I haven't written a general strategy article in a very long time, and I'd like to today. I want to talk about my approach to deckbuilding and both the current and upcoming Standard format without basing the theory around a specific deck.


The Dangers of Making Comparisons

Many times I've said that one of the best ways to build a strong competitive deck for a format is to pick a card that you think is the most powerful. I've typically tried building decks with a singular goal: break the format; build the "new best deck," but that leads to thinking most creations are failures.

This whole mindset stems back to me comparing every deck I build to the ones I built with the most success. This started with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and the article I'm most proud of, Casting Blue Spells. More recently I wrote an article about Thoughtseize, why it's the best card in Standard, and why I want to make sure it's included in my decks.

While I still do believe this is a viable way to approach deckbuilding, it is by no means the only way. I find myself comparing any new decklist I brew to similar successful decks, but this can't be the correct to judge if you have a good list or not.

As an example, for years I've been telling myself to find the best card in a format and build around it. This worked with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, a card that was far more powerful than any other card legal in Standard. This might not be the correct approach anymore. Thoughtseize is a very powerful card; there is no denying that. However, the difference in the power level between Thoughtseize and other strong cards in the format is not that great.

Here's another example: Modern. When Modern was first introduced as a format, top players quickly realized that Preordain and Ponder were among the best spells in the format. As powerful as they were, that didn't mean that the best deck wasn't still Jund at times - even before Deathrite Shaman. Upon the release of Deathrite Shaman, people didn't have to build around the card, but rather stuck it in any deck that could cast it, which was many.

That being said, if our goal is to build a new Standard deck, and there are no ban-worthy cards, I want to try building by taking a step back from the "pick a best card" approach, and go over the other fundamentals of what makes a deck good.


Have a Cohesive Goal

When building a deck, it's important to have all of your cards working towards a singular purpose. If you're building a deck that's meant to be aggressive and end the game early, you don't want to play cards that are only good once a game goes late. Don't play cards with a converted mana cost of seven in your Monored Burn deck. That part is simple, but not all cards that are oriented towards a late game have a high mana cost.

Let's take Wall of Mulch for example. The card only costs two, but is clearly aimed at creating a longer game. It blocks, and when you're no longer in need of a wall, it draws a card. On the other hand, Brushstrider is a 3/1 for the same mana cost, but is significantly better during the early stages of a game than at any other point. These are the basics, but I feel like it's worth establishing to move on to the next point.

What about the differences between Syncopate and Dissolve? Both can counter any spell; Dissolve usually for less mana. However, Syncopate's ability to be played for two mana allows you to get to a point in the game where Dissolve shines. Play too many Syncopates, and you could find yourself in a situation where casting any spell leaves you far short or the mana necessary to capitalize on the late game you focused on getting to. Play too many Dissolves without enough spells that cost less than three, and you could find yourself dead long before Dissolve can lock up a win.

Let's take a look at Monoblue Devotion, Reid Duke's most recent list:

DECKID=1206285

Bident of Thassa is a perfect example of a card that doesn't seem to fit with the deck's Plan A, but can carry the deck into a strong late game. Ideally, the deck will want to curve out with blue creatures, such that Thassa, God of the Sea can attack the turn after you cast it, or play a big Master of Waves on turn four. Bident of Thassa, while having UU in the mana cost, at four mana doesn't help the deck's "ideal Plan A."

However, there are several cards in the deck that can buy an additional turn, then drop off steeply. For example, Judge's Familiar and Rapid Hybridization. Judge's Familiar peaks on the turn that your opponent has exactly enough mana to cast their instant or sorcery, and then is well below average card quality. Bident of Thassa helps transition Judge's Familiar into a powerful threat, while developing the board. Buying turns and using them effectively is important if you don't draw a Thassa, God of the Sea or Master of Waves - as many of other cards in the deck aren't as powerful.

This is in comparison to typical Monored or White Weenie decks, where the cards are somewhat weak individually, but you plan to cast them all and win the game before your opponent can cast their spells.


Early/Mid/Late Game

I don't know exactly how long you (the reader) have been playing Magic. When I started playing (around Invasion/Odyssey Standard), there were no planeswalkers and playing four copies of Wrath of God almost ensured you would be able to see a game go long. These days, not only are the creatures and non-creature permanents more threatening, but many generate an advantage that is not lost once the card is in the graveyard. There is significantly less inevitability now than there once was.

