Required Reading: The Deckbuilder’s Doctrine Part 1
Hello everyone! I’ve been playing Magic for a reasonably long time (9 years now), and something that always surprised me was how little content there was for how to properly construct decks. There can be small tidbits here and there: how many colored sources you need, the right amount of creatures for Collected Company etc, and those are helpful, but they don’t fully encompass how to properly build a deck from the ground up. Let me predicate this by saying that this particular article this is going to revolve around general deckbuilding theory, and not dive super deep into the particular archetypes yet. I will follow up in the future with detailed breakdowns of each archetype.
Despite my lack of knowledge, I still forged onward, intent on breaking the meta at every turn, and my results were, shall we say, inconsistent. Ok, maybe most of my decks sucked, fine. However, I had some moments of clarity. The first moment I had an inkling that I may be a good deck builder was when I built the RTR/Innistrad Abzan Rites deck two weeks prior to Brad Nelson showing up to an SCG with it and crushing it. I’m not saying that Brad Nelson stole my list, considering I told only one friend about it and I was a nobody, but I’m not saying that’s impossible either (I accept checks and money orders, Brad). Ever since then though, I’ve been invariably hooked on trying to create a deck as strong as that one again. I’m proud to say I’ve had my hand in several successful lists piloted by MPL member Chris Kvartek, so I was able to take those as wins. However, recently I created UB 8 Shark, which, pardon the pun, made a pretty big splash in Standard. It’s really hard to make a deck that beats Omnath, but I believe I was the closest in that endeavor without playing a single copy myself. Overall, I’ve improved colossally between making Abzan Rites purely by luck and to now where I can make powerful decks on my own and tune Chris’s as well. In that time span, I’ve likely created hundreds of lists, based on my perception of what was strong and well positioned at that current time, juxtaposed to my skill level. Again, most of them were bad, but they were improving, and I had to incur all the growing pains of learning from every cumulative mistake I made along the way. There’s an advantage to not being naturally gifted at something: you really have to understand and eternalize the lessons you accrue along the way. Thankfully, I believe the hundreds of hours I poured into misbuilding decks can now be used as a helpful guide to avoid the mistakes I made. I’ll preemptively apologize that a lot of these principles may be remedial for some of you, but I want a holistic guide that can have applicable elements for someone at any skill level. With that in mind, better sit back and relax, as this is going to be a long read.
To understand our objective as deckbuilders, let’s break down into the simplest possible terms what constitutes a good deck. In my definition, a good deck is a deck that has a powerful and consistent gameplan. Pretty simple, right? You didn’t need to read this article to find this out. However, in such a simple definition, I want to identify the two key words in the statement: powerful and consistent. As deckbuilders, these are functionally the only two areas we need to make a concerted effort to implement in our strategies, and where literally every failed list comes from when the deck can’t achieve one or both metrics. Let’s break down these terms even further.
Powerful is a rather subjective concept, as it’s generally dependent on the environment we are predicating the judgement on. As an aside, for this article I’m going to be predominantly focusing on Standard and past Standard decks to articulate my points, as that’s where my expertise lies. When we’re talking powerful, I would define that as an appreciable advantage in the strength of a card or deck compared to the other options. Before we can dive in though, we need to work on the ground level of deck construction first. This brings us to the base level of how we can construct decks: What is my deck trying to accomplish?
Every brew is generally born with a gameplan in mind and based on the rough classification of each archetype, it can be broken down into four categories: aggro decks that want to reduce their opponent’s life total to zero quickly, midrange that wants to have a malleable gameplan, control that wants to stymie your opponent’s chance of winning by using interaction and then finishing them with a powerful threat, and combo that wants to utilize certain powerful or game winning synergies together. No matter what you’re trying to build, the deck almost certainly falls into one of these 4 broad categories. Although I don’t like trying to be super strict in defining them, understanding the role your deck is trying to play can be very helpful in its proper construction.
For example, let’s take the card Venerable Knight and look at two lists from the last Standard format:
This is pretty remedial, but let’s quickly discuss why Venerable Knight works better in one deck than the other, and that will segway nicely into the next level of deck construction. In the UW Control list, Venerable Knight isn’t particularly effective. Playing it early can only really help as a blocker, since the early damage it could get in isn’t particularly important in executing the deck’s game plan. However, in the Mono White example, Venerable Knight makes considerably more sense. I’m sure implicitly you know why, but that leads into the second tenet of power in deckbuilding: What other effects do I include to execute my game plan?
