A Look Into the Deckbuilding Process
If you are anything like me, then building new decks is one of the most exciting and alluring aspects of collectible card games. There’s nothing quite like coming up with a unique concept that is all your own, constructing it from the ground up and then finding success with it in competitive matches. It’s one thing to play skillfully with an optimized, well-oiled machine – but there is something special about winning games with a deck that you created with your own imagination.
The purpose of this article is to give you some insight into my personal deck building process. This is by no means an exhaustive or definitive guide to deck building. I highly encourage you to look up other deck building resources and to practice and discover your own unique method. My hope is that this article will help new deck builders lay a framework for deck building and be able to think critically during the deck building process.
Step One – Pick a Starting Point
The first step of the deck building process is probably pretty obvious and may already be done by the time you sit down to write a first draft — that is to pick a starting point. Sometimes the starting point is an idea involving building around a certain card or group of cards that have particular synergy or combo potential. This is what I call building a theme deck, or a synergy deck.
Other times you may simply want to play a certain class or archetype and start building your deck from there. For example, maybe you don’t see a whole lot of Control decks in the Crusader class and that idea intrigues you and inspires you to build a Control Crusader deck.
Sometimes your starting point may actually be a mix of both. As an example that I’ll use throughout this article, I decided recently that I really wanted to build around some of the new FrostSpark cards, Torval Extortionist and Harmony, and that I also really wanted to explore the Midrange Monk archetype. This lead to my building a Mid Monk deck with these new cards as a central focus.
Step Two – What is your deck’s win condition?
After you’ve picked a starting point for your deck, but before you begin to come up with a first draft, you need to ask a very important question: How does this deck win games? The answer to this question is called your win condition. It is very important that throughout the rest of the deck building process your win condition is centric to your decision making on what cards to include or exclude. This will help your deck retain focus and be as consistent as possible.
Usually, whether you start with a thematic concept or just pick a class and archetype, the starting point or main idea of your deck will also necessitate the deck’s win condition. If you picked a thematic starting point and decided to build around a certain card or group of cards, your win condition may be directly tied to the synergy between these cards or a certain combo. For instance, the win condition of Nix-Ox Combo Telvanni is fairly straightforward: stall or survive long enough to gather the specific combo pieces you need to kill your opponent in a single turn. The entire structure of the deck is centered on assembling these combo pieces and living long enough to play them in succession.
However, if you picked a class and archetype as your starting point, sometimes the win condition of the deck may be more generic and centered on a general strategy. For example, the win condition of my Midrange Monk is very broad and similar to that of any Midrange deck: play defensively against Aggro decks to try and run them out of resources and play aggressively against Control decks to try and beat them down before they can stabilize. The Monk card pool will determine the flavor and specific feel of my deck, but the win condition itself is common to all Midrange decks.
As part of determining your deck’s win condition, you’ll want to ask some questions about your goals during a match. One important question is what turn does this deck want to win by? This question will usually help inform what you want your deck’s magicka curve to look like. If you don’t expect to last much longer than turn 6 or 7 for instance, you may not want to include cards like Vigilant Giant in your red aggro deck.
Another important question is: how do I want to close a game? If I’m playing the Strength based aggro deck, maybe I want to use burst damage from powerful charge creatures. I’m playing Control Tribunal, maybe I want to drop an exalted Sotha Sil in Control mirror matches, or abuse Ulfric’s Uprising and Odirnarin Necromancers to outvalue my opponent.
Step Three – Put together your skeleton
Now that you’ve picked a starting point for your deck and determined its win condition, it’s time to put together the bare bones of your deck. Usually this includes adding the cards that your deck’s theme is built around and adding any auto-include cards for your deck/archetype.
To use my Midrange Monk example, I wanted to build around some of the new FrostSpark cards. So my very first step was to add all the new cards I wanted to experiment with. I included three copies each of Torval Extortionist, Harmony, and Wilds Incarnate.
Next, I needed to add my auto-include cards. These are cards that see play in nearly 100% of decks that are able to run them. For my Midrange Monk deck, this meant adding Ahnassi, The Black Dragon and Dawnbreaker. Note: It is very important to have an open mind with this step and not add handfuls of cards just because they are “good”. Sometimes even very good cards don’t belong in every deck. Keep in mind your win condition and whether the card you are considering directly contributes to that win condition.
Step Four – Fleshing out your deck
Once you’ve added the necessary cards your deck is themed around and any auto-include cards, it’s time to move on to the meat of deck building – fleshing out your deck. It’s at this point that you can really begin to get creative and make the deck your own.
There are a lot of different methods that people use during this step. For example, MattOblivium likes to add 3 copies of every single card that might conceivably fit into his deck, sometimes going up to 90+ cards, and then work his way backwards by “trimming the fat” off the deck and removing cards from the list that aren’t optimal.
