Magic The Gathering: EDH Deck Building

Magic The Gathering: EDH Deck Building

I‘ve decided I’m not qualified to talk about proper side boarding beyond the brief description I’ve already given, so I’m going to talk about my favorite format now. That’s EDH in case you didn’t read the title. Best get comfortable because we’re going to be here a while.

Understanding EDH

If you don’t know what EDH is the short version is that it’s a 100 card singles format (only 1 of any given card excluding basic land) designed to be played with 3-5 players in a free for all. 1 of the 100 cards being a General, a card that sits in a special zone, can be played from that zone at any time you could normally play a creature (for 2 additional mana each time you cast it) and arguably the biggest twist: nowhere on any card you use can there be any mana symbol not also present on your general (excluding reminder text, which is always in italics and () to distinguish it from other text.)

Building a deck for EDH is, in my opinion, much more difficult (and rewarding) than building a 60 card deck for a couple reasons, and it’s something I struggled with for a while. Games frequently drag out for 20+ turns but can end in 3 so your deck has to be built both for the short term and the long hual, you can’t use multiple copies of a card and decks are much larger so it’s difficult to do anything consistently, and arguably the most important is that politics becomes a very big consideration both in how you play and how you build your deck (no matter how good it is, or how bad their decks are, you’re unlikely to survive 4 other people ganging up on you because you became a major threat or annoyance too early, an especially relevant thing to consider as some of the best generals in terms of mechanics rarily win because everyone knows how good or frustrating they are and they get ganged up on and taken out early.)

I’m going to tell you how to build one, but it won’t involve deck lists and explanations for individual cards, that’s not the heart of the matter, just copy pasting. I’m teaching you how to build your own from the ground up with your own ideas and it will take you a long time, there are no shortcuts to the reward of building your own deck, especially in EDH. Once you have a deck to be proud of, then start looking up decklists of similar decks and seeking input to refine your ideas.

Chandra Magic the Gathering

Building an EDH Deck

On to the actual deck building. Some people will say you should pick your general first, these people are wrong. It starts the same as a 60 card deck. Find a card, combo, mechanic or theme (either an actual gameplay theme like vampires or counter/control, or an abstract theme like an ice mage or an empath) and run with it. This can be your general, indeed it’s simplest if it is, but it need not be. If it isn’t, look for generals that fits that theme, follow the steps I’m describing for every color in every potential general, then choose the general that has more of the cards you need in it’s allowed colors. If none exist then just pick a general that lets you have the colors you need after the fact and pray to Wizards asking them to release something better.

Next: Load up The Gatherer and look up every card that has a similar or synergistic effect or card type. This can be tricky so I’ll give an example I have a lot of experience with (as her deck is my crown jewl and she’s run me over $500 over the years as I constantly adjust her) Savra.

Savra Magic the Gathering

Savra has a couple possibilities, she’s an elf and a shawman, both are tribes that can have whole decks built around them, but she’s also a necromancer in ability and that is the theme I went with. Her abilities trigger every time I sacrifice a green or black creature so when I start searching all green, black and colorless cards for related keywords. First I’m looking for anything with a similar or related effect, sacrifice being the keyword, as I need plenty of ways to force people to sacrifice creatures (in case Savra isn’t in play) and plenty of ways to sacrifice my creatures to trigger those effects.

The list is probably massive, just throw everything that might be useful in the deck builder for now, you’ll be building up a big pool of cards to cut away. To find your deck in, so to speak.

Now that you’ve determined that you’re going to be sacrificing a lot and making everyone else sacrifice a lot your next point should be obvious. You need a lot of creatures to sacrifice. To avoid having to read every card ever made in the relevant colors, there are ways to narrow down that search. Again using Savra as my example: You’re operating on a strict card limit, so any 1 card you can sacrifice multiple times is worth special attention, as is anything that can clone itself or otherwise create more creatures to sacrifice. This would mean running searches for token, return to battlefield and return to hand as well.

As you’ve now determined that you’ll be having a large number of creatures enter and leave the battlefield to trigget those abilities and as sacrificing your creatures means they die (duh) *and* you sacrificing creatures makes your opponents sacrifice creatures, you should also look for cards that provide some benefit when they do. So search for dies, leaves the battlefield and enters the battlefield effects. (adding whenever as a modifier can change your results so run your searches with and without the term)

Magic the Gathering Mana

With that done, you also gain and lose life using Savras’ ability. This means a few things. You need to keep gaining life to offset the life you spend, so you need multiple ways to gain that life and you’ll be gaining and losing a lot of life. Searches for gain life, whenever gain life and lose life can be used both to find cards to gain the life you need and to take advantage of the potential life gain and life loss effects (as these can trigger other abilities) Again, throw everything that might be useful in a deck builder

Notice how I got all that from just Savras’ ability and the effects necessary to use it or contained within it? If you actually try this using Savra you’ll have several hundred cards to look through. Assuming your search wasn’t overly general, that’s a key indicator to a strong central theme for your deck and usually results in a decent deck, and you’re ability to think like that and get every ability even loosely related to your theme by extended association chains is important. To get relevant results you need to be looking for every action related to your chosen card, mechanic or theme. Attacks, draw, die, enters the battlefield, leaves the battlefield, graveyard, tap, untap, blocks, is blocked, attach, equip, unequip, discard, sacrifice and more are all search terms you can and should use if they’re related to the ability or theme of your deck.

