The Dragonmaster's Lair - The Best Decks I've Ever Played
Caw-Blade's current dominance in Standard across the SCG Open Series began with the deck's incredible breakout performance at Pro Tour Paris. There Caw-Blade placed two players in the Top 8 including eventual champion Ben Stark with four more copies finishing in the Top 16. The deck had a truly dominant performance and despite my own poor performance an unimpressive 6-4 I felt like we had undoubtedly the best deck for that tournament.
While Caw-Blade's continued performance speaks to the inherent strength of the deck it's important to note that what really matters in Magic when it comes to deckbuilding isn't creating something that goes on to develop a stranglehold on a format but having the right deck at the right time. When people speak of “best decks” they're usually talking about decks that have had sustained periods of high performance in a format but at the top level that's not what matters the most. Pro Tours and Grand Prix are single tournaments and the rewards are the highest for those who have the best performances in those events.
It's perhaps the biggest difference between Pro Tour-level play and something like the SCG Open Series. There are Open Series events every week and the metagame – among the top players at least – evolves quickly from one event to the next. The rewards for “breaking it” one week and playing a deck that attacks the format perfectly is fairly small relatively speaking because the next week everyone is on to you.
For the Pro Tour or Grand Prix however the rewards can be enormous since the payoff is so much larger and the next event is a different format anyway! For the Open Series or a PTQ season the overall upside of playing a consistently strong deck and learning to play it as best you can outweighs the costs and benefits of trying to brew up something new for each event.
With that in mind I present to you the best decks I've ever played. These are not all decks that went on to dominate the subsequent PTQ season or the FNM scene but they are decks that were at the right place at the right time.
I thought about trying to rank these by just how awesome they were but decided to keep them in chronological order for story's sake:
The Deck: Serrated Illusionist
The Event: Grand Prix Toronto
How many of you even recognize most of those cards? Grand Prix Toronto was Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight Constructed. This was in 1997 a very different time when it came to Magic and not just because of the cards. There were only two major resources when it came to learning about Magic online – Usenet bulletin boards and the Magic Dojo. The Dojo was pretty much the central hub of Magic “tech” in those days and the only real way to gauge the metagame at all was by perusing the articles posted there.
If memory serves me correctly the most popular deck in Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight Constructed before the Grand Prix was aggressive mono-black with cards like Fallen Askari Necratog and Crypt Rats backed up by Dark Banishing and Nekrataal for removal. Shortly before Grand Prix Toronto Gary Wise (yes that Gary Wise) posted a tournament report on The Dojo about his victory at a Toronto-area PTQ with a Song of Blood/Necratog deck that was able to run over the mono-black decks by stocking up his graveyard.
Thinking I was on top of the latest “tech” I played the deck in a local Boston-area PTQ where I ran into longtime IRC and occasional IRL friend Brian Schneider. Brian had a mono-blue Ophidian deck that seemed pretty cool to me and we played a number of games waiting for the tournament to start. I felt like he was missing some key cards like Impulse but I liked the deck especially when he kept beating me. As fate would have it we played in the first round and he won and after I picked up another loss shortly thereafter (to a field that was full of Song of Blood decks) I dropped from the event.
That was when Mike Bregoli (of misetings.com fame) told me about something called a Grand Prix coming up. This was around the start of the entire Grand Prix circuit and the idea of playing in a big event like that was extremely appealing to me. I had just come off a disappointing finish at US Nationals where I had won the last grinder fought my way to the last round of Swiss in contention for Top 8 and then lost a heartbreaking match to eventual US team member Jeff Butz to end my tournament in a disappointing 12th place. I wanted another shot at the big time and a ten-hour drive seemed like a small price to pay to get it.
Over the next week I playtested the Ophidian deck nonstop online – and what “online” means in this case is via Apprentice because it was years before Magic Online came around. My opponents were the other denizens of the IRC channel #mtgpro and included Brian Schneider Lan Ho Matt Place and Eric Lauer. The week before the Grand Prix Matt Place won a PTQ with a very similar deck though he had Drake Hatchlings in the place of Vodalian Illusionists. I expected an upswing in the popularity of mono-blue and added two copies of Winding Canyons to the deck's mana base to allow me to better play a control game than anyone else who decided to copy the deck.
