The Casual Deck Builder’s Guide: Part One — The Foundations

A deck for Casual is as fun to make as it is to play. In this article, Iwill walk through the basics of deck building with a budget and one without monetary concerns. A strong foundation is the source of a powerful deck. Part One explains how to build the foundation. Finding the right combination of cards is critical to how your deck will play. Luckily enough, Magic Online has a very strong community and there are a lot of tools on the Internet to make your deck building experience easier. You don’t need to memorize the text of every card ever printed to build a strong Casual deck. And if you did memorize every card ever, you should promote yourself as student-for-hire, I’m sure someone will pay you to take their classes for them!

Step One: The Idea / Core Mechanic

Every deck begins with an idea. Whether the thought is a sneaky way to win, the art on a particular card, or a vision of unicorns prancing in the fields; there is always an idea behind the deck. For myself, the idea is always centered around a combo. For example, I made a Godhead of Awe deck with a bunch of opponent’s creatures -1/-1 effects. I was first introduced to Godhead during a game of Mormir, my opponent played the card in a random creature drop and the game grinded to a halt. While I prayed for a removal effect, I thought, “Godhead of Awe and Festering March would make an excellent partnership.” Thus the idea of a deck was born.

Decks don’t always have to be combo based. They can be themed. If the idea is vampires crying and writing songs about their ex-girlfriends, there are cards to support the idea:

Once you have the idea, you will need to think about how the deck will play, in others words the core mechanic. The core mechanic is mainly how you expect the deck to operate during a game. For a specific card combo, the core mechanic will operate by having a specific set of cards played at precisely the right time. A more generalized core mechanic might not operate on one card but how the deck operates as a whole. For example, let’s say you build a deck with these cards:

The core mechanic of the deck is do a lot of damage, as fast as possible. Haste, high power creatures, and low cost damage spells are all part of the core mechanic. A Furnace Dragon isn’t a part of the core mechanic of these cards. Using the concept of a core mechanic will help streamline the deck so all the cards are working with each other. The core mechanic of a deck can get tricky as the deck becomes a little more complicated.

The core mechanic of these cards is delaying the opponent long enough to use Benthic Behemoth for the land walk ability. Mind Bend is very much a key part of the core mechanic. It can be used to either give Benthic Behemoth Forestwalk (if against a Green deck) or change the opponent’s land into an Island. The Unsummon and Exclude help drag out the game longer until the more expensive Benthic Behemoth can be played. All of these cards can be used to enact the core mechanic. However, Unsummon and Exclude are support cards, rather than critical elements to the deck.

For example, let’s say after the other player plays a Baneslayer Angel and you bounce the Angel back into their hand. The Exclude and three open mana is held for the inevitable reentrance of the Baneslayer Angel. A pretty cool trick for less than the other player paid for their card. An Unsummon followed by an Exclude is a neat trick but not critical to the success of your deck thus is under the support category, rather than the core mechanic. Tripping up the opponent and delaying the game is a part of the core mechanic, but choosing which creatures is saved for the Exclude is not. The Eldrazi cheated into play and bounced back into the hand may feel like a victory. The actual victory happens when the core mechanic comes into play. In this deck, bouncing and countering is fun, but doesn’t mean much until Islandwalk is in play.

Recognizing the core mechanic over support is important because all the cards should help the mechanic. Combos and cards that support the core mechanic, like Unsummon followed by Exclude, aren’t necessary to win the game and can be removed if a better support strategy comes along. Basically, the difference for a core mechanic card verses a support card are simple. A core mechanic card must only be replaced by other cards that have the same effect. Whereas a support card can be replaced by something that enhances the core mechanic, but may not have the same effect. Phew! My brain is full, time to watch a dancing monkey.

One hour later… Strange, I want a banana. Alright, how can the support cards change but still keep the core mechanic? Let’s take a look:

We got rid of Exclude and Unsummon, but we retained the effect of delaying the other player long enough for our Islandwalk ability to come into play. What makes these cards vicious is that Unsummonand Exclude only work on creatures. The new cards will affect the opponent no matter what build they are using. Maybe you’ll even prevent that Baneslayer Angel from entering play because too much of their Plains have a flood counter (plus the added bonus of guaranteeing Islands in play when you play your Islandwalk). By isolating the core mechanic, the support cards can be tweaked to find the best way for the deck to function during play.

