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Examining Grand Prix–Columbus: the Top 8 decks, the state of the format, and an interview with winner Steve Sadin.

Flashy Finish

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I must say that I was surprised by the lack of Hulk Flash decks in the Top 8 of Grand Prix–Columbus 2007. I know that there were three copies, more than any other archetype (there were five singletons), but I thought that if the metagame made any sense that there would be eight Flash decks in the Top 8—It's that much better than every other deck in the format. Alas, not enough players played Flash decks, and some spiteful young men played decks that could beat Flash, and the archetype that may never see the light of another DCI sanctioned tournament will have to settle for the best Swiss record and the Grand Prix win.

Perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself.

What is Hulk Flash?

In the summer of 1999, there was a new set coming out called Urza's Destiny, the third and arguably most powerful member of Urza Block. Urza Block featured Time Spiral and Windfall in Urza's Saga, Memory Jar and Frantic Search in Urza's Legacy, and was gearing up for Replenish, Yawgmoth's Bargain, and Academy Rector in the final installment. Yawgmoth's Bargain was really strong—essentially a game win when it resolved—and Academy Rector was two mana less expensive (and cards that cost four are supposed to win the game anyway), but at least it was four. Flash was two.

You could Flash out Academy Rector for two mana, deploy Academy Rector, find Yawgmoth's Bargain, and that was that. Kill however you would—Skirge Familiars, Seismic Assaults, even Scent of Jasmine engines—if you can draw 19 or so more cards than your opponent and not win, you might as well hang up the wand.

The powers that be reached for their giant red Sharpie, and Flash went from an Academy Rector's best friend (that never was) to merely an at-end-of-turn Morphling enabler, a dormant minority option unheard of from U.S. Nationals 1999 until 2007... Three Bargain decks and a Flash deck all managed to make the Nationals Top 8 despite the errata.

The recent reversals of power level errata returned Flash to the vigor that never was. Conveniently, a Legacy Grand Prix gave it the stage it never had at the end of the last century.

With no Yawgmoth's Bargain in sight or in format, Academy Rector was no longer the most broken card for Flash to facilitate; the choice became Protean Hulk. Consider the implications:

FlashProtean Hulk; fail to pay the additional cost. Go fishin'.

Arcbound Ravager (2)
Disciple of the Vault (3)
Disciple of the Vault (4)
Disciple of the Vault (5)
Disciple of the Vault (6)
Shield Sphere (6)
Shield Sphere (6)
Shield Sphere (6)
Shield Sphere (6)

Counting the Ravager itself, that's just about a kill.

The kill engine could be refined. Arcbound Ravager was a liability. Engineered Plagues that people would already have for Goblin decks could be set to target Disciple of the Vault. Drawing too many Disciples would make it impossible to combo-kill.

Disciple of the Vault (all of them) could be combined with Shifting Wall and Phyrexian Marauder. A stack of 0/0 creatures could go to the graveyard simultaneously off the Flash (none of them taxing the Hulk's six), for a more robust finish.

Eventually, the preferred kill switched away from Disciple of the Vault to a more compact—but also more vulnerable—germ. While there remain any number of Hulk creature kills, all three decks in the Top 8 chose the same style.

Carrion Feeder (1)
Karmic Guide (6)

Carrion Feeder and Karmic GuideKarmic Guide comes into play and returns Protean Hulk. Carrion Feeder sacrifices the Hulk, and it's time to go fishing again. How about Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (5) (and maybe some one mana friend like Sylvan Safekeeper or Benevolent Bodyguard (6))? Kiki-Jiki copies Karmic Guide. In response, Carrion Feeder eats Kiki-Jiki. Karmic Guide brings back Kiki-Jiki, who commences to re-copy Karmic Guide. A million loops later, and infinite hasted Karmic Guides attack for the win.

Hulk Flash is exceedingly fast... The only card it has to play is the two-mana Flash. Versions with Chrome Mox can win on the first turn, and versions with Gemstone Caverns and Elvish or Simian Spirit Guides can win on the opponent's upkeep, before even taking a turn! My guess is that the card Flash will be banned in Legacy, not just because of its performance in Columbus, but because of the Future Sight additions that were not yet legal. Summoner's Pact makes the deck twice as consistent, making sure that Protean Hulk is in hand next to Flash on the big turn, and Pact of Negation supplements Force of Will, Daze, and Duress... and is probably even better than any of them in the fastest games.

Onto the decks:

Steven Sadin

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Steve is one of my best friends and was my teammate at Pro Tour–Charleston last year. I couldn't be happier for him this time. He played a version of Hulk Flash primarily designed by Billy Moreno that hybridized Flash with Counterbalance / Top.

Steve's version of the deck really showcases the difference between a good Flash deck and a poor one. His deck has a massive edge in the mirror with Dark Confidant, Sensei's Divining Top, and Counterbalance, and unlike most Flash decks that are dogs to Fish, his build manhandles aggro-control decks with its wide variety of superior spells.