Take Sire of Insanity as an example. When the format was becoming very Sphinx's Revelation heavy, Sire of Insanity showed up to ruin anyone's day who liked to play with a full grip of cards. Although the card lost a lot of punch after Cavern of Souls rotated, haymakers are still abundant and can end games quickly, leaving most decks that seek to be purely reactive struggling to keep up.

Building a hyper-aggressive deck that has a significantly higher win percentage in game one than in post-board games is easy. Building an aggressive deck that can both race in game one and is durable enough to win through sideboard hate is significantly harder. Finding a balance between speed and resilience is key.


Building for a Format

All I want to do now is build different decks with M15 cards. Playing with new cards is always exciting, and I am well past the enjoyment stage of winning games off of Thoughtseize, Pack Rat, and Underworld Connections. However, this may be due to the fact that I haven't been playing in many live tournaments, and the thrills of winning are less vibrant when playing online.

Part of the problem with brewing with new cards is that you're building a deck for a format that doesn't exist yet. This often coincides with a Pro Tour - so playtest groups where many different minds are working on decks that aren't released yet get an advantage. If I were to sit with a friend and we both played our new decks against each other - we would learn a lot about that particular match up, but not be prepared for the format as a whole.

Even then, simply playing some games with a new deck, even if it's against a not-yet-updated Standard deck, for example, is the best way to really get a feel for how it runs, and what cards it wants and what it really doesn't need. Last week, I wrote about the impact of M15 cards on Modern, and yet I missed Etherium Sculptor in my list of potential monoblue creature and artifact cards. This is part of the reason why Magic is such a great community game, there are so many cards and possibilities that no one person is going to see everything.

The ability to listen to others and learn when they have valuable input is incredibly important. Not getting stuck on pet cards or concepts is also important.


The Pet Deck

Invariably, if I don't know what to play, and I'm given the option of playing anything, I'm going to err towards playing a slow, control deck with Counterspells. One thing I have learned after years of playing decks with no win conditions is how to say no. How to put down the control deck and play something else when it's poorly positioned.

Recently, I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I was mostly playing Monoblack Aggro online and really loving the deck. At one point, I felt like I was favored against everything. Then, almost overnight, the meta really shifted and the same deck that seemed unbeatable started losing to everything. Originally, I was playing against almost exclusively Monoblack Devotion and Sphinx's Revelation based control decks. My Monoblack Aggro list was constructed to Prey Upon those two archetypes. As other decks like Monogreen Devotion, Monored Devotion, and various Sylvan Caryatid decks became more popular, my deck full of Rakdos Cacklers was in really bad shape, and I didn't want to put it down.

Sometimes, changing a few cards is all you need to do. Maybe you don't need to brew up a complete new list for M15, but rather add a few cards from the set to the deck you're already playing, provided there's sound reasoning behind playing them. It would almost certainly yield better initial results than if you went to the first tournament with the cards legal with a fresh 75.


Playing a Lot

Above all else, building a great deck and learning it well comes from playing a lot of games with it. If you can play in a tournament every week, and would like to work on a new deck, it's important not to get discouraged by losing. Losing lets us learn more than winning, whether we like it or not.

One key characteristic all good players have is the ability to focus on their own mistakes, and what went wrong from a decision they made. You make decisions before the tournament, registering a deck is a deliberate decision to play each and every card you registered. Maybe there was nothing you could have done in that particular game, but perhaps playing a few more copies of card X in your sideboard would have been a decision that changed the outcome of your match.

At the same time, overcompensation can be bad. Don't change your deck just because you lost a match. If you're going to make changes, make them not based on what you played against last week, but what you anticipate playing against in your next tournament. No one can predict the future with 100% accuracy, but that is exactly what gives us all a shot at winning the next big tournament.

If you're playing last week's best deck, and you're the best player in the room, there's a pretty good chance you'll do well. If you're playing last week's best deck, and you're not the best player in the room, it's a lot less likely that you'll win the tournament.

I certainly haven't felt like I was the "best" player in the room in a really long time, but I do think that there are aspects of the game that I am better at than most. Occasionally that's predicting what the metagame is going to look like, and brewing a sweet deck accordingly. I hope this article helped you see into how I approach deckbuilding for a format as a whole.

Thanks for reading!

-Nick Spagnolo