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Magic: The Gathering» Forums » Strategy

Subject: How to Build a Deck for Magic: The Gathering rss

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Eric Jome
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How to Build a Deck for Magic: The Gathering

Introduction

This article gives you a basic, beginning method for building a deck for Magic: The Gathering. It is not the end of the subject - there are worlds of variants, special cases, exceptions, and alternatives that a more advanced player with a large pool of cards might confront. Instead, this article seeks to establish some basics of the game, giving you a style of play that will fit well in a wide variety of places and situations.

A deck is 60 cards...

Everyone knows that a basic Magic deck is 60 cards. But you are immediately confronted with the eternal question as soon as you start picking out those cards - how many land cards and how many other cards? Lands are necessary, but we don't want too many because they don't help us win the game directly. Other cards help us win, but we need land to put them into play.

Let's take a look at three special cases to help us with this dilemma. These are as follows;

1) 20 land and 40 other cards
2) 25 land and 35 other cards
3) 30 land and 30 other cards

Most people would agree that in most cases, the first one is a bit too little and the third one is a bit too much. But, what we really need to know here is how likely it will be that we will draw a certain number of land over a certain number of cards. Let's run some tests and see how many lands are drawn in our first 9 cards. Yes, you typically start the game with 7 cards, but if you go first, you'll want to have played 3 lands on your third turn, by which time you will have had 9 cards. That is, this projection counts beyond the opening hand into the first few draws to improve the usefulness of our data.

So, if we draw a few opening hands with each deck structure... say 10,000,000 each, then we might get data that looks a bit like this;

number of land 30/30 results 25/35 results 20/40 results
0 10019 49673 168482
1 120151 410135 978230
2 606055 1392401 2327779
3 1640630 2544703 2958635
4 2648366 2769177 2219411
5 2636320 1856992 1015151
6 1619834 764543 282351
7 592813 186502 45947
8 116321 24540 3883
9 9491 1334 131

number of tries 10000000 10000000 10000000


There's something subtle to notice here. Even with such a different land to non-land ratios, we see in each case that we hit a sweet spot. For 30/30 it's a bit above 4, for 25/35 it's between 3 and 4, and for 20/40 it's closer to 3. That's not much of a spread considering the very different constructions. This data tells us that it is best to pitch the average cost of a card at about 3 in almost any deck! We should, therefore, build a deck with about 24/36 to 26/34 and an average converted mana cost of about 3. This will help our deck play as consistently as possible, absolutely minimizing the number of mana floods and droughts.

The Cost Curve

If we know that the average cost of about 3 is best, we next need to consider how we'll get an average of 3. We could just pile things together and average their costs, but it's often easier to have a structure as way to remind us to have our costs fall along a regular curve. A regular curve is another way we build consistency. Take two examples, assuming 36 non-land cards;

1) 18 cards that cost 1, 18 cards that cost 6 = average cost 3.5
2) 6 cards each at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 = average cost 3.5

In the first example, we have 18 cards that will remain unplayable until we can get 6 lands in play! Even though the average cost is a good number, nearly 3, it is very likely that we'll draw some cards we won't be able to play before the game is over... and unplayable cards are useless cards. Instead, we should reduce the number of the most expensive cards. Similarly, we should avoid all cards that are very cheap; generally, they aren't as powerful as cards that cost more mana. As our mana sweet spot is about 3.5 in 24/36 deck, we'll probably want cards in the 2, 3, and 4 cost range, with a few quick cards at 1 and a few powerful, but expensive cards at 5 and 6 cost. Something like this perhaps;

4 at cost 1
6 at cost 2
8 at cost 3
8 at cost 4
6 at cost 5
4 at cost 6+

If we use this as a guideline, perhaps pulling one in one place and putting it in another from time to time, we'll continue to maintain the deck that is most likely to play well - consistent and playing the best cards it can without drawing too many expensive or trivial cards.

