Magic (The Gathering) 101: Deck Building

Magic (The Gathering) 101: Deck Building

Last updated on August 10th, 2015

Welcome to class

I am going to assume, as you’re here, that you already have at least a passing interest in Magic. If you are here out of idle curiosity and don’t know what magic is or why one might enjoy it, there are 2 fantastic articles that explain much better than I can.

What magic is.

The types of players, ie why someone may enjoy playing.

This article is here to teach the basics of deck building to get newer players started on the path to success. Before you more experienced players close the tab, know that no amount of mechanical skill or knowledge is going to compensate for a poorly built deck, and many players are woefully ignorant, even when they have played for years. I introduce no revolutionary ideas, but that does not mean you can not benefit from continuing on. I am addressing newer players however, so keep that in mind.

First things first, it is important to know, no matter why you are playing Magic, it is an inherently competitive game. The object of the game is to win in direct competition with your opponent/s. Bearing that in mind, it is also important to know that no matter why you’re playing, or what you want your deck to do, some things just don’t work well, and while it is perfectly OK to do it anyways, you cannot expect other people to not win when they get a chance. Every loss provides you a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and to improve yourself as a player and your deck, and it is your responsibility to find decks or players well suited to the level of play you enjoy, it is not random players responsibility to conform to your expectations.

One also needs to consider format when building decks. Among the most common are Legacy, Vintage, Modern, Standard and Commander (EDH). This article focuses on 60 card formats like the former 4. If you are unsure of what format a card is legal in, simply check here. Type in the name of the card, and hit search. When the result is displayed, click sets and legality in the mid-upper right to get a list of all the formats that the card is legal in.

With that said, the first thing to consider is what you wish to do. Well obviously win, but against who and how? Find a card or a concept or a card or a card type or a mechanic you like. Because it’s cool or interesting or because you don’t think anyone else has done it well/right/at all. I’ll use a card as an example :


Now that we’ve found a card, next is to determine how to best use that card. This card is blue and red, and taps to deal 1 damage to an opponent. Tapping is the act of using a card’s available action for a turn (some abilities do not) and that it is required to activate the ability is indicated by the arrow right under the “C” in Creature. Tapped cards are turned sideways to indicate that they are tapped. This can only be done once per turn for any card, and cannot be done on the first turn it is in play, unless an ability, like Gelectrodes, says otherwise. Cards untap at the beginning of your turn.

When an opponent has 20 life, 1 damage doesn’t sound like much, but it will add up quickly. Its real power comes in when it untaps whenever you cast an instant or sorcery spell (playing any card, except a land, is refered to as “casting a spell,”) allowing you to tap it again to deal another 1 damage. To get the most  out of this card, one should cast as many instant and sorcery spells as possible, which typically means a faster deck. In the case of red and blue, fast means low mana costs wherever possible. It is a weak card in that it is destroyed very easily by damage, and this is a common feature in red and blue creatures as well, which means that you need ways to protect it, and yourself, from damage. In red and blue, this means dealing with opposing spells before they get a chance to harm you. Fortunately, the spells you will be using for protection are also instant cards (meaning they can be played at pretty much any time,) activating the gelectrode effect. The most basic way to protect a card is with a counter spell, which is played as an opponent casts a spell to counter that spell (prevent its effect and discard it.)


This is almost unquestionably the best counter in the game, in that it is very cheap and can counter almost any spell. There are a great many counter spells (though they have many names) of varying degrees of usefulness. For example:


This is also a counter spell, but if you’ll notice it says “noncreature” which means it cannot be used to counter a creature, like your gelectrode. It is still very useful, and adding them as well will increase the number of enemy spells you can cancel, but must be included in a deck and used with greater thought because it will not stop enemy creatures. These types of cards are called “cancels” “counters” or “counter control”

Next is creature control, spells used to deal with creatures after they enter play and can no longer be countered (which means you did not counter them, for whatever reason.) One of the classic creature control cards is:


This is a deceptively useful card. It can be used instead of a counter spell to deal with opposing creatures by making the owner play it again, which means paying its casting cost again (we’ll get to that in a bit,) which he might not be able to do, so not only has he wasted his resources, but doesn’t have any left to do anything else. It can also be used at almost any time, where a counter spell is only useful before it is in play. This means that if an opponent decides to attack you, you can return the attacking creature to his hand and take no damage, or if an opponent decides to destroy your creature you can return it to your hand so he wastes his spell, and you can simply cast it again next turn. You can also return a creature to his hand, and when he tries to play it again, counter it, to get rid of it more permanently if you wanted to counter it earlier but couldn’t.

