Behind the Brews: A Guide to Off-Meta Deck Building

Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge Art by Chase Stone
Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge Art by Chase Stone

Everybody loves to play and make off the wall decks, right? But what feels even better than casting some crazy card your opponent has to read? Actually winning the game with whatever spicy concoction we’ve cooked up. So, today I’ve decided to take you behind the scenes of what goes into building the decks I design for my friends and I, and how we look to make them as competitive as possible. So buckle in buckaroos, because we’re going deep into deckbuilding theory today!

Starting Points

I’ll begin with this; there is a difference between brewing an entirely new deck and tuning something that already exists. The nature of brewing implies that most of our decks will not be as inherently powerful as established top tier meta decks. Such is life for those of us who prefer the spice. However, this does not mean that we have to just play garbage and finish low on the ladder every season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to brew decks that can compete with the established decks that surround them.

I like to begin my deckbuilding by taking a look at the meta’s most powerful decks and analyzing what it is that makes them powerful. In other words, I try to find what strategies, synergies, or individual cards they employ that allow them to command such a powerful position. Then, I have to keep those in mind when crafting my deck to ensure that I am doing something powerful or degenerate enough to keep up with what those decks are doing. If I fail to do so, then I must accept that my deck is just worse than what is good at the moment. Sometimes this is fine if we’re just brewing some nonsense, for the record.

An example of this process today would be to take a look at a deck like Mono Red Aggro and see what makes them strong. They have ways to begin the clock right on turn one with powerful one drops like Fervent Champion and Scorch Spitter, keep it going on the next few turns with things like Runaway Steam Kin and Anax, Hardened in the Forge, and close the game with huge bombs in Embercleave and Torbran. The power of the deck lies in its speed, but it’s also surprisingly resilient and has a couple sneaky combos with things like Steam Kin mana and Anax/Embercleave. Now, if we were crafting an aggro deck, it would be important that our deck can both compete with similar efficiency to Mono Red, and be noticeably different in what it can do. Failing to do this will just make us a ‘worse’ version of Mono Red itself.

For step two, I find a starting point which I can build the foundation around. These starting points can be many different things, from a deck strategy in a previous standard to just picking a card I like the look of. I often find myself brewing around a card I just want to play with, as is evidenced in my many piles I have produced on Arena around Prime Speaker Vannifar. Sometimes I even go through every single card in standard, just looking for something I feel other people may have missed or may line up well in a certain meta. Maybe a combo, or just a sweet card that could line up well against top decks. However I find it, I always make sure my deck has an identity before I begin. This is crucial to not just crafting another mediocre midrange deck that loses to any decent draw. (And believe me, I’ve made plenty of those). Take my recent solar flare deck, the deck shares a ton of cards with any old esper control list, but the reanimation targets and spells give it its identity. That’s what should make your brew feel special to you.

Forming the Core

I call this next step forming the core because any large archetype is usually considered to have a main ‘core’ of the deck that is agreed upon by its players for the most part as the cards you cannot change from the deck when a deck is completed. Throughout your building and testing process, nearly every card should be considered changeable until proven otherwise in testing, but you should at least have an idea of what will make up the core. This is usually something like 50-56 of the cards (when finished), leaving a few slots as ‘flex’ picks that individual players can decide for their preference or meta. While your new spicy deck may not have other people out playing it and giving input, you should ensure you have a core as well, consisting of the cards you consistently want to see in your games that allow your deck to do its thing consistently, or for your games to play smoothly. 

An easy way to begin your core is with your color choice’s most powerful and popular cards. Take my recent brew for example again; I may not have been just any old esper control deck, but I was in the colors so I chose to play many of the most popular cards like Teferi, Time Raveler, Thought Erasure, and Shatter the Sky. Cards like this began my core, and should begin yours as well. Try not to fall into the trap of wanting to be off-meta so badly that you don’t play any good cards. I view it like this: in order to really blow my opponents mind with something crazy like a reanimated Vilis, Broker of Blood, I have to use things like Teferi and Shatter the Sky to make it that far. In other words, you don’t want to just make some red creature deck and not include Embercleave to really blow people’s minds, because the only thing you’ll be blowing is your rank. 