I don't remember when exactly the Illusionist/Serrated Biskelion combination went in but it was really the defining feature that set it apart from the other blue decks in the format. The “combo” gave the deck an enormous edge in the mirror match which was largely defined by Ophidians staring at each other as each player tried to force them through with Abductions and bounce spells. While the combo is straightforward to anyone who looks at the two cards these days – activate Serrated Biskelion targeting an opposing creature then phase it out with Illusionist which results in a counter on their creature and none on yours – in those days rules were much less codified and much more open to “interpretation” than they are today. I remember the question coming up at one event and a judge said the Biskelion had to put a counter on itself to put the counter on another creature so I basically had to hope that the Head Judge at the Grand Prix ruled correctly for my deck to work.
The ruling came out in my favor and so did the rest of the tournament. After battling through a veritable murderer's row of opponents over the two days of competition including Alex Shvartsman Terry Borer Steve OMS Matt Place and Worth Wollpert I made the Top 8 where I faced off against Mike Turian Matt Place (again!) and Erik Lauer in the elimination rounds en route to my first Grand Prix title.
Not only did I have the right deck at the right time but I got the right ruling to go with it!
The Deck: Tinker
The Event: 2000 World Championships
At the time the 2000 World Championships was the first Pro-level event I played in many years. I'd just started playing Magic again after several years away from the game to focus on other pursuits while in high school but found myself drawn back to it once I got to college and quickly found myself feeling unchallenged and bored. While chatting online one night Lan D. Ho convinced me to travel to PT Chicago '99 just to see old friends and game. It sounded like a sweet plan so I went and once there helped build Lan's “Iron Giant” Tinker deck the night before the tournament along with future Magic Head Developer Brian Schneider and the inestimable Dan Burdick. We transformed the deck from an awkward Winter Orb/Icy Manipulator mana control deck into something explosively powerful overnight. Lan ended up narrowly missing out on Top 8 and I was hooked again.
I played in some local PTQs always doing well but never managing to win and my rating got up high enough that I ended up with a rating invitation to Worlds. I joined up with a group of old gaming friends to test online including Ben Rubin William Jensen Jon Finkel and the OMS brothers – it doesn't hurt to make connections!
The Standard field at the time was fairly diverse with Stompy Ponza Angry Hermit Accelerated Blue and Replenish all making up substantial parts of the metagame. Jon Finkel had won US Nationals with the mono-black “Napster” deck but it had lost a great deal of its appeal as players adapted to it. While trying to find the right deck for the field Dan OMS and I both stumbled on a Metalworker Tinker list from Canadian Nationals that seemed like it had potential. It was capable of incredibly explosive starts that the creature decks in the format just couldn't keep up with and had the mana denial tools between Rishadan Port and Tangle Wire to fight control. On top of that it was a deck that few people were really taking seriously so it would be largely unexpected.
The reason people had such a low estimation of the deck is because it had an absolutely atrocious matchup against Replenish. They had Seal of Cleansing to fight against your big artifacts. Your mana-control elements were Tangle Wire Rishadan Port and Mishra's Helix which they could fight with Frantic Search by simply floating mana and untapping during their draw step. Replenish was sure to be one of the most popular decks at Worlds and the matchup was simply horrible. Or so went common wisdom.
Tinker was so powerful that I was unwilling to give up on it so easily and I went in search of an answer. What we needed was a way to fight against Frantic Search since that was what was allowing them to combat our mana denial. I found it by thinking back to Lan's original PT Chicago '99 deck – Winter Orb or in this case Rising Waters. The sideboard package of Annul Miscalculation Rising Waters and a second Mishra's Helix turned the matchup around from unwinnable to dominant. During the event Jon Finkel got a game loss against a Replenish opponent (for reasons that escape me right now) and I joked that it was basically the same as playing the matchup out since game one was nearly unwinnable and sideboarded games were the opposite.
