Last updated on October 28, 2022
Stoic Builder | Illustration by Howard Lyon
One of Magic’s biggest strengths is its incredible diversity of deckbuilding options. Five colors (and therefore 32 potential color combinations), 8 card types, and over 23,000 different cards offer countless possibilities for any deck you build.
Choosing which cards to put in your deck can be a daunting task for any Magic player, especially if you’re new to the game. Today I’ll go through the process of building a deck from scratch, outlining what steps you should follow to make your next deck a success.
Ready? Let’s get into it!
Step One: Have a Plan
Contentious Plan | Illustration by Eric Deschamps
Countless people have asked me how to build a deck during my years working at a game store. The first step to deckbuilding is always to have a plan.
Odds are you already have a cool idea in mind, but no sense of direction. Deciding on your deck’s strategy will determine what cards you pick, what your land base will look like, and what colors you play.
There are a few other kinds of strategies than the ones I’m going to cover, but they’re the main four that you’ll see. You may have a mechanic you like, a tribe, or even just a cool card that you think is worth building around when you start your deckbuilding journey.
For example, you may be a fan of the recent Innistrad sets and want to build a vampire deck. “Vampire deck” is too broad of an idea to know how to build. Instead, look at the vampire cards available and figure out what kind of strategy they’d lend themselves to. You could play an aggro deck with the cheaper and more aggressive vampires, or you could play some of the more expensive creatures and end up with a midrange deck. The rest of your deck will fall into place once you have your plan.
Now, let’s go over the four most popular strategies in Magic and how they work.
Aggressive strategies are generally straightforward, both from a deckbuilding and gameplay standpoint. Aggro decks win games early by attacking with efficient creatures.
A typical aggro deck will fun fewer lands than other decks, sometimes getting away with 18 instead of the usual 22 to 24. They play mostly creatures, usually around 25 to 30. Any noncreature spells you play have to directly benefit the aggressive strategy, either by removing blockers from the board, buffing your creatures, or protecting your creatures from removal spells. More colors often slow the deck down since they need lands that enter the battlefield tapped.
For a sample decklist we’re looking at a Standard “white weenie” deck that took MTGO user il_matagatto to the Top 16 of a recent Standard Challenge event.
Control strategies are the polar opposite of aggro. Instead of attacking the opponent as quickly as possible, control decks play the game by preventing the opponent’s deck from winning. They use removal and counterspells to interact with the opponent’s strategy and eventually win using more powerful creatures or planeswalkers.
Control decks use a variety of colors to answer different kinds of threats thanks to their slow nature. They also require you to play lands nearly every turn, so they often play more than other decks, sometimes as many as 26 to 28. You only need a few cards that actually win the game and the rest of the deck should be made up of removal, draw, and counterspells.
Deserted Beach x2
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
Field of Ruin x3
Glacial Fortress x4
Hall of Storm Giants
Hallowed Fountain x4
Irrigated Farmland x4
Otawara, Soaring City
Midrange strategies bridge the gap between aggro and control. A good midrange deck can be fast and aggressive against control decks while also being able to play a more controlling game against aggro decks.
The key to a good midrange deck is finding the proper balance between powerful and efficient creatures, a variety of removal spells to deal with whatever threats you might face, and ways to gain card advantage to put you ahead on cards. You usually want around 24 to 26 lands because you’ll want to hit your land drops often.
We’re now going to look at a Modern sample decklist. This deck took a certain player (their name was omitted) to second place at a Dreamhack $10k. It’s called “Jund Sagavan” and is basically a classic Jund () midrange deck enhanced with Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Urza’s Saga.
Combo decks win the game by assembling some combination of two or three cards, or a sequence of several cards that win you the game automatically. The rest of the deck usually runs cards that help you draw into or search the cards you need along with some ways to protect your combo once you’re able to “go off.”
