Deckbuilding is part of any trading card game. It is a long process and some players are not really good at it. If you are not a good deck builder you should build some decks. Deckbuilding will help you learn a lot about the game itself, the metagame and cards. It will allow you to see things from different angles and will make you a better player.
My Story: How Sidisi Whip Was Born
I started with a 14 tix investment so I could enter a draft and from there I started growing my collection. My aim was Legacy and Vintage but before I got there I sometimes wanted to play a constructed format instead of limited. The fact that I couldn't afford the decks I played in paper forced me to think in a rogue way - to think outside the box. In paper I created Abzan Control which wasn't the cheapest deck out there. I had to accept the reality that I wouldn't be able to play Abzan Control online and I tried to build a deck on budget that could still compete in the meta I knew - competitive Standard.
This was the deck I was used to playing in paper at PPTQs, WMCQs and GP. It was a good deck, but it seemed that I wouldn't be able to afford the deck on Magic Online at all. I was wrong.
When I build my decks I work with all cards that are available and then get them but in this case I couldn't do that since all my tix went into eternal staples. My Standard decks at that moment were UW Heroic (1 tix), mono red heroic (1 tix), BW Warriors (4 tix). I wanted to try something more interesting. I like abusing the graveyard as a resource. I started with commons and uncommons using the graveyard as a resource and Delve cards. The very first deck wasn't any good but it worked well in terms of deck synergy. Gurmag Angler and Hooting Mandrills were my beaters. To be able to cast them fast I needed ways to mill my deck. That's how Satyr Wayfinder and Nyx Weaver found their ways in the deck along with other cards using graveyard or self-milling (Commune with the Gods, Scout the Borders). As I was drafting I was adding new cards I found worthy putting in the deck. Sidisi, Brood Tyrant is a card that I immediately fell in love with. I bought the remaining three copies (cost 1.5USD) because it seemed to be the real deal for Standard. To be able to use the milled creatures I added Whip of Erebos and a base for a deck that became 4c Sidisi Whip was born. Later, I drafted some Tasigurs, fetchlands, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and added those to the deck as those were simply upgrades. My deck was very slow Sylvan Caryatid did not help that much. I needed something to survive Atarka red decks. Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow were the cards I was looking for but they were out of my reach at that time. I also felt the need to play Courser of Kruphix but the card cost even more. I was lucky though Courser of Kruphix just spawned on my account one day when a new season began. The most strange addition to my deck was Disdainful Stroke. With 'strange' I mean it was the card no one was expecting. That was a card I was dying to try badly when playing Abzan Control and I wanted to play it in my 'budget' deck because after all it was able to counter exactly the spells I needed to get rid of. Siege Rhino was practically everywhere. The card was also the reason why the deck was 4c. Splashing Siege Rhino helped my budget deck a lot and I kept the card in even when budget wasn't a concern anymore.
One day when all my paper decks were at a nearby Grand Prix (7 hours driving), I wanted to participate in a local event. I decided to put together the Sidisi Whip deck and bring it to the event. Raised eyebrows and unpleasant comments were signs of people not really appreciating my home brew deck. I had lots of fun with it and I did fairly well (meaning I did not get utterly crushed). I missed Hero's Downfall. I played Sultai Charm and Murderous Cut as my only removal but that didn't help against planeswalkers. I liked my deck so much that I brought it to a GPT next weekend. This time though I upgraded it with all the cards I couldn't afford on Magic Online - Courser of Kruphix, Temple of Malady, Thoughtseize, Llanowar Wastes, remaining fetchlands etc. The deck was fun, difficult to pilot and certainly competitive. Some players tried playing with my deck and struggled with it. I wondered if it was just me being good with the deck and my opponents were just caught unaware by it or if the deck could possibly become a tier 1 deck (Abzan Control obviously became one, even though Abzan Aggro was deemed better). Soon though similar decks showed up at GPs and SCG Opens and IQs. I wasn't wrong about the deck. Its popularity wasn't big but it showed up on the competitive scene. The most common version though was BUG. Some players also packed Siege Rhinos (and Soul of Theros). How could anyone play a deck without Siege Rhino, or rather a crash of Rhinos?