Creatures versus Non-creatures

The game of Magic is generally won when you reduce your opponent from 20 life to 0. It's fun and flashy to do this with a combo or to try to win in one of the alternate ways, but those are pretty advanced methods, highly specialized around certain cards. In general, the far more common method, the reliable and tested true way to get the job done is to attack with creatures. Whether swarming with fast little ones or controlling the game until your giant monster can command the field, you're going to want a good portion of your non-land cards to be creatures. In practice, we can extend our cost curve, breaking each step into creatures and non-creatures. For example;

2 creatures and 2 other cards at cost 1
4 creatures and 2 other cards at cost 2
5 creatures and 3 other cards at cost 3
6 creatures and 2 other cards at cost 4
4 creatures and 2 other cards at cost 5
3 creatures and 1 other card at cost 6

This gives us 24 creatures and 12 other cards, making the majority of our cards the most useful and effective type of card - creatures. Note that generally as you go up in cost, it becomes harder to find worthwhile cards that are not creatures, so you may want to skew more towards creatures among the more expensive cards.

At this point we have a very effective basic structure, one which is pretty easy to fill in and roll. But a few additional tips can help even more.

Basic Strategy

Generally, you're going to be best off with two colors. Each color in Magic is specialized around doing certain things with access to only some styles of offense or defense. When you build to one color, you're missing complimentary effects that occur only in another color - no destroying enchantments in red and no direct damage in blue or green, for example. Beyond two colors in a deck and you are often stuck including many cards whose sole purpose is converting mana of one color to another or searching your deck for the right lands. Those are slots that could have been spent on taking it to the opponent. For the purposes of this guide, 3, 4, or 5 color decks are too hard to manage. So, when we pick a pair of colors, what are we looking for?

Essentially, all colors contribute one thing beyond their creatures - the ability to control the field of play. Thus, you want to look for cards that will let you render enemy creatures useless. Red does this by blowing them up. Green does this by making yours too big to stop. Blue does this by manipulating them, stopping them from entering play or sending them back to the hand. Black can damage them or simply annihilate them. And white can borrow many of the other colors effects in different ways. This is the most useful thing to add after creatures - things to eliminate enemy creatures.

It is also handy to be able to deal with other sorts of cards. Red and green are good against artifacts, white and green against enchantments, and blue can stop many things, but only temporarily or at a cost of your own development and black tries to empower you to race past difficulties in your way by sacrificing some things to get others.

As most of the game is about creatures, making sure your creatures are effective can be important. This means finding a way for them to get past enemy creatures if possible. Creatures that evade through special effects like flying or being unblockable are very powerful - they are often blue or black. Green uses trample to power through, and red does sometimes too. White will try to control the field, dictating who can block ... or who survives long enough to block.

The major limiting factor on creatures is that the opponent will see them coming. To get that essential edge of surprise and flexibility to interrupt an opponent's offense or defense and turn the tables in your favor, you'll need surprises that leap from your hand at any moment to monkey wrench the situation. There's nothing wrong with a slow Sorcery or Artifact if it is really good, but most of your non-creature cards should probably be Instants, cards you can play at a moment's notice to turn things to your favor and set the tempo.

Creatures, creature removal, controlling other things on the field of play, making your creatures count with evasion or power, and the ability to surprise your opponent with instant speed effects are essential. No matter what pair of colors you choose, pick these effects first and often.

Color Ratios

When you play two colors, you're going to have to split your land among the colors you end up with, but you'll want to make sure the ratio of lands in each color match the amounts you'll need to play your cards.

Generally, you'll want to avoid cards with more than 2 repeated specific mana symbols. That is, if a card costs 3 green and 3 more, it better be a card that is very likely to win you the game - it has very specific costs as well as a high cost. Try to keep cards to only 1 or 2 of specific mana symbols in their cost as much as possible. This helps keep your deck consistent and reliable.