Remember tapping? Well blue can do that to other people’s creatures as well.


As was explained, a tapped creature can not use any ability that requires it to tap, and this includes attacking and blocking. (again, we’ll get to that in a bit) This enchantment is played on enemy creatures to essentially negate them as a threat, by tapping them before the opponent can use them. Not all abilities require a card tap though.

Back to gelectrode. On the bottom it says, “whenever you cast an instant or sorcery, you may untap gelectrode.” That is also an ability, and it does not require gelecrode to tap to activate.  If an opponent plays a card like gelectrode that is a threat even if it cannot tap, or that can untap its self, it is best to counter or destroy it.

To define destroying, a card or creature is destroyed by lethal damage or cards that say “destroy.” (when a creature is destroyed, it is called dying)

Rapid Hybridization

Lightning Bolt

Again, using gelectrode as our example


The creatures power (the damage it deals when it attacks) and toughness (the amount of damage it can take before being destroyed,) are displayed in the bottom right hand corner. Lethal damage, or the damage it takes to destroy gelectrode, is 1. The above lightning bolt deals 3 damage, which is more than enough to kill gelectrode. It will not kill any creature with more than 3 toughness, like this:

Quilled Slagwurm

which has 8 of each, so in our hypothetical red and blue deck, effects that destroy or cards like unsummon are best to deal with this, if it enters play. Finding the best way to deal with opposing threats is important to any deck.

Having explained damage in more detail, its time to get more some of our own. Remember the lightning bolt? Such spells that deal damage directly are commonly called “burn” spells. Lightning bolt is one of our best friends here, in that 4 (the most of any card allowed in a deck, unless the card says otherwise) of them is 12 damage, more than half of the opponents life. If gelectrode is untapped and tapped to deal one damage every time you cast one, gelectrode will deal 5 additional damage (one when you tap it, and then 1 more for each lightning bolt) bringing the total t0 17 (again, opponents start with 20 life)

But that’s just 1 card. Shock:


Works the same way, and costs the same. A little less damage, but it is also an instant, which activates gelectrodes effect. and Lava Axe:

Lava Axe

does more damage, but is a sorcery (it can only be played on your turn, as with all non instant cards) and can only target a player. It is also expensive (as in drains a lot of your in game resources,) but that 2 extra damage could be just what we need.

Creatures also deal damage, but they have a couple flaws. They cannot attack the first turn they are out unless they have an ability that says they may (haste,) and they can be blocked by opponent’s creatures, if the opponent chooses to do so, so the creature takes the damage and not the opposing player.  This can be turned to our advantage here though, because if the opponents creatures are being killed by ours every turn, they are less likely to be attacking us, which gives us more time to get the cards we need to win. With that in mind, our creatures will look like this:

Arc RunnerSpark ElementalBloodthorn TaunterNova Chaser

With the goal being to deal as much damage as possible in the short time our creatures are likely to live. To support them in doing so, there are things we can do. Remember the Unsummon? You can return the creature they try to block with to their hand, so your creature attacks them directly, or use the Lightning Bolt to destroy it. See the ability “trample” on nova chaser and spark elemental? That means that if an opponent blocks with a creature, any damage left is dealt to the next creaure in line (more than one creature can block a single attacker,) or to the player. As an example, if Arc Runner blocked Nova Chaser, only one of the 10 damage Nova Chaser can do is needed to kill Arc Runner, so the other 9 damage is dealt to the player. If Arc Runner is attacking, and Nova Chaser is blocking, Arc Runners 5 power is enough to kill Nova Chaser with his 2 toughness, but without trample that extra 3 damage is wasted (though in each instance, both creatures would die, as their power exceeds the others toughness) We can help get the damage through in other ways as well however, to deal more damage or avoid a creature too tough for us to kill.

