Thursday, February 7, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 2a: Building the Deck

As I mentioned last time, the first thing you need to be able to win at Magic is Magic, but I guess that's really kind of obvious. Still, I felt like the point needed to be made. Basically, in a lot of ways, anything has the potential to be "the next big thing." Richard Garfield only developed Magic because he was trying to sell some other game. Rowling was just trying to make ends meet when she wrote Harry Potter. George Lucas thought Star Wars was going to be a flop because sci-fi had been out of fashion for over a decade and no one cared. Still, they all had a vision for what they wanted to achieve with their separate projects and worked to make those visions as close to reality as possible.

But, now that we have Magic, what do we do with it? [I suppose, really, some explanation as to what Magic is and how it works is probably in order, but that would be a whole other blog post and I still couldn't get all of it in, so I'm not doing that. Let's just say it's a card game (a CCG (collectible card game), as they used to be called; the first CCG, in fact) and leave it at that. If you want to know more about how it works, you can look it up.]

Building a Magic deck is a lot like writing. No, really, it is. Sure, it's nothing like writing in that there is no actual writing involved, but there is that level of construction that is very similar. You could say that the cards are like words and the colors like genres. So let's get some basics down. There are five colors of magic in Magic that each use a specific (basic) land type:

  • white/plains -- life magic
  • blue/islands -- mind magic
  • black/swamps -- death magic
  • red/mountains -- chaos magic
  • green/forests -- nature magic
There are also some forms of colorless magic such as artifacts (machines) and some other stuff that was introduced after I mostly quit playing. At any rate, before you can build a deck (write a story), you have to decide what kind of deck (genre) you're going to build. Yes, you can mix colors (blend genres).

The basic building block of any deck is your land. You have to have land; it's where the power for your spells comes from, and you have to have the right mix of it to not get stuck not drawing any or drawing too much. This is rather like word balance in your story. There are some words that you just have to use, but you don't want to use the same words so much that your readers get tired of seeing it. For instance, don't start every paragraph with your characters name; that's like having too much land. The balance of your land mix is one of the most vital parts of making a deck.

Actually, this whole land mix, achieving the proper balance, could be analogous to any number of things in writing, so we'll just look at it as having your writing balanced properly for whatever it is you're doing.

I used to do a lot of helping people build decks, and the most prevalent issue was not enough land. There was this one kid that couldn't ever win a game, and I mean never, so he brought his deck to me for help (a black deck). For one thing, he played with about 80 cards (sometimes more), which was too many (but more on that in a moment), but he only had about 15 lands(swamps) in his deck. Land concentration is dependent upon the type of deck you're building, but, as an easy way of dealing with it, let's just say 1/3 of your deck needs to be land. He was playing with less that 20% land, so it was not surprising that he couldn't get any land into play and always lost. I upped his land count to about 22 and dropped his deck size to about 62, and, guess what, he won some games. However, the next time he came in, he brought his deck to me again and told me that it had "quit working" and wondered what had happened. Had he done anything to it? Only added in a few cards. So I took a look at it, and it was close to 100 cards, and he hadn't added any more land to it, so he was, basically, back down to that 20% land mix he'd had before. He was so stuck on using particular cards (devices) in his deck (writing) that he couldn't make it work. (I think this is not an uncommon problem for writers.)

Jumping back to deck size... the minimum deck size is 60 cards (except in some variations), and, generally speaking, you want to stick to something around that size. Your deck should be designed with a purpose, a selection of a few cards or card types that the deck works around with other cards to support that theme (you can think of those as your cast of characters, if you want). When you get too many cards in the deck, you can't depend upon getting to the cards you need quickly enough for the deck to do its job. There are, of course, exceptions in increasing deck size as long as what you're adding is still working toward your purpose and you continue to keep the deck balanced as you do it.

But let's say you want to break some rules. You're a writer, right? Who needs to follow rules? Oh, wait, no, we're playing Magic, so let's break some rules. One of the guys I worked with and I were discussing unique deck constructions one day, and I suggested making a landless deck. I bet even those of you that have never played Magic are thinking, "What?!?" at this point. Let me clarify: non-basic lands were okay, but many of those only give colorless power (mana), so it was going to be a stretch. So we talked it out, what specific cards would be needed, non-land sources of mana, cards that didn't require mana, that sort of thing. I helped him get a few of the cards that he needed, and he built the deck, and we tested it. He played it in the next tournament, and it was worth it for the shock value alone. People couldn't believe he had a landless deck. It was great even if he didn't win with it. Admittedly, it was a difficult deck to play, but it was a lot of fun because it was something different. So, yeah, sometimes, it's good to break with the conventions.

