If you've been frequenting social media for the past week, you've probably seen much the same phenomenon that I have—people making grandiose statements about either how wonderful or how terrible last year was for them. These retrospectives tend to be remarkably binary, focusing on only the positive or negative from the year. Today I'm going to do something similar but cross the streams a little bit. In the interest of full disclosure, I want to talk about the best and worst decks I played in 2013.
Let's start from the top:
#3 Worst Deck Of 2013
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 1 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 3 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 2 Thragtusk
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
In testing for Pro Tour Gatecrash, I fell in love with Domri Rade. For anyone who has paid any attention to the decks I've played over the year (some of which you'll certainly see in the "best" section as we continue), this certainly shouldn't come as a surprise. Domri is the exact kind of card that I love—proactive, powerful, and plays well with others if those others are creatures. We anticipated a metagame of primarily aggressive red decks, midrange green decks, and various Sphinx's Revelation decks for the Pro Tour, and Domri seemed well poised to combat all of them.
The real hype card of that event was Boros Reckoner. In the StarCityGames.com Standard Open leading up to the PT, Reckoner was everywhere. People were using it in aggressive red decks as a hard-to-block threat, in control decks as an absolute roadblock against creatures on the ground, and as part of a combo kill with Blasphemous Act (or Harvest Pyre in the case of Gerry Thompson). I was rather enamored with the idea of using Reckoner alongside Domri because it offered not only incredible control of the board but also the ability to burn your opponent out by fighting a big creature (even one of your own!) with Reckoner.
Between Reckoner, Domri, and Loxodon Smiter, the shell of a deck that I built had enough powerful three-drops that I felt like I really wanted mana acceleration. Arbor Elf and Avacyn's Pilgrim fit the bill but unfortunately make very different demands on a mana base than Boros Reckoner. In the end, I decided to split the difference and play somewhere between enough early green sources for my mana creatures and enough R/W sources for my Reckoners—which, in case you're curious, is a recipe for disaster. I only had eleven untapped green mana sources, which is incredibly light of the fourteen or more I typically want to play to support one-drop mana creatures, and four lands in my deck that could not tap for mana to play Reckoner—and my Arbor Elfs had to combo with one of my eight shock lands in order to help.
I ended up doing okay with the deck, finishing in the Top 100 of the event overall. There were clearly powerful things going on (and this was the deck that made me really learn to appreciate Thundermaw Hellkite I think), but I lost many key games and matches due to the structural flaws in the mana base. I got greedy and tried to cut corners and do too much, and it cost me.
#3 Best Deck Of 2013
- 2 Cartel Aristocrat
- 3 Desecration Demon
- 3 Dreg Mangler
- 2 Dryad Militant
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 2 Sin Collector
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
This is one of those "so close and yet so far" decks. I ended up in eighteenth place at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze after drawing in the last round to lock up my spot in the World Championship. I lost in the penultimate round to Mihara's Esper deck—my only loss against the most popular archetype in the room in the entire tournament. Of course, Mihara's deck had four maindeck copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa and four sideboarded Woodlot Crawlers, so I was probably fortunate to get within one life of killing him, but when I looked at my other possible pairings to play for Top 8—a bunch of blue control decks without Blood Baron or Crawler and Wescoe, who would have conceded to me—I can't help but think what might have been.
This deck is a prime example of one of the core principles of my deckbuilding philosophy—identify the enemy and find the best tools available to take it down. From the beginning of testing Return to Ravnica Block Constructed, it was clear that public enemy number one was Sphinx's Revelation, so I was building all aggressive G/B-based decks with regenerators and Abrupt Decays to fight against Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere—sounds kind of like what I was doing in Standard for a while, doesn't it?
I went through various iterations of G/B alone or with various splashes before arriving at G/B/W. The two-color deck simply didn't have enough power, while none of the splashes I tried were anywhere near as strong as white. My early versions of G/B/W were much more midrange, with Blood Baron and Obzedat topping the curve and frequent support from Gyre Sage for acceleration. I found that the five-mana creatures just weren't strong enough to get me into games where I was behind against aggressive red decks, and Gyre Sage didn't play very well with Experiment One because I couldn't afford to have that many evolve creatures that were weak draws after the early turns of the game.
