Update - 22.04.11
This is the first time I’m checking Wizards boards in two years. For several reasons, I no longer actively play Magic and even if I do end up coming back here, I certainly don’t have the time or desire to be responsible for this thread (not to mention my knowledge of EDH is probably outdated… sure, it’s not Standard, but new cards still come out and format still evolves).
Frankly, when I checked, I wasn’t sure it would still be stickied here, but since it is, I must assume that mods still consider it a useful resource. I suppose the best thing I can do is to give any mod who feels up for it complete freedom to edit the information in this guide, and keep it up to date. Or take it down whenever they consider it obsolete and no longer useful. I will not be updating it.
This guide is directed at players looking for advice on deck construction and are already familiar with the rules of the format. If you aren't, you might want to read the rules and/or the FAQ thread in this forum.
Your mileage may vary. This guide is based on personal experience and due to the nature of the format as something very casual, different metagames are likely to develop in different areas. However, most of the principles in this guide should still be of some use to you, even if your meta is different from mine. Oh, also grab a coffee. This is a long read.
Guide updated to version 2.0! (23.12.08) All major edits and additions are in Navy. (The color; they aren’t living on a ship or anything.) It’s been 4 months since I wrote this, and more importantly, it’s been 4 months since this EDH forum went online, and posting deck critiques here is what prompted me to make the majority of revisions to this guide, not actual play experience (although I obviously got some more of that). By looking at the decks in this forum I realized what the most common pitfalls appear to be and revised/added sections to better address those points. I also included a list of what in my experience are the best EDH cards as a completely new section (“You Should Play These”). That is probably the best place to look if you would like some quick suggestions. I considered placing the list right at the beginning, but I feel it makes more sense in context, as a summary, after every principle is explained. Still, if for some bizarre reason you only want to read one section (maybe you only have 10 minutes to improve your deck before an EDH tournament with world domination as the first prize), that is probably the one that will best stand on its own.
1. Control and Combo
But wait, aren't there three archetypes in Magic?
2. Deck Composition
40 is the new 24
Forty lands is a good starting point. Just like an average 60-card deck takes 24 as the "default", a 100-card EDH deck starts with 40. As a rule of thumb, for every two nonland mana sources you can remove one land, so most decks will end up with about 36 lands. The overall percentage of mana sources in an EDH deck is usually higher than in other formats because EDH mana curves are higher. You're really aiming for 3 lands in your opening hand (a free mulligan option in addition to the regular go-down-to-six mulligan provides a bit of freedom here) and a reliable way to get more from there. Your deck needs to be able to hit six (yes, six) land drops 90% of the time. It's not the end of the world if you miss one, but getting stuck at 4 land often results in a loss. In addition to 36-40 land, some fetching and/or acceleration is pretty much mandatory because the above percentage of land does not come close to guaranteeing six land drops and saturating your deck with more land will inevitably mana flood you late in the game. Any deck with green doesn’t have a problem with this. Blue decks can run card selection (such as Serum Visions or Impulse), which are pretty much never a bad idea. They help you find land when you need it, answers when you need them, and harmlessly cycle away for 1-2 mana. If you aren’t in either of the above colors, your options become more limited, but some good nongreen cards for mana-fixing are Journeyer's Kite, Land Tax, Weathered Wayfarer, Thawing Glaciers. Even Divining Top and Scroll Rack can do a lot to smooth out your land drops.
EDH decks aren't generally too worried about the curve. Because of the longer games you can afford not doing anything meaningful for the first five turns, or even not doing anything at all for a couple of those turns (well, other than dropping a land). However, it is still good to have something to do. Ideally you want to set-up yourself for the rest of the game in the first 4-5 turns. Fix your mana, make sure you have enough lands, tutor for a key card, etc. Basically, you don't need to have any threats under 4 mana. If you're holding something like a Withered Wretch and nothing else to play on turn 2, by all means, you can drop it and let it do some damage, but the smallest non-utility creature you'd want to have in your deck would be the size of a Chameleon Colossus. All your 1-4 CMC spells should be mana acceleration/fixing, card drawing, removal, and other utility. All your threats will be heavyweights.
