I am always happy when we get to introduce readers of the column to players before their breakout performances on the Pro Tour—and when I can get them that advance billing for what they come to be well-known for, then all the better. One of my favorite examples of this was in my "Wild Cards" article. What more fitting way was there to introduce Conley Woods than in a column about rogue deck designers? Since this column, Conley has gone on to post a Pro Tour Top 4 and a Grand Prix Finals, and he has a reserved table in the Tournament Center for deck techs detailing his latest creations. Jonathon Loucks is still waiting for his breakout performance, but has become a well regarded columnist who did yeoman's work providing coverage of the California 2009s over at ChannelFireball.com. I hope this is only the first of many interviews I will get to do with both of these innovative deck builders in the coming seasons.
This article originally ran on April 3, 2009.
t some point in every successful PTQ career there is a breakthrough moment when you realize that in order for your dream of holding a blue envelope to come true, you are going to need to do it with a finely tuned deck that has already demonstrated its ability to win. For as long as Magic has been discussed on the internet there have been players on either side who advocate or revile what used to be called "net-decking." Players may dream of innovating a format-defining deck, but sometimes you have to put aside those youthful notions and just play Faeries or Elves ... right?
This week I talked with a pair of players who resisted the call of the Fae, ignored the peer pressure of those pesky Elves, and stayed out of the Storm to win recent qualifiers with exciting new decks that were not on anyone's playtest gauntlets leading into their tournaments.
Mike Flores wrote about Jonathon Loucks's Kiki Mite Get There deck in last week's Top Decks, and regular readers of this column may recognize his name from an early season attempt to get to Hawaii with a Martyr of Sands / Proclamation of Rebirth deck that featured an array of unexpected cards. He also was one of the progenitors of the Mannequin decks that swept through Standard a couple of State Championships back.
Jonathon Loucks's Kiki-Jiki gets Friki-Diki
Extended - Winner, PTQ-Honolulu, Seattle WA
As MartyrProc decks became more popular—with vocal advocates like Bill Stark and Mike Flores picking up variations on the deck—Jonathon found he needed to build a different deck.
"That deck became less and less viable, what with Zoo running Sulfuric Vortex now, and Loam and Wizards everywhere," explained Loucks, saying that he then went into the tank with his testing partner Zaiem Baeg. They were trying to find a deck that did not relay on Storm or the graveyard. "Stuffy Doll and Guilty Conscience seemed poorly positioned, and I didn't like the idea of trying to cast Tooth and Nail, but the Kiki-Jiki win condition of Tooth and Nail was appealing. I had always wanted a Gifts Ungiven and Reveillark deck, so that idea was floating in the back of my mind when I thought of Kiki-Jiki. The two seemed like a natural fit, so I made the deck."
Early versions of the deck featured green for cards like Wall of Roots and Sakura Tribe-Elder but eventually that color was put aside for a more streamlined build.
"I trimmed the deck down to its basic elements—blue for Pestermite, white for Reveillark, and red for Kiki-Jiki—and it became a lot smoother. I felt like I was missing an early way to impact the board that worked well with the rest of the deck—Mulldrifter was just too slow—and then Gavin [Verhey] suggested Trinket Mage. From there it was trimming and smoothing."
I have been a fan of the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker / Pestermite combo since Zeilend Powell rode it to Day Two of Grand Prix–Philadelphia and was featured in my column but to compare that deck with this one is to compare a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a Banana Split with all the toppings.
"My all-time favorite combo is not the game winner of Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite, but of the Mirror Breaker and Reveillark. Copying a Reveillark is one of the most satisfying feelings I've had playing Magic. You feel invincible!" exclaimed Jonathon as he detailed the synergies in his deck list.
"Body Double did a lot of cool stuff. He—or she, or whatever Body Double chooses to be at the time—is the most fun when he is comboing with the opponent's graveyard," Loucks continued. "They let your Body Double hit play, only to find out it's their own Kitchen Finks and not the harmless Pestermite they expected. Speaking of Kitchen Finks, a Body Double with persist is pretty neat. I wish Kiki-Jiki and Body Double worked the way I wanted it to, letting you choose a different thing each time, but you only get copies of what the first Body Double is a copy of. But really, I can't complain in that situation because I've got an active Kiki-Jiki!"
Trinket Mage ended up being an MVP for Loucks during the tournament—finding artifact lands more often than not—and his unsightly sideboard worked very well with his Gifts Ungiven at giving his opponent difficult-to-answer questions in Games 2 and 3—questions they did not study for during playtesting. Loucks found tremendous value in having a deck that players were not prepared for even if they could figure out what was going on pretty quickly.
