The Casual Deck Builder’s Guide: Part Three — The Deck

Part One covered the basic deck construction tactics, core mechanics, formats, and colors. Part Two covered some online tools helpful for casual players and picking the core mechanic cards. Part Three covers choosing the support cards and land. Part Four will cover refinement, play testing, and general deck revision strategies.

Step Five: Choosing the Support Cards

Good support cards enhance the speed of the deck and the effectiveness of the core mechanic. They also protect your cards and hinder the other player. Magic is a game of the unknown. Unless you play with the same people, you usually don’t know what will be in the other player’s hand. Even the best decks are toppled from an unknown at the right moment. When choosing support cards, you either support your deck or combat the unknown. Let’s look at the core cards of both of our current decks:

Doran: Doran, the Siege Tower, Kami of Old Stone, Indomitable Ancients, Silklash Spider, and Autochthon Wurm.

Eldrazi Spawn: Awakening Zone, Brood Birthing, Broodwarden, Emrakul’s Hatcher, Growth Spasm, Hand of Emrakul, Kozilek’s Predator, Nest Invader, Rapacious One, Skittering Invasion, Spawning Breath, and Spawnsire of Ulamog.

Doran Support:
Support cards improve effectiveness. When measuring effectiveness of a deck, you should playtest to explore. Sometimes a weakness isn’t obvious until another player exploits it! But we’ll keep playtesting a bit for Part Four. For now, let’s think about the core mechanics and how to properly support them.

Doran kills with toughness. Autochthon Wurm is pretty awesome on the toughness front but way super high CMC. So high that I think my other creatures will bury my opponent long before I cast the Eldrazi level Wurm. Can I bring my other creatures to 14 toughness as well? Of course! Equipment and auras can take the place of the Wurm by providing its high toughness at a fraction of the cost. I am also going to add Caravan Hurda instead of the Wurm because it sticks to the theme, has lifelink and has a much lower CMC.

The key guideline to remember about non-core mechanic support cards is to only use the ones that really help you out. Holy Strength adds an extra two toughness for cheap, but how does it compare to Kami of Old Stone or an extra Doran in your hand? Only choose a support card if the card makes a serious difference. If I had a Gatherer of Graces deck, Holy Strength might make the cut, because I want lots of enchantments on the cheap. For the Doran deck, I want something that will play into the core mechanic and offer an acceptable power level. After a search for equipment to increase the toughness (remember that advanced search option in the Gatherer?) I found Slagwurm Armor. Now my Indomitable Ancients can get to higher toughness sooner than I can cast Autochthon Wurm!

Another way to judge the effectiveness of the deck is to ponder the weaknesses of your core mechanic. Core mechanics will always have a weakness. In deck construction, you’ll try and fix the weakness before you play. I know with the Slagwum Armor, my creatures will be the kids who shave in elementary school- you won’t want to get on their bad side. However, I don’t have many creatures. A chump generator like Awakening Zone makes a 16 damage attack useless (note: the term “chump” refers to a creature designed to die blocking). Any deck with a lot of creatures will force me to play defense. If I am always saving my creatures for defense, then I never will be able to attack! How can a creature attack and defend at the same time and punch through a line of chump blockers? Trample and vigilance both provide solutions. Using my searching skills from Part Two, I find two enchantments:

I like these cards because they affect all my creatures, and they don’t really add an extra step to make my guys better. So far I have no 2 CMC cards ,and they are not required to be in play to win. Since they are support cards that really help out my deck, I think I’ll keep them. In the event I face an onslaught of creatures, I’ll be able to protect myself, and punch through the opponent’s defense- fantastic! I think I have covered a weakness.

But the biggest weakness is Doran himself; he is critical for the success of my deck. If I don’t draw him, he is put in the graveyard, or any number of other tricks that put Doran down, I’ll need to remedy the problem at hand to jumpstart my deck.

