How to build a deck

Written by Koen on September 24, 2002

An explanation of the basics of building a deck.

Preface

If you just bought some packs of cards, have a few rares, a couple of uncommens and a dozen of commons and would like to learn how to build a well working deck, then this is an interesting article for you.

In this article I'll try to explain how to build an effective strong deck. Of course I can never explain here how pro's like Jon Finkel create their tournament winning decks, because they always use different strategies and there are so many aspects in Magic you have to keep on mind. But for the people, who just started playing Magic, I'll explain some basics of deckbuilding.

Deckbuilding Rules

Your deck needs to consist of at least 60 cards and it can't have more than 4 copies of the same card. Under the official rules, there isn't a maximum of cards you can use, but since you can only use 4 copies and you want it to be consistent, you'd better apply the minimum of 60 cards. That way you also have the best chances of drawing the best cards in your deck. So 60 cards it will be.

General Deckbuilding Advise

First of all, you have to think of what kind of deck you are going to make. If you make a creature-based deck, with many low-casting costs creatures you don't need that much land. But, if you are planning on building a control-based deck with many expensive cards, then you need more lands in your deck. Second thing is, if you build a mono-colored deck, then you have many lands that produce that color, but if it's a multicolored deck you want to draw lands of every color you need, so you might need some extra land in that situation, to be more certain to get it.

Usually decks run about 20-26 lands. In monocolored weenie decks like Sligh or White Weenie with mostly cheap creatures, you should use about 20 lands. Multicolored control decks like The Deck or a land destruction deck like Ponza use about 26 lands.

Deckchoice

From here I will explain how to build a standard Green/Red deck. This will be perfect starting point to get accustomed to some of the basic deckbuilding strategies of Magic, while still trying to keep it fun and it will be pretty good too!

I will also try to keep the deck cheap and use cards that are not too hard to get, so you can actually make it, without having to invest hundreds of dollars.

So it will be a 2 colored deck, using Green and Red.

It's not going to be a control deck, and its not going to be a weenie deck. So how many lands are we using? I am planning on making it a medium speed Fires deck. So it will run an average amount of lands: 23-24 probably. That leaves us room for about 36-37 spells (Creatures are also spells, but they become a creature when they resolve and come into play).

Kill Strategy

Let's see. The main goal: Killing your opponent. This can be done in 3 different ways:
  • Make sure he/she gets 10 Poison Counters
  • Make sure he/she wont be able to draw a card during the draw phase, this can be done by making him/her draw extremely many cards, by cards like Howling mine or Prosperity or using something like Millstone.
  • Make sure he/she is brought down to 0 life.

What's also important is that you focus on 1 of those strategies. If you some cards giving poison counters to your opponent, some cards that try to let the opponent run out of cards and some cards that deal damage, the result will be that you are doing a little bit of everything, but you are doing none of it good enough to win. So we'll need to focus.

Method of Killing Strategy

The deck we are gonna make will use the 3rd method, dealing 20 damage. But this still can be done in different ways:
  • You can use very cheap creatures combined with some burn and/or creature enhancing effects like "+3/+3", also known as pumpers. This way you can do 20 damage really fast, before your opponent will be able to cast his/her expensive spells.
  • You can try to get big fat creatures on the board as early as possible and have them dominate the play field and win with them. To prevent losing vs fast creatures, this deck can run some cards to destroy some small creatures to prevent being killed before the big creatures take over.
  • You can control the board, counter spells and/or remove cards from the play field, use card-drawing cards to have more answers to your opponent's threats, make the opponent discard a lot of cards from his hand or destoying land, making sure the opponent can't play his good expensive spells. And once the play field (board) is clean and you have more cards in hand than the opponent, then you play one of the few cards that can kill the opponent. Those kill cards must either be hard to remove, resurrecting from death or kill very fast, and preferably be protected by counters.

Again it's usually best to focus on 1 of those 3 (sub-)strategies. There are also a lot of mixtures, which can work fine too, but I'm keeping it simple and basic here, which is the best starting point.

The first strategy is a bit simple: Just play a lot of small creatures early on, use some spells to clear the path or pump them up and win. The 3rd strategy is a bit boring since it takes long to win and you sometimes have opponents conceding before you actually killed them, because they see you are gaining control. The 2nd strategy will probably be the most attractive, since you can play with cool big creatures! So that's what we will work on.

