A Quick Guide To Improvised Deckbuilding For New Magic: The Gathering Players, by Katie Roberts
Hi everyone, we have something a little different this week. Rather than building a deck for a person ahead of time and then teaching them using it, this article will cover what I learned guiding a new player through the process of building decks. Because one of the decks that we built was a low-budget progenitor of a burn deck heavy on instants and sorceries, we will talk about introducing new players to these spells.
Making the most of a collection
As experienced Magic players, we may spend a significant amount of our time wondering where all these cards came from, and swearing that the only explanation is that our single copy of Mitotic Slime must have developed an actual genetic structure and started replicating.
If your MTG experience started with paper cards rather than playing online, where did your first cards come from? I had the fortune of being given a fairly hefty box of commons and uncommons when I got into the game, and this started the eternal battle with storage space otherwise known as an interest in MTG.
Fat Packs, now called Bundles, are also a pretty great way for new players to get into MTG, and I know other people who have bought a load of boosters and used these as the start of a collection. Buying boosters and Bundles is good because you get to open new, exciting, Standard-playable cards. You also have the chance of opening cards worth a significant amount of money. This is not the case if your collection comes from donations from friends, unless your friends are either very generous or prone to mixing up their box of random commons with their playset of Vendillion Clique. However, it takes a significant amount of monetary investment to open enough packs so that you can build a viable deck, and if you don’t open valuable cards, this could represent quite a money sink.
Our ideal strategy for acquiring new cards may depend on our interests and goals when we start playing MTG. If our focus is general interest in the game itself and a non-competitive nature, we may find immense joy in flicking through piles of old cards and looking at the variation that the game presents. If we want to dive in and keep up with the current limited or Standard game, we may be more interested in new cards.
Of course, this means that there may be a huge amount of variation in the individual cards that a new player learns. When I learned MTG the current set was Khans block, which I drafted a few times and had a minimal awareness of (I’m going to publicly admit that I remember thinking that Lens of Clarity was excellent and enthusing about it to a probably amused opponent). However, most of my learning of MTG came from casual games involving cube draft and my own casual decks.
Unless you aim to dive right into a competitive format, in a way, it does not matter which cards you learn to play Magic with. The whole game is about being able to find creative solutions to board states that arise through variation in your and your opponent’s decks. I have enthused about building casual decks before, especially as new players, as learning the creativity involved with MTG does not depend on whether you are playing a deck costing £400 or £4.
That said, learning MTG using the current set has excellent benefits too. Playing with the cards that people are talking about the most will allow a new player to form opinions on them pretty quickly, contributing to MTG discussion more than if they, say, learned MTG by playing with a random assortment of old cards. Learning relevant cards obviously has its advantages; playing around specific cards is an important skill.
Even if a new player is learning by drafting or wants to get into Standard, donating a bunch of old cards to a new, interested player is probably always an excellent thing. This brings us to the first focus of the article for the week. When searching for people to teach MTG to, I posted in a Board Games Society group on social media and was contacted by Jennifer, who had some cards from booster packs and wanted advice regarding what to do with them.
Jennifer was an experienced Yu-Gi-Oh player and had played a little MTG, but no more than a few games. This was an excellent opportunity to build decks for somebody who is new to MTG using (at least in part) their own collection, which seemed like an interesting thing to focus on.
Jennifer told me that they had opened a few boosters from Eldritch Moon, and had an Intro Deck, but had not built decks from a collection yet. Considering that Jennifer’s collection itself may not be large enough to build fun decks out of, I packed a bag of (mostly recent) cards and we met up with our collections over coffee.
A rough guide to improvised deckbuilding
The main aim of meeting up was to build a deck so that Jennifer could play casually, using cards from Jennifer’s collection as far as possible and using mine to bulk up the numbers. Another aim was to teach some of the core principles of deck building, and the point that throwing together a bunch of cards that you like, forming a mana curve and adding lands is a great place to get started.
Not knowing exactly which colours or archetypes we would focus on in advance, I was a little nervous about building decks on the fly. I have to admit that I didn’t have much of a plan prior to meeting up to build decks, and wondered how to manage putting a deck together, teaching how to put a deck together, and keeping someone engaged in the process while I work out what to do.
Running through deck building, I taught the basic principles of numbers of lands, spells and creatures, and the importance of a mana curve, discussing that these would vary based on the style of the deck. This was easy to explain and well-understood, and I handed Jennifer a bunch of cards to sort through and pick out the ones that jumped out the most.
Regardless of your experience with MTG, I am a massive fan of building casual using cards that you, for whatever reason, just love. When I built my first decks I was encouraged to look through my collection, pull out cards that grabbed me and just throw them in a deck with something resembling a mana curve and some semblance of a gameplan. Of course these decks would be better if we research which cards synergise well and pick a clear strategy over individual cards that are just overwhelmingly appealing, but I don’t think this would have had the same, well, magic. Now, teaching deck building, I decided to try the same approach.
Jennifer had cards neatly arranged in a binder, which made it fantastically easy to see what we had. The main difficulty was knowing what to build around. Initially, I thought we could build a sweet Black-Green Delirium deck, but I had not happened to bring the artifact or enchantment support for it. After a few iterations and a lot of indecision on my part, we ended up building a midrange deck with a small amount of Delirium payoff on otherwise fine cards, but not enough to make the archetype work well.