Let’s start with returning him from the graveyard. Several cards are revealed in the search: Eternal Witness, Nature’s Spiral, Raise Dead, Recollect and many others. Recollect is out because Nature’s Spiral has essentially the same effect for cheaper. Raise Dead is very cheap, but I like the flexibility of Nature’s Spiral in case I need another card. Eternal Witness is by far the most flexible (any card, not just permanents). She’ll become a 1/1 with Doran out but I don’t really need her for attack. So she’ll there in case I need a chump.

My other option for ensuring Doran will always be in play is via creature searching. Creature searching is probably one of the most powerful tools in the game. A card like Survival of the Fittest is expensive because it eliminates random chance; any card that eliminates random chance is a very powerful tool. For example, during a Commander game, I was playing a mono-white equipment deck. A mono-green player was dropping players with a Brawn, Genesis, and a shrouded Fauna Shaman combo. Lucky for me, I was not a threat (weak creatures with no equipment yet), but I did have a Scroll Rack in play. I dumped my entire hand (a Sword of Body and Mind does nothing when you are dead) and drew seven cards with the Scroll Rack. Morningtide was among the seven, and I cleared up the trample problem. I stacked the Sword of Body and Mind for a top deck, so even though the Fauna Shaman could bring out big creatures, with protection from green, I was safe. Cards that give the card you need when you need it are some of the most powerful in the game.

For the purposes of the kill ‘em with toughness deck, there is a cheaper alternative. When you find a card with a specific attribute like Doran’s ability, you’ll want to poke around the same block for other cards that may be designed to work within the set. Most sets in Magic are designed to work with each other. Whenever you find a card from a particular set, browse the set to see what else is offered. In the case of Doran, Treefolk Harbinger seems to be exactly what I want. Now I have the benefit of Survival of the Fittest for more than a few dollars less!

I’ve improved the deck by finding cards that work well the deck’s construction; now, I will find cards to deal with the unknown. There really is never a sure fire strategy that will deal with all the unknowns in Magic. You pretty much have to assume what the player will have before you play against them. The rule here is hinder the opponent’s tactics long enough to have your own go through- make the deck able to handle a wide variety of situations rather than one particular situation. For example, adding shadow creatures to a deck in cause you may run into a shadow deck is rather silly when Doom Blade can take care of some shadow creatures for you as well as other threats.

For threat removal, versatility is key. Pick cards that have a wide variety of targets. For example, Terror is great but what about black and artifact creatures? I can go with Doom Blade, but I’ll still be weak against black. Path to Exile is better but free land for the other player is always dangerous. I’d rather never see that Primeval Titan enter play. Now Maelstrom Pulse is a fantastic removal card! I can kill any non-land card in the game and have insurance again the five thousand Elf token player! I’ll throw in some Wastelands(Tectonic Edge‘s expensive, older brother) for the land removal to cover the weak point of Pulse.

Other consideration for removal cards is sweepers or what I like to call, “hitting the reset switch.” Wrath of God and its nondenominational counterpart, Day of Judgment, are probably the most common insurance policy. New players tend to steer clear of massive board wiping effects; they fear annoying other players, slowing down the game, and of course killing their own creatures. However, sometimes hitting the reset switch is necessary. When your opponent has a game winning combo on the table, letting your own creatures go, may turn the tide. Besides, Eternal Witness is there to help us build back up. However, for the Doran deck there are a couple of mass effect cards that are better than the most popular. Solar Tide seems to be made for Doran- a sweeper that will leave Doran in play! In the case of Solar Tide, I can choose to kill everything if the times get desperate- I will have to sacrifice lands, but right now I only need three lands total to play most of the deck, and it’s a small price to pay for turning the tide in my favor.

