Innovations - A History of the Best Decks from the First 17 Years of Magic
Today I would like to offer up a history lesson. I would like to walk through some information on deck lists and strategies from the game’s 17-year history in hopes that the information contained within can be useful to those with an eye to deck building or theory for moving forward.
To understand the future one must understand the present and to understand the present one most understand the past. One can succeed in Magic without a knowledge of its history but that knowledge is certainly very useful particularly for gaining perspective and particularly to those that build original decks.
I am going to talk about the best (perhaps most important) deck of each year of the game’s history with an eye towards decks that had a significant impact on the game’s development. These are not just the most powerful decks as this is not a history of all Type 1 but rather a history of the decks that dominated the formats of the day. I am sure many people will disagree with me on many of these years and I would love to hear feedback in the forums on years where you think another deck should be given the nod. Keep in mind that I am focusing on Constructed formats played by the most people so beyond 1995 Vintage has to take a back seat.
Alex Parrish defeated Rick Townsend in the finals of the very first sanctioned Magic Tournament taking place at GenCon in 1993 when the game was unveiled. While the optimal deck was probably somewhere between…
… And …
… Alex defeated Rick’s G/W deck featuring Scryb Sprites Giant Spider Circle of Protection: Red with a R/B (Rakdos?) aggro deck featuring Mons’s Goblin Raiders Unholy Strength Orcish Oriflamme (costing only 1R) Juggernaut Dark Ritual Disintegrate Terror and Stone Rain.
I wish I had the exact deck lists but suffice it to say many laughs can be had imagining the format at the time. If these sound like sealed decks remember at the time there was a very small number of cards in existence so building a ruthless degenerate deck of Lotuses was not really possible. There probably something like 19 in circulation at the time.
I list it here because any decklist I show you from 1993 is going to look like a joke and I think it is fair to say that the winning deck from the very first Magic tournament can be said to be one of if not the most important decks of the year strategically.
One could argue a case for the decks that saw the Moxen restricted and so forth but it was fairly academic once people got their hands on enough cards to build decks that abused the power. It is funny to think that Time Vault eventually got banned because of people abusing it with Animate Artifact and Instill Energy…
There is a lot of history with GenCon and I am greatly looking forward to it this upcoming weekend (where amusingly Time Vault leading to infinite turns is the center of the Vintage Championships…).
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Vise
1 Control Magic
1 Howling Mine
1 Icy Manipulator
1 Ivory Tower
1 Mana Drain
1 Siren's Call
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Time Walk
1 Winter Orb
1 Wrath of God
1 Chaos Orb
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Copy Artifact
1 Diamond Valley
1 Floral Spuzzem
1 In the Eye of Chaos
1 Magical Hack
1 Power Sink
1 Presence of the Master
1 Reverse Damage
1 Sleight of Mind
1 Winter Blast
Zac Dolan was the first Magic World Champion piloting this slightly awkward brew to the finals of an intense single elimination championship.
While it was Dolan that took home the trophy I think Bertrand Lestree may have had the best deck running the original Zoo deck:
Lestree’s deck was one of the first technologically advanced decks as it used the most efficient cards possible was teched out (Argothian Pixies against Juggernaut and Mishra’s Factory) and featured the original display of Weenies plus Burn.
Brian Weissman’s “The Deck” can probably be called the first truly great deck at least since the 60 card 4-per-deck and restricted list have existed. He is the well-known father of the school of Magic thought that deals with card advantage (in general the player with more cards is more likely to win and this fact is one of the most important fundamental aspects of Magic theory) and he was an early theorist that made most of his contributions on usenet.
For purists that are interested in the first dominant Standard deck the award easily goes to Mark Justice and Henry Stern’s R/G/b Consult for Channel deck. They used a R/G Aggro shell splashing Black for Demonic Consultations primarily used to name the restricted Channel. Sometimes this would kill them (when Channel was in the top six cards) but usually it would set up the turn 3 or 4 kill with Channel plus Fireball.
As strong a deck as Justice and Stern used to dominate Standard I think The Deck was more dominant in its format and it has had a bigger influence. In addition at the time Type 1 was more popular than Standard in many many places.
