I decided to make a guide on my thought processes when theorycrafting and building a deck. I am just one guy with one opinion who enjoys building unique decks, so this is not an end all-be all guide by any means, but I do hope that it will help some of you to create your own unique decks!
I will be going through 7 main steps that I consider when building a deck from scratch:
- Theorycrafting a Deck Concept
- What is my deck’s win condition?
- Does every card in my deck contribute to the deck theme and my win condition?
- Card Draw
- Tech Cards
- Testing the Deck Out
1. Theorycrafting a deck concept
This is the fun part! Coming up with a deck idea can take a lot of critical thinking skills and finding hidden synergies that others might not think of. A lot of this comes from just playing the game and noticing interesting interactions between cards, or taking a look at a card that sees no play and trying to find out a scenario where it could be useable.
The starting deck concept can be as simple as “I want to run orcs because orcs are cool and have a lot of tribal synergy”, or it can be as complicated as “I noticed that Relentless Raider will OTK someone if you can get five of them in play at once” or “I noticed that Soulrest Marshall into Wispmother will create two Wispmothers”. Other concepts can spawn from smaller things like, “Fiery Imp and Reive get double the effects of Thieves Den because they damage the opponent twice when they attack”, or even can come from just a single card effect like Dres Tormentor turning Shackle effects into damage.
Frustration is key to theorycrafting! Sometimes you might be frustrated that you lose a game to Soulrest Marshall into Soulrest Marshall into Blood Dragon on turn 4, or maybe you are frustrated because you are losing to Ice Storms or Manticoras consistently from Mages, or maybe you are stuck on why Scout Ramp decks are beating your deck so frequently. This frustration often times produces the BEST deck theorycrafting, as it can lead you towards a solution to “counter the meta.”
A few weeks ago I was frustrated especially by huge Soulrest Marshall turns, so I thought to myself “how can I prevent this from happening?”. Turns out the text on Soulrest Marshall provides the answer: If you have more health than the opponent, the next card you play costs 6 less. This text means nothing if you can consistently have more health than they do, so I decided to theorycraft a Battlemage Aggro deck that would go face non-stop from turn one and prevent any health activators from Archer decks. I took that deck to number 5 legend at the time, mainly because it countered the meta and was unexpected.
Another example: Control Mage decks were ruining my life on Legend Ladder. Control Mage’s win condition comes from having a card advantage, which comes from being able to clear the board consistently with AOE removal spells and powerful single target removal. I theorycrafted a Control Assassin deck heavy on card draw with strong last gasp effects to combo with Necrom Mastermind. I did this so that I could 1. Be able to cycle well to avoid losing to the card advantage of Mage, and 2. Be able to create a “sticky” board with last gasp effects, as well as produce more value from the cards I was playing to counter the Mage’s removal. I tested the deck out against my good friend Blackfall, a consistent top 10 legend Control Mage player, and was able to beat his Control Mage every time with my new deck.
TL;dr: Theorycrafting a deck is an essential first step of deck design, which can come from tribal synergy, inter-card synergy, or frustration with losing to a strong meta deck.
2. What is my deck’s win condition?
This is a question that must be answered for every deck you create. There are a lot of possible answers to this question, but every deck you create must have a clear win condition. This win condition will normally fit into one of three archetype “shells”: Aggro, Midrange/Tempo, Control. Lets look at these basic deck archetypes coupled with some generalized answers/thought processes:
This type of deck has the clearest win condition: win the game by turn 6-8. In order to do this, I need to be sure that I play a lot of 1, 2, and 3 magicka cards so that in any given game I will be able to play an aggressively-statted card on all three turns. An Aggro deck’s curve as a result will generally look something like this:
With about 27/50 of my cards being 0/1/2 magicka cards, I can heavily increase my chances that I get a creature or two in play on curve every turn. Of course there are those bad games where you end up with a hand full of your 5-6 magicka cards after the mulligan, but card games are all about playing your odds. By aggressively statting your curve you can increase your odds of being able to execute your game plan on a consistent basis.
For those who come from a background of playing Hearthstone, you are very familiar with the dominance of Midrange/Tempo style decks. These types of decks rely on consistently pressuring an opponent with tempo to create situations that the other opponent does not have the resources to deal with. (Think Secret Paladin, Midrange Hunter, Tempo Mage, Tempo Warrior from Hearthstone).
Tempo is a more difficult concept to build a deck around (difficult to create, easy to pilot), and requires a good knowledge and feel for how games will typically play out. Midrange Tempo decks revolve around playing cards for their maximum value relative to card cost. This can come in the form of overstatted minions, like Young Mammoth (4/4 for 3 magicka), and also is usually coupled with some form of cheap removal (Finish Off: 2 magicka vs Piercing Javelin: 5 magicka).
