Having trouble getting started with MicroProse's adaptation of the blockbusting card game? This beginner's guide to deck-building will put you on the right track.
If you're an old hand at the card game, you'll have little problem jumping straight into the Shandalar section of the game, which is by far the most interesting and challenging aspect. If the CD-ROM is your first contact with the game, though, things are a little tougher.
This guide is intended to introduce new Magic players to the most important strategic element of the game -- building a deck of spells to use in your quest to save Shandalar from the five arch-mages that threaten its survival. One of the greatest strengths of Magic, both in the card game and the PC version, is the game's infinite flexibility. What follows, then, is not a set of hard and fast rules, but rather a general discussion of basic deck design. It's possible to build very strong decks that completely ignore the advice given here, but to do so requires a lot of experience with the game. These guidelines will help you to create some playable, flexible decks to get you started -- but never be scared of experimenting with ideas of your own.
First things first
If you're new to Magic, the first thing you're going to have to do is learn how the game works, and how to play it. Luckily, those nice chaps at MicroProse have come up with a well-written manual that should teach you the basics. Before starting the Shandalar game, take some time to read through the manual and play some games in the Duel section, trying different decks for both you and your opponent. Only once you feel confident that you understand the basics of the game should you start thinking about trying to save Shandalar.
If you're having real problems learning how to play, there are a couple of other options. If you're lucky enough to know someone who plays the card game (ask around, you'll probably find someone), get them to teach you how to play it. Alternatively, pick up one of the Starter Sets of the game, and read through the rulebook. It won't tell you anything about the interface used by the PC game, but it will do a good job of teaching you how to play Magic itself.
Deck Design 101
Okay, so you understand the basics, and you're itching to start saving Shandalar from total destruction. Before you jump right in and start wandering the land, though, it's worth giving some thought to what kind of deck you want to use.
Unlike the Duel, in which you can simply choose from a wide range of pre-designed decks, before beginning the Shandalar game you must choose a color of cards from the five available. Once the game starts you'll find yourself with a selection of cards of that color (and, depending on the difficulty level, a few of other colors as well). From this fairly humble beginning one of your main tasks is to gather enough cards to create a powerful, flexible deck (or decks) that will allow you to take on the strongest creatures of the land, and eventually the arch-mages themselves.
It's a good idea, then, to start the game with a clear idea of what kind of deck you want, and then devote your early efforts in the game to putting it together. To do this, of course, you need to understand some of the basics of deck-building.
Size isn't everything
The very first thing to consider is the size of your deck. Setting a limit right from the start is a good idea because it makes you think more carefully about your choice of cards, and prevents you ending up with a huge deck. Having a load of cards might seem like a good idea, but it's actually one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
One of the keys to a good Magic deck is consistency -- the more easily you can predict what cards you'll end up with in your hand, the better you can plan ahead, and the more likely it is that you'll get the card you want when you need it. The larger the deck, the more random it becomes, and the lower the chance of you getting a specific card in each duel.
The minimum number of cards your allowed in Shandalar varies with the difficulty level, and can be as low as 30. However, too few cards can be almost as dangerous as too many -- not only does it limit your deck's flexibility, it also increases the chance of you running out of cards (and thus losing the duel). So what's the answer? Well, 60 cards is a good size -- large enough to allow you some variety (and be unlikely to run out), but small enough to ensure consistency.
Look at the colors
The next basic decision to make about your killer deck is which colors to use, and how many. Single color decks have the advantage of being the simplest to play, and you'll never be stuck with the wrong type of Land for the cards in your hand. However, single color decks are ultimately one-sided and inflexible. Each of the five colors of magic has its own strengths, but it also has its own weaknesses -- and in single-color decks those weaknesses are exaggerated. Single-color decks are also vulnerable to spells and effects which target that specific color.
Multi-color decks, however, have problems all of their own, the main one being that it's hard to ensure you'll have the right Lands for the cards in your hand. For a basic deck, then, the best idea is normally two colors.
Which colors to choose is largely a matter of taste and style, but you should consider how the different colors work together. The two basic options are to choose colors that compensate for each others' weaknesses, or colors that complement each others' strengths. Green, for example, has a lot of powerful creature cards, and some good creature-enhancing features, as does Black. Red, on the other hand, has the most direct-damage spells like Lightning Bolt or Fireball. So, Green and Black would complement each other, producing a deck with masses of powerful creatures, while Green and Red would compensate for each color's weaknesses -- Green providing good creatures and enchantments, while Red handles direct damage. All the color combinations have something to recommend them, but it's worth considering how to take advantage of the strengths they provide.
Lands to conquer
With the colors chosen, the next step is to decide how many Lands to use. Lands provide the magical energy required to cast your spells, and so it's important to have enough. On the other hand, too many Lands will leave you with loads of Mana and no spells to cast.
Once again, there are no hard and fast rules here, but a good starting figure is to have a third of your deck as Lands -- 20 cards in a 60-card deck. Again, for simplicity's sake its best to split these equally between the colors of your deck -- 10 of each in a two-color design.
The rest of your deck, then, should be made up of spells. Once again, there are limitless options here, and a lot will depend on what cards you come across on your travels in Shandalar. However, there are some basics to bear in mind.
In most decks it's a good idea to split the cards (and Lands) evenly between your chosen colors. Once again, uneven splits can work, but they're more difficult to deal with, and you should probably wait until you've got more experience with the game. Likewise, in most basic decks it's a good idea to have a fairly even split between creatures and other spells (Interrupts, Instants, Sorceries, and Enchantments). Creatures are by far the simplest way to damage your opponent (and to protect yourself from your opponent's creatures in turn), and as they stick around until killed they offer good "value for mana".
Try to have a range of creatures, including both weak and strong types -- a Shivan Dragon is no use until you have enough Land to cast it, and in the meantime your opponent's pesky 1/1 creatures will be picking off your life points. Likewise, try to have some with Flying and First Strike -- useful powers for attack and defense. Which other spells you use will largely be determined by what you can find and what colors you use. Never forget, though, that the aim of the deck is to reduce your opponent's life to zero as quickly as possible. There are so many neat cards in Magic that its easy to get caught up in cool ideas that simply aren't very practical.
Finally, give some thought to artifacts. Unless you're building an artifact deck, you shouldn't use too many of these, but a few can be very useful, serving either to make the most of your deck's strengths, or to compensate for weaknesses.
Putting it all together
If you start the Shandalar game with a good idea of what kind of deck you want, you're far more likely to succeed. Dedicate yourself to getting as many cards of the colors you want as quickly as possible -- if you want Green cards, hang around forests and fight Green monsters, and don't go exploring Islands where you'll end up winning Blue cards. As your deck grows and evolves, experiment with different combinations of cards, and if you have a particular idea you want to try out, remember that you can always use the Deck Builder to create it, then play a few games of Duel to see how it works, before risking everything in Shandalar. Most of all, though, never be afraid to experiment with new ideas and combinations of cards -- the more you do, the better your deck will become and the more you'll appreciate the subtleties of the game.