Getting Your ‘First Deck’ Into Shape – 5 Point Plan
We were all new once, my battle-hardened planeswalkers.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when we didn’t know every rules interaction, didn’t evaluate cards well and couldn’t intuitively interpret a complicated board state.
We had to develop these competencies over time, by making lots of mistakes and having them pointed out to us by kindly onlookers, or experienced friends. Sometimes it was tough to know if we were actually getting any better, or simply drifting sideways to make new mistakes in different areas of the game.
One important, shared experience that most Magic players have is of our first deck.
Usually, before we got used to the idea of transitioning between strategies for different metagames and formats, we had just a single, beloved stack of cards. This deck was a reflection of all the things we loved about the game and an expression of ourselves; as we developed, so too did the deck.
Recently, I’ve been playing with a few folks who are new to Magic, trying to pass on what I learned from the players who had the biggest influence on my own game. Each of them has their first deck.
By embracing that theme, then building some learning around it, we’ve managed to really push their play and understanding… while at the same time, retaining the fun and personal investment that makes this early part of the Magic journey so special.
This article is for everyone who remembers their first deck… and for anyone who wants to harness the power of the first deck to bring new faces to the game.
1. A re-introduction
A few weeks ago, I wrote about some games I had played with my friend Stuart.
To summarise, we ran his first deck up against a pretty resilient Golgari Beatdown brew I created for the occasion. Predictably, the Golgari Brew was triumphant, but working out why was a pretty useful process for me and Stuart to go through.
At the end of the article, I shared some of the changes that Stuart made to his deck. Since then, it has grown and evolved beyond all recognition.
What made him want to change the deck so much?
The answer is a simple one; but before we get into Stuart’s epiphany, I’m going to take you on a small detour. We won’t be gone long – just long enough to take a look into my own murky past.
2. My ‘first deck’
Even us golden oldies were young once.
Yes, I have literally no shame.
That’s yours truly on the right, flanked by my long-suffering Mother – a lady who knows a thing or two about losing full rooms of her house to Magic cards. Still, 1983 is slightly too far back for our present purpose.
Fast forward to 1994: the era of Grunge Rock, Revised Edition and (technically) my first deck.
The first deck of my storied career was pretty ugly: the entire contents of two Revised starter boxes, mashed together in a sleeveless tower. I’d seen some people play before – this would be fine, right?
On a makeshift table in the hallway of my friend Steven’s house, my other friend, Kev, handed me my ass. He used advanced techniques:
Happily, I learned my myriad lessons. There and then, I started cutting down my cards to just the ones I liked best, plus the other cards that shared their colours. Better games followed.
Within weeks, I had hit upon an audacious idea: what if I played only one colour? Then I’d never have mana problems again!
My real first deck, a classic Mono-Black strategy, was born.
I’ve popped these three cards out because they summed up what was fun for me about that deck.
And the more times I had this kind of fun, the more I wanted to make it happen… which leads me back to Stuart and the evolution of his deck.
3. Finding out what’s really fun for you
Stuart’s first deck
The biggest force driving the development of Stuart’s deck was fun.
You see, while he initially had a deck which incorporated a wide selection of cards, he quickly started to understand which kind brought him the most happiness:
Subsequently, Stuart realised that if he was holding up mana for counterspells, there were some creatures which he could cast as instants should he not need to say ‘No’. That seemed pretty cool.
Then, he calculated that to stay ahead in a game of your spells vs my counters, he’d need to draw some extra cards at some point. Perhaps there was a spell which would do that, which played nicely with keeping mana open all the time…?
Simply by following the good times and listening to his developing sense of which effects were worthwhile, Stuart was navigating toward a tried and tested, aggro-control style of deck. Fun was doing a lot of the work for him.
My first deck
19 years previously, the very same principles were pushing me to polish my mono-black heap into a streamlined, workable strategy.
Interestingly, though, my push came as much from cutting out the un-fun as from promoting the delightful.
A few months into playing, I had a pretty even record against all of my friends… except Kev. You see, Kev had graduated to a mono-blue deck, built for him by his colleagues in the Comic shop where he worked.
