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Learning from deck history

Throwing it Back One More Time

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The letter P!erhaps it's because magicthegathering.com is about to spiral backwards in time for the last two weeks of the month and I am just warming up. Perhaps it's because just about everybody loved my Sligh article a couple of weeks back -- a rare event for the opinionated Swimming with Sharks crowd, let me tell you. Or perhaps it's because I love watching the evolution of decks, getting into the heads of designers around the world by deconstructing their creations, more than anything else in all the planes of Dominia. So for Puzzle Week, I have no choice but to throw it back one more time and look at how some of the top decks of today rely on the decks of yesteryear for their forms, ideas, and even specific card choices. I think you'll see how the pieces of some of these decks, and the sequences of how they play the game in different phases, fall together like puzzle pieces themselves.

Tooth and Nail

The concept: Accelerate mana and then cast a powerful sorcery to dig two giant monsters out of your deck. Defend yourself early with cards like Electrostatic Bolt or Oblivion Stone, but win the game with a giant threat.

The original:

Gabriel Nassif - PT Kobe Finalist

While most of the Tooth and Nail decks that we've looked at over the past couple of months of Standard are based on Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower, the original Tooth and Nail laced Cloudposts together with Reap and Sow and Sylvan Scrying. In addition to Tooth and Nail, Nassif's deck could go for a Big Spell with Mindslaver, itself a default win in many matchups.

Before Tooth and Nail, there was...

Secret Force

Mike Turian - Worlds 2001

Main Deck

60 cards

Dust Bowl
14  Forest
Gaea's Cradle
Wasteland

23 lands

Elvish Lyrist
Fyndhorn Elves
Llanowar Elves
Masticore
Spike Feeder
Spike Weaver
Uktabi Orangutan
Verdant Force
Wall of Roots

31 creatures

Creeping Mold
Natural Order

6 other spells

Sideboard
Choke
Emerald Charm
Masticore
Penumbra Wurm
Powder Keg
Spike Weaver
Uktabi Orangutan

15 sideboard cards



This version of Secret Force was instrumental in Mike Turian's graduating to the Top 8 of Worlds 2001. Though now retired from competitive play, Mike was once one of the PT's best. His performance with this deck went a long way in giving Secret Force (previously considered a middling PTQ deck at best) credibility at the top levels of PT play. In fact, at the very next Extended Pro Tour, Raphael Gennari followed up on Mike's finish with a Secret Force Top 8 himself. Gennari's deck benefited a great deal from the inclusion of Apocalypse's black-green gold cards, adding Spiritmonger as a Verdant Force-level threat that the deck could actually cast, as well as Pernicious Deed for supreme anti-weenie defense. If you want to take a look at Genari's hybrid version, click here.

You probably know that long before Gennari or Turian shuffled up their Forests, Secret Force was innovated by a famous Magic writer by the name of Jamie Wakefield. While Secret Force looks like a deck that is all about popping a Natural Order to find Verdant Force, sometimes credited as The Best Fatty Ever Printed (tm), the deck could do a lot more in the early game. Just as Tooth and Nail can defend itself with Solemn Simulacrum or win the game outright with Mindslaver, Secret Force could control the board with Spike Weaver or even Spike Feeder. Against the popular Ophidian decks of the time, Spike Feeder could pass counters around the various small creatures in the deck to win any fight, or force damage through superior blockers with deceptively tiny 1/1 creatures. One of the great things about Secret Force was that, much like Tooth and Nail in the face of Ravager Affinity, it was an underpowered and even clunky deck when compared with some of the top flight opposition of its era(s). Wakefield had to overcome decks like Forbidian, High Tide, and Slivers -- all packing Force of Will -- and Gennari had to beat Trix with the Illusions of Grandeur + Donate combination. Luckily, he had Druid Lyrist on his squad.

Ravager Affinity...

One of many very good builds:

We have talked about Ravager Affinity almost every week since I picked up this column, and we're not likely to stop until either something big is banned or Mirrodin Block rotates out of Standard. The core of the deck is so strong that Clair played not a single card that wasn't available in Mirrodin Block when porting his deck to Standard, while Pierre Canali ported the deck all the way to an EXTENDED PT win.

