Or, All the Decks We Used to Love to Hate
One thing I hear all the time—which is frustrating not just as a critic but a deck designer and maybe the most enthusiastic and long-standing Magic enthusiast of them all—is how much someone dislikes Standard. It is no surprise for long-standing readers that I thought that last year's Standard—at the height of Caw-Blade—was my favorite Standard format of all time. From my perspective, Caw-Blade gave us a lens to look through, and what was on the other side was beautiful; sadly, the public at large did not agree.
Stoneforge Mystic | Art by Mike Bierek
Yes, we had an amazing Deck to Beat.
Yes, it was in fact difficult to beat: More difficult to beat, maybe, than any other Deck to Beat, ever, given context and sustained trials (and as you will see below, there have been a great many great Decks to Beat). That was part of the beauty! Most great decks start off great, maybe perform or over-perform for the tournaments they were intended to perform in... then get figured out and that is that.
But not Caw-Blade. No sir.
Caw-Blade just kept evolving. It got faster, tighter, then looser and rambling, methodical, when that was a more advantageous execution of flexibility. Caw-Blade masters learned to gain advantages by playing fewer lands, then different advantages by playing more. Context and concurrent development drove all different modes of success and further evolution. Red offered an advantage in the Lightning Bolts and Cunning Sparkmages of Angry Birds, then the discovery (or rediscovery) of Mortarpod made straight white-blue (and its many Tectonic Edges) the more consistent.
Caw-Blade was special.
It was not special, however, in that it was powerful and disliked by many in the masses. More or less for the entirety of the existence of the Standard format, there has been some deck (generally more played if not more successful than its peers) a large chunk of the populace disliked. What was special about Caw-Blade—and what made it a fine master—is that it gave rise to a format where innovation was rewarded and play skill determined the majority of matches at every level.
We have not always been so lucky.
...but before we go down that road, the most recent incarnation of the current Deck to Beat:
Charles Gindy's White-Blue Delver
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Washington DC
All kinds of different-champion Charles Gindy, playing this version of White-Blue Delver, finished second to the mighty MOCS standout Reid Duke. This version was played by numerous standout players in the tournament, including fellow Top 8 competitor Josh Cho, as well as the visiting Huey Jensen and designer Gerry Thompson.
The main differences in this version are...
- A committed return Geist of Saint Traft at the three (all four copies) over wishy-washy versions or more defensive Blade Splicer decks,
Hero of Bladehold at the four spot,
- Haymakers rather than Equipment for muscle, and,
Cavern of Souls over Moorland Haunt in the mana mix.
Playing zero copies of Moorland Haunt is certainly unusual these days! Even the Mono-Blue versions often touch a Moorland Haunt! But Hero of Bladehold and its mana cost can be demanding on the mana base. And of course Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, and Hero of Bladehold are all Humans, so even a first-turn Cavern of Souls can be quite the contributor.
I chatted with
Gerry Thompson about the choice to go with Hero of Bladehold
over either of the recent options (Talrand, Sky Summoner
over the previous choice of Restoration Angel
) and his reasoning was that all the four-mana creatures stink in the mirror. All of them! Anyone you tap out for is just going to take a Vapor Snag
. So if they aren't good in the mirror you might as well pick the card that is most useful against green decks.
Green decks that start on Birds of Paradise or Avacyn's Pilgrim are actually better at the Blade Splicer-into-Restoration Angel game (due to their superior speed), so playing their game—especially when they can trump you with an uncounterable Thragtusk the next turn—can often get you killed. On the other hand, an offensive-minded Delver player with Geist of Saint Traft into the Titan-like Hero of Bladehold is more apt to overwhelm.
This version plays tons of free Phyrexian action—the first big finishing deck with all four Gut Shots main that I can recall—which essentially pre-sideboards the deck for an eventual Sky Summoner game. Mutagenic Growth can save Geist of Saint Traft from Whipflare and Gut Shots kill Birds, Elves, enemy Delvers, et cetera.
The cool new card is Knight of Glory. One of the core Delver vulnerabilities is playing against a black deck with a hundred removal spells (or being raced by Zombies)... and Knight of Glory addresses exactly the softness to Swamps.
