Magic: the Gathering Deckbuilding Tips

Here are some useful deckbuilding tips for novices I’ve learned over the years, generally applicable strategies for most any deck design, though some of these tips are slanted toward multiplayer Magic.

Creatures

Unless you can make a “lock” that doesn’t require creatures, it’s all about the creatures you have in play. Notice I didn’t say creatures in your deck or in your hand, if they don’t make it into play they do you no good. Creatures are almost always the most efficient damage dealing spells in your deck.

The first way to evaluate creatures is simply their size vs. cost. Of course some have abilities that make them worth more mana but a 1/1 that costs 4 had better have the mother of all abilities to be worthwhile.

After size, go for evasion. Evasion is any ability that makes your creature able to sneak by blockers: flying, shadow, landwalk, etc. Having a bunch of big ground creatures is good but if everyone else does too then yours will probably sit around until someone accumulates three times the creature mass of their opponents and can swing for the win in a single turn. Meanwhile, your little sneaky creatures can be consistently dealing a few points of damage each turn while the big ground guys snarl at each other across no-man’s land.

Non-Creature Spells

Non-creature spells are to be used sparingly, as many of them have an effect for only one turn then they’re gone, while creatures usually stay for many turns.
Mana sources (like the Lotus Bloom for example) that bring your heavy hitters out early can be useful earlygame, but often lategame they’re wasted cards.

Card drawing is usually good, but there are two caveats. One is that it needs to be mana efficient, as it’s slowing you down; sure maybe you can spend 3 mana to draw a card earlygame but does that leave you enough to cast what you drew the same turn? Lategame card drawing (when you have the mana base) is often the single easiest way to win the game, as I’ll explain later. The other point is that you can have TOO MUCH card drawing; if you’re using card drawing and all you’re getting with it is more card drawing and land then you’re spinning your wheels.

Removal is frequently the most critical type of non-creature spell you can have in your deck: think destroy target creature, remove creature from the game, deal damage to target creature, target creature gets -2/-2, and so on. Since creatures are so important and some of them will be big and/or have decimating abilities (tap your best stuff, draw an extra card every turn, etc.), being able to single them out for destruction is key. Often you won’t be able to do it easily with combat, especially if they’re not your prey, another reason for removal.

Direct damage spells are often best employed as removal. Sure you can burn your prey for 3 on turn 1 with the right draw, but does that really gain you anything? Now if you burned their key blocker and that lets through your 3/3 for a couple turns that’s a lot more valuable. Usually the only time direct damage “to the head” of your prey is the best play is when it kills them.

Pumping spells can be removal too. Combat is rife with opportunities for killing their creatures while saving yours, often with very small shifts in stats. A well-placed +1/+1 can tip the scales from mutual destruction to your creature killing theirs AND living through the battle. If you’re playing, say, green and white where traditional removal spells are hard to come by, stock a few pumping instants/flash spells for removal duty. They also can double as both creature rescue (3 damage to my 3/3? Oh, did I mention it’s actually 4/4?) and finishers (you’re not blocking my 2/2, and you’re at 5 life? What do you say to a +3/+3?).

Counterspells can be good in duels, but often lousy in multiplayer. In duels things are very nearly zero-sum, so what you deny your opponent is saving you in equal amounts. In multiplayer, sure you might slow down one opponent, but that might give the other that window of opportunity they need to explode with stompiness or get their combo going. Having said that, late-game counterspells can be solid, but most frequently to assure your win (you can’t stop me with that, *kazzap*), much harder for a counter to tip the balance back into your favor as counterspells generally have no effect against what’s on the board already.

Similar to counterspells, discard is often lousy in multiplayer. You’ll usually end up screwing over one opponent (traditionally your predator [in predator-prey] so the pressure’s off you) which often lets your other opponent gather extra steam.

The reason counterspells and discard are lousy in multiplayer is not entirely the one-sidedness but also that for discard it’s untargeted, you usually don’t know if you’re getting anything good, and for counterspells you usually have to hold open a lot of mana, just waiting for them to do their worst, slowing you down tremendously as well.

Card advantage

Normally, without extra card drawing, the one constant is that everybody draws one card each turn. You can turn that into a huge advantage IF you manage for it correctly. The way to do that is both deckbuilding and play skills, but basically you want to aim for situations where one of your cards requires the use of multiple cards from your opponents. For example a big creature that your opponent can only kill by double- or triple-blocking. A spell like Grapeshot which lets you target and remove multiple permanents. Multi-card drawing spells (even: draw one, flash back to draw one again) can count, as do “cantrips” (destroy target creature and draw a card). Cards are the prime resource and also the most limited, which is why card advantage can be so powerful.