Others, like myself, prefer to sort out the most optimal cards before adding them to the deck and pay particular consideration to the curve and individual card value. You may have a whole other method of deck building and choosing cards. The point is that none of these methods are strictly right or wrong. It’s all a matter of personal taste.
There are however some very important things to consider during this process. Firstly, when evaluating a card for your deck you want to keep in mind a concept called Quadrant Theory. I won’t go into specific detail since there are plenty of other resources for this theory. Just keep in mind when you are considering a card from your deck these four questions: How useful is this card when I’m winning? How about when I’m losing? How about when I’m at parity with my opponent? How about in my opening hand/turns? If you ask these four questions about every card, you’ll make much more informed decisions about which cards are optimal and which are not.
Second, you want to keep in mind your deck’s magicka curve. There may be a whole lot of amazing 4-cost cards with tons of synergy that play directly into your win condition, but if your deck has 20 4-cost cards in it, your ability to play cards on curve and make efficient use of your magicka is going to be severely hindered. Your curve can be fairly flexible depending on certain factors, however it’s usually good to keep in mind your deck archetype when determining your curve. If you are playing a very aggressive deck, don’t include lots of cards that cost 6+ for example.
A third consideration is to keep in mind how much removal your deck needs. For Control decks, this number is going to be a whole lot higher than Aggro decks. Aggressive decks only care about having enough removal to push the maximum amount of damage through each turn. Sometimes this means not even completely removing cards as much as silencing guards. There is such a thing as too much removal in Control and too little in Aggro, though. It’s not about hitting a certain ratio of removal to creatures so much as having just the right amount your deck will need.
The same principal can be applied to card draw. Nearly every conceivable deck wants card draw in some form or another, some decks more than others. However, including the maximum card draw possible might mean a lower threat density than you might want. Maybe you can draw through your entire deck and play every single card, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will win you the game. Think about your win condition and build towards that, including just the right amount of card draw.
For both card draw and removal, you may want to come back later and add or remove cards to tweak and optimize. That’s okay. Keep in mind this is a first draft. You can always adjust these values later as you see need for adjustment.
Step Five – Meta Considerations / Tech Cards
Now that you’ve built your deck’s skeleton and fleshed it out a bit, you might find yourself coming down to the last few card slots and wondering what to fill the gaps with. It’s at this point that you might want to consider adding some tech cards.
Depending on the state of the meta and what you are likely to run up against in a given match, you may want to include some cards that aren’t necessarily optimal for your deck, but can shore up weaknesses in specific matchups. For example, if Support Mage is a very popular control deck in the meta, and you are playing Aggro Warrior, it may be worth it to consider running a couple copies of Dushnik Yal Archer or Shadowfen Priest as a way to deal with supports. Or maybe you are playing Support Mage yourself and graveyard based Necromancer decks are very popular: You might want to include a copy of Memory Wraith as a way to deal with graveyard synergy.
Tech cards should never take up many slots in your deck. If you are finding yourself needing to include lots and lots of silver bullets to deal with specific matchups, it’s more likely that there are some fundamental issues with your deck’s structure or your win condition not being supported than needing the right tech cards.
Step Six – Ask Questions
Now you should have a full deck list, or at least be closing in on a full list. It’s at this point that we’ve come to one of the most important steps in the deckbuilding process – asking questions.
Look at your draft. Ask yourself, what are this deck’s strengths? What are its weaknesses? What kind of matchups will this deck excel in? Which matchups are going to be really difficult? Does the magicka curve allow me to make the most efficient use of my magicka each turn? What cards in this list are the most likely to be dead draws? What does my optimal starting hand look like, and what cards should I mulligan? Do I have enough card draw, removal, reach, etc? Do all of these cards support my win condition?
Asking these questions of your deck before you take it out into testing can help deal with some potential problems before they arise. Keep in mind that the answers to many of these questions may change with testing. You might think you have the appropriate amount of removal and then play 10 games and lose 8 of them and determine that you actually don’t have quite enough. The point isn’t to come out of this step with a perfect deck list. The point is to get yourself to think critically about each choice.
Step Seven – Test your deck thoroughly
Okay, so now we’ve come to the fun (and long/difficult) part of deck building: testing. This is possibly the most important step of the entire process, and quite possibly the most difficult. You’ll need to play many, many games with this deck list to properly test it. While you are playing these games, you’ll need to be thinking critically about your card choices.
I think as a general rule of thumb it is a good idea to play between 5-10 games for each draft of your deck list. If you only play 2-3 games with a list you aren’t likely to have a good enough sample size to make decisions about what to keep and what to cut in your list. You may not even encounter every card in your list after only a handful of games. If you play 10 games with your first draft and you win 6/10 of those games, you can be reasonably sure that you are onto something good. If you only win 4/10 of those games, you may need to consider going back to the drawing board. Either way, make sure you are doing a sufficient amount of testing before making big changes.
