Net Decking Isn’t The Enemy, It’s A Great Starting Point
When I first started playing Magic: the Gathering I started by building my own decks. Sure the intro packs were fine, but I wanted to do crazy things, see what I could do by putting different cards into different shells. This was long before I knew anything about formats; I just thought you could play with cards because it was fun.
Playing MTG with a couple of friends lead to some incredibly enjoyable afternoons and made me fall in love with all the mechanics and the many different ways that cards can interact with each other. I only played it for a couple of months but I built some really fun decks. I also built a lot of decks, in fact I think I had twelve at one point. I knew nothing about “net decking” and how much it can help you become a better deck builder. I stopped playing after a couple of months but that’s just how it goes sometimes.
Fast forward to my getting back into Magic and going to my first FNM just after the Magic Origins release. I had to learn about which cards you could use in what formats and why. I only had my decks which were filled with fun synergies and themes. Building a deck has always been a large part of my enjoyment of Magic: the Gathering, however my understanding of the game wasn’t good enough to let me build a good deck, nor was my understanding of deck composition anywhere near good enough to even attempt building a competitive Standard legal deck. Again, if I had known that looking online is a great first step towards building your own decks I would have done much better, and much quicker.
I found myself annoyed because I wasn’t doing well. I was constantly being beaten by decks designed by professional Magic players. Looking back at it, and even typing it out now, it is incredibly obvious that it would be the case. After all, I haven’t been playing the game anywhere near as long as any of the pro players. There should be no reasons for someone who had been playing Standard for about a week to be beating actual decks. Decks which had been tested to their limits were always going to beat my brews, decks that I had built because they all shared a theme, or because it was entertaining to do crazy things.
I had built a deck around Hangarback Walker, Dragon Throne of Tarkir and Managorger Hydra. Sure it let me do over two thousand damage in one turn, but it required the worlds to align and my opponent to be ever so kind and let me pull off my stupid combo. I started looking into how to build a deck. Specifically how to build a deck that was competent and could actually do well in an FNM, or even win it. Sure it wasn’t the grandest of goals, but it was a big deal when I was aiming for it. After all, it is important to set goals that you can achieve, I can work on brewing a pro tour deck later, it is all about taking baby steps.
Net decking is not the enemy, it is a great starting point
Net decking, going online and getting a list from a tournament, is in fact quite a good way to start building solid decks. It gives you access to field tested shells to work with and more often than not near perfect ratios between your mana base, creatures and other spells. When you start designing MTG decks, getting the right ratios can be very difficult. If you start with a deck that a pro player has built or a deck that has performed well, then you can generally assume that the numbers work out.
When you start out trying to build decks, a deck that has done well is a great place to start. By taking the deck list and making changes that either fit the meta you play in or fit your personal style of play you can really make a deck your own. Doing this gives you a great opportunity to play with a deck that is very well crafted and still also has a little bit of your personal expression, it’s also a great way of showing you how to design a good deck.
The first deck list that I really did this with was Green White Tokens, the deck was fantastic, but the first build of it after the pro tour had some cards I didn’t like. I played with the generic build and eventually moved the Secure the Wastes to the sideboard. In the store I play at I just found there were too many copies of Hallowed Moonlight and Dispel hanging around. I replaced it instead with Evolutionary Leap, the reason being that there was a lot of Grixis Control at my store and I got bored of having cards die to spot removal.
Learning to play a Pro Tour deck really helped me work out the kind of spread of cards you want and why. Having a mana sink like Evolutionary Leap or Westvale Abbey meant I could play more land and not feel too bad about flooding out as I could put my resources to good use. Having the full four Oath of Nissa meant I could filter through my deck and put cards I didn’t want to the bottom. It helps a lot to get used to how a well constructed deck feels because then you can apply it to the decks that you build for yourself. I took these lessons and included them in my building style.
