Effective Deck Design: A Guide on How I Build Decks

Building a New Building Process

I used to build at least 3 decks a week. I would pick cards and try to make them work. It was partially that the group I played with thought that the meta was dumb and people must just be too scared to find the best deck. The other reason was that all the decks would come up just a little short of breaking the format. Eventually I learned to look for cards that fought what the decks in Standard were doing.

An example was during Lorwyn-Shards standard when Blightning Beatdown had come out as the deck to beat. [card]Wilt-Leaf Liege[/card] took a while to become a popular choice to beat Blightning Beatdown‘s goal of making you lose your hand. It was a shining example of fighting what decks plan to do. This plan eventually cycled back when Jund was strong in Shards-Zendikar standard and [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card] was printed.

Sometimes it’s not that straight forward. If people are playing grindy, mid-range creature decks to beat aggro-control style decks, then playing ramp decks to go over the top will often give you a huge edge. If people are trying to ramp and you have some decent counters in the format, then playing an aggro-control deck where you have some threats and protect with counters can just be game for them.

Beyond the concern of which styles of decks are being played is the knowledge of what colors most decks are playing. [card]Celestial Purge[/card] is an excellent sideboard card when [card]Gravecrawler[/card], [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card], and [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card] are being played. It is not only what colors decks are playing but what those decks are doing. Exiling is much better against [card]Gravecrawler[/card] or other undying creatures than [card]Grave Titan[/card], [card]Inferno Titan[/card] or [card]Manic Vandal[/card].

These are all pretty straight up points. These are also the biggest reason to pilot every deck you can in testing. By piloting the decks you can learn what type of cards they would fear most.

Figure Out What the Strongest Plays Are

  • It is hard to argue that [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card] getting [card]Unburial Rites[/card]’d isn’t one of the strongest plays you can make. It is so strong that at Pro Tour Dark Ascension players made a deck revolving around trying to get a turn 3 Elesh Norn. This is definitely one of the things I want to be doing.
  • [card]Sun Titan[/card] +[card]Phantasmal Image[/card]/[card]Oblivion Ring[/card]/[card]Ghost Quarter[/card]/[card]Evolving Wilds[/card]: The trusty old standby of UW control of all sorts. In my Esper Walker deck I still fit [card]Sun Titan[/card] and [card]Phantasmal Image[/card]/[card]Ghost Quarter[/card] in for the value against [card]Thrun, the Last Troll[/card] or [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and other such legendary creatures or lands like [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] or [card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card]. If I’m going to be casting [card]Unburial Rites[/card] there are much worse targets to reanimate.
  • With so many aggro decks I can’t avoid playing [card]Day of Judgment[/card] in any sort of control deck.
  • [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] work so well together. [card]Lingering Souls[/card] is great by itself but gives extra value when it gets milled since we still get value. Alchemy is almost a must if we’re playing [card]Unburial Rites[/card].

Once we cover the obviously strong plays we can talk about the cards we want to test for how strong they can be.

  • In Esper Walkers I ran [card]Pristine Talisman[/card] because I had very few mana issues that weren’t made up for by gaining several life and ramping. But I want to try four colors and can expect much worse mana. This is why I am going to try [card]Manalith[/card].
  • So my plan is to play red. This gives me [card]Faithless Looting[/card], [card]Whipflare[/card], and [card]Inferno Titan[/card] at the very least. Depending on the mana, maybe even something like [card]Devil’s Play[/card] for a bit of graveyard value.
  • Another card I want to try in the deck is [card]Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur[/card]. If we plan to play ramp and other instants like a few mana leak or so, then Jin-Gitaxias is one of the most powerful cards we can reanimate or flash in at their end of turn.

 

We have the following cards to test in the deck;

[CardList]
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
Sun Titan
Inferno Titan
Lingering Souls
Phantasmal Image
Forbidden Alchemy
Faithless Looting
Day of Judgment
Manalith
[/cardlist]

I am not playing green because I want to play [card]Day of Judgment[/card]. [card]Day of Judgment[/card] does not work well with mana dorks. Elesh Norn is almost a wrath, but then I would just be better off playing Frites than building this deck. This point leads to my next step.

The Prime Directive

Anyone who has listened to “Brew Master’s Delight” by The Gatherin should be familiar with the lines;

“Make sure you do not violate

The Prime Directive,

Its that never play a bad

Something else perspective”

We have to have a reason for playing this over say Esper Tap Out or Frites.  If this deck only does what one of those decks does but worse, then this deck needs to go away. Now we need to figure out what the deck is trying to do and how it compares to those decks.

What are we doing differently than Frites?

  • We’re not running mana dorks so we have less dead draws off the top. We have slightly better mana since we don’t need to run a bunch of basic forest or untapped green mana for turn 1. We can play [card]Day of Judgment[/card] and [card]Whipflare[/card] to wipe the board so that we can “win” the mirror. The change also lets us play with [card]Sun Titan[/card] + [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] which means we have a better chance at winning the Elesh Norn fights. The fact that we have [card]Sun Titan[/card] also gives us an advantage in running [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] in the board. The sideboard would be stronger for our deck overall.
  • We definitely have a slower draw and will be hard pressed to beat a turn 3 [card]Inferno Titan[/card] or [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]. We have less ways to get the creatures into our graveyard and have to pay more on average to do so.

