The First Combo Deck: What Was Prosperous Bloom?
With the birth of Magic came the birth of combo. These very first-generation"combo" decks (the term is used loosely here - we're talking decking via thirty Ancestral Recalls backed up with sixty Black Lotuses, and the infamous Channel-Fireball setup) were shut down quickly with restriction and banning, and were viewed as flaws in card design.
For years afterward, combo remained dormant. Even the term changed meaning, becoming used to describe simple card interactions and synergy. But with the day of the Visions prerelease, combo was reborn, starting a revolution in which combo reigned king, and left us with the current form of the word today - and also completed the now-familiar control/combo/aggro axiom.
Popular urban tales identify Mike Long as the sole inventor of Bloom. This turned out to be simply untrue, as decks using the painfully obvious synergy between Cadaverous Bloom and Prosperity were seen immediately following the Visions prerelease on information centers like Usenet. However, the first money-earning build was indeed piloted and designed by the later-to-become poster child of Bloom - Michael Long.
Mike Long, Pro Tour: Paris, April 1997
This may seem too simple to have revolutionized Magic - but at the time, nobody had seen anything like it. It was the creation of an engine that took up all the space in the deck, save for cards that protected the engine: An engine dedicated to casting a single, giant Drain Life to win.
Before Prosbloom, it was not uncommon for a deck to be based around good card synergy, such as Zak Dolan's 1994 World Championship-winning deck (which utilized many mana denial spells that worked well together), but Prosperous Bloom took that to a completely new level. The deck was based off nothing but extremely specific card interactions, and every card in the deck was designed to help the deck reach a single goal: A Drain Life large enough to kill the opponent.
This was made possible with help of Cadaverous Bloom, and Prosperity in the latest stages of the combo. Compared to modern combo decks, reaching the final destination is a long and arduous journey: The first step needed was to get a Squandered Resources in play; this could be done either mid game, leaving several lands untapped, or turn 2 if the opponent did not have disruption at hand. Following that, the Prosbloom deck would need to cast Natural Balance, sacrificing all lands to Squandered Resources to get five new untapped lands. This would be repeated as many times as possible, thinning out the deck, and generating copious amounts of extra mana. Then the Cadaverous Bloom would hit play, and create two mana per card, for unneeded spells in hand. Ideally, then the Bloom player would cast Prosperity, Infernal Contract, and Meditate, drawing all of his library and getting twenty-two black mana for the Drain Life to end the game. This task was simplified by the ten to fifteen lands already thinned out of the deck by multiple Natural Balances.
Under 5th Edition rules, a player didn't die until the end of a phase if they hit zero life, making Infernal Contract and Vampiric Tutor much better against all kinds of burn. The Drain Life would gain the life back, putting the player above zero at the end of the phase, making it the perfect kill card.
To combat problematic disruption like Counterspell, Disenchant, and Fireblast, the deck included Abeyance and Counterspells of its own. Both of these cards serve a dual purpose, either buying time against aggressive decks to find the combo pieces, or being used to negate the opponent's attempts at stopping the combo from finishing. The Prosbloom player would often completely ignore an opponent and focus only on piecing the large number of cards together to win - a trait Prosbloom became famous for, as this was a brand-new concept for the Magic crowd of 1997.
Visions was the set that finally allowed an engine like this to exist. The printing of Vampiric Tutor and Impulse gave a player control over their library like never seen before, whereas Infernal Contract aided in the card draw department. Visions also gave Undiscovered Paradise and saclands (with Gemstone Mine coming later in Weatherlight), meaning that all the pieces could be thrown together and run without mana problems. All these pieces combined meant the deck was able to consistently piece together a combo requiring several cards. It also had a large advantage at Paris, being a narrow-minded deck in what was a relatively unexplored format.
The deck put Mike Long in first place, with Henning Rimkus and Sturla Bingen reaching fourth and fifth respectively, with slight variations. It obviously had potential, running three colors with a total of seven mana smoothers, all with serious drawbacks.
With Black Summer still fresh in the DCI's mind (and with the Dojo allowing people to easily netdeck), they took steps to prevent another PTQ season being dominated by a single deck. Squandered Resources was banned on June 1, 1997, just before the block qualifying season. Despite this, Thomas Refsdal later went on to win a qualifier and make his way to Chicago with a deck focused on the same engine, sans Squandered Resources - but his case was the exception, and the archetype was quickly abandoned.
The nature of the deck and its opponent-ignoring nature allowed for it to be easily ported from block into the Ice Age/Mirage Type 2 environment. The most obvious (and instantaneous) additions were as many Cities of Brass as the format would legally allow, replacing the inferior counterparts from Visions, Undiscovered Paradise. These early builds also typically utilized Lim-Dul's Vaults due to their ability to dig further while sticking to the same colors, using Shield Sphere as a sideboard option, and even sometimes Mystical Tutor. Arcane Denial became the protection spell of choice, replacing Memory Lapses and Power Sinks from the Paris deck. Until the rotation of Chronicles from the environment, even the lowly Stormseeker was reportedly tested as a kill card with"promising results," according to Rick Laig in his analysis on the Dojo. Later builds see the addition of a fourth color, along with Gemstone Mine to support it, to splash Abeyance for play in both main or side. Typically, a lone Plains was added to the deck to be searched out with Natural Balance, if needed.
