Top_Decks

Analyzing the diverse recipients of Champs Top 8 honors.

Champs 2006 Metagame Breakdown

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The letter A!s is only appropriate for the present “Wizard” theme, last weekend saw innumerable battles between innumerable wizards. It was Champs in North America and around much of the rest of the world, a thousand brawls in an untested format, the first clicking dominoes that will set the stage for Standard for the rest of 2006 and the 2007 Championship Season.

My numbers, bereft of Adepts and subject to more and later reports from Tournament Organizers, will not be as accurate on the counts as the MTGO popularity tallies of my colleague Fanatic Frank Karsten, but that said, the following should give you an idea as to the viability and variability of the present Standard:

G/W Glare
Solar Pox
Dragonstorm
Solar Flare
U/W Control
KarstenBot Babykiller
Zoo
U/W Tron
Boros Deck Wins
U/R/W Firemane Control
B/R/W Firemane Control
IzzeTron
Proclamation Decks
Blink decks
Vore
U/G Scryb & Force
U/R/G Tron
B/U Control
Annex-Wildfire
U/R/W Beatdown
U/R/W Mid-range
B/U/W card advantage
U/G Aggro
Gruul Aggro
U/G/W Control
Discard / The Rack
B/W Control
B/W Aggro
Beach House Update
Black or Bad Moon Aggro
Rakdos
U/R/W Resurrection
U/R Snow
B/G/W Mid-Range
Fungus Fire
Battle of Wits
B/U/G Aggro
Dark Zoo
Eye Combo
G/R/W Mid-range
Gargadon Balance
MGA
Mono-U Snow
Red Aggro
U/G Control
U/G/R Aggro
WW
Zombies!

Yes, yes! By this writer's count, North American Champs showed us close to fifty distinct deck styles, many of which I will discuss in this article.

The legend here differentiates only population in the Top 8 and winners.

Top Level Analysis… of the top level:

Clearly the biggest movers and shakers were the decks this column hyped last week, G/W Ghazi-Glare and Solar Pox, the winners of the Kobe King's Games Standard tournament and the Star City Games $1500, respectively. Surprising, to me at least, was how well Dragonstorm did, peer to Solar Flare and U/W Control in first place finishes, with more Top 8s than either. What was really surprising was how my red headed stepchild, KarstenBot BabyKiller – a deck that I, tongue-in-cheek, tried to pass off as the Fanatic's (Frank clearly has too much class for a deck so crass) – held more than its own at the top, tied for third with three Champs victories with the nearly-as-surprising Dragonstorm and not-surprising-at-all U/W Control.

I got innumerable emails, private messages, voicemails, notes passed across the classroom, and horse's heads on my pillow asking how I might tune KarstenBot BabyKiller for the current Standard. I told each and every person, and the thousands of lads and lassies who tune into ye olde podcast every week that I was turning my back on the deck for fear of turn-four Akroma, Angel of Wrath. At least twelve stalwarts proved me wrong, and three of those manascrewed their opponents all the way to first place finishes. Great job, guys! Way to prove the old man wrong.

At New York Champs – and to some degree this seems to translate across the wide expanses of the metagame – the top tables seem much more control-leaning than beatdown. Because of that, despite the first place / first place (wins and Top 8s overall both) that G/W Ghazi-Glare posted, I would still be apprehensive about it as my Weapon of Choice. In particular, in a field where Solar Pox is chased closely by Solar Flare in the top 4 most popular or successful decks, G/W Ghazi-Glare seems a dangerous choice. Don't forget the sentiment from then-defending U.S. National Champion Antonino De Rosa upon making the Top 8 break once again… He said his Glare deck was good against creatures, but not in a Top 8 full of Solar Flare (two Flare decks ended up on the team).

Why might G/W Ghazi-Glare be a potentially bad choice for a Solar / Solar top end environment?

The main incentive of Ghazi-Glare is that it can lock the board with high quality creatures – most significantly Loxodon Hierarch – and gain life along the way. That makes Ghazi-Glare hell on creatures. When it debuted on the wide stage of the 2005 World Championships, the deck could lean heavily on Glare of Subdual to trump the monolithic finishers of then–top dawg Jushi Blue with anything from a Saproling token up the chain.

