The Most Dominant Decks Of All Time
What is a truly dominant deck? It's easy to be the best deck at a tournament. It's easy to put up a good match-win percentage over many copies or to fill a lot of Top 8 slots. There's not even anything discouraging about that when it happens. It's great to know that if you can come up with the right concept and execution at the right time you can dominate the room. You can be The Solution to the problems of the day or come at people from an angle they're not prepared for and watch as they helplessly scramble for a response. Then next week everyone copies you and two weeks later everyone has figured out how to respond returning the world to a new equilibrium.
What is not as easy is sustained dominance. Truly dominant decks aren't metagame calls or holes in the system accounted for in a couple of weeks. These are the decks that tower over playtest sessions and stifle all attempts to do anything fun or interesting with their sheer raw power. Sitting down to assemble a list of cards capable of beating them is no easy task and that's without thinking of every other deck in the format. Many deckbuilders will end up spending many sideboard slots or making awkward maindeck choices only to feel they've made the matchup a coin flip at best. Then most of those same deckbuilders find out they were mistaken and they're not the only ones who can innovate.
When I went through the list of candidate decks and brainstormed new ones I looked for sustained dominance. I wanted to find naturally powerful decks that could survive being targeted by the metagame. Either you needed to be the target over a series of tournaments or you had to be known to the field such that everyone knew you were coming even if there was only one shot.
Since these decks are the very definition of going to eleven that's how many decks I'm going to cover. Those of you who think I should've included any number of other decks are invited to argue over such matters in the forums. There are many decks that can make a strong case.
Necropotence — 1st at Junior Pro Tour: New York Feb. 17-18 1996 (Modified Type II)
Necropotence — Pro Tour: New York Feb. 17-18 1996 (Modified Type II)
At the first Pro Tour of all time the best deck came from the lowly Junior division. I was upstairs watching helplessly from the sidelines unable to attend due to a parental veto of Saturday competition and crushing all comers with my Necropotence deck built with a full complement of Ashen Ghouls and Nether Shadows. Leon Lindback had a solid version that did a lot of things right in the Senior division but Graham Tatomer found the courage to do what others could not and came with three copies of Demonic Consultation. Others were scared to give up so much of their deck and perhaps lose outright but Graham knew the power in getting any unrestricted card in your deck for only one mana and in an emergency the ability to roll the dice. He went aggressive rather than being sustained with Drain Life and made the mistake of only playing three copies of Necropotence itself but it would not be long before players put in the extra copy and universally agreed on running Drain Life rather than Icequake.
Dealing with Necropotence decks would be the order of the day for a long time. Many players tried to fight them with hateful cards only to find that their plans would too frequently be disrupted by Hymn to Tourach and Strip Mine or taken apart by Nevinyrral's Disk. The Necropotence players continuously gained card advantage and could search for the cards they needed while packing answers to almost all of the best responses. If you had creatures with protection from black or a speed rush they had Serrated Arrows. Even for a card like Lifeforce they had Nevinyrral's Disk. Counterspells couldn't stop Necropotence because even if Hymn to Tourach didn't work the Necropotence players would get around counters with Dark Ritual. If you shut down the card-drawing engine of Necropotence there was nothing wrong with the rest of the deck.
There were only two ways to deal with the problem that worked. The first was a pure burn approach that made the life points Necropotence decks sacrificed too painful to bear with cards like Manabarbs. Such decks wouldn't have much merit outside of handing a Necropotence deck but they got the job done. The other solution was Turbo Stasis because it used Howling Mine to compensate for Necropotence and prevented Necropotence players from taking advantage of their extra cards by taking away the mana required to play them and turning the game long where the lack of a draw step would punish them.
Deadguy Red — 1st at Pro Tour: Los Angeles Mar. 6-8 1998 (Tempest Block Constructed)
While I was off in my own corner of the world discovering the red deck on my own the rest of the world was recognizing it as a towering giant. There had been dominant decks before and Prosper-Bloom had stood threateningly over the previous Block Pro Tour but this was something new: a deck both wildly popular and easy to find and assemble. As the tournament approached it looked like close to 40% of the field was going to run close variations on the same theme. Red was powerful enough to be a Standard deck and nothing else in the format came close with even decks that seemed designed to beat red mostly unable to get the job done. (This is a common theme with all of the most dominant decks.)