The reason to run this deck is to play a more consistent Reanimator strategy that has better top decks late game over having explosive starts. Testing will show if we really are much more consistent or if we’re not benefiting enough from what we’ve lost.

We can’t really say it’s a worse or better Esper Tap Out deck because rather than playing to grind out an advantage we are playing towards a sort of combo. We can play some counters, but they will have a lot of removal, though a little less digging. This is why I want to make a different comparison.

Mike Flores wrote about a Reanimator deck on march 2nd titled Big, Bigger, Biggest

[deck title=Big, Bigger, Biggest]

[Creatures]
4 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Inferno Titan
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
4 Faithless Looting
4 Ponder
4 Unburial Rites
4 Desperate Ravings
3 Geistflame
2 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Mana Leak
3 Liliana of the Veil
[/Spells]
[Land]
2 Island
4 Mountain
2 Plains
2 Swamp
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
4 Darkslick Shores
4 Evolving Wilds
4 Seachrome Coast
[/Land]
[/deck]

What would we be doing differently? We don’t run weak spells like [card]Desperate Ravings[/card] as we would rather have a playset of [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. We planned on a very different mana base because we didn’t plan on running Liliana. We can run [card]Sun Titan[/card], [card]Phantasmal Image[/card], and [card]Oblivion Ring[/card].

Something to think about is if we can fit Liliana as she works well against hexproof, with [card]Sun Titan[/card], and reanimation in general. The mana seems strange to me and would involve a lot of lands coming into play tapped after the third land. We’re more willing to skip the first turn or two with tapped lands so we see more cards before we make decisions like [card]Faithless Looting[/card] and [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card].

The Mana is Where to Start

Anyone who played during Shards-Zendikar standard should remember Mythic and later Mythic Conscription. These Bant decks were started with the idea of “What does the mana let us do in this format?”

The man who brought Mythic to light is the famous Zvi Mowshowitz. He’s one deck designer that I look up to because of how he changed the way I build decks. I am far from perfect but I have learned to take a much deeper look at my mana, and so should everyone. The best way to look at our mana is try to figure out what we want to do, and then find what we can do.

[deck title=Our spells]
[Creatures]
3 Phantasmal Image
3 Sun Titan
2 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
2 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
2 Inferno Titan
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
2 Liliana of the veil
4 Faithless Looting
4 Unburial Rites
2 Oblivion Ring
3 Day of Judgment
3 Manalith
4 Forbidden Alchemy
[/Spells]
[/deck]

We never want to miss our first 5 land drops, at the bare minimum. We want 5 of 11 cards to be mana sources. This is based on 7 cards on the play + 4 draw steps or a mulligan to 6 + 5 draws on the draw.

That’s about 45% mana for the deck. That means we would want about 27.2727 lands while I only left room for 26. The trick is we have 3 [card]Manalith[/card] which allows us to cheat on that 1.2727 lands we’re skimping on.  The key colors we want with that list is WW on turn 4. Red and blue mana before turn4. The tricky card is Liliana that wants double black some time in the early game.

Here’s a guess-a-base;

[deck title=Our Mana]
[Land]
3 Mountain
3 Plains
1 Island
1 Swamp
4 Evolving Wilds
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Clifftop Retreat
2 Drowned Catacomb
2 Glacial Fortress
2 Sulfur Falls
[/Land]
[/deck]

Not counting [card]Manalith[/card] we have 17 White sources. That’s roughly 1 white source every 3.5 cards. 11 blue and 13 red sources means 5.4 and 4.6 cards in we should see each.

If we consider Liliana not as an early play but as a [card]Sun Titan[/card] target and a later game play then we can feel okay about 11 Black sources. We probably won’t be casting her near turn 3 but could easily play her with a [card]Manalith[/card] or just get good value off [card]Sun Titan[/card].

Things to consider after testing

  • It looks incredibly hard to cast Liliana and it might be making our mana weaker just for trying.
  • [card]Pristine Talisman[/card] is much better than [card]Manalith[/card], but doesn’t produce color. If the loss of life-gain from [card]Pristine Talisman[/card] hurts our aggro match up too much for the attempt at color fixing with [card]Manalith[/card] then we really must just make our deck more consistent over powerful.

Goldfish are a Snack and Not a Real Test for a Brew

Goldfishing is fine when you tune a deck. Making sure your draws are similar and match up well or better to old designs can be effective. When you have no comparison it becomes more important to test. If you have something to lose, even if it’s planeswalker points, then you will pay more attention to things like what mana to get with [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] and how many spells get left in your hand.

I took this list to FNM to see how it plays out. I have a couple pictures for some of the hands I could have during the course of the game.

