Deckbuilding 101

Matt takes you through the mind of a Madman.

You’ve heard it, right? That sweet siren’s call, that tantalizing echo when a new set is spoiled, whispering in your ear:

“Build me.”

But maybe you don’t know how to. Or you always feel like what you come up with isn’t quite what you had in mind. You want to give your chaotic excitement focus. You want to build.

While I can’t claim to be an expert, I can claim to have experience. If you’re looking for a mythic-level deckbuilding guide, I’d refer you to a resource like Next Level Deckbuilding by Patrick Chapin. But if you’re looking for a focused, easy-to-follow guide on how to get from an idea to a deck, I think this article might just be able to help you.

I’m going to break down deckbuilding into four steps: the Idea, the Support, the Answers, and the Manabase. The Idea is your starting point and what you want to accomplish with the deck. The Support are the cards or synergies that allow that goal to be realized. The Answers are how you protect yourself and your pieces and how you prevent other decks from winning before you. The Manabase is your lands and making sure you have the sources to cast your spells.

The Idea

Before you can even think about putting cards together, you’ve got to figure out what you want to build your deck around. It could be a really interesting card like Mirror March, a powerful card like Adeliz, the Cinder Wind, or a mechanic like Adapt which allows you to pay mana to put some number of +1/+1 counters on your creature. For some people, this could be the easiest step in the whole process, since their Idea is what got them excited about deckbuilding in the first place. But maybe you’re not one of those people and you’re just done with using other people’s lists and you want to unleash your creative side.

So how do you get an Idea if you don’t already have one? Step one would be to think about what you enjoy with the game. Do you like surprising your opponents? Do you like playing a lot of creatures? Do you like casting big sorceries with game-changing effects? Focus on what gets you giddy about Magic. Then convert that feeling into a card by looking through the card pool. It might take some work digging through the card pool to find the card that matches your feeling, but only you know that feeling so only you can find that card.

While I can’t pick the card out for you, I might be able to make the search a little easier. On Scryfall they have a syntax guide that can narrow down what cards you see. So if you’re looking for big creatures in Standard, you might want a search like this: “f:standard t:creature pow>=6” That search will give you all the creatures with a power greater than or equal to six. If you’re looking for game-ending spells, “f:standard (t:sorcery or t:instant) cmc>=6” will give you all the Standard-legal instants or sorceries with converted mana cost six or more.

There isn’t a right or wrong card or mechanic for this, just the one you like the most. Once you have your Idea, next you need Support.

The Support

In order for your card or mechanic to shine in a game of Magic, it needs a supporting cast. Support is the collection of cards that either trigger, are triggered by, synergize with or buff your Idea. For example, if your Idea was Teysa Karlov, then the Support for her would be a bunch of creatures that have triggers on dying and perhaps ways to sacrifice creatures as well in order to make those triggers happen on demand. If your Idea was Adapt, then your Support would be creatures that use that mechanic and cards that allow you to either amplify the number of +1/+1 counters you create or use those +1/+1 counters for something else (like drawing cards).

Just like in the Idea section, using a search library like scryfall is very useful here. You can search for keywords or oracle text to find spells that match your mechanic or synergize with your build-around card. Here is where you’ll probably spend the most amount of time on your deck. There are a lot of cards to wade through, especially if you’re building for a format other than Standard. You’ll want to try out a lot of different related search options, though you can generally reduce by colors, since your Idea is likely emphasizing 1-3 colors. Support often takes up most cards in the deck, though there are exceptions.

The Answers

Unfortunately, you’re not the only one trying to win the game. The person sitting across from you is going to do everything they can to either try to stop you or win faster. And because you’re not the only one at the table, you’re going to need Answers. Answers are all the cards you include that either slow your opponent down or protect your gameplan. The most common Answers are removal and counterspells, though they extend into protection (like Dive Down) and sweepers.

When adding Answers to your deck, you should consider both what your deck is weakest to and the most common threats are at the moment. If your Idea and Support included a bunch of flying creatures then a deck like mono-blue tempo that hits with several smaller fliers is probably not your biggest weakness even if it’s a popular deck right now. In the same vein, however, if your flying creatures are all expensive to cast like dragons, then that same mono-blue deck is going to be a pain to play against since they’ll either have you at a low life total or be holding up counterspells before you even get your board going.

For aggro or midrange decks, you should generally have 4-8 spells that let you deal with your worst matchups or the most common threats. These are often single target removal or, assuming they don't hurt your own plan too much, sweepers. Control typically plays a lot more answers, anywhere from 8-24 cards. This doesn’t leave them with much room for win conditions, but if you’re in control of the game you probably don’t need many.

At this point, I’d like to mention the overlap between the three different categories. It’s possible that you don’t add much or any Answers to your deck because the cards you added while picking out Support can also answer your opponent’s gameplan. It’s also possible your original Idea was to have a lot of Answers. Don’t get too attached to the idea that you need a certain number of cards as Support and a certain number of cards as Answers. The important part of this guide is to follow the train of thought to help you find the cards you want.

The Manabase

If you’re looking for a thorough, well-explained and math-focused discussion of manabases, Frank Karsten wrote the go-to article for figuring out mana here. I just want to give you some simplified numbers that can serve as a good starting point, but nothing here could give you the understanding of mana that Frank’s article can.

Essentially, these are the numbers you want to aim for:

  • If your spell requires one mana of a specific color, you will want 14 sources of that color in order to cast it on turn one the vast majority of the time. For each turn after that, you can get away with one less source of that color, but never go lower than 9. So if you want to cast a turn two Growth-Chamber Guardian, you’ll need 13 sources of green.

  • If your spell requires two mana of a specific color, you will want 20 sources of that color in order to cast it on turn two the vast majority of the time. For each turn after that, you can get away with two less sources of that color, but never go lower than 14.

  • If your spell requires three mana of a specific color, you will want 23 sources of that color in order to cast it on turn three the vast majority of the time. For each turn after that, you can get away with three less sources of that color, but never go lower than 16.

To be clear, when I say a source of mana, I mean one land that can tap for that color of mana. A mountain counts as one red source. A Stomping Ground also counts as one red source, but it counts as one green source as well.

There are also a lot of cards that can help you get the mana sources you need. Flower // Flourish will fetch a basic. So will Open the Gates. But since they aren't lands and can't be used to cast other spells, they aren't quite equal to one source of mana. When you build your mana base, keep these kinds of cards in mind.

Now there are still many more things I could get into, stuff like mana curve, primary colors, four and five color mana bases (things do change when you get to that point), land count, creature count, etc, but this guide isn't all about digging into the little details. It's just to give you some guidance so you have a path to a final decklist.

That, ladies and gents, is the gist of it. This is how I go about building decks. I hope that this article can help you put something awesome together. If it does, let me know by sending submitting that decklist!