In theory this deck could run a solid mana base. But who could afford Temple of Malady costing 18tix! Jungle Hollow, occasional Temple of Mystery and hell a lot of basics had to do. This fact made the deck slower and I often was ending my matches within the last two minutes of my timer. At that time you had to click every single card to put it somewhere 'Any order' option wasn't available yet.
Looking back at this period I have to admit I had a lot of fun with Standard, something I rarely had in the past. I knew the metagame, I built my own decks and I could play with any deck fairly well. It made me a good Standard player back then but without building my own deck I would probably struggle and wouldn't be able to adapt fast or switch or tweak decks easily.
If one wants to be a successful player they need to understand the metagame and need to be able to play decks of their choice well. Competitive players often just copy a winning deck list and start playing with that to learn how the deck operates and beats the rest of the field. Those players trying to actively understand the deck will have more potential to be successful. But even just through playing a lot, players get proficient with the deck and can pilot it well. This though does not help them understand the metagame and cards, it won't show them how to use certain cards on the fly. If you think I'm wrong try building your own deck in a format you do not currently know and then see what it taught you.
I played Standard briefly because of Standard premier events. Like others players I copied (note this is the first time I've done this) a deck list and entered a competitive environment headfirst without prior experience. I learned that I wasn't ready to play at that level. Even Standard is a complex format even if it may be the simplest of the constructed formats. BG Delirium was a good deck nonetheless, it was obviously good at winning even in my hands. I was ashamed by my performance though and I did not even like what I saw from Standard - UW Flash, BG Delirium, RG Marvel and Mardu Vehicles. After a certain top 8 match that was pure torture I decided not to play with the deck or the format anymore. After reading some comments and articles about how Standard is not actually a bad format I decided to give it a second chance. I entered a Friendly Standard League and encountered 5 totally strange decks. None of the players was happy to see my deck and sent bad remarks my way, but I saw a lot of creativity and decks that actually worked and it sparked my interest. Maybe I could choose a card I like and build a deck around it, not having PPTQ grinding in mind.
In the text below I will summarize what is important if you want to build a good deck or become a better player in general. I use Constructed Standard as an example but it applies to any Constructed and Limited format.
Each of us is capable of building a deck but how we analyze our decks, play with them and tweak them to their final forms is what differentiates us. Some of us use only one perspective when deckbuilding. Other use more perspectives. We can look at the deck from top-down perspective where we look at the good cards we want the deck to be built around and proceed to the support cards and sideboard. Or we can look from at it bottom-up where we rather try to figure out what our deck lacks. Usually many of us just look at a card and want to build a deck around it. This is a good approach but not necessarily the best approach to build a competitive deck. I used this approach after I put Delirium aside. I was fascinated by two cards in Standard but haven't really seen either of them being played - Whirler Virtuoso and Dynavolt Tower. Dynavolt Tower is very restricting in deckbuilding terms - it requires Instants, Sorceries, and Energy. The card itself is a good win condition though so this limitation is not bad. Whirler Virtuoso on the other hand is a card that could find its way into different decks. While the card is Red and Blue the best color to play it in is Green which has the best Energy producing cards. These two cards could even be played in the same deck but I decided to go for a rather aggressive deck featuring Whirler Virtuoso and UR 'Counterburn' with Dynavolt Tower. Funny thing, Harnessed Lightning feels like Skred.
Step 0 - 'Choose your destiny'
Before we can start building our decks we should answer a few questions first. Each of us needs to build a deck for some reason and that should also direct our deck building process. It can be a deck for upcoming PPTQ season, casual meetings in a local pub, or demo decks for a local gaming convention. The reasons why we build decks are also different because the reasons why we play the game are different. For some players playing with a deck they like is the utmost fun, for some winning no matter what the player pilots comes first. Some players like to do crazy stuff, some players like their decks to be very streamlined, some players like their decks to be rather of singleton nature and high variance. No matter what our goals for deckbuilding are the rules for deckbuilding are the same. You don't need to follow all the steps all the time but once in a while it is a good thing to do. It will make you a better player even if you won't realize that. You will earn new skills that may not be that important in a constructed format but will help you become a better limited player (if you are a limited player already you have a huge advantage in constructed). The examples I use are from pre-ban Standard constructed and I will talk about competitive deckbuilding because competitive Standard is what I played at that time. Those are just examples though, because all I will talk about holds true for deckbuilding in general no matter the format, no matter the power level.