The Deck was essentially a Five-Color U/W Control deck that was utterly devoted to drawing cards and reacting to the opponent’s plays. His use of restricted cards and powerful artifacts gave him the mana and card advantage he needed to leverage his permission and removal into a stable game state where he would eventually win with one of his two Serra Angels (which could also serve double duty as defenders) or his Mirror Universe (also serving as life gain).
Mirror Universe was especially potent at the time since you did not die as a result of dropping to zero but rather you would die at the end of the phase. He would mana burn himself down to one life then during his upkeep he would tap a City of Brass reducing his life total to zero. At that point he would activate Mirror Universe killing his opponent as soon as the upkeep ended.
The Deck was not just the first “true control deck” but also the basis for countless decks to follow including many today. The idea of playing 28 mana in a deck was revolutionary at a time when many people played between 20-24. In addition his extremely limited number of victory conditions was unheard of at the time. Finally his extreme dedication to card advantage and developing the game to a point where his victory was inevitable rather than just racing to victory has impacted essentially every format ever since.
The Deck might be the most important deck ever built.
2 Strip Mine
4 Mishra’s Factory
Lindbeck finished third in the first Pro Tour and Graham won the first Junior Pro Tour both unveiling a first look at the Necropotence strategy that would come to dominate Magic for many years.
It is hard to say which of these decks is more important as both offered important insights on how to develop a true disruption deck. Lindbeck’s deck was among the first to have the courage to play 4 Necros as well as pushing the Necro-Drain and Necro-Disk strategies to the limit. His 4 Strip Mines would become industry standard. Remember that they had to use four cards from each set which is why he had so many strange card choices particularly in the sideboard.
Tatomer’s deck pushed the disruption even harder featuring Icequakes to help push the LD element as well as bringing the world cutting edge technology like Demonic Consultation. Many people thought that it was brave to play Necropotence at all but to play Demonic Consultation was suicidal.
While Bentley McCabe Pikula Hacker and Justice all enjoyed great success with Necro in 1996 (home of the “Black Summer”) it was actually in later years that Necropotence decks crossed over from just being filled with busted cards (Hymns Rituals Strip Mines) to being truly great decks for their era (Lauerpotence which was the deck Randy used to win the first Extended Pro Tour and Trix which will be discussed below).
It is hard to identify just one Necropotence deck as the best or most important as Necropotence has had one of the richest histories of any major card or archetype ever made. Its impact on game design as well as deck design can be felt to this day.
Mike Long was one of the true early greats in Magic not only in playing ability but also with regards to deck building. While he was far from the only player to play Pros-Bloom in Paris that year he did have the best version and took home the trophy.
While combo decks have always existed in Magic Pros-Bloom was the first true combo deck of the modern era. Rather than just being a collection of restricted cards that resulted in enough mana and cards to kill someone on turn 1 (as had existed in Type 1 from time to time) Pros-Bloom used combinations like Infernal Contract/Prosperity + Cadaverous Bloom and Natural Balance + Squandered Resources to trade cards for mana and mana for cards until the Pros-Bloom player had drawn their whole library at which point a lethal Drain Life would finish the job.
Pros-Bloom is one of the most important decks of all time as it marked the beginning of a new era of deck construction. No longer would Magic be viewed from just the Offensive-Defensive paradigm. From this day forward “Aggro Control and Combo” would always be considered. Before Pros-Bloom cards like Squandered Resources would be laughed at. From this day forward every “bad” engine card would be reviewed by many looking for new and powerful ways to combine cards to win outside of the traditional model of playing creatures and supporting them with spells.
David Price was famous in that era for always playing Mono-R (or Mono-B) in every format. Evolving the Sligh deck that I used in the Junior Division of Dallas in 1996 Dave began the push away from midrange control Mono-R towards what would today be called Red Deck Wins.
In 1997 he won the Standard portion of U.S. Nationals pioneering such hits as 4 Ball Lightning (back when it was good) and 4 Fireblast. When Tempest Block Constructed became the format of the day everyone knew that Mono-R was going to be good. It was not surprising in the least that the best Mono-R player of the era went on to win it in great part due to the unlikely technology of Giant Strength which allowed him to attack into Bottle Gnomes without a care in the world.
