The Best Decks
One of the greatest feelings in Magic is playing in a big tournament where you know you chose the right deck. It's a liberating feeling playing round after round with such a potent weapon. To me, it's like getting your first car. Nothing in the world can stop you, and you're going places faster than Usain Bolt.
On the flip side, playing the wrong deck in the tournament is the exact same feeling; only the car doesn't have a fuel pump. Life sucks when the gas pedal doesn't produce anything.
With that in mind, I'd like to countdown the best decks I've ever played. The rules are pretty simple. The bigger the tournament, the more likely the deck is to make the list, at least the good part of the list. Either way, some decks teach me more than others, and those will be featured one way or another. Additionally, I don't have an archive for many of these decks, so some of them are from memory. I'll list the most recent set as well.
#237 Enduring Ideal at PT Honolulu 2006 – Standard with Guildpact
This was the first Pro Tour where plane tickets were a part of a PTQ winner's fare. Despite moving away from the game (to pursue Vs. System fame and immortality... awkward), I found time to win a PTQ. I wasn't going to squander a free plane ticket to Hawaii, so I did the unthinkable. I allowed Cedric Phillips to make my deck for the PT, which I would play sight unseen. If you take one thing from this article, never allow Cedric to build a deck for you! I love Cedric to death, but he builds decks that only he can win with. He thinks Goblin Charbelcher is a legitimate Legacy deck! One of the best decks he has built includes eight four-drops in a Mono-Red Attack deck. In case you were wondering, I chose the number 237 completely at random.
Anyway, the deck was quite the masterpiece. Twenty-one lands (that aren't Boseiju) and four Signets for a deck that absolutely had to hit lands. Four Lightning Helices were present in the board to be cast from four Sacred Foundries and four Izzet Signets. Yes, the Signet that produced UR was responsible for casting your card that costs WR. The rest of the anti-beatdown cards cost four (Faith's Fetters and Wrath of God). On top of this, there were trap cards in the deck – cards that really did nothing. After starting the tournament 0-2 trying to lock up games with Ideal, I'd just get Form of the Dragon or Zur's Weirding, planning on getting the other card next time. If they had a Kami of Ancient Law, a Mortify, or whatever, I was probably dead. Somehow, five of my next six opponents didn't have it often enough, and I made Day 2 before playing against respectable opponents. I also got a free game win in this tournament because my opponent didn't de-sideboard his One with Nothing. I felt like Gerard Fabiano at this tournament. Nobody believed my stories. The only difference was that my stories were true.
#148 Tooth and Nail... in Draft? PT San Diego '04 – MMD Booster Draft
No decklist here. This masterpiece has been long stolen from my car. After a 2-1 record with a normal draft deck, I decide to get frisky in the second draft. My second deck ends up with the following cards: four Cloudposts, Reap and Sow, Tooth and Nail, Darksteel Colossus, and Sundering Titan. I was carefully tracking cards in the draft and decided to move in after a seventh-pick Tooth and Nail after noticing three Cloudposts that could reasonably loop. Ironically, a second Sundering Titan and a pair of Reap and Sows did not loop.
Keeping within the theme of Cedric Phillips, he came up to me after the draft claiming that he had drafted the most ridiculous-looking deck in recorded human history. I challenged him to a small wager with Tim Aten as the judge. Let's just say Cedric conceded long before Tim laid his eyes on my masterpiece. Unfortunately for our hero, I was only able to manage a 1-2 record with this deck. One of my opponents had triple Auriok Transfixer and a barrage of Arrests while another had a Broodstar and a Duplicant, which I was unable to manage through. Honestly speaking, this deck wasn't that resilient. If you could beat a giant monster or two, I really had nothing else. I had a few other giant monsters, but I had to spend so much effort in playing them that the normal cards in my deck didn't really do anything.
I wasn't much of a deckbuilder at this time, and it shows. It's very amateurish to randomly add colors to your deck. The best decks I've played generally try to cut colors. Splashing in Constructed is largely miserable. There's always a cost to splashing, no matter how easy it may seem. The four-Masticore, three-Metalworker split is embarrassing, but that was largely a result of working alone. There are other structural errors in the deck (such as not having lands in the sideboard to support my sideboarding strategy against Psychatog decks). I may or may not hold the distinction of being the only player to start a Pro Tour 5-0 and then get a bye later in the tournament. My resume is awesome.