In the last few days before the event, I worked to reinvent my deck completely as an aggro deck, and it worked. The best cards in the deck were Experiment One, Lotleth Troll, and Voice of Resurgence since they could provide the most explosive and resilient starts against control and offered the fastest and most solid defense against aggro. But the real key was Varolz. I had originally only played a few copies of Varolz, but after playing with it for a bit I decided to experiment with the full four. Varolz had the effect of giving me a ton of late-game power without raising my curve, which improved the deck's performance against beatdown and control decks alike.
In the end, my performance wasn't quite good enough to make the Top 8, but some slightly better draws or pairings and it might have been different. Many of the principles I used to build this deck carried on to my future work in Standard even though the deck itself never really made it out of Block. I look at it as a great example of identifying how to attack the primary threats in a metagame.
#2 Worst Deck Of 2013
I started 2013 off with a Legacy Grand Prix in Denver. As I've mentioned a number of times, Legacy is not my strongest format in large part because I simply don't play it frequently enough to be able to make informed deckbuilding and deck selection decisions. My strategy for choosing Legacy decks has generally been to find a recent successful deck that looks like something I might enjoy playing, change at most a handful of cards, and just go for it—a tactic habit that has burned me more than once.
For Denver, however, I decided to try something different. I had resolved going into 2013 to be more open in my deck selection range. Given that I knew little to nothing about what Legacy was going to look like with the addition of Deathrite Shaman—except that my beloved Knight of the Reliquary was now that much worse—I decided I would just play whatever someone who actually playtested for the event recommended.
This deck came out of the team forums, advocated by several people including EFro, who had been testing for some time. It certainly wasn't my usual style, but it seemed like it had some things going for it. Lingering Souls worked well with and against Liliana, and both she and Jace were powerful ways to take advantage of the acceleration of Deathrite Shaman. Hymn and Thoughtseize provided universal disruption, and Dark Confidant helped fuel everything.
In reality, though, the deck turned out to be fairly bad. The biggest problem was that it just wasn't fundamentally proactive. Too many cards in the deck were based around generating incremental advantages rather than genuinely shutting the door on your opponent, and too many cards were ineffective in the later turns of the game. While you have both Jace and Brainstorm for card selection, you don't want to have to use them to shuffle back a Hymn or Thoughtseize every time when both you and your opponent are playing off the top of your deck.
The biggest thing missing from the deck was Stoneforge Mystic. Much of the core of this deck is what has become the Deathblade archetype in Legacy, except we were missing the most important piece in Mystic itself. Lingering Souls by itself is fairly inconsequential much of the time, but Spirits get a lot scarier when they're almost guaranteed to have a Jitte to carry. I imagine the nail biter I played against Burn in my first round would have been a hell of a lot easier if I'd had Batterskull available to fetch as well.
And yet despite these flaws, it still wasn't the worst deck I played last year. Or even the worst Legacy deck . . .
#2 Best Deck Of 2013
- 3 Deathrite Shaman
- 2 Kitchen Finks
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 2 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 2 Thundermaw Hellkite
My first Domri deck of the year was one of my worst, but I learned from my mistakes and the little fighter made his way into some of my best later on. I was particularly proud of this deck because I managed to bring Domri into an entirely new format with my success in Modern.
My experimenting with Domri in Modern began when I was messing around with using the fight ability alongside Phyrexian Obliterator. While my deck full of four-mana creatures couldn't quite hang with the big boys and their Remands, I realized that Domri himself was very powerful, especially against the U/W/R and Jund decks that were so popular at the time. I resolved to find the best shell I could for Domri in Modern.
That brought me to Naya. While not quite as fun as fighting with Phyrexian Obliterator, Domri worked very well alongside Knight of the Reliquary as well—and who am I to turn down a chance to play with that card? Domri's +1 ability also works very well with fetch lands (which happen to dovetail nicely with the demands of Knight). This is both because you can shuffle away a "miss" with a fetch land activation and because playing a lot of fetch lands means you're thinning your noncreature cards out of your deck and making your Domri activations more likely to hit.
I took the deck to Grand Prix San Diego, and it felt a bit like a band reunion tour. Playing with Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, and Elspeth all together again was great—and it was even greater when I ended the first day undefeated and then battled my way through day 2 to make the Top 8. My run ended there when I couldn't take down Nathan Zamora's Eggs deck after F6ing in real life, but it was an absolute blast the whole way.
I had largely dismissed the viability of the deck in Modern after the printing of Scavenging Ooze in M14 put a serious crimp in Knight of the Reliquary's style, but after the World Championship was filled with U/W/R decks in Modern (and I went 0-3 with Aether Vial hate bears), I decided to give it another go. I ended up finishing in the Top 16 at GP Detroit with a revamped version of the deck, losing two win-and-in matches against Jund—appropriately enough, largely due to Scavenging Ooze shrinking my Knights.