Anyway: the latest, latest-greatest version of the deck you probably love to hate.
Now for ten decks nobody liked. Nobody. Not a soul. :)
Ben Stark's White-Blue Caw-Blade
Standard – Top 8, Pro Tour Paris
Stark won Pro Tour Paris and got the ball rolling on arguably the greatest Standard deck of all time—certainly the greatest Standard deck since Necropotence—and toppled the first domino in the chain reaction that would prove the first serious bannings in Standard since Ravager Affinity.
How Caw-Blade Worked:
Caw-Blade was a pretty good implementation of the concept of playing all the best cards in the format. It had Preordain on one (with Preordain, by the way, being probably the next-best card after Jace, the Mind Sculptor); Jace, the Mind Sculptor, of course; and the superstar two-drops of Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic.
Those particular two-mana creatures generated so much card advantage that the deck could run essentially base-Equipment on just a tiny number of creatures. All the cards were super good. Squadron Hawk was an apt swordsman (and hard to block); Stoneforge Mystic was a one-two punch of card advantage and consistency. The deck could play control or aggro-control better than just about any other deck; heck, despite a tight creature count it could race just fine.
Why People Hated Caw-Blade:
There are a couple of schools of thought on this. We know that tournament attendance went down relative to the nonstop boom time of almost every-other-when-else. Probably it was a combination on the secondary market cost of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and the fact that the better player won a dramatic percentage of Caw-Blade mirrors. As Mark Rosewater has worked hard to teach us, luck is good and manascrew is good for Magic. During the age of Caw-Blade, Magic lost a lot of that. Net-net, Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor bought it in Standard.
Simon Görtzen's Jund
Standard – Winner, Pro Tour San Diego
How Jund Worked:
Jund featured the cascade mechanic prominently for massive amounts of card advantage. It could generate two-for-one or even three-for-one at tons and tons of points on the curve; Sprouting Thrinax was not one you wanted to trade cards with; Bloodbraid Elf was the kind of card that inspired petitions-for-banning among the common man, and Broodmate Dragon was big, twice!
Putrid Leech on two was so fast and powerful that it almost forced every other two-drop in the format into obsoletion. And Blightning?
Why People Hated Jund:
Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning!
... frustrating Standard players years before Delver of Secrets ever revealed a Mana Leak on top.
Görtzen's deck was nicknamed "all land, no removal" because he was one of the first players to figure out that Jund was so good that it only lost if it was manascrewed; Simon ran 27/60.
Jund featured an odd combination of absurd tempo and card advantage/card quality... and atrocious mana. A single Spreading Seas could put a Jund player into a doomed spiral. So not only did Jund players everywhere "get lucky" every time they sent Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning... the fact that they could cast their spells at all sent more mana-consistency-conscious mages into a tizzy.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's Faeries
Standard – Top 8, Pro Tour Hollywood
How Faeries Worked:
Although the aforementioned Charles Gindy ended up winning Pro Tour Hollywood with Elves, it was Faeries that was considered Standard's iconic "bad guy" at the time. PV's deck is a good example of a deck everyone hated. The sense was that if a player ran second-turn Bitterblossom, not a whole lot else mattered.
Personally, I found the card Mistbind Clique extremely frustrating, especially in concert with Bitterblossom. Mistbind Clique made it difficult to play a decent game of Magic, and although R&D tried to give players tools like Jund Charm and Volcanic Fallout to defend themselves from the little Fae, the tribal stamp on Bitterblossom made it almost impossible to play around the Clique.
Why People Hated Faeries:
Faeries was extremely restrictive for the format. Unless you had instant-speed removal, you could like never interact with a Mistbind Clique. So there went huge chunks of the populace, ending the exploration of a great many more-fun strategies before they were even birthed. As mentioned, a second-turn Bitterblossom was extraordinarily difficult to catch up with. And it's not like the deck didn't start on Ancestral Vision or something...
Faeries hit Standard shortly after the beloved Ravnica block left, which I think exacerbated the shock of moving from the diversity of the so-called tier-two metagame to a linear one, as with the hated Faeries.