The Big Creatures

Now, that was enough theory, let's start with looking for some big cool creatures then!

Some big creatures green has to offer:
Phantom Centaur, Erhnam Djinn - Spined Wurm - Ancient Silverback - Call of the Herd, Springing Tiger - Ivy Elemental, Giant Warthog, Tunneler Wurm.

You want the most effecient creature you can get, meaning as much power as possible for the lowest cost. This list is order of strength, so I'm rating Phantom Centaur as the best option, since it has 5 power for 4 mana (1 power more than cost). I should note that you can also use Roar of the Wurm's Flashback to get a whopping 6/6 for 4 mana, but you'd have to build your deck in a way it can discard cards most of the time and this is a typical Green/Blue strategy. So Phantom Centaur it will be.

From Red we can use creatures like:
Fire Elemental - Ogre Taskmaster - Shivan Dragon - Worldgorger Dragon - Savage Firecat - Jeska Warrior Adept - Pardic Arsonist.

Savage Firecat, Ogre Taskmaster and Worldgorger dragon are pretty efficient when comparing cost and power, but they have some downsides. I think Fire Elemental will be the best overall choice and it's Uncommon, meaning it's a bit easier to get. But you can choose about any creature here, since it more a matter of preference than saying one is the best.

So now we have:
4 Phantom Centaur
4 Fire Elemental

Mana Curve

The first problem that a lot of starting Magic players have, is that they forget about a golden rule: mana curve. Many starting Magic players think:

Hey, Phantom Centaur kicks ass, Fire Elemental, Shivan Dragon kicks ass, etc. And then put all their high powered creatures with big costs in their deck and think they are done. They think they have made a killer deck! And when they play to a player that is playing a weenie deck, and they get killed just before they could play their second big creature they say:

"If I could only have casted this second Dragon, or second Elemental, you would have been wasted! Its way bigger than those creatures you have!"

True, it is.. But Magic isn't about who has the biggest creatures, it's about which player can bring the other to 0 life first. And a weenie deck will always beat a deck thats starts with cards of 4 mana or more. So having about 8 big creatures should be enough. with 8 in your deck your odds are very good, that you draw about 2 each game. Just enough, while still leaving some room for other good cards.

So I said a golden rule is the mana curve. I'll explain that a bit more. The most efficient way of using your cards is making sure you can cast them all. When the game is over you want to have used all your cards efficiently. Efficient also means: not letting your resources (lands) be useless. So we want to use all our lands every turn. Of course, you can't always realize this, but there is a certain way of deckbuilding to make sure it happens most of the time:

I will explain it like this: On turn 1 you have 7 or 8 cards in your hand. You play a land, and as we said, you want to use it. So in general 1 out of seven cards needs to be able to be played on turn 1. To really make sure we realize this, we'll have 10 out of 60 cards costing 1 mana. On turn 2, you have had 8 or 9 cards at your disposal, so you want about 8 cards that cost 2 mana. On turn 3, you can guess, we had 9 or 10 cards at our disposal so we want about 7 cards that cost 3 mana. There's only one disadvantage to this: sometimes you only draw the 3 mana cards and no cards to play early on and you haven't used your land effeciently! That's why we are gonna add even more 2 mana and 1 mana-cards, since you can also just play a 2 mana-card and a 1 mana-card together on turn 3 and you still use your lands efficiently. See what I mean? So about optimal will be:
12 cards of 1 mana.
8 cards of 2 mana.
6 cards of 3 mana.
4 cards of 4 mana.
This adds up to 30 cards, and usually you can have some more, but the remaining cards will be cards to deal with opponent's cards, like Disenchant, Shock or Chainer's Edict. You usually want those cards to be as cheap as possible, so you can play a creature next to it, to keep the pressure on your opponent.

Now, this is called the mana curve, but it is moslty used like this by by the weenie decks. Our deck is gonna be a little different, but it's always wise trying to follow these rules of the mana curve as good as you can. Our deck will have more high mana cost cards, because we think they will be very powerful. But we need to use our mana every turn to use our lands effeciently. So what we will do is use some early accelerators to be able to play our fatties a turn earlier. Also, we will add some cheap cards to destroy a couple of weenies, to prevent being completely overrun if we don't get a blocker fast enough. These will be mostly 1 and 2 mana cards. For 3 mana we could use an efficient creature or some better burn. And from turn 4 and 5 we will be casting our beloved fatties!