The most straightforward way to win is obviously attacking. As such, most decks would want a few big things on the far end of the mana curve with good face-smashing capability. I can't give a simple number as to how many of these you should have like I did with lands, but chances are you need less than you think you need, and the reason for that is your general. Most generals possess plenty of that face-smashing capability you’re looking for in a finisher, so If your general is a beatstick, it can make up for a very severe creature deficiency. Unless it gets Condemned/Hindered/Arrested, etc, you can keep recasting your general (assuming a stready flow on mana). Also, your general is typically better than another fat creature in your deck because it only needs to do 21 points of damage to kill an opponent, compared to other creatures having to deal 40. So, if you have mana available to play your general, say Numot, the Devastator, and you also have Yosei, the Morning Star in your hand, Yosei is a wasted card, if you simply want to attack with it. Sure, it’s a good thing to have a backup beater in your hand, but if you overstuff your deck with beaters, they will be just dead cards while you recast your general. So if your general is combat-oriented, I would recommend no more than 5-10 “finisher” cards in your deck. On the other hand, If your general is a wimpy guy like Momir Vig but you still plan to win by damage, you'll need more creatures. There is no rule of thumb here for the number of creatures and you’ll just have to tweak your deck after testing it, but in most cases I wouldn’t recommend going over 15 beatsticks. After that, it's best to include reanimation, control magic-type effects, big burn, or protecton for your creatures. These cards offer utility in addition to the option of smashing face, and utility is extremely important. Not to mention that reanimating a creature or taking one of your opponents is usually cheaper than playing a new one. It's just a matter of having a target and as long as you're playing enough to ensure that, there's no need for more. Lastly, we have the combo deck that is not interested in attacking. If your "plan A" is to go infinite in one way or another, you obviously won't be using a fat creature to win. However, I'd still suggest running a couple to have a "plan B", in case a key piece of your combo eats a Dissipate (and that happens pretty often, especially in multiplayer against opponents that already know your combo).
3. What Works
Your foil Time Stretch finally finds a home!
Yes, Time Stretch is actually good. I saw several people who are new to the format having a hard time trying to believe in that kind of thing. If you look at the card, it has a very strong effect and the only deterrent to playing it is the 10-mana tag, but in a format where you get to 15 lands in play on a regular basis, 10 mana is hardly prohibitive. Storm Herd, Blatant Thievery, Tooth and Nail, Insurrection and Cabal Conditioning are all playable and sometimes very good. (Ember Shot and Aladdin's Lamp are still crap.) You just need to let go of the constructed mentality that cards with CMC of 5 must win the game now and cards with CMC of 7 are beer coasters. Look at the effect and worry less about the mana cost. Of course, overdoing this is a bad idea - you still want to have something to play on your first five turns, but 20 6cc+ spells in an EDH deck is perfectly acceptable. A direct consequence of the above is that every EDH deck will have a plethora of big spells that can turn the game around instantly, so you need something equally big (or two untapped islands) to deal with them. If someone just spent 9 mana on a Tooth and Nail that’s about to kill you next turn, you also have as much to Cruel Ultimatum or Grab the Reins it back at him. Giant sorceries tend to turn the tables more frequently than you’d see in any other format.
This one is fairly obvious once you think about it: paying 1-4 mana to bring back your 8-mana monstrosity is a good deal. If you're in the colors that can play it, put some reanimation in your deck. Even janky cards like Resurrection (hey, a use for that FNM one nobody wants from your trade binder!) are good. Recursion By "recursion" I mean effects like Regrowth and Academy Ruins, not only reanimation spells. In my opinion, Eternal Witness is the most powerful green card in EDH by a large margin and here is why: Your deck consists of about sixty one-ofs (plus lands), which makes Witness and other recursion effects stronger in two different ways at once: Witness lets you reuse the most powerful cards again and you get to choose what you want from a much larger selection than you would have playing a sixty-card deck. Topdecking a Witness late game is an answer to anything because chances are you already have it in your graveyard. Topdecking a Yawgwin... well, it does pretty much the same thing as in other formats, except even flashier. So, try to pack some recursion if your colors allow it. Every black deck needs Yawgmoth’s Will. Every green deck should have Witness, Regrowth and Recollect. Academy Ruins and Volrath's Stronghold are auto-include in their colors, Crystal Shard is an MVP if you have lots of creatures with comes-into-play effects, etc.
Continuing on the theme of recursion, most reusable effects get better in EDH because of longer games. Reusable effects with high mana investment can be better than cheaper one-shot cards over the course of a long game. For example, Journeyer's Kite is an amazing EDH card, significantly better than signets or Civic Wayfinder, etc, because it will often end up fetching you upwards of five lands a game. Following the same logic, other expensive reusable cards such as Planar Portal, Memnarch and even Altar of Shadows are good. Cheap reusable effects are doubleplusgood, ex. Weathered Wayfarer, Sensei's Divining Top, Scroll Rack and Withered Wretch, usually much better than their one-use counterparts.