This deck marked the true overtaking of Sligh that Red Deck Wins had accomplished. Jay Schneider’s Sligh deck (Geeba) was probably the more important deck of the two (though it was created in 1996) as it taught the world the value of the mana curve. Still David Price introduced the world to the philosophy of fire in action and from this day forward Red Deck Wins was no longer just a fringe deck.
Erik Lauer and Randy Buehler
Randy Erik and the rest of Team CMU had devised a deck so broken it was the only time in DCI History for Wizards of the Coast to announce an emergency banning in the middle of a season.
The deck is almost entirely all mana and card draw and seeks to draw its deck on first (maybe second) turn eventually finding the Megrim and making the opponent die to the discard triggers from Memory Jars.
This could have gone on to be the most busted deck in competitive history if not for being banned in less than a season (a feat never matched). It is possible that High Tide was a better deck in many respects but it was at a power level where it was not immediately outlawed as such I have to give it to the CMU Broken Jar from GP: Vienna.
Full On Trix has been called the most feared deck in Magic history and I would say that is probably true with only full on Affinity giving it a run for its money. It is nowhere near many Type 1 decks but as far as major formats go this deck was second to none.
Michelle Bush actually created the first version with the idea being that you tutor for and force through a Necropotence rather than your combo. Then you trade almost all of your life to sculpt the perfect hand and win next turn.
This combination deck was the final execution of the Necropotence as a tutor strategy that had first been piloted by Adrian Sullivan in Rome the year before. Necropotence is such a powerful card drawer you can actually just draw 15 or so cards and win the game outright in a format as powerful as Extended so the theory goes.
Team ABU’s R/G aggro deck was the most dominant deck ever brought to a Pro Tour by a single team taking up an unparallel 4 of the Top 8 slots. While other decks such as Elves! have taken more slots they were a variety of builds by a variety of teams. No team has ever totally dominated the Top 8 like ABU did in Japan.
The deck is straightforward with an ideal selection of creatures chosen for their offensive capabilities and anti B/R/U control features as well as a number of creatures selected to take advantage of the prevalence of Flametongue Kavu decks of all shapes and sizes.
While it was Zvi and his U/W “Solution” that won the day Team ABU’s dominance is the moment in time people always turn back to when they talk about a team breaking the format.
Ken’s build of U/G Madness was a bit different from most of the other U/G decks at the top some focusing more on Threshold others Flashback but he did walk away with the trophy in the block Pro Tour that essentially revolved around just two decks (the other being Mono-B) as well as a Masters finish shortly thereafter that ported the U/G deck over to Standard.
This deck was an early example of the possibility of synergy trumping card power as the cards in Ho’s deck worked together ruthlessly.
In a format full of tribal creature decks it was the anti-creature Slide deck that came out a clear favorite. While everyone knew that Lightning Rift would be good it was pioneers that used Astral Slide that really pushed Cycling decks over the top.
This deck is clearly built with a Tribal format in mind with an extra eye towards Goblins which was believed by many to be the best tribal deck. It is also important to note that Oysp did not have access to Scourge yet hence no Eternal Dragons or Decree of Justice.
Affinity is one the most feared and (probably) most hated decks of all time. Just how many decks if any have been better is debatable but there is no debating the negative impact of Affinity particularly Skullclamp on Magic.
More people stopped playing Magic during Darksteel than any other time in the game’s history and while Magic is alive and well and moving in a positive direction the game has still never fully recovered from the effects of Darksteel on the player base.
Full On Affinity was such a stronger strategy than anything else on a fundamental level that competitive Magic was boring and a barren wasteland as far as creativity went. There were so many cool things possible during Mirrodin. It is a shame that many of them will never be tried as they never had a chance to breathe with Affinity in the room.
Even to this day with Skullclamp Disciple of the Vault and Aether Vial banned Affinity is still one of the most feared Extended decks (let alone Standard) despite rarely getting any new cards and having to deal with more and more hate all the time (Kataki Ancient Grudge Shattering Spree Fracturing Gust etc).