#15 Crab Crab Crab Crab – PT Austin – ZZZ Draft
This was easily one of the strangest set of packs I've ever drafted with, let alone at the Pro Tour. The average deck at my table was miserable, simply due to the shallowness of the packs. I started off strong with a Sphinx of Lost Truths into a Rite of Replication, but absolutely nothing was available after those two bombs. I assumed that Hedron Crab was garbage, but Matt Boccio managed to 2-1 the first draft on Day 1 with a hideous-looking double Crab/Day of Judgment deck. Taking the first one was easy; it was pick 1 pack 9, and the packs had dried up by pick 5. The second one was a bit of a risk pack 2 pick 7. There was something random in the pack, but my deck was looking miserable. When things start looking bad for me in a draft, I start to mix it up more than Girl Talk. I was practically doing cartwheels after back-to-back Crabs midway through pack 3. I spent the rest of the weekend making Crab yokes/gestures, ordering Yumbo Yacks, and battling Yund in side events. My interactions with Tommy Ashton and Trevor Carr will never be the same.
#7 U/G Catalyst Stone – GP Cleveland '02 – Odyssey Block Constructed
I was partially inspired to write this article from reading Cedric's great article about the tournament that got him hooked on competitive Magic. I had a little bit of success before this (coming later!), but this remains my highest profile tournament finish. I'm a proud, card-carrying member of "The Club," a group of Ohio-based magicians that have exactly one GP Top 8 finish to their name. Other proud members include Tom LaPille, Cedric Phillips, Sam Stoddard, and Taylor Parnell. As for the deck, the format was pretty miserable, restricted to various flavors of U/G and Mono-Black. Or so that's what everyone would have you believe. As it turns out, people hadn't figured out to play the best decks, and so the tournament had a reasonable number of W/G decks and other random decks that involved the worst Spectral Procession of all time (Battle Screech). I had blowout plans against all of the random decks, all of which came into play. Bearscape was even a little-known trump against Mono-Black. I feel the deck was 74/75 correct. I should've played an Acorn Harvest to soak up a pair of Edicts against Mono-Black.
Fun Fact: This was about my tenth sanctioned tournament in about a year and a half of competitive play, all of them fairly major. Back then, tournaments were seen as big deals with legitimate prizes. FNMs were considered jokes that only scrubs played in. Look how far we've come! I probably play ten sanctioned tournaments a month these days.
#5 Mono-White Control – PTQ Indianapolis – Onslaught Block Constructed
This is the first of many decks that involve doing something in fewer colors than what other people wanted to do in more. Simply put, the mana in Onslaught Block Constructed wasn't all that good. The benefits of playing Mono-White in this format were twofold—
2) More Plains to search up with Eternal Dragon.
The format was honestly about who could recur Dragons more reliably. Other decks would run out of lands to fetch up with Dragon, and I would keep going. Playing random stupid cards like Dragon Scales (to win Eternal Dragon fights) was somehow just as powerful as having Lightning Rift in play for a turn or two. Like the previous deck, this was just a weird format with narrow rules that I felt I was able to navigate through successfully. The only thing I didn't like about this tournament was that I was somehow convinced to chop the finals against a deck with Pinpoint Avalanche in it. I don't think my Dawn Elementals could handle the ignominy.
#4 5-Color Control – PTQ Phoenix – Standard with Alara Reborn
Nothing much to say here. Sometime the best tool is the most obvious. I remember moving to Lightning Bolt over other options available because Lightning Bolt is absurd. It worked much better with the mana than the other options, because you generally wanted to play Vivid lands on both of the first two turns, and stuff like Doom Blade costs two. The biggest thing I don't like about this deck was the Stags. Blah blah blah Faeries, but the mana just isn't reasonable on this guy, even with Vivid lands. No surprise that I lost the only Fae matchup I played on the day and won the rest.
#3 Prosak Zoo Extended with Shards
This is probably the most impactful deck I've built in the greater scheme of things. To think that Zoo decks were once all five colors! This is an important lesson I've learned over the years. If you can do as much with fewer colors, then do so. There are just so many hidden benefits of playing fewer colors regardless of format. In general, fewer colors allow you to play more colorless lands, which are generally awesome. This deck got to pack on the burn spells (instead of god-awful Oblivion Rings) and take less damage when it came to its mana. The sideboard definitely wasn't what I played at the GP, but I couldn't find a decklist for the GP. Thankfully LSV decided to write an article about it... before the GP. At least I have the decklist now!
#3 U/B Tog – PTQ Columbus '05 – Extended with Ravnica
[ Two cards unknown ]
It's quite ironic that this deck is what allowed the Enduring Ideal to exist. Much like during the PT, I wasn't really into Magic at the time. However, a few of my friends were going to a PTQ and invited me to come. Not really knowing the "metagame" or anything along those lines, I just built a pure control deck in the style of Antoine Ruel's Pro Tour Los Angeles-winning Psychatog deck.
