Magic Gatherings #25: Deckbuilding

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!

Last time we talked about the results of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, as well as the costs of Standard and some tips for budget deckbuilding. I got all the way through those budget tips without actually pointing you toward budget resources of your own! So today I’m going to remedy that. I’ll also walk through building up a Standard deck idea of your own—finding cards, exploring themes, and paring down a list. Let’s get to it!

Budgeting Time

Last column I mentioned several general principles for good budget deckbuilding. That’s all well and good—but what if you just want a handy decklist? Fortunately, this is the Internet, and we’ve got you covered.

Art_OrnithoperThe first place to look is, Wizards of the Coast’s official Magic: The Gathering website. It’s a great place for all things Magic, particularly if you’re a more casual fan, or if you enjoy behind-the-scenes peeks at the design or development of the game. That programme includes several deckbuilding columns. “Top Decks” (by Luis Scott-Vargas) and “Perilous Research” (by Jake van Lunen) tend to focus on what’s done well in tournaments, and therefore tend toward the Spike-y (though they’re definitely great reads).

Gavin Verhey’s column, “Reconstructed,” is a better bet for a newer player. Verhey, a veteran developer (and a great Magic player, in his pre-Wizards life), takes decklists submitted by readers, talks about their core gameplan, and then suggests tweaks to make them better. It’s a great resource for aspiring deckbuilders, as the tuning process—cutting out less effective cards and paring down the different plans a deck could do into the one or two things the deck should do—tends to be especially confusing to players with less experience. Verhey often features budget weeks, including this week’s column; for those articles, he re-jiggers the deck without adding a single rare or mythic to it.

Developer Sam Stoddard also periodically publishes a “Days of Future Future” column that showcases decks that came up in Wizards’s internal playtesting—that is, what they thought might make for good decks in Standard, when the set they were currently developing was released. Those columns can often contain sparks of inspiration, in the form of decks R&D thought might be good, but which haven’t quite made it (yet!) in the real world. (There are lots of caveats, too, most particularly that cards naturally change during development, so the key cards in one deck might have turned out more or less powerful than the version they playtested.)

Art_IncreasingConfusionDanScottOver at, writer Saffron Olive (who is rapidly becoming one of the best and most prolific Magic writers out there) produces a budget series I really can’t recommend highly enough. Each week he features a new deck build around inexpensive (but not necessarily ineffective) card interactions, record several videos of himself playing the deck on Magic Online, then breaks down the features of the deck and suggests ways to develop it or un-budgetize it moving forward. This week featured an article on upgrading the Battle for Zendikar Event Deck, which is a good read if you’re looking to jump into Standard but don’t have much to spend.

Saffron’s ideas and analysis are always good, hidden value here is being able to watch the deck play out a few matches before you jump in trying to build it—you get that “proxy and practice” effect I mentioned last week with no effort up front. He also writes a series called “Against the Odds” where he takes quirky deck ideas—particularly ones with, shall we say, optimistic plans to win a game—and tries to see if they’re feasible. They’re usually not, but because they tend to be sketchier, they are sometimes also less expensive.

Around the Internet there are a few more options. Over on (sponsored by retailed CoolStuffInc), Kevin Crimin has a budget video series—I have to admit I am not very familiar with this one, but on a quick watch the videos look well-produced and the ideas look good. Reddit has a few resources as well: there’s a subreddit (r/budgetdecks) for, well, budget decks, and the main subreddit for Magic (r/magictcg) recently hosted this thread, which has a number of  ideas in it. As with all things Reddit, proceed with caution. though I’ve generally found the Magic subreddits to be decent—some people can be dismissive, but there have also been some heartwarming community moments (such as in this thread, where a man who lost a binder containing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cards found it again through the subreddit).

