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The Beginnings of Deckbuilding

As discussed in last week's article, the Type 2 environment seems to have reached a sort of plateau. While it is true that the arrival of Planeshift gave players several new options to work with, they have done little more than reinforce existing decks. Nothing radically new has emerged and remained a contender. As I also mentioned in last week's article, this means the time is unusually ripe for rogue deckbuilding. It does not matter that the new set gave most of the good cards to one or two decks in particular, only that nothing new was spawned. In particular, what seems to me to be a relative lessening of control decks gives me hope for the immediate future.

For beginners, the intended audience of my column, this is an especially good time to begin learning the basics of deckbuilding. In my opinion, one of the most central influences to the development of a player is learning how to build a deck. I don't mean to simply construct a pile of cards, I mean to design a deck from the ground up and see it through development. No skills are learned from taking someone else's decklist and making it your own. All you have done is proven your capability to follow instructions to the letter. Granted, there are many places in life where such a capability will take you far, but it's relatively pointless in the context of a game such as Magic. My advice, taken from what personal experience I can lay claim to, is this: Most of the time, and certainly when it matters, you should design and play your own decks. Gaining play experience with the netdecks, on Apprentice if nothing else, is highly desirable-- it helps you understand them and in turn beat them. But beyond that, there is little to be gained from "reinventing the wheel." It certainly isn't much fun for anyone.

The first thing to understand is that it is not impossible to succeed with a completely rogue deck. If it were impossible, I would not be playing this game, and I doubt many other people would be either. By the same token, you must be realistic about the obstacles you will face. A mistake many beginners make is constructing strategies with the assumption that their opponent will offer no resistance whatsoever (hence the proliferation of the sort of strategy articles that I took potshots at in this space a couple of weeks ago.) In short, be realistic. 

As far as the actual creation of decks goes, the first step in the process is always that of inspiration. Something occurs to you, some idea that seems like it would be worth converting into a deck. Individual cards tend to be the greatest source of inspiration for most players, since they are the fundamental building blocks of the game. It is also far easier to look at a card and say "How do I use this?" than to conceive a strategy and search for cards that fit it. Never, ever be afraid to try and abuse a card. Even if the particular card that you latched onto turns out to be worthless, you will often find that there are other ways to explore the avenues of thought you've opened. It is quite common for the card or cards that inspired a deck to be dropped from the deck at some point during fine-tuning. This does not mean that they were bad or that you were wrong to begin with them, it simply means that you have found better ways of doing the job. So it goes.

The next step is that of preliminary construction. For this purpose and for others, I highly recommend that you get Apprentice immediately, if you have not already done so. Even if you never play a single game against an actual opponent with it, it is ideal for constructing decks and conducting goldfish tests (a form of testing in which you draw a beginning hand and play through at least the first several turns of the game without benefit of an opponent, simply to get a feel for what kind of draws the deck will get and how it will play.) In this way you can eliminate many of the pitfalls and dead-ends of deck designs, all without involving a single piece of actual cardboard. Best of all, it's free. Once you are done with this, the next task is to actually construct this deck. Obviously, this step should only be taken if you think it is worthwhile. The question of which deck ideas to pursue into the real world and which to abandon is a personal decision. Most of the time, the deck's merits (or lack thereof) will be obvious enough to make the decision a clear one. In close calls, I prefer to give the idea the benefit of the doubt, as the resources you spend in constructing the deck will never be entirely wasted. You will learn something from the time you spent in developing the deck, and the money (if any) you spent acquiring the cards for it will rarely be wasted, as you will either be able to recycle them into other decks or get your investment back in some other way (such as by selling or trading them to someone else.) If the cards are both useless and worthless, then they couldn't have been that much trouble to get your hands on, now could they? ;)

(Side note: I highly discourage the use of proxies at this stage, with the possible exception of those times when you will want to assemble a deck with only a few cards missing. As noted, Apprentice has eliminated the need for proxies in preliminary testing, and there is little reason at this point not to just go ahead and get the actual cards. Card availability is another matter, but anything Type 2 shouldn't be too difficult to get one's hands on. End side note.)

At this point, the next major task is to play the deck. A lot. Note what its strengths and weaknesses appear to be, and seek the input of others. Nobody sees everything, and other players may be able to spot just the thing that you missed. In addition, as a beginner, the advice of more experienced players is especially invaluable because you lack the knowledge of cards and experience that is helpful when trying to solve a deck's problems or promote its strengths. The process of tweaking never really ends-- most decks will continue to undergo minor changes throughout their lifetimes. In fact, if you go too long without needing to make any changes, you may find yourself getting bored. I know it happens to me. That may mean it's time to make a new deck.

I've just about had my say for this week. Next week I'll find a new place to take this subject. One last thing. Don't be afraid of approximating someone else's idea or even of coming up with something that looks similar to what you'd find on the Internet. You are not unoriginal merely for having the cards "Absorb" or "Fires of Yavimaya" in your deck. As far as I'm concerned, the emphasis lies on the process by which we arrive at our decks, not the final product. The objective is to get you thinking. If you've done that, then you've nothing to be ashamed of.