Michael J Flores
Flores Blue was incredibly dominant during the latter half of 2005 especially around the time of the State Championships. It is the prime example of one of the most important contributions to deck building Flores ever produced that of the “Tap Out Blue Deck.”
The way a Tap Out Blue deck works is by using reactive cards to buy time to start dropping bombs (such as Keiga and Meloku). Whereas older theory was that a control deck should never tap out Flores reasoned that nothing the opponent could do would be as good as a Meloku or Keiga anyway so you could tap out for either without fear as long as you were not horribly behind on board.
The impact of this theory can be seen today with decks like Cruel Control and Tron tapping out without fear.
Mihara’s Dragonstorm Deck was essentially one part acceleration one part library manipulation one part combo and two parts land. The basic idea was to use Telling Times and Sleight of Hands to set up your hand to sculpt a turn 3 4 or 5 flurry of Rituals and Storage counters to set off a Dragonstorm for four which would usually be fatal.
The deck was fast enough to race just about anything and Remand and Gigadrowse provided a powerful interaction as they could be used to buy Mihara more time or offensively to force through his key spells.
While Mind’s Desire decks had impacted every format since the introduction of the Storm mechanic it was not until Dragonstorm that the Storm mechanic had truly “broken” a format. Amusingly The Magic Show’s Evan Erwin was actually one of the early advocates of Dragonstorm swearing that it was busted and trying to show the world what was possible.
The most interesting aspect of the Mono-R Dragonstorm deck that Nassif Herberholz Finkel Williams Maher and I piloted at Worlds that year was the fact that the entire format seemed to believe that combo was dead and that the only strategies were midrange aggro and control.
The Spinerock Knoll deck was not nearly so busted once people adjusted to it and knew what was going on but it is probably safe to call it one of the greatest metagame moves ever with the six of us finishing with a combined record of 22-7-1 in the Standard portion including a second and third place finish in the final standings in what would be the most dominant team finish for a deck since Team ABU’s R/G.
Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa
It is hard to pick out just one Faerie deck as Faeries dominated every aspect of Standard last year but it is easy to say that Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa was the most successful Faeries pilot of them all.
PV is certainly one of the best players in the world outright so it is not surprising to discover that he is the best Faeries pilot especially when one considers his two Pro Tour Top 8’s with it that year as well as Grand Prix and National Championship finishes.
When people look back on 2008 they will surely remember the impact the Faerie menace had on the game as it was at that scary power level where it was definitely the best but was not quite good enough to get banned. It totally dominated points in the Block and even Extended formats and many people felt that Bitterblossom should have been banned long ago but suffice to say that Faeries has been “designed against” for a long time and is no longer the monster it was.
Some would say that Bitterblossom being a Faerie is the biggest mistake WotC made in 2008 (as far as design goes) but I think I would agree with a number of R&D members who feel that Vivid Creek and its ilk having two counters instead of one is actually the worst or possibly the power level of Cryptic Command.
Shuhei Nakamura (and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa)
While Shuhei’s list is probably not optimal today despite his winning Japanese Nationals just a month ago he did spawn the total takeover of Standard as savvy Americans like Charles Gindy Adam Yurchick and Todd Anderson built on Shuhei’s list en route to taking their places on the U.S. National Team.
It should be noted that Shuhei was actually piloting Guillaume Wafo-Tapa’s list and that one of the greatest control deck designers of all time was behind the deck. Let’s just say that Shuhei doesn’t play Blue Control decks very often.
I would be remiss to overlook the importance of Gabriel Nassif’s win in Kyoto Jamie Parke’s finals appearance and Bucher’s unveiling of Quick n’ Toast which marked the progression of Five-Color Control from a fringe attempt at control to the format-dominating machine it is today.
When Five-Color Control was just a cute Mannequin deck it was decent but nothing special. It was not until the printing of Cruel Ultimatum that everything began to change. Each successive wave of printings brought more and more tools to the disposal of Five-Color players and at this point I can’t wait for Reflecting Pool to rotate out. How about you?
Thanks for taking this trip down memory lane with me. Those that do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. When you are well versed in Magic’s history you have an additional element that can provide tangible as well as intangible strengths to your game.
See you next week!