Tutors Another obvious one. I'm not going to repeat a list of tutors that are already good in 60-card decks. It's pretty much common sense that if you have a deck with about 60 different cards, you'll want to find a certain one of those cards in a particular situation. However, we already established that reuseable cards are good and expensive cards can be good. Putting two and two together, we can infer that Planar Portal, Chord of Calling and even Citanul Flute can be good. Another frequently overlooked subset of tutors are the transmute cards. I have a black deck which plays a transmute for every CMC from 2 to 5 and they certainly carry their weight. While all transmutes are playable if you have a key card at a certain CMC, I’d recommend Dimir Machinations and Shred Memeory for every deck, because Machinations fetches Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Will and Shred gets you Lightning Greaves and Journeyer’s Kite (Or just upgrades itself to a Demonic Tutor, if you really need one). Lastly, I’d like to mention Trinket Mage . He’s a niche card, much like transmutes, but he’s great because he fetches cards that every EDH deck should have: Sensei’s Divining Top and Sol Ring. (If you have other goodies like Pithing Needle or Meekstone, that’s a bonus, but I found from personal experience that TM goes for top 70% of the time, sol ring 25%, and 5% for all other targets combined).
Answer to Everything I don't mean you should answer every threat every game. Then you'd never lose. (I also question the possibility of doing that). What I mean is your deck should try and have an answer to every type of threat. You do not have a sideboard, but you do have 100 cards, so plan to devote some space to artifact removal, enchantment removal, sweepers, graveyard hate, etc. Essentially you need to include your sideboard in your deck in EDH. At least one card for each category of a threat, that you can tutor for in a pinch, otherwise random stuff you cannot deal with, like Debtor's Knell or Darksteel Colossus are going to run you over. It's best to have a variety of answers and in a form that can somehow be recycled. For example, if your deck already runs reanimation, play Indrik Stomphowler and Angel of Despair over Naturalize and Vindicate. This lets you fight against an artifact-heavy deck with one stomphowler instead of including 8 artifact removal spells in your deck. (Well, actually, you should play Vindicate anyway, because it’s an amazing card, but I’m sure you understand the idea.)
Ideally your deck should be able to recover over and over and over again after board wipes of every kind. The more players there are in multiplayer the more frequently a board is going to explode... whenever something bothers someone, it will get Disked away and every other player will be hit by splash damage. Reanimation is an excellent example of a way to make your deck more resilient: after your general explodes yet again, you can spend two mana to bring him back instead paying for all those death counters. Another way is playing cards that can single-handedly help you recover. Topdecking a Necropotence or a Promise of Power after suffering from a Myojin of Night's Reach will let you stabilize in one turn. Of course, nothing will save you from bad luck of topdecking 3 lands in a row after a Mind Twist, but you should still try and include as many effects as possible that would allow you to recover in one shot. [color=blue]Graveyard Hate[/color] If you're playing against other experienced people who realize the power of recursion, you'll want to have some graveyard hate. Removing stuff from the game is very, very good. Preferably not Tormod's Crypt style, but something that can target specific cards in graveyards, ex. Withered Wretch and Nezumi Graverobber. Skeletal Scrying, Betrayal of Flesh, and Shred Memory are all good because they can counter reanimation spells in addition to their main function. (Mudhole is still bad.)
4. What Doesn't Work
Tarmogoyf's turn to cry in the corner
Vanilla beaters are pretty bad in EDH. You usually want your creatures to do something else, in addition to damage. EDH games are centered around card advantage, so two-for-ones, like Bogardan Hellkite or Indrik Stomphowler are great because they're guaranteed to do something useful right away, even if they die before getting to attack. Of course, some "dumb beats" are just so great that it’s tempting to keep them, for example Chameleon Colossus, but personally I’ve become less and less impressed by them as my EDH experience grew. If anything is good about the colossus, it’s pro: black, because once in a while it’ll just walk over a black deck. His giganitic size isn’t that impressive. As a rule of thumb, you always want your creatures to do something other than damage. If they do only damage, they better be damn good at it.
Cards that target specific mana costs
Spell Snare, Counterbalance, Smother and other similar cards are bad because you have a lot more different mana costs to worry about. 60-card decks pretty much in every format rarely have spells over 5 mana and most of them have a CMC of 1, 2, or 3. In EDH, you routinely have to deal with CMCs from 1 to 7 and sometimes even higher than that. Isochron Scepter is also unplayable, unless you specifically build around it.