The realisation of how hard it was to build decks out of the few boosters opened by a new player plus a random shoebox full of my cards made me see how difficult it could be for a new player building decks out of a small number of cards. Opening six booster packs will enable a new player to build what is essentially a Sealed Deck, where getting creatures on the battlefield and attacking with them is pretty critical. Whilst such a deck might be a load of fun, and whilst interesting and diverse sealed decks exist, some sealed pools just aren’t great. Sometimes it is hard to build a cohesive deck out of six boosters may not work for a new player, and by this point they may have sunk £20 into a game and not know what to do with it.
The addition of a box of my cards to choose from opened up a load more possibilities when building decks. The most obvious of these was the ability to build decks that were mono-colour. Looking through Jennifer’s collection and being anxious to utilise it as far as possible, I noticed that it contained at least one Thermo Alchemist. Since this card is excellent, quite easy to understand but a challenge to play correctly as a new player, and played in constructed MTG formats, we focused on building a deck that could use it.
We searched through Jennifer’s binder and my shoebox for as many cheap red spells as possible and aggressive creatures, and the most low-budget, thrown together burn deck was born. The deck had a load of spells, that targeted the opponent’s life total as much as possible. It was far from a “good” burn deck, but oh was it fun.
It was a great experience to build two very different decks with different play styles with a player who was new to MTG. We played a couple of games together using the decks that we built, and they were so much fun. The decks both worked reasonably well, and neither seemed totally dominant over the other.
These decks would allow casual play, but were not good enough for competitive constructed MTG. However, playing with actual MTG decks is so much better than the cards sitting unused in our respective collections. These decks would allow Jennifer to explore different play styles, and make them better over time with cards that they acquired.
Throwing together a casual burn deck made me think about types of instant and sorcery spells and how we introduce them to new players. Building intro decks, I have typically focused more on how to use mana and attack with creatures and less on when to cast instant and sorcery spells. Removal is an important part of these decks, but including only a few removal spells in a creature-heavy deck means infrequent opportunities to cast them.
I have built intro decks that are heavy on creatures and light on spells partially because creatures stick around longer and provide a series of on-board decisions, whereas instant and sorcery spells are (usually) used once. As we know, some creatures weren’t built to attack, their power instead comes from activated or triggered abilities. When building intro decks I have included creatures that are good at attacking and blocking because they are easier to grasp. In short, less Skirsdag High Priest, more Highland Game. Similarly, when putting spells in an intro deck, think about what they demand of a new player. We will now explore how some types of spell demand different amounts from a new player using the example of removal spells and combat tricks.
Adding removal to an intro deck demonstrates the power of cards that get rid of other cards. As MTG players, we have probably all learned to save our Radiant Flames for a particularly flammable-looking creature rather than using it hastily on an unworthy target. The impact of a removal spell depends on how we choose to cast it, and different types of spell demand different levels of understanding of the game.
Think of a sorcery speed removal spell, such as Sunlance. Being played only on your turn, Sunlance demonstrates that a removal spell can generate more value if saved for a really good creature. Compare this with an instant-speed removal spell, such as Shock. Instant-speed removal teaches that the value of a spell also comes from the timing of play within a turn cycle. Casting it to kill your opponent’s attacking creature will typically be better than casting it on your turn. With instant-speed removal spell taking a raw power hit in comparison to sorcery-speed removal, it allows more flexibility in when to cast it.
Instant-speed removal represents a level-up in understanding above sorcery-speed removal, and takes a hit in power level. Casting instant-speed removal is a valuable lesson for a new player to learn, but we should consider that playing it well takes more skill. Including all instant-speed rather than sorcery-speed removal in a deck will demand more of a new player. It may also reward a new player more if they quickly learn how to generate value from these spells.
Combat tricks introduce another level of complexity. Giant Growth will usually be used in combat, requiring more detailed knowledge of the combat step than instant- or sorcery-speed removal. Combat tricks open players up to card disadvantage if they trade their removal spell and a creature for their opponent’s creature, which new players may be likely to do. This is also a fundamental lesson to learn, but we should think about how many of this type of effect we put in intro decks; we want to make them accessible.
One great way to build a spell-heavy deck for a new player could be to build a deck that uses spells that know their favourite target but are happy to go elsewhere if necessary. I think the burn-heavy mono-red deck that Jennifer and I built was a great example of a spell-heavy deck that is also beginner-friendly. Burn spells mostly want to be directed at your opponent’s life total, but in the deck that we built would also sometimes be used to kill creatures. The timing of casting these spells can make a real difference to a new player’s win rate, but hopefully won’t cause them to lose too hard if misplayed.
Summary – use your commons sense! (Uhh I’m sorry…)
Building decks using someone else’s collection as far as possible, but adding a chunk of my own, felt somehow even better than just building a deck for somebody ahead of time. Even though the cards that I used were only random commons and uncommons with no real value to me, they seemed to help Jennifer a lot, who was very appreciative. Now go and build decks with new players!