Distortion Strike

Makes the creature it’s targeting unblockable, which means that your opponent cannot make a creature block it. When that is 5 or 10 damage getting through, you’ve dealt a serious blow.

Last is Land, that resource I keep mentioning. See the symbols and numbers at the top of the cards? That is how much and what type mana it takes to cast. Each land generally produces 1 mana of the same color as they symbol.


There are 5 colors in all. Back to gelectrode, it has a 1, a red and a blue as its cost. That means it takes 1 that can be any color AND a red (mountain) AND a blue (island) to cast, 3 mana in total. In this deck that means you can cast gelectrode with either 2 islands and a mountain or 2 mountains and an island. Nova Chaser can be cast with any combination of 4 islands and mountains, so long as 1 of the 4 mana comes from a mountain. You can play 1 land a turn, and how many land a deck has is choice. If you don’t draw enough then you cannot pay for your spells, but if you draw too many then you’re drawing land instead of spells and don’t have spells to cast. Competitive decks function on a mana curve, meaning they put in enough lands that they’re probably going to get most of the mana they need in the first few turns but are unlikely to get more after that in, but the average number of lands is 20, so thats a good baseline for most decks. This deck is more complicated in that we have more than 1 color of mana we need to cast our spells. The easiest way to make sure we get the right color is to count the number of red symbols and the number of blue symbols, and then reduce the fraction. If you have 28 red symbols and 16 blue then you end up with a reduced fraction of 7/4, which means that for every 7 red lands, you should have 4 blue.

Now is the most complex part, determining what are the most important parts of the deck and how many we should have. High cost things tend to stop at 2 or 3, or even 1, because drawing one early game is unhelpful, with low cost and important things often running in full playsets (4.)

This sample deck, ends up looking something like this:

11 mountains

11 islands

3 gelectrode

3 nova chaser

3 bloodthorn haunter

4 spark elemental

4 arc runner

4 counterspell

2 negate

3 narcolepsy

3 distortion strike

3 rapid hybridization

4 lightning bolt

2 shock

Once built the next step is play-testing (actually playing the deck) to spot any obvious problems and find fixes. Keep in mind that no deck is perfect, and many decks are never truly finished, and constantly evolve as the game does.  New or better cards are released that benefit the deck more than a current card, or benefit other decks enough to force you to adapt, so don’t feel bad or get frustrated if you have to dismantle a deck and start from scratch several times to get it up to the level the people you’re playing with are at. They most likely had to do the same thing with theirs before it was ready.

Decks may also have a sideboard of 15 cards. These are cards that are not useful in the deck most of the time, but can be put in to deal with specific deck types or cards. Proper sideboarding is an article all its own however, so that’s all for now. I do hope that, with my help, you have gotten a grasp on the basic tools to build a proper deck and have taken your first steps into a world with nearly infinite possibilities (there are more than 30,000 separate cards.)

If you would like a tool to build and test decks in a virtual setting, before buying the cards necessary to build it, 2 sites come to mind. The first is much better for building in my experience, but the second has a better tester and convenient links to get the cards at the lowest possible cost. Personal preference.

Thank you for reading,

Forum Pirate

Check out more articles on gamer hobbies.

And stop by our shop for your Magic needs!


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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11 comments on “Magic (The Gathering) 101: Deck Building”

  1. So a couple weeks, me and a friend tried Magic for the first time. It was free on Xbox Live.

    It was hilarious. Imagine two guys, who never even tried the card game, deciding to hop on the MP as soon as they booted up the game for the first time, and trying to battle it out in an online duel.

    At some point we were like:

    P: ”Mmmkai, I’m using this card, that does…uh…something.”

    *Friend blocks the timer*

    P: ”Oi! Everthing froze!”

    Friend unlocks the timer.

    *random damage to my friends’ health*

    Friend: ”Ouch! How did you do that?”

    P: ”Dunno…”

    F: ”Okay then, I’m using THIS CARD!”