The core mechanic cards can be tweaked too. However, they have a narrower range of cards that can take their place. For example, is Benthic Behemoth the best Islandwalk card on the market? I can think of several that can take its place:

Inkwell Leviathan is only one more mana than Benthic Behemoth and much harder to get rid of. Wrexial is very good but the ability is better fit in a different core mechanic (not to mention adding another color will change how the deck plays). Halimar is great too, but may tie up mana used to delay the other deck. Inkwell seems like the winner. With enough mana acceleration or draw, a one casting cost difference will not make much of a difference. Inkwell is a creature leaps and bounds better than the original Islandwalker of the deck.

To summarize, think of an idea. Figure out the core mechanic. Think of support ideas for the core mechanic. While support cards can change, core mechanic cards must maintain the original intended purpose of the deck when they are substituted for another card. Let’s figure out a core mechanic.


This one seems pretty simple and affordable. These cards don’t go for much and they all work well together. Emarkuls Hatcher and Brood Birthing are there to bring out Eldrazi Spawn. Heat Ray and Broodwarden are there to make use of the Eldrazi Spawn while they are in play. The core mechanic of this deck is: bring out Eldrazi Spawn and use them to cause mayhem. Knowing how the deck functions will be a key element in choosing cards to support the main function. Since we are working on a budget deck, we have the added restriction of keeping the cars that require purchasing a play set cheaply. Awakening Zone is fairly cheap, but four of them are going to cost more than a play set of Brood Birthing. Let’s stick with the cheap ones for now and see if there is room in the budget for an Awakening Zone or two.

Unlimited Funds:

The Doran deck is another fairly simple concept. Doran, the Siege Tower gives the deck the ability to deal damage with the toughness rating of a creature rather than the power. Wakestone Gargoyle allows the use of creatures with the Defender keyword in the attack. Because creatures with Defender often have high toughness like Wall of Denial, we can create quite an attack force. Sounds a like a core mechanic? Right! Let’s make a deck… but not so fast. Let’s first make the description less wordy: attack with giant toughness creatures even if they have Defender and laugh heartily at smiting your enemy. The reason we want to make the core mechanic less wordy is because we will reference the description as we make the deck. Attack with large toughness creatures, is way easier to remember. We will reference the text of those cards later when we check our deck list for playability but for choosing support, start simple and build complexity into the deck.

Step Two: The Format

Goblins walk their Saproling pets. Alright! So you got the core mechanic, let’s go find some cards! But not yet… I’m one of those annoying teachers that makes the students learn before they have fun. Before you select any cards beyond the ones that made you think of the core mechanic, you must pick a format for the deck. Choosing a Format first will help narrow down the card search. For example, let’s say I am making a mono Blue deck. When I have to choose counter magic, there are some choices better than others. For example:

Counterspell costs two-mana and Cancel is three. Counterspell seems like the obvious choice. However, if my core mechanic cards are all in Standard, should I make a deck in Classic so I can counter a spell for one less mana? Choosing Classic for one casting cost difference is treading into risky territory. Nothing risked, nothing gained? A 4x Jokulhaups, 4x Greater Gargadon, and 42x Mountain deck is also risky but that doesn’t mean you are destined for the Magic Hall of Fame for the deck that never loses. “What should I bring to the tournament today? The deck that never loses! Why do people always concede when they see that I’m their opponent?”

Choosing a Format is the next most important step, hence coming second in an article about deck building. Each Format has it’s own Metagame. What is Metagame? A movie with Will Ferrel? A poorly imagined robot sports villain? A term used at a party to impress your friends? Simply, Metagame in Magic is the way decks operate with each other. How many times have you been burned to death by a Red deck early in the game? How many times have you slowed that Red deck down enough get a win? All these are examples of Metagame. The general rule is Classic has a giant Metagame, Extended is in the middle, and Standard has the least to worry about. If you make a deck in Classic, there are any number of deck builds, and strategies you will come across, some you have never seen before. Whereas in Standard, the choices are more limited. For example (while Shards of Alara and Zendikar are in standard), if your opponent has a Red, Green, and Black Mana spread, they are probably using a Jund build. Whereas in Classic, those three colors could mean any number of builds, and have no Jund Metagame at all.

