Building a deck is arguably the most difficult aspect of Magic. Time and time again, we find ourselves scouring the internet for various decklists because we are unable to build one ourselves. Many in our community attack those that "netdeck," but few understand just how tough it can be to build your own archetype. In fact, it is tough enough to just improve an existing archetype, and most content creators spend days perfecting their "netdecks" before a major tournament.
Suffice it to say that building a deck, in any form, is not an easy task. Doing a copy/paste from the most recent event isn't exactly difficult, but evolving that deck for the expected metagame or just changing parts where you find flaws is a noble venture. In evolving a deck, or building a new one, there are many hurdles to overcome. Today we're going to be going over a few aspects of building a deck, how deckbuilding has changed in modern times, and learn what we can do as deckbuilders to stay away from common traps and misconceptions.
There are many pitfalls in deckbuilding that you should avoid. The most common mistakes come from those who are closest to the archetypes themselves, as they're unable to see things from an outside perspective. I'm guilty of doing this myself, as I tend to build new decks using old ideas. Do you know how long I tried to make Thing in the Ice a competitive deck long after Pyromancer's Goggles rotated? Are you aware of how many hours I put in to making an Enigma Drake deck?
With that said, it is important that we are explorers when it comes to building new decks, and especially so when a format is fresh. After a banning, or when a new set is released, or even after a rotation, there are a plethora of options to consider. How does Gideon, Ally of Zendikar rotating affect other cards that everyone forgot about? Will the loss of Thraben Inspector/Selfless Spirit, etc. make Oketra's Monument unplayable? Does Bloodbraid Elf getting unbanned invalidate Mardu Pyromancer?
One thing you need to remember is that Magic has a long history of repeating itself. While new cards can bring new decks, almost every strategy has a skeleton from a previous era we can build around. While the supporting cast might not be the same, the heart of the idea is there. We just have to find it and figure out why that deck was good in the first place. It isn't enough to use an old decklist to build a new one; you need to understand why the deck was good in the first place. That's why it is so important to consume Magic content: because the relaying of the understanding of a thing-and learning to understand it yourself--is much more important than having someone else just tell you something simple.
Deckbuilding in Week One
When building a new deck from scratch, it's important to understand exactly why you're building this deck in the first place. Are you trying to be hyper aggressive? If so, why? Are you trying to exploit the slow speed of the format? Are you capitalizing on people building their deck incorrectly? Or do you just really like red cards?
All three of these answers are certainly fine reasons to build an aggressive deck in a new format. And because of the first two reasons, mono-colored aggressive strategies are often dominant in the first week after a set has been released. People want to try out splashy new mythics, even if they're too slow to compete. People will try to play three or four (and sometimes five) color decks, depending on the mana available, and will stumble because their numbers are a little off. Meanwhile, all of your lands enter the battlefield untapped, and you're off to the races on the first turn. By the time they're set up and able to interact with you, your Bomat Courier has already dealt five damage and hidden five cards to draw when you're ready to pop it.
If you're going to build a midrange deck, my suggestion is to lean on the simpler side of things. Unless your manabase is perfect, two-color decks are the way to go. Or if a recent set release or rotation doesn't change your deck all that much, using an older template to build your new version is more than acceptable. We saw a lot of this with Temur Energy, as it didn't change much from set to set.
Rotations tend to have the biggest impact on existing archetypes since an entire year of cards rotate out all at once. That means we lose our lands. We lose cards that are integral to our archetype. And in many instances, decks disappear completely. That isn't a bad thing, and especially so when an archetype or card has been dominant throughout its entire two-year stretch in Standard. And as a content creator for about a decade, I can say that rotations are some of the most fun I have making content, because I get to try out so many new things. But having a great starting point when trying to build decks in an unexplored format makes things a lot easier.
You start to see trends when it comes to how Wizards of the Coast designs cards. You notice that Planeswalkers important to the story are generally a lot more powerful than they look on paper. You realize that the deck you're working on gets completely obliterated by those powerful cards. You scrap it and start again with another idea. And, in some instances, you give up on what you're doing and listen to your friends (or content creators) because you just can't figure it out. And that's okay!