I personally only managed a 4-2 record in Standard but the finals saw Jon Finkel and Bob Maher face off with identical decks in perhaps the most epic Pro Tour final matches ever. I'm happy that I could be a part of making that happen.
The Deck: Red Zone
The Tournament: Pro Tour Chicago 2000
- 4 Ancient Hydra
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blastoderm
- 3 Jade Leech
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 River Boa
- 2 Rith, the Awakener
After Worlds I once again found myself unqualified. I played in a number of PTQs over the summer while I was still home in New England but never won. I went back to school in the fall with no immediate prospect of returning to the Pro Tour. One night I came home quite late (and quite intoxicated) from a Barenaked Ladies concert to an instant message from one Dan Bridy.
“Yo dude you qualified!”
My heart did flips in my chest. I was what? I went and looked at the link of the players who qualified for the Chicago Pro Tour on rating and there was my name. This was around the time WotC had combined the Standard and Extended ratings into “Constructed” and when they did so they froze everyone's ratings so as not to hurt anyone who had been relying on their rating for an invite. Apparently I had gotten something like the second-to-last post-ratings-freeze drop-down invitation slot. I didn't figure all that out that night though. That night I spent running around my fraternity house screaming at the top of my lungs and sending messages out to all of my college friends saying “MISE MISE MISE MISE MISE!” They of course had no idea what that meant.
My playtesting was once again done on Apprentice where I linked up with much of the same crew as from Worlds. The expected field at PT Chicago was one of Fires of Yavimaya decks Rebels U/W Control with Blinding Angel and U/B Nether Spirit control decks roughly in that order. I set out to brew up a deck to defeat them all.
Early in my testing I came to the realization that all of the major decks in the format were exceptionally mana hungry. Fires needed lots of mana to cast Saproling Burst Rebels needed lots of mana to search up more creatures and the control decks needed a lot of mana to do just about anything. I decided I wanted to play a deck that could punish them with Armageddon.
The obvious partners to Armageddon were mana creatures so that made me green and white. I tried a straight G/W deck for a brief period but this was post-Swords to Plowshares and pre-Path to Exile so G/W decks were in rough shape when it came to dealing with opposing creatures. I didn't want to be without creature removal in a world where even the control decks had must-kill creatures like Blinding Angel. I could've just played Parallax Wave like the rebel decks did at the time but I expected lots of enchantment removal to fight Fires Burst and Wave so I didn't want to rely on that for my creature removal.
Enter Ancient Hydra. I played most of my test games on Apprentice against Ben Rubin and the Hydra was one unusual card he played in some of his Fires decks. I liked the idea of the Hydra since unlike most removal spells it would never be a dead draw. It provided enough damage to kill a Blinding Angel but could also take out multiple Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise to make Armageddon crippling. It wasn't long before I shifted my deck to G/W/R.
As fate would have it one card in that color combination was Rith the Awakener. I came to the realization that because Fires decks had no efficient ways to remove big creatures the best way to combat them was to pack efficient removal for their enchantments (like Wax / Wane which could double as a pump spell in a pinch) and to just go bigger than they did. Rith was central to that plan since she could block Blastoderms and live (thanks to their shroud making them untargetable by their own Fires of Yavimaya) and if she got a single hit in to make Saprolings it was almost impossible for Fires to come back.
The last few nails in the Fires coffin were in the sideboard. Armadillo Cloak was a card that I'd seen in the sideboard of Jon Sonne's G/W deck from the State Championships and it seemed like a perfect choice to shore up the matchup against Fires decks. The funny thing is that my whole plan was to cloak up a Jade Leech or River Boa just to dominate the board and gain a life buffer against a potential Fires/Burst attack but as it would happen I got the opportunity to do a whole lot more than that.
While Armadillo Cloak on Rith may have gotten the most press after the tournament the real heavy lifting came from the instants in the sideboard. Simoon and Tsabo's Decree were the real MVPs all event. Both of them were late additions – Decree as late as the morning of the event – and they each were absolutely backbreaking against Fires and Rebels respectively. The Fires matchup was about mana more than anything else and specifically about keeping your opponent from having enough of it. Armageddon and Ancient Hydra did that job but Simoon did it faster and I stole quite a few wins with the two of them. Tsabo's Decree was a huge surprise for all of my Rebels opponents singlehandedly turning around games that seemed like I had no right to win and swinging the inevitability of the matchup in favor.