Card Options of 1 Mana

So, it's time to look for some cards to fill in those ideas. Cards that cost 1:

Accelerators:
Wild Growth
Llanowar Elves
Diligent Farmhand
Birds of Paradise

Creature kill:
Firebolt
Shock

I would say we should use around 6-10 of the acceleration cards and about 0-5 creature kill. The accelerators are more important for us, since we want to cast our fatties early.

Card Options of 2 Mana

Acceleration:
Fertile Ground
Werebear
Rampant Growth

Defense / Creature Kill:
Wild Mongrel
Volcanic Hammer
Flame Burst

How many cards you run here depends on the amount of accelerators you have in the 1 mana slots. If you use like 10 accelerators you can expect to cast something of 3 mana on turn 2 and you can bypass the need of 2 mana cards. If you have few accelerators, you can run some more 2 mana cards. Wild Mongrel is there, well, because it is just an amazing good creature. Just the threat of it becoming bigger will scare a lot of people off and it will keep other weenies from attacking, which is exactly what you want, since you want to survive until you can let the fatties dominate. But if you use much 1 mana acceleration, you can not play it. You could use the creature kill listed here but I would rather choose for the firebolt, since you can also flashback it later on, when you have 5 mana for 2 extra damage. Conclusion: Don't play too many of 2 mana cards, unless you chose to play few 1 mana cards. I would use around 4-8 cards of 2 mana.

Card Options of 3 Mana

3 mana cards should be a lot more interesting, since you can cast them on turn 2 if you had a Llanowar Elf or a Wild Growth. Options:

Creatures:
Call of the Herd
Trained Armodon
Squirrel Nest

For creature kill I couldn't find much, but Blaze would suit fine here, since it can also be used later on. Blaze can be used on turn 3 or 2, killing a cheap weenie, or it can be used at the end of the game dealing like 5 damage to the opponent. This is also a nice fix a deck wants to be sure you can use your mana, since it can be cast every turn after the first. By the way, don't use it on turn 2 for 1 damage on your opponent. Saving it for later to deal more is almost always better and you might wanna kill a big creature they play later on.

So we are a bit disappointed looking at the power of these 3 mana cost cards. Call of the Herd is very good though, but it is VERY hard to get. Trained Armodon should be pretty reasonable and Squirrel Nest takes a while to become threatening, but once it's on the table for a few turns, it starts becoming pretty good, so it could be included. I would use around 0-4 of those three mana cards and some Blazes.

Card Options of 4+ Mana

Like we discussed before we said we would use 4 Fire Elemental and 4 Phantom Centaur. But I think we would have some spots left for some more fat and looking at the acceleration we were planning on using, I think we can afford it. I would use 3 Shivan Dragon and 3 Erhnam Djinn, I think.

The Decklist

So here's the deck:

3 Shivan Dragon
4 Fire Elemental
3 Erhnam Djinn
4 Phantom Centaur
3 Call of the Herd
4 Wild Mongrel

3 Rampant Growth
3 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise

3 Blaze
4 Firebolt

11 Forest
7 Mountain
4 Karplusan Forest

Ok, this deck uses some quite expensive cards, but if you want it to be cheaper you can play it like this:

2 Fire Elemental
4 Spined Wurm
4 Phantom Centaur
4 Trained Armodon
4 Wild Mongrel

4 Llanowar Elves
2 Wild Growth
2 Fertile Ground
4 Rampant Growth

3 Blaze
4 Firebolt

14 Forest
9 Mountain

I hope this helped you in learning how to build a deck.

Greetings,

Koen

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Comments:
by Dzy on 2005-12-15 17:05 CET

I think you just broke T1 Koen.


by piet on 2006-01-11 16:34 CET

lol jan^^..ach was zeker niet slecht nee:)


by Jacel on 2011-04-07 01:55 CET

Good information.
I just bought a new deck and I want to change it so it is "better" Any tips/words of advice?


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