Taxing, a.k.a. "Unless you pay X"
Mana Leak and Force Spike lose a lot of power because players have access to a lot more mana in EDH over a course of a long game and having one Force Spike in a 100-card deck, you probably won't draw it on the first 2-3 turns, which is the only time when it's likely to be effective. Logic Knot is playable though, because you're likely to have a huge graveyard. Propaganda and other cards that put some kind of tax on creatures and generally weak for the same reason Mana Leak is, and on top of that, 90% of good EDH decks are creature-light, so these cards won’t be much of a tax at all when each opponent has only one or two creatures. Rhystic Study is one notable exception in my experience. It's just so powerful in multiplayer that it can make up for the drawback of your opponents having more mana. Not as good as Mind’s Eye, but still quite playable.
Sacrificing card advantage for tempo is a bad idea in EDH. Dark Ritual, Chrome Mox, Fireblast, Lotus Bloom, etc, are all unplayable. Obviously, there are corner cases. Diamond and Chrome Mox are good with Academy. Seething Song is great for dragonstorm, but sub-par to useless in every other situation. In vast majority of decks, these cards are bad.
Too much artifact mana
While signets, talismans and other similar acceleration is useful, keep in mind that it's a lot more vulnerable than lands and will become scrap metal as soon as the next Akroma's Vengeance resolves. Darksteel Ingot is pretty much always worth it in a multicolor deck. Gilded Lotus is good as well. Extraplanar Lens and Gauntlet of Power give so much power to a monocolored deck, they are basically auto-includes, despite the card disadvantage you're sure to get with the lens sooner or later. Talismans/Signets might not screw you every single game, but once in a while you’ll have four signets on the board and an oblivion stone explodes, and you will be a very sad panda. How frequently “once in a while” occurs would of course depend on amount of artifact sweepers in your meta, but in any case, I’d stay away from signets if at all possible. If you're playing green, I suggest land-search instead of artifact mana, such as Far Wanderings, Kodama's Reach, Reap and Sow (option of destroying an opponent's utility land and finding your own nonbasics makes this card very good). In white, you have Land Tax and Weathered Wayfarer, plus Journeyer's Kite and Solemn Simulacrum for every nongreen deck. While those can also get destroyed, the lands they find will stick around. Also, stay away from artifact lands unless you have a good reason to put them in. (One tinker out of 100 cards is not a good reason.)
This is partially just restating the point on “big spells”, but I think looking at such a key idea of EDH from another angle is important enough to justify some repetition. Lightning Bolt may be a very good and efficient card, but it isn't the best choice for an EDH deck. It simply doesn't do enough. You probably wouldn't be happy topdecking it most of the time, since 3 damage is usually an inadequate answer to threats in EDH. Remember that early game is not a place for threats and in late game every threat will aim to turn the game around, so you’ll need something of a larger caliber than bolt to turn it back. However, if you want a certain effect that's usually cheap (like bolt), look for bigger cards that can do other things instead of/in addition to punching something for 3. Instead of Bolt, go for Flametongue Kavu or Demonfire (or Orim's Thunder if you're in white). FTK and Thunder both have a strong second effect and they're both two-for-ones, which gives them an edge in multiplayer. Demonfire or Fireball would cost you 3 more mana if you just want a bolt effect, but you would often use them for things bigger than that... and if you're at 3 life staring down a Trained Armodon, you probably have more than one mountain open to deal with it. (You should also refer your opponent to this guide for playing a Trained Armodon.) Same, of course, applies to creatures. Isamaru and Tarmogoyf may be extremely efficient, but they simply aren't worth a slot. Nobody would play Isamaru even if it costed 0, that's how irrelevant one 2/2 body is. Small effects are okay only if they are card drawing or otherwise cantrip. Brainstorm, Ponder, and Serum Visions are perfectly playable. Crimson Wisps is more than playable, it’s amazing. (Hi, my 6/6 dragon hits you a turn earlier than you expected and it didn’t even cost me a card!) Basically, if you’re not spending a card for a tiny effect, and if you are able to “cycle” it in some way (such as playing wisps on an opponent’s creature at the end of turn if you just want to draw a card), it’s probably a good card.
5. You Should Play These
Guaranteed to improve your deck or your money back!
- Sensei’s Divining Top – anywhere. Period. Unless your playgroup is excessively annoyed by it.
- Lightning Greaves – for any deck that plans on attacking or has creatures that need to stay alive.
- Journeyer’s Kite – supplies you with lands forever, or until blown up. Mandatory in any nongreen deck.
- Gauntlet of Power and Extraplanar Lens – any monocolored deck. These cards are stupidgood.