Another aspect of this is making sure that cards of each color occur at each cost level. If all your white cards are 4, 5, and 6 cost and all your red cards are 1, 2, and 3 cost, then you run the risk of not drawing spells of one color with land of the other.

To avoid this problem as much as possible, go through the cards you've selected and count the mana symbols on the casting cost of the cards. Let's say, for example, you go through the deck and find 38 blue mana symbols and 22 black mana symbols. Reduce this ratio to the lowest common rough equivalent. 38:22 is almost 2:1 (40:20). In a deck with 24 land then, we want lands in this ratio - 2 Islands for every 1 Swamp - so 16 Islands and 8 Swamps. Perhaps, if we hit a few too many black cards with two black mana symbols in their cost and don't have many like that in blue, we could go to 15 and 9 or even 14 and 10, but generally we'll do quite well at 16:8.

Some Final Tips

At the beginning of the game, we want land, but as the game progresses, drawing land is less useful. Try to consider including cards that have effects on them that let you spend mana you aren't using to cast new spells. These make good use of late lands. Or look for cards that let you discard cards from your hand for additional effects - discarding your 10th land card to give a creature +2/+2 turns a worthless land draw into a game winning play.

Cards that let you draw more cards or search your deck for cards are always worth considering. Remember, if the card does nothing but that, consider if you would have been better off drawing a different card instead, but finding that missing mana, the killer creature, or that decisive spell at just the right time is very powerful. And just drawing more cards every turn will find you tools to win almost as surely as searching.

Conclusion

Using this method, you can build the most consistent, reliable deck you can; it's still a card game and you'll always be subject to the vagaries of chance, but at least this way you aren't giving bad luck extra help. A deck built using these guidelines will generally do well in almost any situation, but it is still just a basic deck. As you use a tool like this, you'll begin to see opportunities play to different sorts of strategies or strengths and you'll wander away from a basic deck to more advanced Magic... good luck!
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Leif Norcott
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Why do you not account for mulligans in your statistics?
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Stefano Tonini
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You forgot the chapter:

WHAT YOU NEED TO SELL TO BUILD A COMPETITIVE DECK:

- car
- one kidney
- a lot of blood to the bloodbank
- your sister

and so on...

Shard (18 year sobe... ehm, with no MTG booster bought! ^^)

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Eric Jome
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nibuen wrote:
Why do you not account for mulligans in your statistics?


A very excellent question!

In effect, I also did not account for going second, where you will have the 7 cards you start with and a total of 9 cards by turn 2.

Really, both mulligans and the effect of going second don't much matter in the idea of drawing millions of hands of 9 cards. What we're looking at there is just a suggestion made by statistical analysis for what a good average converted mana cost should be... it turns out, it is about 3 for a basic deck.

What I mean is; we may think that we are changing a lot about the reliability and predictability of our deck when we move from 30/30 to 20/40, but the data shows us we really aren't. We're moving the average land available from 3 to 4 - not much drift. And you'll get those 9 cards sooner or later, mulligan or not, going first or not...

So, the art of the mulligan isn't really in basic deck construction. That's worthy of a whole article on it's own. With the style of deck I propose above, you're left with a pretty simple mulligan rule; if you have 0, 1, 6, or 7 land in your opening hand, you should probably mulligan. But really, the art of the mulligan goes a lot further than this, discussing whether or not you can play through cards you've already got, what your deck intends to do, and what your opponent is likely to do.

With the sort of simple, but effective deck described above, you aren't likely to need a mulligan. Only if you have 0, 1, 6, or 7 land in your opening hand (or perhaps all mismatched colors) - and everything we did in building the deck is intended to minimize the chance of that happening.
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Eric Jome
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Conteshard wrote:
You forgot the chapter:

WHAT YOU NEED TO SELL TO BUILD A COMPETITIVE DECK:

- car
- one kidney
- a lot of blood to the bloodbank
- your sister

and so on...


Yeah, Magic can be an expensive game...

