This article marries two topics Magical. One of them is old hat for me, a historical retrospective of the best - and even better - decks over several Constructed eras. The other is "issues", something that I try to avoid. See if you can figure out how these grand puzzle pieces fit together before the [pre-bonus section] last paragraph (no don't jump down!).
David Price - US Nationals 1997
It's hard to say who the true enemy was. You can cop out and say Classic Necro because, well, Necropotence, Nevinyrral's Disk, and Dark Ritual were all legal at the same time, but I don't know that you would get any kind of consensus on that. Probably the better candidate was "White", U/W control specifically. A new block-based policy was put into effect for US Nationals 1997. Ice Age had retroactively become part of the same block as Homelands and Alliances in such a way that previously illegal staples were all of a sudden in Standard once again. Big Blue had its day in the sun during Regionals 1997, but for Nationals, it was back to Swords to Plowshares control. U/W had all its favorite tools: Thawing Glaciers, Force of Will, Kjeldoran Outpost, and the rest. Erik Lauer had just invented Brainstorm tech, further slowing Standard.
From Dave's perspective, either candidate would have been fine. His deck was of course naturally strong against any Necropotence based deck, but the return of Swords to Plowshares did all kinds of crazy stuff.
Dave Price - Deadguy Red 1997
4 Ball Lightning
2 Dwarven Soldier
3 Goblin Digging Team
4 Goblin Vandals
4 Hammer of Bogardan
4 Ironclaw Orcs
3 Kaervak's Torch
4 Lava Hounds
2 Viashino Sandstalkers
4 Dwarven Ruins
This deck was among the most influential of all time. Price had become the Fire God somewhere in the twelve months previous to U.S. Nationals 1997, but he was then using essentially Jay Schneider's deck. The first true Deadguy Red deck tossed the selective card advantage of Sligh/Geeba and re-imagined Mountains purely for beatdown. Deadguy Red, besides having a natural strength against Necropotence due to Fireblast, created redundancy in the haste position over both Ball Lightning and the underrated Viashino Sandstalker with a more permanent Lava Hounds. Dave always said that he beat decks with Thawing Glaciers automatically, but when Swords to Plowshares swept back into Standard as the default creature kill card, the big dawgs lost essentially their only drawback.
It's funny that in 1997 this was a Rogue deck. Dave said he played it because he didn't expect to face a lot of Freewind Falcons. Would we have had Price in LA, Finkel and Pikula in Seattle, Team Topdeck in 1999, or any of the subsequent Red Deck Wins decks without the original Deadguy Red?
It is important to note that even before Dan Paskins infiltrated R&D with his obedient goblins, Wizards hated slow control so much that they invented Tempest, which (perhaps going a little overboard) included cards that became the Enemy in the next section.
After Buehler's win at the inaugural Extended Pro Tour, most of the world expected Necropotence to continue its domination of that format. Erik Lauer did, after all, show us how to correctly build and play the best deck (who doesn't play four Demonic Consultations?). Yet as strong as Necropotence was, Tempest's Red cards created incentives for a new generation of beatdown decks.
We think of the defining Tempest beatdown cards as Jackal Pup and Mogg Fanatic, but what about Wasteland and Cursed Scroll? Wasteland held Lake of the Dead in check, which, along with Soltari Monk and a little fire, was enough to quiet Necropotence's unilateral stranglehold for at least a few seasons. And so, PT Jank was born. A White Weenie deck with - because of the inclusion of Lightning Bolt and friends - none of its traditional weaknesses, PT Jank became the dominant deck of the 1997-1998 Extended PTQs.
As became his custom, Brian Schneider broke the format - legitimately cracked the world - on the last weekend of Extended PTQs. Four men played his deck. Four men made Top 8... And They Only Lost To Each Other. Schneider and Chris Herdeman took home the blue envelopes, with Bill Macey losing to bschneid in the Top 4 and Herdeman taking out Chicago Top 8 [Necropotence] player Sayers in the quarters.
Brian Schneider - The Meditate Deck
3 Force of Will
2 Whispers of the Muse
2 Gaea's Blessing
2 Lightning Bolt
3 Gerrard's Wisdom
3 Swords to Plowshares
2 Wrath of God
1 Flood Plain
2 Tropical Island
2 Volcanic Island
Besides dominating that last PTQ, this deck greatly informed future generations of control decks. Schneider considered anyone who needed a win condition beyond a pair of Gaea's Blessings a pantywaist, and proclaimed the Meditate Deck the easiest deck to play, ever ("trust me, you just Meditate"). It was a predecessor to Donais U5C and was borrowed from by several Oath decks prior to Ped Bun and Maher. The Mediate Deck navigated Tithe more skillfully than almost any other deck in history... And Did I Mention It Only Lost To Itself?