The most popular tempo deck on TESL ladder today is of course the Tempo Archer decks. These are successful because they combine cheap removal with huge tempo turns like playing Soulrest Marshall into Blood Dragon, Jarl, or a Quinrawl Burgler. The win condition for Archer is clearly Tempo, and it is Midrange because of the type of curve and magicka cost of its win condition.
A Midrange/Tempo deck’s curve will generally look something like this:
Notice the difference between this and an aggro curve: more emphasis on the 2-3-4-5 slots, with a few 7+ cards to finish the game.
The main win condition of control is card advantage. Lets take a look at a staple card from Control Mage as an example: Ice Storm. It’s turn 7, the Aggro or Midrange deck has dumped the last couple of cards from their hand, and you are able to Firebolt a 4 health minion and use Ice Storm to clear the entire board. This leaves your opponent with no cards in his/her hand, while you have 5-6 cards. Now that your opponent is in “top deck mode”, you are able to execute your late game plan by playing more expensive costed creatures.
Control decks rely on card advantage, and usually are full of survival cards such as heals, drain, guards, board clears, and single target removal. They also usually include more 7+ cards because their deck is built to survive until the late game (turns 10-12) where they can use their expensive creatures to end the game.
A Control deck’s curve will usually look something like this:
Notice that the deck has many more 6-7+ costed cards compared to Midrange/Aggro decks.
The last general deck archetype is Combo, usually built to play anywhere from 2-6 cards at once to end the game either through OTK or by creating a board that is impossible for any deck to deal with in one turn. I will discuss more about Combo decks later in the guide.
3. Does every card in my deck contribute to the deck theme and my win condition?
This is a question that you will have to ask yourself after you put the main pieces of your deck together. Take each card individually and ask yourself this question: “Does this card contribute to my win condition?”. If it feels like it might not, ask yourself “What other card could better contribute to my win condition?”. Sometimes you may have to scrap an entire attribute to be able to utilize more consistent options elsewhere.
Sometimes cards may have conditions built within them, such as the “Ally” cards. You may have to ask yourself “Do I have enough blue cards in my deck to consistently activate my Cunning Ally?”. If you don’t, you may have to remove the card from your deck or alter your deck to be able to more consistently utilize the card.
Combo decks are the most black and white decks to Q/A. While I was building a version of the Wispmother/Relentless Raider OTK deck, I went through this process a hundred times trying to find the right cards to compliment my win condition. The win condition is very clear for the OTK: 4 cards total, Wispmother + 3 Relentless Raider. Every other card in the deck had to contribute to that win condition, and involved finding the right balance between guard minions, more card cycle to get through my deck faster, more board clears to survive longer, and in the end resulted in including 3 copies of “Brilliant Experiment” to be able to duplicate portions of the OTK combo to achieve it more consistently.
You may have just opened a pack and got a nice shiny legendary like Miraak. Does this mean you put it into every single yellow deck you have now? — NO. As you are adding any card to your deck ask yourself: “Does Miraak contribute to my win condition?”. Unless you are running a late game control deck, that answer is usually no.
One type of card that almost always needs be included in a deck is removal. There are many types of single target and AOE removal in the game, and every deck excels at a different type. For example, Intelligence excels at AOE removal but suffers a bit with single target removal. Willpower excels at single target removal, but lacks cheaper AOE. After dinner and some Netflix and Chill, we have the birth of Control Mage that combines the best from both worlds.
One clear example of single target removal that we have all come across is “Piercing Javelin”. It’s a great card in a lot of midrange and control Willpower decks. However, there are other types of removal in the game that may better compliment a token Willpower deck. Token decks may benefit more from cards like “Imprison” in conjunction with “Imperial Reinforcements” or maybe including a few “Daedric Dagger” to be able to trade one token into a 6 mana card to keep tempo.
Silence is another form of removal. There are many cards in the game that rely on their card text to be worthwhile, such as “Fighter’s Guild Recruit” and it’s “Lethal, Guard” text. Silence is also a good way to shut down cards with strong text effects like “Breton Conjurer”.
Archer decks profit from cheap removal in the form of “Finish Off”, “Leaflurker”, or “Lethal” effects on cards. Because these finish off effects are an Archer Deck’s form of removal, it then includes lots of ways to activate their removal by using cards like “Sharpshooter Scout” or “Skaven Pyromancer”.
Ramp Scout Decks usually rely on big guard minions as a passive form of removal to be able to absorb 2-3 smaller creatures before dying. Red Aggro Decks rely on cards like “Burn and Pillage” to be able to clear the board after breaking 3-4 runes. Intelligence decks often times rely on damaging actions and board clears to remove creatures.
