Contrary to what many players think, deck design in Magic: the Gathering starts first with research, not with looking at what you have to work with. From my experience, everyone who goes to a tournament has enough cards to build any kind of deck. In making a deck for a tournament, the objective you need to keep in mind is that the deck needs to try to win as much as possible, which is not necessarily the same thing as being as “good” as it can be.
In order to start, you need to consider the format you’re playing in. Extended rarely changes, and is often dominated by one aggressive deck, one control deck, and one or more combo decks. Type II changes weekly, and is typically overrun with flavor-of-the-week type decks which are popular for a very short time, but die in popularity once people realize that they are not top tier decks. In order to be successful with your design, you should focus on the types of decks which are winning now. If you have an idea that you think will beat the majority of these types of decks, there’s a start, otherwise, focus on strategies that you would want to use to beat those decks. Remember, you should focus on winning each match, not on doing as good as you can.
Understanding how the current decks work is critical to this process. Essentially, there are three different types of decks in Magic: Combo, control and aggro. Your deck, and the decks you’re trying to beat, should fit nicely in one of these strategies. Each has it’s own distinct advantages and disadvantages. In building a new deck, let yourself be guided by the kinds of strategies you commonly win with, and which strategies you feel will beat your targeted decks.
The first kind of deck is the rarest. Combo decks rely on a combination of two or more cards working in conjunction with each other in order to create a massively powerful effect (infinite mana, infinite turns, spontaneous game wins, etc.). These decks often will win against aggro decks, which usually don’t kill fast enough to prevent you from breaking through with your game winner. Typically, control decks can provide a problem for you, especially if they understand the combo you are trying to use. If they can disrupt your combo with a counterspell or discard effect, you will probably lose. Keep in mind that if your combo is clunky, slow, or not that incredible, then you shouldn’t be planning to make a combo deck. More than a fair share of awful combos can be made from the cards available, but just because they can be made, it doesn’t mean that they should be made. The fewer cards in your combo, the better it will likely be. These decks are often comprised of 4 of each of the cards which make the combo work, a ton of search effects to ensure that you’ll get those cards, one or more “game winners” and 24-26 lands. Sideboards are often comprised of control haters and massive creature removal, or conversely, packed with 15 creatures so that you can change tactics against counterspell-heavy control decks.
The second kind of deck is the easiest to play with, and often the easiest to make: the aggro deck. These decks are fast, aggressive, and filled with little creatures, direct damage spells, and occasionally mana accelerators. When playing this kind of deck, you’re likely to lose against combo decks, but you should be favored to win against control decks, which often cannot get themselves established quickly enough to gain position on you. If you play a deck full of small, and occasionally insignificant creatures (think of a deck full of goblins or elves), then you want your creatures to be fast, have large attack values, and a good percentage of them should have haste. A good indicator of whether a creature is considered “good enough” is that their attack value should be equal to, or greater than the mana cost you’re paying for the creature (i.e. Jackal Pups are good because even though their ability is very bad, they have a mana cost of 1, but 2 power. They do damage very quickly, so it doesn’t matter that they can occasionally make you lose). If you want to play a deck that plays like this, it is typically created with 18-28 creatures, 12-20 “other” spells (burn spells, land destruction, creature pumping, whatever), and 20-22 lands. The idea with these decks is to win in the shortest amount of time possible.
Control decks are probably the hardest to play, and require a lot of thought in the design process. These decks will play out really slowly in the beginning of the game, and only once they achieve a dominant position will they focus on actually doing anything proactive. This kind of deck will often be blue, to take advantage of counterspells and card drawing effects, though other colors have their own versions of control decks as well. White decks will revolve around “wrath” effects, where they will destroy everything, and focus on card economy (killing your three things with my one). Red will use land destruction to limit opponent’s resources, and then cast something large and angry to try and win. Black will often focus on making the opponent lose their hand with discard effects, and kill creatures using spot removal. Green offers a lot of big Walls and mana acceleration, as well as some spot removal, though typically, this is not the best color for control decks. These decks require a lot of patience to play, and a lot of testing to build properly. It beats combo quite easily because of the heavy disruption, but can lose to aggressive decks if those decks draw well.
So, now that you have an idea of the different types of decks which commonly win, you’ll want to focus on one AND ONLY ONE while building your deck. As cool as it would be to play an aggressive deck with counterspells, even experts find these decks few and far between. As you progress in deck building ability, feel free to experiment, but for now, stick to the basics.
Lets look at an example I’ve concocted: Timmy wants to make a new deck. We’ll follow his decision process from start to finish.
The first thing Timmy does is go on his computer and find the most popular decks on the internet. He analyses them, and notices that there are a lot of two-color counterspell control decks, a fairly slow aggro deck revolving around large creatures, and one combo deck that seem to be winning a lot (We’ll discuss analysis procedures a little later). From this, he thinks that a control deck focusing on land destruction might work well, because he can use land destruction to limit resources of the two-color decks, which should also substantially disrupt the combo deck and slow aggro deck as well. Since fast aggro decks are few and far between in this invented format, our control deck will not have that much hate directed towards it.
Once Timmy knows the idea for his deck, choosing cards that fit is the next difficult step. For small collections, I recommend focusing on a color or two, and first separating your cards based on which could fit in a certain deck type, and which do not. Then you can eliminate further by taking away the bad and sub par cards. I recommend doing these steps in this order because often times, players assume cards are bad, not realizing how well they could fit in to the strategy of a deck. Missing out on good possibilities like this will mean that your deck’s strategies are compromised, and then the whole process is for naught.
For our example, Timmy is going to immediately notice that White and blue have very few land destruction spells, while red has many, and both green and black have one or two spells which might be useful. He will then focus on making a mono-red deck, and will see later if he needs to fork off depending on card choices.
