ere's a question: What do you love about a Magic article?
For me, I would guess it goes back to one of the first tournament reports I ever read* that made me feel something... made me feel like this game I was interested in had some greater significance.
Robert Hahn—who would go on to become a Duelist editor, and years later my first real boss when he took over The Magic Dojo—was already an established writer (as far as you could be established, in the era before websites), being the man behind the article series Schools of Magic. So Rob was kind of a known quantity in terms of an "I see a name, I think it might be worthwhile to click on that link" sense. His tournament report told the tale of a night-before-the-PTQ brew (something that has become a ritual over many PTQs and other meaningful tournaments over the years) after a well-meaning intention to play "the best deck" in the face of anti-"the best deck" forces.
It was a big tournament (250+ participants) and—like most really memorable tournament reports—ultimately successful for the first-person protagonist.
Yes, yes... of course he won!
More than that, he won with this:
Robert Hahn's "The Best Deck"
Standard – Winner, New York City PTQ, April 21, 1996
His deck was SIXTY-FOUR cards, with only twenty-one lands.
It was four colors, yet audaciously played eighteen color-producing lands. It included a kaleidoscope of casting costs from to to ... and splashed blue (and cost itself four Adarkar Wastes) for essentially two main-deck Deflections! Rob ran An-Zerrin Ruins (go ahead and look at that) because he couldn't find another appropriate or legal card with five minutes before tournament time! (If memory serves, it actually came up relevant at some point.) Rob even beat a future Pro Tour winner at some point in the Swiss!
An-Zerrin Ruins | Art by Dennis Detwiller
I would get into a rant about how silly splashing for two copies of a four-mana Deflection is when you are scared of a two-mana Hymn to Tourach... but my keyboard is going to run out of ellipses and exclamation points at some point.
To be fair, Rob didn't have the benefit of the last sixteen or so years of ever-improving Magic technology. The reality is that—at the time—this story was not just awesome, it was inspiring. Even awe-inspiring. That summer, Worth Wollpert (today the boss of Magic Online) was inspired to take down a PTQ, also at the height of Necropotence season, with a Howling Mine + Storm Seeker strategy. Rob made me, personally, want to be not just a Magic Pro Tour player (he had just proved that a pretty smart guy who wrote about the game for the love of the game could, given the opportunity), but a Magic writer.
He instilled in more than one ultimately relevant writer/thinker/player/contributor not just an inspiring tale, but an effective irreverence, and a love for the different. A few months later, when I won my first PTQ, I, too, broke the sixty-card taboo.
To answer my own question, the thing I love most about Magic coverage is seeing my friends (or someone who I respect, whether or not it is one of my friends, I should say) do well. But the thing I love most about a Magic article is seeing something different, something audacious, or just a well-positioned take down of a big tournament like a PTQ.
Is it because I grew up in the United States and Americans love an underdog?
Is it because I am a mischievous contrarian, and I can imagine each and every time an opponent winces at being outsmarted by a "terrible" (read: unanticipated, but actually playable, if not über-efficient) card choice?
I think my favorite singular moment playing on the Pro Tour was in a team event against a squad of high-level Japanese pros with a stack of Top 8s between them and a penchant for rogue deck design themselves. My teammate Steve Sadin played the card Tibor and Lumia (go ahead and look at that) and they had to read it. This was an era when the Japanese were dominating every Constructed event and had just started to travel to international Grand Prix, and were dominating those, too—constantly and ever-always with radical, out-there, strategies and combinations—to the point that coverage boss Greg Collins proclaimed he would not be surprised at the emergence of a Numai Outcast (go ahead and look at that) deck. My team was all high-fiving each other when they had to read it, and when they realized what was going on, they were all high-fiving us too!**
Once in a while, as the guardian of the DailyMTG.com "Spike" tournament column, I get rewarded with a week like this one. I'm only going to highlight two decks this week, but I think you'll indulge me as to why.
Legacy ("Fast, Funny, and Fun")
Philip Contreras's Blouses
Legacy – Winner, StarCityGames Legacy Open, Sacramento
We don't spend a lot of time on Top Decks talking about Legacy, as we focus primarily on Standard and the current PTQ season—generally the most widely played formats—but my friend Patrick Sullivan posted about Phillip Contreras's deck on his Facebook wall this week. Intrigued, I checked it out and was very pleased.
