvantage, but that doesn’t mean interaction is absent. Check out Magma Phoenix, another red card from 2010. It’s got a useful effect when it’s destroyed, it’s in our color, it doesn’t kill our Efreet, and we can use it repeatedly. This can turn the weirdness of the Efreet into an asset. We have something we want to target on our side for destruction; that’s definitely a positive interaction with three of the Efreet’s characteristics from above (destroying, a thing we control, and the Efreet’s four toughness). We’re well on the way to turning drawbacks into power, one of the most important and fun things to learn in Magic.
We didn’t get a whole lot from 2010, but we’re now eight cards into our deck. Where to?
Blocks with relevant traits.
Each year’s worth of cards has an overarching theme, some zone of the game they’re concerned about. Whatever your deck wants to do, you’ll probably find most of the goodies in the appropriate block. If you’ve been playing for a while, you know the block themes, since that’s what Wizards likes to sell product around. (You’ll have time to discover the subthemes later.) With the exception of the Kamigawa block, every block since 2000 has a theme that translates generally to deckbuilding. Here’s the cheat sheet if you’re overwhelmed by a decade of cards.
Artifacts: Mirrodin, Scars of Mirrodin, and part of Shards of Alara.
Graveyard: Odyssey and part of Ravnica.
Creature types: Onslaught, Lorwyn, and Shadowmoor.
Multicolored spells: Invasion, Ravnica, Shadowmoor, and Shards of Alara.
Weird, unique stuff and cards normally not in your color: Time Spiral.
Don’t worry about keywords or ability words; you’ll learn them as you look through the set, and in restricting your focus to those mechanics, some great cards would fall through the cracks anyway.
Off that cheat sheet, you’re a clause ahead of this article if you pegged Time Spiral as the place to go next. (See? I told you it was like Choose Your Own Adventure.
If you want to go to the Time Spiral fun maze, turn to page 44.
) Time Spiral block often is the default second stop for me because of how many odd cards there are. And in this case, we find a potential gem: Paradox Haze. It puts us in a second color, which may or may not be good, but we can get another upkeep, increasing our odds of hitting targets with the Efreet. We’re getting value out of yet another part of the Efreet if we include this, and there’s bound to be other stuff we can do on our upkeep. In goes the Haze.
Now Paradox Haze was in Time Spiral because of the suspend and vanishing abilities, which had to do with the speed of spells and was related to upkeeps. So you could hang out in the Time Spiral block and pull a bunch of red and blue suspend things to go with the Haze if you wanted, or you could go to another block, as I’m about to do, and see what happens.
We’ve got two colors defined and twelve cards, so it makes sense to go the multicolored blocks now. Since we’re enemy colors in R/U, there are only a few places to look: Apocalypse, Guildpact, and Eventide, smaller sets of Invasion, Ravnica, and Shadowmoor respectively. It’s a short list of cards. Is there anything that can help us? Turns out we get an odd card that has its perfect home in our deck: Petrahydrox from Guildpact.
Read the card’s triggered ability; it brings a new dimension to how the Efreet can work. When an Efreet targets Petrahydrox, Petrahydrox flees the scene and goes back to the hand, so the Efreet resolves as much of its whims as it can — which conveniently is only your opponent’s permanent(s). So you could, say, target your Petrahydrox and their Jace, the Mind Sculptor (dream big!), and you’ll hit Jace “at random” every time. Now, for the four mana required to cast Petrahydrox every turn, we can guarantee an opponent’s permanent destroyed every turn. Doesn’t look so random anymore, does it? Besides, Petrahydrox can be cast with blue or red mana, making it easy on our deck as we move forward.
Four Petrahydrox are in, getting us up to sixteen cards. That’s good, but we’ve explored the basic themes off the cheat sheet, and we need more stuff, particularly involving the upkeep. What do we do?
Go to Gatherer.
Wizards has a nice, free search engine that’s quite powerful when you get used to it. But like the mass of cards it’s trying to organize, it’s daunting to get a handle on it. We’re going in first to find stuff to do with our extra upkeep that’s also fine if we only have one upkeep.
