Zero to Sixty

Posted in Feature on March 27, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Welcome to ReConstructed!

ReConstructed is a brand new weekly column here on that focuses on deck building, tweaking, and tuning. Figuring out how to improve your deck can be one of the hardest parts of Magic, and I'm here to help.

This column is all about YOU! Each week, I'm going to take a reader's decklist, look over the deck and what its creator is looking to change, and then remodel it appropriately.

Wurmcoil Engine | Art by Raymond Swanland

Have a cool idea, but the deck isn't playing as well as you want? I'm on it. Looking to be budget-friendly? Not a problem. Can't seem to beat Delver of Secrets no matter how hard you try? I'll see what I can do.

By the end of each article, we'll all have learned something about deck construction, and you'll all have a brand new decklist to try out too! (Check back at the end of this column for details on sending in your deck.)

The especially keen among you might have already realized that since this is the column's first week, I don't have a reader's deck to talk about. Fortunately, there's something very important to kick off the first column with instead: cornerstone deck building advice!

Working in the Future Future League and having Pro Tour deck-building experience has helped me develop a keen eye for quickly assessing a deck's strengths and weaknesses and tuning them appropriately. This is a good opportunity to go over some of those lessons. I expect to link back to this article and reiterate its concepts plenty in the future, but if you study up now it will help give you a better framework moving forward.

Let's kick it off, shall we? Allons-y!

Role Call

Every deck needs to have a goal.

I don't mean some nebulous goal like "win the game," but more of a crucial central strategy that is how your deck plans to operate. Is the deck aggressive or defensive? Does it plan to disrupt the opponent or single-mindedly further its own plan? Identifying which kind of deck you are playing will help you tailor the rest of the deck toward that strategy.

Dissipate | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

In today's wide and varied field, it's impossible to neatly categorize everything, and some decks can play as multiple different deck types. But in general, I feel like there are six primary archetypes out there: aggro-control, beatdown, combo, control, midrange, and ramp.

How do you identify which archetype your deck is? One of the best metrics to identify which kind of deck you are playing is to look at how you ideally want the game to end. By looking at the endgame and working your way backward to the beginning, you can see what kind of cards will help you get to a winning position.

I would describe each of those six archetype's end states like this:

Aggro-Control: The game ends with a couple smaller, cheap, fragile creatures tapped and attacking. The graveyard has disruption spells, like countermagic and bounce, that have thrown off the opponent's game while you've attacked for a couple points of damage turn after turn.

Example cards: Delver of Secrets, Mystic Snake, Unified Will.

Beatdown: The game ends with several cheaper creatures tapped and attacking or a burn spell pointed at the opponent's head. Most of the time the game has ended early, within the first six turns.

Example cards: Char, Plated Geopede, Wild Nacatl.

Combo: The game ends via some often unlikely combination of two or more cards carrying out the finishing blow in one fell swoop. Often the graveyard is full of library manipulation or deck searching to piece together the combo.

Example cards: Deceiver Exarch plus Splinter Twin, Demonic Tutor, Ponder.

Control: The game ends after many, many turns, with the opponent low on resources after you have dealt with each of them in turn. You likely have one large threat in play which has attacked the opponent over several turns, or your planeswalker is about to go ultimate. Your graveyard is stockpiled with removal spells, board sweepers, countermagic, planeswalkers, and other ways to stay alive and generate card advantage

Example cards: Day of Judgment, Dissipate, Jace Beleren.

Midrange: The game ends with a couple inordinately large three-to-six-cost creatures tapped and attacking, potentially ones that have been accelerated out. Alternatively, one or more planeswalkers might be about to go ultimate. The graveyard likely has a handful of removal spells or other forms of light disruption.

Example cards: Bituminous Blast; Chameleon Colossus; Doran, the Siege Tower.

Ramp: The game ends with several lands in play on your side of the battlefield and a single large threat—occasionally two very large threats—carrying you to victory. The graveyard and battlefield are full of acceleration and potentially a board sweeper or pinpoint removal spell.

Example cards: Primeval Titan, Rampant Growth, Solemn Simulacrum.

Sometimes your deck can be a mashup of two archetypes, but in general you don't want your deck to be any more than that or it risks having an identity crisis. It's easy for a deck's plan to fracture under the stress of trying to compete from too many angles.

Figure out what your deck is trying to accomplish, and how you should modify the deck should become much more transparent. If you realize you are trying to be a beatdown deck, for example, it becomes clearer to cut your six-drop creatures. If you find your deck between two archetypes, you can figure out whether you should add more disruption or creatures to help define it more. Knowing what you are aiming for is the first step of deck building.

Real Estate

My dad doesn't know a lot about Magic. He has never played the game, and, in his eyes, when I tap mana to cast a spell I might as well be doing some sort of avant-garde interpretive dance.

Forest | Art by Jung Park

Despite his Magical ineptitude, he knows a lot about the important things in life. One day he provided me with some of the best advice anybody has ever given me about Magic: "Land, eh? I don't know anything about this game, but I do know from my work in construction that real estate is important. You gotta have enough prime real estate."