For this sample deck we’re going to go back in time to 2011 to look at one of the most famous combo decks in Magic’s history: Splinter Twin. It’s a fairly simple list that looks to combine Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite with Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to make infinite tokens with haste. The deck plays mostly draw spells to find its combo pieces and counterspells to protect it when you go off.
Step Two: Decide on Your Colors
Golos, Tireless Pilgrim | Illustration by Joseph Meehan
Now that you have a game plan you can make other key decisions, like what colors will you run? If we go back to the vampire example from before, it’s clear that you’ll probably be black and red given that vampires appear most in these two colors.
But, wait, shouldn’t you do this before deciding on a plan? Actually, no. The game plan you choose will likely influence what colors you want to be. The more colors your deck is, the slower it tends to get. So if your plan is to be an aggressive deck then you probably want to restrict the number of colors you use.
When deciding on your colors, consider how your mana will look. This is of particular importance in Standard given that dual lands and mana rocks rotate every year. Aggro decks need to be able to play spells every turn of the game and can’t take turns off to play lands that enter the battlefield tapped. Lands like the Kaladesh fast lands, the Pathways, and the Ravnica shock lands have all helped enable multicolor aggro decks.
In older formats you have access to as many of these lands as you want, along with the fetch lands that dominate Modern and Legacy, but maybe you have your budget to consider. If your budget is a concern then it can definitely be useful to stick to fewer colors so that you don’t need quite so many expensive dual lands to make your deck come together.
Step Three: Do Your Research
Compulsive Research | Illustration by Sara Winters
You know your theme, your game plan, and your colors. You can now start looking into the cards themselves. You’ve probably got a few cards in mind already, but you need to really fill out the rest of your list.
There are a few easy ways to research cards to add to your deck if you don’t know a lot of cards, the first of which is very simple: talk to your friends. Whether you have friends who play Magic with you or just the awesome people down at your local game store, talking to other people about your deck is bound to help you out. The most important part of getting better as a Magic player is talking to other players and learning from their experiences.
You can also do some effective research online, which is probably something you’re happy to do since you’re already reading this. Even if you can’t find any other decks as a reference you can use ScryFall or Gatherer to search for cards.
Let’s say you really like Bard Class (maybe you even play a bard in your local D&D game), so you want to build a deck around it. You’ve decided to build an aggro deck and stick to just red and green. Using these databases to search for all red and green legends available for the format you’re building in will go a long way towards helping you figure out how to build your deck.
Looking at decklists online can also help you out. Let’s go back to the vampire example from earlier. If you like the idea of adding blue to your vampire deck, then you’re in luck! Grixis () vampires is currently one of the best decks in Standard, with Mike Sigrist even making the top 8 of the Streets of New Capenna Set Championship with this deck. Even if you don’t like parts of those lists or don’t think they work for you, they can at the very least give you some ideas.
Step Four: Deciding Card Quantities
Counterbalance | Illustration by Joseph Meehan
Looking at competitive decklists and seeing all sorts of different card quantities can look really strange for a lot of new players. You might ask, “if you want this card in your deck, why not just run four copies?” In many cases you’re right, but let’s run through a basic example of why this probably won’t work.
You may decide that your aggro white deck can afford to run nine 1-drop creatures and there are three good options. That means that the best one should probably be a 4-of and you want a 4-1 or 3-2 split of the other two.
Similarly, you may decide that your control deck needs four 2-drop removal spells, so if your only option is Fateful Absence then you can just run four of it and be happy. But if you’re a black control deck and you have a choice between Heartless Act and Eliminate, then you should probably run both since they’re good at hitting different threats.
As one final point, the number of a cards in your deck should generally be decided by how often you want to see said card. If a card is truly integral to how your deck functions, it needs to be a full playset. But if you don’t want to be seeing it in every matchup, you can cut it down to a single copy.
There are a lot of intricacies to card quantities that you’ll only learn from experience. If you’re unsure why a deck only runs one, two, or three copies of a certain card, try asking a friend to see if you can figure it out together.