As it turns out, this deck ended up with a mere nine cards that weren't either counterspells or card-drawing spells. A draw-go deck that hadn't been seen since it was accompanied by a singleton Rainbow Efreet. Removal spells were far worse back then, and this deck took advantage of that by protecting either a Psychatog or Meloku and letting the creature do the majority of the hard work.
To this day, I don't think I've ever played in a tournament with quality players that was so easy to win. I felt invincible that day, despite not really being in tune with the format at large. The lessons I learned that day are something I've always carried with me.
First, play the best cards. Pick strategies that incorporate the best cards in the format. With this deck, it was Counterspell, Psychatog, and Fact or Fiction. The Top 8 of the preceding Pro Tour featured cards such as Frostling, Boomerang, and Violent Eruption (no madness).
Second, make sure that your deck works on a theoretical level. I see so many people making deckbuilding mistakes by twisting their deck until it's unrecognizable to react to some sort of perceived metagame. The best decks work on the theoretical level as well. If you tell someone what your deck is supposed to do and they give you a list of cards in the format that are best suited for that task, your deck better have a bunch of those cards in it! Saying that you have Card X for matchup Y and Card A for matchup B is a certain sign that you'll struggle against somebody's homebrew. Narrow cards are fine if they're in a sideboard and exist as trump for a certain popular matchup, but I'd prefer most sideboard cards to be flexible. On a personal level, many of my failings can be attributed to not following this rule – and over-metagaming. If you find yourself needing to resort to strange options to help out certain matchups, then maybe you should be playing a different deck.
I love this deck. This is the deck that hooked me on competitive Magic and the deck I had my first successes with. Before this, I was pretty much an IRC junkie only, playing in the predecessors to Magic-League. During my time on IRC, a few people and I collaborated on this deck, and we had a fantastic success rate at Regionals that year.
My favorite part of this deck was the omission of Wild Mongrel. I may have a controversial stance on this, but I think Wild Mongrel was completely overrated. He was clearly the best creature in the Madness decks, but those decks desperately needed his ability. A green Putrid Imp or Tireless Tribe would be much better. Much like Jackal Pup is one of the greatest one-drops of all time simply because it's red, Wild Mongrel is one of the best two-drops of all time simply because it's green.
As for the deck, it could dominate all three phases of the game. First, you had the strategy of Nimble Mongoose and a bunch of counterspells, a strategy that has seen significant Legacy play. Next, you have a midgame full of tempo and card advantage. While you couldn't outright kill a creature once in play, this deck did an excellent job of mitigating the threats that people did play. Finally, this is probably the best Upheaval deck ever created, even better than various flavors of Psychatog. The requirements for a game-winning Upheaval were so minimal, unlike the Tog decks at the time. Defensive Upheavals were often backbreaking because they would turn Force Spikes into hard counters and Merfolk Looters into Archivists (or fully leveled Enclave Cryptologists, if you must).
As for the sideboard, you could completely shift gears against red decks without resorting to a full transform. If Krosan Beast were a modern creature, it would probably be at least a 12/12 shroud if you were playing Magic (a.k.a. had threshold). That's how board-dominating it was against the various creatures of the time. A 4/4 trample for three mana required work in those days (work = putting Aquamoeba into your deck and then casting it), and Lightning Bolts were sorceries and cost two. Imagine how hard it was for an R/G deck to brawl with an 8/8! Just in case these decks thought about racing you, Delusions of Mediocrity put an end to that plan. Those two cards completely shifted how you played the game, and there were plenty of card-drawing spells to make sure you found them in time.
Fun Fact: One of my IRC teammates, CitrusD, also had his first legitimate tournament success at Regionals with this deck. You may know CitrusD as Tom Ross.
Fun Fact #2: Ohio Valley Regionals in 2002 clocked in at 688 people, making it the largest tournament in North America for quite some time. Regionals was considered a big deal, and US Nationals was basically another Pro Tour instead of another Grand Prix.
In tournament Magic, your deck choice is only part of the equation. I'll admit that much of my success with these decks has not been replicated. The primary reason is that these decks were built for me, and I knew why the cards were all there. I was extremely comfortable playing these decks, which is something I can't say for some of the more blatantly powerful decks I've played. I feel helpless with a Life from the Loam in my deck, and I can readily admit that. Even with today's cards, I'm not that comfortable with a Vengevine or a Primeval Titan, despite their power. Deck choice is all about learning to play the best cards and becoming comfortable with them. Above all, you want a deck that makes you feel like you're the best player in the room by a mile. Hopefully I'll see all of you in Richmond for the StarCityGames.com Invitational + Open this weekend, perhaps with a deck that I can add to the list of the best decks I've ever played.
P.S. The esteemed Danny Smith asked that I mention him in an article. I couldn't figure out a good place to name-drop him, so this will have to do.