But I stand by what I've said here. You build a deck using this method, it's going to play well. It will be competitive. Notice, I don't say you have to spend a lot, only that you use certain kinds of cards in certain ratios.

This deck building method will make the best of whatever cards you throw at it.
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Jon Beckett Schreiber
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I think the Land Ratio is the strongest portion of the article. Balancing land to spells is very important.

But I think that giving someone this article and sending them out into the "big world" will give the wrong impression.

If one is interested in learning to play Magic (and I feel that building decks is part of playing) and does not know where to start, there are three items that can help.

1) Preconstructed decks - The core set of Magic (currently called Magic 2010, soon to be Magic 2011) has several preconstructed decks available. Grab two with themes you find interesting and play. The upcoming Magic 2011 preconstructed decks will have 60 card decks and will provide a good basis for starting.

2) Duels of the Planeswalker - This is a game currently available for the Xbox 360 and about to be released on Steam for the PC. You will get to play different decks in the game and these are also preconstructed. (And now available at your local hobby store.) Here you get to play against a computer opponent on a relatively equal field. Learning more about how the cards interact before building your own deck is very important.

3) Friends - I put friends last as it's a double edged sword. I've heard one high level player complain about his brother wanting to play Casual Magic. As if there is no reason to stoop down to that level. However, a friend who is patient and not just focused on the latest deck tech would be a great way to learn about play and deck construction.

Once you've found a feeling for how the game plays out, then it's time to start building your own creations. Wizards just put out a Deck Builder's Tool Kit, which is reasonable costed and has a lot of the tools to build fun decks that will work.

If your FLGS runs Friday Night Magic and has some good encouraging souls there, you can learn a lot about deck constuction.

The reason for this - Magic is a game of exceptions and community.

Exceptions becuase winning is often based on finding a way to beat the average. Keeping all the cards in the deck at the low end of cost, finding ways to get expensive cards in play, making an effect occur repeatedly.

Community, because it's never played in a void. Sure Duels of the Planeswalkers is a solo situation, but the thrill comes from facing off against another (or several other) players. And the better players will often give advice if asked, or a least provide a hand in discussing direction to look for assistance.

You might be able to blaze your own trail using the information above. But by doing so, you're skipping over the work that many others have used in the past 15+ years of Magic.

Jon
- Member of the Consoles & Cardboard podcast - www.cnccast.com
Where you can hear Eric and I talk about gaming on both sides of the digital divide.
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Eric Jome
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jbeckett wrote:
But I think that giving someone this article and sending them out into the "big world" will give the wrong impression.


At some point, if you're going to play Magic against other people outside the realm of preconstructed decks, you're going to have to start putting your own deck together.

Hopefully, this is a good place to start.

As I mentioned, there's a world of advanced deck construction and game play after this... but you've gotta get started somewhere.
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Devon Harmon
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Thanks for the article. By no means am I new to the world of deckbuilding, but I found the article insightful and informative.

Well Done!
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Todd Pytel
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Thanks for a very well-written article. Obviously, there are a bunch of possible exceptions, but I definitely think this is a great starting point.

A few suggestions for additions...

cosine wrote:

A deck is 60 cards...

Everyone knows that a basic Magic deck is 60 cards.

As this is a primer, it might be nice to elaborate on why a 60 card deck is generally stronger than a 70 or 80 card deck.

Quote:
So, if we draw a few opening hands with each deck structure... say 10,000,000 each, then we might get data that looks a bit like this...

This data would be better presented as percentages. Actually, overlaid relative frequency polygons would be really groovy, but that would be a bit of work.

Also, it might be helpful to lay out some guidelines for adjusting your land count to account for non-land mana sources (Llanowar Elves, Birds, etc.).
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Eric Jome
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tppytel wrote:
A few suggestions for additions...


They are good suggestions. I think I will leave it as is, but I'll explain why...

Quote:
As this is a primer, it might be nice to elaborate on why a 60 card deck is generally stronger than a 70 or 80 card deck.