In two words: soul crushing.
Tooth and Nail
Terry Soh's Tooth and Nail
Standard – Winner, 2005 Magic Invitational
How Tooth and Nail Worked:
Tooth and Nail was essentially an amped-up Ramp deck (complete with better lands to ramp into, of course). Sakura-Tribe Elder got you an extra land; Sylvan Scrying got you a specific one to finish your Tron trio.
When Tooth and Nail itself hit, anything could happen... and did! Soh's deck could blow up all the lands with Sundering Titan or kill all the creatures with Duplicant. Kiki-Jiki could provide more and more of the same, or combine with Eternal Witness to keep the party rolling.
Soh's version was one of the first to play a semi-transformational sideboard. If an opponent were gearing to anti-combo Tooth and Nail itself (or attack the Tron on the table) he or she would be sorely against the wall fighting Iwamori of the Open Fist and Troll Ascetic. This deck could down-shift to a midrange green control.
Why People Hated Tooth and Nail:
I suppose they just needed something to hate. Tooth and Nail's rise came on the heels of the mass bannings that took out Ravager Affinity in Standard. And did it rise! Like the Dark Knight! Tooth and Nail absolutely dominated Regionals, partly because some of its eventual rivals like Red Deck Wins, Kuroda-Style Red, and Mono-Blue Tron had not yet been developed. But Tooth and Nail—unlike most of the others on this list—probably didn't deserve the public's ire solely on the basis of its success. I mean, we are talking about resolving a nine-mana sorcery here.
Kamiel Cornelissen's Ravager Affinity
Standard – Top 8,Worlds 2004
How Ravager Affinity Worked:
It... worked. Ravager Affinity was one of the most dominating decks in the history of the Standard format. It was offensively next-to-unstoppable. Disciple of the Vault into Arcbound Ravager... a couple of freebies... the deck could kill on turn three!
And it's not like it was short of card quality. Every single kind of artifact land was eventually banned in Standard. I mean, what did Tree of Tales ever do to anyone? Ancient Den?
Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Æther Vial were all banned in some format or other. I'd have named Skullclamp, too... but by the time Hall of Famer Kamiel was fielding this deck, that card had already been banned!
Why People Hated Ravager Affinity:
Ravager was legitimately too good. Its cards were strong and fast. Spells like Thoughtcast cost Affinity one mana for an effect that cost most decks three or more. Æther Vial turned all of its one- and two-drops into uncounterable instants. Affinity beat even anti-Affinity decks with a fair amount of regularity.
Carlos Romao's Psychatog
Standard – Top 8, 2002 Worlds
How Psychatog Worked:
Nine mana, Upheaval, Psychatog... play a land, blue open for Circular Logic.
Psychatog just played to get to this position with all its card drawing, then executed. The deck had plenty of counterspells and removal to get it there.
Why People Hated Psychatog:
Psychatog was a black and blue creature. Black and blue creatures aren't supposed to be just better than all the other creatures. How are you supposed to burn this thing? You can't. It casts Counterspell for one mana... and gets bigger doing so. Psychatog was suffocating and skill-rewarding in kind of the same way Caw-Blade was... but was much more boring for nine turns before making you miserable by erasing your whole battlefield but leaving the 'tog player a next-to-unstoppable way to win.
Fires of Yavimaya
Trevor Blackwell's Fires of Yavimaya
Standard – Top 8, 2001 US Nationals
How Fires Worked:
The fix is in!
Turn-one Birds of Paradise, turn-two Fires of Yavimaya, turn-three Blastoderm (plus attack), turn-four Saproling Burst (smash you).
Fires of Yavimaya gave Blastoderm—for the first time—a way to deal 20 damage by itself.
Why People Hated Fires:
Fires was extremely difficult to break up; the tools just weren't there. Look at Blackwell's removal package... Flametongue Kavu and Thornscape Battlemage both cost four mana to kill a creature. Are you going to spend Urza's Rage on a Birds of Paradise? The fastest option is Ghitu Fire... but the opponent could already be on his or her way. If the opponent went first, Ghitu Fire might be too slow. The opponent might already have Fires in play and could just send a smaller man and tap you down with Rishadan Port.
