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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
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    @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
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    @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
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    @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
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    Deckbuilding in constructed formats (standard, modern, legacy) is a bit different. There is a little less emphasis on mana curve and removal a more on synergies (for instance, tribal decks) or even combos (exarch/twin, storm decks ...) so the power level is much higher. I suggest you discuss the decks you build with other people, you can also post them here to get feedback. – Michel Daviot Aug 16 '12 at 22:19
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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:

LIKES

  • 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!

UNDERESTIMATES

  • 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
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    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
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    @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
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    @JSBangs: Also, not only can you 1-for-1 your opponent's threats with Shocks/Incinerates, but you can also generate more card advantage by burning creatures out with an Aura targeting them on the stack (they lose two cards for your one card), or force them to waste mana by burning while they have an Equip trigger on the stack. Most players respect Incinerate as a very high pick in M12 draft, and Shock a lower but still fairly high pick for a good reason. – adamjford Aug 18 '11 at 20:08
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    @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
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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.

  • 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
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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
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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
3

Not a magic player but I am a card games player. I feel some of the advice given has been a bit too specific for a complete answer so I will go for a more generic one. Obviously some may not be relevant to you as I don't know your exact mistakes when deck building.

  1. Playtesting: Not just your own deck but also the top deck lists you would like to be able to emulate. Some cards are expensive so agree to use proxies with friends. I get some hate them but they help no end. Much of this learning process can be difficult without them unless you have access to the top cards. It is much easier to see how a deck works while you are playing it and seeing all the options come alive in front of you. If you can find some tips from the designers themselves so much the better. Then you can start thinking of cards that don't quite do it for you and start to modify them. Second of all playing against top decks is more helpful for you or your friends to prepare to face top decks so they are great in that regard as well. Obviously you won't be able to play these decks competitively unless you acquire the cards but if you start to understand the reasons that these cards are in the decks then you can replace them effectively from your own card pool. After a while you should be able to go card by card and explain how it fits into the deck and how it helps you win. Even force in situations where you can use certain cards to see why they work in those scenarios. Top decks will have a reason for each card (not always a good one but generally). They don't tend to have dead cards.

  2. Deck focus. You have a plan to win and your deck executes it. Cards in your deck that don't directly help that plan need to be very good and generally be in small quantities. I have seen decks playing cards that are at the lower end of the balance scale but advanced the win condition (this was generally at a point when the overall card pool was limited). Keeping your cards in the game that advance your win condition also count here. Pure delaying tactics like just extra health or something similar does not count, if you keep the numbers low and there are some excellent cards of this type they can go in. Purety of focus is the key to a good consistent deck and sometimes good cards need to be left out if their benefit is perpendicular to what the deck is trying to do. This is an interesting take on how to look at a deck and its focus. http://www.starcitygames.com/article/3688_Clear-The-Land-And-The-Fundamental-Turn.html (helpfully suggested by Rainbolt).

  3. Avoid win more cards. Win more cards are cards that only really help if you are winning and simply turn a win into destruction but won't save a losing effort. Frequently they key off situations where you are already winning such as no opponents on the board or similar. Or things like if you have more power at a battle than your opponent. They have their uses and can be included in a deck but you need to weigh up their usefulness with their limitations in crisis scenarios. Frequently they look incredibly powerful and I have seen many players get sucked in by them. These fit into the 3rd quadrant here https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/li/quadrant-theory-2014-08-20 (again article suggested by Rainbolt which fits well).

3a. Situational cards. Kind of an offshoot. Powerful cards frequently have conditions attached. Top decks that use them ensure that they satisfy these conditions a large proportion of the time (or can get rid of them easily for something better, i.e. only useful late cards can go with the mulligan, or they have ways of using them to satisfy costs for other abilities they want to use). Else they don't get played. A card you can't play in a given game acts as negative card draw for that game. Given the premium of card draw that can be expensive. Be brutal with cards you hate drawing in games and get rid of them.