But what is the predecessor to this deck? On what deck's shoulders does the mighty Affinity mechanic stand? Is it Tinker? Tinker and Affinity are both explosive artifact decks, right?

These decks don't really have a lot in common. They both have seven drop artifact creatures, but while Alan has the Ancient Tombs and Grim Monoliths to force his Colossus down, Clair doesn't even have to tap mana for his. Mike's deck is essentially a speed beatdown deck and Alan's is essentially a powerhouse CounterSliver deck with a control sideboard. I would even argue that modern Ravager Affinity has more in common with Suicide Black with Cursed Scrolls than it does with the ostensibly more obvious Tinker.

Don't know what a Suicide Black is? Here is a version that scored Top 4 at the 1999 Ohio Valley Regionals, put together by Brian Schneider and tuned by Worth Wollpert:

Suicide Black - Regionals 1999;

Main Deck

75 cards

City of Traitors
15  Swamp
Wasteland

22 lands

Blood Pet
Carnophage
Dauthi Horror
Dauthi Slayer
Skittering Skirge

19 creatures

Cursed Scroll
Dark Ritual
Diabolic Edict
Duress
Engineered Plague
Hatred
Persecute
Sarcomancy
Winter Orb

34 other spells


While Ravager Affinity might PLAY like a Suicide Black deck that "always gets the Ritual", subbing the punch of Hatred with Arcbound Ravager and the last points of Cursed Scroll with Disciple of the Vault, from an ancestral construction standpoint, Ravager, in my opinion, has a lot more in common with PT Venice Champion Osyp Lebedowicz's Astral Slide!

How can this be? An Astral Slide deck seems like the complete opposite of a Ravager Affinity deck. One deck is all about defense, cycling, and life gain, while the other deck is about aggressive drops, dealing huge packets of damage, and then finishing with one of three bombs. One deck's creatures specialize in blocking, while the other deck's creatures specialize in attacking. One deck has enchantments, the other artifacts. So how are they at all similar?

Well, we've never really had a deck with QUITE the oomph that Affinity packs. While Arcbound Ravager isn't unbeatable by any means, he is on a team whose powers are so tightly woven, they start from the very lands that the deck plays. There's your first similarity. Like Affinity, Slide has specialized lands that drive its mechanics.

Mechanics? Now there's an operative word!

Affinity is all about the Affinity for Artifacts mechanic. By playing artifact lands and other free artifacts like Chrome Mox, Ornithopter, Paradise Mantle, and Welding Jar in some builds, to just playing strong CHEAP artifacts in order to create a critical mass of passable artifacts, Affinity is able to cheat by paying nothing for 2/2s and little more for 3/2 flyers or 4/4 ground-pounders. This is the third time that Chromatic Sphere (or Barbed Sextant) has been legal. The last time, it produced colored mana for a deck that had all five basic land types; this time, it is playing center court in a deck with almost no colored spells, but that gets a lot of utility out of a cheap, one mana place holder: the more artifacts the better.

Similarly, Astral Slide is centered around cycling. It prevents mana screw by cycling into lands; it prevents mana flood by cycling away excess lands. It draws its defensive bombs by drawing into them with cycling; later, after Eternal Dragon appeared, it could cycle forever and ever. Once Lightning Rift or Astral Slide hit play, the cycling even did something special!

Environmentally, Affinity and Astral Slide also have a lot in common. They are both essentially Block Constructed decks that went a long way, stepping out of their assigned 2- or 3-set formats to make an impact in the wider field, at the highest levels. Both decks rely heavily on specialty lands to enable their themes, as well as mechanics-driven second-string players to keep them competitive when their key permanents aren't in play.

That said, you can pick any number of other decks to play Ravager's grandpa. Though not on the same level as Affinity, you can make a case for Rebels, Mercenaries, Roshambo, or certainly any of the Onslaught Block Tribal decks. The key to these decks is that certain clusters of cards are set aside in a block, ready to be played together, whereas with other, less mechanic-driven decks, cards are pulled from several sets, many times in non-intuitive combinations.

Mono-Blue Control

Though we have been discussing Kris Goding's version of Mono-Blue Control, I am going to break from Champs pedigree and post my own version just for Puzzle Week. Here is the deck that I used to place a disappointing 10th at the Columbus Last Chance Qualifier. I humbly think it's the top version of the archetype currently, at least in terms of the main deck.