There were three other decks that were strong enough to potentially compete. The team of geniuses over at CMU built a Sliver deck called CMU Green that was somewhat competitive with Brian Schneider being the top finisher in 11th place as part of the tie for 7th and that likely came close but wasn't good enough to handle tuned versions of red.
The better challenger was Living Death backed by the all-powerful Bottle Gnomes with two builds that survived far enough to dispute the Top 8. The three-color version played by Ben Rubin got all the way to the finals and had some reasonable game but the true nightmare was the two-color build from Darwin Kastle that almost gave a Pro Tour win to Adam Katz. It kept things streamlined avoiding the costs of a more complex mana base and choosing naturally problematic creatures. By the time I played him Darwin Kastle was 7-0 against red decks and one win away from being in the tiebreaker for the Top 8 alongside Adam Katz.
After the tournament it was clear that red was far and away the best deck and most powerful strategy available in Block. In order to open up the field to other options Cursed Scroll was banned in Block which took away red's best card and still left it as a viable deck choice in what became a vibrant and well-balanced format. That was a happy ending but often blocks would end up with only a handful of viable strategies and it wouldn't be long before a similarly broken Block Pro Tour would happen again.
CMU Academy — Quarterfinalist at Pro Tour: Rome Nov. 13-15 1998 (Extended)
Rome was a special Pro Tour for many reasons but the biggest reason was that it was the one time that the limiting factor on the number of copies of the best deck was not inability to build or recognize it but rather card access. I still don't know how I didn't put two and two together since even my Standard build of the deck would've been a far better choice than what I did play but many others wanted to run Academy and failed to find the copies of Tolarian Academy or Time Spiral. This was the only thing that kept Academy from being played in historical numbers although it wouldn't have put up the same percentages as it did. Those most able to take advantage of this unique opportunity made sure to pay whatever they needed to in advance rather than take their chances on site.
The results vastly understate how dominant and powerful Academy was. Many players had little practice with Academy or other similar decks especially under strict tournament conditions resulting in massive numbers of lost games and matches. The decks were also often massively misbuilt and mis-sideboarded. The winning decklist used by Tomi Hovi in particular was transparently suboptimal as Hovi decided to adopt a Standard build to Extended rather than take advantage of what the format had to offer beyond Force of Will. That was still good enough to allow him to win the tournament but the best build (other than perhaps Hacker's build that used Gustha's Scepter) belonged to Team CMU. They realized that Vampiric Tutor was the right way to make the deck consistent allowing them to find key cards and deploy a Tutor-based sideboard with one of each of a number of devastating cards rather than over-sideboarding and breaking the engine.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that bannings would have to ensue which was the only thing that was able to stop Academy's dominance. That led to High Tide taking its place as the combination deck to beat but without the need to deal with Academy as well this was a solvable problem with any number of strategies until the arrival of Urza's Legacy and with it Frantic Search. After that High Tide became a dominant deck on its own and variations on this list took over:
High Tide — 1st at Grand Prix Vienna Mar. 13-15 1999 (Extended)
There are a lot of things that can go wrong with an Academy deck but there are surprisingly few things that can go wrong with High Tide. The deck is nothing but mana counters and card drawing and threatens to win as early as turn three while opponents have no idea whether or not they're at risk of losing the game if they tap out. Meanwhile the addition of Thawing Glaciers allows High Tide to take the control role as well as true control decks and then after sideboarding the deck can transform into a true control deck with Ophidian and Pyroblast or use only Pyroblast to have a large supply of efficient counters. The best strategies for dealing with High Tide previously had counted on that three-turn window before High Tide threatened to win the game and that window was narrower by half a turn. High Tide was better in a counter war than a counter deck and noticeably faster than beatdown decks so little could stand in its way. Vienna saw a Day Two almost completely dominated by High Tide. Things did not get better from there until the deck was broken up.