In any game or activity we do in our lives we are more comfortable doing certain things than doing something else. In Magic we should be aware of what kind of players we are and also how skilled we are. This may be a bit tricky to identify. Write down some things that define you as a player. Here are just few things that come to my mind about me:
- Creature combat scares me
- I can play complex decks but I'm not capable of running highly synergistic decks that require many permanents in play - MUD decks in general
- I operate more on hidden information than the one present in front of me
- I'm good at waging attrition wars
- I'm good at switching roles, while control is where I would want to be
- I do not enjoy decks that do not give many options
- I can play combo decks
- I like/need to be reactive
- I need to feel that I control the game/opponent or play noninteractive all-in combo deck
Just from these few things you can see that I'm well suited for control or combo-control decks that are based on Instant or Sorcery cards and that I'm not good playing a creature deck. If I do play a creature deck it tends to be a midrange deck more leaning towards control. That's the reason why I was playing Abzan Control in KTK Standard when everyone was playing Abzan Aggro. I just couldn't play turn 1 creature, turn 2 creature into Siege Rhino. I had to play a Wrath effect and then my Siege Rhino. The reason being, I couldn't figure out how to attack with my Siege Rhino and actually deal some damage when there was creature opposition on my opponent's side of the table. This is a hyperbole but it's not far from truth. That is also the reason why I'm reluctant to board out removal in BG Delirium mirror. Sometimes you are simply worse at something and sometimes you just don't feel comfortable doing it. All this makes your decision different and makes you play suboptimally or rather you can't play up to your full potential. From my point of view it is better to play something you are familiar with and something you like. This way you can have better results even if the deck you wield is not the best list out there. Don't be ashamed of your weaknesses and if you know about them, compensate or avoid playing with something where they will show. Play cards you know!
Remember that we play this game for fun and the deck you put together usually plays a big part in that 'fun'. Find out how important a deck choice is for you and based on that act accordingly. Some players will choose the 'best deck' because they do not care about type of deck they play to have fun, some players choose a deck to maximize their odds, but some players simply play a deck that can feature their favorite cards.
Step 1 - Analyze the metagame
When we are building a deck we also need a context and that is the reason why control decks tend to be the last ones to 'become established' since their structure is dictated by the metagame. The best thing we can do is look at the metagame, understand it and then ask questions. That is something I didn't do when I picked up BG Delirium and it punished me for it. But since someone build the deck for the current meta I had all the means available to beat the decks. I just had to figure how to do it. Sometimes just looking at decks being played is enough to give us a good picture of the metagame. We should also see the big offenders in the format (we would ask 'what permanents are dominant?). This Standard revolved around certain cards: Smuggler's Copter, Emrakul, the Promised End, Ishkanah, Grafwidow, Reflector Mage, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and so on. If we know what people will play, we can also figure out the answers to those cards. These cards will be present a lot as well. Unanswered Copter was GG, the same way Emrakul was. Many decks struggled with Ishkanah so they had to find ways how to get past the card (Key to the City) and everyone needed to deal with Gideon either with cards like Ruinous Path, Negate or creatures.
If you figure this out you should also be able to divine what is missing from the format. For example there isn't any good cheap removal or burn spells and good global removal wasn't a thing either. Fumigate is hardly awesome, Languish is no more and Kozilek's Return may not be good enough if you don't run Eldrazi. There are usually good reasons why something is missing and is not necessary. In some cases this allows us to find a way how to break the format but often it rather suggests what we shouldn't play. For example if you expect a field full of Dredge decks, would you come to a tournament with Reanimator deck? But when there is not good graveyard hate everyone can abuse Delirium or cards like Prized Amalgam as they please. Because the best 'graveyard hate' is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. That card though costs 2BB which only some decks can pay and is expensive.
