Strictly Level Up – Brewing a Competitive Deck

One of my favorite parts of playing this game is brewing my own decks.  Admittedly over the past few sets, there’s been little incentive to brew.  With WoTC’s recent Emrakul, Reflector Mage and Looter Scooter bannings Standard has really opened up. When you add the release of Aether Revolt, no one knows what could happen with the format. There’s a time and place for playing the best list out there, but right now the time is ripe for playing a rogue home brew.

Instead of doing a cookie cutter article – listing four to five untested deck lists with a pile of cards designed to get you to buy the new set, I’m going to talk about the process that I go through to make a deck.  My goal is to have my own polished list by the time Game Day rolls around in a few weeks.  The day before a set becomes legal is usually when I get asked this question the most, ‘Hey Strictly, can you help me with this brew?’ Usually, the decks are pretty solid, but sometimes they’re just bad. Sometimes I’ll suggest an unexpected card, and they respond with ‘Well isn’t such and such card just better?’ I laugh to myself You’re the one with the deck idea, why don’t you tell me?” I don’t bother verbalizing my question, because I already know the answer.  Everyone has their own process for building decks. Picking the four most powerful cards in the colors and slapping some lands together doesn’t work for me.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to play the game they love.  If you want to brew your own way, feel free to do so.  Also feel free to share your methods, I’d love to hear them.  My hopes are to share my process for brewing a competitive deck in an attempt to help you improve in your own brewing process.

Accepting Failure

My first step in coming up with a deck idea is accepting that I will most likely fail.   Chances are whatever deck that I brewing could be just plain bad, and I may end up with a Net Deck. If my deck ends up being a pile of poo, I’ll accept failure and treat the rest of the brewing process as a learning practice.  If you fail, and learn from the failure, than you’re better off than if you succeeded initially. I treat every card  while testing as a data point.  This awareness and focus helps me see new possible interaction that I hadn’t thought about before.


Before going down the rabbit hole of card selections, It’s important to share the tools I use for brewing. I prefer and  MTGGoldfish for my decklist. Tappedout has the best mana base tool, and helps me quickly adjust land counts when needed.  Goldfish’s interface is easier for me to use when building the list, and the pricing on the deck page is helpful for figuring out a budget for acquiring cards. Testing in person is not always an option for me, so I am becoming more active on MTGO and Xmage. Xmage is a free clone with rules enforcement. I use it for the bulk of my testing. Once the decklist is near complete I acquire cards on MTGO start jamming events.

Pick a plan

Some questions I find myself asking those who send me deck lists is ‘What is your plan?  What are you trying to do here?’ More times than not, their decks that are all over the place. This happens because they didn’t consider what type of deck they wanted to build. They lose focus and pile on cards that are good but lack synergy, and expect that to be enough to win.  These decks have no identity, and just tend to be doing too many things at once.

I usually let the known meta, or what I expect the meta to be in a format guide me. For Game Day, I expect to see the multiple combos and later game scenarios where my opponents can win on turns 5 – 6. To combat this I want to come up with a super fast aggressive list.  Energy decks are very combo orientated and can fall apart against some strategies.  With all things considered, I suspect that there is a humans list out there just waiting to be found. Plus, Thalia’s Lieutenant is still legal! Humans is the only tribal deck that has ever suited my play style, so I think I may be a bit biased in testing this deck. My deck will be base White, but I’m still undecided on the other color.  I suspect it will be a White Red human list when I am done.

The Core

Once I know the identity of the deck, I try to figure out the core components of the deck. These are cards that are an instantly going to have three or four copies in the list. I’m very careful not to just pick the obvious four-of for the deck. This is an easy trap to fall into. I try to keep the list low because I want to let testing determine the final counts. For the deck I am currently working on,  the initial core of the deck was four copies of Thalia’s Lieutenant, three copies of Always Watching, four Harnessed Lightning and two Declaration In Stone. The six removal spells will be replaced last and will be very much meta dependent.  The Lieutenant is an instant add to any human deck for the card’s human synergies.  Always watching is also a no-brainer because of its sheer power level in this format.