Life as a resource can often be traded for card advantage. Chump blocking for a turn to prevent loss of some life might be necessary at times (and obviously necessary if you’re going to die, and want the chance to draw the card that can save you). However if you can hold off chumping and eat the damage for a turn, to put out another blocker that gives you the potential to double block and kill the attacker, two for one is still better than trading a whole series of chumps only to die as soon as you stop drawing the next chump.

Unlike their “vanilla” brethren which sit alone, aura enchantments that you play on your own permanents set your opponents up for card advantage. Playing that enchantment on your creature to give it +2/+2 and flying sounds great, until your opponent takes out two of your cards with one removal spell. This is why most boost-type enchantments have card disadvantage built in; when selecting cards for your deck you may want to take a critical eye to these kind of enchantments. They’d better be extremely useful or necessary for your deck to warrant inclusion.

Surprise

Gaining card advantage often requires tricking or surprising your opponents. Instead of playing that flash enchantment early just for a random boost, try holding it until it matters more, you might be able to get that boost a bit later AND take out one of their creatures. Also by leaving your options open you gain the ability to respond to your opponents when they try to take out your creatures with their trickery.

Reach

Life as a resource is typically a disposable one. After all, the only life point that really matters is THE LAST ONE. Otherwise, if you gain even a sliver of advantage by holding off blocking for another turn to marshal your troops, it’s usually better to eat the damage.

Because the life resource is very disposable, a valuable commodity in your deck could be reach: direct damage and sneaky damage abilities. Reach means that you do the first, say, 16 points of damage in a typical fashion, getting whatever creatures you can past your prey’s defenses. Those last four points? Maybe your prey shored up their defenses, or killed your flier, but they might not be prepared for that burn spell you saved. Or maybe you don’t have burn, but you do have a spell that gives your zombie fear for a turn, to let them sneak in the final blow.

Not only does having reach mean you can achieve those finishing blows much more easily, but it makes your prey’s decisions prior to the end all the more difficult. When they’re at 8 life and have to deal with your attacker, knowing your deck has reach means they might need to chump after all, instead of eating the damage for a turn to consolidate their defense.

Prevention

Combat is a big math game. There are the known values, each attacker’s and potential blocker’s power and toughness. The truly unknowns (what funky spell could they be holding?), and the knowns which are variable – say you have a cleric who can prevent 1 damage to target creature. This makes blocking and damage assignment much more challenging for your opponent. If you’re on attack they will essentially have to block any of your attackers with 1 extra point of power if they want to kill them, and it’s much harder for them to kill multiple attackers. On defense if you double or triple block it’s still a challenge for them to spread damage among your blockers since all you need to do is wait for damage to go on the stack then apply your prevention to the creature YOU want to save, moving the choice of which creature dies away from their hands. This also means they have to assign extra damage if they want to be “sure” of killing something, and damage overloaded on one creature means more of your others are likely to live.

Bounce

Bounce is any ability that returns something to owner’s hand. When a 2/4 is blocked by another 2/4 without any pumping going on, they can also be said to “bounce” but that’s not nearly as useful. Bounce effects are eminently useful simply because they are so versatile:

  • One of your creatures about to get hit with removal? Bounce them back to the safety of your hand.
  • Your creature is in mutually destructive combat with your opponent’s creature? Let damage go on the stack, bounce yours, and watch theirs die while your creature is protected, childlike, in your mental reservoir of magic.
  • Your creature does something cool when it comes into play? Let it come into play multiple times with bounce (repeated bounce is especially fun here!)
  • Your creature has flash? Bounce can save it AND allow it to show up at the best time, even just before your turn for pseudo-haste.
  • Your opponent is attacking with something big and nasty? Bounce it for a turn or two of respite.
  • Your opponent is attacking AND just dropped an instant to pump their creature up to become big and nasty? Bounce cures that (ding, smells almost like card advantage)!
  • Your opponent’s creature can’t be targeted and is attacking you? Block, then bounce your blocker; unless they have trample their damage isn’t going anywhere, and you didn’t lose a blocker.
  • You have a counterspell or discard? Bounce teams nicely with those to eliminate just about anything (even indestructible).
  • Your opponent’s creature has a spiffy enchantment aura on it? Bounce forces them to recast the creature AND sends the enchantment to the graveyard (also slight card advantage).

…and the list goes on, which is why bounce, though not the most powerful effect for every situation, is the swiss-army knife of Magic and means you’ll almost always have a response to your opponent’s latest affront if you need it.