It felt like I was playing a completely different game than my opponents; unless they were playing super aggressive decks. Thanks to a loose keep to push the limit of knowing what hands I can keep and a bit of flood, I wasn’t really in those games. I could have lived a few turns off a [card]Day of Judgment[/card] game one. Had I drawn a [card]Day of Judgment[/card] game two, I might have stood a chance. There were some things to be learned though, even from those do nothing games.

[card]Whipflare[/card] is probably a must for this deck in the future. If we skip on [card]Pristine Talisman[/card] then stopping the early aggression is key. [card]Thought Scour[/card] or [card]Ponder[/card] makes the list of things that might be worth it in this deck. [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] got buffed now that there is a shuffle effect. I will probably play [card]Ponder[/card] rather than [card]Thought Scour[/card] based on the fact that I don’t want to rely on the graveyard to win when there’s [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card], [card]Surgical Extraction[/card], and [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] in standard.

Cards that were strong were;

  • [card]Sun Titan[/card] with Images
  • [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card]
  • [card]Inferno Titan[/card]
  • [card]Faithless Looting[/card]

Those are core cards I do not want to change. But 3 [card]Sun Titan[/card]s and 3 Images might be overkill. If we add [card]Ponder[/card] then having 2 [card]Sun Titan[/card]s and 3 [card]Phantasmal Image[/card]s might be good. I prefer Image because it is often removal for me. It comes down sooner and a lot of times I can [card]Unburial Rites[/card] a [card]Sun Titan[/card] to bring back an [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] and use Image to copy [card]Sun Titan[/card] and bring something else back. Instead of just chaining [card]Sun Titan[/card] Copies. [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] was also super good when I had it.

All things considered I have a few ideas for where to take the list;

[deck title=Idea 1]

[Creatures]
3 Phantasmal Image
2 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
2 Inferno Titan
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
1 Red Sun’s Zenith
3 Day of Judgment
4 Forbidden Alchemy
4 Ponder
2 Oblivion Ring
4 Unburial Rites
4 Faithless Looting
[/Spells]
[/deck]

These 34 cards make possibly the most consistent list of the three. The only issue being that you really are relying on drawing lands to hard cast your fatties. This makes it slightly less ideal if you expect a very aggressive meta game, which I mean as decks that “fold” to [card]Day of Judgment[/card]. If you expect a varied and possibly mid-rangey meta this is a good list. The strongest point this list has is that you can just win the turn you attack if you have the [card]Red Sun’s Zenith[/card].

[deck title=Idea 2]
[Creatures]
2 Phantasmal Image
2 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
2 Inferno Titan
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
2 Whipflare
3 Day of Judgment
4 Forbidden Alchemy
4 Ponder
2 Oblivion Ring
4 Unburial Rites
4 Faithless Looting
[/Spells]
[/deck]

My second list is probably the best when you expect to see creatures everywhere. It’s also good against Frites because you have tons of removal for their mana dorks. The missing [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] will likely come in over an [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] if they have [card]Ray of Revelation[/card]. [card]Inferno Titan[/card]s can become [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]s to crush their strategy when you can remove their graveyard and recur the effect with [card]Sun Titan[/card].

[deck title=Idea 3]
[Creatures]
3 Phantasmal Image
2 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
2 Inferno Titan
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
1 Red Sun’s Zenith
3 Day of Judgment
3 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Ponder
2 Oblivion Ring
3 Unburial Rites
4 Faithless Looting
3 Pristine Talisman
[/Spells]
[/deck]

I like this list the most. I have a huge crush on [card]Pristine Talisman[/card]. It can help beat aggro almost by itself by gaining you 4-10 life while you are ramping up to your fatties. The reason for [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] and [card]Ponder[/card] only having 3 copies is that they can be much worse when drawn in multiples and they’re usually used for finding mana anyway. Cutting one [card]Unburial Rites[/card] isn’t a big issue when we plan to hard cast our fatties.

Now to come up with a mana base that can be used for any of those lists;

[deck title=Our New Mana]
[Land]
3 Mountain
3 Plains
1 Island
2 Swamp
4 Evolving Wilds
4 Clifftop Retreat
4 Seachrome Coast
3 Sulfur Falls
2 Ghost Quarter
[/Land]
[/deck]

We still keep 17 White sources but this lets us focus on getting a mountain early to keep most of our lands from coming into play tapped. I found room for two [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] to take advantage of [card]Sun Titan[/card] in this deck. Since we no longer have to worry about casting Liliana.

This mana is probably within 2-3 lands of just perfect for the deck. We could end up turning 1 [card]Clifftop Retreat[/card] into an [card]Isolated Chapel[/card] if we find we really need to get that one black mana. It may even just turn out that the deck wants 27 lands or 25. That is up to deck tuning to figure out.

For now we have taken a deck from planning to tuning. It’s not a short process and takes effort. This is how I approach any deck I ever plan to play for more than one troll FNM. Getting used to this process will help you understand new decks, help you speed through someones list to help them fix things, and save a lot of wasted hours.

Luis Acosta
“The best deck builder not on the Pro Tour.” @JayBoosh
@AuranAlchemist on Twitter

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