The problem in a format where Solar Flare and Solar Pox are top decks – a problem the Worlds 2005 deck didn't have to address as that event was pre-Guildpact – is that the board control deck of choice is base-Orzhov. Mortify, a card that is just good that most Orzhov decks play and all Solar / Solar decks will play 2-4 copies of main deck – is a mana-efficient trump to G/W's namesake ace, Glare of Subdual. Without that enchantment, the Little Green Men cannot realistically cope with a 5/5 flying Vindicate or turn-four Angel of Wrath, especially out of a deck (or two distinct decks, really) that pack the maximum number of copies of Wrath of God, eight or more draw spells to get the appropriate response card, essentially as much mana acceleration as G/W, and better finishers in context.

If top-table trends continue, Ghazi-Glare will go from the most successful deck on Week Zero to essentially unplayable. Should the Boros and Zoo aggressors lose popularity in the face of life gain and creature removal, Ghazi-Glare will lose its key prey while the variables around it shift in favor of hostile foes and difficult matchups.

One interesting ray of hope for Glare – not to naysay the top deck too much, believe me, I've always loved a Glare deck – is the movement of some Solar Pox players from three Mortifies and three Condemns to four Condemns main, shaving a Mortify. The Solar Pox players don't want to lose to someone else's Akroma, and Condemn is better against Zoo… Glare benefits, obviously, but probably shouldn't get too cozy. The opponent has probably still got two Mortifies, two copies of Angel of Despair, and three Dread Returns to tear up that ace.

Last week we introduced Solar Pox to the wider world, saying that it was a short list deck to play but not yet what we would, in the long-lost language of The Dojo, call a Deck to Beat. You can tell this was a correct recommendation because a goodly number of Solar Pox players did their winning. Consider this deck upgraded (which is not, by the by, actually an upgrade). You can easily tell the difference between a good new deck to play like Solar Pox was and a Deck to Beat (that is, a superb deck, but one everyone is geared to defeat) like Boros Deck Wins, Zoo, or especially U/G Aggro by looking at the finishes. U/G Aggro is the control killer. It was one of the most popular options at Champs and would have been Top 5 out of nearly 50 distinct lines if we counted on popularity alone. U/G commanded not one victory.

The Decks

There were something like fifty different archetypes represented in the North American Top 8s, depending on how you want to cut them. I'm obviously not going to go into each and every deck in detail. If you would like to, check out the Top 8 decks here.

Instead, I am going to focus on what I think is interesting and the mechanics and methodologies of the most important decks to play or beat.

Boros Deck Wins

Gerard Fabiano
3rd Place - New Jersey

Gerard picked up a consecutive New Jersey State Championships Top 8 to go with his Player Card this year, running one of the best aggro decks in the format, Boros Deck Wins. You've seen variations on this deck for the past year, with Gerard's Champs deck loosely modeled on 20/20/20 budget Boros and running four big Boros Garrisons!

In place of Umezawa's Jitte, Gerard packed a card we will see in another strong update, Griffin Guide. Griffin Guide is essentially a burn spell, sending Savannah Lions over Loxodon Hierarch's head like a Char and leaving a baby Shock should the opponent have Wrath of God.

The Blink Decks

These decks, which across the various Champs were generally U/G/W (but could easily have been Red for Avalanche Riders or Black for Angel of Despair) are newcomers based around the key Time Spiral draft common Momentary Blink.

Tony Menzer took Oklahoma with his Glare hybrid look at Blink.

The Blink decks run a lot of 187 creatures like Loxodon Hierarch and Yavimaya Dryad that have beneficial effects when they come into play. In the early game, he can be flipping over all kinds of fuel with Coiling Oracle to dominate attrition and even exploit the synergy between Call of the Herd and Momentary Blink to win unexpected fights (believe it or not, a 3/3 Elephant Token can rumble with a Watchwolf, put damage on the stack, ask its daddy for some Momentary Blink love… and come back, even though it is a token creature!).

The really sexy Blink combo is with Mystic Snake… Who said we don't have hard counters for two mana any more?

B/R/W Firemane Control

We looked at a similar deck last week, but the B/R/W Firemane Control deck is compelling enough to warrant another mention.

As a baseline, B/R/W is very similar to U/R/W Firemane Angel Control, substituting black card draw for blue card draw. The synergy with Compulsive Research (dumping Angels early and often) is lost, but any Firemane Angel online becomes an amazing partner to Phyrexian Arena (they balance one another out).

Young's version has a lot of life gain from Lightning Helix and Faith's Fetters, and can therefore go to town with Searing Meditation. Though he doesn't have Compulsive Research or Careful Consideration, Scott does have Moonlight Bargain for Firemane synergy and bolsters both his Wrath of God and Castigate themes with Void, which is sweep and hand destruction both.