If I'd gotten slightly better draws in my semifinal match and played a bit tighter Kai Budde may have had to wait a bit longer to become the German Juggernaut – and I may not have had to wait another ten years to win a Pro Tour.
The Deck: Super-Gro
The Tournament: Grand Prix Houston 2002
Extended of days gone past was much like the Legacy of today complete with dual lands Force of Wills and incredibly powerful cards and combos. One such combo was Illusions/Donate which first reached prominence in the Necro-Donate decks that were slowly dismantled by bannings (none of which ever seemed to do enough). After the various components were banned Donate was thought by most to be a dead deck but it resurfaced and won Pro Tour New Orleans in the hands of – who else? – Kai Budde. I played a similar U/r Donate deck in that event but our version was inferior to the winning deck particularly in the heads-up match (in which Kai defeated me playing for Top 8).
This isn't about Donate though – not exactly. It's about the environment Donate created in the following Extended season which was one of combo and anti-combo decks. One such anti-combo deck was Miracle Gro a ten-land U/G deck designed by future Hall of Famer Alan Comer to combat the combo decks by applying fast pressure backed up by counterspells. The deck was reminiscent of Alan's mono-blue Turbo Xerox deck from years before which cheated on land by playing tons of cantrip effects to give it more action in the later turns of the game. This deckbuilding principle has become a cornerstone of modern Legacy but at the time it was still very strange to see decks with such low land counts.
Alan's Miracle Gro deck was very successful and became extremely popular among players looking for an answer to Donate. It surpassed Donate in popularity if not success and became the deck to beat in the format. This spurred the popularity of Sligh decks which were strong against Miracle Gro because of the deck's reliance on small creatures and lack of removal to fight against Jackal Pups and Ball Lightnings.
One day not long before GP Houston I got a message from Ben Rubin telling me he had a deck that was the sickest ever. He wasn't kidding – he sent me an Apprentice .dec file called “sickestever.dec.” It was a different take on Miracle Gro that cut the weaker creatures like Wild Mongrel Gaea's Skyfolk and Waterfront Bouncer and added white for Swords to Plowshares Meddling Mage and Mystic Enforcer. I was immediately interested. I hated Miracle Gro because so much of the deck felt underpowered while this deck cut all the chaff. We tinkered with the list a bit and moved the Meddling Mages to the sideboard in favor of Merfolk Looters to help with filtering and to accelerate the deck to threshold.
The deck was a thing of beauty. Swords to Plowshares gave you an enormous edge against Miracle Gro since you could actually remove their creatures while they could do essentially nothing to yours while also giving you the early defense you needed against mono-red. Meddling Mage was the nail in the coffin for any kind of combo decks and Mystic Enforcer just did it all. In the pseudo-mirror he was a huge board-dominating threat. Against red he was a creature far too big for any of their burn spells to kill who usually demanded a Fireblast that you could happily Force of Will. Even against Oath he dominated the game because you could lock down the Oath player's mana with Winter Orb and they couldn't make their Morphling big enough to deal with him.
At the Grand Prix all but one player piloting the deck made Day Two. Both Ben and I made Top 8. We were in separate brackets and it seemed like the perfect ending that we should meet in the finals but Ben lost in the semifinals to Josh Smith who was playing a U/G/B anti-Gro deck sporting Powder Keg Pernicious Deed Diabolic Edict and Submerge along with Wasteland to punish our low-land mana base. I could not avenge his loss in the finals sadly and sickestever.dec would have to be content to go home without a trophy.
