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I've been playing M:tG for nearly a decade now. I understand the rules very well, I've participated in a few draft tournaments, and I've built a few decks that I'm very proud of.

Nonetheless, I seem to have hit a wall in my MtG deck-building ability. In draft tournaments I rarely finish in the top half. I see other players pulling cards that I've discounted as low-power or junk, then I'm astounded at how effective they make them. (I rarely read MtG sites, so I'm not often aware of what the "buzz" around the best cards is.) When I look at the deck listings for top tournament decks, I often can't understand how they're supposed to play or why they're so powerful. I realize that the better players are able to see interactions between cards and identify sources of power that are effectively invisible to me.

How can I get past this block? I realize that this is a broad question, but I'm wondering if there's a blog, a book, or a series of articles that can help a middling, mostly casual player up his level of play.

Details on my play style, which may help focus answers:

I'm definitely a Johnny. I strongly prefer the black/green/white side of the spectrum. I almost never play red/blue. I find that I'm naturally drawn to the following mechanics, and tend to build decks that contain lots of:

  • Life gain
  • Creature buffs, +1 tokens, regeneration, etc.
  • Creature destruction, -1 tokens, etc.
  • Mid-size creatures (neither 1/1 weenies nor 8/8 monsters)
  • Enchantments of all kinds
  • Non-land mana generation

Whereas I consistently underestimate the effectiveness and fall prey to decks that contain:

  • Direct damage
  • Creature control
  • Artifacts
  • "Draw a card" spells and abilities

Even when I've tried to stretch myself and build a deck using these mechanics, what I built was much weaker than what a friend of mine built starting from the same card pool. Furthermore, I have a hard time building decks that can successfully resist a deck that's heavy in creature control or direct damage.

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Step 1. build a deck entirely of variants of Counterspell. Step 2. counter everything. Step 3. eventually lose, but laugh like a maniac. – Samthere Aug 18 '11 at 16:04
@Samthere - there's a good point hidden in that comment, which is that just "negating your opponent's threats" is never enough to win a game of Magic. You always need to have a clear idea of what you're going to do to actually win the game. People who are initially attracted to lifegain cards often haven't considered that side of things enough. – thesunneversets Aug 18 '11 at 16:22
@thesunneversets Yes, that was definitely the point I was trying to make and definitely not my deck-building strategy... honest! :P – Samthere Aug 18 '11 at 16:34
@Samthere - I had a friend who claimed his idea of fun was to build an all-basic-land Magic deck, and just play a land every turn until his inevitable defeat. Just to drive the opponents wild with not knowing what his deck was meant to be doing. You get the strangest people sitting down to play MtG sometimes! – thesunneversets Aug 18 '11 at 16:48
I also strongly suggest that you read strategy articles. Starcitygames has a great diversity in articles even if some of them require a subscription. They are other sites such as channelfireball or mtgsalvation. Sealed and draft are a great way to improve deckbuilding, you can also practise online with magic online software. – Michel Daviot Aug 16 '12 at 22:18
up vote 31 down vote accepted

It does seem, from your description of your play style, that you do have a problem in consistently misinterpreting what things help people win Magic games. Let's have a look at some of the things you say you like, and that you underestimate:


  • Lifegain - with a few rare exceptions, lifegain cards are TERRIBLE - they do nothing to help you win the game, just slow down the rate at which you lose it.
  • Creature buffs - if you spend a card putting +1/+1 counters on a creature, and your opponent Terrors it, you've just 2-for-1'd yourself. Not good.
  • Creature destruction - okay, your instincts are correct on this one. Removal is and always will be king.
  • Mid-sized creatures - these tend to be the least efficient choice. Either you want highly efficient "weenies" who can win the game for you fast, or you want massive monsters who can end the game in a couple of swings.
  • Enchantments of all kinds - I assume you include Auras in this. See the 2-for-1 problem I mentioned under Creature Buffs, above.
  • Mana generation - it would be fair to say that mana ramp strategies can play a part in successful Tier One decks; but you need a definite game plan and a strong likelihood of consistently using all your mana every turn. Just having more mana than your opponent, while he's swarming you with creatures, seems like a really bad place to be!


  • Direct damage - this is obviously amazing, because it can act as 1-for-1 removal early on to keep you in the game; but then go straight to the opponent's dome later, when you're only a few life points away from victory. Look at Fireball and it shouldn't be hard to understand why this is a top pick in almost any draft format.
  • Creature control - Mind Control is also a #1 draft pick. By casting it you not only gain a creature, you also steal the opponent's best creature, making it a sort of automatic 2-for-1.
  • Artifacts - well, these vary from good to bad, but one of the great things about artifacts is that they don't require a complicated manabase to pilot. Artifact decks never get mana screwed, so you shouldn't underestimate them!
  • Card draw - something like Divination may not look impressive, but you need to get your head around the idea that getting 2 cards return for an outlay of 1 card is the cornerstone of winning games of Magic...