After asking questions and having your deck idea in mind you can add some cards you will need. Both of my decks will need to deal with the cards I named above, so they will certainly play Harnessed Lightning and Negate for example.
Step 2 - Devise a strategy
When you have a clear idea of the metagame you can devise a plan. Here usually you decide whether you 'go fast' or 'go big'. If you want to break a format you need to see what works, were the decks have their weaknesses that they share.
I'm not a bad player in general, but the lack of experience in this matchup made me look like a total fool. I spectacularly lost to a rather big 13/11 flying demon (if I will ignore my collected warnings and a game loss).
If you are serious with testing what you need is know what the decks in the current metagame do and how they fight each other. You need to know what BG Delirium does against UW Flash and you also need to know what Aetherworks Marvel decks struggle against. Many people were saying that RG Marvel was the best deck and no other deck could beat it. I didn't know much about the deck and I just randomly beat some decks. Anything that wasn't counter heavy or super aggressive just easily lost. Playing against aggro is easy in terms of knowing what to do with cards you have. Playing against control decks is something I'm good at usually. At one PPTQ though I ran into UW Flash player and got totally lost in the game because I ran into an opposition I had no idea how to deal with from the perspective of a Marvel player. I terribly lost, got few warnings (scooped before I'd get a game loss) and started thinking about what I heard about the deck and the matchup I just played. I knew that my only way out of the game was Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that I did not find worth boarding in because it only had like 1-2 targets in the game (Westvale Abby) and I simply had to cast Emrakul and win the game with it before Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and some creatures would kill me. I was also well aware of counterspells boarded (wasn't really sure which) by my opponent and I also had to be wary of Reflector Mage. I wasn't wrong with my thinking processes but my experience with those decks was very limited and I simply skipped this step. If you want to achieve good results as a player, play with each of the deck archetypes in the format (Burn/RDW, aggro, combo, midrange, control) and learn how the decks interact and what is important in each of those matchups. You should figure out how the decks lose.
When you know what strategies the decks use and you know how to beat them from various perspectives the five I mentioned) you can then easily figure out what strategy your deck will use against those decks. Sometimes though your devised strategy might not work. As with anything one can try to create and fail, it happens in deck building as well. Not all of your decks will be good. You need to be prepared to scrap your idea and start a new one and that is what happened to me. I started with 2 decks (or rather 2 cards) and I ended up with 5. And that is actually very few. I got two decks for Dynavolt Tower and 4 decks for Whirler Virtuoso. Imagine if I had more ideas at the beginning. I'd have way more deck ideas than just those few. Majority of those ideas wouldn't create a working deck. That's how it goes. Majority of ideas won't lead to a solid deck.
My original idea for a Dynavolt deck was a control deck with counterspells, all the removal available and additional win condition. Apart from Wandering Fumarole and Torrential Gearhulk that were auto-includes I had in mind Thing in the Ice and a planeswalker. The planeswalker I had in mind at first was Chandra, Flamecaller. Whirler Virtuoso did not provide me with a single strategy and I realized that this card would be more of a support card rather than a win condition. I knew that in my case the Thopters would be crucial, because attacking into creatures for me is difficult. So my creatures would have to be really efficient beaters or ones one cannot deal with easily (and if possible have some kind of evasion ability). Whirler Virtuoso could actually even be run in the Dynavolt deck but the best colors of a deck that could use the card were red and green. The win condition could be anything but the deck would simply need to generate a lot of energy. I put together 'an aggro deck' with Virtuoso in it.
Against some decks this deck was aggressive enough and had means to draw some cards, but it lacked cards that could save me in midgame apart from Bristling Hydra. Whirler Virtuoso was often a very strange and slow removal for Smuggler's Copter. Obviously this deck would appreciate an efficient beater instead that could just go through my opponent's creatures.