Ask yourself questions after every match. Did X card perform up to expectations? Was I able to make magicka efficient plays each turn? Was I able to sufficiently control/pressure my opponent? Was I able to consistently carry out my game plan in every match? Would the game have played out differently if I swapped X card for Y card, and will that affect other matchups negatively or positively? If I lost, did I lose because of inconsistent or poor draws, or did I lose because the core deck game plan was properly executed but didn’t produce the intended effect? If I won, did the deck execute its game plan well and win the way it was designed or did my opponent’s deck seem to flop?
It’s very important to keep in mind that your first draft is probably never going to be perfect. Deck building is an iterative process. Very rarely will you throw together a new list and it will be wildly successful and go on a 15-0 win streak with no changes or variations. And even if it does, you need to ask yourself why it’s winning and whether or not there is room for improvement.
After you’ve successfully tested your first draft, you can go back to deck building and
improve. Then you can test the second draft and rinse and repeat. By the time you reach a 4th or 5th draft of a deck, you will have tested this idea through about 40-50 games and have a pretty good feel on how the deck can perform on the ladder. If its overall winrate stays above 65-70%, then you’ve probably got a fairly successful deck on your hands. If you continue to break even on wins-losses, you may want to consider starting over or shelving the idea for another meta. Which leads to…
Step Eight – Kill your darlings
This is the hardest part of the deck building process. You need to be able to know when to hang up an idea for a later time and when to go back to the drawing board. It can be very discouraging to work so hard on a list, to theory craft and build, test exhaustively, and play many, many matches only to come to the conclusion that your deck might not be up to standard.
Here’s the thing though, and it might be the most important thing you can learn from this article: Failure is an opportunity to learn. So you spent 10 hours drafting, testing, refining and playing a deck concept that you adore only to find out it kind of sucks right now. Those weren’t 10 hours of play wasted. You spent those 10 hours learning valuable lessons about deck building, lessons about what the meta is like, lessons about how to be a better player and a better deck builder.
Don’t be afraid to pack up an idea and move on to something new. You can always return to new ideas later after new cards come out and the meta shifts. Don’t be discouraged by a failed concept. Learn from that failure and take what you’ve learned with you into future endeavors.
Bonus: Netdecking is a good thing
Here’s something that has helped me tremendously in my deck building skills, and something that was hard to swallow: There is no shame in netdecking. For me personally, this was a very difficult lesson to learn. I’m very much the kind of card game player that loves to make new decks from scratch, explore unexplored territory, and play off meta lists. I’m also very much the kind of player that wants to win with these off meta lists and strange concepts.
When I finally decided to swallow my pride a bit and start playing with other people’s tried and true deck lists, lists that have been polished and optimized by some of the best players in the game, I started to become much more familiar with what makes good decks tick. Netdecking optimized lists not only helped me understand the meta and become a better player, but it helped me become a better deck builder too.
Don’t neglect netdecking as part of the deck building process. And realize that even if you take a top tier list off the internet, and tweak it to make it your own, it is something unique and special. Maybe your list looks 95% similar to a list from TraitorJoe or Eyenie. That’s fine. Because that other 5% is something that could easily set your list apart and make it something special and unique. At the very least, it will be something that feels special to you. And that’s the most important thing – that you have fun playing decks that you assembled.
And that’s it — my personal approach to the deckbuilding process. I will include my outline for this article below as a tool to help guide you as you build your own decks. Let me know in the comments what your process looks like.
Special thanks to Burnthesky and Holoir in proofreading and contributing to this article.
- Pick a Starting Point
- Class & Archetype
- What is your deck’s win condition?
- Combo vs General strategy
- What turn do I want to win by?
- How do I want to close a game?
- Combo vs General strategy
- Put together the bones
- Pick cards that support your win condition
- Add auto-include cards
- Flesh out the deck
- Quadrant Theory
- Mind your deck’s curve
- Add the appropriate amount of removal
- Add the appropriate amount of card draw
- Meta Considerations / Tech Cards
- Ask questions
- What is my deck strong against?
- What is my deck weak against?
- What is my optimal opener?
- Do I have any potential dead cards or bad top decks? Are there better options?
- Do I have enough card draw, removal, reach, on curve plays, etc?
- Test your deck thoroughly
- Deck building is an iterative process
- Ask questions after each match
- Did X card help advance my win condition? Would something else have done better?
- Why did I win? Why did I lose?
- What does this deck need to be more consistent?
- The 1st draft is never perfect.
- Know when to hang up an idea for later VS when to go back to the drawing board