The other cards that make up your core will of course be whatever the engine is behind your brew. I can’t really tell you what you should play here because this is the part you should know. Again, to reference my last brew, I knew right away when I wanted to reanimate that I would need three things for sure: a way to discard cards, reanimation spells, and big things to reanimate. Once you have your idea forming, this is the part that should come easily. In most cases, these cards will be vital to your strategy and should be jammed into the deck in 4-8 ofs if redundant/similar cards are available.

The Flex

I like to think of the flex slots as a mini sideboard that we get to maindeck; this is especially important for playing best of one on Arena due to not having access to sideboards. Flex slots should be filled with cards that are great against matchups you expect to run up against (so again, Mono Red if you like best of one ranked), but are not dead in other common matchups. These can be cards like removal, discard spells, card draw spells, or sometimes spicy inclusions for certain matchups. If you’re looking to brew for this meta I would definitely lean on cheap removal and discard effects if they are available in your colors.

The Manabase

I prefer to build my manabase at the end of my deckbuilding process. Well, kind of. Towards the beginning, I decide how many lands I want, but it’s not until the end that I decide specifically which lands I want to include. There are all kinds of formulae theorising how many of each mana symbol you need and such, but as there’s already a multitude of information on that around, I won’t get into it in this article. Here is a very in-depth look at how to construct your manabase to maximum efficiency. There are also the Eldraine Castles and such to consider when building in today’s standard.

A big trap I see people fall into in deckbuilding is cutting lands when they have too many cards they want to play. Absolutely do not do this. Your deck can have the coolest design or play pattern ever, but it won’t look very cool when you are stuck on two lands getting beat down. Follow traditional land patterns for whatever kind of deck (Control, Midrange, Aggro, Combo) you are building, at least to start. Jump deeper into the calculations given in the above article before cutting lands because you flooded in one or two games.

The Sideboard

The last thing to construct is the sideboard. Good news, this is usually the easiest part; sometimes, your deck can have some sideboard cards that are specific to it (i.e. Artifacts that act as hate in certain matchups in an artifact deck), but for the most part you can just start with the sideboard cards people typically play in your colors. How many of each you play, however, is the more thoughtful part of this process. After some testing, you will start to know which matchups you are strong and weak in. The general line of thought is more cards in the sideboard for bad matchups, as long as the cards substantially increase your chance to win them. Some of the best sideboard cards right now include Aether Gust, Fry, Duress, and Mystical Dispute. Another good place to find what people are playing in their sideboards in the most up to date fashion is right here on this very website. That’s right fellas, shameless plug. Just try to make sure that you don’t play any popular cards that don’t fit well into your deck. (Like sideboarding Hushbringer in a deck full of Enter the Battlefield effects)

Never Stop Brewing

Refining and adjusting your brew is as important as coming up with it. A deck is very rarely ‘solved’. As the metagame shifts, sets rotate, and new cards are found; it’s difficult to say you have the best version of a deck, or that the best version hasn’t changed as new faces claim the top spots. You can optimise for your local tournament, for laddering on Arena, or as we frequently see, for one pro tournament. As you brew a deck, if you are serious about playing it, it will go through many variations; you should be constantly evaluating which cards are pulling their weight and which aren’t in each matchup and as a whole. This is why I like to keep a list of cards that almost made the cut, so I can consider adding them if some cards don’t work out. 

Taking notes on matches can be helpful as well, noting which cards you’re really looking for to secure a win against each deck. You will have bad matchups. That does not mean its time to scrap a deck idea as a whole; at worst, you can always put a design on the shelf and wait for a time when your bad matchups are less prevalent. I swear that’s what I’m doing with my 30 decks named New Deck (1-30) on Arena that didn’t work out. Some ideas just never come together how you thought they would, and that’s ok too. Brewing decks is for those who enjoy the process of building just as much as playing, and as long as MTG exists, I’ll be championing the spice.

See you all soon with this week’s brew! Until then,

Dodgy

CallMeDodgy

CallMeDodgy

My name is Jay Wiley and I began playing Magic in Scars of Mirrodin, taking to competitive formats immediately. I have mythic finishes, as well as top 8s and wins in paper tournaments with 100+ players. My Theros Game Day Champion playmat is my prized possession.

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HsC
HsC
4 months ago

Thanks for the guide. As one of those people who tries to find alternative to simple netdecking i found this helpful.