When my two brews were ready I took them for a spin in the tournament practice room. I learned which cards trigger and how, learned how to play with the decks a bit and I noticed some things - how I misbuilt my decks. Even though I was winning with ease I had to accept the fact that my decks had many flaws and wouldn't stand up a chance against the decks I was used to playing against UW Flash, Aetherworks Marvel and BG Delirium. My Temur Energy mana base was all wrong and the Dynavolt deck needed more Negates than I thought.
Step 3 - Review the deck and strategy
When the first version of your deck is ready, it is time to play with it against viable deck archetypes in the current metagame (you either need a group of friends or enter Leagues). First you need to learn how to play the deck in terms of knowing what the deck does and what you need to keep track of. Next you need to see if your devised strategy was correct against those archetypes. If everything works you can then start reviewing your deck, card by card.
Sometimes you will realize very fast that a card is missing. For example when I played with UR Dynavolt deck the first card to include was a third Negate main deck and 4th Negate in the sideboard because planeswalkers were a big issue. This is mainly due to the fact that the deck runs not so good removal and this needs to counter cards a control deck often does not need to care much about. I did the same for my Temur Energy deck. I put Ceremonious Rejection and Negate in my sideboard because I simply couldn't deal with some cards - Aetherworks Marvel was one of those cards. Chandra, Torch of Defiance was a rather nightmarish experience too (I also put 3 Natural State in because of Smuggler's Copter). I also put two copies of Tears of Valakut because Archangel Avacyn proved to be a problem in all the games that featured her.
When you play against fine-tuned but stock list decks you will find out that you often end up in a certain situation that can actually be handled by the same cards or strategy. This is a good thing and your deck should be tweaked so it can play that card or be in position to have a plan supporting that strategy.
When I played with my Temur Energy deck I found out that I'm not aggressive enough nor 'midrange' enough. When I play with an aggressive deck someone created I tend not to play it aggressively enough but in this case it was rather a deckbuilding error that made me 'not aggressive enough'. So no matter how I liked the deck I needed to choose which way to go -> either faster way which would most probably mean I'd have to play cards like Electrostatic Pummeler and bunch of pump spells, or go bigger which might mean that I would need to play cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Arlinn Kord and/or Verdurous Gearhulk. I did not want to pursue the first possibility due to me not liking that at all and the second possibility was way out of my budget. There was another possibility still, I could still put the card in the Dynavaolt deck. Anyway be ready for situations like this. Sometimes what you want to play might simply not work well enough in the current metagame. While my Temur Energy deck was good for 2-3 or 3-2 records, RG Pummeler was good for 5-0 the same way the slower but more value-based version of it that featured some random Mythics I opened. The sheer power of these single cards (Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, Chandra, Torch of Defiance) simply won games without any synergy needed with the rest of the deck and that made me sad and I decided to abandon that direction (I still had BG Delirium for my 'value' based needs).
Step 4 - Sideboard
Magic Online players are way more used to playing post-board games than paper players and that is a good thing because we play more of the games with sideboard cads in our deck. I cannot stress the importance of a good sideboard enough. The reason why I talk about it in step 4 is because first you need to see the weaknesses of your deck to understand what cards you need to bring in your deck. Some weaknesses are clear but some aren't and will only reveal themselves to you when actually playing with your deck. That is nothing bad. That is why people 'test'. You need to make your main deck solid against as many decks as possible and some matchups you simply need to 'sacrifice'. Some matchups are too bad and it does not make much sense to try to have some answers for those main deck if it will make other matchups worse. For those though we can heavily board or we can ignore the matchup totally and hope not to encounter it.
I could write an entire article about sideboard and boarding and I might do that in the future. So for now I will say this; do not underestimate your 15 card sideboard. While playing note down the cards that are not good in what matchups and write down the number of cards. Then look at your notes and based on that you will see how many slots you need against each deck. Then bring in cards that will help you. Since you have only 15 slots for that some cards will need to overlap. If you need to board in 7 cards against one deck most probably 3-4 of those cards should also be good against other deck as well. Otherwise the slots are not worth it.
