Magic for the Masses: Standard Deck Construction on a Budget

Games Features

Thanks for returning for the second installment of Magic for the Masses. You’ve had a whole month to pick up the basics, and I’m just hoping your games went better than this guy’s:

As promised, we’re going to cover an MTG staple this month: Standard deck construction. The Standard format is one of Magic’s many ways to play—by far its most popular. This is the most up-to-date way to play Magic, so your cousin’s shoebox full of cards from the mid-‘90s are no good here. But if you’ve ever wondered why Magic booster packs seem different every few months, there are a few reasons. First—aside from making bank off of a certain unnamed Paste writer every three months—Wizards of the Coast is constantly changing the gameplay landscape.

Last year we saw the addition of the long-absent morph ability, but we also gained new abilities such as prowess—a temporary, creature-boosting technique triggered by non-creature spells. It turned into the basis of powerful decks based around deceptively strong creatures like Seeker of the Way or Monastery Swiftspear. With every two or three sets of linked expansion sets (known as blocks), the landscape of the game can change drastically—a good thing if you’ve been playing MTG for many years.

The standard format utilizes the two most recent expansion blocks, as well as the most recent core set, which is essentially a set of reprinted cards released to ensure certain staples are still legal in standard play. Currently, here are the expansions in standard play:

Khans of Tarkir Block
Dragons of Tarkir (Released March 27)
Fate Reforged
Khans of Tarkir

Magic 2015 (Core Set)

Theros Block
Journey into Nyx
Born of the Gods

So, we’ve got our expansions in place. We can only use cards that are printed from these series to construct our standard decks. That’s good, because we’re only limited to 1,000 or so cards. And now, we need to narrow our decks down to a minimum of 60 cards. A standard deck may include any number of cards, but the golden rule of standard construction is to, in almost every instance, keep decks to that standard-mandatory minimum. You might assume that more is better, and many novice players do. But above anything Magic is a game of strategy and odds. The more consistent you can make your deck, the more consistent your wins will be. It’s that simple.

So, we’ve narrowed down our expansion blocks. Settled on our number of cards (60! For now, it’s always 60!). Now we start constructing.


Pick Your Colors
Like only utilizing 60 cards in one deck, we also want consistency from our mana base—or the types of land and cards we’ll be using in a given deck. Until the Khans of Tarkir expansion, most winning standard decks relied on one or two colors, but Khans of Tarkir’s introduction of its five clans—Abzan, Jeskai, Mardu, Sultai, Temur—introduced a mostly three-color format that’ll be present probably until the Khans block rotates out. You can read more about those color alignments here. But again—you don’t want a 100-card deck, and you don’t want to be running all five colors. Even if you think Chromanticore is the bee’s knees.

Pick a Strategy
You’re not going to like a movie that lacks theme or structure, and the same goes for Magic decks that win games. All good decks have a set strategy, usually put forth by one or two of your strongest cards. Every other card is added or subtracted to contribute to this one strategy. Do you want to create huge monsters early in the game by ramping up your mana? Do you want to control your opponent’s every move? Do you want to beat your friend down with a little army of goblins? This isn’t just about pulling out all your standard-legal cards and throwing them in a pile. Now’s the time to pull out every card that you have that contributes to this theme. Set those aside.

Develop Your Tempo
Once you’ve found a strategy, developed a mana base and picked out your cards, the next move is taking a look at your mana curve. It sounds awful to figure out—like it involves a graphing calculator or something—but this is actually the opposite.

To look at your mana curve, simply lay out your cards in front of you in rows and sort them by converted mana cost. Cards of one mana cost should be laid out in one row (make sure you can at least see the name and mana cost of every card) all the way up to your highest-costing card, which could be as high as eight in the current standard format. Every deck’s curve is different, but it’s here where you need to assess a few things, like will you be able to get cards out early in the game? Are your mana costs distributed evenly enough so you’ll have things to do on your first, second, third, (God forbid) 10th turn?

As I said before, you might be throwing out a Monastery Swiftspear on turn one if you’re being aggressive, but certain control decks might not drop creatures until turn six—I’ve had a lot of success using Silumgar, the Drifting Death in a blue/black control deck this way—but you have to make sure the curve is working in your favor. The current landscape is filled with aggressive decks that are meant to beat you down by turn five or six, so it’s important that you’re able to make sure you’re also coming out swinging consistently with whatever strategy you’re using.

Playtest, playtest, playtest
Your first few decks probably aren’t going to be groundbreaking when considering strategy, but you’ll learn more from these than just playing with a sure-thing deck. See what your opening hands look like. Do you have fast, effective moves on your first turns? Can you close out a game reliably? If not, it might be back to the drawing board. And start hacking your weak links accordingly. Before you know it, you’ll have a well-oiled machine of a standard deck.

I’ve included deck lists for five different standard options below—all that I’ve play tested and had some fun with. And while you can drop hundreds of dollars into a standard deck, that’s not quite our speed yet, right? These decks aren’t perfect in the standard landscape, but most importantly, they’re great introductions to the strategies seen in standard right now. Even better, the lists below can all be purchased for less than $50.