Whatever search you run, go to Select Output Format and choose Visual Spoiler. The other views are awful for our purposes; the Visual Spoiler lets you look at the cards as though you were looking through someone’s binder. Choose this every time; it’s just better that way.
I would run two searches for this deck. The first is for
“At the beginning of your upkeep”
(Gatherer uses quotation marks just like most search engines) and checking blue, red, and Exclude Unselected Colors. This ensures that only blue, red, or U/R cards show up so we’re focused on things in our colors. The second search I’d run is the same text, but instead of choosing or excluding colors, I’d go to Filter Card Type and choose Artifact. Never forget the artifacts when you’re building decks.
Each search has some great options. You may have seen this already from your multicolored spell search, but Dominus of Fealty is perfect for this deck. Stealing permanents is lovely. Stealing multiple ones with multiple upkeeps is lovelier. It’s also got four toughness, surviving Magma Phoenix, and hits pretty hard. It’s a great option. If you like living on the edge, Form of the Dragon works as well. Sure, it sets your life total to five, but you’re keeping non-flying creatures from attacking you (you could make the rest of the deck fly to shore up that weakness) and with Paradox Haze you can start dealing ten a turn to the face(s) of your choice.
For my deck, I chose three Venser’s Journal and four Golden Urns. This is because I have some. This is also because a friend of mine traded me Venser’s Journals since he hates them, so I wanted to prove they could be cool. (I’m stubborn like that.) My Magic Online version of the deck uses Dominus of Fealty because it’s cheaper there than in real life, and it’s worked great.*
Regardless, the Journals and Urns benefit from multiple upkeeps, while the Urns let us do a one-shot version of the Petrahydrox effect by sacrificing it after Capricious Efreet targets it. Life gain also lets us use Magma Phoenix more often. It’s good all the way around.
So the deck’s up to:
We’re up to a functional core. In the abstract, I recommend having about 24 cards in your core, with about 12 support spells. (This may change as you play the deck and see what it needs.)
The way I see it, there are three parts to a deck: the core plan, the support staff, and the mana. We have a core; we know how we want to win — destroying what we feel like while bashing through the aftermath — we just need some utility cards to let the core do its thing.
The more I play Magic, the more I’m convinced that the right support can make or break a deck, particularly in casual. But why bother? Why can’t you just stuff your deck to the gills with whatever you want?
Because every deck’s core is vulnerable to someone else’s core. Maybe the core is vulnerable to only a few other plans, but it still has a weakness your support cards are made to address.
Though it depends on your colors and your card pool, here’s my brief guide to what will make your deck work better. Note that this phrasing is my own; not everyone will agree with my precise terms, but it’s just a guide anyway.
Support cards all into two categories based on your core type, as shown below.
Threat-dense decks — decks emphasizing the quantity of threats over the quality — are
support. You’re going to win relatively quickly if the opponent does nothing, so all you need is to deal with the somethings your opponent might do. The trick to finding the right reactive support is the amount of mana your deck can spare to deal with what’s happening
As you’re putting down your threats, how much mana do you have left over? If it’s often two mana, then two mana reactive support is fine; if it’s one mana, then your two mana spells won’t react to anything because you’ll never cast them (or you’ll leave up mana to cast them and change your proactive deck into a bad reactive one). This is why Dispel and Spell Pierce get played in a range of tournament decks and Negate doesn’t; the narrower spell is something the proactive decks have the mana to cast, so it’s a reaction that doesn’t interrupt the game plan.
Examples of reactive support:
Threat-light decks — decks with high-quality threats but few of them — are
support. Here, you want support that deals with threats before you even know they exist. Wall of Tanglecord is proactive; it offers the same support regardless of what’s on the board. It offers to stop a lot of damage
at some point,
and it’s that future aspect that makes it proactive. Cancel is at its best when it’s proactive, as it’s using three mana to stop whatever nonsense that creature might be doing
at some point.
(More on the role of counterspells in a second, if you’re wondering how I’m defining them.) Gaining life is proactive as well — it deals with damage that might be dealt
at some point
— and this is why your aggressive deck probably doesn’t need it; you’re not addressing any weaknesses of your proactive deck by inserting proactive cards.
