Building Your First Deck

Posted in Magic Academy on October 28, 2006

By Ted Knutson

Magic Academy is a column designed to help newer players get up to speed by teaching them more about the game and showing the resources available on the web for learning more. The column is written in linear fashion, like a book, so each lesson builds on material learned in previous articles. So, if you're new to the column, you can either start at the beginning or just check the articles so far to see where you'd like to begin. To see the column's table of contents or learn more, just go to the Magic Academy Welcome Page.

This column is written for players that can at least muddle their way through a game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game and don't know how to play at all, we recommend starting with and then returning to Magic Academy. Once you know the basics of getting through a game we'll take it from there!

So you want to build a deck, do you? You say all of your friends are doing it and now it's time for you to hop on the bandwagon. I see. Well, I'm not going to talk you out of it. Far from it, in fact. There's a time when every Magic player is required to step up and build a deck on their own. It is part of the long and winding path that every player must take in order to prove him or herself a fine magician. This article won't make you a master deck builder. That comes with practice and experience. But, as a newer player, this article will help you hit the ground running so you can get that experience and practice in the first place.

Find Your Focus

Smart_AssBy this point I assume you have some cards in your collection to build with. The trick will be choosing which specific ones to put in a deck. Regardless of how big your collection happens to be, I recommend choosing just two colors when building early decks. This makes it easier to figure out your mana base (which lands of which colors you will play in your deck), and also simplifies your life by a good chunk in your early days of slinging spells. There are literally thousands of Magic cards in print, and while you can take everything you own and mash it into one giant deck, you will be more successful if you narrow your options.

Some of you will take that "narrow your options" concept to an extreme though, and immediately hone in on just a single color. This is a solid idea - mono-color decks can certainly be successful. However, the reason I suggest running two colors in the early days is because playing with two colors gives you access to unique elements from each, and it lets you cover any weaknesses a single color might have. It's sort of like building a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Yes, you can make just a peanut butter sandwich or just a jelly sandwich, but the combination of the two gives you more flavor, helps prevent sugar overload, and makes it slightly less likely that you will walk around for the rest of the day with part of your sandwich stuck to the roof of your mouth.

In addition to focusing your deck around two colors, you are also going to want to try and stick to the 60 card minimum deck size for Constructed. There are numerous reasons why this is a good idea, but the primary one has to do with math. Lest I cause unneeded panic attacks or send you shrieking into the woods at this early juncture, allow me to couch said math in a metaphor so that it is more easily palatable. My mother, saint of a woman that she is, swears that she loves all of her children equally. I have no reason to believe my mother is lying, but I also know that I am the oldest, smartest, funniest, and most dashingly handsome of her children, and therefore suspect that in spite of her protestations to the contrary, my mother still loves me the most. Since my mother (secretly) loves me the most, she also wants to see me the most, therefore I am made deeply aware that not showing up at family functions saddens her. She only birthed three children instead of sixty, but I choose to believe that is because she knew she'd want to see me frequently from an early age, and if she had sixty kids I'd be a lot more likely to get lost in the crowd.

Like my mother, you may swear that you love all of your Magic cards equally, but I also suspect that you probably favor certain cards more than others, even if you don't tell them that. (You certainly can though, they like to hear it.) There are cards in your collection that you would be happy to see game after game, because like me, those cards are smart and devastatingly handsome. But, with the exception of basic lands, you can only have up to four copies of any given card in your deck. By only playing 60 cards in your deck, you make it more likely that those favorite cards show up at family gatherings (in Magic, we call them games and matches), thus making your deck more consistent in the way that it plays, and hopefully helping you win more. If you run more than 60 cards, you are making it less likely that you will see your favorite cards over the course of a game.

There, not only have I explained to you why playing only 60 cards is preferable to running 80 or 100 cards decks, I have also managed to totally creep you out with weird family dynamic to Magic metaphors. Soon you'll be thinking "Man, Serra Angel will be really angry if I don't show up at the barbecue on Sunday night..." and my work here will be done.

Now where were we? Oh yes, besides the two color thing and the 60 card thing, I also wanted to remind you that, as I mentioned above, you can only play four of any particular card in a deck. (The exception is basic lands, which do not have a limit.) This means that you can play 4 Llanowar Elves, 4 Wood Elves, and 4 Trained Armodons in a deck, but you cannot play 5 of any one of them. However, you can play 5, 15, or even 25 of Forest, Mountain, Plains, Swamp, or Island in your deck, should you so choose.

