Deckbuilding for Beginners

My kids keep asking me to help them build their decks, but they don’t give me much to work with other than “I want to build an Elf deck” or “Vampire deck” or “Snake deck” or whatever other tribal possibility has struck their recent fancy. However, they don’t ever bring me any actual pile of cards or half-constructed deck or much of anything else do anything with, so I typically wind up just giving them general deck-building advice and sending them on their way. So, in an effort to stop repeating myself over and over again, I wrote them a general guide to deckbuilding, which I present to you now!

Deckbuilding 101

There are many things to consider when building a constructed, 60-card deck for Magic: the Gathering. First and foremost, your deck must have a plan for how it is going to win. Your deck should have ways to protect those win conditions. You may want to have answers to your opponent’s cards. And you need to be able to actually cast your spells (your mana base).

Let’s begin with the basics: your deck must have at least 60 cards, and can only have 4 of any individual card except basic lands.

Planning to Win

What is your deck’s game plan? I’ll use my decks as examples. Mono-black vampires seeks to disrupts the opponent’s hand early in the game, control the board with removal spells, use morbid triggers to get strong effects out of cards like Tragic Slip, and land powerful creatures to end the game quickly.

American Dream, on the other hand, seeks to abuse two different effects: Liquimetal Coating turns any permanent into an artifact, which can then be destroyed with cheap artifact destruction. Those spells are able to be used again and again by blinking an Archaeomancer, until a flight of Drake tokens can hit overhead for the win.

Black & Red Zombies abuses the combination of sacrifice outlets, token generators, and Blood Artist.

Green & White Humans and Werewolves simply seeks to play a lot of dudes, pump them, and swing in for the win with powerful Soulbond effects.

Five-Color-Goodstuff wants to ramp up, clog up the board, get access to all five colors, abuse blinking and enters-the-battlefield triggers and have plenty of card-draw, and then play any number of unexpected, super-powerful spells.

One thing all these decks have in common is that they have powerful synergies, and they are generally capable of controlling them. For example, in the Blood Artist deck, I’m not waiting for the opponent to kill my creatures to trigger the Blood Artist; I do it myself, and frequently.

Another example of this would be an ability like Landfall. If you build around creatures and effects that trigger off Landfall, make sure you can play more than one land per turn, and preferably whenever you want. Cards like Evolving Wilds enable this kind of strategy.

Good decks are often, and ought to be, more than just a bunch of good creatures, spells and lands. I’m about to start giving you some numbers to guide your deck-building. These are all approximate and by no means are they set in stone, but they should give you a solid base to start tweaking from.

Mana Curve

Different spells have different mana costs. The idea behind a Mana Curve is that you generally want a decent number of spells in your deck that each cost 1, 2 and 3 mana, with a smattering of more expensive, powerful spells that should typically turn the game dramatically in your favor or allow you to win outright. 1, 2 and 3 mana spells are important because they allow you to have things to do during the critical first few turns of the game, to establish a board presence, or get an aggressive start.

The principle behind this is fairly simple: the player who makes the most of their available mana over the course of the game has a much greater chance of winning the game. In the early game, this is often whoever can play a card each turn. If you can play a 1-drop on turn 1, a 2-drop on turn 2, and a 3-drop on turn 3, you will be far ahead of an opponent who may have missed a land drop or had no turn 1 or 2 play.

Some Numbers

Find the cards to build your strategy around. As a starting guideline, you’re looking at 36 spells and creatures to go along with 24 lands. Make 24 of those spells and creatures focused on your primary strategy.

What about the other twelve spells and/or creatures? Reserve these slots for answers and support. What goes here will depend largely on what colors you’re using and what your strategy needs.


For example, if you are running a basic red and green stompy deck, and your primary objective is to ramp to big creatures and smash face, you’re going to usually be weak against fliers and have trouble dealing with your opponent’s larger creatures, artifacts, and enchantments. Fortunately, green and red are quite good at getting rid of artifacts, and green can destroy enchantments and fliers easily. Red’s plethora of burn spells can be used to clear the path for your big green beaters, and green’s mana ramping can enable you to take over the skies with big dragons. Whatever your strategy, it helps to have ways to deal with the roadblocks your opponent will invariably put in your way.