Dave "Witz" Weitz's Academy
Standard – Winner, 1998 Ohio State Championship
How Academy Worked:
Witz's deck is actually from his Ohio State Championship win; Academy's reign in Standard was exceedingly short (bannings and all that). But don't worry! Magic in 1998–1999 was largely a flurry of Tolarian Academys, Time Spirals, Windfalls, Dream Halls, Yawgmoth's Bargains... Plenty plenty.
After a Time Spiral drawing seven you could probably figure a way to win. It would probably involve Mind Over Matter (allowing repeated untaps of the Academy, eventually fueling Stroke of Genius and / or further Spirals).
What turn, you ask?
Why People Hated Academy:
Turn one! (as above)
Dave Price's Deadguy Red
Standard – Undefeated, 1997 US Nationals
How Deadguy Red Worked:
Deadguy Red was the predecessor to Red Deck Wins... but could Fireblast you to death on turn four.
Why People Hated Deadguy Red:
Dave taught Magic players they needed to be on guard, and early. He punished clunky draws and figured out how to escape hate cards. When he made himself Fire God with his X–0 at the 1997 US Nationals, the crowds initially cheered, seeing as they initially thought they hated Thawing Glaciers-control (they would learn!). The crowds did again when he won the Pro Tour (again with straight red) in spring of 1998.
But by the time any and all players at the amateur level were flattened by double Fireblast draws... well, they got a preview of the draws that would be taking them out, helplessly, by Fires decks just a couple of seasons down the line. Interestingly, some critics love the Deadguy Red era from an amateur perspective. Perhaps in no other time in Standard's history was it more likely that the playing field was leveled between an absolute master and a lucky miser. Did you draw two Fireblasts? Did your first-turn Jackal Pup follow up with a second-turn Wasteland? You too could flatten Jon Finkel like a pancake.
This is the version (eventual Hall of Famer) Ben Rubin used to do just that at Worlds 1998:
Ben Rubin's Sligh
Standard – Top 8, World Championship 1998
Chris Pikula's Hybrid Necro
Standard – Top 8, Pro Tour Dallas 1996
How Necro Worked:
Quite simply, Necropotence was—and might in fact remain—the greatest card-drawing engine of all time. You could start with it on turn one with Dark Ritual (or you could start with Hypnotic Specter); you could smash the opponent's hand with Hymn to Tourach. Everything the deck did was tough to beat. Two-for-ones... difficult-to-block threats like Order of the Ebon Hand... "get out of jail free" cards like Nevinyrral's Disk... life gain from Drain Life... and if you managed to trade and/or stay even...
...they had the greatest card-drawing engine of all time to fall back on.
Why People Hated Necro:
It beat almost everything, frankly; and most of the top players of Necropotence's time in Standard chose to play Necropotence itself. Magic was young then.
So as you can see, there have almost always been scary bogeymen in Standard. Knowing this, I am vehemently in disagreement that there was ever a "good old days" when you could (competitively) "play whatever you wanted." In fact, many of the Decks to Beat of times past were meaner, more restrictive, and harder to beat than the ones we have had to face in recent years; certainly less skill-testing. And as many meanies and bad guys as there have been, so too have we gotten the pleasure of rogue decks, anti-decks, innovations, and heroes.
Without Necropotence and its hunger for mana allowing it to exploit more and more its mana-less card advantage, we might never have seen the innovations of Prison or Turbo-Stasis, lock-down control-combo decks built on layers and layers of patient development. The existence of Psychatog sold out the humble Yavimaya Barbarian at dealer table after dealer table at big tournaments... which is amazing. Deep Dog, the predecessor to Green-Blue Madness, too, was a reaction to Dr Teeth and his merry Upheaval.
Our heroes are defined in large part by the quality of their enemies. The narrative of Standard, too, goes with the power of its bogeymen. I'll leave you with a quote from current Magic Online boss (but then my first Pro Tour roommate and mentor), Worth Wollpert, on the occasion of my first PTQ win (with Necropotence):
"I guess if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."