Some people, like Michael Majors, are very good at coming up with new ideas in a new format. He's able to create amazing shells that wrap everything together in a neat little bow. But he's also pretty bad at perfecting the surrounding cast. And that's also okay! No one is perfect at building decks. Every single new deck I've seen in the last decade has had at least one flaw, and many of those decks evolve to become something else entirely. Did you know that U/W Delver was originally U/W Illusions?
Funny how a deck can change over time and look virtually nothing like it did originally. But that is exactly what is great about building decks (and Magic). That's why I will never fault someone for "netdecking." Building your own deck is difficult, and you should be proud when you actually create something. There is no exact method for building decks. That's why there are so many articles written about the subject, but even though there's not an exact blueprint, we can try to learn what does and doesn't work through testing. Each card change is another variable. Each core card to an archetype is the control. Building a new deck is an ever-changing experiment.
Exceptions to the Rule
When myself or someone else, anyone has been around the block for a few years, tells you that a card in your deck is bad, your first instinct should not be to defend your card choice. Your first instinct should be to listen to why we think that card is a bad fit. Then, after considering the argument, you are more than welcome to tell us the reasons behind why you chose to include that card in the first place.
More often than not, the reason we suggest cutting cards or changing cards is because that one particular card doesn't fit the curve. Most people who play the game understand that "curving out" is an important aspect of the game. Hitting bigger and bigger spells as you increase your land count is important for matching your opponent. With that said, there is always an exception to every rule.
- 1 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 4 Hero of Iroas
- 2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
- 2 Monastery Mentor
- 4 Seeker of the Way
The "curve" goes only as high as you need it to go in order to win the game. Throughout Magic's history, there have been countless decks that didn't really need to hit their fourth land drop. In fact, there are decks across all formats that lowered their land count significantly in order to prevent drawing too many lands. And while having so few lands will occasionally lead to mulligans, you will usually more than make up ground when you stop playing lands after the third.
In Standard, the "curve" is more pronounced because the overall power level of cards is lower. That means you can't usually fill your deck with only cheap spells and hope to win the game. The density of cards that fit any given casting cost is lower, so it only makes sense that you would have fewer great cards at each individual converted mana cost. Working on your curve in Standard is one of the coolest things about building a deck, because it's so hard to quantify that you just figure it out over time. And often, that's the only way you're going to figure out how to build the curve of your deck.
In some formats, it is important to have a higher curve because the other decks in the format are slow. Sideboards will often have "big finishers" that might not be fast enough to see play in your maindeck but are more than capable of closing games against the colossally slow control beasts.
In other formats, like Legacy, playing a high curve often leaves you dead before the match begins. Unless your big spells are game-ending and you have enough ways to interact with your opponent in the early turns, playing spells that cost more than four mana is essentially unheard of. But again, there are exceptions to this rule.
So if we can agree that everything in deckbuilding is contextual, we can also agree that no one person is going to be right or wrong 100% of the time. Your ideas have merit. Your decks are awesome and creative and beautiful at the same time because you made them. Just because a child draws a picture doesn't mean it's "bad." They just haven't developed the skills to be an artist worthy of worldwide praise. And if they want to be an artist when they grow up, you can help them figure out things like technique or negative space or whatever and introduce them to all sorts of people who could help them get better at the craft.
One Specific Example
Let me show you something.
Todd Stevens (@ToddStevensMTG) February 25, 2018
This is an example of a "bad deck," though a lot of the ideas have merit. I had a very brief argument via Twitter with Mr. Stevens about this deck, and why it was bad. I promised him that I'd spend this entire article explaining why this deck is bad, but instead he'll have to settle for a few hundred words. Let's begin.
Serum Visions is a card that pairs well with Snapcaster Mage or helps you dig for very specific cards that your deck may or may not be able to win without. It helps you hit land drops and allows you to smooth out your draws in the early turns. Cards like Serum Visions should not be played alongside decks with mana accelerators.