The number one mistake I see people consistently make in their decks stems from their mana base.

The truth is, lands are boring. You (hopefully) play one every turn and they just kind of sit around. On the other hand, creatures and spells are exciting! They have intricate abilities, interact with the opponent, and are much easier to make sound effects for.

Hornet Sting


The problem with cutting lands for spells is that, well... you need lands to cast your awesome spells in the first place!

Playing too few lands is one of Magic's most classic blunders, second only to becoming involved in a land war in Otaria. Playing more lands lets you cast your spells on time and also generally helps you mulligan less frequently. Your win percentage will go way up if you let your spells and playskill dictate how often you win rather than throwing your hands up in the air at a mana shortage.

The good news is that, in today's age, there are plenty of awesome ways to play extra lands without sacrificing access to powerful effects. We keep printing lands like Kessig Wolf Run and Vault of the Archangel for many reasons, but one of them is to push players in the right direction of putting more lands in their decks.

Kessig Wolf Run
Vault of the Archangel

If you add two lands, but both lands have special effects, you've made your mana base much more consistent while retaining your deck's power density. Additionally, if you get mana flooded, lands with abilities always give you something to sink your mana into. Usually your eighth land is excess, but if you're trying to activate Vault of the Archangel and cast spells at the same time, then that land could be quite valuable.

In short, if you think my decks skew a land or two higher than normal, and have a few more specialty lands than normal, it's because I believe decks function better that way.

As if that wasn't enough to convince you, there's even a meme going around about me advising you to play more lands. And really, when has a meme ever steered you wrong?

Image taken from ChannelFireball.

Finally, one more note on lands: your mana base is not the place to make sacrifices. If you're trying to be budget-friendly, lands are the one area I would absolutely not compromise. The other cards in your deck that you spent days trading for won't help you if your three-color mana base comprised only of all basic lands can't cast them.

Crunching Numbers

Every card in your deck poses the question, "How many of this card should I play?" Often, when I look over less-tuned decks the numbers look rather haphazard, and for good reason: coming to the right number of each card to play can be difficult.

There's a gigantic difference between playing two copies of a card and four copies of a card. Fortunately, there are some deck-building guidelines that can help you choose the right number of each card to play. While these aren't hard and fast rules, they are good guidelines to go by when in doubt.

I'll go down each number in descending order.

Four Copies: The Core Pieces

Cards that you play four copies of make up the core of your deck. You want to see these cards the most, and they are often the most powerful cards in your deck. In many cases, they might be the driving force behind why you're playing this particular deck.

Noted Magic pro Michael Jacob once said, "A four-of is a card you can't ever complain about if you draw three of," and I mostly agree.

Good reasons to play four copies of a card are:

  • The card is extremely powerful in your deck. The card is just so strong on its own that you are happy drawing as many as possible. Even if it's a little expensive to cast, you absolutely want to draw as many of this card as you can.
  • You always want to draw this card early. If you consistently want to have a card on the first few turns, you need to be playing four copies of it. Even if the card has diminishing returns in the late game, if it's just that good early on then it's worth playing all four.
  • The card gets better in multiples. If a card gets better the more you draw, then open yourself up to drawing multiple of them!
  • The card is strong at all points in the game. If a card is good in your deck both on turn two and turn ten, you should usually be playing a full play set of it. It won't be bad no matter when you draw it.

Three copies: One is Enough

While four copies of a card means you are, for the most part, always happy to draw one, three copies of a card means you only want to draw it under certain conditions. What are some of those conditions? Let's look them over:

  • The card is strong, but expensive for your deck. While cheap cards are great to draw early on and make excellent four-ofs, you often don't want to have your hand clogged with expensive cards. A card like Wurmcoil Engine is strong, and you want to draw one, but you seldom play four copies outside of a ramp deck because you can't afford to have two or three of them rotting in your hand early on.
  • This card is only good in certain situations. The card is strong with your other cards, but weak on its own. The traditional example here might be something like an aura or equipment. Angelic Destiny is very powerful, but most decks can't risk playing four copies because they run the risk of drawing a hand with three Destinies.
  • You don't want to draw multiples early on. Just like how drawing too many expensive cards is bad because they sit in your hand, there are many other cards that have diminishing returns the more copies you draw. Legendary creatures that aren't fragile are a good example: you don't want to draw two copies of Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, too early in the game.
  • The 3/1 split. This isn't so much about not playing four copies of a card so much as it is about splitting up a card you're playing four copies of. Sometimes you want to play three of one card and one of a similar card. Snapcaster Mage is one relevant example of a good reason to do this. Maybe you play 3 Go For the Throat and 1 Doom Blade under the pretense that they usually do the same thing, but some variety means that late in the game you have the chance to have an additional option for Snapcaster Mage.

Two Copies: Hedging your Chances

Two copies of a card is generally a number I try to avoid. Often, playing two copies of a card just means you didn't playtest enough to know which cards were good or bad, so to avoid making a mistake you just play two.

Day of Judgment
Day of Judgment

There are a few good reasons to play two copies of a card, but in general I would try to stick to the other numbers when possible.

