How to Build Like a Pro

Posted in How to Build on February 2, 2016

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

So you want to build a Magic deck? And not just any deck, but a deck that wins? A deck that's smooth and powerful and synergistic?

Maybe you want to beat your friends, maybe you want to win your local FNM or PPTQ. Today I'm going to talk about some basic guidelines of how to build a Magic deck like a pro. Maybe I can inspire you in creating your first tournament-winning deck!

This weekend is Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. Pro players from around the world are gathering in Atlanta to play with the newest cards. The Constructed format, Modern, is very likely to contain some new Oath cards—especially the mighty Eldrazi—but for the purposes of this article I'm going to be talking about Standard. After all, Standard is one of the most played formats. Three out of the four Pro Tours every year are Standard, and it's the most popular FNM format. Plus, I want to build a deck with lots of new and exciting Oath of the Gatewatch cards!

In my last article I touched on disruptive aggro decks, so today we're going to build a black and colorless disruptive aggro deck featuring many new Eldrazi from Oath of the Gatewatch. "Disruptive aggro" is a term we use to describe a deck that is trying to be as aggressive as possible while also disrupting the opponent with removal, discards, and counterspells. Think Delver of Secrets or Faeries. This type of aggro deck is much different from a pure aggro deck, or a deck that is super aggressive and does its thing while ignoring what the opponent is doing, such as Atarka Red or Sligh.

Now onto the guidelines!

1. Have a Solid Plan, Play Cards That Matter

The most important thing to remember when building your deck is that it must actually do something. We don't want to play a deck that is just a pile of cards we like with no cohesive strategy. Our deck must have a purpose. It must have an end goal. Maybe you are trying to attack your opponent with small creatures as quickly as possible. Maybe you are trying to fill up your graveyard with creatures and then return them all to the battlefield with Rally the Ancestors. The cards you choose for your deck must contribute to its game plan.

For our Eldrazi deck, our plan is to attack our opponent with creatures and disrupt their plan using discard spells and creature removal. We need to play efficient low-cost creatures so that we can start attacking as quickly as possible. Sludge Crawler, Reaver Drone, and Bearer of Silence are all great options for what our deck is trying to do. Ghostfire Blade also helps contribute to this plan. Granting +2/+2 greatly speeds up the clock, especially when equipped to a creature with flying or trample.

We also need some disruption. Playing black gives us access to discard spells such as Duress and Transgress the Mind, and Thought-Knot Seer doubles as both a creature and a discard spell! Wasteland Strangler and Bearer of Silence are more examples of creatures that serve two purposes. They help end the game through attacking and they also stop the opponent from executing their own game plan by removing their creatures from the battlefield. Reality Smasher is another creature that disrupts the opponent. If they try to kill it, they must also discard a card. If they have no cards left, Reality Smasher will make short work of your opponent.

Think you're going to win? I thought not.

Another important aspect of deck building is synergy. When choosing cards for your deck, it's best to choose cards that work well with other cards in your deck. For example, Wasteland Strangler is an important card in our deck. We want to have ways to exile our opponent's cards so that we can always trigger its ability. If we are deciding between including Duress and Transgress the Mind, Duress may seem like the stronger card because it's one mana cheaper and has more options of cards to remove, but Transgress the Mind actually exiles the opponent's card and acts as fuel for Wasteland Strangler. Transgress the Mind is a much better choice for our deck.

We also have a colorless-creatures-matter strategy. Reaver Drone can slowly kill us unless we have another colorless creature in play, and Ghostfire Blade becomes much stronger if all of our creatures are colorless. We may be tempted to include a more aggressive one-drop like Bloodsoaked Champion in our deck, but it's better synergy to have only colorless creatures to make our colorless-matters cards better.

2. Mana Curve Is Important!

Most Magic players have probably heard the term "mana curve" before, but not many players actually know what that means.

Mana curve refers to how expensive each of the spells in your deck are. If you take your 60-card deck and put each spell in a pile based on how much mana it costs, how many cards are in each pile? If you were to plot the converted mana cost of those spells onto a graph, what would that graph look like?