"I never caught a person completely off-guard with the combo; they usually knew what was up once they saw a Pestermite or Kiki-Jiki," said Loucks of his PTQ opponents. "Instead, almost the opposite effect happened, where instead of being caught off-guard they switched to defense mode, determined not to let you go off. This works in your favor because it makes the game go longer, and you've got a lot of inevitability with Gifts Ungiven and Reveillark."
"The other bonus to playing a deck like this late in the season is that everybody else has really tight, specific sideboards," continued Loucks, who has written an in-depth tournament report for the new strategy site ChannelFireball.com. "They don't know how to sideboard against you, have to make due with cards that are intended for other matchups, and are usually focused on the combo. Meanwhile, you bring in Shatterstorm against Affinity, or Tormod's Crypt against Loam, or Wrath of God against Bant. While they are mangling their main deck trying to figure out how to beat you, you're bringing in trump cards for the matchup."
Loucks has always been drawn to offbeat decks, going back to his early infatuation with Oversold Cemetery recurring Ravenous Baloth and creatures sacrificed to Braids, Cabal Minion. That original deck's card advantage and inevitability seems to inform all of his creations, from Mannequined Mulldrifters to Proclamating Martyrs
"I also really liked a Mishra, Artificer Prodigy deck early in the Time Spiral Block season. It has everything I love in a deck. It is midrange with efficient creatures—Shadowmage Infiltrator, Epochrasite—it is deep with cards that have multiple roles like the four Tolaria West it ran, and it has combo elements: Mishra. Give me efficient spells that snowball in advantage, and you've hooked me. I've been known to reanimate a Mulldrifter or two, and that's all that deck was: efficiency."
Pro Tour–Honolulu will be the first Pro Tour for Loucks, and he is looking forward to tackling the Block Constructed format and making sure his first time is not his last. Besides trying to give Maelstrom Angel haste, what strategies have piqued his interest in the partially completed format?
"I'm really glad I get to play in the Block format. The cards and strategies seem fun, and the fact that it should be a completely undefined format really excites me. I think there is a lot of room to do something powerful. It looks like planeswalkers are going to play a huge role, so I'm looking for a strategy that's powerful enough to just ignore them," said the ever-rogue Loucks. "I really like the look of Master Transmuter. That's definitely the card at the top of the list of cards to try. Sure, you've got to get it to stick, but once you do ... oh man. I figure with Sanctum Gargoyle and Sharuum the Hegemon you just keep trying until you succeed.
"I also love Corpse Connoisseur. It's a bit expensive, but grabbing a Sedraxis Specter, Kederekt Leviathan, or even another Corpse Connoisseur really intrigues me. I'm scared that the graveyard will be easily hated out with Necrogenesis and Relic of Progenitus, but I'm still going to try," he continued. "Other than that I have a few disjointed ideas floating around. Ranger of Eos for Feral Hydra also looks like fun, but I'm not sure it's something I would play. Knight of the Reliquary is shiny, but I don't know what I want to do with it yet. Obelisk of Alara has to do something cool."
Another exciting deck was the one featured in the Daily Deck List earlier this week known as Extend-a-Geddon and played by Conley Woods to a PTQ win in Alberqueque. How can you not love a deck that features ten Armageddon effects, can consistently make a 5/5 Knight of the Reliquary on turn three, and can Flame Jab for the win?
Conley Woods's Extend-a-Geddon
"The deck actually started off in a strange way," explained Conley Woods. "A friend had asked if there was anyway to port the green-black-blue Team America deck from Legacy over to Extended."
Team America Sample List
"During my search for cards I quickly realized that black was only good for Tombstalker in Extended, so I settled on red and ran across the seldom-played gems Thoughts of Ruins and Boom // Bust. A trickledown effect led me to most of the card choices with things like Flagstones of Trokair and Knight of the Reliquary sending me into white over blue. I originally left out Path to Exile from the deck because I was worried about the clashing [of land destruction] with it, but have since realized that this was wrong and would change the Jittes to Paths."
Being able to use Boom // Bust on turn two targeting your Flagstones is one of the more appealing aspects of this deck but, much like the deck we looked at earlier, the synergies run deeper than what you might see at first glance.
"Ajani happened to be a perfect fit as I was looking for more removal / life gain but also wanted another mana denial engine," said Conley, going over the key choices he made in building the deck. "Sometimes the perfect card exists for the job. Flame Jab is of course awesome with Loam but sees little play. It filled many roles in the deck with the use of only one card. It added an uncounterable endgame that is similar to that of Seismic Assault while also completely taking out Elves and Faeries. It also had the nice bonus of being an easy-to-find answer to cards like Gaddock Teeg, who can be mildly annoying. The key to the land death package is that all of the spells are so versatile. Boom // Bust can be used to take out a Riptide Laboratory, or you can sit back and blow out a Mono-White player with Bust. Ajani has already been mentioned, and Thoughts of Ruin is so awesome in that you get to control the level of effectiveness. I cast it for two, nine, and everything in between during the tournament."