Trix — Prototype c. 2000 (Extended)
Trix is unique among the most dominant decks in that it didn't appear at all in the Pro Tour where it would've been legal to play it. Tony Dobson brought the first top-level combination deck built around Necropotence with Cocoa Pebbles—a deck built around the Fruity Pebbles combination of Enduring Renewal Goblin Bombardment and free creatures such as Phyrexian Walker—but it took until after the tournament to think to change that to Illusions/Donate. Necropotence had been the most dangerous card-drawing engine around for a long time but the true potential of that engine wasn't unlocked until players started using it to fuel combo kills. Enduring Renewal was a marginal kill engine requiring three cards that didn't have much synergy with Necropotence but it did kill players and that was enough to make it one of the top decks. When three cards became two cards one of which reinforced the engine and both of which were blue for Force of Will and efficiently used Mana Vault for extra mana acceleration there wasn't anything other decks could do.
Trix was everywhere. Every card in Trix except for the eight kill spells and one or two insurance answers to permanents would either help cast Necropotence or help force it onto the table. Even maindeck you get to pack Duress and Force of Will along with Demonic Consultation to get either depending on the situation or to make sure you draw Necropotence. There were hate cards but the base of Trix was full of disruption cards that lend themselves to a variety of strategies so transformation sideboards became the norm especially since it was awkward to Donate a card the enemy could potentially Donate back. By the end of the period where Trix was legal few people thought that the best Trix players weren't the ones most likely to win any given tournament. Those who didn't play it felt they weren't equipped to fight endless mirror matchups or if they were equipped they had no desire to do so; Magic isn't always about maximizing your chance of winning. It can and must also frequently be about having fun.
Rebels — 2nd at Pro Tour: New York Apr. 14-16 2000 (Masques Block Constructed)
- 1 Jhovall Queen
- 2 Ramosian Lieutenant
- 3 Ramosian Sergeant
- 1 Ramosian Sky Marshal
- 4 Steadfast Guard
- 3 Voice of Truth
- 4 Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero
When looked at in a certain way Rebel is the most misnamed mechanic in Magic history. The Rebels don't represent change. They represent the same thing every game over and over. They represent a methodical taking control one extra creature at a time along a predetermined pathway. That's not what I think of when I think of rebels and I was exceedingly happy to see Sigurd Eskeland return them to their rightful prison. Rebels completely took over the entire tournament. They had over forty percent of the field and a majority of Day Two. The morning of the second day I wistfully spoke to Justin Gary about searching for the promised land of Forests Mountains and Swamps but it was nowhere to be found.
Interestingly Rebels was not the most successful deck at that tournament if you scale for the initial numbers with that honor instead going to Rising Waters. Rising Waters managed to fight Rebels to a standstill while crushing all other decks in the format. By the end of the tournament those other decks had become rare but there was still a G/B faction that almost broke through; that deck was capable of having the edge on Rebels but incapable of putting up a fight against Rising Waters.
Unfortunately the rebellion went on to fight in Standard for a long time including meeting itself in the finals of Pro Tour: Chicago 2000 a tournament that rightfully belonged to a very different strategy:
Chevy Fires (infamously also known as My Fires) — 7th at Pro Tour: Chicago Dec. 1-3 2000 (Standard)
Randy Buehler stepped into Magic: The Gathering R&D and reinvigorated the game after the disaster of Combo Winter. His biggest mistake was the result of what those in the business refer to as the “blind spot.” When you join Wizards you effectively travel a year forward in time and this causes there to be a year's worth of cards you're far less familiar with than you would be otherwise. As a result you don't naturally make connections and find combinations that involve those cards as quickly as you otherwise would and in this case no one realized what happened when one paired Saproling Burst with Fires of Yavimaya an occurrence so powerful it was referred to as “The Fix.”
Both cards fit right in to traditional R/G strategies. Usually such decks would've been unable to play either card but the possibility of The Fix gave Fires the ability to give its creatures haste or to generate multiple large creatures from one card and get damage in under mass removal without giving anything away which allowed the deck to attack at different angles and win games it could not have otherwise won. When The Fix did show up opponents usually died quickly and this gave the deck a good shot at even relatively bad matchups while also forcing the enemy into an awkward spot after sideboarding. You could easily remove all artifacts and enchantments if you wanted to stranding any removal so the opponent couldn't safely commit cards to stopping The Fix from happening.
