t—Worlds that is—is taking place this week, in the onetime center of the universe, Rome, Italy.
Rome is a historic city not just for fans of lion-baiting, chariot racing, and the films of Russell Crowe ... It is also a shall-we-say Mecca of Magic history. Pro Tour–Rome took place a little over ten years ago, amidst a tremendous roller coaster of Magic upheaval. The inaugural Pro Tour ushering in the world according to Urza's Saga, Rome was a showcase of Great Whales and >Tolarian Academies that changed the tenor of tournament Magic for the better part of a year. Not surprisingly, the powerful Tolarian Academy deck won the tournament, and ushered in Magic's first two-time Pro Tour Champion, Tommi Hovi.
Tommi Hovi's Academy
Pro Tour–Rome 1998
Largely considered the most aberrant example of combo cards run amok, Hovi's deck was also a picture of power and speed like we have rarely seen on the Pro Tour or in any format. The deck could quickly drop its many cheap artifacts ... all those Lotus Petals, Mana Vaults and Mox Diamonds ... in order to generate a ton of mana with the artifacts themselves (and of course the namesake Tolarian Academy); but the really bothersome part was the fact that a quick Windfall would allow the Academy deck to immediately rebuild its handwithout any real investment in mana, cards, or time.
Net mana either left over from an Academy tap or the artifacts would facilitate a Mind Over Matter, which would allow Hovi to untap the Tolarian Academy, make lots more mana, Stroke himself, turn the net cards from the Stroke of Genius into more untaps with Mind Over Matter, and either Stroke again or use Time Spiral (untapping the Academy, and often not a single other land) with the eventual goal of a Stroke of Genius ... pointed the other way.
In addition to producing Magic's first double champion, this historic deck may be the most eventually-illegal in the history of a format. Tolarian Academy, Lotus Petal, Mana Vault, Mind Over Matter, Time Spiral, Voltaic Key, and Windfall all got the ban-hammer at one time or another!
When in Rome ....
There might be a lesson in all of this for this week's World Championships participants. Want to put together a Hall of Fame career? Consider pushing the power envelope while you are in Rome! Hovi played not the most powerful deck of all time, but probably the most powerful deck ever to win a Pro Tour!
So what kinds of cards and what kinds of formats can we anticipate seeing this coming weekend?
There are three featured Constructed formats, and two of the three are doubly so: Standard, Extended, and Legacy.
Standard and Extended will each be played for six rounds on one of the individual competition days (days one and three, to be exact). Moreover each National team will position one Standard and one Extended player during the team competition; their third will play Legacy (meaning Legacy will only be played by 1/3 of National team members, versus the other two formats being played by everyone).
So how can we translate the method of Hovi's success to the current generation of Pro Tour players (where any of the ones who plan to win will have to rack up a couple of Extended victories along the way)?
Do the Dumbest Thing Possible
Hovi's deck was what you call dumb.
It's really hard to put it any other way ... This was a collection of cards that could be compared to, I don't know, the poetry of Alexander Pope. Admirable. Rare. Masterful .... and at the same time composed of words twisted into new and inventive shapes that language as a vehicle for communication was never meant to be bent.
What is the dumbest thing in Extended?
You can make a couple of arguments on this one, but for my money, I would pick a deck like one of these:
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's Dark Depths
Extended - Quarterfinalist, Pro Tour–Austin
In the world of dumb, I think that the Dark Depths deck takes the cake. Brian David-Marshall and I recently discussed what we imagine was the intention behind Vampire Hexmage (taking a bunch of counters off of, say, Sorin Markov, binning it); not the two-card combination with Dark Depths.
Realistically, this deck features one of the swiftest kicks to the cranium of any Extended option. Turn one Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth; tap for : Thoughtseize your answer. Untap, Dark Depths (which is now a Swamp), tap for : Vampire Hexmage. The coast clear, the Hexmage now sets up a 20/20 and a kill on turn three. Next game?