- Nevinyrral’s Disk and Oblivion Stone – essential effect in any EDH deck and only available on two cards outside of white.
- Mind’s Eye – one of the best card draw engines in multiplayer, and available to any color.
- Solemn Simulacrum – Just really, really good.
- Sol Ring - Best artifact mana accel in the game.
- Thawing Glaciers - fills the same role as kite, every other turn.
- Maze of Ith - Surprisingly few creatures can get around it, it's hard to remove (being a land) and fits in every deck.
- Strip Mine - utility nonbasics come with a lot of drawbacks, such as not being not fetchable by most land search cards, not benefitting from gauntlet/lens/etc, and usually not producing colored mana. However, some utility is just too strong to ignore. Same applies to every other land that made a cut to be on this list.
- Yawgmoth’s Will – best card in Magic.
- Necropotence – best card draw spell in EDH.
- Cabal Coffers – Gauntlet of Power #3 in monoblack.
- Volrath's Stronghold - Many decks would spend an actual card slot on this effect. Stronghold doesn't even cost you a slot.
- Demonic Tutor &Co. – obvious card is obvious.
- Myojin of Night's Reach - everyone's hand goes "bye". 9000 style points if whoever played it doesn't activate the ability immediately, passes priority, and you sudden death it.
- Transmute cards – Yes, any card that merely searches for Yawgwin is good enough to make the “best of the best” list.
- Reanimation – one of the key strengths of black. Reanimation is often cheaper, more flexible, and more powerful than that creature you were thinking of adding to your deck.
- Control Magic &Co. – just like reanimation, it saves you mana, but also serves as removal, albeit usually less flexible than reanimation
- Countermagic – often underrated in multiplayer because you “can’t counter everything”. The key is to use it to protect your other cards, not try to remove every threat.
- Magus of the Future / Future Sight – absurdity is directly proportional to the amount of mana you have, multiplied by the number of shuffle effects and tripled with Divining Top in play. The only two cards that have the potential to be dumber than Yawgwin.
- Hinder – the easiest way in the game to say “bye, general!”
Gifts Ungiven– combo deck wins (for best results combine with Yawgwin or Eternal Witness in hand). R.I.P.
- Academy Ruins - See Volrath's Stronghold.
- Land Tax and Weathered Wayfarer – these can be as good as green’s land search, but it’s only two cards.
- Sweepers – being able to remove anything and everything at once is white’s main strength. Be sure to include some, this is the only color that has plenty of options. Final Judgment, Hallowed Burial, Austere Command, and Rout, are usually the best.
- Condemn – Right below Hinder.
- Return to Dust – It might be silly to include a random artifact removal spell in this list, but I’ve been owned by this card so many times.
- Mistveil Plains - Probably one of the most underrated cards in the game. Combined with a tutor, you have the ability to fetch anything back from your graveyard. Also searcheable with fetchlands and hoses reanimation targeting your graveyard.
- Eternal Witness – green is the only color with “return any card” effects, which are incredibly strong. Witness is by far the most abuseable of these.
- Far Wanderings – I have no idea why this isn’t in every green deck. Fetching 3 lands for 3 mana is nuts. (Keep in mind that you have threshold for about 80% of the duration of the game).
- Mana Reflection – see Gauntlet of Power.
- Tooth and Nail and Chord of Calling – chances are you have some fat creatures in your deck that you’d like in play. These are the best ways to do that.
- Wheel of Fortune – the only card in red that’s on par with blue and black card draw. It’s damn good, but sadly, it’s the only thing red has.
- Reiterate – redirection/copy effects are great in general, but reiterate is head and shoulders above the rest. Nothing like copying an opponent’s cruel ultimatum. Twice. And still keeping the reiterate. In fact, this card is pretty much the only reason I want to play red.
- Gauntlet of Might - monored red gets an extra gauntlet of power, if you can afford one.
- Insurrection - usually enough to kill one opponent in multiplayer.
- Mirari’s Wake – Mana reflection, but better.
- Cruel Ultimatum – Just reminding you this card exists. If you don’t know what it does, click the link and read it.
- Vindicate – Tie fighters.
- Maelstrom Pulse - Not quite tie fighters.
- Terminate / Mortify / Putrefy – no reason not to have these.
- Debtor’s Knell – You’ll find something ridiculous to do with this every time you play it.
- Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion – double strike is potentially very powerful and having it on a land means it’s reusable, doesn’t cost you a card, and wastes no slots in the deck.
6. A Friendly Reminder
or "Zerg's QQ addendum"