My version of the deck will live in infamy due to the seven (count 'emone -two -three -four -five -six - seven) part series “My Fires” that broke the deck down card by card. The abject horror that this caused forced me to reconsider my assumptions on what makes a popular or good Magic article with my conclusion being that it was important not to break things down into too many parts. I think that if that same article had been posted in two parts it would be considered excellent but as it was I understand why it became a joke. This version also happened to be the best one at the tournament and while I tuned the sideboard afterwards I played the same maindeck when I used it to win the second Boston vs. New York Grudge Match.
Despite none of the copies of Fires taking the top prize in Chicago Fires would go on to dominate Standard and be the deck everyone built around. Fires would remain the most popular deck in Standard until the rotation of Saproling Burst. It was an eminently beatable deck at every point especially by U/W Control decks but it was impossible to fully crush. In a lot of ways this was the ideal form of a dominant deck since it wasn't too expensive to build played real games of Magic and was eminently beatable if one wanted to do so. Mirror matchups had far more skill involved in them than people realized. The constant danger of The Fix was frustrating but rarely did I sense Fires causing anyone to hate Magic the way High Tide or Academy had in the past or Affinity would in the future.
Standard Tinker — 1st at Worlds: Brussels Aug. 2-6 2000 (Standard)
George W. Bosh/Tinker — 1st at Pro Tour: New Orleans Oct. 31-Nov. 2 2003 (Extended)
Tinker was initially overshadowed by all the other fun people were busy having with artifacts during Combo Winter. It got its first moment at the Urza's Block PT where it took six of the Top 8 slots. In Extended it started out as two distinct builds called Suicide Brown and The Iron Giant. Suicide Brown would go on to form the basis for Standard builds that also emphasized the most powerful artifact plan available: getting a Phyrexian Processor down as quickly as possible and making giant men. An active Processor on as little as four could out-produce most entire decks and Crumbling Sanctuary could nullify the life-point cost and buy the time the Processor would need to dominate the game. Jon Finkel and Bob Maher met in the finals of Worlds playing identical copies of the deck after dominating the field. Bob Maher's Tinker resume would have to be content with winning a Masters event.
The obvious way to try and capitalize on Tinker would be to find an artifact that costs as much mana as possible to try and save on the casting cost and from this perspective the card seemed safe as the expensive artifacts seemed relatively poor. The best that came up was Platinum Angel and that's easy enough to deal with. What made Tinker so good was that it was more than sufficient to go for artifacts like Phyrexian Processor and Thran Dynamo and once cards like those hit the table the loss of a card or two barely mattered plus the option value of being able to get whatever was needed and the redundancy of sources of two or more colorless mana from one card.
Later the deck would go on to dominate Extended as it had too many redundant ways to get far ahead on mana and turn that into victory. It was impossible to keep the deck from establishing its mana and if its mana was established the threats would come out so rapidly that no one had good answers. If Tinker was attacked there was any number of ways to search up the artifact that would stop the assault. In New Orleans the play was dominated by more traditional Tinker decks but won by an innovative build played by Rickard –sterberg that did things that never even occurred to my team in testing to try out.
That was an early taste of Mirrodin's power. Then things got much much worse.
Vial Affinity — 4th at Pro Tour: Kobe Feb. 27-29 2004 (Mirrodin Block Constructed)
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Arcbound Worker
- 4 Frogmite
- 4 Myr Enforcer
- 3 Myr Retriever
- 3 Ornithopter
- 4 Disciple of the Vault
Amidst an avalanche of broken artifacts one man saw Aether Vial coming. I doubt my noticing it putting it in my top ten of the set and building this version of Affinity made that much difference. Players would've figured it out in any case. Affinity's performance at the Block Pro Tour turned out not to be so impressive which was one of the few examples in Magic history of players getting together and devoting enough resources to bringing down a deck with far more raw power than the rest of the field the first time a format was played. The reason they were able to do this was that the block didn't allow players to easily avoid playing artifacts so it cost little to bring on the hate.