Probably the only reason the Meditate Deck didn't go on to the famous heights of some of the other decks on this list is that better in-color cards were printed that forced a re-working to the deck's baseline construction (Oath of Druids, Morphling, and so on); that, and R&D screwed up royally with the mana available in the following block.
strikeTeam CMUstrike Wizards of the Coast Magic Development - Grand Prix: Kansas City 1999 (and the week after)
Speaking of screwing up with the mana in the next block, following the Force of Will shootout that was PT: Rome, the New York 1999 PTQ season was similarly dominated by Blue Time Spiral decks. Unlike in today's Extended, where Nick West's NO Stick can deftly dance around the infinite opponent, the combo decks of 1999 were able to out-control the control decks!
High Tide, the most powerful and prominent of the problem decks, had all the trappings of Draw-Go. It had 10+ counters, four Thawing Glaciers (the good ones did anyway, heh), solid card drawing, better deck manipulation... Oh yeah, it could also generate a functionally infinite mana engine on turn 3 and win with Stroke of Genius. This pushed control deck with White components (like Brian's deck from the year before) to the margins. For them it was almost like board control being on the wrong end of true control. The High Tide decks were never going to miss a land drop due to Thawing Glaciers, and they didn't have to waste space to try to protect themselves or win the game.
However, intrepid members of Team CMU (and what would become the UberTeam) brought the philosophies of Andrew Cuneo's Draw-Go to Extended. But this time, instead of Steel Golem, they had Morphling.
Randy and future UberTeammate Chris Pikula took the deck to the star-studded Top 8 of Grand Prix: Kansas City, where they went down like tenpins to Mark Gordon's Goblin deck... but at least they bashed on the deck to beat!
Just like he had the previous year, CMU's other genius, Brian Schneider unleashed a late season creation that took the format by storm. Four men played the deck; once again two qualified.
Jon Becker forgot to attack for two on the second turn, eventually leaving his opponent on four life with a deadeye active Cursed Scroll on the turn he lost, so that wasn't bschneid's fault (not kidding). altran used his famous Demonic Consultation to good effect - but left only a few cards in his library - which allowed the opponent to "cheat" him out with a half-hearted non-combo Stroke, despite being dead on the board. But when we made our Top 8s, both Francis Keys and I took home the blue envelopes, despite Gordon's mono-Red win the week prior. Can anyone compare with Brian Schneider's batting percentage in metagame-driven Constructed deck?
The Ohio Valley and Thereabouts - Grand Prix Philadelphia 2000
<Coalition for Fair and Balanced Magic> Too bad about that whole High Tide thing, the rotations and all...
<Combo Winter> Yeah, High Tide was terrible.
<Coalition for Fair and Balanced Magic> What are you going to do now?
<Combo Winter> I can't believe they expected me to pay six mana for seven measly cards and a full untap.
<Coalition for Fair and Balanced Magic> What are you talking about...
<Combo Winter> Now I can pay ZERO mana for NINETEEN cards! And forget about losing to those stupid Pyroblast Goblin decks! I get Duress this year so none of that. And just to make sure I never lose to "the beatdown", I'm gaining 20 life in the middle of the combo, too. Thanks BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
<Coalition for Fair and Balanced Magic> You can't get away with this.
<Combo Winter> How do you plan to stop me? GREEN CARDS? I know! WHITE cards will save you! Bwahahahahaha!
Trey Van Cleave - Three-Deuce
4 Cursed Scroll
Van Cleave's deck was able to fight Trix on several levels. It could go beatdown. It could fight Illusions of Grandeur with twenty life on the stack via Disenchant, Pyroblast, and especially the Duress-proof Aura of Silence (and later Seal of Cleansing). It could play a damage route against Necropotence via light burn, disrupt the mana with Wasteland and Dwarven Miner, or just steal a game that had already been combo-won with a well-timed Swords to Plowshares. Oh yeah. Elvish Lyrist could just kind of wave from the sidelines, untapped, the entire game, too.
Was Three-Deuce the best deck of its era? Not by a longshot. Scott McCord, who defeated Trey in the Swiss but fell to him in the Top 4 of Grand Prix: Philadelphia, would say that Three-Deuce was not "broken" enough, not compared to mighty Trix. But Three-Deuce was nevertheless a grand achievement in terms of play skill and options intersecting a viable deck. Three-Deuce gives its master opportunities to out-play the opponent that a more dedicated Red Deck beatdown doesn't. It marries the mana efficent removal and tempo to StOmPy in much the same way that PT Jank improved straight White Weenie.
And it won.
Against a unified Team YMG, all with Wasteland-resistant Basic Trix, it won. Against more efficient aggro decks, forced onto the wrong side of the Who's the Beatdown equation, it won. Like some of the best decks of its era, through the Spring and Summer of Standard and Masques Block, Three-Deuce allowed more for possibilities than percentages, cleared a lot of space for improvisational, interactive play... the kind of play that turns no-talent automatons to mush.
