Top 8 Ways to Improve Your Deck Building

Posted in Reconstructed on November 25, 2014

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 Top 8 Week here on DailyMTG!

Today, I want to take you to a place where Top 8 lists and competitive deck building collide. If you're looking to get better at building decks and choosing them for tournaments, then this is for you!

Incremental Growth | Art by Clint Cearley

Today's article features my Top 8 tips for working on tournament-level decks. Let's hop right into it!

#1—Learn the Format

One of the best ways to build a deck for a format is to know the intricacies of how all the decks in the format work.

Whenever I would enter a new season of competitive Magic play, the first thing I would do, rather than build my own deck, was to play all of the other decks in the format extensively. Get to know how they work. Learn their strengths—and especially their weaknesses.

It shouldn't really come as any surprise, but it's easier to figure out how to beat a deck when you know how it tends to lose. Once you spend time playing all of the other decks, not only will you know how to play against them better, but you can work toward building something new with all of those other decks in mind.

Another huge advantage not to be understated of knowing the format is how much easier it becomes to switch decks.

If you learn how to play one deck against the format then what you've accomplished is learning the ins and outs of how one deck interacts with another. If you instead learn how all of the decks interact with each other, then you can switch to a different deck without nearly as much difficulty: you may have already played it or something like it, and you likely know how this deck plans to play out against you. That way, when, say, a new deck shows up at a Grand Prix and you want to play it in the PTQ the next weekend, you may already have a strong idea of how to play it or what it's good against.

Learning one deck is useful. Learning an entire format is perspective-changing.

#2—Don't Be Afraid to Play the Top Decks

I know, I know, it's a bit of a buzzkill. But it is a true, simple, and important maxim. If you are playing to win a tournament, there is nothing wrong with playing one of the established best decks.

A good friend of mine, Dan Hanson, once asked me this simple question: "Is your goal in Magic to prove how much smarter you are than your opponent, or is it to win?"

And while the two can often intersect, they don't always need to or have to. And I also want to stress: this is for competitive deck building. There's nothing wrong with doing something fun or goofy when you're building for Friday Night Magic. But when it's time for a PTQ or Grand Prix and your goal is to win every match possible, you have to ask yourself: "Why am I playing something other than one of the well-known 'best decks?'"

Back in the summer of 2008, Shadowmoor was new and Block Constructed season was in full swing. The boogeyman of the format, of course, was the ubiquitous Faeries deck. The combination of Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, and Mistbind Clique alongside Cryptic Command and Thoughtseize made for a true monster of a deck.

After a couple failed PTQs playing non-Faeries decks, I finally just decided I would try playing the deck. Clearly there must be something to this Faeries thing, right?

I won a PTQ for Pro Tour Berlin playing Faeries just a few weeks later.

While I still always tried to innovate for events after that one, I also had no problem just picking up a tried-and-true deck, tuning it to the best of my ability, and playing that. There's no shame in choosing to play an established deck.

#3—Play and Build to Your Skill Level

One seldom-discussed, yet absolutely important, aspect of Magic is playing to your skill level.

Humans, in general, have a tough time self-evaluating properly. Asking to do so with your Magic skill can be tricky. But if you have an idea of how good of a player you are, it can do a lot for informing what deck you should play.

For example, let's say you're a less-experienced player and you're headed to a Grand Prix. I wouldn't recommend picking up the most complicated deck in the format no matter how cool it looks. There are going to be people at that tournament who can play it better than you can, and you are more likely to make an error when playing it that your opponent can capitalize on. With a simpler, more straightforward deck, you have less of a margin for error when playing through so many rounds of Magic.

This can also apply to individual deck-building decisions. Do you think you're a strong player and one of the few ways you can easily lose is if your opponent casts Umezawa's Jitte? Well, then you can play some added ways to kill artifacts to help mitigate that.

#4—Playtest, Playtest, Playtest!

...and then when you're done with that, playtest some more.

Once you've honed in on a deck you want to play, you should be playing and tuning it as much as possible. Many of the best tournaments I've ever had come from knowing my deck inside and out, in every possible situation, so well that I could make almost all of my decisions instantaneously. (Which helps you to focus better on the other hundred elements of Magic, like what cards your opponent might have in hand.)