I am not usually the biggest fan of Dark Confidant (I think it is very good but generally overplayed), but Brian David-Marshall has forced me to concede that Bob Maher can really seem unstoppable when paired with Sensei's Divining Top. In this deck, Confidant can headline a legitimate creature offense should the deck be shut down by Leyline of the Void or Pithing Needle.

Besides "just" being an absurdly fast and consistent two card combo deck that kills at two paltry mana, Flash Hulk has the pedigree of playing the best cards in the format: Force of Will... Brainstorm... potentially Duress... Mystical Tutor... In Steve's version, Mystical Tutor can either find Flash for the quick kill, get a permission card to protect a kill he already has, put a correctly costed spell on top to foil the opponent with Counterbalance, or go Napster-style for the Echoing Truth, Reverent Silence, or Massacre. There are a couple of cards that can shut down the Flash kill, including Pithing Needle (naming Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker or Carrion Feeder), Leyline of the Void (which can void graveyard strategies), or Meddling Mage (which prevents the card Flash itself from being played). Echoing Truth can answer any of these, and Massacre can kill Chris Pikula for free (along with most other Fish creatures that happen to also be in play).

Like I said, Steve is a good friend, and I got the chance to speak with him about his deck and his win while preparing this article.

The Top 8 Questions for the Top8Magic.com Intern:

1. You told me before the finals that Goblins was a bad matchup, but you still won... What gives?

Goblins is probably one of my worst matchups (among decks that actually showed up), but it's still favorable. When I said that I think I was a little shaken because both my record blemishes were to Goblins. I actually lost to Owen [Turtenwald] at 4-0 because he made me combo off. I had beaten three Fish decks and just showed them the pieces, but I didn't know how to combo off and I screwed up by sacrificing the wrong creature. Against another Goblins deck my opponent used Mogg Fanatic on my Carrion Feeder and I didn't know how to win. I probably should have been able to win somehow with Body Snatcher but I was really tired and decided to just get another Protean Hulk and try to kill him that way. I got a draw because he had to spend the whole round blocking my Protean Hulk!

Otherwise, I was just so advantaged. All my other matches (except Gadiel [Szleifer] conceding to me) were blowouts. I had the two best combos in the format. Flash is faster than the other fast decks, and I could slow down the slow decks with Counterbalance / Top. I actually think that I would have had trouble with Landstill, but that wasn't a real deck in this tournament.

2. One of the decks that came gunning for Hulk Flash was Fish...

My deck absolutely could not lose to Fish. I think that that is one of the reasons it is so good. Their clock is embarrassingly slow. I can assemble Counterbalance / Top and have plenty of time to win in the first game. After sideboarding, they have to bring in Leylines and Meddling Mages to keep me honest, and I bring in Massacres to kill their Meddling Mages. Eventually I get there with a 2/2 or 3/3 Quirion Dryad.

3. You had some real nail biters in the elimination rounds. Is it true you won on a mulligan to four?

Yeah. I mulled to a Leyline, two lands and some spell. I pre-played the Leyline but he Duressed my spell (I don't remember what it was) and I was pretty sure my two lands weren't going to do anything. I ripped two Bobs, but they didn't really do anything either but find one Daze. He set up his whole game with Lim-Dûl's Vault and Echoing Truthed my Leyline of the Void at the end of the turn. I Dazed and he had to crack his Polluted Delta to pay... which ruined his Lim-Dûl's Vault. If he had just sacrificed his Polluted Delta before the Vault, he probably would have been playing in the Finals.

4. So Goblins wasn't as bad as you thought it would be... How did your Finals match turn out?

The first game was a little tricky because I kept a no-lander on six, having drawn the Carrion Feeder. I had a Mox and a Top, and was able to get him before he had access to his sideboard cards... But it was tricky because I had to go off over two turns. I was a little nervous because Owen was my only loss, but like I said, I punted that first one.

I just combo'd him on the second turn with double Force of Will backup in the third. This deck is just unbeatable.

5. So is it your conclusion that Flash will have to be banned?

Oh, definitely. Even without Future Sight it is too good. People who thought anything else before this tournament had just not seen tuned Flash decks. If you re-ran Columbus 20 times, Gadiel and I would have 12 Top 8s each, Billy would have 10, and Julian would have 2-4.

6. You think Gadiel's deck is as good as yours?

For the tournament, my deck was better, but Gadiel's deck is better with the knowledge that people have today. We were playing and I had no chance against his 4 Duress, 4 Cabal Therapy, 4 Daze, and 4 Force of Will. It's not like a bad Fish deck that has disruption but is slow... Gadiel has almost all of the Fish package and can still just kill me with two mana. He also transforms better than I do with Phyrexian Negator in addition to Quirion Dryad. I was really relieved when Max beat him.

7. What happened with Billy and Julian? (Billy Moreno was the primary designer of the deck, which was also played by Steve's fellow Top8Magic.com intern Julian Levin.)

