Flores Friday - Nine Decks You May Have Never Heard Of...
Nine Decks You May Have Never Heard Of...
And Nine Technologies That You Might Use Every Day (and probably didn't realize)
I have heard it said that Da Vinci was the last man to wholly understand all of the technology he used on a day-to-day basis. I know that I certainly don't understand all of the technology that I use.
I get toasters (that crisp my waffles more efficiently and safely than an open flame) and belts (with their fantastic post-cow superpower of holding up my Levis); and while I probably couldn't construct a toilet or a showerhead from scratch, I mostly grasp how flowing water works. That said, I don't remotely know what makes iPhones, iPads, laptops, or desktops tick, let alone televisions. I can use a spreadsheet expertly, used to manage a web development team, but despite the fact that spreadsheet technology is decades old... I wouldn't know the first thing about writing one myself.
The same is true, for the most part, RE: the technology we utilize with our Magic decks: lots of available technology (which we often use, often)... but we don't necessarily know where that tech came from, or why we use it, or why it does the things it does or—believe it or not—when we are using it.
What is technology, in the context of Magic: The Gathering? Technology in Magic is no different from technology anywhere else: It is just a different way of doing things. A new combo decklist isn't necessarily new technology (though it might be)... but when the same deck has one Trinket Mage to get one Basilisk Collar to attach to some Inferno Titans in the sideboard, we might have a distinguishing, different capability—a different way to solve certain problems. There are lots of U/W decks in Standard today; how many figured out how to use some nigh-zero-cost lands to get out from under the long shadow of Nephalia Drownyard? We'll read about Andrew Cuneo (and a different U/W deck) later. End aside.
What is technology, in the context of Magic: The Gathering?
Technology in Magic is no different from technology anywhere else: It is just a different way of doing things. A new combo decklist isn't necessarily new technology (though it might be)... but when the same deck has one Trinket Mage to get one Basilisk Collar to attach to some Inferno Titans in the sideboard, we might have a distinguishing, different capability—a different way to solve certain problems.
There are lots of U/W decks in Standard today; how many figured out how to use some nigh-zero-cost lands to get out from under the long shadow of Nephalia Drownyard?
We'll read about Andrew Cuneo (and a different U/W deck) later.
1. George Baxter - Good Stuff
- 4 Erhnam Djinn
- 4 Hypnotic Specter
- 4 Knight of Stromgald
- 4 Order of the Ebon Hand
- 2 Sengir Vampire
- 1 Ihsan's Shade
Technology - Mindset for Card Selection
The Good Stuff was a deck with a pretty interesting theme: Play the Best Threats.
The Good Stuff led the Swiss at the first Pro Tour. Other popular decks were based on Howling Mine mana control, Necropotence, or Land Tax card advantage. But George? He just played the best threats in the format and the mana to deploy them, plus the best removal and support spells (i.e. Hymn to Tourach).
Playing a bunch of the best cards (with no other theme) was a strategy that kind of didn't get played again for close to lucky 13 years. However, it ended up a compelling schema to revisit come the age of haymaker Magic. Innistrad has returned us to a more Tier Two style of cards, but there was a time not long ago that one of the best strategies was just to jimmy-jam all the best threats and removal into 60 / 75 cards.
Just a moment of admiration for Baxter before we move on:
You probably didn't catch it on the first pass, but Baxter played Erhnam Djinn but no Forests! He splashed off of City of Brass, Barbed Sextant, and Karplusan Forest. Ergo, his Erhnam Djinns had no downside! That, too, is a touch of technology; Hall of Famer Dave Humphreys years later played a Fires of Yavimaya deck—base green—also with no Forests, so that his Lumbering Satyrs for the Fires mirror were one-sided.