In the Mono White Aggro example, Venerable Knight is backed up by a slew of other cheap, aggressive creatures and topped off with payoffs that reward you for playing cheap creatures: Unbreakable Formation and Venerated Loxodon. These cards best utilize all the advantages of Venerable Knight, as the deck likes cheap creatures for its pump spells, and since it’s an aggressive deck, the 2 power is very relevant. So let’s scale back for clarity; we’re discussing building around the card Venerable Knight, since it’s a cheap creature, and we want to utilize it in an aggressive deck. Additionally, if we can further capitalise on the fact that it’s a cheap creature by combining it with other cheap creatures and creature buffs, then we’re on the right track. This won’t always necessarily be the way to build an aggressive deck or the best way to utilize Venerable Knight, but the logic is undoubtedly there. Right now, the tenets we’ve gone over are what the deck is trying to accomplish and what other effects you need to execute the game plan. These don’t have to do with power or consistency yet, so much as they have to do with understanding the theory behind deck construction. With that in mind, let’s discuss the first part of the power equation: What are the best cards to use for the effect I am looking for?
Let’s do a silly comparison of Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Scale the Heights. Both have similar abilities: they cycle, gain life, and allow you to play an additional land for 3 mana upfront. However, Uro can also be a 6/6 creature who can do that multiple times where Scale the Heights can’t. So, if we’re looking for a ramp effect in Standard, Uro seems like a smart choice to include in the deck. Admittedly, this isn’t the best example because Uro is so powerful it should be utilized in any deck playing Blue and Green (and arguably any deck playing either color as well), but you get the gist of it. We know what we want to accomplish roughly and what effects we want to make it happen; now we have to choose the specific cards to accomplish this goal. This can get extremely tricky. Let’s take the Monowhite Aggro list for example. What’s better? Gideon Blackblade or Basri Ket? Glorious Anthem or Unbreakable Formation? Venerable Knight or Garrison Cat? Choices like these can be exhausting, but also are really where the fruits of your labor are going to shine, and they’re also the easiest way to quickly determine if a deck has legs.
Let’s make a Monored Aggro deck together, shall we? My idea for the deck is that you flood the board with as many creatures as possible and kill as quickly as possible using them. Furthermore, I want them to be as cheap as possible so I can play multiple spells before my opponent can stabilize! Not a bad idea so far. Let’s check out a Standard list:
Yeesh. So, I wanted a red deck that was aggressive and utilized cheap creatures to flood the board and get under the opponent. This technically fulfills the criteria, but then why does it suck so much? Ignore the number of lands; that’ll be covered in a different article, but a decklist doesn’t feel complete without mana. Well, we don’t have a bad strategy, it’s just that the individual cards we’re utilizing aren’t powerful nor do they synergize. Furthermore, we have no interaction and no reach to close out a game. One 3/3 just ruins our day. Lets clean this up with this in mind.
This looks way better already. The card quality has significantly improved and we stayed true to the game plan. Furthermore, we added more interactive elements to help deal with creatures and they also help for some extra reach to close out the game. However, this still doesn’t look particularly good, does it? We have a more well-rounded game plan, but we still aren’t utilizing the absolute best cards available to us. Let’s fix this one more time.
Now we’re talking! The deck is still true to the game-plan, but we’re using some of the best cards available to us in Standard in Robber of the Rich, Anax, Bonecrusher Giant, Torbran, and Embercleave. This doesn’t utilize the cheap creature aspect as heavily as others, but it’s still a much more powerful version of the deck because we are simply using better cards than before. Furthermore, when you’re utilizing more powerful cards, each card simply can go further than weaker cards. How many times has your Mono Red opponent mulled to 5, and the second you were feeling confident, they just murdered you with Embercleave? Use the most powerful options available to you and sometimes, they can carry you over the finish line. The first mistake I see a lot of players make in deck construction is that they avoid using the most powerful cards available to them. Sometimes it’s for budget reasons, preference, or they hate the idea of conforming to the meta, but no matter how you spin it, it is a less effective form of deckbuilding. However, this is the easy part of building a new deck. It’s relatively easy to think of a deck concept, find the best cards to fulfill their roles, and then make a deck. So, then why do so many brews just fail? This is because of the second part of the power equation, the concept I mentioned first with power: How does my deck and cards match up against the other decks in the meta?
So let’s use Mono Red as an example, how well does it currently line up against the other decks in the meta?