Next we’re onto defense and utility. You need to determine what forms of defense work best for your deck and what things are the most threatening. Again using Savra, we need some way to protect or revive our stuff so it can keep working for us. Fortunately for Savra, all she needs to do to protect most creatures is threaten to sacrifice it first and screw the opponent out of thier spell and trigger a bunch of effects. But what if we don’t want it sacrificed or it isn’t a creature? What if it’s in the graveyard and they try to exile your graveyard before you can get it back? That’s where we start seeing the real vulnerability. The solution is to include cards that let you fish important cards out of your graveyard to use again should they meet an untimely end.

Entomb Magic the Gathering

We also need to be able to get the cards we need, which means we need draw, scry or search in our chosen colors. Those are all keywords on thier own, just searching for those works (every deck needs them.) Fortunately for Savra she can wrap that up into her primary theme and her defense strategy. If She has cards to revive things already then she can also include ways to put specific cards in her graveyard so they’re easier for her to get to with that revival (ie Entomb) and she can sacrifice her creatures (or kill her opponents) to draw (using Fecundity).

Fecundity Magic the Gathering

While not always possible or necessarily desirable (even in Savra,) due to limitations and certain cards being incredibly powerful as stand alones or counters to your strategy, in general as much of this kind of thing as possible is ideal, the more of your decks functions you can tie to a core theme the harder it is to stop because each individual piece is less important than the fact that everything you do benefits you in several ways. Getting to draw 3 cards for 2 mana is good, getting to draw 3 cards, force your opponents to discard 3 cards and lose 6 life for 2 mana is great. Combining search terms like draw with an aspect of your core theme (in this case sacrifice, die, enter the battlefield, ect) will help find the ways you can integrate them.

Finally we’re on to mana and land. Mana generators like creatures, artifacts, and land will or should have come up in just about every other search you ran and ended up in the big pile. If it didn’t redo the searches but restrict the card type to land or add the term mana pool to your search. Asside from some staples like mistifying maze, at this point just throw in all the dual lands of the appropriate colors (that you can afford) and add 30-40 lands split between your colors. You’ll decide how much of which you need later the same way you do in a 60 card deck, count the respective colored mana symbols and reduce the fraction.

You likely have between 200 and 500 cards in that big pile and you can only use 99 of them and your general, which brings us to the final stage of the preliminary process, and the most difficult part to give advice on: cutting.

Cutting the Deck

A few general things to keep in mind:

  • You need to be able to get out the gate quickly in case your opponent is a really aggressive token or goblin deck or something, but you need to have the draw,defense, and mid to high powered cards/combos to stay in the game 20 or 30 turns in. In general If you’re going to be a slow burning deck, at least have a few things to discourage or prevent targeting you early on(holy day/fog/ivory mask) and if you’re going to come roaring out the gate hoping to kill someone quickly you need life gain, graveyard recur and/or token generators to recoup your loses so you don’t burn out early.
  • Cut the least useful/most (mana) expensive ways to accomplish your tasks first. The more mana it takes to do your thing, the more mana you need and the more ways you need to have to get it quickly, which cuts out some cards you could use to actually win or slows down you getting them. Not that you can’t use big creatures or spells, just that cheapest and most powerful/most complimentary to your deck creatures are the ones you should use unless you have ways to “cheat” them into play (entomb+animate dead, birthing pod, Narset)
  • Redundancy is absolutely necessary, but don’t go overboard. It’s tough to say how much is too much without simply playtesting and seeing what works best, but those 99 card slots go away really quickly when you remember that 35-45 of them are lands and you have 5 or 6 draw cards and 5 or 6 tutuors and 5 or 6 scry taking up 1/4 of what’s left. The more important it is to your deck strategy, the more of it and/or ways to protect it you should have. For example, My Savra has no fewer than 12 ways to sacrifice creatures because not having the ability to sacrifice literally means she can’t do anything, but she only has 2 targeted destroy creature spells because almost everything she does ends with opponents sacrificing a creature which makes a lot of destroy spells a waste of space.
  • Efficiency is key. There are actually 2 ways to go about this. 1 is to do a lot of deckthinning, meaning you include several 1 or 2 cost cards that do something minor but let you draw a card or 2 and tutors that let you search your deck for a card and put it directly into your hand/graveyard or into play, just a cheap way to get through your deck to the things you need more quickly. The other is to use as many cards that fill multiple roles as possible (for example Savra serves as both a way to make everyone sacrifice creatures and a way to recover from the cost of doing so, Viscera Seer serves both as a way for me to sacrifice creatures to trigger Savra and a way to rapidly look through my deck to get the cards I want.) To a greater or lesser extent, you should have both.Viscera Seer
  • Don’t go overboard on creatures. No more than 35 no matter your deck, you won’t be able to reliably interact with your opponents or protect yourself if you go over that. (Savra is entirely dependant on consistently sacrificing creatures faster than anyone can play them to function and she still only has 25)
  • Infinite combos are tricky. They definitely increase power and provide and out for a game you otherwise stand no chance of winning, but some play groups hate them, especially if you’re using your general to do it because generals are difficult to get rid of for very long. If you know your playgroup hates them, don’t bother including them, but as a general rule I build with whatever infinite combos i can get and then just don’t use them if the group I’m with doesn’t like them as the individual pieces are still quite powerful. If you need an example (an example you can’t use because Time Vault is banned in EDH)
  • My final bit of advice is the most important. While my disclaimer about the inherently competitive nature of the game from last time still stands (it’s your job to find decks and players at the level of play you wish to play at and notrandom players job to conform to your expectations for how they should play,) EDH is at it’s best when everybody is playing similarly powerful decks that do cool things that could never work in 60 card. The multiplayer nature means even the better decks can and will lose to inferior decks quite often due to politics or factors (the other players) beyond the control of either but if everone else has decks built for a 2 hour game and you win 8 minutes in every game nobody (including you) is likely to have fun. If you’re winning on turn 3 and bored stiff or everybody hates you and you get to sit and watch them play for second place for 2 hours, you brought the wrong deck to the table. Start over. Build a less powerful version by using weaker cards in key combos, a new deck entirely or find a new group.