It's a tough call... this isn't exactly for the complete novice, who doesn't grasp the most basic elements of chance. 60 cards, of course, means you get to the best stuff faster... but the funny thing about this method, based on percentages, is that it will work at other sizes. I use similar approaches for building 40 card draft and sealed decks or 100 card Elder Dragon Highlander decks.

Having the minimum number of cards in a deck means it's more focused. Generally that's a good thing if you have a focused plan for attack... but this system is based on a very generic plan. As players advance in the game, I think they'll begin to consider the possibility of how to make a deck with a few more cards work... and then come around to keeping it as tight as possible.

Quote:
This data would be better presented as percentages.


Again, another tough call. When people casually toss around percentages, it's hard to know where that came from. Did you say that you have a 20% chance of getting 3 because you totally made that up or because you have some data?

In this case, I wrote a computer program that would collect the data, drawing randomly from different deck structures. I think the numbers it generated are perhaps more compelling than just plain percentages... but as you say, it might be best to have both, as you are quite correct; percentages are easier to read.

Quote:
Also, it might be helpful to lay out some guidelines for adjusting your land count to account for non-land mana sources (Llanowar Elves, Birds, etc.).


This I consider to be an advanced case for deck building. When you include other cards to generate or fix mana, they aren't contributing to the win of the game in a direct manner. They allow you to develop to higher levels of mana faster at the risk of fewer meaningful cards... but also have other benefits and risks.

One of the first things a person pursuing this method usually struggles with is a large number of either very expensive cards that are game deciders or multicolored and powerful... that's when they'll have to confront the main thrust of more mana sources faster or mana fixing.

This article I hope will serve as enlightening for the person who has progressed past learning the rules but is wondering where to go from there. Too often the only advice you find on the Internet for Magic is very elite advice or sample decks from pro tour tournaments.
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Wizards "Building On a Budget" is a good place to go to after you've outgrown this method of decking:

http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Archive.aspx?tag=Build...

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Eric Jome
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A little update. The following is from the M11 Tips & Tricks card found in booster packs;

"A Constructed deck must contain at least 60 cards. Staying close to that limit increases your chances of drawing your most powerful cards. You may have a maximum of 4 of any card (except there's no limit on basic lands).

Lands: A 60-card deck usually has about 24 lands.
Creatures: A 60-card deck also has 15-24 creatures, though this may vary depending on your strategy. Choose creatures with a variety of mana costs so you have options throughout the game.
Other spells: Cards like artifacts, enchantments, planeswalkers, instants, and sorceries support your creatures and your deck's theme."
 
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Nice article, being new to Magic and not really knowing how to build a good deck, I found this very helpful and straightforward. I didn't want to read tons of statistics and general ideas. I knew about the averaging mana cost to 3ish, but helped that you broke it down into how many cards of what different mana costs. And I could never mentally figure out the land ratio bit. Now I know. Might just build me a deck now instead of letting my kid do it for me. Time to kick her a** in a game of MtG!
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jadzianess wrote:
Nice article, being new to Magic and not really knowing how to build a good deck, I found this very helpful and straightforward. I didn't want to read tons of statistics and general ideas. ... Might just build me a deck now instead of letting my kid do it for me.

Same here. Played my first game of Magic with my son this past weekend, using a Green/White deck that he gave me. After reading this article (and some of the comments) and one other article from Cosine, I think that I'll buy/build my own deck this weekend.

Excellent article! Appreciate the time and effort to post it, and to respond to the comments.
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David Bernier
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Thanks a million Eric for this guide! I just started getting into MTG and bought some stuff and this guide is exactly what I was looking for: simple, filled with useful data, consice and awesome!

Thumb and GG for you sir!
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Thanks mate, I've collected boxes full of MTG cards over the years and wanted a reliable strategy to build a variety of balanced preconstructed decks for casual play.

This at least gives me some decent rules for balancing the decks, and when I decide to break those guidelines I'll need to justify the reasons for doing so.
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