It seems to me that you would do well to learn more about the principle of card advantage. If your opponent plays a card and you remove it with a card, you're level pegging. If you play two creature cards and he removes them with one card, he's a card up. If you play a card that gives you 7 life, he's also a card up. Whoever is the most cards up at the end of the game often wins! The alternative, of course, is blazing speed: kill your opponent before he can get too many cards up on you...

I could talk about this stuff forever but this answer is already getting long; hopefully there are plenty of things for you to think about here already! Feel free to ask about anything that is unclear in the comments though.

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Lots to chew on here. Your statement that life gain just makes you lose slower is a revelation. Additionally, I'm surprised to hear that creature buffing is considered inefficient. It's intuitively appealing to me to take a cheap 2/2 and turn it into a 6/6, even for one turn, but the fact that this can set me back in terms of card advantage is an interesting way of looking at it. Are equipments a superior form of creature buffing, then? – JSBձոգչ Aug 18 '11 at 18:54
Direct damage - I've learned some grudging respect for Fireball and its ilk, but the problem for me here is that most direct damage spells or abilities deal only 1-3 points of damage. My brain looks at that and says, "Small change, no big deal." The same thing goes for drawing a card, which always seems like too small of an advantage to matter. – JSBձոգչ Aug 18 '11 at 18:58
Wow, I was going to answer this but thesunneversets has pretty much said it all. What wins most competative Magic games is card advantage. Drawing a card is usually a small advantage, unless the card also does something else (a "cantrip")! Any card that replaces itself is generally good. – ghoppe Aug 18 '11 at 19:17
@JSBangs: 1-3 points of damage is a big deal. Out of the 116 creatures in Magic 2012, 71 of them have 2 or less toughness. That's 61% of the creatures that you'll encounter in the format, and they all die to a Shock. 70% of them will die to an Incinerate. None of those numbers are taking into account rarity, and as commons skew towards lower P/T, those numbers are going to be even higher (except that these numbers don't take hexproof into account, which would foil a Doom Blade anyway.) – adamjford Aug 18 '11 at 20:06
@JSBangs: I would recommend reading this classic article on the subject of card advantage: Forgotten Lore: Taking Card Advantage. The cards are outdated but the concepts remain the same. – adamjford Aug 18 '11 at 20:12

Start listening to the excellent Limited Resources podcast, found here or by finding it in iTunes.

Marshall Sutcliffe and the various guests he brings on have played a TON of Limited Magic and are very good at explaining concepts and strategies to help you improve your game. In fact, BOTH of the former co-hosts of the podcast, Ryan Spain and Jon Loucks, got hired by Wizards of the Coast!

This episode, "Card Evaluation Revisited" sounds like it exactly deals with the problem you're having right now.

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I subscribed to the podcast and am enjoying it immensely. Thanks for the tip. – JSBձոգչ Aug 23 '11 at 16:55
@JSBangs: Good to hear. I always look forward to it. :) – adamjford Aug 23 '11 at 19:54

My technique was to build a new deck every week. I would focus on one card and try to build a deck around it. It was always a card that I deemed worthless. I tried to build the deck with out any of my favorite cards to avoid falling into relying on them instead of trying new things. I would play that deck all week (Yeah blew far too many nights at the game shop instead of out chasing women) until I had it tweaked and I learned how to use it.

This exposed me to different defenses against these cards as well. All of this made me a better player all around and helped me to develop my favorite decks.

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Yes, practice is key. But a big part of practice is feedback: it's as important to play with your deck as it is to design it in the first place. Playing and iterating continuously really helps. Magic Online is perfect for this, because you can easily find both the cards you need and different opponents to test against. – Tikhon Jelvis Jan 27 '15 at 21:19

two things: 1- to add on to @thesunneversets answer, evasion is also a good factor for winning a game in limited, and coming up with ways to block evasion. it's hard to block flying if you don't have fliers yourself, or something that can block them.

2- wizard's website for magic has weekly columns on a lot of different topic. i suggest reading the ones that interest you the most. Wizards Columns

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Evasion is an interesting one because it is clearly amazing in limited environments (i.e. draft, sealed)... and hardly a factor at all in constructed environments. In constructed, games are over too quickly for it to be worth paying extra mana for the privilege of flying; if your creatures are mostly blocking rather than dealing damage, you're probably doing something wrong. If blocking lots isn't a good strategy, then I can't see paying for evasion being a good strategy either. But if you're talking about sealed/draft, you're 100% right! – thesunneversets Aug 19 '11 at 15:08
@thesunneversets, i meant limited, forgot to mention that. updated my answer. – DForck42 Aug 19 '11 at 15:19

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