As I have posted little in the way of deck building theory, I wanted to take today to discuss building a strong deck for a format that you have never played before. I will keep this article as generic as possible, as there are several ways to "read" a format and get an idea about what a good deck would look like in a format before you have ever even played it.
Reading a format starts with finding exactly what the weaknesses are that the new rules impose when compared to a normal 60 card deck. Let's take Rainbow Stairwell as an example.
1. Cards cannot cost more than 6 mana so you will end up with tons of extra mana late in the game.
2. Your deck will have mana problems due to playing all 5 colors.
3. Some cards may be better than normal simply because they do something you need at a different CMC.
4. No gold cards!
After discerning the weaknesses a deck will have when compared with familiar decks, we come up with solutions.
1. Cards with Kicker, Buyback and other additional costs become MUCH stronger. Same with spells that have X in the mana cost.
2. Mana fix is very important; everyone will be playing it as well so tutor hosing is also a viable strategy if you can fix mana in a different way.
3. Do not shrug off a card simply because it is over-costed. Sometimes you need [card]Disenchant[card] to be your four-drop. Now is the time to call upon [card]Ray of Distortion[/card] or [card]Return to Dust[/card].
4. This simply limits the cards you can play and can mostly be ignored.
5. The format is highlander by default, so redundancy in effect is important, but it needs to be a different color or CMC.
From this information, we can build a deck just like we would an average casual deck and be on our way, confident that our deck will at least function well enough to win some games. The final step, is of course tweaking the deck after playing it a bit and getting the hang of the format. Here is a deck I made for Rainbow Stairwell that is supposed to be much like a [card]Living Death[/card] deck, but tweaked for Stairwell. I have yet to play the format, but by using the knowledge above I can assume it will hold its own in a Rainbow Stairwell FFA multiplayer game.
Planar Birth/Living Death Reanimator
(For non-land cards the # is the CMC not the number of cards in the deck. This deck also uses the old-school 2 of each dual land mana base, which can be replaced with any of the other mana base options in Rainbow Stairwell)
Let's Choose another format that I don't have a deck cooked up for. How about Midnight Magic, a format that I have never built a deck for, and in fact have a comment on how I disagree with one of the rules. (For this article's purposes I will be ignoring the optional additional rule, as it makes red far less powerful which red already is in multiplayer).
1. Only 2 copies of any card means redundancy will be important, but less so than say EDH or highlander.
2. The format is pauper, so finding splashy game winning effects will be hard. Decide on a finisher first because there will be very few choices.
3. Minimum of 3 colors. This one is less obvious, but if you follow the rules of no non-basic land and 7 of each basic land maximum, that means in order to have a reasonable amount of land in your deck you must have 24/7 colors which is a little over three, so a fourth color splash is likely to happen as well.
4. Number three brings us to another conclusion: Play a lot of land fetch, as all you will have are basics. Also you need to be sure the land fetch is in as many colors as possible, making landcycling super powerful, especially the landcyclers from Alara Reborn that cycle for two different basic land types.
Now I'll let you go from here and build a deck that is your own style within these constraints if you feel like giving Midnight Magic a whirl. To finish up today, I figured I would apply these rules to EDH so you can see how they apply to a variant format that most players are familiar with building decks for.
1. Highlander makes redundancy of effects more important. Tutors also become much better.
2. Constant access to the General/Commander means that there is at least one effect that you can likely (but not always) rely on having, so cards that have synergy with the general become much better than normal.
3. 40 life to start makes life payments much less relevant. Also the game will play out longer because of the life buffer.
4. Due to the increasing cost of the general and the length of games, more mana for larger spells becomes more important.
This system works. If you plan on trying out a new format, or entering a tournament that uses a variant format. Find out how the format changes the game play and use that to change your deck to compensate. You will play much better than you expect and be prepared