Magic: The Gathering Deck Building Compendium

Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game from 1993 in which you build a deck to play against other players. This article will not serve as an introduction to Magic, but rather to deck building for Magic. If you are not already familiar with the game, this article will not be helpful for you.

Planning

Before you start building a deck, there are a few things you should have in mind.

Goal

The goal of the deck (also referred to as the strategy, plan, win condition, or mission statement) is a statement of the way that the deck intends to win the game. In the words of Magic designer Gavin Verhey, it is the difference between a deck and a pile of cards. Some things you might want to include in your mission statement are as follows:

  • The color or colors in the deck.
  • The deck's archetype.
  • Specific game-winning combos, if any.

Having a goal in mind before building your deck gives you a simple heuristic for choosing cards. For example, for the following mission statement:

This is a red-white aggressive deck that wants to attack and win quickly.

You can ask yourself, "does [card] help me win quickly?" If the answer is no, you should consider a different card.

A deck has a linear strategy when it's entirely focused on one synergy, as is common with tribal and combo decks, for example. Linear decks are often faster and more powerful than other decks, but need to reach critical mass by playing enough synergy to win. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a good stuff deck, in which cards are chosen purely for their individual strength, disregarding synergy altogether. Since each card in a good stuff deck will provide more value than each card in the opponent's deck, the good stuff deck can easily outpace its opponent. Both linear decks and good stuff decks are perfectly valid goals, along with everything in between.

Theme

Unlike the goal, a deck doesn't necessarily have to have a theme. A theme is a set of cards that complement each other, such as a creature type. A good theme will complement the deck's mission statement. For example, "Goblins" is a good theme for a mono-red aggro deck.

Color

In Magic, different colors are good at different things.

  • White: protection, healing, small creatures, taxing, balance, peacemaking, defense.
  • Blue: card draw, counterspells, bounce, tapping, stealing, mimicry, trickery.
  • Black: destruction, disease, parasitism, underhanded tactics, necromancy, card advantage, cards with drawbacks.
  • Red: burn, aggressive creatures, mana acceleration, trickery.
  • Green: powerful creatures, tokens, pumping, mana fixing.

Decks can be zero, one, or many colors. Colorless decks are rare, but certain themes (such as "Eldrazi") thrive in them. Color combinations also have their own strengths.

The five colors are typically arranged in a circle in the order white, blue, black, red, green to create the color pie (or "color wheel"). This sequence of colors is referred to as "WUBRG", where blue is "U" because black is "B." The colors adjacent to each other are ally colors, and the colors across from each other are enemy colors.

Combinations of two colors are typically referred to by the name of the associated Ravnica Guild.

  • Azorius (WU): slow and steady; stall the game to cast major spells later.
  • Dimir (UB): secrecy and information; milling, card draw, discard, library manipulation.
  • Rakdos (BR): power at any cost; sacrifice, direct damage.
  • Gruul (RG): aggressive and unthinking; pure strength.
  • Selesnya (GW): thriving in groups; creature tokens, pump, life gain, enchantments.
  • Orzhov (WB): gradually killing one's enemies; parasitism, life gain, mass removal.
  • Izzet (UR): innovation; instants, sorceries, recasting, copying spells, manipulating targets.
  • Golgari (BG): life and death; regeneration, deathtouch, counters, revival.
  • Boros (RW): justice; first strike, small creatures, attacking.
  • Simic (GU): progress; flash, hexproof, card draw, searching the library, counters.

Combinations of three colors come in two varieties: shards and wedges. Shards are composed of a color and its two allies, with the common ally being considered the primary color. Shards are typically referred to by the name of the associated Shard of Alara. Wedges are composed of a color and its two enemies, with the common enemy being considered the primary color. Wedges are typically referred to by the name of the associated Clan of Tarkir.

  • Bant (GWU): harmony through strength.
  • Esper (WUB): improvement at any cost.
  • Grixis (UBR): the power of seld and survival.
  • Jund (BRG): instincts; brutal and powerful.
  • Naya (RGW): the power of nature.
  • Abzan (WBG): sustainability.
  • Jeskai (URW): cunning, flexible, intelligent, devious.
  • Sultai (BGU): ruthless; seeks value out of everything.
  • Mardu (RWB): fast and aggressive.
  • Temur (GUR): savagery.

Combinations of four colors are typically referred to by the name given to them in the Commander 2016 set.

  • Artifice (WUBR): artifacts matter.
  • Chaos (UBRG): random effects.
  • Aggression (BRGW): aggression.
  • Altruism (RGWU): group hug (multiplayer archetype).
  • Growth (GWUB): growth (counters).