If you have the ability to create a competitive deck that is unexpected by the other PTQ competitors, Conley will be one of the first players to tell you that there is a lot of value of going off-road in a mapped field.
"I find there to be a huge edge in taking an original deck to a tournament anytime, although it has extra merit during an already explored metagame," he explained. "It invalidates the playtesting of other individuals. Playtesting is used to A) master your deck of choice, and B) learn how to play against the other popular decks. When an entire portion of it is removed, in that they have no or little idea on how to play against you, players often make small mistakes that contribute to a win for the opponent. Playtesting gets a player comfortable with situations they may encounter and playing an unknown deck removes that comfort zone. In addition, you often can get players to sideboard incorrectly—if they even have sideboard cards for you at all. I had a player at the PTQ bring in Pithing Needle against me and promptly set it for Seismic Assault. A fine guess on his part, but no dice. I had created real and virtual card advantage just by sleeving up a unique 75."
It was not the first time that Conley had generated that type of unexpected advantage. Another rogue deck earned him a virtual Top 8 in Dallas a couple of years back:
Conley Woods's 8-Post Wildfire
Extended - 10th place, Grand Prix–Dallas 2007
There was also his unusual take on Momentary Blink that included Thousand-Year Elixir and Merieke Ri Berit—a card that almost everyone wants to build a deck around when they first start trying to sculpt a 60 but usually put quickly aside.
Conley Woods's Blink … Blink … Blink?
Standard – Top 4, Colorado States 2007
And it was not the first time one of his creations made the front page of the website in the Daily Deck:
Conley Woods's A River Kelpie Runs Through It
Standard - 34th Place, Grand Prix-Denver
"In general you will find me playing some off-the-wall deck in most formats, like the Blood Cloud deck at GP–LA earlier this year," said Conley of his unconventional deck choices. "I no longer force myself to play bad decks as in years past, but if I can find a deck that is at least as good as the other Tier 1 decks but still unknown then I will play it for the surprise factor. Generally, if you take enough time to break down any metagame, there will be a better deck out there somewhere—with a few exceptions such as during the Affinity Standard. People tend to grow content with the current available decks and stop innovating, whereas I try to continue doing so at all times."
Despite his penchant for the offbeat, that has not been what has kept Conley off of the Pro Tour. The financial burden of higher education has kept him from attending most of the Pro Tours he has qualified for either through PTQs or continued success at the Grand Prix level.
"I did attend Worlds 2007 in New York and both of the last two Nationals," said Conley of the events he has attended. "I was qualified for Pro Tour–Yokohama, Valencia, Kuala Lampur, Kyoto, and I believe Berlin, but never managed to go. The American Pro Tours have seemed to evade me due to strange events, including large ratings hits after Day Two of a Grand Prix. I have Day Twoed every Grand Prix I have ever attended, however (I believe six or seven) and have only missed the money one time, at Grand Prix–LA where I had a horrible Day 2."
With only two of the three sets revealed so far, Conley did not want to speculate on the upcoming Block format beyond saying, "Planeswalkers seem to dominate the current Block format, and I can't see that changing too much even with a new sets release. I am really excited by the slower format though, as I am a control player at heart and the door is just opened so much wider in these types of situations."
I know that I will be excited to see what both of these exciting young players bring to the table in Honolulu and will be sure to keep an eye on them when scouting potential deck techs for the Tournament Center.
April Friday Night Magic Foil
Former Rookie of the Year Sebastian Thaler earned more than one raised eyebrow with his choice of Merfolk for the Standard portion of PT Kyoto, which he piloted to a 5-3 record and an overall 89th place finish. Perhaps he knew that this month's FNM foil would be the lynchpin Merrow Reejerey that makes the deck tick.
Sebastian Thaler's Merfolk
Standard, Pro Tour-Kyoto, 89th Place
Firestarter: When to Go Rogue?
Off-roading has certainly worked for these two guys but the road to the Top 8 of any PTQ is littered with the husks of rogue decks that did not get there. What do you do when you go to play in an event—do you take the best deck and achieve mastery over it, or are you more the mad scientist type? Head to the forums and share your approach to Constructed tournament preparation there, and good luck to everyone playing in the final weeks of the PTQ season.