Shower Thoughts: Budget Deck Building Guide

Benjamin Levin • July 13, 2023

The Underworld Cookbook | Illustrated by Joe Slucher
The Deck of Many Things | Illustrated by Volkan Baǵa

Welcome to another installment of Shower Thoughts, the budget Commander series that proves that Magic isn't pay-to-win. Deckbuilding, or brewing, is one of the most complex and daunting aspects of Magic, regardless of the format. In this week's article, I'm going to show you the tools I use along with my general deckbuilding template. If you have tips, or tricks, or just plain disagree with me, let me know down below. Without further ado, let's get into it!

From Net-Decker to Brewer

To be clear, I don't think net-decking is wrong or you're a better player if you brew. Heck, you can both net deck and brew at the same time; these options aren't mutually exclusive. For instance, you might find a list online that clicks with you, but you don't have all the cards on hand, so you tweak the initial blueprint by adding pet cards or removing staples you find boring to play with. The most important thing is you enjoy playing the deck, no matter where you got the list from. That said, I'm here to help improve your deckbuilding, so let's start with the tools I use and how I use them.

Understanding and Utilizing EDHREC

EDHREC is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, deckbuilding website for Commander on the internet. It aggregates deck information from across the internet and compiles which cards are played with what commanders, what cards are popular in the format, and breaks down different themes for those commanders. For example, Atraxa, Praetors' Voice has over 50 themes associated with her; granted, she is the number one commander on the site, with over 24,000 decks.

Because EDHREC only compiles the data (instead of curating it), sometimes a card will show up on a commander's page that doesn't really synergize with them. Let's look at Ratadrabik of Urborg's page on EDHREC, where you'll see Heroes' Podium is showing up in ten percent of decks. The first half of that artifact doesn't really fit the theme of Ratadrabik since he turns legendary creatures into nonlegendary tokens, while the second ability isn't very good. But someone new to Magic might see that and evaluate it differently; heck, I could be wrong and the card turns out to be amazing in the deck.

That is one of the first difficulties in deckbuilding, card evaluation. How many times have you seen the community call for bannings of cards like Mirkwood Bats, Lord Xander, the Collector, or Doom Whisperer before they've even played with them? Or when The Command Zone goofed on how busted Dockside Extortionist was going to be? Let's be real, most of us probably overlooked Dockside or overrated Lord Xander. Card evaluation is hard in a vacuum, so don't think just because a card doesn't show up on EDHREC means you shouldn't try it out. Check out EDHREC's Upping the Average Series on YouTube for some great examples of this.

Once I've landed on a commander for a deck, I'll check EDHREC for what are some of the top cards played in the deck. Once you've played enough, you'll learn what cards become auto-includes with what commanders. For example, you'll know to add Rampant Growth in Tatyova, Benthic Druid, or that Xorn fits perfectly in Prosper, Tome-Bound. Even after playing for over a decade, I still miss obvious inclusions in decks. There are too many cards for a single person to remember, so it's a good idea to always double-check to see what cards you might have missed.

I will also use EDHREC when I'm struggling to find card draw or removal that are on-theme with a deck. Sure, I could just jam a Treasure Cruise into every blue deck, and it would probably be fine, but if I'm playing a typal deck, I'd rather play Distant Melody or Kindred Discovery. The same thing goes for removal: maybe I want less-efficient removal that fits the theme of my deck better. Just because I'm in black doesn't mean I need to run Infernal Grasp and Go for the Throat in every deck. For example, I'd gladly play Deadly Derision over Infernal Grasp in a Prosper deck since I'll get a more significant benefit from the Treasure token compared to the one mana I'm saving with Infernal Grasp. Since you get a Treasure with Deadly Derision, I think of the spell as three mana, not four in this case.

From Googling to Scryfalling

Google. One of the most powerful, popular, and poorly utilized search engines online. It compiles links to over one-billion websites across the internet, ranging from Magic cards to cute puppies to other things I won't mention in this article because I don't want to get fired. But did you know you can refine your Google searches? For example, if you're looking for information on a certain site (like Youtube, for example), you can put "" so Google will only check YouTube for whatever you're searching for. Well, think of Scryfall as the Google for Magic. 

Scryfall is the number one tool in my arsenal when brewing decks for articles, my YouTube channel, and helping friends with their decks. The basic search feature is fine, letting you search for cards by name, but the advanced search tools are the best in the business, allowing you to find cards by their oracle text, type, price, and more. My favorite feature is the Criteria search, which gives you the option to search for cards using obscure filters such as old border cards, cards with watermarks, or cards that have ever been banned or restricted. Want to build your watermark-only deck? Now you can! Actually, I kinda like that idea for an article down the line. Let me know if you'd want to see a fully watermarked deck.