Aside: A Brief Nod to Lord Week
I don't have much to say about lords in current formats. Last week, we talked about Tom Martell in Legacy with his Lingering Souls, and a few weeks ago at Pro Tour Dark Ascension Hall of Famers Jelger Wiegersma and Jon Finkel put on a show pairing "Lord" Drogskol Captain with that same card to great effect and superb finishes.
Lord of Atlantis | Art by Melissa A. Benson
In competitive Constructed, the lords have all typically done the same thing: gotten more value out of small creatures. Lord of Atlantis, one of the first, was kind of a standout itself, being a 2/2 for two in blue (impressive). But it wouldn't have become an iconic card without all the other playable Merfolk. Earlier in this same Standard season, prior to the emergence of Delver of Secrets, Lord of the Unreal played Lord of Atlantis
2012 2011... doing some spectacular stuff with Phantasmal Bear and Phantasmal Image.
The best of the lords have been good on their own (Goblin Chieftain compares nicely with some successful red 2/2 creatures even without its amazing synergy with Goblin Piledriver and Siege-Gang Commander); but in terms of buffing the squad, they generally had one thing in common...
... which, in buffing his own little guys, Phillip Contreras did not have as a limitation.
Goblin Chieftain only buffs Goblins; same with Lord of Atlantis and Merfolk.
But if Phillip wanted to slap an Unstable Mutation on a creature, he could have his pick!
Unstable Mutation | Art by Douglas Schuler
Obviously, Phillip played with an eight-pack of hexproof three-drops (Troll Ascetic and Geist of Saint Traft), which he could get to on turn two with a commensurate eight-pack of one-drop accelerators (Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch); and these cards would be great targets for his buffing auras. Certainly, a 5/4 flying, hexproof and regenerating Troll Ascetic attacking you on turn three is quite a clock, and 8 power of ghosts and angels is even quicker... especially if you can finagle a Noble Hierarch pump in there somewhere, too.
Can this strategy be effective? Phillip not only took down a StarCityGames.com Open Series event with flapping Trolls, he did so over a not-fair Tendrils of Agony deck in the finals!
Which dovetails into the next unusual and audacious thing about this deck: It's blue, but there are no copies of Force of Will!
Force of Will and Brainstorm are largely considered the one-two of competitive Legacy, and Phillip played only the one. Certainly, he did have some resistance with Spell Pierce, and tapped out resistance with Daze, but you really can't help at least noticing the absence of the iconic counter. That said, he made great use of Mindbreak Trap in the finals, which is kind of a Force of Will against storm decks.
Modern (Absolutely Audacious)
Phillip Contreras successfully broke a good number of unspoken rules on the way to his Legacy win.
One day earlier, in taking down the Magic Online PTQ on St. Patrick's Day, thekid completely redefined the notion of audacity in a competitive Constructed environment, winning with this:
Karn Liberated | Art by Jason Chan
Modern – Winner, PTQ #3567580, Magic Online
I have spent quite a bit of time staring at this decklist, waiting for it to reveal its secrets to me.
The whole introduction to this article was inspired in some way by thekid's win. Here is a deck of absurd casting costs... that plays only eighteen lands. That twelve of those eighteen lands are Urza's pieces is irrelevant to me; ZeJustin (thekid's opponent in the finals), on a more conventional Tron list, played twenty-five.
Your first reaction looking at a deck like this is, "Was it just a fluke?"
The deck at first glance is so jaw-dropping! Eighteen lands—Urza's lands or no—and four Mindslavers plus four Karn Liberated? I love Karn Liberated in Standard, but wasn't even aware of it as a go-to Modern threat, much less as a four-of. Of course there is a general awareness in the format around Mindslaver, but most Tron lists with MindslaverGifts up their Academy Ruins, rather than playing four copies of the essentially ten-mana artifact itself.
Then there is wrapping your head around the colored mana. I can see the progressions that are supposed to come out... Sylvan Scrying assembling the Urzatron, like in the old Tooth and Nail days... but how do we get the second land? Where do we get the first green?