Creatures and Spells

Team_SpiritNow that you have presumably chosen two of the five colors to build your deck with, it is time to focus on what types of cards you have in those colors. Narrowing down to two may be tough at first, but remember, you'll be building lots of decks and you'll have plenty of opportunities to try all those other ideas you're interested in. That's the whole point of building decks in the first place: it's fun! For now, you just need a starting point.

The vast majority of decks are comprised of both spells and creatures, so as you are perusing your collection, keep an eye on what creatures you would like to play and what spells as well. The reasons you want to run both spells and creatures are to a) Give yourself variety in what you are going to play (just creatures can be boring for some players, while just spells often leads to a quick death for beginners), and b) To make things more difficult for your opponent by keeping them uncertain as to what you might play next. If they know that you are just going to play creatures, their job is pretty simple, since they will just need to focus their attention on the board when making plays. However, if you have some instants or sorceries in hand (like Giant Growth and Volcanic Hammer), then they have to worry about you killing their creatures both in and out of combat. Keeping opponents off-balance is always a good thing.

In the early days, I suggest building decks with around 24 creatures, 12 spells, and 24 land. Obviously these numbers are not set in stone, so if you want to make a deck with a 20/16/24 configuration, then go right ahead. Advice in this article and all articles in this series is meant to be a guideline, not a hard rule.

A Few Words About Mana Curve

When building your decks, there's another concept that you will want to keep in mind called mana curve. Mana curve simply refers to an imaginary graph of how expensive the spells in your deck are. If you were to take the time to plot the converted mana cost of all the spells in your deck, what kind of shape would they create? Would the shape be a gradual slope? A Bell curve? A vertical line? For the most part, you are going to want to have spells and/or creatures at the two, three, four, and five spot in your mana curve at least. The reason that's important is because, given your choice, it's usually better to have something relevant to do on as many turns as possible. But, if all your cards cost too much, you'll have to wait too long to get in the game. The flip side is a deck with only extremely cheap cards, which runs the risk of using up all its cards too quickly, or not having more powerful cards to use once you have more land in play.

This concept as a whole is important enough that we will spend more time on it in future articles, but for a beginner the thing to keep in mind is that when possible you'd like to include cards that have a nice balance of costs. Expensive spells can be more powerful, but you'll want other things to do while you're building up the mana to cast those big spells.

That's all pretty theoretical, so let's switch to the practical for a bit and actually build a deck so that you can see a mana curve in action. I'm going to build this deck entirely from Magic's current Core Set (9th Edition), and choose green and red as the colors I am going to build around for no other reason than I like efficient creatures backed by burn spells.

Here's what the deck looks like without any mana added to it yet:

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Grizzly Bears
4 Elvish Warrior
4 Trained Armodon
3 Order of the Sacred Bell
2 Llanowar Behemoth
2 Shivan Dragon
1 Verdant Force
4 Blanchwood Armor
4 Shock
4 Volcanic Hammer

And, thanks to the handy screens of Magic Online (a little more on this later) here's what the stats for this deck look like. For now, pay particular attention to that mana curve area on the lower left.

So what we have here is a Red/Green deck composed of mostly cheap creatures and burn spells, plus Blanchwood Armor, since I figure the deck is likely to play a lot of Forests. The deck is not all cheap creatures though - there are definitely some fatties like Llanowar Behemoth, Shivan Dragon, and Verdant Force at the very top of the curve. There aren't too many fatties though, because those guys are expensive and having too many in the deck would cause them to just sit in our hand unused until we finally draw enough mana to cast them. Thus we have a deck with elves, dragons, elephants, lightning and flaming balls of fire - your typical summer barbecue in Seattle.

Looking just at the mana curve, notice the heavy emphasis on playing cards (particularly creatures) in the earlier turns of the game. That marks this deck as an aggressive deck, designed to attack and burn your opponent into submission. We'll come back to the types of decks at a later date, but I wanted to mention that knowing what type of deck you are playing also helps you know what that deck's plan is. Since this is an aggressive deck, it is designed to attack and get damage in early, while using its burn to either finish an opponent off, or clear away an opponent's creatures. The fatties in the deck are designed to mop up whatever is left of your opponent after they have spent their resources on dealing with the rest of your creatures.

