Trading Card Games for the Rest of Us – Decks, Formats, and Strategies

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

You know what trading card games are. You have your cards. Now, what do you do with them? How do you know what to expect from your opponent? How do you make a deck that wins? In this update, I’ll walk you through “formats,” “decks,” and strategies for play. Again, for these lessons, I’m using Magic: The Gathering, because it is the most popular TCG out there. Most of these tips, however, will apply to other TCGs.

Before you build your deck, you need to know what format you and your opponent will be using. A format is the specific rule set that determines which cards you are permitted to play with. Knowing the format you’re going into will help you prepare for your opponent, and give you a launching point for building your deck.

Formats you are likely to run into include:

  • Vintage — This format allows you to use any cards you like. You may  only have four of any given card, other than basic lands, and your deck can include as many different cards you like. The only rules regarding deck size are a 60-card minimum, and you have to be able to shuffle your deck unassisted. This format is great for folks who buy old collections, or want to play cards not permitted in other sets.
  • Standard — This format only permits cards from the most recent releases. The two most recent blocks, and the current “core” set, which comes between the last two blocks. This means that, at any time, six expansions and one core set are allowed. Cards are regularly eliminated from this format, which drives players to buy new cards every block. A Standard deck has at least 60 cards, and no more than 4 of any given card, other than basic lands.
  • Block — This format only allows cards from a given block. For example, the Innistrad block included Innistrad, Dark Ascension, and Avacyn Restored. Only cards from those expansions may be included in an Innistrad Block format deck. A Block deck requires a minimum of 60 cards, and no more than 4 of any given card other than basic lands.
  • Commander — Also known as EDH, this format focuses on one legendary creature. It is accompanied by a deck of exactly 99 cards, and has a limit of one of each card, other than basic lands. Also, cards may only be included in the deck if they do not have any color not represented by the commander. If the commander is blue, all cards in the deck must be blue or colorless, including artifacts and lands.
  • Modern — The Modern format allows all cards from and after the Eighth Edition and Mirrodin blocks. This deck also requires a minimum of 60 cards, and limits each card to four per deck.
  • Booster formats — These formats include making a 40 card deck from six booster packs at an event, and players taking turns picking cards from booster packs to make a 40 card deck. These are usually reserved for tournaments and special events.
The five Magic Origins intro decks.
The five Magic Origins intro decks.

My suggestion for any new player is to just buy one of the current block’s intro decks. It’s the least expensive option, and comes with the least headaches. They are always valid in Standard, Vintage, and Modern formats, and have a variety of cards for you to practice with. If you’re ready to dive into building your own decks, read on for advice on strategies and deck building.

First, you will want to decide on a strategy. What is it you want your deck to be able to do? Once you know what your goal is, it is much easier to narrow your choices, and get the cards you need together. Strategies that have proven to work include:

Image: Wizards of the Coast
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Control — This strategy is all about keeping your opponent suppressed while you knock their life-totals down. These decks are usually based on white cards, like Pacifism. Preventing your opponent from using their decks keeps you one step ahead while they fight to recover.

Image: Wizards of the Coast
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Burn — This strategy is all about destroying your opponents deck while hurting them in the process. This strategy normally revolves around red cards such as Arc Lightning. This strategy has a lot of options, and is commonly considered the cheapest way to build a powerful deck.

Image: Wizards of the Coast
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Aerial Assault — Use flying creatures to avoid your opponents defenses. Both Blue and White cards work well for this strategy. Vassal Soul is my favorite,

Images: Wizards of the Coast
Images: Wizards of the Coast

Horde — Get a lot of lands on the battlefield, and use cards like LLanowar Elves to produce more mana. The ability to produce mana faster than your opponent allows you to lay down powerful cards like Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger to overwhelm your opponent.

Image: Wizards of the Coast
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Mill — Decks that force your opponent to discard cards from their hands and decks can keep them from catching up, and can even win the game for you. If they can’t draw a card at the beginning of their turn, they lose. Cards like Jace, Memory Adept can force the win.

Images: Wizards of the Coast
Images: Wizards of the Coast

Grave-digging — Graveyard decks reward you for sacrificing creatures. Creatures like Reassembling Skeleton can be cast from the graveyard, and so can spells such as Moan of the Unhallowed. This flexibility means that these decks do well in a large variety of competition. Black cards lend themselves especially well to this strategy.

Images: Wizards of the Coast
Images: Wizards of the Coast

Tribal — These decks get collections of creatures with a certain type together, and they benefit each other. Card types famous for their synergy include elves such as Lys Alana Huntmaster and slivers such as Megantic Sliver.

Once you know what your strategy will be, look for cards that fill your need. Countless players have tried hundreds of combinations, but there are some rules-of-thumb to follow. We’ll assume you are playing Vintage, and can use whatever cards you like.

  • Aim for exactly 60 cards, so you can rely on getting the particular cards you need.
  • Pick one or two colors. There are strategies that use three colors, but my favorites always call for two. It’s easier to get the lands you need, and narrows down your choices, making your deck easier to build.
  • Pick 9 non-basic cards, and include four of each to make your deck reliable and predictable.
  • Use 24 lands. Make twenty of them basic lands, and four of them can be non-basic lands that complement your style.
  • If you are playing with only one color, feel free to reduce the number of lands a little bit. No fewer than 20 lands should be in your deck. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to cast your spells.
  • Focus on synergy. Your cards should be interacting with each other to give you an advantage for taking your turn.
  • Make use of artifacts, especially if you’re playing more than one color. Artifacts can be cast with any mana, which can get you through dry patches while you wait to draw more lands.

One more thing to think about when putting your deck together: sideboards. A sideboard is a mini-deck of no more than 15 cards, which you can put into your deck between rounds. In many tournaments, you and your opponent play until one of you has won twice. A sideboard lets you customize your deck between rounds, to adjust for your opponent’s strategy.

My last tip for deck building is simple. Look up decks that other players have built. Tournament-winning decks are regularly posted, and all TCG communities love to talk about their decks. Jump in, and find your place to start.

Check out the other posts in this series:

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