You can be sure this will be on the short list of decks I end up testing for the Modern Pro Tour in Valencia next month. Domri and I are boys now, even if we may have to kick Knight of the Reliquary from the band . . .
#1 Worst Deck Of 2013
- 2 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 3 Stoneforge Mystic
- 4 True-Name Nemesis
- 1 Dryad Arbor
Remember what I said about picking my Legacy decks based on something that had done well recently that looks like something I like? Well, that's exactly what got me into the mess of playing this pile of garbage. I did my usual zero preparation for the Legacy portion of the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas and decided to play the Bant deck designed by Reid Duke that Sam Black played to a Top 4 finish at GP DC. It had some of my favorite cards—Knight of the Reliquary, Noble Hierarch, and Green Sun's Zenith—and had recently posted a great result. How bad could it be?
The answer is that it could be horrible. Really truly awful. I'm sure the deck was good at the Grand Prix because that was before people realized just how much True-Name Nemesis warped the format. The deck is an excellent proactive True-Name deck, which means that it's going to be very good against opponents who aren't prepared for the card and can easily win games against unprepared opponents based on that alone.
Unfortunately, my opponents at the Invitational came prepared. I have rarely felt so overmatched. I managed to win my first round against Jund—largely on the back of Knight of the Reliquary—but got absolutely crushed in my second round against Deathblade, and it did not feel like I was in the game at all. My opponent had tools like Liliana and Zealous Persecution that could kill my True-Name Nemesis among other things, while my only hope was to use Force of Will to counter his. Force of Will is terrible in "fair" matchups, but I was so soft to opposing True-Names that I couldn't possibly sideboard them out.
I lost the next two matches as well—one to Merfolk, which had Aether Vial to cheat in True-Names, lords to pump them, and Phantasmal Images to copy them, and then an actual close one to U/W/R Delver when my deck just failed to operate—and was swiftly out of the event from a 4-1 start.
The lesson from this is twofold: 1) I really should consider actually testing Legacy sometime, and 2) it's important to evaluate the success of a deck in context. While a deck may be great one week, metagame shifts can make it simply terrible the next. Normally I'm good about being ahead of the game, but it's much more difficult to manage when you're not doing your own work. So I'm going to try to do more of my own work for Legacy in the future because I hate feeling like I'm behind the times.
#1 Best Deck Of 2013
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Hellrider
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
This choice should probably come as no surprise. People thought that Standard going into the World Championship was stale, with Jund and U/W/R poised to dominate the field. And indeed those two decks made up full thirteen of the sixteen lists in the event, with only myself, Craig Wescoe, and Willy Edel dissenting. But after Worlds the landscape of the format was irrevocably altered, and my deck was the reason why.
I built my G/R Aggro deck with those decks firmly in my crosshairs and went through many iterations before I ended up with the list I finally played in the event. Indeed, I actually completely reworked my entire deck the night before the tournament when I was unhappy about how it was performing against Lifebane Zombie. I shifted my more midrange build with Wolfir Avengers in a much more aggressive direction with Strangleroot Geists and Hellriders despite the latter providing a much greater strain on my mana.
It turned out that my mana worked fine, and it was my opponents' mana that was strained thanks to the power of Burning Earth. Prior to the release of M14, the idea of playing basic lands in Standard was almost quaint since the combination of Ravnica shock lands and M10 buddy lands made coming up with whatever mana you wanted a simple enough task. Burning Earth changed all that.
Playtesting my G/R deck against U/W/R was kind of funny. I remember splitting a series of game 1s fairly evenly, and the rest of my team was clearly not very impressed by how my deck was faring. I suggested we try sideboarding, and I proceeded to rattle off something like eight straight wins, none of them particularly close. Burning Earth was nearly unbeatable, especially paired with Domri to stretch the already pressured Detention Spheres the U/W/R deck was bringing in.
After my 3-0 finish in the Standard rounds of Worlds, the World Magic Cup the next day was filled with copies of G/R Aggro, as were the subsequent Grand Prix and Standard Opens for the next few months before the release of Theros. While I was only able to play three rounds with it myself, the deck went on to become the most important piece of the Standard metagame puzzle until Theros was released. While I'd rather have taken home trophies from all those events myself, I'll take completely upending the Standard metagame as a win in my book.
What were your best and worst decks from the last year?