Oh no. Despite Mono Red being a reasonable deck that plays strong cards, it is a really bad time to be playing it. This is one of the largest pitfalls I constantly see in brews: the deck simply isn’t powerful enough to compete in the meta game. If you were playing the list of Mono Red up above, I wouldn’t say you’re making a bad choice, but likely a suboptimal one. The biggest issues being that your early creatures and burn spells can’t outpace an early Omnath that can gain 4 every turn, nor a Lucky Clover into a Bonecrusher. Again, this doesn’t mean the deck is bad, but it’s not powerful enough to contend with the other powerful options in Standard. This is a more nuanced issue, but many brews do not come even remotely close to the power level that Mono Red presents. The vital thing you need to take away from this section is that you need to be honest with yourself on whether or not your brew is powerful enough to compete against the expected decks. Say you do some introspection and you believe the power level is there, great! There’s a lot of decks that can make use of a slew of powerful cards, but can they execute their game plan consistently?
Whenever most players are theorycrafting around a powerful card or synergy, consistency is almost always where they get tripped up. Powerful had a pretty straight-forward definition, but consistency is a bit more abstract. Despite that, I think the most pragmatic definition is the ability to execute your gameplan often. This has a few implications inherently. Let’s go back to the Mono Red deck for example: the first list I presented lacked a significant amount of power, but it presented a high level of consistency, since it was all lands and small creatures. I would certainly be able to do my gameplan every game, but obviously it would be ineffective since the power level was way too low. However, what happens when we reach too far the other direction?
Now, this deck looks quite powerful; you have a lot of party payoff cards and a lot of creatures to fill out your party. However, I don’t think I would trick anyone into saying that this was a playable deck. The reason? The mana base is terrible. Sure, it’s populated with dual lands to make it tenable that we can cast the spells, but it’s going to be extremely challenging to do so often. This list looks ridiculous, and it is, but I can’t even begin to tell you how many brews I see that look like this, with players trying to convince others that the mana is impeccable and the game plan unbeatable. When analyzing the functionality of the deck, I tend to check the consistency of it first before the power level. In my opinion, the power level of the deck can generally be adjusted easily, but it’s very difficult to make something more consistent. Now, let’s take a look at an example that does better in both power and consistency:
This example definitely becomes more nuanced, since it was a PT list that was played by strong players. For those unaware with how this deck operates, you play a Jeskai Ascendancy with a mana creature out, and you keep using the mana created by that creature to cast spells, untap it, and grow it into a lethal attacker. I played my fair share of Ascendancy Combo back in that era as well and the deck was POWERFUL. Winning on turn 3 in Standard was a dream and was actually possible, so when you went off, you felt unbeatable. That’s the thing though, WHEN you went off, as that was the major issue of the deck. The first problem is that you were a 4 color strategy, and although the mana base could technically support it, the amount of taplands and painlands required to do so put you at a natural disadvantage against any deck looking to close the game quickly. This is a stark contrast to the party deck which would fundamentally struggle with casting its spells.
An additional issue with this deck is that, beyond just naturally drawing your Jeskai Ascendancy, you only had 6 ways to filter through your deck in the early game: Commune with the Gods and Taigam’s Scheming. Dig Through Time was amazing, but it generally took a few turns to get online, barring you didn’t Commune first. This brings us to the second part of deck consistency: can the deck execute its game plan often? Generally, combo decks will be the ones most likely to run into this issue, as people are obsessed with trying to get a combo to work but don’t consider how often they reasonably can do it.
Another instance of where consistency can be an issue is with Control decks. If we define consistency as the ability to execute the deck’s game plan consistently, we can extrapolate that to also mean that if control cannot properly contain your opponent’s threats, it’s not a consistent deck. For example, say you queue up with 8 Shark, a control deck that is packed to the brim answers to creatures, and constantly face noncreature-based strategies. In all likelihood, you would keep losing because the deck isn’t designed to deal with those types of strategies. If your deck’s general gameplan does not function in a particular metagame, your deck is not consistent. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be inconsistent or it’s misbuilt, but at that moment it is. For more examples, we can go back to the Mono Red game plan where we’re trying to play a bunch of cheap creatures and spells in order to get the opponent down to zero ASAP. If you consistently run into strategies that can endlessly and easily stymie your ability to execute this game plan, your deck is not consistent. This is a very similar principle to the second part of the power equation (how does my deck and cards match up against the other decks in the meta), but I believe the distinction is important. For Mono Red versus Omnath (and earlier in the metagame, Uro as well), the cards weren’t powerful enough to contest with the power level of Omnath and Uro. With the 8 Shark example, it’s not that you aren’t playing powerful enough cards, you’re playing the wrong cards. The cards you are playing do not allow you to execute your perceived game plan, which again, contrasts with Mono Red not having another option to audible into. You likely can’t replace Embercleave with a more powerful option to solve the Omnath problem, but you can interchange an Essence Scatter for a Negate. You’re probably wondering, why are we nitpicking with definitions here? Well that’s easy, it’s because you should play a deck that’s powerful and consistent. Functionally, every Magic player, including myself, can easily be swayed by their emotions and biases to convince themselves that the deck they like is correct to play. We’ve all been there, but you have to do your best to avoid that pitfall.