I always wanted to steal Aetherworks Marvel to stop the Marvel player from using it, so far I only got to steal creatures. In this game I lost to Chandra's ultimate ability, but at least I got an achievement - I stole Aetherworks Marvel!
If you do not analyze your deck too thoroughly or efficiently you might also figure out that there are certain cards you board out way too often. Mark this down too, because those cards are might be actually better to be cut altogether or moved to the sideboard. For example I cut my 2 copies of Thing in the Ice because I was often siding them out (always actually). I usually could afford to play them by turn 5 or 7 when I had better things to do (like playing Torrential Gearhulk). This is a sign that the card does not belong to the deck. At one of those games when I had Thing in the Ice in my hand I was wondering what card I'd play rather on turn 5 which would actually have an 'immediate' impact on the game. Confiscation Coup and Dragonmaster Outcast came to my mind. I also struggled with GW tokens a lot but I knew that Kozilek's Return main deck did not seem right at the moment. Instead I put in Brutal Expulsion and Confiscation Coup main deck and Dragonmaster Outcast and Kozilek's Return in the sideboard. I can't tell you how much the deck became better just by doing these changes! Bear in mind that I actually won quite many games with Thing in the Ice. The thing though is that it was never necessary to win that way and it usually brought a certain risk to it. I also had to force a strategy that wasn't the best against some decks and that is the reason I ended up siding these cards out.
Step 5 - Profit
After you build your deck and tune it, just play with the deck and observe what the deckbuilding process taught you. A deckbuilder knows the metagame. A deckbuilder also understands why certain cards are in a deck and how they can be used. They won't stop with the most obvious use but will also be able to use them in other ways that might not be that straightforward. If you build your own deck you will also know the deck inside out. That doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to pilot it perfectly from game 1 (sometimes what we thought as the best way to use our cards might prove to be wrong). You will know what the deck can do and how it can achieve it. It may take a while to see what the deck you built really does but when you will discover all that you will be able to use it to its full potential. Building your own mana base will also help you understand the tempo of your deck and you will be able to make more efficient plays than other players still trying to figure out what their fine-tuned deck by the pros does. You will also understand the power level of single cards not just decks. A certain card in different formats can have different impact or power level. There are times when a card you'd never want to play in constructed becomes necessary. For example who would play Last Breath? Syncopate is also one of the cards you'd not want to play because we all know way better removal spells and counterspells. But at certain point in Standard it is the best card you can put in your control deck. Sometimes the card in question is powerful on its own but people misvalue it in context. For example in 2014 I built a Jund Planeswalker deck. When I let others play with the deck I observed how they play with it. Neither of the players understood the value of Chandra, Pyromaster in the deck and often lost the game because of losing Chandra and in general not being patient. None of the players got good results with the deck and told me that the deck was bad and told me to build Jund Monsters instead since the deck was better. If those players though would have tried building a deck for the format, they would know that the card value Chandra brings has to be good and might have played differently. Both Chandra's +1 ability and Golgari Charm were looked down upon. But no one realized that most of the relevant creatures in the format have 1 toughness. Those are things you will notice if you try to see the big picture and build your decks. If you will play with someone else's deck sometimes you won't even realize things like this! Even if you won't play the deck you came up with, you will learn a lot just by trying to build the deck.
Everything you will learn during the deckbuilding process will also be reflected in other formats because your point of view will be different - actually you will look at a game of Magic from different angles and you will be able to critically think and analyze. Those are invaluable skills. Even if you'll be losing a lot at first, you will learn way more. My Dynavolt and RG Energy adventure cost me 120PP for each deck at first because I totally underestimated decks like Aetherworks Marvel that I happened to ran into often but then I learned how to fight it. It was simple, I just had to change my perspective and forget about the fact that as a BG Delirium player I can just ignore the matchup and do my best when playing against Marvel. These two decks on the other hand have the means to beat the deck and the cards help in other matchups. This is how we learn. Don't let your perspective or different opinions skew your vision. Try to understand what you do not know, do not just rely on what you hear. Figure it out yourself!
S'Tsung (stsung on modo, stsungjp at twitter)