In the last bit of business, I want to add sideboard cards. While casual players rarely play with sideboards, a good sideboard is always wise to have. Even if I never enter a Match type game (best two out of three), a sideboard will give me tweak options when I go to play testing. I also have the ability to move cards around easily while I decide which card is better. For example, I’m not one hundred percent sure about my removal choices. Retribution of the Meek is cheaper than Solar Tide and has a similar effect. Swords to Plowshares will handle indestructible whereas Maelstrom Pulse can’t do anything. Naturalize is also a consideration because games always seem to be going fine until the other player brings (insert artifact here)! In the event that I do play a Match, I can take out the Eternal Witness and put in Naturalize if the other player doesn’t have much removal. So even if you don’t do best two of threes, sideboards are a great way to think about all the cards that almost made the cut!

Here is the deck list thus far: Doran, the Siege Tower, Kami of Old Stone, Indomitable Ancients, Silklash Spider, Caravan Hurda, Slagwurm Armor, Primal Rage, Serra’s Blessing, Eternal Witness, Treekfolk Harbinger, Maelstrom Pulse, Solar Tide, Naturalize, Retribution of the Meek, Swords to Plowshares.

Eldrazi Spawn Support
For the Eldrazi Spawn deck, the task is simple- I want to cause a lot of damage fairly quickly. If my creatures are designed to sacrifice for mana, then long games will only hinder my efforts. I can’t sacrifice them for mana if I have to use them as chumps. With Doran, my removal and support cards work on the premise that I’ll have to attack for my damage. For the Eldrazi Spawn deck, I’ll be going for direct impact. With Doran, I can attack as many times as it takes. For the Eldrazi Spawn, I’ll only have one good move. After I sacrifice all my tokens, my biggest play will be over, and I probably won’t get another chance.

Because I have one shot at glory, fame, and world domination (the benefits of winning a game in the casual room on MTGO), all my cards need to work towards the goal. Probably one of the most important rules of deck building: understand how your deck will win. The cards should reflect the idea. Doran can’t really attack until Turn 4. With a lucky draw, he’ll be equipped with Slagwurm Armor. Maelstrom Pulse will take care of any blockers and the final damage will be done Turn 6. But that’s with luck. More than likely, I’ll need more time because the first Doran will be destroyed, countered, or have received one of all sorts of other nasty fates, so I’ll need some support.

With the Eldrazi Spawn, I need to use the Spawn before I lose them. The longer the game continues so will the chance that my opponent has way to deal with the big attack. Take Fireball and Heat Ray, for example. While Heat Ray is great card for high mana output decks, taking out a creature at the cost of Spawn only sets me back. A 5/5 may totally screw up my Doran deck and be worth a destruction card, but five Eldrazi Spawn tokens is a couple turns worth of build up! I can take a few heavy hits, especially if I retaliate with a Fireball to the player’s face.

Since I know that I’ll need to use the mana as fast as possible, I have some cards for the Eldrazi Spawn deck that will allow me to make the most use of my mana: Chimeric Mass, Fireball, Comet Storm, Gelatinous Genesis, Protean Hydra, Untamed Might, and Lightning Bolt.

Step Six: Land

All I need now is some land, and I’ll be good to go! For a list of the different types of land, please refer to my land guide. How much land should be in a deck? Well, the answer is quite simple: exactly what the deck needs. Before I get any more cryptic and pretend that I’m a Chinese mystic brewing with wisdom, let me explain.

Each deck has a specific set of requirements. They have a different level of CMC and colors. Doran’s average CMC is about three. One card in the deck requires six mana and another needs 5, but each of those cards is only needed in the event of a longer game. In order to win, play all the most useful cards, and to generally get by, you need three mana producers (one black, green, and white). All three are needed to be in play to win, with white and green being the prevalent throughout card costs. Since having the right color is more important than have a large quantity, I will go for versatility over quantity (like Gaea’s Cradle) and choose these lands: Bayou, Savannah[/card], Scrubland[/card], Windswept Heath[/card], Verdant Catacombs[/card], and Marsh Flats[/card].