Find your focus
Before I started tweaking online lists I was by building my own decks and having mixed results. I have my own way of doing this as I am sure many people do. I like to start with either a card or a theme. The first deck I did well with at an FNM, which was some time before Green White Tokens, was a deck I made around one single card card. Omnath, Locus of Rage was the cornerstone of my first successful build. I love the card and love the synergy. I once beat someone because they didn’t realise a board wipe would kill them. It turns out three damage is a lot when you have an army of elemental creatures.
In essence it was a ramp deck of sorts but with a bit more early game in the form of Woodland Wanderer and Oblivion Sower. It was a lot of fun and I managed to come second in a couple of FNMs with the deck. Ultimately I was beaten down by Esper Dragons and Dark Jeskai. The deck was a good combination of ramp spells like Frontier Siege and Shaman of the Forgotten Way, these allowed me to play my main creatures as early as turn four and just take over a game.
I made sure that the early game of the deck was good to power me into my late game. It was a key decision to try and have cards all along the higher end of the curve, that way I could always get the most out of my plays. Whether I was ramping out Omnath, Locus of Rage or using the mana to cast Oblivion Sower to help me cast Void Winnower next turn, there was always something to do with the mana I had. The Shaman also helped my two colour deck get the best value from Woodland Wanderer by always allowing me to have four colours to cast the creature.
The synergy in the deck was great and was my focal point when I was building the deck. Ultimately the deck could have been a lot better as I put very little removal in it, additionally I wasn’t very good at sideboarding and had nothing to beat the two best decks at the time.
I went all in on the synergy around the card and I built a deck around it that worked and won matches. It won matches because everyone underestimated the cards it was using and it was unlike any other top tier deck at the time. It also won because people got used to playing against the same decks all the time. If you take a competent home brew you can often take people so off guard that you will win before they even realise what is going on. This gives you the outsiders advantage.
Playing an archetype
Once you know what kind of deck you want to make you can look at lists online for inspiration. If you are building a Delirium deck then what kind of cards do you want? If you look at the lists online you can find both aggressive versions and more mid-range versions of Delirium decks. Which style do you prefer? Look at the cards that are essential to the style, let’s say Grapple with the Past and Grim Flayer, then you can build around that. I really like Gnarlwood Dryad and playing toolbox style decks so I would want to be running four Traverse the Ulvenwald and a bunch of one off creatures like Demon of Dark Schemes which would fit well in different situations. Once you know the style of deck you want to play, you can figure out the essential cards and build around that.
If there isn’t a deck for the card you want to build around then think about the style of deck. Is it an aggressive deck? or is it a control deck? or maybe a silly combo deck? What do you need to include to make it work? If it is an aggressive deck then you’ll want a nice low curve with lots of efficient low cost creatures and maybe some combat tricks. If it is a control deck then you’ll need a good balance of counter spells and removal. What is your win condition, what cards are going to completely turns the game to your favour? If you understand what you want your deck to do then you’ll have a much greater chance of success.
The more you know about what you want to build the better it will be, then test it as much as you can. Is there a card that keeps ending up stuck in your hand doing nothing? Do you wish it was a different card, maybe a fourth copy of something or a completely different card altogether? The more you play your deck the more you can feel what is good and what is not so good. Practice always makes perfect and if you want to get better then you will need to practice… and practice, and practice.
Never stop learning
Brewing better decks takes time and commitment. You need to be thinking about card interactions and have a good knowledge of the format you are building for, as well as having the time to read articles and listen to podcasts. Just adsorb as much information as you can and practice as often as you can. If you have a group of MTG players who are friends then run your ideas past them, ask them if they can help you test. You never know when the next innovation is going to happen or who will come up with it.
The more you keep at it the better you will get. First you can conquer FNM then you can move onto the next tournament level. Where do you want to get to with your deck?
If you keep pushing yourself and keep striving for better you can do some amazing things in this game. What kind of decks do you want to make? Is there a card that you think is incredible but hasn’t been broken out yet?
Keep building and playing and maybe you can crack it.
Thanks for reading,