I haven't actually tried it, but I think Nightmare Void might be a good addition to this archetype, at least in the sideboard, because it wants to make opponents discard, and dredge is a nice combo with Firemane Angel.

Dragonstorm

When your opponent plays two Lotus Blooms on the first turn, you usually know what deck he is playing.

There are several Dragonstorm decks that you can find browsing this year's Champs decks. They vary on the number of main deck Gigadrowse (anti-control), lands, and colors (most are U/R, but many have black), but for the most part these decks play the same way. Turn one Lotus suspend sets up a fourth-turn kill with an additional storm copy. Pepper with Rite of Flame and Seething Song on the appropriate turn to ramp to nine mana and jack the storm count.

The goal is to hit four copies of Dragonstorm (or more if you can), with the ideal being four Bogardan Hellkites each hitting the opponent with 187 effects for 20. Because you can draw a Hellkite and Dragonstorm isn't Tooth and Nail, the deck has to play additional Dragons; the eminently castable Hunted Dragon provides a proxy (swing for six instead of 187 for five), and it isn't actually that hard to set up storm for six to hit for about thirty-two in a single turn.

Instead of one of the many similar Dragonstorm lists that actually showed up at Champs, here is a very different look at the card by Pro Tour great Akira Asahara. Akira came in second at the Japanese Lord of Magic tournament a few weeks ago. His deck incorporates a heavier suspend theme and the heretofore unseen Clockspinning. Notice how Clockspinning can play Time Walk with a Lotus and jack the storm count!

Akira's sideboard has a Gargadon / Restore Balance transformation (don't forget those Flagstones of Trokair). There were a couple of decks in North America Champs entirely keyed on this combo… Akira mixes up the time-delayed Upheaval + Psychatog–reminiscent combo with his fourth Clockspinning.

G/W Ghazi-Glare

The vast majority of the successful Ghazi-Glare decks of this year's Champs were straight lifts from the King's Games Standard tournament in Kobe we talked about last week. While much of the analysis section talked about why Ghazi-Glare might not be the right deck to play as the metagame matures, there is no arguing with the raw success of the deck both in terms of numbers and first place finishes.

First, the basics: Glare of Subdual might not be quite Opposition, but with Selesnya Guildmage, Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, and newcomer Thelonite Hermit, it comes close enough for most creature decks. For his part, Thelonite Hermit is a Crusade for Saprolings, “a 9/9” creature, and five Icy Manipulators in a shootout. Any creature, token or otherwise, is what Glare of Subdual wants to break The Firestorm Principle, and with reprint Call of the Herd in the mix as well, the Glare decks have the tools to break it in bulk.

The current Standard plays in three stages, the last of which is dominated by two cards: Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Demonfire. The success of Ghazi-Glare is in large part contingent on the deck's ability to stifle the opponents' endgames. Loxodon Hierarch (especially combined with fleeing femme Saffi Eriksdotter) can take a big chunk out of the last nail in the coffin Demonfire. Some Glare decks run a singleton Akroma along with Chord of Calling or Congregation at Dawn, all of them can tap that juggernaut down, at least in the short term.

Ultimately, the ability of Glare to compete has to do with speed. It is not the fastest beatdown deck, but given mana, Glare can produce an offense capable of winning in two to three turns once its game is set. It is not the best control deck, but the key tools on 2 ManaGreen ManaWhite Mana can buy the time necessarily to keep the opponent out of his trump zone. A single Loxodon Hierarch will even stave off a lethal Dragonstorm combination on four copies, and when Glare of Subdual hits… you have some frustrated flyers and one seething loser of an opponent (“But I went off!”).

Jeremy Burt took first place at his Champs with this update to Ghazi-Glare. I chose this version not just for his couldn't-be-better finish, but because instead of just lifting Kai's deck, he mixed it up with two cards that are great with one another, great in context, and great with glare: Spectral Force and Scryb Ranger. Scryb Ranger untaps Spectral Force. Scryb Ranger also untaps someone to re-tap for Glare or for tap-and-swing offense. The subtle bonus is that Spectral Force is awesome against Rakdos, and Rakdos is awesome against Glare decks! Sure, the Scryb Ranger is never going to live through a Shadow Guildmage, but Rakdos is the one deck where Spectral Force doesn't need the help. Any Saproling will allow the big man to dodge Cruel Edict, but it takes some burn spells for Rakdos to dodge dead in three.