Choosing a Format is critical to the process of deck making because you’ll limit your search for the right cards. A deck in Extended means you can count out all the Classic cards. When you look for the right support cards to make your deck idea a reality, you’ll be able to eliminate cards from the search. For a game that is easily producing more than a thousand new cards per year, finding the right sixty cards can be overwhelming. Ways to take cards out of the search helps streamline the deck making process. Don’t spend the time looking for cards outside of your Format unless you change the core mechanic.

Choosing the Format is as simple as your core mechanic. Find out where your cards are legal. For example, Doran, the Siege Tower and Wakestone Gargoyle are legal in Extended and Classic. Since I don’t need any cards from Classic to play the core mechanic, I’m going to make my deck building easy by choosing Extended. For the Eldrazi Spawn Budget deck, I am using pretty much all Standard cards. I will narrow my card search even more by choosing Standard.

There are a lot more Formats out there, Vanguard, Two-Head Giant, Commander, Pauper, the list goes on. To see whether the core mechanic might be a good match for another Format, you might have to do a little card research. For example, my Doran deck requires rare cards, so Pauper is out. What about Commander? Doran is a Legendary Creature. He would be very useful to bring out repeatedly during the game. Commanders are exiled when they die and can be played again for a little more mana. What about Wakestone Gargoyle? With a one in one hundred chance of drawing Wakestone, combined with the fact that most Commander decks have some sort of creature removal, attacking Defender creatures might not happen too much. We’ll need to do some research before we choose Commander.

There aren’t a lot of cards that help creatures lose Defender. Torpid Moloch‘s power is higher than the toughness. Two of the cards only affect walls. Warmongers Chariot looks like a decent card but there aren’t enough lose Defender effects to really support the core mechanic. Another negative to Commander is creatures with the ability to lose Defender, like Torpid Moloch, often have power equal to their toughness like Ageless Sentinels, Tidewater Minion, and Elder Land Wurm. Commander isn’t really helping our Doran, the Siege Tower/Wakestone Gargoyle combo. While Doran might make an excellent Commander, the core mechanic of our deck is not very useful in the Format. Since I really want to keep the core mechanic and not rethink the use of Doran for Commander, I’m sticking with Extended. In order to find out if your deck idea will work in a more specialized Format, think about how the core mechanic will work in the Format.

Great! We have the Format! Let’s go find some cards! But not yet… we can narrow the card search by choosing the right colors.

Step Three: Mana

“We have the tools, and we have the talent,” said a wise man busting ghosts during the Eighties. The card hunt is almost ready but first we need to find out what color of cards we are looking for. When choosing what Mana colors to use during the game, the rule is fairly simple. What colors does your core mechanic use? If you reduce the amount of colors to exactly what you need to run the deck, you’ll have to do less “fixing” of the deck later (mana fixing is putting enough non-basic lands, mana grab, rainbow generation, etc. to ensure you will never be short a color).

Every deck doesn’t need a Counterspell to function. While Counterspell is almost always useful, you shouldn’t put Blue in a Blueless deck on the off chance that you may counter a spell during a game. Using only the colors of your core mechanic may seem fairly obvious but let’s go back to the cards that inspired the Doran deck.

We have Black, Green, White, and Blue. However, the two most important cards Doran, the Siege Tower and Wakestone Gargoyle will still function without Blue. What about Wall of Denial? The equivalent of an 8/8 shroud flyer! That’s more awesome than picking up chicks at an old folk’s home! But seriously, resist the temptation to run Blue simply to have Wall of Denial. If you really need an 8 toughness flying wall, maybe Wall of Shards could do the trick before the Cumulative Upkeep goes out of control. Shroud is only useful when the creature in question is a target. Doran, the Siege Tower and Wakestone Gargoyle will be targets before the Defender creature. Wall of Denial will be neutered as an attacker when Doran leaves play. Sticking with the colors in your core mechanic will really help to streamline the flow, reduce the amount of cards you have to search for, and prevent you from having not useful mana during the game.