Examples of proactive support:
White — Rest for the Weary, Wall of Omens
Blue — Cancel, Jace’s Ingenuity (card draw only affects your odds of winning
at some point
Black — Duress, Memoricide
Red — Lightning Bolt, Leyline of Punishment
Green — Sylvan Ranger, Cultivate (ramp is a cousin of card draw)
Yes, Lightning Bolt appears on both lists. It’s mostly reactive, but when the opponent’s at a low life total or would play a different game plan by being at one, the spell turns proactive. This is true of counterspells as well, though their reactive abilities are directly proportional to their mana cost. The original Counterspell was great at being proactive and reactive because it was so cheap; replacing it with Cancel has nudged traditional blue control toward the proactive, making Cancel less of an all-around solution.
The more value from your support, the better. You can go doubly proactive — Wall of Omens blocks a bunch of stuff and draws a card. You can go doubly reactive — Forked Bolt can kill multiple proactive threats. You can go proactive/reactive on the same card — Into the Roil can stop a permanent while drawing a card. Any of these give extra value or in the third case, flexibility; that’s why they get played over other stuff. Summoning Trap can be proactive in getting a threat or reactive by getting a massive blocker mid-combat; Mimic Vat can play either role depending on the board state and the deck it’s in. These have been promoted to awesome in Standard, but they’re still support cards at heart.
For our deck, we have high-cost cards that emphasize threat quality over quantity. It’s a reactive deck and therefore needs proactive support. Venser’s Journal and Golden Urn are on the right track; they deal with an unknown amount of future damage while blending with the other parts of our deck. Since we have high-cost cards, some ramp would be nice. If you looked through Guildpact in searching for U/R cards earlier, you wouldn’t be surprised to find Izzet Signet an easy choice for this task. Going a level deeper, Darksteel Ingot not only ramps, but it’s indestructible — a great Capricious Efreet target.
Putting in four of each of those should be plenty ramp for this deck. That leaves about six slots. For my version, I chose Long-Term Plans and Well of Lost Dreams.** Ultimately, this deck doesn’t gain a lot by drawing a couple cards here or there, like Divination or Jace’s Ingenuity would bring; it wants to find its best pieces. In blue and red, Long-Term Plans is a fine enough solution, as it’s an instant and doesn’t cost a lot. Proactively finding the card you need isn’t for every deck, but it’s good here.
As for Well of Lost Dreams, it makes a great mini-combo with either Golden Urn or Venser’s Journal, while allowing large amounts of card draw at a time to find what we need. Even if we haven’t found an Efreet or a Phoenix, having a Well and Journal out means we’re incredibly likely to find it soon, as the artifacts feed each other life and cards. Well of Lost Dreams in the right deck can be doubly proactive, and we don’t have that option much in here. I own two of them, so I put two of them in, but that’s about the right amount anyway. On an empty board, the life gain is more proactive than the Well, so it’s best to go down to two and have the Long-Term Plans to find them.
You may be wondering why I put life gain as a support when Venser’s Journal and Golden Urn are part of the core. The reason is that the better you become at deckbuilding, the more the lines between core and support start to blur. Life gain is proactive, sure, but life gain that benefits from extra upkeeps looks less like support and more like core. Life gain that can sacrifice to help Capricious Efreet hit your desired target is the same way. In tournaments, sometimes the format dictates you use a blunt tool for support (Doom Blade, Nature’s Claim). With an unlimited card pool, you might as well make your support the most synergistic it can be with your core. There’s nothing wrong with using the blunt tools, but your deck will be more unique, whole, and fun if the support feels like it complements the core.
Tweak the Deck
As with the last discussion, there’s not a whole lot I can say about adding mana that you can’t get elsewhere, so let’s talk about the other two sections.
How can you tell if something is wrong with your core and what do you do about it? You may start to feel like your deck is boring, that it does nothing, or that something’s not right; depending on what type of person you are, each of those can be signs that the core is off. Until a few weeks ago, that’s how I felt with this deck. Here’s how to change your core:
First, identify the subcore (or the hardcore if you like). What are the cards in your deck with the most possibilities? When your deck performs well, what cards show up to the party? In the previous version of this deck, I had focused far too much on Magma Phoenix’s three damage and put in stuff like Wall of Air that, while a good card, didn’t help me win. When I was winning, it was with Capricious Efreet destroying stuff with multiple upkeeps, not with 1/5 defenders. I built around the wrong parts, and the deck got much better when I figured this out and fixed it.