Most Standard Magic decks have many spells that cost two, three, and four mana, and fewer spells that cost one or less and five or more. The graph would look something like a bell curve, which is where the term "mana curve" comes from. Generally, aggressive decks want to have most of their spells costing one, two, and three mana, with only a handful costing four and five. Here's our deck's mana curve.

Mana curve is the most important aspect of deck building. Playing spells "on curve" (playing a one-mana spell on turn one, a two-mana spell on turn two, and so on) will greatly increase the tempo—or speed—at which your deck operates. For example, let's say you play all of your spells on curve, but your opponent plays nothing on turn one, a two-mana spell on turn two, a two-mana spell on turn three, a two-mana spell on turn four, and so on. By the time it is turn six, you will have played much more powerful spells than your opponent and are likely further ahead in the game. You play your best Magic when you use all of your mana every turn.

Once you get to turn six and beyond, it's very likely that you have run out of spells to play. This is why it's essential to have things to do when you're out of cards but have lots of mana. We refer to these as "mana sinks."

In our Eldrazi disruptive aggro deck, we have a few cards that act as mana sinks. Bearer of Silence is an aggressive two-drop that you are more than happy casting on turn two to get in some early beats, but later on in the game when you have a lot of mana, you can spend that extra 1C for a little bonus. Hangarback Walker and Sludge Crawler are our other mana sinks. Hangarback walker is usually cast for two mana as a 1/1, but late in the game you can "sink" your mana into it and cast it for X equals 3 or even X equals 4. Additionally, Sludge Crawler has an activated ability that you can use to make it bigger until end of turn. With all of these mana sinks, it's very unlikely that you'll ever have mana unspent.

3. Have the Correct Mana Base

The right mana base is essential in having a tournament-winning deck. It's often tricky to get the mana right in decks that are more than one color. There's a lot to think about when constructing a mana base. For example, let's say you are playing an Abzan deck. You could just add Forests, Swamps, and Plains to your deck and call it a day, but that would probably result in you drawing Swamps when you need Forests and Plains when you need Swamps, so we need to look into other options.

There are plenty of lands that help fix your mana. In Abzan, we have lands such as Sandsteppe Citadel, Blossoming Sands, and Jungle Hollow. While these lands are great at fixing mana, they all come into play tapped—which means that you'll be operating at a turn behind in games you play. You'll see many pro players build their decks with fetch lands such as Windswept Heath and Wooded Foothills and battle lands such as Canopy Vista. These lands are rare and therefore harder to come by than their common and uncommon counterparts, but your deck will operate so much more smoothly with them.

Another thing to think about is playing lands that have abilities besides adding mana. Creature lands like Shambling Vent and Hissing Quagmire are great at this. Early in the game, they help you get the colors you need, and later in the game you can use them to attack or block. They are also great mana sinks!

Our Eldrazi deck is only one color, black, but we have cards that require colorless mana as well. Standard has many lands that provide both black and colorless mana, such as Llanowar Wastes, Caves of Koilos, and Corrupted Crossroads. We'll definitely want to play four of each of these so that we'll have better odds of drawing both of our "colors" early in the game.

We also want to play lands that have non-mana-producing activated abilities. Luckily for us, there are plenty of options in Standard right now. I've included Blighted Fen, Ruins of Oran-Rief, and Sea Gate Wreckage. Ruins of Oran-Rief just makes all of your creatures better. I recommend using it with Hangarback Walker. Sea Gate Wreckage is another one of those mana sinks I talked about earlier. It keeps you in the game when you have run out of cards, which is a great resource for an aggressive deck to have. Blighted Fen has an expensive activated ability, but when you can use it, it's quite powerful. It's great at removing creatures with hexproof or creatures with indestructible such as Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.

Wrapping Up

We've gone over three very important aspects of deck building, and these guidelines are commonly used by pro players when building decks. So what does our final deck look like?

Melissa's Disruptive Aggro Eldrazi

Download Arena Decklist

Our Eldrazi deck has everything we need. A solid game plan, plenty of things to do at all points on our mana curve, enough mana sinks, and a great mana base. I'm looking forward to giving it a try at a future FNM!

I hope this article has provided you with some insight in how professional Magic players build and think about decks. As always, any feedback is appreciated through my Twitter account @MelissaDeTora. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

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