The Meat

This is where things get counter-intuitive in my process.  Instead of assuming what creatures will round out the open 25 or 26 slots, I just start adding cards to the list as a singleton or sometimes a two-of.  Any card that synergizes with my plan is fair game.  Sometimes this stage gets me to 50 cards. For my Game Day deck, I added a series of 2-ofs, since I’d already done some heavy testing in the past with humans. Once the deck is close to the number of nonland cards that I want, I go to Tapped Out to work on the manabase. At this stage of the process, my deck usually looks horrible. If I make the list public, I usually get nastygrams about what a terrible idea it is to play EDH in Standard.

This is when I load up Xmage and throw my list in there.  My goal is to jam as many games as possible before making major changes, unless I can admit that I made a huge mistake. During these games, I ignore whether or not I even win the game. I am looking for card synergies and interactions I normally wouldn’t have thought of.  If I am lucky enough to be testing with a friend on Xmage, I’ll load up a match with no time limit, an absurdly high win count for the match.

My current list has a long way to go before I can even justify acquiring cards, let along sleeving it up for an event.

2 Expedition Envoy
2 Inventor’s Apprentice
2 Thraben Inspector
w2 Town Gossipmonger
w2 Aether Chaser
1r2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
1r4 Metallic Mimic
24 Thalia’s Lieutenant
1w2 Hanweir Garrison
2r2 Reckless Racer
2r2 Lightning Runner
3rrSpells (6)
2 Declaration in Stone
4 Harnessed Lightning
1rEnchantments (5)
2 Gryff’s Boon
w3 Always Watching
1wwLands (23)
4 Aether Hub
4 Inspiring Vantage
4 Mountain
4 Needle Spires
7 Plains

During the early testing, I found a massive mistake with my list. I had zero copies of Metallic Mimic and a singleton Kari Zev. I instantly made some cuts and put four mimics and two Kari in my list.  They are proving to be the All-Stars behind the Lieutenant and there is a good chance the pirate lady may end up as a three of in my deck. This is the part of the testing where I find out what card text matters, and what doesn’t. Currently Lightning Runner’s gain an extra attack text has not even come into play because when the card hits play he gets 1 or 2 counters from Always Watching or Metallic Mimics. I have chosen to not cut him yet, because the card is super powerful when played. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be firming up this list. I will share the evolution of the deck in a future article.

Play Testing

Once I narrow this list down to 6 or 7 unique creatures I will begin to play games with intention of winning.  This is where I start to consider sideboard cards as I learn what sorts of decks I am weak to. It’s here that I usually decide if the deck is a dud or not. This also when I start sharing the list with friends and ask them to test and give me their impressions.  If the deck is worthy of further tuning I will know almost instantly from this feedback. The idea is to get as many reps against real decks as possible.  This is where paper testing and MTGO are stronger.  Sometimes I’ll proxy out the top decks in the format and play a bunch of games with friends. One thing that is overlooked by a lot of brewers is the process of playing against your own deck.  I will hand my paper list over to a friend and play a bunch of games against my own list.  This helps to understand things from the other side of the table. It also helps if you test against better players.

There is No Magic Christmasland

If I want to determine if my list can stand up to variance in the game I purposely gimp myself. I remove my bomb or win condition in the deck, and replace with a different artwork land than I normally run. This will allow me to identify the close games I would have won with the win con, but still, determine if I have a serviceable win/loss record without my win condition.  A huge mistake people make when designing their decks is they always consider the best case scenario and ignore variance.  If I can still hold my own under adverse conditions I am confident the deck will stand up.

It is also very important to remember that a deck list should never be final and complete. Yes, obviously you need a complete list to compete.  I feel that lists should always be evolving as new information comes out and the meta shifts around you.  I am always looking for ways to improve not only my play but also improve my deck list. I may shelf a deck and move into something else because of evolving metagame but I rarely disassemble a deck that I have put this much work into.

I hope this little primer on how I evolve and brew my decks was helpful.  Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

Try to have fun, and don’t forget to Drive a Tranquil Bargain Friends.


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