Although this is also pretty dumb:
Evangelos Papatsarouchas's Hypergenesis Cascade
Extended - Quarterfinalist, Pro Tour–Austin
And by "dumb" ... I mean in that very clever way.
This is another one where you've got to be scratching your head. Did R&D intend for cascade to work like this? I have an idea that they wanted to make a class of cards that was peer to say a Broodmate Dragon or a little bit better than a Borderland Ranger ... but instead with Ardent Plea, Violent Outburst, and Demonic Dread what they actually did was give razor-sharp scalpels to a cadre of malicious surgeons.
Dumb why? Any of the three-mana cascade spells, when cast, has no option but to flip over Hypergenesis, resulting in some tumult of Angels, Dragons, artifacts, and The Enemy.
Clever why? The same reason! It takes some inventive deck design to look past the "incremental advantage" obvious on cascade and really buckle down to control how the potentially random ability will impact the game.
Speaking of which, this is probably the dumbest possible angle for Standard (certainly the most powerful):
Chase Lamm's Cascade
Standard - 2nd place, StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Nashville
As I've written about this strategy several times already, you probably know how it works. The cheapest spells in the deck are Blightning and Esper Charm. Every spell but Baneslayer Angel has cascade; ergo, every spell (other than Baneslayer Angel, or unless stopped in a cascade chain involving Baneslayer Angel) will result in the opponent getting hammered for two cards (or somewhat rarely, your drawing two cards).
The cascade deck is essentially Mono-Ultimatum. Every spell in your deck actually has a boatload of text. Bloodbraid Elf says , 3/2 haste; when you cast Bloodbraid Elf, your opponent takes 3 damage and discards two cards. Pretty good, huh?
You should really read the text on Deny Reality!
There may be a problem with this option (remember it is in the "dumb" category). While you are at a tremendous advantage against any and all opponents featuring the cards Cruel Ultimatum, Mind Spring, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, or Pyromancer Ascension, the structure of the deck (playing thee mana discard spells at the bottom of the curve) makes it inconsistent against competitors with, say, Steppe Lynx. Half the time you have no play on the ball until turn four, and at that point your opponent is just happy you tapped (if he only knew...). If you can start, you know, stepping on his Lynxes with Bituminous Blast you will probably come back (you go, Captured Sunlight!), but too often, you will be dead before you can muster that .
Expect the Unexpected ... And Also the Expected, I Guess
In defiance of all logic, Hovi's Top 8 was not all decks showcasing the card Tolarian Academy. In fact, there were two copies of little White creature / burn decks (what you might call "Zoo" but we called "PT Jank" back then) in that Top 8, piloted by past and future Pro Tour Champions Olle Rade and Justin Gary. Little White Creature Decks? Really?
This was a kind of expected and unexpected (in the same way the so-called "dumbest" decks actually feature some sharp design)—expected in the sense that PT Jank was a previously successful and known quantity; unexpected in that you might not anticipate this known quantity performing in a room full of Time Spirals.
The deck that won PT–Austin is about six centimeters from that same definition—xpected in that "Zoo" was a known quantity ... but unexpected in so many wonderful and innovative ways.
Brian Kibler's Rubin Zoo
Extended - Winner, Pro Tour–Austin
I admire the design of this deck in many ways. As a deck designer, it's examples like Rubin Zoo that you wish you could claim were your own. The inclusion of Knight of the Reliquary to set up an anti-Dark Depths Ghost Quarter (that can't be foiled by, say, Chalice of the Void the way Path to Exile and Repeal can) and of course the innovative Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows action set this Zoo apart.
But what is really and truly unexpected, the thing that pushes Rubin Zoo from just another Zoo deck to shelf space in its very own category is Baneslayer Angel.
Baneslayer Angel is a given for Standard players, but you really have to think hard about how hard Ben Rubin must have thought before including it in this deck. Extended Zoo decks often top up on two. It is a rare Saito that brings more than a couple of three-mana spells. So the jump to five is an almost unparalleled conceptual leap for the Extended archetype.
So where can players strike a little un-expectation from the Standard pool?