Magic in the age of haymakers (and up until recently, planeswalkers aplenty) was largely just about identifying the most powerful cards (within mana-defined reason) and running them. Here is one such attempt:
- 4 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 1 Scute Mob
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Woolly Thoctar
2. Paul Sligh - Geeba
- 4 Brass Man
- 2 Brothers of Fire
- 2 Dragon Whelp
- 3 Dwarven Lieutenant
- 2 Dwarven Trader
- 2 Goblins of the Flarg
- 4 Ironclaw Orcs
- 2 Orcish Artillery
- 2 Orcish Cannoneers
- 2 Orcish Librarian
Technology - Innovation of the Mana Curve
Paul Sligh won an early season PTQ with Jay Schneider's proto-Red Deck, but what was special about it wasn't just that it was mono-red when seemingly every competitive deck played either Land Tax or Necropotence.
What was really important was the deck's mana curve. This was the first strategically assembled deck that deliberately started on one and chose its cards based not just on their functionality and redundancy but how much they cost.
The mana curve is one of Magic's most compelling principles and has been incorporated into the vast majority of competitive decks since. While most decks play on a curve, we can really see it come through in decks like Paul Rietzl's White Weenie:
- 4 Ethersworn Canonist
- 4 Figure of Destiny
- 4 Knight of the White Orchid
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Steppe Lynx
- 4 Student of Warfare
3. Jon Finkel - ALICE
Technology - Anticipation for the Mirror Match in an Unstable Environment
This deck from PT 3 is actually chockfull of technology.
There are two really awesome pieces that have proven quite lasting. The first is how Jon dealt with mana. Thawing Glaciers allowed Jon to search up basics in a way that we still celebrate in Legacy today.
What is more interesting, though, is Jon's absolute genius by playing the red at all. Some Magicians of the day opted for a straight U/W deck ALICE CounterPost, but Jon added red not just for creature removal but Stone Rain.
Why Stone Rain?
He knew that given the limited card pool of the ALICE format, the other decks in contention would most likely rely (that is, also rely) on Thawing Glaciers and Kjeldoran Outpost. If he could destroy those, he would be at a tremendous advantage.
…And that stroke of genius, earning the future Shadowmage Infiltrator a Juniors Top 4, is how the legend of Jon Finkel began!
- 4 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Elves of Deep Shadow
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 1 Regal Force
- 2 Viridian Shaman
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
Every other Elves deck in the Top 8 utilized Chord of Calling to set up or search for a big bomb and Wirewood Hivemaster to produce an advantage; most of them could gain a massive amount of life, devoting as many as four Essence Wardens to that duty.
LSV, though, went a different way.
His was the only Elves deck in the Top 8 to play Elves of Deep Shadow (yet another one-mana accelerator) and consequently the only Elves deck in the Top 8 with Thoughtseize. Additionally, LSV played Weird Harvest (no one else did) and a solo Grapeshot kill.
From very far away, it would probably seem reasonable to conclude that LSV's Elves deck was less powerful than the ones with massive Insect armies and tons and tons of life. He couldn't make a giant Dragon or turn an army into a bigger army with Mirror Entity.
…All he could do was win a little bit faster.
Maybe not even a full turn, not all the time; but because LSV could slow down another Elves with Thoughtseize, a half-turn and “just enough” Grapeshot damage was... just enough. Not not enough... but actually enough.
To me, the speed of this deck in the face of potentially more powerful builds is an echo to Jon's lesson from PT 3, a little something for the mirror that only looks applicable to that mirror if you know what you are looking at.
4. Andrew Cuneo - U/W with Brainstorm
Technology - Adoption of Brainstorm
Cuneo was the first to use Brainstorm... way before it was cool.
He used Brainstorm + Thawing Glaciers to produce a card advantage + card selection machine that no other decks of the era had commensurate capabilities. Remember a few weeks back when all talk on the Magic Internet was about how Andrew had dusted the cobwebs off and was playing an “old school” U/W? He has been doing the U/W thing for something like 14 years now. He won the PTQ where he played this deck, mowing down YT at an early X-0 table.
Brainstorm is awesome enough that someone else would have figured it out... but they didn't have to because Andrew did first.
Pick a Legacy deck.
Well... not Merfolk, but you get what I mean.
