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CardShark Content - Marcus Anderson (12/4/2001)

The Beginner’s Guide: Deck Building

How did you get started playing the game? Every week, hundreds of people try Magic for the first time. They pick up a starter deck, pre-constructed deck, booster packs, or cards from a friend. They immediately start card flopping and having fun. Once the bug bites – it bites hard! New gamers flock to the comic book store, grocery store, friend’s house, or the Internet to buy new cards. After a considerable amount of purchases, the task of construction is at hand. This article will describe some of the basic steps needed to create “the first deck” for a new player. It will be a stepping stone into playing better, winning games among friends, and enjoying your purchases.

Wizard’s of the Coast has made a great game. It is a game with simple, basic rules. Yet, it has complexity that challenges the brain in a way that few games do. As the new player reaches for his first deck, he has dreams of smashing the opponent to smithereens. Unfortunately, the road of quality deck construction is a tough one. I offer some quick suggestions and some more advanced theories for the intermediate user.

QUICK STRATEGY #1: Buy pre-constructed decks.

Currently, Wizards offers pre-constructed, ready-to-play decks that are (for the most part) balanced with other pre-constructed decks. Take some time to play with a lot of them. Play them against each other with a friend. You will get the excitement out of playing them and enjoying how the cards work.

This strategy has its benefits and drawbacks. The first benefit is the cost and time investment (both on the low side). The cost of buying four pre-constructed decks is relatively cheap compared to buying four of the “really good” rare cards (good rare cards usually run $10 each). The time you spend with the pre-constructed decks is 100% playtime. You can open them up and play away. Unfortunately, your friends may smash you if they are playing with their own decks. You may get discouraged and wonder why this “Wizard’s Approved” deck (expert level – no doubt) is losing to a deck made by someone else.

The answer is simple: rare cards. Your friends who have been playing for a while have a big stack of rare cards and have been tweaking their decks for weeks. You, on the other hand, are playing with a deck that has two solid rare cards and a small spattering of other uncommon cards. There is no way to compete. The best you can do to try to better your chances of winning is to lay out your constructed deck on the floor, analyze it, and start replacing cards.

At this stage in the game, try to replace a creature for a creature, spell for a spell, and a land for a land. Make sure the casting cost is the same because the pre-constructed decks are well balanced for the cards inside them. I have seen many new players throwing in new cards without making appropriate substitutions. Their decks become bulky, unpredictable, and cumbersome. The new player will get excited to play his dragon, but the game will be over before it can hit the table. If you find yourself saying, “if I only had enough mana” on a regular basis, then you put in too many high-casting cost creatures.

QUICK STRATEGY #2: Make an Internet deck (or borrow one from a friend)

How many beatings does it take for a player to switch to a new deck? It doesn’t take much. Even the most professional players build Internet decks, test them, and play them with regularity. For the new player, the taste of victory is sweet and addictive. Most veteran players remember their first red deck as it smashed the opponent to bits. Someone mentioned the mono-red deck to me and I thought I would never go back to playing any other color. Over time, other Internet decks appeared, and the thought of playing red at every tournament was abandoned after trying the other decks.

The bottom line: Internet decks will shape the way you play and perceive the game. Compared to the pre-constructed decks, it is like upgrading to a V6 engine in your family car. On the plus side, the reliable Internet deck lists have been tested well. You will feel superior as the deck smoothly operates and performs. On the down side, many new decks are filled with expensive rare and uncommon cards that may be hard to find if not impossible to the new player. Alas, you have discovered the joys and frustrations of the serious Magic player!

To overcome these struggles, get with a group of people who will be willing to let you borrow cards or play with proxy cards. A proxy card is a substitute for the real card that you do not own. You can proxy together a deck to be very competitive. Next, try changing a few (emphasis on few) cards in the deck to tailor to your liking. Remember not to change the mana base or throw in too many cards without making proper substitutions. As stated before, people have tested these decks, and they have “tweaked” them to near-optimum performance. At this early stage in your career, the choices you make are probably going to hurt the deck rather than help it.

NOT SO QUICK STRATEGY: Building from scratch

Now let’s say that you want to be a deck pioneer and build your own deck. You have hundreds of current cards to choose from, and even more if you purchased from the older sets! It’s time to build a good foundation of deck construction.

Step 1: Choose a color or colors

Each color has its own strengths and weaknesses. To make things easy on you, you may wish to stick with one or two colors. This way you will not be splitting your land distribution in any funky ways. Here are how the colors breakdown:

Black:
Strengths: Creature removal, discard, fast and flying creatures. Speed. Has some evasion.
Weakness
Weakness
WeaknessSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
1
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant Creature
Rarity:
C
Artist:
Douglas Shuler
Text:
Target creature loses -2/-1.
es: No enchantment removal, limited artifact removal, difficulty eliminating black creatures.
Color difficulty: Medium

Blue:
Strengths: Counter-magic, good flying creatures, and card-drawing potential. Has some evasion.
Weakness
Weakness
WeaknessSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
1
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant Creature
Rarity:
C
Artist:
Douglas Shuler
Text:
Target creature loses -2/-1.
es: Weaker creatures, slower speed, difficult to destroy permanents.
Color difficulty: Hard