Billy actually made Day Two. Julian was 6-1 and had some bad luck the last two rounds. He played against Landstill, which I said was probably a bad matchup, and got killed on turn two by another Flash deck. His other loss was to Suicide Black, which is actually a deck. I didn't think it was that hard to beat when I played Bill Stark in the semis, but I had to play really tight. It was actually all Carrion Feeder tricks to keep counters off the Umezawa's Jitte. Actually almost all my wins in the Top 8 were based on playing well with Carrion Feeder.

8. Anything else you want to share?

Between my win and Matt's [fellow Top8Magic.com personality Matt Wang] in Boston, I have come to the conclusion that all you need to do to win a GP is donk it up and make one or two good attacks. :-)

Back to the decks:

Owen Turtenwald

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Owen Turtenwald had one of the strongest Day 1 records, finishing just behind Gadiel Szleifer's Hulk Flash before conceding sole ownership of the undefeated record to the Pro Tour Philadelphia winner at the beginning of the second day. Turtenwald's splash enabled the bonus on Tin Street Hooligan and a couple of sideboard cards, but he played only a sum total of three Flash-stopping Pyroblasts and Red Elemental Blasts. What he did have were four Tormod's Crypts (which can disrupt a graveyard combination, albeit not as effectively as Leyline of the Void, depending on the opponent's version) and four Pyrokinesis (which could kill Carrion Feeder or Kiki-Jiki even if he was tapped out).

Bill Stark

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Bill's deck combines a relatively quick beatdown and a massive amount of disruption: Wasteland, Hymn to Tourach, Unmask, and Duress. Especially on the play, Bill can assemble a fast clock and keep a Flash player off balance. After sideboarding, Bill could add Leyline of the Void. Against Goblins, he could run Engineered Plague on the first turn with Dark Ritual, but I can't imagine that is the matchup the Londes.com editor was looking for.

Max Tietze

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Players were calling decks like Max's "Fish," but it is actually more reminiscent of Ben Rubin's Dump Truck than the combo killer Nicholas Lebarre took to the Pro Tour–Rome Finals (where he nevertheless lost to the title to 800 pound gorilla Academy). Max's deck combines some of the format's best cards in a package that was billed to beat Hulk Flash; Meddling Mage, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, Stifle, and Daze, combined with a reasonable clock, are all strong disruptive elements. Like Bill, Max could sideboard in Leyline of the Void for a quick and highly effective measure against the core Hulk Flash combination.

Gadiel Szleifer

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Gadiel ran arguably the best deck in the tournament, a sort of anti-FlashFlash deck that combined the brutal power of the best combo in the format with the disruptive elements that influence people to play Fish or one of the Suicide or Pikula disruption decks... Enough interaction for both decks, actually. He was the last undefeated player and finished at the top of the Swiss even after conceding to Sadin.

Sylvan Safekeeper can help protect the combo against the opponent's removal cards... Like Sadin, Gadiel had the correct Tutor-driven singletons to answer the format's common hate spells.

Paul Nicolo

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Nicolo went with a splash for Lightning Bolt and Fire // Ice rather than the more common Mystic Enforcer, Worship, and Meddling Mage that you see in Threshold. In general, this style of deck uses numerous cantrips to get seven cards into the graveyard in order to make Nimble Mongoose and Werebear good... Note that the same processes will build size into a Quirion Dryad. Legacy Threshold plays aggro-control similar to Fish, but with generally more impressive offensive creatures.

Ryan Trepanier

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Ryan's version of Hulk Flash was focused on hitting the combo more consistently. Instead of maxing out on disruption like Gadiel or adding a second combo like Steve, Ryan ran Impulse and Serum Visions in addition to Lim-Dûl's Vault as additional dig.

Michael Belfatto

GP Columbus 07 Top 8

Michael's deck was somewhat reminiscent of Chris Pikula's Deadguy Ale from last year's Legacy Grand Prix... Black creatures with disruption and removal, augmented by the color's mortal opposite. There are two things worth noting about this build: 1) Plague Sliver, and 2) Contagion. Mike Pustilnik actually tested out Juzám Djinn last year, and Plague Sliver is better. Why? Some people go Slivers, and Plague Sliver can piggyback their abilities while punishing their masters with his. Contagion, like Pyrokinesis, is a free spell that could disrupt the most common Flash combo, even when Michael was tapped out.

I am not sure that the variety of decks in the Columbus elimination rounds will be enough to stave off Flash's predicted banning come the next format review. Hulk Flash put three times as many decks in the quarters as any other archetype, and two of them were forced to play one another in the first round of single elimination. Hulk Flash led the Swiss and ultimately won the tournament... And, provided the engine remained untouched, Future Sight would make the deck even better.

On balance, the Eternal formats are meant to be more degenerate and fundamentally unfair than Block, Standard, or other more commonly played formats, and whether or not the card is banned immediately will have little effect on high-level competition (Legacy is played only once or twice per year). It will be interesting to see what the Magic team will decide on this one.

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