Mono-Blue Control


I think that Meloku the Clouded Mirror might be better main than Keiga, the Tide Star, though I'd also be willing to play a fourth Condescend in that slot. In practice, I've never killed an opponent with a creature I actually summoned myself, but in testing, tapping out for Keiga has been really important when playing against all the power green decks as well as Ravager Affinity.

The unique features of this deck are 8 man lands and an otherwise low finisher count, as well as the use of Inspiration as the secondary card drawing engine. Four copies of Thirst for Knowledge are not enough to stay ahead in the current Standard, and Gifts Ungiven just doesn't work in a slot-redundant deck like this one. I chose four Thirst for Knowledge and two copies of Inspiration purely due to mana costs; 3 and 3 or 2 and 4 are probably fine, especially if you are increasingly likely to face another blue deck.

Before this deck, there was...

CMU Blue - Worlds 1998

Main Deck

60 cards

18  Island
Quicksand
Stalking Stones

26 lands

Rainbow Efreet

1 creature

Counterspell
Dismiss
Dissipate
Forbid
Force Spike
Impulse
Mana Leak
Memory Lapse
Nevinyrral's Disk
Whispers of the Muse

33 other spells

Sideboard
Capsize
Grindstone
Hydroblast
Sea Sprite
Wasteland

15 sideboard cards



Buehler Blue - Worlds 1999

Main Deck

60 cards

Faerie Conclave
16  Island
Stalking Stones
Wasteland

28 lands

Masticore

3 creatures

Counterspell
Dismiss
Forbid
Mana Leak
Miscalculation
Powder Keg
Treachery
Whispers of the Muse

29 other spells

Sideboard
Annul
Capsize
Chill
Legacy's Allure
Masticore
Maze of Shadows
Stroke of Genius

15 sideboard cards


Randy gets in some gunslinging time
Notice any similarities? My deck draws heavily from both of these Randy Buehler-piloted designs. The biggest import has to be the playing a ton of counters and even more lands. From the 1998 deck, I played a lone finisher, from the 1999 deck, I played a full compliment of legal man lands. Where one deck had four Treacheries, I played four Vedalken Shackles, and where Randy had four Powder Kegs to slow the beats, I played four copies of Relic Barrier main.

Why Relic Barrier? Think about what the default beatdown deck is: it's Ravager Affinity. In the universe of today's Standard, G/R and U/G are CONTROL decks with expensive, Tinker-esque finishing elements. Relic Barrier disrupts Affinity just as Powder Keg would have mopped up the one-drop Cursed Scrolls, Jackal Pups, and Mogg Fanatics of Deadguy Red. It goes a longer way in defending blue than the slow Oblivion Stone while at the same time making Thirst for Knowledge twice as good.

"As a deck designer, I find that my greatest tool is the old history book."

As a deck designer, I find that my greatest tool is the old history book. When tuning the last cards of a new build, I often look back to see how the designers who came before answered specific questions. How many creatures do I need? How much land? What kinds of decks was this guy up against when he decided on that specific number of main deck Legacy's Allures? While you may not know the precise answer every time by studying an old deck list, the process will often help give you clarity about your own deck, as well as a rule of thumb on how the deck will run, before you shuffle up the first card.

Wait a minute? Isn't this Puzzle Week?

It sure is! All along this article we've looked at evolutionary predecessors to top decks that were built or played by retired Pro Tour players with something in common. Now even though the mono-blue deck I posted talks about drawing inspiration from two Worlds decks played by Randy Buehler, the old school influence doesn't end there, with that great player. The question is, who is the OTHER godfather of this mono-blue, what does he have in common with at least five credited deck designers mentioned in this article, and what UNIQUE inspiration did his deck contribute?

I've given you a ton of hints in this article, whether or not you saw them. And believe me, Adrian Sullivan probably knew the answer to this question without any of those hints. You want to innovate the next Necro combo? Do your homework and know what has come before. Bonus points if you are the first person to post the relevant deck list in the forums. Need another hint? It's not Mike Guptil.

See you (with the answer) in the New Year!

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