Each of the five colors has different strengths, as far as answers are concerned.

White can deal with most permanents, although often its answers are situational or temporary. “Destroy target attacking creature” is an example of a situational spell, and cards like Oblivion Ring and Fiend Hunter exile cards only so long as they are still on the battlefield.

Blue’s method of dealing with problems is usually pre-emptive, through the use of counterspells, or by bouncing the card in question back to its owner’s hand with a card like Unsummon.

Black has the most access to creature destruction spells, though it can’t interact with enchantments very well. Cards like Doom Blade and Murder are the most direct.

Red has access to cheap artifact destruction, and likes to destroy creatures with direct damage spells and effects, such as Lightning Bolt and Cunning Sparkmage.

Green can take out enchantments and creatures with flying quite easily with cheap cards like Naturalize and Plummet.

These are just some basics. Keep in mind also that in older Magic sets, the abilities each color had access to were still in flux; white had access to cheap and easy artifact destruction, and Swords to Plowshares is one of the best removal spells in the Legacy format. Sets like “Time Spiral” experimented with colors having access to spells and creatures typically reserved to other colors. “Brute Strength” is an example of this, being a “Giant Growth” for red.

It helps if your situational “answer” cards also promote your primary strategy, but this is not always a possibility.

I would start by having twelve cards devoted to being answers to various problems you may anticipate. This part of your deck is likely to be the most in-flux, as you change cards around to have better answers to the decks you play against the most.

Like I stated before, the numbers for your deck aren’t set in stone and will likely be different than the 24 land, 24 strategy, 12 answers breakdown, but it is a good starting point. You may find that you want more support for your primary strategy. You may find that you want more answers (especially if your strategy is to just have answers until you find your win condition!).

Mana Base

Some people consider the mana base to be the most boring part of a Magic deck, and while it’s not flashy, it is what enables you to cast your spells in the first place, so it’s incredibly important!

If you are relatively new to the game, or if you don’t have access to a lot of multi-color lands, you probably want to stick to decks containing only two of the five colors. Single-color decks will be (obviously) the most consistent, mana-wise, but often don’t have enough versatile answers to deal with more varied decks.

I said earlier to start with 24 lands as your mana base. This number will be more or less depending on what your deck is trying to do. “Control” decks often want 26 or even 27 land to ensure that they draw mana consistently through the game and have access to enough mana for counterspells and other permission before landing a major threat. Faster aggro decks, with lots of cheap creatures and cheap pumping effects, can often get away with as little as 20 land.

A very important thing to consider when building your mana base is the ratio of cards in each of your colors. This should influence the number of each type of land you include.

Another important factor to consider both when building your deck and when assembling your mana base is the casting costs of your spells. If you have a lot of spells with double color casting cost requirements, such as Vampire Nighthawk’s 1BB (B is for Black mana) or Archaeomancer’s 2UU (U is for Blue mana), those spells will be more difficult to cast “on time” in a multi-colored deck. Sometimes you’ll have more of one color and only one land in the color you need. I try to play a lot of spells that have only a single colored mana in their casting cost. If you are “splashing” a third color into your deck, any cards you’re playing in that third color should almost always have only a single colored mana requirement (“Splashing” means to add a few lands and a few spells of another color to the deck to have access to certain effects). This is why a card like Thragtusk is everywhere in the current Standard environment; the single green mana in his 4G casting cost makes it very easy to splash green just for that card one card.

There are no hard and fast rules on how exactly to build a mana base for any given deck. When Magic first came out, the general deck-building guideline was “20 land, 20 spells, and 20 creatures”. Things have changed quite a bit since then. Some decks run 20 lands and 40 creatures! Some others run 27 lands and 33 spells and no creatures. The possiblities are endless.

Building a consistent, powerful deck is not terribly difficult; it’s also possible to do on a budget. You don’t have to have all the best, most expensive cards to put together a strong deck with excellent synergy. Have fun and play as much as you can!

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