In picking which cards make the grade, also consider quantity. A land destruction deck should, obviously, contain lots of land destruction, so four Stone Rain (“Destroy Target Land” 2R, Sorcery) should definitely be included. Does Timmy need to have 4 Rorix (“6/5 Flying, Haste, 3RRR Creature)? This card is devastating, but expensive to cast, so the answer is probably no, but two or three would work well as game winners.
If you don’t have enough cards in one color to make your deck work, this is where you’d want to branch off into two colors. Typically, any more than two colors is not going to work well, though four and five color decks have been known to win. However, those decks using more than two colors are often using heavy amount of color-fixers (lands or creatures which create mana of more than one color), and are something that a beginner should avoid, mostly because these cards can be very expensive. Because of this, you’ll want to limit yourself to two colors at a maximum, remembering that one color decks often times are more limited in scope, but more powerful. The second color choice can do one of three things: add a new dimension to your deck, follow the same path as your original idea, or improve the functioning of your original idea.
Let’s assume that Timmy has found 28 spells which he thinks might make the grade in Red, so he decides to look into other colors. Green and black are his best choices, so he would follow the same process with each of those colors, separating his control from his combo and aggressive, and his good from his bad. At this point, Timmy notices that he has two paths for his land destruction deck. Green improves the functioning, giving him access to mana acceleration, spot removal for enchantments, and some additional big creatures he can win with. Black will add a new dimension, because most of Black’s control cards involve destroying creatures and making opponents discarding cards. Since Red has burn spells which can kill creatures, and since the objective of the deck is to limit the number of cards an opponent can play by destroying the methods of production, black seems to support roles that are already fulfilled by the red. Green makes most of the red cards inherently better because of the mana acceleration, and adds a few new sideboard options as well which make up for some of the disadvantages for red. In the end, he decides that his deck should do one thing well instead of two things poorly (a good decision for most control decks), and opts for green.
Ah, the final step. Once the cards are chosen a cutting process usually needs to take place to remove the excess cards. In doing this, there’s a three step process. Step one: In all decks, make sure that you have a lot of spells with low mana costs. You’ll need to do something while getting your pieces in place, and this is especially true in control decks. I’ve noticed that a lot of players focus so much on making the deck strategically cohesive, but neglect that it needs to do something else as well. Step two: Achieve a balance in your deck. You need to kill creatures to ensure that you can live to cast your game winners, and you need to remove permanents that slip in under your counterspell shields. For aggro decks, find a cheap way to remove their blockers to clear the way for your own creatures. Step three: 60 or 61 cards are the most that should be in your deck. Period. I’ve always been a fan of 61, including 60 cards that I knew I wanted, and then adding one extra land, but 60 is the minimum and should also be considered the maximum. You want to ensure that you are only playing the absolute best cards. If you find yourself with more than 10 extra cards that you want to include, look to make sure cut some of your strategic cards in order to balance out the effects, but make sure that your deck remains specialized enough to maintain it’s strategy. In a land destruction deck, this means that Timmy is going to include 14-18 cards that destroy lands, 4-10 cards that will win the game, 22-24 lands, and 12-18 other cards (i.e. burn spells, mana accelerators, or other removal effects).
Now that Timmy has picked out the cards he thinks he can use, he needs to make a final cut. He looks at his deck, and sees that he has a lot of cards which cost three mana, and not a lot which cost one, so he cuts some of his three mana spells, which includes a few land destruction cards. The loss is not so significant, because even though his deck doesn’t kill lands as effectively, cutting the other cards would have resulted in a very slow deck which didn’t have a lot of options for killing creatures.
The number of lands affects how many cards your main deck is going to be able to keep in your deck. I suggest that Aggro decks play with very few lands (20-22) because after you play your third land, you shouldn’t need any more aside for a few cards which will require four or more. Every land you draw at that point is a dead card. For control decks, I like 24-26 lands. The idea there is that you want to play a land every turn because the more lands you have, the more spells you can play later on. In that situation, lands are never dead, so the more you draw, the better position you are likely to be in.
For multiple color decks, a simple formula is usable to calculate the number of lands of each color that you’ll want to include. First, subtract the number of lands which you have that produce both colors from your total to get your “total lands amount” (for example, if you play red/green, want 23 lands and have 2 Karplusan Forest, you’d have a “total lands amount” of 21). Next, add up the amount of colored mana symbols which your spells require (Stone rain would add one to the total of red mana because it requires one red mana. Rorix would add three to the red total, because he requires three red mana). Create a fraction of the total mana costs one color of mana over the other, and simplify it. This is the ratio of lands of each color that you want to include.
Timmy decides that a high amount of land is correct, and selects 23 lands. Because he is playing green, and has included a few cards which tap for mana, these reduce the number of lands that need to be played. Using this breakdown, Timmy’s deck still plays the recommended high level of lands, but doesn’t overdo it. He counts up his mana symbols and finds that he has a total of 28 red mana symbols, and 14 Green mana symbols. 28/14 is the same as 2/1, so Timmy decides that he should put two mountains in for every forest he includes. Filling out his 23 “total Land amount”, this means that he’d have 15-16 Mountains and 7-8 Forests. The final numerical decision in this case is completely up to the player.
Now that the deck is basically complete, give it a dry run. Shuffle it up, and deal out some pretend starting hands to yourself. If it looks good, give it a try in a local tournament. If you did your homework, your deck should work fairly well, but don’t expect to go in and dominate. You’ll need some time to get good practice in with your deck, and often times other players will have access to cards that are just downright better than ones that you have. Don’t lose faith, and remember that playing against them is a chance to lean more and build your skills. Also don’t forget to trade with them! Once you get some more cards and some more experience, you’ll start winning tournaments all the time.