I play Divination! It allows me to draw two cards from my deck.
So, you've learned how to play Magic: the Gathering. You're able to play with casual decks without asking about the phases of a turn or if damage stays on a creature like in Hearthstone. But the preconstructed deck you play isn't lighting up your fire anymore. You've replaced Coastal Towers by Sejiri Refuges for the sick life gain. You've changed the Elvish Mystics for Llanowar Elves for the old-school flavor. It's just not enough. You want to flex your brain muscles and come up with a deck to call your own. You just don't know where to start.
I can help with that.
First, let's look at two different ways to play the game that encourage proper deck building instead of copying whatever's popular online.
Drafting is a subset of what we call "sealed" or "limited" gameplay. The deck building is part of the gameplay experience, and it favors quick decision making and flexible thinking. Drafting requires three booster packs of 15 cards per player. Each player needs to construct a 40 card deck before duels can begin, with the usual balance being 23 spells from the booster packs mixed with 17 basic lands.
There are two types of draftings. Regular drafts have players paying for their booster packs and keeping anything they open. Phantom drafts have one of the players paying the entire upfront cost. All the cards belong to them afterward of course.
2 player drafting (Winston drafts)
Open all six booster packs, then remove the last two cards (token and basic land) of each without looking at the rest. If you remove a card that's not a token or a basic land during this process, put it back in! All the booster packs should be shuffled together in a huge pile.
Now that you have a huge tower of face-down magic the gathering card, make three piles of one card each that lead to the tower of cards. Each player takes turns doing the following.
The two players won't have the same number of cards at the end, so make sure you draw large enough piles to make a 40-card deck! Winston drafts rarely lead to powerful creations, but your opponent is in the same boat as you.
3+ player drafting
Each player starts by opening one of their three booster packs. Look at all the cards inside, then keep a single card and pass the rest of the pack to the player to their left. Once a pack is received from another player, pick another card and pass the rest along! Once the original booster pack of every player has been shared, another pack is opened but this one is passed to the right. The final pack of each player is passed to the left once more, the players make a deck with the cards they've kept.
This may appear simple at first, but drafting is actually very rewarding for skilled players. After getting a feel for the table, you can go for riskier picks if you feel like the card you want the most won't be picked before a pack returns to you, for example.
If you're looking for guidelines for a first draft, the general idea is for the cards in your final deck to have an average of 2 to 3 mana cost. As for deciding which cards to pick, take a look at the BREAD method to get a feel for card quality.
What's a cube draft?
Cube drafts are the same as regular drafts in all ways but one! Instead of buying sealed Magic the Gathering boosters at several dollars a piece, an existing collection of Magic cards is used instead. Set aside 360 cards with an equal spread of colors, and you can use this to build yourself random booster packs when it's time to draft. It's as simple as that!
Commander is a multiplayer constructed format. Everyone needs a 100 card deck that includes a general, kept aside from the rest of the cards. The general must be a legendary creature, and the colors appearing on the card (in the general's mana cost or its text box) are the only colors of cards you're allowed to put in your deck. Take Sigarda above, for example. Since the only colors appearing on her card are green and white, only green and white identity cards are allowed when using her as your general.
We'll get to the gameplay significance of the general in a moment. Let's focus on the other gameplay differences in Commander first. Decks are only allowed a copy of each card (except basic lands and cards that explicitly ignore rules about duplicates). Discounting the roughly 40 lands, that's at least 60 unique cards you have to find.
Due to the inherent randomness and chaos of Commander, deckbuilding should look more at general synergies than specific card combos. The format becomes a lot more casual as a result, so decks that aim for flavor instead of card quality are encouraged (especially with games with more than two players).
Let's look at Sigarda again. She protects humans. So I made a Commander deck with her as my general that's called "Under Her Divine Protection".
And it's a ton of fun to play. The great thing with Commander decks is that you can start with a legendary creature that you really, really like... And the rest just flows naturally from the card's flavor.
If you're looking for resources to get an idea of what a completed Commander deck looks like, there are a few resources for that. EDHRec is a community-driven website that shows cards that are often paired together. There are a lot of expensive cards on there, but it should give you an idea of what to look for. Otherwise, Hasbro sells ready-to-play Commander decks every year, and they're quite fun to play! I'm especially fond of "Built from Scratch", a red artifact deck that loves destroying its own stuff and bringing it back.
By now, I bet you're frothing at the mouth to make a deck you can call your own. A deck that can have as many weeks of planning as you feel it needs. A deck that's all you, free from the influence of randomness or worse, another person's touch.
There's just one question left unanswered.
And it's a difficult question to answer. Cards can drastically change in usefulness depending on the environment, or metagame, that they're being used in. An article by Channel Fireball called "What if the 4-Card Limit Was Abolished in Modern" gives an excellent example of how card games tend to stabilize in terms of power.