COMBINING IT ALL
Let’s take a real world example I’ve been asked about a lot recently. I’ve seen a lot of people ask about the idea of combining Peer into the Abyss and Underworld Dreams. Although that is a combination of cards that’ll almost always provide lethal results, there’s a lot of issues with going about that. First, the power level of the combo is low. That statement seems antithetical to what I just said, considering if you resolve both spells, you do win the game; however, both spells by themselves are terrible. Neither card does anything for your prospective game plan by itself. Furthermore, both cards are extremely difficult to cast, impacting the consistency of your deck. Underworld Dreams is only 3 mana, but it’s triple black while Peer Into the Abyss is a 7 drop. In order to make this combo consistent, you would have to be a monoblack deck or functionally a monoblack deck. This does not lend well to executing the combo game plan and leaves you vulnerable to an open metagame. Hypothetically, if you could construct a deck that could include Underworld Dreams and Peer into the Abyss, and not be preyed upon by the uncertainty of the open meta, then you would certainly just have a better deck if you nixed the combo element from it and went with a more tenable gameplan.
Overall, this entire article is trying to get across that you should play a deck that is powerful and consistent if you care about winning. If your deck is unable to execute its game plan consistently, it’s not a good deck. That could be because it’s misbuilt or poorly positioned. Additionally, it could be that it’s neither misbuilt or poorly positioned, but the card quality is simply too low, or a combination of all three of those. As I said in my first Required Reading, everything in Magic revolves around, and can be distilled down into game plans. Every deck you build or play has to have a central game plan in mind; it can be malleable, but at no point can it be absent. If you cannot execute the game plan, the deck is not doing its job (this obviously excludes mistakes from pilots making the deck look worse than it is). The next deck you build or steal from a popular streamer, like DoggertQBones (who may or may not be me…), ensure that the deck is both consistent and powerful using the overall criteria I have laid out.
This section will provide helpful tips for building your next deck and as a wrap-up for the guide.
- Make sure your manabase can realistically support your deck. I’ve seen Llanowar Elf decks with 6 turn 1 untapped Green sources, and Cat decks which played 12 Black 1 drop spells playing 7 turn 1 untapped Black sources. If you build manabases like that, you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure. The rule of thumb I use is that if you constantly need to cast a spell turn 1, you ideally have 12-13 untapped sources of that color.
- Power levels can wax and wane within a metagame. This is particularly endemic to decks that dominate week 1 then quickly fall off afterwards. What is powerful at one point may not always be powerful. Furthermore, what may be consistent at one point (in terms of meta positioning) won’t always be consistent.
- Don’t be afraid to adapt. If you feel like the deck you’re working on is on the cusp of playability, you don’t have to drop it. Tinker with some card selections until it either works or you’ve exhausted all your reasonable resources.
- This isn’t a hard rule, but a nice guideline: play 4 copies if you want the highest likelihood of drawing a card and can risk drawing multiples, play 3 if you want to have a high chance of drawing a card while also decreasing the odds of drawing multiples, play 2 if you want the card only sometimes or you’re happy to draw the first copy but definitely don’t want a second, and play 1 if it’s extremely situational, you literally cannot afford to draw multiples, or if it’s a tutor target.
- Brewing is difficult and it’s ok to get it wrong a lot. Don’t be afraid to be wrong – be afraid to be confidently incorrect!
That’s about all I have for today! This was the general form of the Deckbuilder’s Guide and I’m planning on doing a smaller series for how to construct each type of deck as well, for future Required Readings! If you like this content and want to support me on another platform, I am also a Twitch streamer. Have a great day!