Can you guess what all three of the cards above have in common? If you guessed they have the text "draw a card" on them, you'd be correct. I found all three of these vastly different cards by searching for all cards that have "draw a card" in their oracle text. That is the power of Scryfall: it allows you to find every card ever printed with whatever rules text you're looking for. If I wanted to build a deck around the card Hardened Scales, I'd search for all cards with the text "one or more" and "that many plus one" to find cards with similar effects.

When I build budget decks, I will use the price filter in conjunction with rules text to see what budget replacements for powerful staples I might find. Let's say I want to find a budget replacement for Cyclonic Rift. I'd put I only want to see cards two dollars or less, and I'd search for all cards with the rules text "return all nonland". Budget replacements aren't going to be as good as their non-budget counterparts, but rarely are they going to be as bad as their difference in price might suggest.

Combo Breaker

The latest tool I've picked up in my deckbuilding journey is (CSB), the search engine for EDH combos. This site allows users to submit their own combos to share with the world. Each combo page will show you the prerequisites, steps to perform the combo, the results of the combo, how many decks contain the combo, and the price. I tend to use CSB at the end of my initial deckbuilding process to check if there are any combos that I want to add or to remove infinite combos if I'm trying to avoid them. You can use the "Find My Combos" feature to find combos in your deck you might have missed. All you need to do is paste your deck list and CSB will take care of the rest.

Assembling the Cardboard

Okay, we've discussed the deckbuilding tools at our disposal, now what? We start the hard part of picking the 99 cards and commander; well, more like 62 cards because I tend to run 37 lands, or 60 if you include Sol Ring and Arcane Signet in the deck. I'm going to stick to 61 because I've been excluding fast mana from decks as a little experiment, but I still think Arcane Signet should be played in most decks without access to green. Okay, so we have 61 card slots available for nonlands, but there are also MDFCs, which are both lands and spells... this is getting complicated. Let me start over.

The general template I follow when starting a new deck is:

  • 50 sources of mana; this includes lands, mana rocks, mana dorks, and MDFCs that have lands on the back.
  • 9-12 targeted removal spells; basically, anything that can be used to destroy or exile a card I count as removal. Doesn't matter the type of spell: so long as it gets rid of a threat, I'm happy.
  • 2-5 board wipes; if I'm playing a creature-heavy deck, I tend to stick to the lower side. If I'm a combo or graveyard deck, I'll stick to the higher end.
  • 10-12 card draw spells; these are spells that draw more than one card. Cards like Opt, Consider, or Serum Visions generally don't go towards my count.
  • 2 graveyard recursion; these can range from Eternal Witness to Open the Vaults.
  • 0-2 flexible tutors; I've been cutting tutors from decks since variance is part of why I enjoy Commander, but if you love tutoring, then do it.
  • 0-2 graveyard hate; this is more meta-dependent, but if you don't play with a set pod, I'd aim for two pieces of hate generally.
  • 0-1 game-ender; think of Torment of Hailfire or Exsanguinate, all you need is some mana and you can win the game. This might not be your main win condition, but it is good to have a backup. If you find yourself using these types of cards to win too often, you can always cut them.

The remaining slots are cards that fit the theme of your deck. I try to pick cards that cover one or more of the roles mentioned above while being on theme. For example, if I'm playing a +1/+1 counters deck, I'd want to add Inspiring Call because it fits the theme and gives me card draw or Damning Verdict, which is an on-theme board wipe.

My federal tax professor always told us, "There are rules, and there are exceptions to those rules, and there are exceptions to those expectations." I follow this mantra when working with this template. Sometimes your commander fills one or more of the roles on this template, which means you can cut back on cards to fill those roles. For example, if my commander draws me cards, I'd only add seven or eight card draw spells. The point of this template isn't to show you "the best" way to build a deck but to help get you started.

Conclusion and Final Piece of Advice

As you build more decks, you will learn what works, what doesn't work, and your playstyle, and don't get discouraged if you don't build the best deck possible on the first try. Deckbuilding is an iterative process that takes time and reps with a deck. This is even more true for Commander since it's a 100-card singleton format. How many times have you added an upgrade to a deck and didn't see it for weeks? Sometimes you realize you need a key card for the deck to function, so you make changes to find that key card. Or maybe you'll realize a card you thought would be great in the 99 is just a dud, so you change it for something else. The most important thing is to make sure you're enjoying the process; otherwise, what's the point?

This has been another installment of Shower Thoughts; be sure to check out my YouTube channel, BathroomBrewsMTG, for weekly MTG content and the accompanying video. Also, make sure to check out my Patreon if you want to take your support further.

This has been Ben, from BathroomBrewsMTG, and remember, always wash your hands!

Ben has been playing Magic since 2012 and started creating Magic the Gathering content in October of 2022 on YouTube under the name BathroomBrewsMTG ( Primarily focusing on budget EDH content. When he isn't thinking or talking about MTG, he is usually playing video games, spending time with his wife or playing with his two cats. You can find him on Twitter @BathroomMTG.