Mana curve

Mana curve is basically the histogram of converted casting costs for the spells in your deck (how many cost 1? how many cost 2? etc.)

The goal for a successful deck is consistency. You wouldn’t want to include only casting cost 7 spells unless you have a way to get 7 mana in a major hurry, otherwise you’d spend the first several turns (probably more than seven unless you draw a bunch of land) doing nothing and probably die before any of your mega spiffy spells can see the light of day. A card you can’t play is essentially a dead card.

A smooth mana curve, vaguely bell-shaped, is often the most effective in allowing you to cast the most spells without filling up completely on low-calorie 1-2 casting cost spells. If you want to do the math, average casting cost in the 3-4 range is generally the best. Get down to the lower end and you can use fewer land in your deck, go toward the high end and you’ll want more land so you can reliably cast the heavy stuff when you draw it.

There is no precise “right” curve for every deck, but here’s a very generic example for a 40 card deck playing 22 spells and 18 lands:

  • cost 1: x2
  • cost 2: x5
  • cost 3: x7
  • cost 4: x4
  • cost 5: x2
  • cost 6: x1
  • cost 7+: x1

The other thing that can be accomplished by molding your deck’s profile into a nice mana curve is cranking out a steady progression of creatures. The perfectly balanced deck can often drop a 1/1 on turn 1, 2/2 on turn 2, 3/3 on turn 3, 4/4 on turn 4, through 5/5 on turn 5, or something to that effect. This style of deck can often take an early lead and also tough it out in the mid and late game due to its balance and consistent delivery of threats.

Happy deckbuilding!

  1.  

    Want to see comments w/o having to RSS subscribe. How hard is that?

  2.  

    At the moment we don’t have another option on the site, short of visiting individual post pages.

    Would subscription by email be an appealing option? I’m happy to receive suggestions.

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  4.  
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    Joe Says:

    Thanks again Scott.

    I continue to read and be well advised!

  5.  

    You bet Joe! Glad it helps :-)

  6.  
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    Jay Says:

    Scott,

    Having played Magic back in 1995 through 2000, I thought I knew the game. But a nine year break has shown me the error of my thinking.
    Thanks for the information…….I may finally be able to win one from my kids LOL.

    Great article.

    jay

  7.  

    Glad you enjoyed it Jay. And best of luck getting up to speed with Magic again after your break; it can take some time, but I have to say it’s been one of the most satisfying games I’ve played and worth coming back to after my previous time away.

  8.  
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    Ray Says:

    Thanks for the info! I am jut starting out playing MTG and need some useful tips like these!

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    Edd Says:

    It is a pity for the Bounce ability that damage does not go the stack anymore :S.

  10.  

    Wow – I haven’t been following Magic as much with the last couple of blocks, I was unaware that they changed that rule. Too bad, because that was one of the more fun things to do with bounce.

    I understand Wizards’ need to simplify in the quest to expand their player base and draw in more new players, but unfortunately it tends to leave some of us veterans a bit cold. So it goes.

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    Joe Says:

    I don’t quite understand what you guys are talking about…

  12.  

    According to the current Comprehensive Rules there’s no longer any opportunity to play spells/fast effects in between assigning damage and damage resolution. So when we would say, “damage on the stack”, well, it no longer stacks… now in combat damage is assigned simultaneously and immediately resolves, no stack exists at that point and you can’t respond to damage assignment with anything.

    That includes bounce, damage prevention, toughness pumping, etc..

    Personally I’m considering suggesting that we could ignore this rule change for our in-house games, particularly as long as we’re playing exclusively with older card sets. But it’s worth discussing, and it might be slightly odd to be playing with an outdated “snapshot” of the official rules. Not that we haven’t modified games before…

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    Edd Says:

    Yeah for me was quite shocking as well. I am just coming back after a 9 years MTG break :S.

  14.  

    I lament the decrease in strategy it represents. For me it seems like there’s three main points when fast effects get used:

    • After blockers are assigned
    • After damage is on the stack but before it’s resolved
    • At the end of an opponent’s turn

    So combat tricks can still be employed right after blockers get assigned, but not being able to play after damage is assigned but before it’s resolved eliminates a prime opportunity for such trickery. Not to mention nerfing damage prevention and targeted regeneration.

    I probably wouldn’t care so much except for the fact that Magic has basically occupied the spot of my favorite game for years, with a couple of breaks along the way.

    Anyway, my group and I reached consensus last night to continue playing with damage going on the stack, perhaps especially appropriate since we’re currently playing the Kamigawa block where the rules still worked this way.