When you put a Birds of Paradise in your deck, you're effectively telling the world that you would like to play a spell that says "G: This is a land. Please don't kill it." Your entire goal is to accelerate into bigger threats, or to make sure you can get a significant mana advantage on your opponent. In decks that play Birds of Paradise, you want most of your advantages to come from bigger spells (makes sense, right?). In this regard, playing Birds of Paradise with powerful three- and four-drops like Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor makes a little more sense.
But there are exceptions to this rule when a card of higher power level sits at a cheaper casting cost than average. For example, Bant Eldrazi played both Noble Hierarch and Ancient Stirrings. In a lot of ways, Ancient Stirrings functions like Serum Visions, but they are not the same card and don't belong in the same types of decks. Serum Visions tends to be better in decks that have an overall cheap casting cost. You want to play fewer lands and you want to make sure you don't draw too many (or can keep a hand with just one or two). Cards like Serum Visions allow you to "cheat" on the number of lands you play in your deck because casting it early nearly guarantees you'll find another land in the top four cards.
Decks that feature Birds of Paradise typically want a reasonably high number of lands, or virtual lands, because they are trying to power out bigger spells at an accelerated rate. Or, at the very least, they're trying to play their three- or four-drop one turn earlier. And when that spell is insanely powerful, like Collected Company or Knight of the Reliquary, it is easy to justify playing a card as inherently "weak" as Birds of Paradise.
As an aside, I want to say that cards like Serum Visions don't really pair well with Liliana of the Veil. Cards that replace themselves often leave you with too many cards in hand when you start using the +1 for discard. And if you can't empty your hand, you leave a lot of value on the table. That's why you so rarely see Liliana of the Veil paired with Snapcaster Mage. Your goal with Liliana of the Veil should be to trade as many resources as possible before you cast it; that way you can attack your opponent's hand without dealing too much damage to yourself.
I would never recommend playing a deck with Search for Azcanta that had so few instant-speed cards and so many creatures. The best part about activating an Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is that it should consistently hit. When you have 32 misses, you're investing a lot of time and effort into disappointment.
Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is also much better when you have spells that can be played in the later turns of the game. Hitting something like Inquisition of Kozilek with Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is about as mediocre as it gets. With that said, you also want cheaper spells in your deck with Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin so that you can actually leverage that card advantage. Modern is chock full of cheap, powerful spells that we can use alongside Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, so why are we playing a ton of three- and four-drop spells with it?
And where are the Thought Scours? Why isn't Birds of Paradise something like Explore? What is the point of this deck? Synergy is a big part of Magic, and if you aren't doing your best to pair cards that work well together, you're going to find yourself with a bunch of awkward spells that don't mesh.
Mr. Stevens' response to my criticisms of his deck was that he was "just playing a fun deck." Well, sir, I have to say that cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Liliana of the Veil aren't exactly "fun" in my book. This statement actually got under my skin quite a bit, because this deck is about ten or twelve cards from being competitive in Modern. In fact, someone else posted a similar deck on the same day that I actually think might be awesome.
Ran it back and top 8'd the @F2FToronto 1k showdown with @KeithCapstick's BUG list. Felt I got a bit unfortunate to lose my match and the deck still felt very good, This deck seems like a great choice if you want to play a proactive Jace deck. Here's the list for those who asked: pic.twitter.com/DOMOYWNp6y— Edgar Magalhaes (@EdgarMTG) February 26, 2018
While still potentially flawed, the idea here is much more refined. Cards like Dark Confidant pair nicely with the discard effects to protect it. And if you compare these two decks side-by-side, they are almost identical. They share the same skeleton. The two creators of the two decks just took them in a different direction.
Mr. Stevens' deck is not a "bad" deck. There is such a thing as a "bad" deck that is built well. There is also such a thing as a good deck built poorly. Mr. Stevens' deck was the latter because it was not the best possible version of the deck it could be. And instead of recognizing that his deck was bad and trying to fix it, he doubled down by saying it was just a "fun deck."
This is something I hear far too often when people ask me for critique (not that Mr. Stevens did). A deck can be fun and competitive. A deck can be bad and you can love it anyway. I'm here to show you a better way of building your decks. And if you legitimately want help, then I'm here to give it. But I will not coddle you. I will not sugarcoat it. And above all else, I'm not going to lie to you. And if you're good with all of that, then we'll get along just fine.