"How do I build a deck?"
ut of all the many questions I'm asked, this is one of the most popular. And for good reason: deck building can be a daunting process! How are you supposed to choose what goes into your deck out of all the cards you own? It can be baffling.
There are a lot of articles focused on the minutiae of deck building, but sometimes the basics can be the hardest part.
I remember once, in a Communications class in college, our professor gave the class ten minutes to write down technical instructions that explained how to stand up from a chair, walk across the room, and then sit back down. Many of the students chuckled. How hard could that be? It's walking, after all!
Well, take a moment. Open up a notepad and try writing technical instructions down of how to stand up and walk. Can you do it? Where do you even begin to explain the process of walking?
After the class tried writing descriptions themselves, the professor took the liberty of acting out several of them chosen at random. Only one out of his selections actually worked—the rest ended up with him comically dramatizing him falling on the ground and explaining how he couldn't lift both feet in the air at the same time.
The goal of today's article? Well, if you're following the metaphor, it's writing down how to walk. And in Magic, that means how to build a deck. Today I'm going to go over the five steps of deck building.
Before getting started, I should say that different people build decks in different ways. Some start by looking at what their lands can support. Others start with individual card interactions. None of these are necessarily wrong—everybody works in their own ways. If you've found something that works for you, go for it. But if you don't know where to start, these five steps will get you well on your way to building a solid deck.
Now, shall we begin?
Step #1: Create a Mission Statement
What does your deck want to do?
There is a line between a compilation of cards and a deck, and you always want to try and be the latter.
Imagine a greatest-hits album. Only, instead of a specific band like The Beatles or a genre like "90s Rock," or even a contemporary series like "Now! 786," this is something much more far-reaching. This is Greatest Hits: All of Music Ever.
Music is pretty awesome, so you pick up the album. (Digitally, of course.) After all, if you like music, won't the greatest hits of all music ever be just up your alley?
You start listening, and suddenly you're hearing transitions from Bach into Madonna; "Amazing Grace" into "Gangnam Style;" the sultry calling of the Backstreet Boys into the high-pitched calls of the arctic tern. None of it makes any sense together!
Without a solid goal to aim for, deck building can turn into a similar kind of mess. Simply putting all of your red cards and all of your green cards in the same deck makes a red-green deck—but it certainly isn't going to be very cohesive.
This is where the deck's mission statement comes in.
The first thing I do is figure out what the deck's goals are; a mission statement, of sorts. If you're building a deck, there's probably a reason why—and this is that reason.
Your mission statement should include what your deck is overall and what it aims to do during a game. If you're ever unsure about a deck-building choice, this is the enshrined phrase you can look back to for guidance. Write it down and put it in the deck box if you want to. If a card doesn't fit the mission statement, then you need to question why you want to include it.
Here are some examples of good mission statements:
"This is an aggressive red-green deck that wants to hit hard with creatures and burn spells early to win as fast as possible."
"This is a discard deck, utilizing cheap discard spells to start destroying my opponent's hand in the early game and reducing his or her options."
"This is a deck that plans to take full advantage of Fauna Shaman, using a lot of creatures and graveyard effects."
"This is a deck that is built around the combo of Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, looking to assemble those two cards to win the game."
"This is a blue-black control deck that is built to specifically beat Goblins and Pestermite/Kiki-Jiki Combo decks."
For contrast, here are some examples of things that aren't helpful mission statements:
"This deck wants to win the game."
"This is a Red-Green Deck."
"This is my Standard deck."
"This deck is all the cards I own."
"I am a walrus."
Okay, so you have your mission statement? That means it's time for the next step!
Now that you have your mission statement down, it's time to actually begin building your deck.
If you were looking at building around a specific card or interaction in your mission statement then you're going to want to start there and build outward. However, it's important to note that, in most cases, it's important that you have a solid plan B. That is, it's important that if you don't draw your core card your deck still functions.
For example, if you're building around the Fauna Shaman mission statement proposed in the last section, your deck can't only be focused on being awesome when you have Fauna Shaman. You're not going to draw it every game, let alone on turn two, and even if it resolves, it is an easily removed 2/2. You want your deck to go crazy when you do have a Shaman, but not flail about without it.
There are some exceptions—for example, a two-card combo that instantly wins you the game like Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki can be worth a deck's singular focus—but for the most part you want to add in additional options.
