Love it or hate it, Magic: The Gathering is the biggest collectible card game going. Though it suffers major criticisms such as its’ pay-to-win format and a certain amount of elitism that many games ultimately foster, it has a lot of factors that make it a far more interesting and dynamic game than even the basic rules would have you believe. As with any hobby with a social aspect, the best way to enjoy it is with people who’s company you enjoy and who enjoy the game the way you do.
The basics are fairly easy to grasp, Tim did an excellent summary a few weeks back that’ll let you pick up a deck and start playing, and explains many of the terms I use in this article. Building a deck of your own is one of the hardest parts of the game, much like building a character for a roleplay, but it starts in much the same way – a few basic decisions.
There are five colours of mana in MtG, each reflecting a tactical style. Your first deck should reflect your play-style in other games:
Green – The easiest mana type to get to grips with quickly. Green decks accumulate land fast and use it to make big nasty monsters. The little monsters that get left behind often get the opportunity to become massive later, and gain the ability to trample through anything standing in the way of their destructive power. Any of the trickery other colours can be dealt with by destroying enchantments, blocking flying creatures and recovering lost life.
Red – A short term victory or no victory at all! Red excels at damage dealing with little regard to the long term, its’ creatures have high attacking power backed by haste, first- and double-strike to ensure your opponent doesn’t get chance to fight back. You’ll also have a surprising amount of mean tricks up your sleeve like stealing opponents creatures, and massively multiplying your damage output.
White – A white deck plays the long game very well, it ensures you live long enough by massively increasing your life total, protecting it with vigilant creatures, and negating your opponents’ ability to attack. It’s major attack power will often rely on flying birds and angels, or vast numbers of soldiers that overwhelm enemy defences. White decks at their outer-limits become potentially devastating, wiping the board of any obstacle whilst leaving yourself relatively unscathed.
Black – Black decks have vicious strategies that often come with a price. If you’re prepared to lose life, fill your graveyard with your own cards, and generally risk everything early game, you’ll find the benefits to be monumental. You can control a great deal of what your opponent does, steal life from them in large quantities, and generally make life miserable for everyone but you. In the late game you can empty your graveyard onto the battlefield, or pull similar dirty tricks.
Blue – Blue is weird. Blue decks are filled with complex and winding tactics; creatures that fly, or failing that ignore defences altogether; manipulating enemy creatures; manipulating each player’s decks; and generally denying your opponent the ability to cast spells. Blue plays the long game better than White, constantly keeping your opponent on the back-foot while you build towards something… well, weird. Victory for a blue deck is often as alien as their overall strategies.
Most decks are built of one or two colours. A monocolour deck will pursue one tactic relentlessly and highly effectively, but leave it somewhat vulnerable to a more flexible deck. Two colours can compliment each other’s strengths, or offset each other’s weaknesses. For example, Red/Green does big very well, massive monsters that deal a lot of damage, where Red/White can balance attack and defence in fairly equal measures.
Due to the way mana supply is built, three colour decks can often be impractical – even impossible – to play unless you have a supporting cast of cards that support the concept. In fact decks are possible that support all five colours at once, most famously the Sliver deck. Some decks can be colourless, like an Artifact deck, they often support simplistic but insanely potent tactics, like flooding the field with basic creatures.
It’s quite simple to start a deck in theory.
If you only have a small collection then it may be worth rooting through it to find common strategies. This is especially sound planning if you’ve only collected from one or two of the various sets, as each will often offer new or unique strategies, like Bolster from the recent Tarkir block, or Infect from Phyrexia.
If you already have an oversized collection, then your first cards should be your favourites. Say you pull from a new booster a card that you really want to play like a new Planeswalker or some mythic rare card that’s just too tempting not to try. The rest of your deck should build around it, support it, but most importantly NOT depend on it, unless you’re building a Commander deck which can be pretty fun.
Drafting a deck is a great way to get started. The first few cards you pull during the draft will usually determine which colours you pursue from that point on, and of course building a deck from the same set will usually result in supporting strategies.
Filling The Deck
The final deck should include a balance of cards. first and foremost getting the right mana support from your deck. Depending on how many high cost spells your deck has, or abilities that bring mana to your hand, you’ll want an average of one third mana, at the very least one quarter.
The deck should have a balance of spell costs. Most spells should cost between two and four mana to cast, with high mana cost items being kept limited to very few. The best way to check your balance is to draw a few opening hands; if you can cast a spell straight away in most cases then you’re off to a good start, if you can draw a few more cards and cast most turns then even better.
After that it’s time to get into some real games. Some things to look out for: If you rapidly find yourself emptying your hand and ending your turns with lots of untapped mana, you can probably stand a few more expensive cards, or cards that have mana abilities that keep your opponents engaged.
You may never have a finished product, after all M:tG is a constantly changing game that releases new sets on a regular basis to sucker gullible consumers like me to keep buying more. Still it keeps things fresh and interesting for people who play the game regularly.