KarstenBot BabyKiller

Joshua Miller
1st Place - Montana

When I originally conceived of this deck, it was a port of Japanese 8StoneRain.dec, but incorporating Skred. Scrying Sheets made up for the loss of blue. Players have de-emphasized the Snow theme to one degree or another, so for the Champs counts, I grouped together both Snow and non-Snow decks. Anyway, all the decks of this order want to go first-turn mana accelerator, second-turn Cryoclasm or Stone Rain. Most have gone to Rumbling Slum for offense, and most have also borrowed Stormbind from 1995.

My main objection to the viability of this onetime favorite deck was the inability to deal with a turn-four Akroma, Angel of Wrath (Skred, for one mana, kills almost anything… but not her). Joshua played three Tormod's Crypts to solve this. It's unlikely for a Solar Flare or U/W deck to be able to pay retail against a functioning KarstenBot BabyKiller, and Tormod's Crypt in play will consistently prevent the discount on Zombify, Resurrection, or Dread Return. Well done, again.

Proclamation Decks

These are a cool new suite of white decks to come out of Coldsnap. You will see various different builds with UrzaTron, Snow Engine, or splashes for black or red finishers. For this example I chose Rickard Hedlund's from Manitoba on pedigree (he was the only Champs Champ this year):

Rickard Hedlund
1st Place - Manitoba

Regardless of mana engine, the Proclamation decks have a couple of key cards: Martyr of Sands and Proclamation of Rebirth. Together these represent a life gain engine of tremendous frustration for the opponent. Every turn the white mage forecasts Proclamation of Rebirth to get back the Martyr, inevitably revealing more and more cards to stunt the opponent's offense. Children of Korlis can proxy the Martyr, not actually getting ahead, but providing a Kami of False Hope-like recursive effect.

Many versions also use Weathered Wayfarer to set up their engines. Like the Martyr and Children, Weathered Wayfarer can serve as a never-ending nuisance, and actually generate real card advantage, assembling the UrzaTron or finding that key Mouth of Ronom.

Solar Flare

Arguably the most popular deck in Standard, this macro archetype's numbers would probably have been even bigger if not for its spawn, Solar Pox.

While you can make the argument that father Solar Flare is the outmoded Neanderthal Man of the two decks, the incentives between the hot new thing and old man are different. Solar Flare has Remand. Remand isn't a hard counter but it's probably still on the short list for the best spell in Standard. Against the top red secks, especially the multi-dimensional ones, Persecute is an important tool that Solar Pox typically doesn't play (I know I wouldn't have lost a match at Champs but for the well-aimed Persecute!). Finally, Solar Flare's offense allows for a more robust array of threats. You can't argue with the panache of Solar Pox, but there really is something to be said for that second – or even third – Skeletal Vampire!

Solar Pox

Definite It! Girl! of Champs 2006, Solar Pox took all of one week to go from nobody to Number Two.

This deck is all about synergy. It has most of the tools of older brother Solar Flare, but runs an internally powerful early game that almost can't be matched by any other deck in the format. Imagine there was a card that cost Black ManaBlack Mana and destroyed the opponent's land. Oh, there is?

What if it destroyed the opponent's land, caused him to discard, and showed his man an Edict… while at the same time turning on your draw engine? Because of Flagstones of Trokair, there is almost no downside to Smallpox, and with Haakon, Stromgald Scourge and creatures that would rather be reanimated than hard cast (sevens and eights), this spell is anything but traditionally symmetrical.

If you have never heard of this deck, catch up. You'll need to. Here is the version onetime Pro Tour great Jeff Fung ran at his Champs:



Look for Solar Pox to grow up to be the most popular deck in the format for at least a time.

U/G Scryb & Force

Quietly differentiating itself from “regular” U/G Aggro (see last week's Swimming with Sharks), which is largely based on the Dutch Simic Aggro deck from the Netherlands Top 8, Scryb & Force is specifically borrowed from Naoki Shimizu in the Top 8 of the Lord of Magic tournament.

Scrub and Force
Naoki Shimizu, Lord of Magic Top 8

This little – and quite big – dynamo of a deck plays only nineteen (!) lands, but runs out the biggest and baddest offense in the format. We think of Shimizu as a Solar Flare guy, but this time around, his weapon of choice goes turn-one Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves, turn-two Scryb Ranger, turn-three Spectral Force! Rah!

With Psionic Blast and Stonewood Invocation to finish, this deck doesn't take very long to win.