Playtest the Deck

Now that you’re down to your 99 cards: Playtest. You can proxy (use fake) cards before you buy them (unless you’ve proxied a >$50 card your playgroup will probably tolerate it for a while provided you tell them what you’re doing, I just use slips of paper with the name/mana/cost/stats+abilities in sleeves with basic lands behind them,) but the only way you’re going to see what works and what doesn’t is to play it, keep track of how you win, what spells you use and what is just plain useless most of the time. Replace cards or even whole sub themes that aren’t working out or that aren’t the best way to accomplish a task. Chances are this replace and rebuild phase will take several decent sized revamps to really work out and small changes will never end. This is good, it means there’s always room to improve.

I was initially going to do an article on why I play, but aside from hanging out with friends this process is why I play. I refer to Savra as a she instead of an it not because Savra the character is a she, but because I put a ton of work into making her who she is and it’s difficult not to see her as an extension of myself, complete with personality. There’s a lot of pride in a deck well built and a real emotional attachment to the results of my work. The pleasure of seeing my decks perform as intended (even if it’s not me playing them) and the joy of constantly tweaking to get just a little faster or a little harder to stop and the eventual success that comes from doing it right, that’s why I play. Hopefully I’ve helped some of you start down that same path.


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20 something years old, living in the western United States. I enjoy wrestling, jujitsu, snowboarding, manga, anime, movies, card games, board games, video games D&D, ect. Also food.

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2 comments on “Magic The Gathering: EDH Deck Building”

  1. Avatar Castielle says:

    This was a great read Pirate. I have been a fan of MTG since its inception and have cards that are now 20 years old (wow I’m old). It is much easier for me to play the Online version of the game these days, for a variety of reasons, but I do miss playing with friends and in a few local tournaments. Reading your article makes me want to get back into it (I always seem to take a break every so often).

    I always used to love Land Destruction themed decks as I always felt that the one thing all decks needed was mana and going for the root of all decks seemed the best way to go. However, they were never popular with friends (or anyone for that matter) and they are certainly much more difficult to play now as the casting cost of these cards has gone up.

    Cas

  2. Avatar Forum_Pirate says:

    In EDH just use Narset (who lets you cast them free) or Numont (who has an activated ability that lets you destroy land,) both are extremely effectively provided you get them out quickly, but everybody will hate you. Playing against good land destroy isn’t really playing, you just draw and pass the turn until they win.

    I actually get complaints of that nature in reference to my sacrifice orientated decks too, nobody is allowed to have creatures unless I let them (I usually do so long as they don’t threaten me so I don’t make myself a target or bogg down the game too much) or they’re exceptionally fast token spam and almost all the sacrifice effects are instant speed so nobody can interact with creatures on my board to stop their abilities. They can’t even target an artifact or enchantment I’m using because I’ll wipe their board first as retaliation and then fish the artifact back out.

    If what you want to do is not let anyone have anything so you can win without also making more casual players hate you, I’d recommend you look at the Shattergang Brothers. You can deny anyone anything, you can even use red to copy or redirect instants/sorceries to stop them, but you’re also too slow to really lock the board down unless everyone is stupid and lets you get gravepact+ashnods altar+ nim deathmantle out or some similar infinite or regressive cycle going.

    Savra and (original) Teysa and arguably (original) Lyzolda can all do the same thing, but they’re quicker and meaner because the general is a combo piece and 2 of the 3 have abilities that don’t cost mana, more casual players are less likely to like that.


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