The Deck: Esper Stoneblade
The Event: Pro Tour Honolulu 2009
- 2 Court Homunculus
- 4 Esper Stormblade
- 2 Esperzoa
- 4 Ethersworn Canonist
- 3 Ethersworn Shieldmage
- 4 Glaze Fiend
- 4 Master of Etherium
- 4 Tidehollow Sculler
- 4 Vedalken Outlander
PT Honolulu was my first Pro-level event in years. After graduating from college I spent about a year playing Magic and poker professionally but ultimately found I wasn't satisfied with the lifestyle. After winning the first VS System Pro Circuit I was offered a job working on the game with Upper Deck in San Diego. I jumped at the chance looking for a change in my life and Magic took a backseat.
Fast forward several years to Pro Tour Hollywood. I was no longer working at Upper Deck and I decided to drive up to LA with Patrick Sullivan and Ben Seck to see some old friends (see a theme?). In the car ride there Pat was talking about the mono-red deck he was playing with cards like Magus of the Scroll Magus of the Moon and Mutavault all of which were reminiscent of cards I'd played with before. I started to get the itch to battle and once I got to the site borrowed or bought all the cards I needed to play Pat's deck. I went 4-2 in the LCQ losing to a G/B deck similar to the one with which Gindy won the Pro Tour and in the mirror to Pat himself. I heard that there were two PTQs happening that weekend and railbirded the first to learn what the format looked like well enough to build a deck for the second. I was completely hooked again.
I played some Block PTQs with Doran for a while and made half-a-dozen Top 8s but never won. I was out of town for a friend's wedding and the holidays during the Kyoto PTQs so I never tried to qualify for that but when I found out the next event was in Hawaii I knew I had to go. After probably a dozen PTQs I finally took one down in Las Vegas where I'd driven out by myself just to battle.
I started testing with Ben Rubin – who I now happened to live near in San Diego – and we quickly discovered that Jund was the obvious best deck. Sprouting Thrinax Bloodbraid Elf Bituminous Blast and Blightning were so much more powerful than anything else in the rest of the format – it wasn't close.
Unfortunately the rest of the world was on to that too. Block was the format of the Magic Online Championship the weekend before the Pro Tour and all of the top decks had Bloodbraid Elf. By “all” I don't mean “a whole lot of” or “most” – I literally mean every single one. Finding ways to get a significant edge in the Jund mirror match wasn't easy especially when you knew that that was what everyone else was looking at too. Thankfully the answer was waiting for me in Hawaii.
It was my favorite kind of answer too – play something no one is expecting. In a world where everyone is gunning for the “best deck” the actual best deck is often what no one saw coming. Neil Reeves had designed an Esper beatdown deck that he'd given to Jelger Wiegersma and I got a chance to see it in action in the few days I had in Hawaii before the Pro Tour. We had quite the crew in quite the house – me Jelger Ben Rubin Jamie Parke Mark Herberholz Paul Rietzl David Williams Gabriel Nassif and Noah Boeken were all staying in this gorgeous beach house trying to find a deck since none of us wanted to end up playing Jund.
I was hesitant about playing the Esper deck. I was concerned that it was incredibly vulnerable to hate cards like Vithian Renegades or Infest. But when I went to the tournament site to get cards and Uril the Miststalker was selling for $30 as Jund mirror tech I realized that everyone was going to be trying to get the edge in the mirror by going that much bigger than the next guy and that people weren't likely to have much room for sideboard cards against decks no one really anticipated.
The gambit worked – for some of us anyway. I went 9-1 in the Swiss demolishing Jund deck after Jund deck with Ethersworn Canonist and pro-color bears. Only one of my opponents played a Vithian Renegades and none had any copies of Infest. When the M10 rules changes were announced the Wednesday after the Pro Tour (which was the date I was flying home) and killed the ability to stack damage and still make tokens with Thopter Foundry it was clear that while we may have had the best deck it certainly was just for the one event.
The Deck: Punishing Zoo
The Event: Pro Tour Austin 2009
- 3 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
I happen to like this telling of it:
The Deck: Caw-Blade
The Tournament: Pro Tour Paris 2011
And I don't think you want to hear any more about this one these days…
That's going to wrap things up. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse back at some of my favorite decks from Magic's past and who knows – maybe you even learned something! There were a few honorable mentions I wanted to include but this became far more of a project than I'd realized once I got started and I had to pare down my list. Maybe I'll revisit some other decks in the future.