Green:
Strengths: Quick mana development, big creatures, and excellent creature instants/enchantments.
Weakness
Weakness
WeaknessSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
1
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant Creature
Rarity:
C
Artist:
Douglas Shuler
Text:
Target creature loses -2/-1.
es: Difficult to destroy non-flying creatures and lacks its own flying creatures.
Color difficulty: Easy

Red:
Strengths: Direct damage, fast creatures, and good artifact/land/creature removal.
Weakness
Weakness
WeaknessSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
1
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant Creature
Rarity:
C
Artist:
Douglas Shuler
Text:
Target creature loses -2/-1.
es: No enchantment removal, medium speed, hard to gain card-advantage.
Color difficulty: Easy

White:
Strengths: Life gain, inexpensive small creatures, global effects (Wrath of God
Wrath of God
Wrath of GodSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
4
Color:
White
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Quinton Hoover
Text:
All creatures in play are buried.
, Armageddon
Armageddon
ArmageddonSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
4
Color:
White
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Jesper Myrfors
Text:
All lands in play are destroyed.
…), and good enchantment and artifact control. Good flying creatures.
Weakness
Weakness
WeaknessSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
1
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant Creature
Rarity:
C
Artist:
Douglas Shuler
Text:
Target creature loses -2/-1.
es: Enchantment based-creature control, not too many mid-sized creatures, and medium speed.
Color difficulty: Medium

So there you have the breakdown of the colors. Many people choose colors that work well together. Red/Black, Green/Red, and Blue/White have seen their share in the tournament world. Picking colors to fill in their weaknesses (such as Black/White) has been shown to be successful in several occasions. However, most critics argue that synergy between the enemy colors isn’t very good (with the notable exception of the Apocalypse
Apocalypse
ApocalypseSet: Tempest
Cost:
5
Color:
Red
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
L. A. Williams
Text:
Remove all permanents from the game. Discard your hand.
limited expansion).

Step 2: Create a mana/spells/creature ratio

This section of the article could be infinitely long. Every experienced magic player has an opinion about this part of deck building theory. However, I can only start to scratch the surface. In the past, people built decks based on fun and creativity alone. Now, decks are built around function, efficiency, mana curve and paths to victory. Since the novice player will be using a creature strategy, I will focus on that. Counterspell
Counterspell
CounterspellSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
2
Color:
Blue
Type:
Instant
Rarity:
U
Artist:
Mark Poole
Text:
Counters target spell as it is being cast.
s and library depletion are other popular tactics, but those decks are usually far more expensive and difficult to play.

When I started (around Legends), every new player learned the 20/20/20 rule: 20 land, 20 creatures, and 20 spells. Following this rule will not make for the best games in the current environment. The game has slowed down in the past years. Tempo and mana development are important traits to any winning deck. Tempo is how much you are playing per turn. For example, if you are playing a land and a creature every turn, that is good tempo. Mana development is where you get the land when you need it. Good mana development ensures that you won’t be holding cards that you cannot cast because you are waiting on the mana to arrive.

Instead of the 20 land, most new decks use around 24 lands. However, there are some decks that use less. These decks usually have small creatures (white weenie/red burn) or have serious mana development (elf green). With 24 land, you will have 36 cards left for construction. Most new players will use the block method of designing a deck. An example is given below (“cc” will stand for casting cost):

24 Land
4: Creatures (1cc)
4: Creatures (2cc)
4: Creatures (3cc)
4: Creatures (4cc)
2: Creatures (4 or more)
4: Spells (1cc or 2cc)
4: Spells (2cc or 3cc)
4: Spells (3cc or 4cc)
4: Spells (4cc or 5cc)
2: Spells (4cc or more)

60 cards total

Now remember (before I get piles of emails from veteran players), this is a rough scaffolding to building a deck that has decent mana development and decent tempo. Many beginning players will want to put every rare card in a deck and try to cast them. Sadly, most big rare cards would slow down the deck or make it unplayable in a competitive format. I strongly suggest finding cards that smoothly fit the mana curve listed above. It is a good starting place. You will find ways of changing the deck to your liking by substitution and testing.

Once you have played the deck over and over, you will notice problems. You will change out some cards for others – and realize you have fixed one problem while creating another! Your deck will run smoothly sometimes, and fall flat on its face other times. You will get frustrated, but you will know that the deck is a good idea. Suddenly, you will be in the love/hate relationship between Magic players and their decks. Enjoy!

(Evil laughter in background as another victim has fallen to the evil Magic wizard)

I hope this has been a good start for the first time or “new” deck builder diving into Magic: the Gathering. It could have been a lot longer, but there is more than enough information to get a good start.

Remember that all advice is JUST that. Magic players are full of it. Go to your local hobby shop and find some patient players. They are out there – willing to tutor the next pro-tour player and say, “yeah, I remember his first deck…we play-tested it!”


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