  1. Learn and apply to general situations. When was the card draw function on a card utilised, who exactly was hit with the creature control and what did it cost you. When building, say a direct damage, deck and yours ends up weaker than your friends then why was it weaker and what were the issues with the direct damage cards you selected (and why were the ones you did not better choices), how many non direct damage cards were in each deck and what was used to augment the main strategy.

  2. Realise that there are exceptions. If you are sure your deck can win in X turns than delaying your opponent is your win condition so a health boost is suddenly a card that helps your win condition (be sure not to water down your deck to the point where it no longer wins in X turns though). Sometimes there is a terror combo or card that beats your deck and you need a silver bullet as meta. Sometimes a deck needs a bit more win more cards if the deck naturally struggles to drive home an advantage. The key concepts remain the same but what is a win more card in one deck or meta environment can end up as a key card that helps the deck focus in another.

As others have said there is a lot more that can be said on the subject (and I am certainly no master at it).

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    This is a great answer to a very broad question. I have two suggestions. First, the paragraph about proxies focuses on the importance of playtesting. I would make playtesting the headline of that paragraph, and only mention proxies as a means to that end. Second, I would link to other articles. The paragraphs on deck focus and delaying your opponent touch on some of the same points in Zvi Mowshowitz's article on the fundamental turn. (cont) – Rainbolt Oct 20 '17 at 15:31
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    The points about "win more" cards are expanded upon in Quadrant Theory by Marshal Sutcliffe. – Rainbolt Oct 20 '17 at 15:31
  • Interesting. Will look forward to reading those articles later. My own knowledge is largely based on word of mouth and experience (with some exceptions that were already linked or extrapolated from articles far too specific on a different game) so I did have any to link but some would add to the answer. Will update with your suggestions when I have read them. I will take a look at the Proxies point as well. I started off with the point of proxies as playtesting has been mentioned already but the paragraph may have gotten away from me. – Christy Oct 20 '17 at 15:51
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Proper mana curve, proper land/spell count, synergy, tempo, card advantage, removal, having a game plan, proper card evaluation, having a sufficiently high creature count, avoid double colored problems (e.g. a card that costs WW in a primarily black, secondarily white deck), prioritizing offense over defense. Most of these would take a paragraph or more than a page to explain, so in the interest of brevity, just be mindful of these aspects of deck construction and try to improve at them by paying attention to what the meta tells you is best (e.g. look at Grand Prix top 8 decklists and pay attention to how many lands and creatures they play, what their mana curves are, etc.).

As an additional shortcut to success, look for authorities on card evaluation. For instance, some Pro Tour event coverages will have Draft Viewers, in which you can see how each player in a pod drafted their deck. So you can think about the decision and contemplate what their reasoning was behind their pick. Doing this also gives you some insight to the average professional's card evaluations. Also, you can watch the twitch streams of professionals to watch them draft as they talk through their decision-making process. Sometimes there are Drafting With articles in which a pro drafts a deck and discusses their picks. Although it is not a great resource, you can also go to draft simulators and look and their pick orders. There are also instructional strategy books such as Next Level Magic.

For card evaluation skills, there are a few levels to evaluating a card. The first is to do a basic efficiency calculation; e.g. add-up what you believe the power, toughness, and abilities should be worth, come to an estimated fair cost, and compare it to the real cost to determine how undercosted / overcosted it is. Next, connect it to frames of reference; e.g. if you knew that Wind Drake was decent in the past, and the card you are evaluating is essentially Wind Drake, then it might be decent. Then look at in holistically in-context, i.e. think about how it actually plays in a real game. Finally, think about how the card does or doesn't fit into the synergies of the color combination.

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    This answer does not seem to explain a lot of the areas it talks about and needs top be greatly expanded. For example it is mentioned that a proper mana curve is needed but does nothing to explain what a proper mana curve should be. – Joe W Aug 6 '18 at 20:07

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