    *drops land*

    F: ”Something is supposed to happen, right?”

    P: ”Eh, I guess…”

    And on and on. It was freaking hilarious.

    We decided we will learn at least the basics and try to play some proper battles…
    But it was totally hilarious, I was crying in laughter at some point.

    The funniest thing, thou, was the fact that at some point we were really playing like if we were understanding what we were doing:

    ”Here, an attack! See? Four and two! THERE WE GO!”

    ”Kai, so, I’m dropping a land and I’m attacking you with…uh…”

    Friend: ”What’s mana? Where is it? What it does?”

    Friend: ”Here, look! DRAGON-THINGIE-WHATEVER! See? 10!”

    P: ”Ten what?”

    F: ”That’s what’s written on the card…”

    Ah, good times, good times….congrats on the article, though!

  2. Emergence says:

    Liked this a lot and learned quite a few tricks already. Looking forward to more.

  3. Forum-Pirate says:

    Had you played the single player, it would have taught you the basics fairly quickly. The challenges teach some of the more complex and rules and can be quite difficult to figure out, even for experienced players. As much as i dislike the limitations of the game on the consoles (way to few cards,) it can be an effective teacher.

    The other option, if you don’t have friends who play, is to go to a local card shop one weekend, buy a pre-built deck (around 15 USD) and ask someone to teach you.

    There may be articles to teach as well, but teaching an interactive game through such a static medium doesn’t seem like it would work well for most people, so i cannot recommend that.

    Articles about a single pair of cards, and how they interact, can be more than half the length of this one, so the easiest way to actually learn to play on a turn to turn basis is likely to have someone walk you through it and answer questions as you go.

  4. Cas says:

    God I wish there was internet back when I had learned to play…I was taught the draw phase was at the end of your turn and played that way for years before I found out it was wrong…

    1. Emergence says:

      Lmao. I am so trying that once.

  5. Forum-Pirate says:


    The actual order is: Untap, upkeep, draw, main phase 1, declare attackers, declare blockers, combat, main phase 2, end step.

  6. Duskman1 says:

    I’ve still got a big collection of the cards from back in the mid to late 90s. Wish I’d got into collecting just a few years earlier and grabbed me some of those ultra rares from the early sets! Nice guide – great to see the game is still going strong after all these years!

  7. GravityBlast says:

    I, too, have only dabbled in the Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers game. No experience at all with physical cards. Within the ten or so hours I’ve invested in the steam game I am absolutely noticing the appeal of the game. (I used to play Yu-Gi-Oh back in my childhood, therefore it appeals to me). I would also consider myself a competitive gamer.

    The ‘Goblin’ deck really stood out to me more than anything. I like the low cost to summon, the fact that many of the goblins do low damage but have secondary effects I can manipulate to shape my strategy even at early game, and that I can accrue an army to overwhelm my opponent given the right circumstances.

    Obviously these are just basic decks of one color, and I am not actually building anything.

    But one thing I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around are the Planeswalker campaigns, in 4v4 fashion. Is that a separate game mode entirely? Is the game mode exclusive to the video game version of MTG? What is the appeal to playing a free for all in a card game.

    If you could do an article explaining the Mystique of the 4v4 free-for-all Planeswalk that might be helpful to others, including myself, that can’t quite grasp it. Since MTG was free for a time on Xbox Live as well this may be the perfect time for such an article as there may be others just like myself curious about this and needing that extra push to get them into the game. Without help, the game really is very intimidating.

  8. Laharls_Wrath says:

    Been playing magic for nearly 10 years and I never realized you could check set legality on the gatherer. Well, now I feel like a dumbass. Also, been using for deck building and it seems pretty worthwhile and as such potentially worth mentioning. Anyway, good article

  9. twilightwarwolf says:

    Awesome article! I just got my very first deck (black/green mainly) So this has helped me a great deal. And it gives me an idea for what i should look for in my deck. Wish i’d learned about it earlier though lol might have stood a chance against others if i had LOL

  10. Castielle says:

    I’ve been running Mono Red and Mono Blue at the moment. My very first deck was Mono Red. 15 years later still playing my favorite color.

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