The Deckbuilding Guide

July 22, 2019

Steps you should make to improve your deck

Joel Calafell

Spanish Player
Top 8 PT Kuala Lampur 2008
3 GP Top 8s
Winner GP Barcelona 2009

More Posts (1)

Hello everyone,

My name is Joel Calafell and it seems like I will be your new columnist for MTGMadness! For those who don’t know me I’m a Spanish player who used to be on the gravy train and had some decent results in the last years, like my Pro Tour Top 8 in Kuala Lumpur 2008 or my three Grand Prix Top 8s, including one win in Barcelona 2009.

It’s been a while since I wrote my last Magic article, but I can promise you my love for the game hasn’t decreased a single bit. I recently qualified for the World Cup in Amsterdam, which will allow me to represent my country for the third time in a row, and I’m actually pretty excited to be part of the experience again, especially because I will be able to play the new Unified Standard format!

And, know what? That might have a lot to do with…

The Deckbuilding Guide

As some people may already know, one of my passions has always been deckbuilding. In fact, I find it one of the most interesting areas of the game and I felt like sharing some of my thoughts and theory on it for my very first article on MTGMadness.

Let’s just start with something you should always keep in mind: Over the 70% of your Constructed tournament success will depend specifically on the deck AND list you will be playing that day. What? Really? That much? Yes, and that doesn’t mean excellent play won’t be required on most of your wins, but playing an inferior list will basically make everything harder by all means.

Very few tournaments are won by a “bad list” if you think of it, but even less by a “bad deck”, so let’s just assume that will be the main reason for our success.

How should we proceed?

Well, sometimes it gets very easy: The perfect deck and list are just out there, and you will only need some additional testing to adapt it to the current format, after tweaking just a few cards, you can attend your tournament and win… If you are lucky enough.

Some other times, though… There’s a lot of work you have to do. But that is something you should be happy about: You will have a chance to improve your edge.

And the best of all is that when a format is still young, or a new set comes out, no one can guarantee which is the case: so you should always feel like you have the opportunity to break the format!

Let’s now go step by step onto the deckbuilding process:

Are you ready?

1) Dissect the list

Where should we start? So, you have seen this hot new list on an article around the net, on the last MTGO Daily Event or at this weekend’s Grand Prix or Pro Tour Top 8. What should you do now if you find it interesting enough?

Now you should follow these rules:

Try the list without changing a single card. This might sound like an obvious thing, I keep seeing people trying to change cards without having played a single time with the deck. If you give the list some credit, then you should focus on understanding WHY every piece is there first.

Evaluate which are the most important cards in the deck. In this step, it is important to find the staple cards and synergies that form the deck. Would the deck work without this card? Would the base of the deck be affected if I swapped those? Which similar cards could I find to add consistency to the deck? Is it missing anything? How well positioned is it now in the format? Those are definitely questions you should ask yourself while testing the deck in this step, because they will definitely be useful for the next one:

2) Rebuild the list

Did you answer yes when asked if there were things you would like to change? Then it’s time to get to it! The moment to experiment, tweak and see things for yourself has come. Worried about changing the deck too much? Don’t! In fact, it has happened to me several times that I only understood the real need for a card only when it was missing in the deck. So, please, I encourage you to change EVERYTHING you want in this second step, as long as you have some idea of what works and what doesn’t, having tried the original list at least a bit already.

Keep in mind that It really doesn’t matter how good the player was who originally posted/played the list. First of all: he or she might still be wrong, and second: even a good result never guarantees that a list can’t be improved or adapted. NEVER be afraid to trust your gut and try whatever you think should be changed, and don’t be intimidated by famous names or incredible results behind it. What is the worst thing that could happen? Well, you will always have time for a backup and start again with the original list, right?

Look for interesting additions. Is there something you think the deck needs or lacks? Has a new deck appeared that threatens our list? are you just looking for a different sideboard plan?

Now comes one of the most interesting tasks of any good deckbuilder: go in search for hidden gems!

The intention is to go through as many cards as possible to see if there’s anything you missed that could work in the deck. How can you do that? My recommendation is that you download some Application on your Smartphone, or just use the MTGO Gatherer to search by format, cost, color or keywords if you know exactly what you are looking for.