Mike Pustilnik - Grand Prix Las Vegas 2001
I guess that nobody got the memo that Necropotence was the only thing that kept Trix going, because two years after its domination of the Extended GP/PTQ circuit, Some German showed up to some Extended tournament and won with the U/r version of Donate. Once again, Illusions of Grandeur was all the rage.
Some young American kids (who we will talk about exactly one section from now) figured out that the old ways are sometimes the best ways and went all High Tide on the format, remembering this card Thawing Glaciers. I was going to use their tech at Grand Prix: Las Vegas, but had to play for my byes along the way. The Apprentices (Josh and Paul) had all the Donate cards, so I was stuck with a deck loved only by Sol Malka.
Somehow, I won my GP Trial without dropping a game, beating MikeyP's Maher Oath in the Top 4 before beheading yet another Donate player in the finals. "Mise well play this pile again," I thought. Impressed, Mike decided to switch.
MikeyP and I showed up for Las Vegas with the same mains. I went 5-2 Day One, he won the whole shebang. Luckily, I won the PTQ the next day (taking out Mike's awful main-deck anti-Blue card), and after that weekend, The Rock went from a deck nobody cared about to a stalwart of Extended that is popular even today.
1 Living Death
1 Phyrexian Plaguelord
1 Recurring Nightmare
2 Vampiric Tutor
4 Pernicious Deed
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Spike Feeder
2 Spike Weaver
3 Wall of Roots
4 Yavimaya Elder
It's obvious that Mike's deck is even better against Donate than the average Rock deck, what with that Choke and everything, but The Rock was good against Donate in general. The first advantage is subtle: Duress + Spike Feeder. One Spike Feeder would keep you out of single-Donate range, and the disruption afforded by Duress will usually be enough to buy you the 40 damage you needed to win. Phyrexian Furnace was strong because the opponent would try to gain an advantage via Accumulated Knowledge. Going into the midgame (alive), you would consistently win by hiding behind a Pernicious Deed as long as you had anything worth cracking with in play. Last, and least important, your Black cards could handle Morphling. No way Superman was going to contain Spiritmonger, and I would usually side in a lone Diabolic Edict for any 3/3 sideboard shenanigans.
Like Three-Deuce in the previous Trix matchup, The Rock was far from an automatic favorite. Do I cast this Vampiric Tutor? If I do, I will be inside Donate + Fire / Ice range. Do I break this Yavimaya Elder? I need the lands... but if I do, I don't have a beater any more and I can't afford to tap out for a replacement with Pernicious Deed in play.
Was The Rock broken? Far from it! The Rock had a very good answer in Pernicious Deed but was, and remains, one of the most fundamentally fair championship decks in the history of the Extended format. It can't even manascrew you with Wasteland.
Same format - sickestever.dec
2001's Extended was possibly the finest Constructed format of all time. It had a very good best deck in U/r Donate, a forgiving Deed deck that arguably beat it, and eventually a powerful aggro-control deck in MiracleGrow that could beat both. So what did some of the best designers in the world do? They took the new best deck on the block to the next level.
Mike Long - GP: Sendai
4 Winter Orb
4 Tropical Island
Straight up MiracleGrow is hard to represent in a single deck list. Alan Comer brought it to the table first at MikeyP's GP: Vegas, but it quickly grew Werebears in the hands of Mike Long, and further evolved to re-integrate or embrace cards from Gaea's Skyfolk to River Boa. Like future U/G decks, MiracleGrow beat Pernicious Deed even though it might not have looked like it would on paper; it thrashed combo easily with a combination of explosive beats, disruption, and a fist that was always full of counters. In a few short weeks, MiracleGrow became a Deck to Beat... So Kibler and Rubin figured out how to beat it.
Brian Kibler and Ben Rubin - sickestever.dec
3 Winter Orb
This version lost the card advantage of Curiosity, but gained a ton of card advantage in the mirror via Swords to Plowshares... on the other guy's Curiosity-covered bullseye. The White version of MiracleGrow lost little when compared with the original, and could make up most problems with Meddling Mage. Best of all? Where MiracleGrow often struggled with Red Decks, sickestever.dec had giant 6/6 flyers.
If you're wondering why American Magic is on the decline, maybe it's because two of the brightest design minds we've ever had - erratic mana bases or no - are currently debating "who'd win - Dark Phoenix or Galactus" with the game's now-forgotten foremost beatdown mind and the slowest tactician on earth, Phd. somewhere left of left of here, while all the best deck designers I've ever worked with, tested with, roomed with - hell MET - have been hired by Wizards R&D. Other than Lauer. Okay, Lauer or Zvi. Just one man's opinion. Still lost a lot of troops to the battle of Renton.