If you were looking to build around a specific strategy, you should start pulling out cards that fit that strategy. For example, if you're looking to be an aggressive red-green deck, starting by looking at all of your low-mana-cost red and green creatures would be a fine place to begin, as well as cheap spells to enhance those creatures.
If you're not building solely out of your collection and are opening up your search to all cards in the format, there's an excellent tool for you. Something I'll often do is go onto Gatherer, search for all the cards in my colors or that fit under the heuristic my deck is looking for (Elves, for example), and then just write down every card I think would work well.
How do you choose what actually makes the cut? Well, that comes in the next step...
Now that you've identified which cards could make the cut, it's time to trim it down—it's time to refine.
While a deck can be any number of cards greater than sixty, you almost never want to go over sixty. The more cards in your deck, the lower chance you'll have to draw your best cards at any given time. In general, I'd say that, as a baseline rule, you should never go above sixty cards. (Unless you're playing a Battle of Wits deck. In which case, go crazy.)
You're also going to probably want somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-six lands, depending on the kind of deck you are building. (More aggressive decks usually have a higher amount of cheap-to-cast cards, meaning you need fewer lands.) This means you'll end up in the range of thirty-four to thirty-seven nonlands.
So, how do you choose?
Generally, the first thing I do is look at all of the options I've written down and ask myself which ones this deck really wants to play. Which have the best synergy together? Which are going to be the strongest? That will whittle some of them out.
Remember, if you're having any doubts about what to cut at all, look to the deck's mission statement. If it doesn't fit into the greater picture, take it out.
The next thing I do is lay them out on what's called a mana curve. This is an extremely important process that will help you see what your deck is doing at every turn of the game—and if it's clogged anywhere.
Finding your mana curve is simple: look at the converted mana cost of your cards and lay them out from 1 upwards, from left to right. Put any cards that you plan to cast at a different mana cost at the adjusted point in your curve. (For example, Gatekeeper of Malakir doesn't usually cost two, Joraga Warcaller doesn't usually cost one, and Myr Enforcer doesn't usually cost seven.)
Then—and this is an important, often-missed part of mana curves: pull all the cards that are more flexible and you don't necessarily plan to cast on the turn their mana cost indicates (usually instants and sorceries) in a separate mana curve underneath. (For example, Doom Blade and Titanic Growth aren't really two-mana plays since you usually won't be casting them on turn two. Cultivate and Divination, on the other hand, should stay on the top part of your curve with your creatures since you can cast them on the turn their mana cost indicates.) These cards are essentially treated off your primary mana curve (unless you are a control deck and plan to cast them on-curve each game), but laying them out by cost serves to give you an idea of what you might be doing with spare mana.
Once that's all done, you should have something that looks like this:
Now that it's all laid out, you should see if there are any mana gluts. For example, naturally there are plenty of exciting, more-expensive-to-cast cards in Magic that cost higher amounts of mana, so it's tempting to fill your deck up on those—but that means you'll often be stuck with scads of those stuck in your hand. Here's an example of a bad mana curve:
Even though they are all plenty powerful, at some point you have to choose between your wonderful cardboard children. If you keep a four-drop-heavy curve like this, you're not going to be able to utilize your mana efficiently and your opening hands are going to have far too many cards that cost four.
Although it does differ greatly from deck to deck and there are certainly exceptions, I'd say as a general rule of thumb you want no more than a combined ten cards that cost four or greater. In aggressive decks you want an especially low curve, using around no more than seven cards that cost four or more. (And plenty of one- and two-drops so you can get the damage started early.)
Also, as another rule of thumb, you usually want no more than twelve cards at any given slot on the curve. Ideally, you want the number of cards on your curve to descend in number as you travel further to the right of your mana curve—it is called a curve after all. (The exception being one-drops, which most decks don't have many good options for.) To play one- and two-drops you need to have them right away, while you have plenty of extra draw steps to find more expensive cards.
After all of this, hopefully you have managed to pare your deck down fairly far to a strong core of cards you want. Ideally, there are a few spots left—and that's where the next step comes in.
Now that you have your mission statement, and you've both selected and refined cards around that statement, it's time to fill any gaps. Look at your deck—what do its common weaknesses seem to be?
This stage is where I find a lot of instants and sorceries get added. For example, perhaps the most common instance of gap filling is being short on removal spells. This is where you would look to add some additional pieces of removal. If you're an aggressive deck without a lot of ways to push through the last few points of damage, perhaps you'd want to consider some direct-damage spells or pump effects.