Christian Calcano's Boros Bushwhacker
Standard - 2nd place, StarCityGames Philadelphia Standard Open
This is exactly the kind of deck that the Mono-Ultimatum Cascade deck doesn't want to see Game 1; because it is unlikely a Cascade player anticipated the Bushwhacker deck, given the decision to sail that Rupture Spire–laden ship.
A very good Ranger of Eos deck, the "Boros Bushwhacker" can present tremendous damage via only one-drops, then recover (including setting up hasty Bushwhacker mini-Overrun) via Antoine Ruel's Invitational creature, presuming the opponent somehow stifled the initial offense.
Jack Wang's Jund Aggro
Standard - 1st place, StarCityGames Philadelphia Standard Open
What might be even more unexpected is the number of players running a vanilla Jund deck.
Will the heavily expected Jund be the most popular deck of the Standard portion? Probably. But we might still see a disturbingly low percentage ... relative to what we imagine Jund should be.
A Little Bit of "Better" Goes a Long Way
The funny thing about that first Pro Tour–Rome is that Hovi maybe didn't even have the best deck in the Top 8! Many people will point to Lauer's version of the same strategy as being more efficient, but even more will point at Federico Dato, who was a pioneer of not Academy decks, but High Tide.
Federico Dato's High Tide
Pro Tour–Rome 1998
Dato's deck lacked the pure speed of the Academy decks, but it could still win quickly ... as early as turn three! As part of the trade-off, the High Tide deck had to do away with all the artifacts... and the speed they and the Academy gave it, in exchange for the ability to play more cards like Force of Will (pretty useful in a format where you are being threatened with death, sometimes, before you've even taken a turn).
What will attract players away from top performers like Jund (whether or not their choices are actually "better")?
The Anderson Nissa Revane deck is the "It" deck of the day, the kind of deck that can, with its seven-pack of green planeswalkers, attract green decks away from the familiar contours of tapping for a Bloodbraid Elf on turn four.
Powerful, yes; this strategy put three people in the Top 8 of the Nashville $5,000 Standard Open, vastly out-performing decks like Jund on a large scale. But while Kali Anderson basks in the glory of her much-deserved tournament win, the arguably more inventive wing of the Nissa Revane School for Gifted Young Magicians may be the one featuring white mana.
Andrew Shrout's Eldrazi Green-White
Standard - 3rd place, StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Nashville
Andrew certainly gives up "something" ... His Llanowar Elves, for one, will be less consistent on turn one. But in return, he gets something pretty great: the ability to interact directly with his opponent's board.
Another, different, and as-yet largely unheralded, potential splash for this strategy is red, for Bloodbraid Elf (again). Now the Elf itself is kind of unexciting ... Unlike in the Cascade or even Jund decks, you are going to be flipping Llanowar Elves and Nissa's Chosen. That is going to stink ... but it's also not why Bloodbraid Elf is in the deck. In fact, Bloodbraid Elf isn't present for cascade at all, for once. Cascade is just a bonus now. With this idea, it's all about haste ... and being all Elf-y.
When you explode Nissa Revane, you can go and rack up all your Elvish Archdruids and all your Bloodbraid Elves, and attack for ... well ... the opponent's whole life total (hopefully). Elvish Archdruid will pump all your Bloodbraid Elves by 4 (theoretically), and your Elves' haste will put them immediately in the kill zone for close to 30 damage.
The truth is, the World Championships—regardless of the maturity of the formats that have made it up over the years—have long been a breeding ground for true innovation. From the Tinker deck that was Jon Finkel's favorite in 2000, transforming into the best Rising Waters deck of all time, to Katsuhiro Mori's Ghazi-Glare (out of nowhere) ... transforming into a Greater Good strategy or locking the opponent down under the Winter Orb–like Hokori, Dust Drinker, we have seen a great host of great, and new, decks on the game's greatest stage.
Let's hope that this year's finale is equally worthy of a crowd-pleasing cestus (or gladius!) to the old subligaculum. Eh?