U/W Control

There was great variation in this macro-archetype, with players running anything from post–Solar Flare two-color decks killing with Akroma, all the way to Sacred Mesa sit-there decks out of 1997, and every Urza's Factory-activation-at-end-of-turn in-between.

U/R/W decks

I split these decks out into four distinct groups because, though they share Lightning Helixes, they don't share game plans.

U/R/W Beatdown: This is basically Boros Deck Wins with Blue.

U/R/W Firemane Angel Control: Modern interpretations of “the classic,” this deck is keyed on Kamiel's Top 16 deck from Pro Tour – Honolulu. It is almost a true control deck, with Compulsive Research and/or Careful Consideration dumping the Firemane Angel, sometimes using the life gain to break Zur's Weirding. This sub-archetype is distinguished by the presence of both Wrath of God and counterspells.

U/R/W Resurrection: This version is very “Solar Flare” in flavor, hybridizing Firemane Angel Control elements with the minor reanimation suite of Solar Flare. Of course you have Akroma, Angel of Wrath (major distinguishing feature, along with Resurrection), and the draw-and-dump spells are already fantastic with Firemane Angel. Many of these decks have their own answer to Angel of Despair in Bogardan Hellkite.

U/R/W Mid-Range: These decks play offense against control and alternately play control or purely race beatdown. I included the Pat Chapin Flag Burner decks in this group as well as the New York State Champion's deck:



Mike Flores
1st Place - New York

As you can see, this deck doesn't really fit into the Firemane Angel Control mold despite playing Wrath of God (no counters) and is actually pretty offensive with Serra Avenger and Lightning Angelbut it still plays Wrath of God!

My former Righteous Babe teammate, the underrated mastermind Brian Kowal, built this deck. It is tuned to demolish Zoo and Rakdos, trump control with Demonfire and Firemane Angel in the long game, and beat Solar Pox at its own game with Flagstones of Trokair and Firemane Angel (who likes going to the graveyard directly from hand). A lot of people found this deck to be confusing to characterize, and even though I won New York with it, I am a bit puzzled at categorizing it myself. You may be scratching your head at some of the cards… Wrath of God and Serra Avenger?

Remember a year ago when the opponent had three guys and you tapped six for your Dragon to trump them? It's like that now, but instead you tap four to blow up all their guys and have two left to play your 3/3 Dragon.

The absolute coolest card in the deck is Fortune Thief. I liked Kowal's deck but was pretty sure it would lose to a resolved Glare of Subdual… so I thought up Fortune Thief. The post-sideboard game plan is to play Fortune Thief (99% of the time they can't kill it), and wait there until the opponent has drawn most of his deck, and then Compulsive Research him until he's dead. It seems silly, but very few G/W Glare decks can beat this strategy.

Zoo

Lucas Glavin
1st Place - Massachusetts

Main Deck

60 cards

Battlefield Forge
Forest
Gemstone Mine
Sacred Foundry
Stomping Ground
Temple Garden

22 lands

Kird Ape
Magus of the Scroll
Savannah Lions
Scab-Clan Mauler
Watchwolf

19 creatures

Call of the Herd
Char
Griffin Guide
Lightning Helix
Rift Bolt

19 other spells

Sideboard
Cryoclasm
Fiery Justice
Ronom Unicorn
Stone Rain

15 sideboard cards


We started on Boros with Griffin Guide. We end on Zoo with Griffin Guide.

Zoo was the prototypical Deck to Beat prior to Champs, and in the hands of Lucas Glavin, one of America's most underrated Magical minds, it went all the way. The deck has a very similar game plan to Boros, trading bustier creatures like Watchwolf and an additional two power one drop for the Boros Legion's mana consistency and ability to run the mighty Garrison.

Glavin's version has a full eight 3/3 creatures for two mana (Scab-Clan Mauler) and a land destruction transformation (if there's one way you can reverse the nightmare matchup of Lightning Angel and Lightning Helix, it's a Stone Rain on the other guy's Karoo). Fiery Justice is really interesting, kind of like a cross between a one-sided Wrath of God and multiple Swords to Plowshares… Lucas already has Call of the Herd as a source of card advantage against other creature decks. Fiery Justice helps tip the scales even more.

Looking Forward

A year ago Standard was very clear to me. I understood it to have one clear best strategy, embraced by very few best decks. However the development agenda of Tier Two cards has given us a brand new format with literally dozens of decks that are good enough to play… and we haven't even seen two-thirds of the Time Spiral Block yet! This is going to be one fun year!

Your targets are even clearer now… There are just a ton of them. Gear up. Be the man!

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