Many people come to me and ask for help on their decks or complain that they can’t play in tournaments because their decks suck. Fortunately, Magic is a great game as it gives you an automatic excuse for bad play in either mana hosing or lack of the “good” cards. While I can not help you appease the Magic gods I have always believed that there are good decks which do not require the “good” cards and every one can make a better deck. The primary thing I do when constructing a tournament deck is to have an idea which is fast enough. Tournaments are full of decks that could win on turn 6. If your deck can not do this then it is not tournament ready. So I try to find ideas which can fire on turn 4 or 5. Next, I need to make it likely that the deck will work on turn 4. The two ways to do this are searching and control. If your deck needs to find a particular card then the solution is to get that card. Tutors, Intuition, Impulse, cantrips, and Raven Familiar all let a player search effectively for other cards. I feel that if a card is essential, then it is a great idea to go get it, but in a situation where a deck has many ways to deal with things, then general card drawing, like Treasure Trove or Barrin’s Codex, are the way to go.
Searching can only go so far as often the deck needs several cards (or just another turn), and then the solution is control. Now control does not mean counter spells, it is a broad term which refers to any means of thwarting your opponent's plans. Every tournament deck uses some form of control and I usually group these into five forms: land, creature, enchantments, artifacts, and hand. Of all the forms of control land is by far the best. If your opponent has no land then they can do nothing but lose. The classic Erhnageddon decks played with Armageddon to remove the opponent’s land when it had a creature advantage. This can also be done with a number of combos, land kill, and even tapping effects. Despite the effectiveness of land control, the biggest difference between a tournament deck and a fun deck in my mind is creature control. Tournament decks have 6 or more ways to control an opponents creatures because creatures are the consistent method of dealing damage. Thus, when a turn is wanted, nothing works better than creature control. Artifact, enchantment and hand control are all good and good tournament decks have at least a few ways to deal with these, but they are usually weaker in terms of keeping you alive.
Now that we have covered the methods, the question is how to use these techniques to make our deck work. Being we have an idea, now we should flesh it out with 6-8 creature control spells, some land control, and perhaps a few enchantment and artifact control just in case. This can then buy the time for the deck idea to work as our 4 to 6 search cards should give us the cards needed for the idea. Thus, we should be able to compete effectively with this in mind.
I am always hearing people complaining that they do not have the cards to make a good deck. It seems that every whiner wants to use this excuse every time they lose to the Mike Ruff's and Boldo's of the world. Yet when what they really want to say is "I am not clever enough to make a good deck with the cards I have." It seems that the magazines and net have propagated a belief that decks are made of 'good' cards. Then they have described these 'good' cards as cost effect creature, burn, broken rares, creature removal, and Disenchant. Well so far I have made a career of playing with the forgotten cards and getting them to work. Some of my favorite example of cards not on the Santa's Good list are Natural Order, Dream Tides, Teferi's Veil, Equapoise, Teferi's Isle, Mana Breech, Aurotog, Pacifism, Reap, and Prismatic Lace. Even the rares in this list can usually be gotten for $1 and they all have great decks in them. Today I am playing a deck with Urza's Armor, Fellwar Stone, Worn Powerstone, Fountain of Youth, and Urza's Lands. When I played this at some other game store the owner kept ridiculing these cards as my deck easily jumped out to a 5-0 start. So what we need to do is find the gems in your collection and make a killer deck out of it.
When looking for lost cards I always start by trying to get more mana than my opponent. This can be done with lands that produce more than one mana, enchantments (like Overgrowth, Manaflare, and Fertile Ground), or artifacts (like Manakin, Sisay's Ring, or Mana Vault). This will give you enough mana to get the more expensive cards which the magazines do not like. This mana can also be used to power the more expensive creatures or engines which you can now play.
With this in place the deck does need to do two things well -- control creatures and defeat your opponent. Your deck should have between 10% and 20% of its total cards dedicated to creature removal. In a sixty card deck this means 6-12 cards. Your way to win could be anything from creature beat down, to Fireballs, to a lock which prevents your opponent from using land, to an infinite combination which you can repeat forever. Some more common ideas open to you are:
Lots of Elves, Priest of Titiania, and Fireball
Counterspells, Capsize, Mind Games, and Winter Orb or Limited Resources
Mana Breech, non-land mana sources, and Anhk of Mishra
Megrim, Bottomless Pit and Discard
Merfolk, Curiocity, and Forbid
Endangered Armadon, Jackolope Herd, and sleeper enchantments
Aurotog, Pacifism, Shackles, and Welkin Hawks
Urza's Armor, counterspells and lots of mana
Reigns of Power, Goblin Bombardment and creatures
Reap, Darkest Hour, Sleeper Agent, Verdant Touch, Turnabout, and Drain Life
Elves and Killer Bees
And these are just a few of the decks which can be fleshed out for the new type 2 environment. To succeed in Magic, you have to use your cards but you also have to use your mind.