Building Your Mana Base

All right, now that we know what creatures and spells we are playing, it is time to figure out what lands we are going to play. The land composition of any deck is generally referred to as its mana base. Building a great mana base is one of the trickiest elements of Magic deck design, and getting it exactly right is as much art as it is science. Luckily, for those of you out there who are not yet Picasso when it comes to building Magic decks, there are some basic (though slightly technical) guidelines to help you out.

A) First add up all of the colored mana symbols in the top right corner of all of your cards. This will help you determine the proportion of lands for each color that you will need to run.

B) Next, figure out if there's anything special about your mana costs that you should be aware of. This includes cards that have double symbols to cast them, or any creatures that may have colored activated abilities in their text box.

Right now we have both Elvish Warrior and Trained Armodon that need double green early, and Shivan Dragon that wants double red late and has red as an activated ability. We also are playing Blanchwood Armor, which wants Forests to make it really good, but it will be important that we be able to cast Shock and Volcanic Hammer in the early turns of the game. Additionally, Llanowar Elves produce green mana once they are in play.

In short, in spite of the fact that this is a simple deck, there are still surprising number of factors to be weighed when building a mana base. Hence the comment earlier about how this is as much art as it is a science.

C) Divide your colored lands equally to the proportion of mana symbols in your deck, but err slightly towards the middle when one color is heavy and the other is very light.

What I mean by this is that our deck right now shows 38 green and 12 red mana symbols, for approximately a 3 to 1 ratio. We also know that we will want to cast our removal spells early, so we will need to have one red mana on the board to do this. Therefore, instead of playing 18 Forests and 6 Mountains, I would actually run 16 Forests and 8 Mountains (a 2 to 1 ratio), thus erring towards the middle and playing slightly more of the underrepresented color. One additional note on this specific build is that we might be playing one or two more land than is actually required by the deck. This is something you would typically discover by playing this deck against others and learning what minor tweaks should be made in the deck's design. I stuck to 24 here mostly just to stick with the earlier guidelines. Like everything else when it comes to building decks, the key is to then play a bunch and see what you think needs adjusting.

I'm going to leave this topic now, lest I bog you down with too much technical stuff, but know that we will come back to it eventually, particularly since we're only dealing with basic lands here, and you're definitely going to want to include other ways to help get the right mana into play. Also be aware that there is additional reading listed below that has a lot more to say on this topic than I have included here.

Side Note about Magic Online: You know that part about mana curves and also the part about adding up the mana symbols in your deck? Well, if you're playing on Magic Online it will do all of this for you automagically when you are building decks in the program. All you have to do to see it is click on the "Stats" button. In fact, Magic Online is capable of producing a ton of useful information when it comes to deckbuilding, many of which are beyond the scope of today's article. Regardless, I highly recommend you check it out if you get a chance.


We have now fleshed out the maindeck, but there's one extra item you might not be aware of: a sideboard. Sideboards are an additional group of 15 cards that you can bring into your deck after game one of a multi-game match. The reason for doing this is that not all cards are good against all decks, so this gives you a chance to trade out the bad ones for your given match-up and replace them with more useful cards.

Sideboards have to be exactly 15 cards or 0 cards, and you trade them into your deck on a one-for-one basis for any games in a match after the first. So, if it's the second game in a best-of-three match and you want to bring in 5 cards against a particular deck, you have to take 5 other cards out.

Sideboards are typically created to combat a specific set of decks you know you are likely to be facing. This set of decks is what we in the community like to call the "metagame." Say, for example, that you know you are likely to play your friend Bob who likes to run decks with a lot of fliers, plus your friend Dave who likes to play decks with lots of Islands in them, and your pal Kenji, who tends to play decks with tons of artifacts. Well, for fliers you could side in Needle Storm and Silklash Spider, for decks with Islands you might consider something like Boiling Seas, and for artifacts you could play some combination of Naturalize and Viridian Shaman. Sculpting these needs into a sideboard gives us something that looks like this:

3 Silklash Spider
2 Needle Storm
4 Boiling Seas
3 Naturalize
3 Viridian Shaman

Sideboarding is another one of those topics that is relatively simple on the surface, but can get pretty complex, particularly if and when you get to the point where you're playing in tournaments. Just as you will occasionally wish the minimum deck size was 70 instead of 60 (because you're finding it hard to cut enough cards to get down to that minimum) you will frequently find yourself wishing that sideboards were allowed to be 20 cards instead of the usual 15, but that's just part of the glory of Magic.

Now, all that said, though sideboards are required for most tournaments, not all casual groups use them. So, if you're building this deck to play against friends around a kitchen table, just check with them if they use sideboards or not.

