There’s plenty of daily strategy content on the Mothership, Star City Games, Channel Fireball, and other places. However, those are targeted at people, who are generally not that interested in deckbuilding, and who are fairly familiar with the game. Here I’m going for the beginner audience.
I’m talking about 60 card decks here. Much of this applies to other deck sizes, but you’ll have to scale things a lot, as well as find equivalent cards in singleton formats. This is (as the title says) the very basics of deckbuilding. There’s plenty more to learn, and many players never actually bother, netdecking instead (in other words, using decks they find on the net, often used to win major tournaments). So, you don’t have to either. But creativity is one of the basic needs of humans. Deckbuilding can therefore be its own reward, even if you don’t win any games. Of course, winning with your own design is great. I enjoy it, and thus I’ll usually play my own decks. Not always, but usually.
… and making your own decks, you will fail. That’s part of the process. Magic is a complicated game and you can’t always predict everything on the drawing board. Empirism is key, even for experienced players. Sure, experience helps, but trying things out is always going to be part of the process.
I’ll be using Standard as of M15 here, meaning the legal sets are Return to Ravnica block, Theros block, M14 and M15.
The Rule of Nine
This is a very simplified approach to deckbuilding, but it works. Basically, just find nine cards, that work pretty well together and add 24 lands. Voila! That’s a deck right there.
Of course, when you get deeper into this stuff, this is way too simplistic, but its a good start, which we’ll use in this article. Basically it means we don’t have to choose all 60 cards. We basically choose nine, and find lands to fit.
Its better to use only two colors at this point. Otherwise the manabase will be overly complicated. Even two colors can sometimes be awkward if you have many cards which require double mana in one color.
There are many ways to approach building a deck. Sometimes you want to examine and analyze the metagame to find an angle to abuse, sometimes you want a certain end state and build from that, but most of the time you just identify cards, or archetypes you want to play and build around them. This is the top-down approach.
Gladly, WotC knows its business well enough to give us these cards and archetypes. To keep the game interesting, and deckbuilding easier for beginners, there will always be cards that are easy to build around. Take Polukranos, World Eater. Its a very powerful creature with a very low casting cost. Its something you can definitely build around. Also, since they know how certain archetypes work within the context, they would rather support existing ones than always create all new ones (although, they do create some new ones constantly, to keep the game interesting).
One key to deckbuilding is understanding the curve. The idea is to use your mana as effectively as possible. Mana is a resource, which doesn’t stay with you from turn to turn until you expend it (like for example cards and life), so you should be using it whenever possible.
For this reason, the manacurve was invented.
Basically it just means that you should have cards to play during each of your initial turns, although often the first turn is ignored, depending on the deck. Control decks will often be very reactive and not use all of their mana all the time, but they can also force their opponent to not use theirs either.
Of course, since this is a game of variance, you can’t always get the perfect hand to play out your curve (or “curve out”), but on the other hand, every once in a while you are able to get “free” wins, where everything just clicks and your opponent want be able to do much in the game.
For this reason, we should try to maximize the potential of curving out with the nine cards we are playing. For example, we might use the following (CMC means converted mana cost):
2 CMC of 1
2 CMC of 2
2 CMC of 3
1 CMC of 4
Those should all be creatures. Twenty-eight is a pretty high creature count, but we’ll live with it. The other two can be saved for other purposes, such as removal spells, or other utility. Those don’t necessarily need to be on curve, because you’ll use them when you need them, but you should try to keep them cheap, so that you can maximize your mana use.
I’m not strictly going to use that list, but I’m going to use that as a basis, and work from there.
The Nine (or the Other Eight)
Now, supposing we begin with the aforementioned Polukranos.
What do we want to do with him? He’s a very good attacker, but he can be used to devastate your opponent with the monstrosity. However, we are going aggro here, just to base our deck on the aforementioned curve, although it might not be the best possible.
Basically, we need eight cards we’d like to play together, but that’s not all. We want cards that are cheap. There’s a baseline of card cost and you shouldn’t pay more for cards unless you are getting something great in return.
Lets take the Polukranos. The baseline for what you should be getting for four mana is probably a 5/5. Polukranos even brings abilities on top of that, so its a great card in pretty much any situation (unless your oppoent brings a lot of hate for it, in the form of Reprisal, or Lifebane Zombie). Some other cards are much harder to evaluate. Take Blood Baron of Vizkopa. A 4/4 for five is not good in Standard, and its abilities are quite situational. However, if you opponent is playing white or black, the Baron is very, very strong.
So, where do I find cards that I can make work well with Polukranos. I’m going with monogreen here.
Elvish Mystic is going to be very strong here. Fast mana is always good. Here we can use it to cast three mana creature on turn two, or out centerpiece on turn three. Experiment One is just a resilient early threat, which will be pretty big in most cases with this deck.
Swordwise Centaur is strictly worse than Tusker, but they are both powerful enough to play. They provide evolve triggers for the Experiment One and they give two devotion, which is pretty important in this deck.