Do you need a specific answer for a hate card? Would you like to see all the removal you have available in the format? Sometimes it gets even more specific than that. Are you looking for the perfect creature to search for your Birthing Pod deck? Maybe there is a Human for Naya Blitz everyone could have forgotten about? Never assume everything is already invented. Sometimes the best ideas come because someone took the time to go through all the legal cards and discovered it… It’s even possible that when it was analyzed for the first time, the card was completely irrelevant, but the format could shift enough so that it might be the perfect tool today.

In my opinion, this exercise is always very useful, even when you think your list is almost perfect. There will be always cards you would never think of. A good example is my Human Reanimator deck from GP Verona. I was pretty confident with the list, and wouldn’t change a single card. I even had what I thought was the best card for the mirror match: Slaughter Games. I had tested it for weeks… But scrabbling and scrabbling through the Gatherer I saw an even better card no one had even thought of just some days before the event: Serra Avatar was the perfect answer for the mirror!

3) Play, play, play

Now it’s time to see if your changes are affecting your results! Are they really the answer you were looking for? Are they improving anything at all? You will only figure out by playing, playing and playing again. In this process, it’s not very important to play high-level skilled games, but to really play a lot of games.

Sometimes it will take two or three games to realize a card was truly a bad addition, or not the best one fitting in there (experience might help accelerate things a bit here), and sometimes we won’t realize until we have played the card for days, or even weeks…

However, only playing will help you get a better overview. Don’t forget: Keep playing!

Important rules to follow on this important step:

Do not hesitate to try new cards or configurations every game. I personally find it very useful to swap some cards my testmate won’t expect without telling him between games. This will help making matches feel more natural, and will disable any autopiloting. If you are testing on MTGO, for instance, try different cards you have in mind every time you fire up a heads-up or 8man.

Take notes (at least mental notes) and keep track of what happened on every game. It will be very useful to distinguish what caused your losses and wins when it’s time for reviewing your list. Which cards underperformed? Which ones overperformed? Were you always winning because of the same combination? Would have you won all the games had you drawn a specific card?

Use techniques that can help you try different cards everytime. When in doubt, you can use “split” cards that work as a double-faced cards and see when one could be better than the other in real game situations. (For instance, if you are not sure if Pillar of Flame or Searing Spear is better in your deck, why not try a split card that works for both of them until you are completely sure?)

You can also play with sideboards with more than 15 cards (Don’t be afraid to test with 20 card sideboards or more, if you feel like all those cards still need to be tried). This will prevent you from removing very relevant cards from your sideboard, and allowing you to try new ideas at the same time. You can settle on the best 15 later on… Why don’t just focus on trying them all first?

4) Review your results.

It’s time for review! What’s important when you consider you have already played enough? Take a look at your notes and games, and see if you have won as much as you expected. Looking at your results, maybe it’s time to have some autocriticism and admit your ideas are not working that well anyway… Or on the contrary!
But be careful before dismissing anything: Have you really played against the decks you expected? How many games would have you won if playing properly? And… are you losing because you changed the deck until a point it just became too bad? Are you losing because you never draw a finisher? Are you missing removal? Or are you just losing manascrewed every game? Then that might just mean the deck is good, but the manabase needs a lot of work.

It’s very important to understand why you lost before thinking something didn’t work. Experienced players should know that all the time.

If results haven’t been positive, though, and none of the above worked, it doesn’t mean all your work was for nothing, you can maybe get some knowledge on the format from all you learned by building and trying that deck. In fact, most of the time, when decks are balanced in a format, the “best deck” can only be found by first dismissing all the rest, so it won’t be totally useless to trash any lists you have tried because they will have at least helped you get closer to that point!

Who knows? Maybe, now that you understand which cards were important for you, it has inspired to try build a totally different deck!

If that is the case… What do you think about going back to Step 2) and go from there again?

I hope you found all those guidelines helpful and I will wait for your feedback!

Good luck deckbuilding and see you next time!

Joel Calafell.

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