This is also where the lower part of your mana curve—the spell part—comes into play. Are most of your removal spells expensive to cast? Perhaps you should play a few Pillar of Flames or Doom Blades then to help give you some removal spells in the early game. Using your mana efficiently and timely is a key to victory, and cheap spells let you do that turn after turn.
But it's not just spells, either.
Still have that mana curve laid out? Good. Are there any spots in the early game (other than, potentially, one-drops) that are thin? This is where I would go back to my collection or original list of cards and see what I have that would fit that mana cost well.
It's tempting to be a little remiss if you end up playing a perceived weaker three-drop instead of a more powerful, more-expensive-to-cast card, but being able to make meaningful plays each turn of the game is important. Your three-drop Borderland Ranger may be a weaker card than your four-drop Master Biomancer, but I'd much rather have four Borderland Rangers if I have no other three-drops and twelve four-drops.
Finally, I'd take a look to see if there's anything synergistic you can add. Is there a card that works really well with another card that could fit in this deck? For example, if you notice that your deck is mostly flying creatures, perhaps Favorable Winds is a card you would want to play.
Curious about how many of each card to play? That can be a pretty tricky part of deck building as well. If you'd like to know more about how many copies of a given card you should play, I wrote about it pretty extensively in my first article on DailyMTG. Look for the header "Crunching Numbers" and you'll be right there.
Step #5: Lands, Lands, Lands
The mana base is secretly the most important part of a Magic deck.
All of your spells mean nothing unless you have a way to cast them. Playing all Plains in your black-red deck makes about as much sense as having a duck pond with no ducks. It's easy to undervalue the impact of lands. In fact, in many formats, at a really high level of deck building, the lands available to me might be the first place I would start building a deck!
Generally, you want to find all of the mana-fixing lands you can for your colors—cards like Breeding Pool and Glacial Fortress—and then start your mana base with those, weighing into consideration any drawbacks. (Entering the battlefield tapped, for example.) You want to make sure your lands don't hinder you too much—but in most Standard formats (although not the Return to Ravnica mana-fixing-laden format that exists as I write this article) you will simply want to play all the mana-fixing lands meant for your colors that you can.
In most Standard formats, being anything more than three colors is going to be difficult and I don't recommend it. If the mana isn't there to support your deck, it's time to look back at your deck and ask yourself if everything is necessary. For example, if you have a four-color deck but are only playing six red cards, perhaps you could cut those and help your mana base considerably.
Finally, you need to determine the number of lands you should play. I am of the school of thought that prefers more lands to too few, since being able to cast your spells is a nice ability to have and it means you can safely keep more hands. Once again, in aggressive decks I generally lean toward twenty-three or twenty-four, and in control or midrange decks twenty-six (and even occasionally twenty-seven) are the numbers I would look at.
Additionally, there are plenty of great lands printed today that have spell-like effects you can play with. Lands like Mutavault and Encroaching Wastes provide plenty of functionality outside of mere mana generation. If you settle on the side of extra lands, you can always play some lands like this to ensure you have plenty to do even when you draw a bounty of lands.
And there you have it: five steps to building a deck. The vast majority of decks I create stem from this exact method. Occasionally, I'll start in another way—beginning with the mana base, most commonly—but otherwise this is the usual process. Hopefully you find it useful on your foray into Magic deck building.
Curious about sideboarding? That's a whole another banana stand. I wrote an entire article about the intricacies of sideboarding that you can take a look at to help build up your sideboard. Between this article and that one, you should have all the basic tools you need to construct a tournament-level deck.
And speaking of building tournament-level decks, it's time for the deck-building challenge for two weeks from now:
Deadline: July 14, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by clicking on "respond via email" below. Please submit decklists using the following template. (You do not need to adhere to the specific numbers below, but it's just how a general decklist should look when laid out.)
4 Other Spell
4 Other Spell
I'm looking to seeing what you come up with! Hopefully you can put this deck-building advice to good use for this upcoming challenge.
If you have any thoughts or questions on this article, I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the forums or send me a tweet and I'd be happy to talk with you about your thoughts.
I'll be back next week with a take on Magic 2014 Standard. Until then, may these deck-building steps help you out. Talk with you next week!
When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he wanted a job making Magic cards. Ten years later, his dream was realized as his combined success as a professional player, deck builder, and writer brought him into Wizards R&D during 2011. He's been writing Magic articles since 2005 and has no plans to stop.