Ah, there are Chromatic Sphere, Chromatic Star, and Prophetic Prism (that onetime undo-er of Spreading Seas) helping to pave the way. They not just make a little bit of green mana, they also help draw you into more lands. While there is nary a blue mana here, and the casting costs are the opposite of what Alan advocated, there is more than a little bit of Comer in the building blocks.
I decided that this wasn't a fluke, simply because in the very same Top 8, thekid beat Black_Generation in the eighteen-land mirror match in the quarterfinals!
If you're having a little difficulty puzzling through this deck while staring at the seventy-five in front of you—as I am—think about how unpredictable and uncertain it must have been for thekid's opponents all through the PTQ. That is the essence of successful rogue deck design. Not just doing something outlandish (although thekid has accomplished that for a certainty), and not just playing cards other people don't consider playable (because, for the most part, thekid hasn't... these are mostly cards you can see being played, just not necessarily in this configuration), but doing something unanticipated to make your next move hard to anticipate.
People play Viscera Seer and Birthing Pod in Modern and you pretty much know what they are trying to do. Sometimes they accomplish this and other times not, but the plan itself is unambiguous: infinite life or damage on the back of Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Kitchen Finks.
Red and blue lands with a Deceiver Exarch tapping you down at the end of your third turn? Ditto. You might just be dead to Splinter Twin and a gaggle of 1/4 temps.
But what are you supposed to make of a Grove of the Burnwillows? The mind jumps immediately to Punishing Fire. That's what you play Grove of the Burnwillows with, right? Well, you can't; not any more. Yet that is the jump that I, at least, made immediately upon seeing the card in the lands list.
How about Ancient Stirrings? That was a card that many marked as playable when it was first spoiled a year or two ago... but where does it go? I don't know about you, but I jumped to Liquimetal Coating. Brian David-Marshall and I had a deck that got Liquimetal Coating using Ancient Stirrings as a potential searcher, and then destroyed all the opponent's lands with various Corrupters, Vandals, Grudges, and Dragons. Pretty cool... except if you didn't have the Liquimetal Coating and your opponent wasn't playing Tempered Steel.
That, of course, is not just a failed but an inbred mental jump.
Chromatic Sphere? Affinity.
Chromatic Star? Also Affinity.
Except the Modern Affinity deck has precious little affinity mechanic, and very little need for fixing its colors across the onetime spectrum of Thoughtcast, Disciple of the Vault, Shrapnel Blast, or even Meddling Mage.
More false trails.
Okay... how about Mindslaver?
If—and this would be the most likely case given its one-of status—thekid didn't have Academy Ruins in play, what do you think about a Mindslaver?
Me? I start thinking about whether I can live through this, how I can live through this, and what I am going to have left. I imagine what my opponent will do with my cards; I realize I am pretty boned, but try to figure out what my game plan is going to be the turn after next, assuming I want to keep playing.
More than anything else, I count the opponent's cards, figure what remainder is going to be on my side, and maybe smile to myself. I can get through this, I might think; It's not like my opponent has the Academy Ruins in play. Playing thekid, I might completely discount an ability to activate Academy Ruins! Yeah! I'd think then. We can do this!
Then it would just be a matter of how.
Of course, I wouldn't have anticipated another three Mindslavers in the deck; with maybe Ancient Stirrings to find the next one.
The destination on thekid's deck isn't that ambiguous. Audacious, sure, but not hard to figure out. Karn can lock a game out; there might be a case where Karn even removes Karn before starting over. Or after a flurry of Mindslavers, the opponent is completely exhausted. The worst of these games are the infinite Mindslaver ones, where you never get to take another turn, decked by Academy Ruins. Or there are the ho-hum games where you are attacked for 15 in the air, forced to sacrifice six permanents, etc. "The classic" in modern/Modern Tron finishes. You even have to admire a deck that can do all these different things, and still has the capacity to meet the beats with three Wurmcoil Engines on the other side of The Red Zone... It can do that, too.
Heh, you might chuckle to yourself, a Tron deck that can play Ancient Grudge.
If it seems like a dream... as far as I can tell, thekid was living it!
That, over two decks, over these two recent tournament wins, is one of the things I love most about Magic.
* If you wish, you can read it here.
** Of course we won. I'd like to think it would have still been a favorite moment otherwise, but I can't really know. :)