Wrapping It All Up

As I said early on, this article is just to get you started. Throw something together from your collection, then play the heck out of it. Find out what works and what doesn't, and then see what changes you can make with all that in mind. Great deck building takes a lot of practice. Even the game's most famous deck designers will tell you that most of what they try doesn't pan out as they hoped, but that's part of the fun. Keep at it and you'll learn as you go. We'll be covering more advanced deck building concepts as the column progresses, but in the meantime have a blast trying different things and finding out what works best and what you have the most fun playing. Keep trying different color combinations, getting a feel for what each brings to the table. As you get a better feel for each color's strengths and weaknesses, you can start trying single-colored decks with more success. Keep trying new things and I bet you'll be surprised at just how quickly you start getting a much better feel for how the game works, and you'll have a lot of fun in the process, which is the whole point.

Now that I have filled your brain with tasty deckbuilding morsels, I shall take my leave. Tune in next week, when we do the hokey-pokey and turn ourselves around. Oh, and don't forget to check out the outstanding material that's included in the additional reading section below. Thousands of intelligent Magic players have written millions of words about the game already, and the links below offer advice and stories from the very best players and writers alike.

Additional Reading

Mine_Mine_MineJust a few months into his run on our Building on a Budget column, Ben Bleiweiss turned in Deckbuilding 101: 5 Tips for Better Deckbuilding. While this article discusses some of the material already covered above, it also features a lot of different material as well, presented in Ben's own unique style. In fact, if you are interested in learning more about building Constructed decks, check out the archives of the Building on a Budget column, which features years of excellent material geared towards novice deckbuilders.

Pro Tour winner and former Magic R&D columnist and intern Zvi Mowshowitz wrote an outstanding (and lengthy) set of articles dubbed "My Fires" describing how he and his team built one of the best decks at Pro Tour--Chicago from the ground up. Zvi takes a lot of beginner knowledge for granted, but nestled in the seven parts of this series is a master course on basic and advanced deckbuilding. For beginning deck builders, this is a chance to see the kinds of things advanced players take into account when putting together their homebrew concoctions.

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:
Part 5:
Part 6:
The End:

Additionally, for those who were not around when the column was active, you should definitely check out Zvi's column "The Play's the Thing", a play advice column that can take the knowledge of a future Hall of Fame player and pipe it directly into your brain. It doesn't have much to do with deck building, but I figured since I mentioned Zvi, I should also mention TPTT. My column assumes you can at least muddle your way through a game, and Zvi's column is a great way to improve those playing skills.

For those looking for more material on mana curves, there have been a lot of seminal works on this topic, but two oldies immediately come to mind. The first is an article by Eric Taylor (typically referred to as "edt") called Free Tech: Plugging the Mana Holes and the second is one by Seth Burn that specifically deals with aggressive deck design (what he refers to as Sligh theory) called Sligh Theory and the Mana Curve. Seth's article in particular clarifies a lot of what is written above in ways that I did not want to immediately delve into today because they would make the article more complex than the series is ready for.

It's not often that you get Ph.D.'s writing articles for beginners, but that seems to be Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar's calling when it comes to Magic. In addition to stints on, JMS has also written frequently over the years for this very site, including his most recent stint piloting Building on a Budget. Those of you looking for more in-depth information on building mana bases should check out JMS's excellent "Five Rules For Avoiding Mana-Screw," as it is practically required reading for every new deckbuilder in Magic.

Lastly, when it comes to deck building columns, you'll definitely want to read the House of Cards column if you find you get your best kicks from the creative process of building decks. House of Cards, currently written by Chris Millar, is dedicated to the fun of building goofy decks and crazy combos with an emphasis on wild decks for the casual arena.

One final item I wanted to introduce here is the forum thread on the Dictionary Deck-O-Pedia. Magic has a tradition of players giving decks names. If you what people are talking about then a deck's name is a handy discussion shortcut, but for newer players all those deck names can be bewildering. The Dictionary Deck-O-Pedia is a collective community project that has attempted to define nearly every named deck that has ever existed in Magic, complete with example deck lists and explanations. If you're looking for a good lesson in Magic history, archetype building, or just have too much time on your hands, I recommend you check out this invaluable resource. Since so many popular decks have cryptic names, it's also a great way to look up what decks people are talking about when you don't know those decks by name, something that's particularly handy for newer players that probably haven't heard of any of those deck names in the first place!

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