At this stage, take a look at your deck and ask yourself, “What type of removal am I using?” Then ask yourself, “Is there a better form of removal that I could be using that fits in with my win condition?”
5. Card Draw
Every deck must also include some form of Card Draw. Card Draw is a premium in this game due to the Rune System providing passive card draw throughout the game, but it is still important in any viable deck.
One example of choosing appropriate card draw is looking at a card’s strengths and weaknesses. I have recently been tinkering with a Tempo Monk deck that looks to be aggressive in the early game and finish with “Soulrest Marshall” combo’d into “Haafinger Marauders” or “Golden Saints”. After playtesting the deck, I realized that “Varanis Courier” was not going to be the ideal form of card draw in my deck, and chose to swap it out for “Eastmarch Crusader” to be able to have a more aggressive body (4/2 vs 1/3) while still providing me with card draw. This led to me being able to keep my health higher than my opponents so that I could more consistently activate my Soulrest Marshall and Golden Saint.
Likewise, it would not make much sense for me to run “Disciple of Namira” in a non-token deck, as I would rarely be able to activate it for more than one card.
Take a look at your deck and ask yourself if you have enough card draw to achieve your win condition. Also ask yourself if there is a better form of card draw that you could utilize to better compliment the style of deck you are playing.
6. Tech Cards
Tech cards are usually 1-4 total cards that you include in your deck to be able to increase your win percentage against another deck archetype that you are commonly losing to on ladder. For example, Support removal cards like “Vicious Dreugh” are very good to add to your deck if you are commonly losing to decks with “Divine Fervor” or other strong support cards.
I found myself a couple weeks ago playing Control Mage and facing other Control Mages often on Ladder. I was frustrated because I was losing the mirror match consistently. As a result, I decided to add in some Control vs. Control tech cards like “Miraak” or “Orb of Vaermina” that are generally bad against aggressive decks, but very good against Control mirror matches, and found that I won much more often.
Tech cards are usually a double-edged sword though, as they are targeting a specific matchup and leave you more vulnerable in other matchups. For this reason, it is generally not a good idea to include more than a few tech cards in your deck.
7. Testing the deck out
Sometimes you get lucky and nail the deck idea on the first try! More realistically, it takes playtesting the deck over and over again against a variety of matchups to be able to see what is working in your deck, and what may need tweaking.
Pay attention to your hand during the course of a match. Is a card consistently feeling “dead” in your hand? If it is, it probably needs to be cut from your deck. If that “dead” card is your win condition, you probably need to go through the rest of your deck and cut cards that aren’t helping you achieve your win condition.
Playtesting is something that takes a lot of time. It is not something you can do in one game. If you get absolutely destroyed the first match you play, don’t give up on your deck idea. Every single deck in the game, no matter how optimized, can get completely blown out of the water by a bad hand or by an absolutely perfect hand from your opponent. Give your deck 10-15 games and see what cards are working for you and which ones aren’t regularly performing before you go back to the drawing board.
Last night, I was continuing to tweak my Tempo Monk deck idea meant to out-tempo Archer. I succeeded at consistently beating the Archer matchup, but found myself losing every single match against Control Mage. This means I have too many tech cards in my deck to target Archer, and I need to add more late game threats to win the Mage matchup. Of course, no deck will have a good matchup against everything, but if you find yourself 100% losing against a specific decktype, it is probably because your deck needs a little more optimizing.
Losing to Aggro? Add in more guards/heals/drains.
Losing to Midrange/Tempo? Add in more solid 2-3-4 drops to contest the board before it gets out of control.
Losing to Control? Add in more late game threats, or make your deck “faster” and more aggressive by adding more 1-2-3 drops and more card draw to beat them before they get to their key turns 9-12.
Losing to Support Cards? Add in Support Removal.
Losing to Token decks? Add in more board clears.
Losing to Ramp/Scout decks? Add more single target removal.
If you have read this far, thank you! I hope that you all can take at least one thing from this guide to better improve your deck building skills.
I used to netdeck when I started playing Hearthstone because it was my first exposure to card games and I had no clue how to properly build a deck. Over time, I started to evaluate the decks I was netdecking to see why they worked so well, or what they could improve on. Skip forward a few years, and now I can build a deck from scratch in a heartbeat! This is something that takes time and experience, but I am 100% sure anyone can do it. And there is no better feeling than beating up on everyone with a brand new deck you made yourself.
I usually run a “deck doctor” stream on Saturdays for those who want more input or a second opinion on how to improve their homemade decks, so if you are interested come stop by!
Thanks again guys, catch you later on Twitch.