  • The card is really situational. Sometimes, due to metagame considerations, you want to main deck a card that is only good against some decks or would normally go into your sideboard. It's a gamble, and you don't want to risk drawing too many of them in matchups where they are weak. For example, you can main deck Flashfreeze and it will be excellent if you draw it in the right matchups—and roughly equivalent to drawing your Quizno's rewards card if you draw it in others.
  • The card is an expensive finisher. If you have a streamlined control deck, often you will only want two of a particular expensive creature to further reduce the chances of drawing one early on.
  • The 2/2 split. This is very similar to the 3/1 split discussed above, only in this instance you are more okay with drawing the two cards equally.
  • Additional copies of a four-of. Sometimes four just isn't enough. If there's a kind of spell that your deck really needs access to and the extra redundancy exists in the format, you can turn four copies of a card into six copies of a card. For example, you can play two Duress in addition to four Thoughtseize, or two Mana Tithe in addition to four Force Spike.

One Copy: You Never Know...

I'll just put this out there now: I'm a sucker for exciting one-ofs. And really, who isn't? You will seldom draw them, but that gives you the flexibility to make them game-changing cards that can turn the tide of the game if you manage to get them active.


  • A tutor target. If you're playing a way to search for individual cards, it makes sense to play one copy of a few cards in your deck. For the price of one card spot, you gain a ton of versatility every time you cast something like Demonic Tutor.
  • The game changer. You can play one copy of a card that is difficult to set up and not good all of the time, but incredible when it gets going. For example, Loxodon Warhammer was a popular one-of back when it was in Standard. It wasn't always good, but in the late game it could break board stalls and swing games.
  • Diversification. In addition to doing splits like mentioned earlier, slow control decks often want to play a mix of similar cards so they have extra options later in the game. Grave Titan, Sun Titan, and Wurmcoil Engine are all powerful endgame threats that will often win you the game on their own. However, in the games where which one you have actually matters, by playing multiple singletons you can chose which one is better for you if you draw two.
  • Additional copies of a four-of. This is the same as the entry in the section on two copies of cards.

There's Two Sideboards to Every Story

I'm only going to briefly touch on sideboarding today, but I wanted to lay some groundwork for future weeks.

Kessig Cagebreakers | Art by Wayne England

Sideboarding is incredibly underrated and is almost always a huge element of highly successful decks. The way a lot of people build sideboard might look something like this:

4 Anti-Red card
4 Removal
3 Naturalize
2 Graveyard hate
2 Hand/spell disruption

The process used to build this sideboard is simple: you look over the format and slot in cards that are good against specific decks like you're going down a grocery checklist. However, this doesn't help you nearly as much as a sideboard that is full of specific plans rather than cards.

When I build a sideboard, I'm not necessarily looking for hate cards—I'm looking for plans for a matchup. Sure, you can bring in your 3 Naturalizes against Tempered Steel, but what's your plan... blow up some artifacts and see what happens? That's not much of a plan.

A sideboard plan provides details for how you're going to attack a given matchup and is a much more effective way to sideboard. For example, a generalized plan against Tempered Steel might be,

"Sideboard in a bunch of removal spells and trade one-for-one until you can land a Curse of Death's Hold. Save Naturalizes for Tempered Steel so they can't defeat your Curse."


"Trade off creatures at every opportunity, holding Naturalize for Tempered Steel if possible, then use your sideboarded Kessig Cagebreakers to kill them in a couple attacks."

I might recommend some offbeat cards you wouldn't normally think of as "sideboard options"—but they all contribute to a plan. When building a sideboard, look for the overall plan of what you're moving in and out rather than just what each card does.

Open for Reconstruction

Now it's time to put all of this deck building theory into action. Send me your decks!

Here's how this is going to work out. Each week, I'm going to tell you any themes or restrictions you need to know for the next week. Then, you're going to send me a deck that meets those restrictions. In your email you need to send:

Helvault | Art by Jaime Jones

  • A decklist.
  • How the deck has performed so far and what problems you've noticed.
  • Any metagame trends you would like me to take into consideration.
  • Any card availability issues I should be wary of.
  • Anything else you feel is important that I know.

I'm not going to set a word cap on these, but I'll say this up front: I'm going to be looking through a lot of emails. The shorter you can make what you say, the easier it is for me to quickly process all of the information. Don't leave out anything important, but just make sure everything you include is important.

So with that all said, your guidelines for this week...

Format: Standard
Restrictions: Your deck must contain the card Helvault.
Send all decklists: Use the "comment on this article" function below by 6pm PST on Wednesday, March 28.

That's right—next week is Helvault Week here on DailyMTG! To stay on theme, all deck submissions must contain at least one Helvault.

It's great to have the opportunity to kick off a column, and it's only going to get better in the weeks to come. I can't wait to see what decks you guys have in store for me!

Let me know what you thought of this article or if you have any questions! Feel free to either leave a post in the forums with your thoughts, or contact me on Twitter @GavinVerhey. I read all of my tweets and reply to as many as I can, so send anything you'd like to talk about my way.

Until next week!


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