The article begins with a simple idea. If you could have as many of any card as you want in a deck, the first thing that comes to mind is building a deck that can always win as the game begins. It turns out that a card exists that deals 3 damage on the first turn if it's in your opening hand! Fill your deck with that card and then you're guaranteed to do 21 damage on your first turn, winning the game. Decks would come up that would deal the damage before the Chancellors can. As a result, decks that would prevent damage before the start of the game would rise to the top, even if the rest of the deck was mediocre... Yet these life-gain decks would lose to traditional decks that would have been decimated by the first two examples.
Cards do not exist in a vacuum, which thankfully means a lot of cards have a place to call home. This does not mean that every card deserves time in the spotlight, however, so there are a few general ideas you can rely on.
Versatility is extremely valuable.
One of the cards above is so strong it defines the formats it is legal in, despite originally being printed at the common rarity. Another of them has been banned in Modern and Legacy formats, leaving it only playable in the anything-goes Vintage and Commander formats. The last one is a 10/10 for 5.
There's no worse feeling than drawing a card that cannot be played for several turns, except maybe drawing a card that has outlived its usefulness. That's why cards that are able to adapt to the situation are so good. A good question to ask yourself is "in what situation would I be happy to draw this card?".
Let's do the exercise with Brainstorm, the card on the left.
As you can see, Brainstorm fixes the cards you draw and is a potent defensive ability all at once. With it, the top of your library can be seen as both a graveyard and a safe zone. That's versatility. That's powerful.
This simple concept can be seen in many aspects of Magic. Split cards. Modal cards. Cards with variable cost. Planeswalkers. Individual effects may be inefficient for the mana cost compared to cards that would let you cast them by themselves. And yet, the ability to be relevant to the game in many more situations make these cards stand out above the rest.
Versatility isn't necessarily tied to the number of words. Let's take a look at two other cards before we move on to the next tip: Lightning Bolt and Healing Grace.
Lightning Bolt just deals 3 damage. Healing Grace heals you and a thing of your choice for three. That's a difference of three life versus a difference of six life, both for the same mana cost of 1. Despite this, Lightning Bolt is considered one of the best spells of all time and the latter is garbage that will cost you three cents online. Let's try the previous exercise.
Lightning Bolt is generally a card you love having in your hand. It can destroy creatures and it can kill through burn damage. You can cast it at any time because the card does not need setup. Healing Grace is only playable when it has something to protect. On top of that, it's a card that forces you to keep a mana source available to protect your cards when needed. For comparison, Giant Growth also has a similar protection effect by granting three toughness to a creature, but it's much better for similar reasons to Lightning Bolt. It can kill bigger creatures while protecting your creature during combat, or it can be used as burst damage to kill an opponent.
Healing Grace is only good against opponents with burst damage, which you have to be ready for. Despite all this, the reward isn't worth how narrow it is -- having a three life advantage over the player on the offense. It's a stalling card that requires setup. Talk about a deceptively narrow effect!
This brings us to...
Life gain is worse than you think.
Gaining life does not win you a game. It makes you lose one more slowly. There are multiple reasons for that, but the main three are as follows:
For these reasons, gaining life is usually only a valid option when attached to permanents that do something else. When you play a creature that gains you life, it's also a way to prevent the enemy from smashing your face in every turn. When you gain life purely to gain life, with no additional benefit, something isn't right with the deck you're playing.
On the flip side, this is also why cards that trade life points for resources, usually by drawing cards, tend to be absolutely busted. As long as you don't lose that final point, anything that can help you win more reliably is pure gas.
Symmetrical effects are very good.
This is similar to the first advice, but since these cards tend to be underestimated by new players I figured I would add a distinct category for this. The first reflex of a new player is to go "meh, I'm paying the mana and discarding a card just to do something that affects me as much as them! All players lose life, or all creatures are destroyed, or everyone discards their hand and draws seven cards. Shouldn't I play cards that advantage me more than the others?
Your next thoughts should be about why these cards advantage you more than the others.
Symmetrical effects are generally amazing while you're losing, and those are the moments when you need amazing cards the most. And they're even better when there are more than two players at a time.
Let's take a four-player Commander game. You play a card to destroy an opponent's best creature. That player is severely handicapped as a result. You've handicapped yourself too by playing a card and paying mana. The real winners here are the two players that were unaffected. Symmetrical effects would have affected everyone, so you could be getting value from three opponents with the same card!
If you have fun playing your deck, you've already won.
We're all trying to have fun, after all. It doesn't matter if your janky combo idea only has a 10% chance of getting off the ground. It'll look really, really awesome when it works. Recently, I finished off my little brother in a match and he went "uhhh ACTUALLY I had 80 life left all along". My deck was too fun to play, and we were both sure he had no way of coming back so I let him have his 80 bonus points. The genuine motherfucker actually turned things around and stole all my creatures! We both started laughing when he attacked once with my entire fleet of creatures to win the game.
So the best tip I can give it to make your deck yours. Try wacky ideas. Experiment with all kinds of stuff. Fill your deck with life gain. Only play cards drawn by a specific artist. Leave your win condition out of the deck for a laugh. Steal every Magic card in existence (warning: that's probably not legal).
Common wisdom is your starting point. After that, it's up to you to decide if you're defined by common wisdom or not. That's what brewing mastery is all about.