Tips to Build a "Magic: The Gathering" Deck for Beginners

Updated on October 16, 2019
Mitchell Drake profile image

My hobbies include but are not limited to: movies, writing, reading comics, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, and beyond.

Building a Magic Deck From Scratch

Before you even start building your deck, there are a few questions you need to answer for yourself:

  1. Do you want to make the commitment? You should play at least twenty full games before deciding whether or not you like the game enough to spend money building your deck.
  2. Pick your colors: Before you build your deck, you need to decide what color(s) you want to and what cards you like to play most (a few large creatures, a lot of small creatures, destroying creatures, doing direct damage, gaining life, having a lot of control, etc.). Usually, your colors will choose themselves after deciding what you want the deck to do.
  3. Look at your friends' decks: I suggest having access to around five hundred different cards (yours or your friends'). You should look through all of them to get an idea of what you have to work with. Remember that "reading the cards" is the number one rule of Magic the Gathering. So don't go out right away and buy every single card you think you need without having a real idea of how the entire deck will function.

Obviously, you can't play the deck without your land so you are also going to need access to at least 150 basic lands (divided pretty evenly between the five colors).


Magic Deck-Building Rules

Because Magic has been around for a long time, the game's makers—Wizards of the Coast—have implemented some rules about how to construct a deck to try to level the playing field and make it easier for beginner players to play. These rules include:

  • Decks should contain sixty cards—no more, no less.
  • You can't have more than four of any particular card (unless the card explicitly says otherwise, like Shadowborn Apostle).

When building a deck, you'll also have to pick between Modern and Standard decks:

  • Standard category decks only use cards from the current expansion, the previous expansion set, and the core set (a group of cards that don't follow a particular story line.
  • Modern decks include all the cards in the Standard deck plus cards from as far back as ten years ago.

Part of why I love Magic: The Gathering is the wiggle room you get in building your decks. Even in the Standard category, there are around 1,300 individual cards to choose from. About a third of the fun of this game for me is the deck building. I enjoy the look on players' faces when they are playing against a deck that they've never seen before and the deck actually does well. It's refreshing to stray from what most of the competitive players use. I prefer to experiment and so never build a deck where it is guaranteed that I will win.

Tips and Strategies for Deck-Building in Magic: The Gathering

Once you're ready to build your deck, I'd suggest following these tips and strategies:

  • Start all of your Magic decks with 24 land cards, which gives you a comfortable 36 cards for spells. You can always adjust later.
  • Start with a single-colored deck before branching out into multiple colors, because the land mixtures will be more difficult to figure out.

Aim for a Good Curve

A curve refers to the ratio of playable cards to the cost of mana. In other words, you don't want an excess of cards that cost a lot of mana because you want to be able to play at least one spell per turn.

Bad Deck Curve

Number of Cards
Mana Cost per Card

The deck above has too many high-cost cards. According to the curve, you won't be able to play most of your cards until turn seven – and that's only if you get all of the land you need. In the above deck, you are just as likely to get an extremely high-cost card as a land. As a result, you won't be able to do very much or put up a proper defense.

Good Deck Curve

Number of Cards
Mana Cost per Card

This curve gives you a much better chance at playing a spell every turn and probably more than one spell a turn after turn five. It is important to try to have most of your cards cost between two and five mana, because that will allow you to get in on the action and get ready as soon as possible.

Magic: The Gathering Deck Land Ratio
Magic: The Gathering Deck Land Ratio | Source

Magic: The Gathering Deck Land Ratio

Land counting and distribution is a large part of the deck building process and I want you to know how to do it properly. It's easiest in mono-colored decks because all you need is twenty-four of that land to make your deck work. To make this easier I'm going to call the colored lands by their names:

  • Black = Swamp
  • Red = Mountain
  • Blue = Island
  • Green = Forest
  • White = Plains

You may decide you need fewer or more land cards than what I suggest. When it comes to multi-colored decks, I usually bring it down to statistics. If 50% of my spells are white, then 50% of my mana needs to be Plains. Likewise, if 25% of the spells are white, then 25% of the lands will be Plains.

Before taking any land cards out, I would shuffle the deck differently and play it again. Magic decks aren't like a regular deck of cards; shuffling it the same way may group all your lands together in one spot. I recommend using a Hard Shuffle, which involves dividing the cards into piles and shuffling each pile individually and then back into one large pile. Most players will hard shuffle after every few games and regular shuffle in between but the major players like to hard shuffle every time.

Building a Magic Deck: Step-By-Step

After you've decided which 36 spell cards to put in your deck, you should then organize them by color and mana cost. I like to make something like a ladder, putting the lower costing cards at the bottom and higher cost cards on top.

Count the number of cards you have for each color (cards with both colors count as one each). For this example, let's assume you have 18 black cards and 18 white cards. In that case, you'd want 12 Swamps and 12 Plains.

But Wait!

What if most of your white cards won't be played until turns five and above? Then you should include more Swamps than Plains so you can play your black cards sooner.

What if I play cards like Dark Prophecy? For Dark Prophecy you need three swamps, so the chances you'll play it early on are slim. So, I'd either add Swamps or just take the card out of the deck entirely. If you decide to keep it in the deck, the last land count will probably be around 15 Swamps and 9 Plains.

Pro Tip:

If you decide to replace a land card with a spell card, then get rid of a land card that is NOT used to cast the spell. In other words, add a white spell and remove a Swamp.

Magic Deck Walkthrough

When I first began playing I was fascinated with the ability known as death touch. Deathtouch is exactly what it sounds like: getting touched = death. So, regardless of its strength, a creature with death touch will destroy any creature it comes into contact with. Isn't that awesome? It's like a kill spell and a creature all in one! So, I decided to build my entire deck around creatures with that ability.

My first mistake was starting with a two-color deck: black and green, which is where most of the creatures with death touch are found. I grabbed every card with death touch I could find plus some kill spells and threw them all on my kitchen table when I got home. Then came mistakes two and three. I had:

  • 2 cards with a mana cost of 2
  • 10 cards with a mana cost of 3
  • 15 cards with a mana cost of 4-5
  • 10 cards with a mana cost of 6+
  • 19 lands.

Can you spot the mistakes? A bad curve and not enough land cards. When I had all the cards I wanted in it I had to fill the rest with land and I didn't know how to do that at the time so I counted how many green to black cards I had and average it out that way (mistake #4: I didn't distribute my land properly).

So, I built this deck and I was all proud of it and ready to show my friends I was a real magic player (keep in mind I was eighteen). So when I got the opportunity to play it, I was disappointed by how little I was actually playing the deck. When I actually got the cards out they were doing what I wanted, but I wasn't able to get cards out very often. After a few games, I showed my friends the entire deck and they showed me what was wrong with it and told me everything I've told you here today.

Remember to Read the Cards!

That should be it for building your first deck. I'm going to make another article for more intermediate decks and focus a lot on combos and such. You're welcome to ask questions if it helps. Remember to read the cards!


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