What about the budget deck? There are more Eldrazi Spawn generators than ones I found. Let’s take a look at the core mechanic cards:

Red and Green. I can live with that. However, before I count out other colors let’s look at the others. Black may help the core mechanic. Let’s take a look:

A quick review of the core mechanic is bring out the Spawn so you can use their mana ability. The X casting cost spells are dangerous because we have a lot of disposable mana. A spell like Suffer the Past will clutter our mana base if we decide not to use Black Eldrazi Spawn cards. From looks of the choices, the Red/Green is still strong. Corpsehatch is nice because we can take a creature out and put our critters into play. However, five-mana is a lot and I’d rather have a Broodwarden at five. Red is also a good creature killing color so I can live without Corpsehatch. Dread Drone is neat, but I’d rather have an Emrakuls Hatcher. I can make up the one point of attack damage with an X casting cost. Pawn only works with nontokens. My deck is all about the tokens! Essence Feed is nifty but expensive. By the time I have enough to cast Essence Feed, I should already be casting that giant X spell. Looks like Red/Green is the color spread.


We’ve covered the basics of deck building for the causal player but have yet to look for cards! The card hunt will come soon. Part Two will be about searching for the cards. The foundations of a deck start with the core mechanic and lead to choosing a format and mana base. Think about a core mechanic, choose a format, figure out the colors, and leave a comment. The best part of MTGO is the community; other players can help you with a deck. When I first started, I posted my decks online. I learned more from a comment by an experienced player than a game could teach me. I didn’t know about Kodamas Reach until another player suggested exchanging my Rampant Growth‘s for them. Interact with other players, because we are at home, in our underwear, at a computer, doesn’t mean we can’t have human contact.

Thanks for reading,


  1. For the extended deck with large toughness attackers theme, I think it is important to recognize that you will also need those creatures for blocking for the times you don’t have a wakestone gargoyle + doran out. Also, I think it might be better to pick either nondefenders with high toughness, or defenders with some power too, so that when only of your combo cards are on the board, you can still do something.

    I think heat ray and broodwarden are conflicting cards in the R/G archetype. Once you use the tokens for an x-spell, it should win the game, otherwise you won’t have a need for broodwarden’s ability. maybe banefire or fireball or comet storm? and run cheaper more efficient removal for the creatures instead.

  2. As far as the Doran deck, I am getting into that in Part Two. Having Doran out and keeping him out is pretty important part of the deck. Wakestone will be too. But how I tackle that issue is an more advanced method of deck building thus I felt shouldn’t go in Part One.

    As for the budget deck, yes you picked up something I intentionally put into the article. Heat Ray isn’t the best choice. But it wouldn’t be about deck building if I couldn’t use the moment to show, why some cards work better than others. Tune into Part Two to see how I tackle the Heat Ray problem.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Hello Aaron,

    nice overview of some important deckbuilding basics. Looking forward to read part two. Take care!

  4. +1 for the Ghostbusters reference =)

    Excellent article, this is a very nice series of basic articles on the site now. Keep them coming.

  5. Good article.

    I liked the way it is written, makes it seem like a friendly conversation than an article which is always good. I like the deck ideas and hopefully in the next parts we’ll get to see you expand upon them, and maybe even a playtest, as I am quite intrigued by your ‘smack with high toughness’ deck.

    Keep em coming

  6. Thank you all for your encouraging comments!

    Yay! +1 for ghost busters! Now the planeswalker card of myself has an ability!

  7. Great article, however I feel that Step 2: The Format could do with a little further explanation.

    If you choose your deck to belong to a particular format, are you then limited to playing other decks of that format? Where/how exactly do you find out which cards are legal with which format? Can cards be legal in more than one format? What’s a Pauper? What’s the most common/rare format?

    I understand this is only part 1 and these questions could be answered in future articles, but I just thought I would give you a newbie’s perspective.

  8. Certainly helps figuring out what the deck does and what to do with it. I’m normally trying to add another color for a few cards that are more for support then anything so I’m forced to cut them even though there very good at what I want them to do.

  9. Very well written. As someone who is new to both mtg and mtgo, I’m constantly looking for information to learn more about the game, often however, articles aren’t all that new player
    friendly, which makes sense as mtg has been around for quite a while. A+ for both style,
    and content, on to part two and three.

  10. If you do not have a credit card youlesrf you can use a parents or a friendsI use my moms credit card to pay for WoW (technically they pay for WoW for me too)My Brothers friends uses my brothers credit card to pay for WoWBut if you dont want to mooch off of your friends or family you can buy game cards which they have at most;Best Buys, Game Stops and Walmarts but buying with a credit card is easier and you can buy 6 months at once for cheaper which i do it goes from 15$ s a month to 12$ s a month. What you do is pay 72$ every 6 months.