Building your own decks

How should you go about building your own decks, though? There’s no one answer to this question, but here’s the procedure I follow most often:

Get inspired—Inspiration can come from anywhere: a card you want to build around, a cool deck you read about, even a fun draft built around an interaction that turned out stronger than you expected. Read a lot, think a lot, play a lot, and be willing to chase ideas that seem cool. Too many players (myself included, sometimes!) get nervous about looking silly—but you can’t have great ideas if you’re not willing to risk being wrong sometimes.

Art_BrainstormWilliamMuraiBrainstorm—Any creative endeavor will benefit from a generative “ideas!” phase, and building Magic decks is no exception. Once you have the germ of your deck in place, take some time to dream up every other card you can think of that might go with it. Nothing’s off the table here. Handy resources for this include card search engines like the one on

Refine—The nature of Magic, and part of what makes it a great game, is that most ideas will lead to many different deckbuilding directions—you’ll have more cool cards you want to play and more interesting combos than you can fit. So, at a certain point, you need to pare back ideas. Focus on the cards that are most interesting to you, and cut away what’s not as powerful or as compelling. This part of the process can be personal, and certainly takes practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes here, either!

Playtest and tune—The final part is assembling your deck (proxied or in full cards) and taking it for a spin—deal a few sample hands and goldfish a few times (that is, play as though your opponent is a goldfish, who never does anything). Are you drawing colors on time? Do your spells feel like they’d be effective? Is it hard to assemble your combo? Revise and repeat, and don’t forget that the ultimate test will be against real opponents.

Art_WhisperingMadnessClintClearlyWalking through a deckbuild

Directions are great, but there’s nothing like examples. So, I’ll illustrate the process with a deck idea that a reader, Justin Burns, suggested in the comments to a previous article. Here’s Justin’s comment:

I want to devolop a good blue green manabase, strong in black, with a splash of white; I was thinking polluted delta, windswept heath, canopy vista, sunken hollow, prob caves of koilos, llanowar wastes, possibly yavimaya coast. I plan on running scales, ruinous path, jace vryn’s prodigy, endless one, hangarback walker, drana, den pro, deathmist, ulomog, ugin, gideon, thinking  I’d throw in sword of the animist—any suggestions?

There’s a lot of great ideas there—we’re clearly inspired, and Justin’s already done a bunch of brainstorming. I’ll toss in a few more ideas of my own. For this part, I used an advanced search around a couple criteria on (one for +1/+1 counters, another for cards with mana cost six or higher), plus some general knowledge of recent tournament results.

Card_SidisiWhenever I see Sultai mana (green-blue-black), I think [mtg_card]Sidisi, Brood Tyrant[/mtg_card]. She definitely plays well with [mtg_card]Deathmist Raptor[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Den Protector[/mtg_card], and Jace. [mtg_card]Gather the Pack[/mtg_card] would be another strong consideration. [mtg_card]Kiora, Master of the Depths[/mtg_card] can also add cards to your graveyard. If that deck wanted to go really big, it could try [mtg_card]Emeria Shepherd[/mtg_card], which recently won a game day.

Card_SkyriderElf Card_TajuruStalwart Card_WoodlandWandererJustin’s also suggested an interesting +1/+1 counter theme built around [mtg_card]Hardened Scales[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Endless One[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Hangarback Walker[/mtg_card].  [mtg_card]Managorger Hydra[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Undergrowth Champion[/mtg_card] are cards that have been successful in similar green-white Hardened Scales decks. If this deck is committed to staying blue-green, it could play converge cards like [mtg_card]Skyrider Elf[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Tajuru Stalwart[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Woodland Wanderer[/mtg_card], which is a pretty interesting thought.

Finally, Justin calls out [mtg_card]Ugin, the Spirit Dragon[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger[/mtg_card] as other cards he’s interested in. These cards suggest a ramp strategy. As Jake Mondello demonstrated at GP Quebec City last week, [mtg_card]Map the Wastes[/mtg_card] can be super effective in a ramp deck that features [mtg_card]Hangarback Walker[/mtg_card] as an early blocker. [mtg_card]Catacomb Sifter[/mtg_card] (seen in this deck by Floyd Combs) could also be a good blocker. Adding blue means you can’t play utility lands, but you could include cards like [mtg_card]Part the Waterveil[/mtg_card], which seems kind of sweet.


