Posted on Jan 28, 2013

Really sorry for the lack of posts for the last 6+ months.  I've been underneath a massive project since before August, doing requirements gathering. (haha, Requirements: The Gathering....oooh boy) Then the project began in earnest in September and I pretty much disappeared, doing nothing but staring at Excel spreadsheets, writing documentation, running meetings, managing a small dev team and writing a little bit of code here and there.

It was all supposed to be done in December, but some under estimating on task time plus running into some historical data cleanliness issues have pushed things out. :P  I'll have some Salesforce-related stuff to blog about after this is all done, but in the mean time here's a post about something I've been thinking about in the moments I have between deployments: Magic deck building.

My play group recently got into Commander/Elder Dragon Highlander, which is a really interesting format that I'm really enjoying.  It makes the game longer, so cards that normally don't see the light of day due to high casting costs suddenly become more viable.  It's multi-player, so you've really gotta know your politics, and board clearing cards become really important.  Lastly, because everything is a singleton, it's a little easier to build a deck since you don't need to save up to buy a full playset of those ridiculously powerful mythic rares.

As I get more into the game, I'll think about posting some tips on Commander deck building.  For now, the following are just general tips for regular ol' deck building...


  • What's your win condition; we're assuming you want to win. :)  It's hard to build two or even three conditions into a deck, but great when you can make it happen.  Once you've identified your win condition(s), then everything you choose to go into deck should support that condition, with the exception of defense or "tech." (utility cards)
  • In Magic, your win condition can be fatal damage, milling (forcing the player to draw a card when they're library is empty), infinite loops of life gain forcing the opponent to concede, or special combo cards that have alternate win/lose conditions like Phage the Untouchable or Laboratory Maniac.
  • Aim to have multiple sources of damage, ie. don't put all your eggs in one basket. If you've got a big nasty, what happens to your deck if it gets o-ringed and you have no disenchants?  Are you packing tech to deal with your opponent's defense, or do you have other damage sources that can power through?
  • Commit to your focus and strategy, remove cards that aren't "on theme" or don't synergize with anything else in your deck, with the exception of defense, spot removal or tech cards.
  • Remove "win more" cards. Do you have a card that can win on its own, and doesn't need your combo card that just overkills everything? In other words, don't Overrun your Akroma.
  • To evaluate how many of a particular card you should have your deck, first think about how often you want to see that card in your opening hand, then how often that card will get targetted for removal by your opponent (do you need to pack replacements?) and then think about what happens when you already have a copy of that card in your hand/on your board, and you draw a second one.  If having two copies of the same card at the ready has multiplicative effects, then having 3 or 4 of that card is safe.  If the second copy changes little on the board, or serves only as a backup, then perhaps only two copies of that card are required.  If the card is highly situational or works best against certain kinds of decks, then go with a singleton or sideboard it.


  • Aggro decks: If building for speed, then commit to it and don't weigh the deck down with too many high casting cost cards. Get comfortable with seeing your deck either kill within 6-7 turns, or fizzle out and lose speed after that.  You can fight this by adding in some kind of card drawing mechanism to replenish your hand with more critters and burn, or else build in some mid-/late-game haymakers without watering down your main army.  Or again, just accept that this is what your deck does.
  • Control/Combo decks: If you need time to put your plan into action, make sure you have a strong creature defence, control spells/effects, cards that kill your opponent's tempo or board clearers.  Specific to combo decks, figure out how to assemble your combo quickly (tutoring, card draw, ponder/scry effects, cantrips, etc.) or play defence until you can piece it together

Mana Curve

  • If you have a one drop, put 4 of them in the deck so you increase your chances of actually 1-dropping it.
  • Don't overload your deck with high casting cost cards.  There should be less than 4 copies unless they're essential combo pieces.
  • A great article on getting your land count correct can be found here:


  • Always make room for spot removal (Doom Blade, Disenchant, Bolts, Counterspells, Naturalize, etc.) in your tech. Know your meta game, what are people playing so you know what kind of removal to pack.  Sometimes there are situations you just can't deal with (black can do nothing about enchantments) so be comfortable with that or splash colour and cards to make up for it.
  • If you don't have room for spot removal, have a good reason.  To make room, get rid of "win more" cards, cards that are too similar, or cards that are too situational.
  • Generally, aggro beats combo, combo beats control, control beats aggro.  What does your deck do and how do you defend its flank?
  • If you have a creature that requires too much defense to protect (ie. it's too much of a threat when it hits the table, low toughness, etc) and/or is too important to your win condition that to have it removed kills your deck, then unless you're playing a combo you might be too in love with that creature and you need to look for something better.
  • If you really need/want the card, make sure your protection cards and effects (counter spells, shroud/hexproof, etc.) out number the card that needs the protection.  For bonus points, aim to have that protection come in different forms. (ex. shroud coming from artifacts as well as enchantments)  Lastly, you can also protect your key card by packing bigger targets that will get your opponent's attention, wasting counter spells and removal on it, while your real threat goes untouched.


  • Use efficient cards.  Study casting costs vs. beneficial effects and know how much bang you can get for your mana buck.  Wizards of the Coast intentionally puts inefficient, crap commons out in each set so that new players can learn those evaluation skills.  Personally I think it's a waste of money and resources, but what can ya do...
  • Know your magic history and where some cards have been made obsolete by modern upgrades. (Shock vs. Lightning Bolt) Also know what your group deems acceptable play-wise (Dark Ritual and Counter Spell are generally frowned upon in my group, or at least played very little) but also budget-wise.
  • Retrace: this mechanic is very useful in the late game when you don't need any more land in your hand.


  • Test your new deck against a tried and true tested deck. You'll be able to see how it holds up or crumples under your tuned decks' strengths, and capitalizes on or overlooks the weaknesses.
  • As mentioned above, build in some defense for your weaknesses, or just accept the weaknesses and go full offence if you can speed for the win.
  • Take note of what your perfect opening hand is, and more importantly what your worse opening hand is. Adjust card numbers to make that opening hand more likely.
  • What cards are you not playing?  Are they too situational?  Look for more utility. Do you die before you can cast them?  Then you need more defence, control or speed, or look for more efficient cards.  Do they have little effect on the board?  Look for better or more synergistic cards.  Do you already have the game in the bag when you play the card?  Then it might be a "win more" card.

Got any tips yourself?  Leave a comment!