Counter Psychatog; counter Upheaval... and nothing else.
Romao's deck had almost no tech. Sure, it was a serviceable version of Psychatog, but it was Romao's game play that gave him a perfect Standard record as well as the World Championship. His play group realized that the key to the mirror was in threat management; that, and not playing with Standstill. A Psychatog deck has relatively few threats - Dr. Teeth and the Big Ups mostly - and the key to victory was in stopping those cards. While other players fought over card drawing in a mirror match that involved Deep Analysis and Cunning Wish, Romao saved his permission for the spells that mattered - the ones that could win the game.
What do all these decks have in common? They were all great decks - some the best decks in their respective formats, some just very good decks - but all rose from formats where there was a clear enemy. What does this tell us? Some of Magic's greatest innovations are born in the strife of adversity.
But who cares?
Chad Ellis Stole My Thunder
Everyone knows that Ravager Affinity is the strongest deck in Standard... but it is far from the only good deck. Standard might not be the most fun format in the history of Magic, but unlike my friend Aaron Forsythe, I think that innovation is still possible. There are many good ways to build a U/G deck, or a G/R deck, or even a White Weenie deck.
In all the formats above, there was a best deck. In some cases - especially with the best Extended combo decks - the enemy was stronger than today's Ravager Affinity. It is my belief that the right route is not to ban Disciple of the Vault like Ben Bleiweiss wants, or to take out all the artifact lands like some have suggested, or to attack Fairy Godmother Ravager herself.
The problem card is Aether Vial.
I've said for months that Aether Vial is the best card in Standard. Let me make this easy. What is better, Aether Vial or Sol Ring? They only let you play one Sol Ring in Type I... yet we can play as many Aether Vials as we want? What about Aether Vial or Mana Vault? You don't have to pay four mana to untap Aether Vial.
Now I'm not saying that Aether Vial is quite Sol Ring or Mana Vault - it's certainly not as explosive - but Standard is not as explosive as Vintage, either. Over the course of a long game, Aether Vial will produce more, and more relevant, mana than cards that are restricted in more powerful formats. Sol Ring might let you get a quick start, but on turn 6, it is still tapping for two. In Extended, it is making Siege-Gang Commander at the end of the opponent's turn.
Aether Vial was present in nearly half the decks in the Top 8 of GP: Boston. We think of it as a companion to Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager, but in Extended, it is just as likely to enable Goblins... or Life... or Cephalid Breakfast... or more than one at the same time. Aether Vial makes every good creature deck better, makes White Weenie playable. It is perhaps the Fairy Godmother that Osyp Lebedowicz mistook for Arcbound Ravager.
In Mirrodin Block, Affinity-minus-Skullclamp wasn't even a problem in the post-Fifth Dawn format until the mass adoption of Aether Vial. Do you realize people were trying to get by on Paradise Mantles... or nothing at all?
Ultimately, I think the right play is to ban Aether Vial in both Standard and Extended and do nothing more. It's clear that Ravager Affinity is the most powerful deck in Standard right now and that Imi Statue doesn't cut it in the slowing down the juggernaut category. For innovation like we have seen above, there has to be a best deck, but the best deck can't be unbeatable. I doubt Forbidian or Suicide King would have been able to hang with Academy and Windfall, but they were solid against High Tide. I don't mind the idea that Ravager Affinity will be the best deck for Regionals. Banning Aether Vial will allow deck designers to apply some customization to a deck that is currently static. Will we see the return of Paradise Mantle? Of Night's Whisper? At the end of the day, every format has to have a best deck. Why not make it a best deck we know how to beat? At least this way we can fight Affinity without the free mana fixing, instant speed creatures, and surprise! ogres out of the sideboard. Just one man's opinion.
Bonus Section: Dissenting Voices
<JRavitz> If we MURDER Ravager, everyone can take out their stupid anti-artifact cards; it will be a whole new format.
<JRavitz> Anyway two roads to victory is too many, beatdown and combo. Even without Aether Vial, Ravager is too good at both.
<michaelj> Lots of decks have more than one route to victory. High Tide, Psychatog, and Donate have combo and control; Trix has all three paths.
<JRavitz> Nice fair decks for your argument. :(
<michaelj> Notice I didn't mention Goblins. :)
[I'll put my comment waaaay down here so as not to disrupt michaelj's groove. I think as much as anything, the bannings are going through not because Ravager is unbeatable, but because people think it's unbeatable. This has led everyone to believe that Standard is boring and awful right now, and in some ways it is, but I'm guessing the thought of lackluster Friday Night Magic events for another 9 months has almost as much to do with this decision as the composition of Affinity itself. Then again, I still think Affinity would swipe 40% of the Regionals Top 8 slots too, sooo... - Knut]