Part the Waterveil art by Titus Lunter (thanks to

This leads into the refining phase. My read is that there are some very cool ideas in play here, but that they don’t all belong in the same deck. (I can imagine a controlling Sultai deck that went up to Ugin—maybe on the plan of Reid Duke’s white-blue-black control deck—but not all the way up to Ulamog.) So, it might be time to pick one or two ideas and see where they lead.

Of those ideas, I’m most interested in this Sultai converge [mtg_card]Hardened Scales[/mtg_card] idea. One traditional weakness of decks built around a single card (like Hardened Scales) is that they can be hit-or-miss: very powerful when they draw the key card, but weak when they don’t. Including coverge cards could help cover for this, since they can be naturally strong on their own. What do we pare down to?

Card_HardenedScales Card_HangarbackWalker Card_EndlessOneWe’ll definitely want all four [mtg_card]Hardened Scales[/mtg_card], as it’s the namesake of the deck. Four [mtg_card]Hangarback Walkers[/mtg_card] also seems like a must: if the deck has mana issues, Hangarback Walker is a spell it can always count on playing. Ditto for four [mtg_card]Endless One[/mtg_card]. We’re interested in pushing converge, so let’s try including four [mtg_card]Skyrider Elf[/mtg_card], four [mtg_card]Tajuru Stalwart[/mtg_card], and four [mtg_card]Woodland Wanderer[/mtg_card].

Six four-ofs means we have space for about twelve more cards. At this point, it’s sometimes helpful to lay out the deck, so you can see visually what it’s starting to look like. I use Magic Online for this, but do whatever works for you (the warning lines around the borders mean I don’t own the cards online):


That’s actually looking pretty sweet, honestly. Scales is a good one-drop, and the flexible mana costs of Walker, Endless One, and Skyrider Elf give us lots of ways to use our mana. Stalwart makes a good three and Wanderer is a great four.

What else seems good to add? We mentioned [mtg_card]Managorger Hydra[/mtg_card], which still seems good. Drana seems like she could be amazing, though I’m a bit concerned about the mana. Maybe it’s worth a stretch. Finally, other Hardened Scales decks have put [mtg_card]Dromoka’s Command[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Abzan Falconer[/mtg_card] to good use. While I’m concerned about the stretch for Drana, white comes a lot more easily.

Last is adding lands. This deck will definitely need a fetch-battle land base, so we can plan on needing [mtg_card]Windswept Heath[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Flooded Strand[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Polluted Delta[/mtg_card]. We’ll want [mtg_card]Canopy Vista[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Prairie Stream[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Sunken Hollow[/mtg_card] for them to find (two of the latter, so that Strand and Delta are always black sources). Meanwhile, because [mtg_card]Hardened Scales[/mtg_card] will always be best on turn one, we’ll also want [mtg_card]Llanowar Wastes[/mtg_card]: it can be a green source early, then tap for black mana to cast Drana later. Adding in some basics, we get this:


I’m not 100% sure this is correct, but it’s a good place to start for drawing some sample hands. Does the deck have too many lands? Not enough removal? We’ll have to playtest a bit to find out. I gotta say, though, this looks pretty exciting—I’m tempted to build it myself and give it a try!

Deckbuilding is a deep process; great players have written entire books (yes, really) on the concept, and there’s still more to explore. Don’t let that intimidate you, though! You can build successful decks without being an expert. Just remember to have a plan, don’t be afraid, and practice, practice, practice.

I’ll be back next time with a very special feature—and we’re already coming up on previews for Commander 2015! Until then, good luck with your own deckbuilding!

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