How do you know if you need mana growth/acceleration? Look at your average CMC. If you can’t start by Turn 3 (I can cast Doran by Turn 3), you’ll need some more land searching cards. Some decks start earlier, like a Red Burn, or later, like a Blue Mill. Knowing exactly what turn your deck should start working is learned through experience. Draw decks usually don’t need mana growth, because they always have a land to play. Whereas core mechanics with a CMC six, usually do need the extra mana on the third turn. Until you know, use the “Turn 3″ guideline for adding mana growth and acceleration.

For the Eldrazi Spawn Deck, I have almost limitless CMC (definitely Turn 3 possibilities). I pretty much want as much mana as possible to use in the X casting cost spells. Because I only have two colors and I can win with either, I will go for speed and growth over versatility. Since I am in Standard, I only have a few options. Kazandu Refuge is versatile but slow, and considering we aren’t even prioritizing versatility, it’s out. Khalni Garden, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Raging Ravine, Smoldering Spires, Teetering Peaks, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, and Turntimber Grove don’t really fit with the theme well enough to be worth the turn they are tapped. That leaves me with Rootbound Crag, Copperline Gorge and basics.

Each deck needs to play lands that will fit into the deck’s theme. Valakut is a powerful land but since I have to share the Spawn deck with green mana production and nonbasics, I won’t make much use out of it. For Doran, Gaea’s Cradle is way cool and almost always makes good green land, but the Doran deck really won’t pull a lot of creatures and certainly will not use mana beyond six. Think about what the deck does and how the land can complement the deck.

As for the quantity of land, the answer depends on the deck’s goal. Low CMC, fast acting decks usually need less land. For example, the Goblin Guide into kill them by Turn 5 deck usually will have a 22 lands or so because most cards have a CMC of three or less. Decks that need a lot of land (for example, most control decks need mana for both controlling the game and casting proactive cards) usually end up with 26 or so. But the land ratio really depends on the goal of the deck. For example, I saw a deck with Valakut, a bunch of removal, a bunch of land grab, and nothing else; the player didn’t play a single creature. I’m guessing the deck may have an upwards of 40 lands and only 20 other cards!

If you aren’t sure how much you need, the “magic number” is 24 lands. You can always modify later if you find yourself repeatedly playing games with too much land or not enough. For my decks, I know Doran play a longer game. The deck doesn’t work that fast, and I need a really specific set of colors out. I can “fix” the land (fixing is choosing lands and cards that will ensure what land you need when you need it) with the choices I made above but since land is critical to my success, I will go with 25 to start. For the Eldrazi Spawn deck, because the deck works on the premise of doing as much as possible, as soon as possible, I want to start with a lower land count. With less lands, I will draw more action cards. However, I have a lot of high CMC, and I won’t get anywhere if I can’t keep playing cards every turn. In the end, I’m not quite sure which way to go; for the moment, I’ll stick with 24.

Deck Lists:

Finally! Time To Play!

Why did I decide to have three Primal Rages and four Harbingers? How does a player figure out whether to use one, two, three, or four cards of a particular card? Like choosing land, the deck will decide. Generally speaking, the most useful cards and very critical to the success of the deck cards will get four slots. Cards that are nice, don’t really need a double in play, and may not always be useful will get around three to two. A single card almost always combines with a searching card. Usually, the whole deck is designed to play the single at the exact right time. For example, if a Trinket Mage brings out a Lion’s Eye Diamond… run.

Well, with this, I believe that we’ve covered the basics of building a deck for the casual player. After going from abstract nothingness to playable decks, we are ready to play a couple of games! However, the first few games of a deck are always the refining moments; playtesting is very important. What may be a neat idea could prove disastrous in the game. The ability to refine and choose new cards is critical. Thank you for reading and please join me in Part Four!

  1. Support cards are generally something I end up having to add or cut down on. This will help with figuring out what I need for support and why its there.

  2. Most excellent article from a new player’s point of view, the writing style makes it easy to follow, I like how you keep building on the same deck theme throughout all the articles, I’m looking forward to part four.