Finally, decks with all five colors are frequently called "WUBRG" or "rainbow" decks. They don't specialize in anything.

Archetypes

There are far too many archetypes in Magic to list them all, but most of them can be sorted into three broad categories: aggro, combo, and control. These categories have been referred to as the "rock, paper, scissors of Magic," with aggro beating control, control beating combo, and combo beating control.

Examples of aggro archetypes:

  • Sligh focuses on killing as fast as possible with cheap creatures and burn spells.
  • Red Deck Wins focuses almost entirely on burn spells.
  • Suicide Black uses cheap, aggressive black creatures that typically come with large drawbacks to balance their power.

Examples of combo archetypes:

  • Storm decks use many cards with the "storm" keyword to create spell combos.
  • Infinite combo decks attempt to gather a few combo pieces that guarantee a win when played together.

Examples of control archetypes:

  • Duck and cover plays one very potent threat (the "Duck"), with the rest of the deck focused on protecting it.
  • Land destruction decks destroy their opponents' lands to prevent them from casting spells.
  • Discard decks focus on emptying their opponents' hands to prevent them from casting spells.
  • Counter decks focus on using counterspells to prevent opponents' spells from resolving.

There are also archetypes that combine two of the categories, such as white weenie (aggro-control) and death and taxes (aggro-control).

Building

Composition

A standard Magic deck is composed of 60 or more cards. Certain formats, such as Commander, change the minimum number of cards in a deck. In general, it is a bad idea to include more than the minimum number of cards, since each card added reduces the likelihood of drawing each other card. Except in certain special cases, a deck can only contain up to 4 copies of any given card, with the exception of Basic Lands, which can be present in any amount.

Using a hypergeometric calculator, we can come to certain conclusions about the number of copies of any given card that should be included in a deck. The rule of 8 refers to the general rule of thumb that a deck with 8 copies of a card (typically attained by running 4 copies each of two identical cards) has reasonable consistency, yielding a 65.4% chance to draw at least one copy in your opening hand. Running 4 copies of a card gives weak consistency, with a 39.9% chance to draw at least one copy in your opening hand. You have a 52.8% chance of drawing at least one copy of a set of 4 cards by turn 4. In general:

  • Run 4 copies of cards that you want to draw as early and often as possible. Cards that are essential for the deck's strategy and/or good in multiples should run 4 copies.
  • Run 3 copies of cards that you want to draw in the midgame, but don't want multiples of. Since you can only control one copy of a Legend, it is a good idea to run 3 copies of Legendary cards.
  • Run 2 copies of cards that you don't want in your opening hand, don't want multiples of, and aren't vital to your strategy. This is usually for cards that are far too expensive to cast normally.
  • Run 1 copy of cards that you don't want to draw naturally, but want to have access to in your deck (such as for tutoring).

As a general rule of thumb, about 40% of the cards in a deck should be lands.

Below is a hypergeometric calculator for use when deck building. Note that X is the actual number of cards drawn.

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Mana curve

The mana curve is the application of mana optimization theory (à la Paul Sligh) to deck construction. Basically, it is the idea that a deck should be constructed in a way that maximizes the probability that its player will utilize all of their available mana on any given turn. The term "curve" comes from the fact that a deck with an optimal mana curve should resemble a bell curve when you graph the converted mana costs of its cards.

When building a mana curve, it is important to remember the context of the cards. If you have a one-drop that you wouldn't want to play on turn one (such as an aura), it doesn't make sense to include it in the one-drops column of your mana curve. In these cases, think about what turn you'd ideally play that card and include it in the corresponding column instead.

The mana curve is less important in constructed formats than it is in limited formats, but it is still a good thing to keep in mind - especially in aggro decks.

Legality

The rules for what makes a deck legal depend on the format that the deck is designed to play in. Wizards of the Coast keeps an up-to-date list of banned and restricted cards for each format on their website, along with the rules for each format.

Testing

The testing phase of deck building takes the longest. It is a good idea to play dozens of games, both against real opponents and against a goldfish (a theoretical player that does nothing). The purpose of this is to ensure that the deck wins games consistently and against a variety of opponents.

While testing your deck, pay attention to each card to make sure that they are all individually powerful, consistent, and efficient.

  • The card should consistently have an effect on the game, regardless of whatever common counters your opponent may play.
  • The card should provide good payoff for its cost.
  • The card should be impactful to play, no matter what other cards you have in under your control. It should never feel like a waste of a draw to draw any given card.

You can view my complete collection here.