The mathematical approach to building a beginner deck

As a beginning Magic player and also someone who likes to read up and understand as much as possible about a new skill or concept before actually using it, when I started to build my first Standard-legal deck, I read a lot of other posts about deck-building from the official Wizards of the Coast site as well as fan wikis, collective “answer” services like Yahoo! Answers, other peoples’ blogs, and more.

However, the more I read, the less I understood because the most basic questions were rarely answered in a way that I could apply to building my first deck: How many creatures do you have in a beginning 60-card deck? After you figure that out, how much land do you put in?

Because I watch a lot of Magic: The Gathering Online streamed via Twitch and on YouTube, I knew that for a 40-card draft, it’s recommended that you have at least 13 to 17 creature spells and then whatever else you need to get up about 23 total cards. Then, you’ll need an array of lands to add to that to equal a 40-card deck.

The benefit to drafting a Magic deck online is that there is a mana calculator built into the game where you hit a number and it suggests an amount of basic lands you need to add to your deck. From there, you can adjust individual mana sources separately, and when you’re done, you hit a button and whoosh! All the land gets automatically added to your deck in perfect numbers.

Drafting cards in real life is a little different, though, and despite the number of free mana counter applications I found on both the Android and iOS platforms, I could never get any of them to work in a way where I could understand the underlying process.

It took a recent draft deck review by store manager Shiny at Universe Games to help me understand exactly what I need to do to ensure that I’m adding the right amount of land to a deck. That, coupled with this article helped me come up with my personal strategy for how I approach building a Standard Magic deck.

How Many Creatures Do I Run in a Standard Constructed Deck?
Within a 60-card deck, there should be 24 lands (either basic or non-basic) and 36 spells (creatures and other spells).

Of those 36 spells, there will be a combination of creatures, artifacts, instants, sorceries, and enchantments. Using whole numbers, these are the kinds of combinations that are possible:

2 x 18 = 18 creatures + 18 other spells
3 x 12 = 12 creatures + 12 enchantments + 2 other spells
4 x 9 = 9 creatures + 9 enchantments + 9 sorceries + 9 instants
6 x 6 = 6 creatures + 6 enchantments + 6 sorceries + 6 instants + 6 artifacts

But! There are other combinations that can work as well if there’s a specific type of card you want to ensure you have in your deck, such as the below:

6 specific category spells +30 other spells
6 + (2 x 15) = 6 enchantments + 15 creatures + 15 remaining spells
6 + (3 x 10) = 6 sorceries + 10 creatures + 10 enchantments + 10 instants
6 + (5 x 6) = 6 instants + 6 creatures + 6 artifacts + 6 sorceries + 6 enchantments

And of course, you can factor out some of those other numbers as well:

6 + [5 x (3+3)] = 6 instants + 6 creatures + 6 artifacts + 6 sorceries + 3 enchantments + 3 artifacts

For the most part as a beginner, you definitely want to ensure that you have a lot of creatures in your deck as they are the ones who are most likely to prevent damage coming to you as well as doing the most damage since you can have only up to 4 copies of the same card in your deck (with notable exceptions, like Shadowborn Apostle). This means that as far as mathematical equations go towards building a deck and getting to play different kinds of spells, you could probably stick to this formula for a beginning deck:

20 creatures + 6 enchantments + 6 sorceries + 4 instants

If you want to put some artifacts in there, you could even do this:

20 creatures + 6 enchantments + 6 sorceries + 2 instants + 2 artifacts

As you get better at building decks or learn more about what specific cards do, you’ll start to move away from this formula based on how you see the cards working together as well as what’s being played against you. However, as far as a starting formula is concerned, it’s not a bad place to start.

How Much Basic Land do I Put in a Standard Constructed Deck?
As a beginner, the least amount of colors for types of spells you want is one and the most you’ll be able to handle is three, if you’re only using the third magic type sparingly. Depending on which cards you have to choose from, the first thing you should do is pick the color of mana from which you’ll cast most of your spells (or all of them, if you’re building a mono-color deck).

Within this color, you will want a few low-cost spells, several medium cost spells, and a few higher cost spells. Once you’ve figured out the types of creatures you want to add from one color, figure out the same thing for your second color (and your third, if you’re being adventurous).

When you arrange the cards on a playing surface and order them in terms of converted mana cost (that is, the total amount of mana it costs to cast the card, including the required source), the curve should look like this:

A sampling of creatures in a red/black deck / Click to enlarge
A sampling of creatures in a red/black deck / Click to enlarge

This type of mana curve is very favorable to a beginning player as it means that you’ll have a good probability of playing out at least one creature on your third Turn if you have at least 3 mana sources in your opening hand and that you’ll continue to be able to play out your other spells as well. Continue to add the remaining spell types until you have a total of 36 spells.

Once you’ve those figured out, you’ll now need to calculate exactly how many of each source of mana you want to have in your deck. The method that most people use is to sort out the cards by mana type, as in the below:

Spells from a sample green/black deck / Click to enlarge
Spells from a sample green/black deck / Click to enlarge

Next, count up the number of mana symbols of each type. In this example, there are 17 green mana symbols that are required and 27 black mana symbols.

Note that you may end up with more mana symbols than the number of cards of that color as some creatures and spells require more than one required mana source, like Minotaur Abomination (4 colorless mana and 2 black mana) or Enlarge (3 colorless mana and 2 green mana). If you have a spell that requires two different types of mana sources to cast, you would end up counting that card once per mana source listed. As an example, for Putrefy, it would count 1 green towards the green mana symbols and 1 black towards the black mana symbols.

Then, add those two numbers together to get a total number of mana symbols; in this case, it’s 44 mana symbols. From there, find out the ratio of each required mana symbol:

17 green mana symbols / 44 total mana symbols = 38% of the mana symbols are green
27 black mana symbols / 44 total mana symbols = 62% of the mana symbols are black

Now, from the total number of land in a 60-card deck, figure out what your ratios should be for your deck:

Of the 24 total land, 38% should be green sources = 9 Forests
Of the 24 total land, 62% should be black sources = 15 Swamps

Looking back at this example, you can see that there are many double-black cost spells and not as many double-green or any green-black. This leads me to believe that I should be running more Swamps than are calculated in my ratio to ensure that I can cast those double-black spells. I can also reduce the number of basic lands by including lands which tap for more than one type of mana, like the Golgari Guildgate or the Shimmering Grotto. And if there’s a creature which taps for mana like the new Opaline Unicorn or the Elvish Mystic, you can even further reduce the amount of basic land you’d need and add another creature or another type of spell.

As you play test your new deck, you’ll start to get a feel for which cards you’ll see and play often from your own deck as well as which cards from other decks you’ll know you want to have answers against. Maybe you’ll feel as if you don’t get enough of one type of mana source to be able to play those cards, so you’ll remove some spells in order to make room for more basic land or a dual land. Or maybe you keep getting beaten with creatures with Flying and need some cards that will be able to stand up against them. Or you might get lucky and pull a Mythic Rare or a planeswalker that looks like fun to use. That’s when you’ll start to swap cards out and adjust your deck accordingly until you find something that you’ll be happy playing with regularly either during your casual games amongst your friends or at an official sanctioned event.

Until you start to build your second deck, that is.

2 Responses

  1. Tommy Sullivan Tommy Sullivan

    at |

    Thanks for the link to my blog! I’m really happy you found it useful :) i actually spent my day teaching some new players the game, and went over some of these deck-building techniques. Nice article! Cheers!


Leave a Reply