Later on we would not be so lucky. Block tournaments became utterly dominated by Affinity decks as did Standard eventually forcing Wizards to ban not only Skullclamp but Disciple of the Vault and the artifact lands as well to make sure the deck was truly surely dead. It worked but by then the damage was done. Players had been driven away or went into hiding for months and I most certainly was one of them. No one wanted to face dying out of nowhere on a consistent basis or the tedium and frustration of endless Affinity mirrors.
The game recovered and is now stronger than ever but Affinity's reign was essentially Magic's ultimate Failure Mode a deck that makes everyone miserable and is permitted to stick around for far too long.
Faeries — 8th at Pro Tour: Hollywood May 23-25 2008 (Standard)
There were viable Faerie decks even before Bitterblossom but Bitterblossom sent the deck into another gear that its enemies didn't have. In games where Bitterblossom hit the table Faeries would seem unbeatable while providing a reasonable creature deck as backup for when that did not happen. Faeries could play all roles well often in unpredictable fashion and severely punished any hiccup an opponent made. Slowly more and more players came over to the dark side resulting in more and more mirror matchups that often came down to an unanswered Bitterblossom. At times Faeries would get worse and become one deck among many but frequently its flexibility and power would put it on top with a quarter to a third of the field and above average results. Formats and cards would change—Block Standard and Extended have all seen the Faerie menace take wing—but the deck would stay essentially the same and players who had devoted countless hours to playing it would stick with the deck and rely on their experience to make up for when conditions were less than ideal adjusting their lists to cover different bases. Sam Black was notorious for this announcing over and over that he would play his latest build and having no one pay attention to him. To this day it's still hard to convince him that anyone will listen to any information he reveals.
What made Faeries so obnoxious was that it wouldn't go away; there was no easy way to beat it (especially given how flexible the deck could be) and Faeries wouldn't fundamentally change no matter what cards were released. When I came to Worlds with one of the first Faerie decks the R&D guys asked to see what I was playing. They asked who designed my deck and I looked at the group took an educated guess and pointed at Aaron Forsythe. I was correct. That can be fun once or twice but to have those same cards keep repeating over and over quickly got exhausting. If Affinity is the disastrous avoid-at-all-costs Failure Mode of Magic Faeries is the most insidious because it never got so bad that something had to be done so we all had to sit back and suffer. I sympathized with all the calls to ban Bitterblossom but knew the whole time that such an act was impossible.
Thopter Depths — 1st in Magic Online PTQ Jan. 17 2010 (Extended)
Thopter Depths (or TTD) took over Extended with a slowly tightening death grip that didn't let go until the entire format was transformed with Dark Depths rotated out and Sword of the Meek banned. Opponents of TTD never knew how they were doing unless they had the misfortune to know exactly how they were doing and the two combinations attack the enemy in completely different ways. If you play cards to deal with Marit Lage or the Dark Depths you're helpless in the face of a Thopter Foundry and if you play any answer to Thopter Foundry you're helpless to stop Dark Depths. Meanwhile TTD is looking at your hand with Thoughtseize and Duress is trying to gain the lead with a third vector thanks to Dark Confidant and can use its knowledge to assemble the combination you can't deal with. There are lots of things that can go right for this deck and not that many things that can go wrong with so many ways to search for what the deck needs.
Thopter Depths accomplished a feat that decks better known as dominant decks were unable to do which was to present a target that opponents flat out could not figure out how to beat at all. No one ever proved that they had a way to take a halfway reasonable deck up against TTD and emerge with a meaningful edge. Even if you had the tools to win too many different things could go wrong and the gap in power was too large. By the end of the season the best players in Extended seemed to shrug give up on finding an answer and concentrate on learning how best to play the mirror matchup. A lack of reach into other formats or ability to last through time prevented TTD from getting the same kind of name as some previous incarnations but it's hard to think of a superior performance. The deck issued a defiant “beat me if you can” and the room responded with a deafening silence.
That to me is true dominance.
Special thanks to John Dale Beety who created the original candidates list and contributed to choosing the final eleven decks.