5. Jon Finkel switcheroo
Technology - Transformational Sideboard
You can easily talk about the fact that Jon's only blue card was Counterspell, such that his mana base was a master class in tuning; that Gaea's Might Get There, and other Zoo players have drawn against whether they knew it or not. I mean the mana base is something else... Flood Plain! (The only non-Gaea's Blessing way to win, maindeck, being Mishra's Factory.)
…But that's not why we are here.
This Prison deck that earned Jon his first PT Top 8 (grownup) is not only his favorite all-time but the iconic example of the old switcheroo. People had talked about transformational sideboards before Chicago 1997, but Jon's was the first deck that was successful with a creatureless-to-creatures game plan in a big way.
Basically, Jon was playing an artifacts lockdown deck in Game One, with no creatures whatsoever other than lands. In order to be competitive, his opponents would generally have to bring in anti-artifacts Disenchants and Divine Offerings in order to stay competitive. Of course he would have Wildfire Emissary and Erhnam Djinn after boards, while his opponent would have a hand full of Aura of Silence or whatever.
In a sense that made this switcheroo more ingenious than other attempts. Jon's maindeck steered the opponent in a certain direction. Other examples might have been effective but could have been more random; Jon steered you left, then punished you right. Erhnam Djinn and Wildfire Emissary were in particular impressive choices for sideboard switcheroo creatures. It would have been very understandable for a deck with Lightning Bolt to keep in Lightning Bolt... but Lightning Bolt could not have killed one of these four drops without help. More likely an opponent with Swords to Plowshares would side out Swords to Plowshares (which could trade with Erhnam Djinn straight up).
Basically every deck that goes from one strategy, then switches to powerhouse creatures after sideboarding. Here is one close to my heart:
6. Adrian Sullivan U/G “Baron Harkonnen”
Technology - Proto-Philosophy of Fire Card Economy
The use of Natural Spring in this deck by Adrian is so ingenious it is almost like the contrapositive to The Philosophy of Fire (which Adrian also first discovered).
This was a completely different look at card economy that required an almost unparalleled understanding of how the game worked, many years ahead of the average Pro Tour player (and remember, the Baron was “just” a PTQ deck).
Consider this card: Fireblast
Fireblast was a very dangerous card, and even if you have never played against it first-hand, I am sure you can look and understand why. Fireblast does four damage for zero mana and fundamentally unbundles the core limiting symmetry of the game. Though Adrian had not actually figured out The Philosophy of Fire yet, he intuitively understood the relationship of damage to cards and benchmarked against that most powerful burn spell, Fireblast.
Table for a moment the fact that, from a pure-cards perspective, Fireblast also typically takes to lands with it. Just think about it as a four-damage spell... Natural Spring is like two Fireblasts. By playing in such a way to get to the point that he could cast Natural Spring, Adrian would have a kind of strategic Tidings that 1) no other control players would have access to, and 2) Red Decks would be wholly unprepared to overcome. Hence, he accelerated and defended himself with oddballs (for control) like Wall of Roots. Natural Spring also interacted with Sylvan Library pretty well, turning it into a weirdo Green Necropotence (kind of).
The Baron's inheritors are so varied and in such a general way it is almost pointless to list one. Basically any deck with a Timely Reinforcements is doing what Natural Spring did (trading for a red card or two-plus) and is drawing against Adrian's work... but with much nicer cards to play.
7. Adrian Sullivan Dred Panda Roberts
Adrian is obviously responsible for some of Magic's most paradigm-changing Big Ideas. Dred Panda Roberts is a bit dated at this point (as we can't Necropotence in hardly any format), but it might be impossible to overstate the technological line in the sand that this deck drew back in Rome.
Basically, combo decks were, at this point, comfortable using an Impulse or Vampiric Tutor to find their combo parts. Adrian went one step further. Why settle for Impulse-ing for one combo piece when I can just Impulse—that is, Consult—for a perfect hand?
Thus was the Necro combo deck born.
Adrian built his deck to be able to find Necropotence quickly, figure out how much life he could pay that turn, pay that life to produce a perfect hand, then kill the opponent the next turn. In this case, the combo was Phyrexian Dreadnought + Pandemonium + some other Phyrexian Dreadnought (an actual one, a Reanimate).
