5 Point Plan: Early MTG Deckbuilding by Dave Shedden

The Crown Duels – Graduating from DOTP to the wider game by Dave Shedden

5 Point Plan: Early MTG Deckbuilding by Dave Shedden

Last time around, fledgling Planeswalkers, I gave you a whistle-stop tour of the Magic world… and I promised that I’d be back to share some fundamentals of the game with you.

I started thinking almost at once about what should come first – but found my fingers hovering above the keyboard, frozen by indecision.

There’s a lot to tell, most of it pretty important. How was I supposed to decide what should come first?

Ask the audience

fnm-eventOf course, there’s a simple way to resolve this issue: ask some new players what their burning issues are.

So I did.

I picked three players just starting out in the game and I grilled them about their priorities. Based on their helpful, detailed answers, I’ve compiled some simple tips for absolute MTG beginners.

The following tips will be useful building blocks for all the things you’ll learn over the coming years. Think of them as a box of Lemsip sachets rather than a cure for all ills: they won’t always be exactly what you need, but you’ll get your money’s worth if you keep them safely stored in the kitchen cupboard.

Before we begin… Paper vs Online

magic the gathering online logoYou can play Magic in person, with paper cards, or you can play through Magic Online using digital cards. Either way is fine, but when you’re starting out, pick one and stick with it for a while.

The cards you own in real life can’t be used online (and vice versa), so if you try to build up two collections at once, things will get expensive. Keep your introduction to the game simple and affordable by committing to the one which suits you best. Once you’re established, you’ll have all the time in the world to branch out.

1. Popular Formats

In Magic, you’ll hear a lot about ‘Formats’. Usually, when a person talks about a Format, they’re referring to a type of game which is limited by a specific pool of cards and a specific set of rules. Most organised Magic is played in an established Format of some kind.

For example, the most popular organised Magic Format is called Standard. At any given time, Standard will consist of the current block of expansions, the last block of expansions and the current core set. For a short time each year, two core sets will overlap in Standard, until the older one rotates out with the release of the next block.

To help make sense of this, here’s how the current Standard looks:

  • The last block of expansions (Innistrad Block)
    • Innistrad
    • Dark Ascension
    • Avacyn Restored
  • The current block of expansions (Return to Ravnica block) 
    • Return to Ravnica
    • Gatecrash
    • Dragon’s Maze
  • The current core set (M13)

Players taking part in Standard tournaments can use any of the cards from these sets to build their decks.

Formats vary in size (the number of expansions which are included) and rules (some use the basic rules, others restrict the number of copies that can be played of each card, etc), but clear descriptions of what the Formats are  – and what is and isn’t permissible – can be found here, on the Wizards website.

2. Just play 60

mtg deck 2When you first start to play, you’ll likely be composing decks from your small, but growing collection – making what we’d call a Constructed deck.

With lots of shiny new goodies, it’s often tempting just to throw everything you like the look of into a deck and start battling. Let me save you a world of pain and heartache, by warning you not to do this.

A common mistake made by new players is the construction of decks which contain more than the minimum number of cards. For a constructed deck, this is 60.

The reasons you play the minimum number of cards are simple:

  • All of the Magic cards you own can be ordered, if you have the time, into a ranking of best to worst (at achieving what your deck wants to do).
  • You want to draw only the best cards possible.
  • You want to draw those cards as often as possible.
  • Every card you add, from the 61st onward,  is a weaker one than the first 60 which you are giving yourself a chance to draw.

Don’t dilute your deck with chaff. Give yourself the best chance, to draw the best cards, as often as possible.

3. Have a game-plan

Lightning Bolt 233pxWhen you choose to put a card in your deck, it should be there for a reason. When you put the next card in your deck, it should be there for the same reason – or at least a complementary one.

What this means is that you should have a plan for winning the game – and all your cards should support that plan.

If you want to be very aggressive and kill your opponent before they know what hit them, maybe you should play:

  • Cheap creatures, with high power statistics.
  • Cards which deal damage directly to your opponent.