Step Five: The Mana Curve
Manabarbs | Illustration by Jeff Miracola
Your mana curve is one of the most important aspects of your deck. If your curve is way off what it should be then your deck will become inconsistent and you’ll lose games to bad draws more often.
But I suppose there’s one question I should address first…
What is a Mana Curve?
This is probably a question I could spend a whole article discussing, so let me give you the broad strokes. A deck’s mana curve is basically a term used to describe the distribution of your deck’s mana values. You should notice a curve if you sort your deck by mana value and lay all of the cards out in front of you with one pile for each mana value. The number of cards at each cost starts low, then increases, and then goes down as the mana costs increase.
Let me give you an example:
This deck in particular has two free spells, seven 1-drops, 14 2-drops, 13 3-drops, and so on. The numbers start low before increasing to a peak over the 2- and 3-mana spots, after which it trails off. If you create a simple chart of these mana values, you get this:
This graph is literally my deck’s mana curve. You can see the curve peaking up at the 2- and 3-mana points before trailing off as the mana values increase. This is generally how you want your mana curve to look. The higher the mana cost of your curve’s peak, the less consistent your deck will be. Your deck needs to be able to do things early as well as late.
Figuring Out Your Ideal Mana Curve
Each deck’s mana curve will be different, but it’s important to work towards one that suits yours. Your aggressive deck doesn’t need to have any expensive cards and should peak a lot earlier. A control deck can afford to play more expensive spells but still needs enough cards to interact early with other decks. If you build a ramp deck that tries to accelerate its mana to cast huge threats as early as possible, you’ll naturally find your curve has two peaks instead of one.
If you have, for example, 80 cards that you want to play in your Commander deck but you know you have to cut that down to somewhere around 60 to 70, then looking at the deck’s mana curve is a great tool to help you figure out where your cuts need to be made.
If you find peaks in your curve at high mana costs, that’s a good indication that you don’t need that many 5- or 7-drops. Similarly, if it looks like you don’t have very many cheap 1- to 3-mana spells, finding room for them should help to improve your deck’s consistency.
Step Six: Playtesting
Strixhaven Stadium | Illustration by Piotr Dura
I apologize in advance for how harsh this next statement will sound, but it’s something that all Magic players should learn at some point. Whatever deck you’ve built at this point will be terrible, because the most important part of the process is playtesting. All great decks began as first drafts, then went through extensive playtesting and tweaks until their designers ended up at the final build that won the Pro Tour (or whatever event they were in).
I’ve built dozens of different decks in my Magic career. I’ve seen sweet cards printed that I thought were going to be the next big thing, only to slot them into decks and find out they were total crap. I played in the first Modern tournament ever held in the UK and played Simic () Cloudpost. I didn’t have time to playtest and had never built the deck before, so naturally my list was terrible. I wrongly thought the deck in general was just bad, but Cloudpost ended up banned just a couple months later because players a lot better than me managed to break it.
Playtesting doesn’t need to be an intensive process. I’m assuming that the reason you’re building a deck in the first place is because you want to play with it at the end of the day. Play your finished deck in these settings and pay attention to how it plays. Are there any cards that overperform or underperform? If so, you can adjust their quantities later.
Deckbuilding is an ongoing process, so you should never assume that the first pile you put together is perfect and always look for new ways to improve it.
Finale of Devastation | Illustration by Bayard Wu
Deckbuilding can be a very complicated process, but also an enjoyable one. A lot of this advice is intended to help you get better and uncover the fundamentals behind deckbuilding. There’s still so much you can learn about how to build a deck, and all you can do is keep giving it a go and have fun while doing it.
Do you have any deckbuilding tips of your own to add? Or maybe you want some extra advice on top of what’s already here? If you want to ask me any questions, you can hop into the comments down below or come see me hovering around our Discord server.
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