So You Wanna Build a Deck

Do you start from a previous deck and add cards? Do you build from the ground up? Is there a specific card or interaction you want to break? Do you just want to play the most powerful cards all at the same time? I personally build an absurd number of decks every set and use a mix of all of these. My current deck dump is in this pastebin folder, and I’ll be doing another article going in more detail on some of them, but today I want to talk about the build process.

During spoiler season, it isn’t important to get it “right,” but it is important to still build functional decks. Mana comes first, and there are 2 articles from Frank Karsten I recommend consulting often as you deckbuild. The first one is on colored mana sources and helps you figure out how many of each source you should be playing to cast your spells on time. The second one is about land drops and tells you how many lands you should play to see a certain number of lands by a given turn. Together these articles help you shape a manabase that is at least functional. A functional manabase means you can evaluate the things your deck does in gameplay without getting sidetracked by your manabase. In addition to your mana, it’s important to keep an eye on your curve. There’s no hard and set rule about curves, especially when ramp gets involved, but make sure you don’t spend chunks of the game not doing anything.
Okay, sure, so I want to build a deck with good mana and a curve, but how do I start? 

Starting with an old deck:

Sometimes old decks just find new cards that fit right in and help an old deck out. This can be as simple as Pirates getting better mana or you can try to rebuild a deck like UW Control to try and mimic what was good in the past. When doing this, it is important to remember that context has changed, whether the old deck is from the previous standard or from years ago. You can’t directly try to 1:1 substitute things and expect it to work. The threats are different, the answers are different, and the metagame will be different. What you’re trying to race, answer, or threaten has to inform your deckbuilding. The other big caveat is that when you substitute cards, either to mimic or upgrade, you’ve changed how the other cards in the deck work with that “slot,” and need to make sure that you make a new, coherent deck. Grow-Chamber Guardian is sick, but if you just replace Merfolk Branchwalker 1:1 in GB Midrange, you’re gonna end up with some really awkward Wildgrowth Walkers.

Starting from the ground up:

Sometimes you just want to start over. You can rebuild mono red. You can build mono black aggro with the new cards available. You can build with combinations of cards or colors that simply weren’t an option before. If you start from the ground up and end up building something similar to what existed before, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t need to be 100% nobody has never seen it before. These decks often start with an idea of what you want to do on a macro scale, and you do Gatherer or Scryfall searches to find the cards you need to pull that off (bless scryfall and their format:future search option). Think of it like a “mission statement” of what your deck wants to do, and then look for cards that help you do that thing. I wanted to build a lean burn deck as soon as I saw Skewer the Critics, and so I looked at our 12 bolts, 4 shocks, and risk factor and then added the fast 1s, viashino pyromancer as both burn and a spectacle enabler, Runaway Steam-Kin to synergize with all of these cheap spells and risk factor, and light the stage as a less clunky card advantage card that also lets the deck get up to 24 cards that can be cast for R with spectacle enabled, 28 with a wizard. These decks can sometimes “build themselves” and that’s okay. Sometimes the pieces just fall into place, that doesn’t make the puzzle any less solved.

Breaking it:

Sometimes you just see Wilderness Reclamation and want to break it in half. You realize that Stony Strength is Dark Ritual with 2 different elves. Sometimes they show you Judith, the Scourge Diva and Priest of Forgotten Gods and you get carried away. These decks tend to start with an engine, a combo, or an interaction that just looks really potent. These decks can be fairly hard to build, because like I said at the beginning, you have to make sure you’re still doing something in most stages of the game. Nexus can’t start playing magic on turn 5, and Elves can’t just be mana dorks. The munitions list for example does a lot of nonsense, but all the pieces are cheap and scale late with the exception of Makeshift Munitions itself, which doesn’t really stack in multiples. You play to the board early, and if the machine is assembled you’re tough to beat late (Priest of Forgotten Gods, Reassembling Skeleton, and Desecrated Tomb are an engine that edict your opponent, make them lose 2 life, and draw you a card every turn- and more with other synergy pieces on the field). Decks like this tend to involve the most Scryfall searches, and can be some of the more difficult decks to pare down to 60 cards, but are the most rewarding if you do actually break something.

Powerful Piles:

You know the kind of decks I’m talking about. These are your Jund Midrange, your Esper Control, your 4C Khans decks. These are just piles of the most powerful cards you can fit in your deck. These decks are often built “backwards,” since people often start with the cards they want to play, and go back and try make the mana work afterwards. One of the first things I did this set was to build some manabases to see what was possible in a vacuum. No other cards, just lands. Especially when shocklands and checklands are involved, you can very easily build one manabase and then just change the colors of the shocks and checks. 20/12/12 on 24 lands, 17/17/13 with unclaimed territory and 13/13/9 for off-tribe spells on 22 lands, 17/16/14 on 25 lands, 16/12/11/8 on 24 lands, this format has some ridiculous stuff you can do, but it isn’t free. With this much in the way of possibilities, you can do a lot, but you need to pick your spots. This upcoming standard format also has a *lot* of powerful cards, and you’re not missing much by choosing one color’s powerful cards over another’s. Find//Finality and Bedevil are castable together, and you’re not really losing any “power” by playing Find and Bedevil together instead of History and Bedevil or Chainwhirler and Bedevil. Find a manabase, pick your most difficult to cast powerful spell you want to play (Bedevil, Goblin Chainwhirler, Frilled Mystic), and then work with the mana instead of against it. Some of my own powerful piles include Steel Leaf Champion TemurBant Hero, and Jund.

A lot of decks also mix and mash these various ways to build, but the key things for any good brew are good mana, a good plan, a good curve, and good cards. This sounds straightforward, but people can often get too hung up on one or two of these and neglect the rest. Above all you want a deck that functions, because if a deck doesn’t function it can be hard to learn from it. Learning is the key thing you want to do when building initial lists. Figuring out what’s possible, testing and figuring out what’s powerful in play, and iterating to make decks stronger, faster, leaner, and cleaner.

I’m looking forward to seeing everything everyone else builds for this format, since no one person can find it all. Reading articles, reading /r/spikes, and chatting with other players can fill in the gaps for you and potentially even bring up new shells or combinations of plans that are even more powerful. Thank you all for reading, and I’ll be back soon with another article.

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