All Necro combo decks borrow from Dred Panda Roberts. Skull Catapult, ID19, and the much-vaunted Trix would all fall under that umbrella. It is possible that ID19 and Sabre Bargain would have existed without Dred Panda Roberts, but it is very possible that Trix—one of the most famous and format-dominating decks of all time—would never have.
8. CMU Academy
By Pro Tour Rome, it was largely known that Time Spiral + Tolarian Academy was the most powerful strategy. However most players were doing things like playing Intuition for three mana to get three copies of Mind Over Matter. The genius of Lauer's version was that they didn't play Intuition: They played Vampiric Tutor.
Vampiric Tutor allowed this Academy deck to do things like... 1) save two mana or 2) play only one copy of Mind Over Matter (the clunkiest card in the deck). Who cares if Intuition is a break-even card and Vampiric Tutor is a -1? Time Spiral and Windfall cure all ills!
Formats that allowed Vampiric Tutor boasted many decks that borrowed from the work of Lauer and Team CMU from twelve years ago. Vampiric Tutor can be used both as a redundancy (the fifth, sixth, and so-on Time Spirals) or as a scalpel (one Stroke of Genius to kill). Any deck with Tutors—whether Enlightened, Mystical, or often Wishes—draws on the elegance of the push-pull of redundancy and surgery.
Napster was a deck that incorporated both a balance of one-ofs and drew against a super powerful Time Spiral-like card advantage engine to make up for Vampiric Tutor's -1.
- 1 Shield Sphere
- 3 Academy Rector
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Ghitu Slinger
- 1 Krovikan Horror
- 2 Monk Realist
- 2 Spike Feeder
- 1 Spike Weaver
- 1 Uktabi Orangutan
- 1 Verdant Force
- 1 Vine Trellis
- 4 Wall of Roots
By Bob's Chicago, Survival of the Fittest was certainly a known quantity and an expected deck. Players knew how to jam Survival with Walls and 187s and surgical one-ofs. Mercadian Masques gave Survival Squee, Goblin Nabob, and the larger card pool of the Extended format already lent Krovikan Horror to generate some extra card advantage.
Again, known quantities.
What Team CMU did with Wheaties was to use Survival of the Fittest the same way that Adrian used Necropotence in combo decks: An elsewise wonderful card draw / selection engine was used to graft on a combo kill!
CMU put it all together with Academy Rector and found it all with Survival.
It's not actually very difficult for a deck to do multiple things. You can make a 75-card deck that has many capabilities. You can, as some deck designers do, shave away all your four-ofs and increase the potential number of different paths you can take. Heck, you can look at the average Battle of Wits deck. How many more different directions can you take with 244 cards versus 60?
What is different, and what survives to some of the best of our decks today, is the ability to encompass the capabilities of a very good deck almost wholly... and find room for a tight—sometimes infinite—combination as well.
Wheaties doesn't survive in the everyday dialogue of the average player's deck remembrances the same as some other first-meal-of-the-day decks. It's no Trix, no Full English Breakfast even... but because powerful influencers knew about Wheaties, its significance and traditions have traveled to successful design to even today.
A recent echo:
Today, many of these technologies seem automatic to many players. You just know about picking cards based on individual merit or playing enough-one drops to get the jump on more powerful decks like Brad Nelson reminds us to do. Highly prepared deck designers will anticipate mirrors going long and do things like vary Doom Blade with Go for the Throat (as Patrick Chapin did in his Olivia Voldaren deck); Legacy players take Brainstorm for granted... but believe you me, when it came out, most of us thought of it as “the bad Ancestral Recall.” What if you don't have anything good on top? We needed a Cuneo to light the path. The notions of the switcheroo, measuring cards against other resources, and Silver Bullet construction are generally understood skills (even if they are not utilized by 100% of competitive players).
But they all had to come from somewhere.
None of them is the default.
I wonder if it's like Patrick recently said... How will we think of Desperate Ravings in the [near] future? How will we remember thinking about it?