Reverent Hunter is a bit of a nonbo (doesn’t work well together) with Experiment One, because the trigger is checked twice (first when the creature enters and again when the trigger resolves), and when its checked the first time, it doesn’t trigger at all because the Hunter is only a 1/1 at that point. Still, Experiment One into Swordwise Centaur into Reverent Hunter gives you a 5/5 on turn three. That’s not bad.
Boon Satyr is very good against decks with sweepers (cards that destroy all creatures), because you can cast it at the end of your opponents turn. It can also be a good trick, because it will evolve Experiment One most of the time. Lastly, if you flood (you draw more lands then you need), or the game goes long, you’re able to use your extra mana to cast Boon Satyr with bestow, which will sometimes (actually quite often) devastate your opponent).
Aspect of Hydra can benefit from all the devotion you have in this deck. Setessan Tactics is just a removal spell you can use to clear the way.
This deck has plenty of problems, but it does showcase (at least a bit) how you can benefit from using the curve and finding cards that work well together.
But lets try another. Lets say we want to play humans. There’s some benefit to that. We have a couple of cards that are good in the right context, we can put together and hope to get a huge benefit out of.
That takes a spot from our humans theme, but being able to sacrifice to the Aristocrat, get a zombie from the Necromancer and force the opponent to either give you the card back, or pay 3 life is pretty good.
Two very strong early creatures. Granted, the Elite needs other creatures around it, but it can attack very well if everything goes to plan. Of course, it never does, but still. Attacking with it and making it a one mana 3/3 is always good.
You might note that I’m actually going over my limit here. With the aristocrat above, I actually have three 2-drops. The reason is that if we get our combo with Athreos going, we’ll have extra mana to use and we can play two creatures per turn in that case.
Pain Seer is one of my favorite cards, but also, it can provide card advantage. Since you have no cards in the deck with a CMC of more than 3, you are not going to be paying too much life for it, most of the time. Skyjek is just another excellent attacker, even without others to help it.
Orzhov Charm is here mostly for its removal ability. Again, you lose life, but you can take it. Depending on your environment you might want to go for Doom Blade, or Ultimate Price instead, but the Charm is the most versatile despite its high cost. Thoughtseize is another card that uses your lifetotal as a resource, but it can wreck your opponents gameplan, so its always good, sometimes extremely so.
Lands and Mana
So, the Polukranos deck. Its monogreen, so we just need plenty of Forests, but we can also toy around with other lands. Do we want Temples such as Temple of Plenty? Probably, but I’m not going to put any in. We do have room for Mutavaults since 20 Forests should be enough most of the time. Sure, there might be some awkward draws, but there isn’t going to be that many.
The black-white deck needs a little more attention. First, you should read this article by Frank Karsten, or at least skim through it and look at the tables. It basically just tells you how many lands you should play.
Now, gladly, I took care not to have any cards that require double of one color in the deck. Some cards require two colored mana, but of different color (actually, twelve altogether). This will give us some flexibility. Based on Karsten’s tables, we need 14 sources of mana for each color. That forces us to use dual lands, but gladly we can access plenty of them. Caves of Kolios and Godless Shrine are autoincludes, but since we would like to play Mutavaults again (after all, they are humans too), we are basically limited to 20 lands for colored mana. Therefore we want the Temple of Silence as well. We don’t really need them, as we have plenty of sources for each color, but it can smooth out our draws.
We might want to emphasize Plains just a bit, since our 1-drops are white. Lets do that and put 5 Plains and 3 Swamps into the deck. That leaves as with 17 white sources and 15 black sources. That’s good enough. The Mutavaults might be awkward again, as we only have 16 cards that can be cast with colorless mana.
So, there you have it. Two decks. I don’t think either will be a tier one (top level) deck, but they do have their strengths, because they are made pretty rigorously using the top-down method, manacurve and synergy between the cards. They aren’t the worst.
Where to Go From Here?
Of course, many decks will not have 24 lands. First step after what we did above is to try to twiddle with that number. Don’t do too much of it, but there’s room for some maneuvering. Generally, look at where you want to be and count backwards from there. If you have 24 lands in your deck, that’s 40% of the cards. So, if you are on the play and don’t mulligan, you should have drawn 4.4 lands on turn five (0.4 * 11). Is that enough? Is that too much?
We could afford to lose a couple of lands form the black-white deck. Maybe put a couple of one-drops in it. Preferably white (so, Dryad Militant would fit the bill). I wouldn’t cut lands from the monogreen one, because if we draw too many, we’ll be able to use the extra mana with either Polukranos or Setessan Tactics.
Then there’s card advantage. You’ll need it in the long run.
Mike Flores has been writing articles for beginners on the Mothership. You can find the archive here.
And again, empirism is the key. You’ll know certain cards are bad, but there’s plenty of cards and interactions you can’t assess on the drawing board.