It was hardly Draw-Go, but with 12 main-deck counterspells it was what passed for a rock-hard control deck in our circles. I had about a 10% win rate against the damn thing. It was insufferable.
One evening, as I fumed over another lunch-hour drubbing in the Geography room, I had my EUREKA!
- Kev’s deck did the same good things all the time; I realised that to compete, I’d have to become similarly consistent.
- The few victories I did enjoy were usually born of me drawing my Hypnotic Specter and playing him on turn 1, via a Dark Ritual; it occurred to me that if I acquired more specters, I’d be able to do that more consistently.
- I then made a crucial connection: if my Hyppies were good due to their discard effect, why didn’t I try to find other discard cards to back them up? Hymn to Tourach had just been printed in Fallen Empires; maybe that would be OK?
If you’ve ever played against decks which ritual out a Hypnotic Specter on the first turn and follow it up with a Hymn to Tourach, you’ll have an idea of how the games played out after a weekend’s gleeful shopping at the local card emporium.
My deck went from tepid to completely broken in a single sitting, reversing the 90/10 trend in my favour. I was jubilant.
4. From wooden sword to Lightsaber
While the final state of my good ‘ole Monoblack deck might tickle some of the game’s pensioners, it’s hardly relevant to modern Magic.
Stuart’s deck, however… well, I’ve dropped enough hints. Here’s the latest version:
If you haven’t already checked out his initial iteration of the deck, CLICK HERE. The progress is remarkable.
A solid gameplan
Stuart has wholeheartedly committed to the goal of strategic flexibility. He loves keeping his options open and his opponent guessing – so almost every card in the deck can be played in response to an action, or in the opponent’s end step.
He can also present a significant amount of aggression without warning! I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how an end-stepped Shambleshark, followed by Skylasher, can put the pressure on the opponent who wrongly assumes they are facing a ‘do nothing’ deck.
Counterspells have historically been very flexible answers – and they certainly serve that purpose here. Combined with Cyclonic Rift and the terribly flexible Bow of Nylea, Stuart has outs to a huge number of different problems.
One last thing: incidentally hating blue is a pretty sweet bonus.
Skylasher and the Hydra, included for its ability to close out a late game, have a very powerful impact against decks which rely heavily on Islands; having played UW control against this deck, I can confirm that Skylasher wearing a Boon Satyr is a terrible thing to see sitting across the table.
5. How this can help the new players you know
The power of ‘Fun optimization’ as a teaching tool
19 years apart, by focussing on the things we liked doing best, Stuart and I managed to create better, more consistent decks.
We honed not only the lists, but our understanding of what their respective gameplans should be… and because they were ours, we cared more about making the best of them, which helped motivate us to learn and improve.
While Stuart’s deck isn’t perfect – something it has in common with most stacks of 60 – it’s grown from a pretty messy, unfocussed genesis to become a very respectable weapon with lots of play to it. Along the way, he’s learned a ton about the game.
Personal investment is an incredibly powerful tool in helping people to achieve goals.
If your friend the new player comes to you with their pride and joy, don’t just roll your eyes and tell them to build a Jund deck instead. If you do, you’ll be sending a message that the game is exclusive and that their ideas and enjoyment don’t count for anything.
Instead, harness their enthusiasm to help them learn.
Lay out the deck in a mana curve to help them understand why it’s important; ask them why they like the deck and which cards they’d play more copies of if they had them; offer some simple advice, such as ensuring that they play enough lands.
As time goes on and more games are played, the likelihood is that your friend will learn why the bad cards are bad – and they’ll choose to stop playing them. There’s a good chance, however, that getting there under their own steam will have nurtured their passion for the game.
A quick disclaimer
One thing Stuart and I have in common is that the things we enjoyed were pretty effective. If the cards a player enjoys most are of the Timesifter ilk, I doubt that playing into that tendency will produce decks of escalating power and competitiveness. Sorry.
Over and out
It’s time to head off and indulge in a weekend of family fun and card-slinging. Join me next week, when I’ll be looking at the new Commander product and rating it on the fun-ometer (that’s two fictional measurement devices I’ve namechecked this week).
Until then, jump into the comments thread and share your treasured memories of your own first deck. Go on, share the love. You know you want to.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing,