Trading card games are about trading cards so that you can build the perfect deck that will take down your opponents. Whether it’s Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone, or Pokemon, I’ve realized that there are some general truths regardless of the specific TCG. I can never claim to be an expert at actually building decks that will win a big competition, but the lessons below have helped me improve my game significantly.
When designing a TCG you should start by thinking about what your core strategy or play style will be. Do you want to be mainly defensive? Cause big damage? Is there a specific game mechanic you want to exploit? What sort of strategy are you trying to defeat with this deck?
A deck can’t just be a random collection of cards. It has to have a plan, and making broad decisions about how you want to approach the game is very important.
Some TCGs have a fixed starting deck size. For example, in Hearthstone your deck must be exactly 30 cards. In the Pokemon TCG this number is exactly 60. Magic the Gathering brings an entirely new strategic aspect with its deck size. While the deck may be no less than 60 cards, it can be as big as you want as long as you can shuffle the deck without assistance.
It’s very important to keep the deck size in mind, since it has a prime influence on the odds of a given card showing up when you draw. In many games the figure is fixed, but in Magic you really need a good reason to have a bigger deck.
It also matters when the mana or other energy system is part of the deck. In Hearthstone mana advances every turn using a separate counter. In Magic your mana is shuffled into your deck, so you also have to take into account the odds of getting the mana draw you need.
An issue that goes hand-in-hand with deck size is the limit on how many copies you can have. In Magic you can have four copies of a card in total. That makes a big difference to the odds that you’ll draw a specific card from the deck. In a game like Magic where your mana is also drawn from the deck, tradeoffs have to be made. Generally, the recommendation is to have 24 lands (cards that make mana) in a 60-card deck. That means there’s about a 40% chance that you’ll draw a mana card next. Of course, if you draw a non-mana card you increase the odds that the next card will be a mana card. As the deck depletes, all the draw odds change. The idea here is to draw a mana every second or third turn on average. If you put too many lands in your deck, then you run the risk of sitting with lots of mana but no creatures or spells. Put too few in and you have the opposite problem.
The same goes for copies of other cards. Let’s say you put four creatures into a 60-card deck. That means you have a 1-in-15 chance to draw a copy. If you only put two in the deck, it’s 1-in-30. If you need that card to execute a particular strategy, you want as many copies as allowed.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that often a given creature or spell has an equivalent that does basically the same thing under another name. If you can find a substitution card, it means you can have eight cards in your deck that will work for your strategy. Now the odds of getting the card you need is 1-in-7.5. By carefully managing the number of copies you put into your deck, you can increase the odds that you will get your killer combos.
This brings us to the concept of card “synergy”. While that word has become a joke in the world of corporate marketing speak, in TCGs it’s very important. Cards have synergy when their powers combine into something far more powerful.
Synergies between cards are at the core of any TCG deck strategy. When you design your deck you should be thinking about all the ways the cards you choose can work together. Two cards played together might make them both much more powerful than the total cost of playing them would allow. Some synergies let you play big creatures or do repetitive damage early in the game before your opponent has enough mana or creatures to respond.
The card synergies of some combos as so strong that they get banned in future forms of standard play. The holy grail of building a deck is finding such a powerful game-breaking combo before anyone else and then keeping it to yourself for as long as possible.
It’s also important not to be inflexible with your synergies. Don’t, for example, just have cards paired up with synergies. Any given card should synergize with two or more cards, which means you’ll always have some sort of strategy regardless of the draw you get. If your deck has a healthy number of three-way synergies in it, all the better.
The “speed” of a deck generally means how quickly the strategies built into it can be executed. TCGs have an early, mid, and late game. Usually the resources you need (mana, energy, etc.) build up as the game progresses, meaning if you have a lot of high-cost, high-impact cards you need to stay alive until you can use them. That’s a slow deck. A fast deck would use cards with low cost or some other mechanism to get things going much sooner in the game. Thinking about where you want to balance a given deck’s speed is an important consideration and should fit the overall strategy you’re trying to create.
TCGs fit into some sort of fictional world, which means it’s usually a world with several themes. A themed deck is one that limits its cards to one or another recognizable theme in the game. This isn’t necessarily a limit imposed by the rules of the game, but by the player who wants a certain sort of artistic flair. Themed decks are awesome, but you should think about the loss of flexibility when choosing which cards to put into your deck.
Testing Your Deck
No matter how well you think your deck works in theory, you need to test it in actual game play before you can have any confidence in it. One way is to actually take it into play against other players, although you probably don’t want to tweak and experiment in an actual tournament. So try some casual play or software, which I’ll get to now.
Deck Building Tools
Designing a deck has become quite the art. Top players will go through legal cards, looking to build the perfect synergy and grand strategies. With thousands of cards for most big TCGs out there, how exactly can they manage this?
When Magic first came out, most people didn’t have access to a complete catalog of all cards in existence. You bought as many packs as you could afford, built the best deck you could with the cards you had, and played with people. Players showed their collections to each other and traded for cards that they thought would be useful.
Now, with the internet and instant sharing of, well, anything, you can craft your perfect deck without having to buy a single card. How can this be? Well, almost any TCG that’s popular enough will have a complete catalog of cards online, which means you can research exactly the cards you want to get for your deck.
That’s already making it much easier to raise your game, but things go further than that. There are full-on deck simulators for games like MTG, YuGiOh, Pokemon TCG, and more. The features of these simulators do vary, but in general they help you figure out how a deck will perform.
You can see the statistical properties of your deck – how fast it is, what the mana curve is, and more. Anyone who wants to play a TCG at a serious level basically has to use tools like these. Doing it the traditional way is just too tedious and inefficient.
Another internet-related development is the sharing of deck “recipes”. These are decks that are listed for other people to copy and experiment with. Instead of trying to invent a whole deck with strategies and synergy yourself, you can build on what others have done. Start with a deck recipe that appeals to you and then modify it as time goes on.
Most deck recipes come with a description of how it’s intended to play – what sorts of decks it’s good against and so on. That doesn’t mean you can’t discover new ways to use existing deck designs. The world is your oyster!
Buying Cards from a Store
Knowing which cards you need is just one part of the puzzle. Now that you know the cards you need for building your deck, you have to go out and find them! One obvious place is your local comic book store or hobby shop.
Buying sealed booster packs isn’t what I suggest you do, though. Most shops like these will buy TCG cards and then sell them used. They keep the cards in big folders and will list what they have in stock. Smaller shops will simply let you browser the folder. This means you can just buy the exact cards you need, provided the shop in question has them.
The main advantage of buying loose cards in-person is that you can inspect the condition of the card yourself. You can also make sure that you get what you pay for. The main disadvantage is that some rare cards are just never going to end up at your local shop.
Buying Cards Online
If you want to be 100% sure that you will get the cards you are looking for, then buying them online from various retailers and directly from users is the only way. This is also how you’ll get the best prices, since you can compare many copies of the same cards.
On the other hand, you’re up against everyone else who wants the same card, so that can have the opposite effect when a card is rare and sought after. Still, I much prefer buying online, as long as you do some homework and get buyer protection where available.
Although it’s less efficient, you can still trade online the cards that you have for ones you want. There are forums where players put up cards to trade and then send them to each other. Personally, I think that just buying them directly is easier, but trading can be fun. There’s a site called Pucatrade that awards you points for any cards you send to them equal to their trade value. You can then redeem these against cards that other players have submitted.
Half the Fun
Collecting cards and playing the actual game are obviously two big draws in TCG games, but building and designing decks can be a rewarding experience all by itself. Designing something that takes the game by storm and changes the metagame completely is the holy grail of deck design. With the right tools, that might just be you!