This is just as important for tuning a deck as it is for learning to play it. In a long event, like a PTQ or Grand Prix, the small elements of your deck can make a big difference. Is it better to play 4 Doom Blade or split it 2 Doom Blade 2 Murderous Cut? Should you have Stormbreath Dragon or Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker in your deck—and in what ratios? These tuning elements can go a long way. It's tempting to theorycraft your way to the top—but nothing can substitute for playtesting.

I playtested a ton—and still, one of the top things I would have changed about my Magic career if I were to go back would be to playtest even more than I already did. It's almost impossible to playtest too much.

#5—Focus on Sideboards

It's easy to let your sideboard take a backseat to the main deck. They are seldom nearly as interesting and often they are full of utility cards.

In reality, your sideboard is one of the most important elements of your entire deck.

You're going to play way more games in tournaments sideboarded than unsideboarded. A good sideboard can make or break an entire matchup. Not knowing how your opponent might sideboard could ruin your entire plan: why bother bringing in Back to Nature for their enchantments if common wisdom is for them to sideboard out their enchantments?

Too often, sideboards are cobbled together at the last minute or thrown together happenstance. I'm plenty guilty of it too. But it's something worth dedicating some serious time to.

Playtest with sideboards, and spend time honing yours. It will go a long way in a tournament.

#6—Don't Ignore Your Mana Base

Similar to sideboards, the exciting part of your deck are all of the sweet spells you get to cast. Oh man—you have Siege Rhino and Elspeth and Wingmate Roc and...the list goes on.

However, without any lands, those cards aren't going to do you much good. Knowing how many lands your deck wants to play and which ones—especially in this Khans of Tarkir world—will go a long way.

I feel like it's been a while since I've whipped this one out, so:

Image source: ChannelFireball

In general, one of the largest mistakes I see newer players make is to not include enough lands in their decks.

If you're an aggressive deck, you're normally going to be looking at around 21–24 lands depending on your mana curve. If you're a midrange deck, you're generally in the range of 24–26. In a control deck, usually I start at 26 and go up from there.

Especially right now, there are enough lands with added effects (like the Temples from Theros block) that you have plenty of great options. Play plenty of games, look at the color distribution of the cards in your deck, and play the mana base your deck deserves.

#7—Innovate with Reason

I love innovating new decks and ways to play with underused cards, and I do it whenever I can. However, harkening a bit back to point #2, it's important you do it with a reason other than "I want to be unique."

Whenever you add an unorthodox card into your deck, you should be asking yourself, "Is this better than another option?" If the answer is yes, that's great! You might have just found a really cool new card for this deck. But if the answer is no, you don't really have a good argument for it being there. Tournaments don't award style points.

The same is true for decks. If you make a new deck that has similar matchups to another deck in the format but with generally worse outcomes, then why aren't you playing that other deck? There can be reasons—but it needs to be compelling. Innovation is important for Magic and very fun—but before running headfirst into a PTQ with your deck, make sure you're innovating for the right reasons and not just for the sake of being different.

#8—Have Multiple Angles of Attack

Out of the many pieces of advice I bring up when working on decks, this is one of the most common—and one of the most important.

In today's age of deck building, most of the strongest decks you can build have multiple game plans they can take on if you need to. Whether you're playing against a burn deck or a control deck, whether your opponent plans to kill every creature you cast or only cast creatures him- or herself, making sure you're prepared for all of those is crucial.

Often I'm sent decks that revolve around a single combination, and if the deck doesn't draw it then everything falls to pieces. The primary tweak I make in these cases is to find ways for the rest of the deck to still function and be strong even without drawing these pieces, instead of having the rest of the deck just prop up the central combo.

When you're building your deck, ask two very important questions: "What will happen if I don't draw my most important cards?" and "How am I going to fight against every kind of deck and am I poorly equipped against any of them?" The answers to those two questions will tell you so much about what your deck might be missing.

Venerable Lammasu | Art by YW Tang

Closing Time

It's really crazy to type this but here I go: 2014 is nearly over.

In just two weeks, it'll be the last ReConstructed article before the holiday break! (Although not actually the final one of the year because of how Fate Reforged previews pan out.) I have some plans for what I want to write about in the article in two weeks, so there's no deck submission challenge for this week.

Instead, if you have any questions or thoughts on this article at all, I'd love to hear from you about them! Feel free to contact me on Twitter or Tumblr and I'd be more than happy to hear about what you thought.


Otherwise, I'll be back next week with a look at Unified Standard as we jump right into Worlds Week. Talk with you then!


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