To recap, here are the steps to building a winning Magic deck:
1. Decide on your colors. (Choose a genre.)
2. Choose your theme. (This is like a plot.)
3. Balance!
4. Don't put in too many cards. (It clutters your plot and throws the balance off.) Likewise, put in enough to support your theme (or your plot).

And, now, we'll talk about the deck I became known for. Now, pay attention, this has all kinds of good lessons.

When we first started getting our cards, I was drawn to blue. Blue is about controlling what your opponent does, rather than simply pounding him until he's dead, and manipulating your own deck so that you can get cards faster. To put it simply. It was my first intention to focus on blue... BUT!

It was early '94 before we were really starting to get our cards, and, by that time, the first expansion, Arabian Nights, had come out. This card was in the set:
One of the guys in  the group looked at the card and said something like, "well, it's okay, but you couldn't build a deck around it," and everyone seemed to agree with him. He tossed the card on the table, and everyone dismissed it. Except me. I knew exactly how to build a deck around it, and, so, I abandoned blue as my color of choice right then and there and picked up red and green instead.

Red/green is still my color combo of choice (Not that I really ever play anymore. I probably haven't built a deck in ten years or more.). It's what I became known for playing, and it was the red/green deck I built around the Kird Ape (or variations of it) that took me to being the top ranked player in north Louisiana throughout 1994. Not that I didn't play other things, too, but red/green was my standard. And I never quit playing with the Kird Ape despite the monkey boy, ape boy, and worse nicknames.

The point here is that you shouldn't listen to what other people say can't be done. Everything is worth trying. Even building a deck with no basic lands was worth trying. Some things just take a little bit of imagination and effort. If you believe in something, don't let people tell you it won't work. Figure out how to do it. You might also just discover something you didn't know you'd like.

For fun, here are a few of the other cards from the deck:
The Taiga helped make the Kird Ape even more powerful. With an ape and this land in the initial draw, you could drop a 2/3 creature on turn one.
Once Legends came out, Blood Lust went into the deck. Potentially, you could hit your opponent for 6 damage on the second turn with this.
The Elven Riders was just for fun. It was one of my signature cards that I included in pretty much every green deck I played.
Palladia is one of my favorite cards ever. He's expensive, and, mostly, he'd just sit in my hand if I drew him; however, I never lost a single game when I got him into play.


  1. Some of the deadliest cards are the simplest ones.
    I had a black deck that crushed every time. My wife eventually refused to play with me if I was using that deck.

  2. Again, I never got into the game, but since almost every single friend I had at the time was obsessed with it. And yes, people got weird about their decks. I liked to feel like I had some perspective that others didn't. Like, the one guy who had the most awesome deck that ever existed but lost every single game. Every. Single. Time. Yeah, I hinted that maybe his deck wasn't as perfect as he thought it was. But no, I didn't know what I was talking about... he was just unlucky.

    People. If I had a time machine I would have made him read on of your 'how to think' posts.

  3. I've not played the game. I think I was in my first year of med school when this came out. I was sort of busy then.

  4. I've never played, but have listened to many hours of explanation from my son. At first, I was wondering about your comparison to writing, but in the end am nodding my head. Yep, we have to watch how we build our story decks. Thanks for popping by my blog.

  5. Alex: It was a black deck that was my bane for a while.

    Rusty: Yeah, it's amazing how many people lose continuously and, yet, it's never their fault. But, then, psychology says that people are inclined to think that way and it's possibly the only reason we don't all wallow in depressive self-pity all the time.

    Anne: What? Are you saying med school is more important than Magic? Blasphemy!

    T. Drecker: Is this the same one that doesn't support your writing? If so, you should explain to him how similar it is and see how he responds. heh

  6. Other than it involved cards, I knew next to nothing about Magic before reading your posts. It sounds like a complicated game that involves a lot of strategy.

  7. I had never heard of it until you wrote about it before. From what you have written today, it sounds way too complicated for me.


  8. I've never played Magic, but I have a friend who plays still, and she has stressed that writers should like Magic, because it is about story building and story telling. I've played a game called Gloom that I liked, which involves cards and story telling. It was fun! Very Addams Family.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  9. TGE: It does involve a lot of strategy, which is why I like it.

    Jo: It's both complicated and simple.

    Shannon: The game world certainly is. WotC has built a multiverse around the game not dissimilar to the Marvel Universe. I've never heard of Gloom.

  10. If you were playing that deck, I'd use land destruction or white weenie with wrath of god.

  11. Michael: Actually, neither of those deck types ever gave me much trouble. On the whole, my Kird Ape deck didn't need more than about three lands in play, so land destruction didn't fare so well against it. The only color that ever gave me real difficulties was black.