…because these cards will let you create lots of early pressure on your opponent’s life total and lead to fast wins.

If you want to play a longer game, in which you take control and eventually win with superior resources and spells, maybe you should play:

  • Cards which can blunt early creature rushes, like the one described above!
  • Cards which allow you to pull ahead on resources – for instance, by drawing more cards or accelerating your mana production.
  • Strong, resilient ways to win, like huge flying creatures or powerful Planeswalkers.

…because these cards will let you dictate the game and overpower your opponent.

Don’t find yourself playing cards which work at cross purposes, like Wrath of God in a deck which is otherwise all creatures. Decide on a game-plan, build around it and have fun watching it unfold.

4. How many lands?

dual lands

This isn’t something that I remember the rulebook explaining, but it’s vitally important If you want to have a chance of actually playing Magic.

A good starting principle is that a 60 card deck should have 24 lands.

There are situations under which this will change – strategies with a lower curve (average cost of spells) can get away with less lands, for instance – but I’d recommend sticking to 24 when you’re designing your first few decks.

It’s also important to make sure the balance of colours is right for the deck you’re playing.

Trust me, when I say that this subject could warrant a whole article in itself. For now, I’ll just give you a basic principle to work from, which should help smooth out any problems you’re having in decks of more than one colour.

Lay out your spell cards and count how many of each coloured mana symbol appears in all of their casting costs combined.

Then, add lands to your deck which produce those types of coloured mana in roughly the same proportions.

In practice, this means that if 80% of the mana symbols in your deck are red and 20% are black, you should make 80% of your lands mountains and 20% swamps.

This is, in a roundabout way, the reason lands which produce more than one colour are so good: they let you increase the availability of one colour without harming the availability of another.

A final word of warning: this is a giant simplification of a complicated topic, one which we can come back to,but it’s a good place to start.

5. Evaluating cards

Balefire DragonAll cards are not created equal.

For most of us, this realisation arrives the first time one of our friends slaps a huge dragon on the table… and we realise that we haven’t  even seen a card that can beat such a behemoth, never mind put one in our deck.

It’s simple to tell that their dragon is better than our elves, but sometimes the difference isn’t so clear. Here are some simple things to consider when evaluating cards.

Firstly, how much mana does it cost – and what does it achieve for that mana?

For one red mana, we could cast a Lightning Bolt or a Shock.

The bolt does 3 damage to anything and is the best ‘burn’ spell ever printed; the shock does 2 damage and is only OK.

You can work out a fair bit of the worth of a spell in this way, just by comparing it to similar effects and asking yourself if it’s good value for your mana.

Secondly, how difficult is it to cast?

If two spells do exactly the same thing, but the first costs one colourless and one blue, while the second costs two blue, that makes the first option significantly better.

It will always be easier to cast the first spell because any land will do for the colourless part – whereas the second spell demands that both produce blue.

Thirdly, does it gain you card advantage?

sphinx's revelationCard advantage is a term which indicates that you are amassing extra cards worth of value through your spells, effects or actions. Although it’s not the be all and end all of winning, getting ahead by more cards than your opponent will tend to bias a game in your favour.

Casting a Divination will get you card advantage: you spend one card to draw two, so you’re up by one.

Blocking a small creature with your big one can get you card advantage: if the opponent’s creature dies and yours doesn’t, you taken care of their card without using up one of your own, so you’re up by one.

It doesn’t take many +1 card advantage exchanges to put you very far ahead in a game, so be sure to value spells which say “draw a card” on them, or which kill more than one creature, more highly.

Lastly, a tip about assessing creatures.

If a creature has power (and sometimes toughness) higher than it’s mana cost – like Isamaru, for instance – it’s usually a good deal.

This rule counts for less as the mana costs increase: an 8/8 for 7 mana is not a good deal, for instance!

That’s all for today, folks

There you have it: five nuggets of knowledge to help you start building solid decks, in the formats you’ll be playing the most.

Next time around, we’ll look at five more tips, focussed on starting to develop and tighten up your play.

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