Temur Ascendancy Combo Budget Deck
Colors: Green, Blue, Red
Maybe it wasn’t the most consistent clan at the beginning of the Khans block, but the green, blue and red Temur combo deck has been putting in work nationwide since a certain combo was discovered earlier this year. The Temur Ascendancy Combo relies on many cards, which doesn’t make for the most consistent deck in the world. But when it goes off, it’s devastating. The main player here is Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which for two mana, allows you to add a number of mana equal to your devotion to a certain color. Devotion simply means the number of green mana symbols on your battlefield that are not attributed to lands, so we’ll see that number ramp up quickly with cards like Boon Satyr, Elvish Mystic, Temur Sabertooth and Voyaging Satyr. And if the combo doesn’t line up in your favor, you’re still in good shape to hack away at your opponent.

How to play the combo
1. Play Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.
2. Play Voyaging Satyr, which can tap to untap another target permanent.
3. Play Temur Ascendancy, which gives all creatures haste.
4. Play Temur Sabertooth, which for two mana allows you to return another creature to your hand.
5. Tap Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx to add your devotion to green t0 your mana pool. Let’s say you have a Voyaging Satyr, a Boon Satyr, a Temur Sabertooth and a Temur Ascendancy on the playing field. You will tap for six mana from Nykthos. Tap Voyaging Satyr to untap Nykthos, pay two mana and tap it again. You now have 10 mana in your mana pool. Use Temur Sabertooth’s ability to return Voyaging Satyr to your hand for two mana, and cast her again for one mana. Untap Nykthos again with your Voyaging Satyr (she’s got haste, remember?)
6. Repeat this as many times as you like. You can essentially generate infinite mana this way. Then drop one of your crazy hydras—Genesis Hydra or Hydra Broodmaster—and get ready to swing through for a stupid amount of damage. This can also be devastating with a red card called Crater’s Claws, which deals X damage to a target creature or player, X being the amount of mana paid for it.

4 – Boon Satyr
4 – Elvish Mystic
2 – Genesis Hydra
1 – Hornet Queen
2 – Hydra Broodmaster
3 – Karametra’s Acolyte
2 – Prophet of Kruphix
4 – Temur Sabertooth
4 – Voyaging Satyr

2 – Crater’s Claws
4 – Temur Ascendancy

4 – Frontier Bivouac
4 – Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
12 – Forest
3 – Swiftwater Cliffs


Jeskai Budget Deck
Aside from the Mardu warriors deck below, this is the most aggressive deck in this set. It revolves around getting prowess-triggered creatures out early in the game and hitting your enemy with cheap burn spells to boot. If you’re looking for a fast way to take down your enemy, here’s a great option. Plus, Goblin Rabblemaster is one of the most-played red cards in standard. A few plays through with this deck, you’ll understand why. And he’s just made more powerful by quick drops like Goblinslide and Dragon Fodder, both of which also boost your creatures with prowess abilities. I also tossed in a new Dragons of Tarkir card for fun—Descent of the Dragons. Maybe it’s not the most mana-efficient card for this deck, but you really can’t beat the feeling of turning 12 goblin tokens into 4/4 flying dragons.

2 – Goblin Rabblemaster
4 – Monastery Swiftspear
4 – Seeker of the Way

4 – Arc Lightning
1 – Descent of the Dragons
2 – Dragon Fodder
2 – Goblinslide
4 – Hordeling Outburst
4 – Jeskai Charm
4 – Jeskai Ascendency
4 – Lightning Strike

12 – Mountain
4 – Mystic Monastery
5 – Plains
4 – Tranquil Cove


Waste Not Combo Budget Deck
Waste Not was a good card without a consistent application until the Fate Reforged expansion was released this year. The card, which allows you to benefit from extra mana, 2/2 zombie tokens or card draws when your opponents’ discard cards, only worked in standard play from cards like Despise and Thoughtseize—both staples in black control decks. But the solution for a Waste Not-focused deck was Fate Reforged’s Dark Deal, a card that forces opponents to discard the cards in their hand and then draw a new hand with one fewer card. If you’ve got a Waste Not down, you’re usually walking out of the transaction with a ton of 2/2 zombies, a fresh hand of cards and a ton of mana to do whatever you want with.

Here’s a mono-black take on that Waste Not idea, now with the very essential Fate Unraveler/Damnable Pact combo, which will have your opponents dreading every card draw. The Waste Not combo is interesting because it essentially controls control-based decks. No good hand is safe, and you’re not going to get away playing cards like Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time. It’s a great strategy in standard construction.

4 – Black Cat
3 – Fate Unraveler
4 – Mardu Skullhunter
4 – Master of the Feast

4 – Bile Blight
2 – Damnable Pact
4 – Dark Deal
4 – Despise
3 – Duress
2 – Empty the Pits
4 – Waste Not

22 – Swamp


Mardu Warriors Budget Deck
If you have a limited range of interests that includes bludgeoning your opponents in brawny packs, consider the Mardu clan as your best option in standard play. This warrior-heavy group relies on every creature in your deck, and with obscenely cheap casting costs, you’ll be building up to a bloody victory quickly. The best part about this deck? It’s so cheap to start. Consider upgrading with a few Brimaz, King of Oreskos on your next paycheck.

4 – Battle Brawler
4 – Blood-Chin Fanatic
4 – Blood-Chin Rager
4 – Bloodsoaked Champion
2 – Brutal Hordechief
4 – Chief of the Edge
4 – Mardu Shadowspear

4 – Crackling Doom
4 – Lightning Strike
4 – Mardu Charm

4 – Mountain
4 – Nomad Outpost
4 – Plains
10 – Swamp

Good luck with these decks, and make sure to come back next month for a crash course on booster drafting.

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