Second, identify what the rest of the core isn’t doing right and junk it. If you’re unable to cast your core consistently, your deck may be more reactive than you intended. You can speed it up with cards that are easier to cast, replace some spells with lands, or focus your support on fixing your mana issues. Sometimes, it’s hard to admit that your cool deck just doesn’t have the speed to win, but trust me — you’ll have a lot more fun casting four awesome spells than staring at six of them in your hand.
Third, find cards that are better than what you’re replacing. Just like any good problem solving, this means looking at your deck from a different angle. Remove the bad parts of the core from your deck, spread out the remaining cards, and see what new direction they might take you. This is especially true if your core isn’t doing the coolest thing consistently. Weak cards in your core mean your deck is doing X and Y rather than just X. Maybe you can focus the deck with more X, or maybe Z will help out. But you have to excise Y before you can see which one to do.
Now it may turn out that the core is fine but the support is wrong. If your deck core is reactive and your support is too, change the support to proactive and see what happens. (You may need to change your core, but good cores in casual are relatively easy to come by.) If it’s still not working, try changing the
of proactive support. Maybe life gain isn’t the right ingredient, but card draw or ramp is. If you’re in black, maybe some discard will protect your deck long enough. It isn’t always obvious what support a deck needs, but if you’re in the right category of support, proactive v. reactive, it will take much less time to figure it out. The right support can turn a losing deck into a winning one, so don’t think of it as random cards.
When pros tweak decks, they talk a lot about taking out the cards they’re unhappy to draw, or that they wish were something else when they draw it. It’s the same here. If a card doesn’t seem to advance your game plan, or if all things being equal it’s the last thing you cast, it’s a weak link and you might as well see what else goes in there.
Finished Deck, Final Thoughts
What does the deck look like in the end?
We’ve got a game plan in the core that’s incredibly powerful when it works. We’ve got combo pieces that work well with multiple other combo pieces. We’ve got proactive support that synergizes with our reactive core. Best of all, we’ve got an original deck built from methods that translate to whatever you want to build.
It may take awhile to absorb all the information you get from working on these methods. You’ll be seeing a lot of cards when you search for stuff; learn as much as you can through the process. Note what looks interesting and tuck it away for later. If you start with your current knowledge and a logical process, you’ll be well on your way to mastering deck building.
If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me: earthdyedred at gmail dot com. I believe very strongly that you can build whatever you want to build effectively and cheaply if you understand where to start in building your deck and how to find the cards that work with it. Don’t let the amount of cards in Magic or the cost of expensive tournament rares get you down. You can deal with both those things and learn how to build the decks you want to build. There are many ways to win, and a ton of them haven’t been discovered yet. Hopefully I’ve given you some tools to explore wherever you want this game to take you. So get out there and have some fun!
My version of the deck, minus basic lands and shipping, is $18 if you buy it from this site. If you’re spending money on intro packs or a fat pack, you’re building your collection aimlessly. If you learn how to find the cards you want, you can build fun stuff with more power for the same cost; Magic has too many options for you to be spending inefficiently. Singles are where it’s at, and for the weird singles that I want, this site tends to have them in stock at good prices and with fast shipping. It’s both objectively true and conveniently promotional.
And if you think I cherry-picked a cheap deck to make my point: of the 6358 rares this site has at least a playset of and aren’t from the original three sets, 2473 of them, or 39%, are under fifty cents per card, while 3929, or 62%, are under a dollar per card. And that’s just rares; obviously, the vast majority of uncommons and commons go for less than the rares. One of the benefits of casual playing is picking from the cards less in demand, and by purchasing singles out of the spotlight you can have the money for awesome decks. Remember this data before you impulsively grab a booster at Wal-Mart; that money could purchase the core of a deck.
** I realize I’m taking a shortcut here in just telling you some cards, but a number of searches related to the proactive support I outlined above would’ve gotten you to a lot of those cards.