During Nationals and Worlds season in 1997, Prosbloom saw minor play, with a single player competing with it in Canadian Nationals, and multiple copies showing up at Worlds that year (Mike Long being the most famous player to do so). Mattias Jorstedt took this one step further, and played the deck in Extended at Pro Tour: Chicago 97, making a top 64 finish, and even defeating Randy Buehler (the eventual champion) in the Swiss, adding in Disrupt to help against early Hymn to Tourachs.
The sheer multitude of these early attempts to play a complicated deck in formats it wasn't destined for shows the excitement that many felt about a new type of deck focus. Never before or since has a combo been tried in so many formats where it just didn't work. In the end, the dominance of Big Blue, with Force of Wills (and especially their interaction with Prosperity), and Necropotence, with its cheap and effective disruption, kept Prosbloom from becoming a Tier 1 deck.
With the release of Tempest, things changed drastically. Force of Will rotated out of the format, meaning large Prosperities were once again possible without the fear of free counters residing in the opponent's hand. More importantly, several cards were added that strengthened the deck greatly: Meditate was printed, allowing the engine to draw four cards off a single card and three mana, and Chill gave the deck a needed sideboard option against the Deadguy Red players. For the first time, it finally attained a spot in the Dojo's"Decks to Beat" section as well. The release of Tempest made Prosbloom become a much more focused deck. Meditate gave the card draw needed and shifted the format enough to allow for a combo deck, because of the large presence of aggressive decks.
Prosbloom also increased in popularity; the number of monthly Dojo Prosbloom reports tripled. It found itself a good home among the top tables of the pros once again as well, making many Top 8s around the world during Nationals and Worlds season. The deck was nearly vacant from the PTQ scene, and while much of it had to do with the low number of PTQs in the Type 2 format, the percentage in which it appears suggests that it was indeed a very difficult deck to play and expensive to build. During the Extended 1997-98 season, a sole player managed a top 8 spot with the archetype, reportedly qualifying (at least according to Theron Martin's mid-season analysis). Prosbloom also made Top 8 at several Regionals and European Nationals - but again, the percentage of the field it made up suggests it was one of the more taxing archetypes.
US Nationals T8: Mike Long and Peter Leiher
"It is interesting to note that when the Bloom/chair incident happened, the judge called upon to make a decision was Jeff Donais, who had once actually been on a Magic team with Mike Long." -Cathy Nicoloff
1998 European Championships:
Exact same as Long/Leiher's
The 1998 US Nationals and European Championships are where Prosbloom reached its peak in performance and popularity. Mike Long and Peter Leiher both brought this to an amazing finish during the 1998 US Nationals. (Mike Long went undefeated in the Standard portion until he received his notorious game loss for seedy play, where a Cadaverous Bloom was conveniently found on his chair, leading people to believe that he had kept at least one card up his sleeve to expedite the combo at will.). Then, a week later, Arho Toikka, Tony Dobson, and Gabor Papp made a comparable performance with very similar decks. Despite the vastly different metagames (Euros was predominantly blue-based control, whereas US Nationals saw the use of more aggressive decks) Prosbloom did consistently well, showing its strength against differing metagames.
Builds like these became the standard builds, with little to no room, or reason, for any sort of innovation. After Tempest's release, Meditate gave the deck the power it needed to become strong and consistent, and once the protection the deck needed was added, every slot was filled. The five decks that made Top 8 performances differed by a maximum of three cards in the maindeck, all of which were slight changes to the number of counters, Abeyances, and Vampiric Tutors. The sideboard, as with all decks, changed drastically depending on metagame, but typically contained extra Abeyances and/or City of Solitudes, Emerald Charms, Walls, and obvious color hosers such as Pyroblast and Gloom.
While Prosbloom made a fine showing during Nationals and European Championships that year, it began a decline during Worlds. Many factors contributed to this, the root of which was a clear metagame change. Randy Buehler notes that in his testing, as many as ten distinct archetypes were equally competent, with each deck's performance completely reliant on the particular metagame. White Weenie was destined to make a strong showing at Worlds, as it had both won US Nationals and at the same time showed the world it could easily handle Prosbloom with its Abeyances and enchantment hate. Randy Buehler's Oath also had gained popularity during Nationals, and the subsequent rise in enchantment hate directly lead to the playability of Prosbloom. Additionally, players piloting the eventual winning Cali Nightmare decks included maindeck Lobotomies specifically to help out the matchup, which otherwise might end up unfavorable. These factors (minus Lobotomy, which had no seen widespread play until Worlds itself) led to numerous players dismissing both the Prosbloom and Oath archetypes, and it became apparently that this was the right choice. The players who did not, such as Mike Long (who"emerged from each round with a tale of how his opponent repeatedly Lobotomized his Prosbloom deck") and Bob Maher Jr., failed to return from the Type 2 portion with winning records, despite strong showings in other formats.
The Prosperous Bloom legend ended abruptly and violently. With the rotation of Mirage out of the Standard environment, key components were no longer legal. Simultaneously, play in other formats was out of the question due to the release of Urza's Saga, which ushered in a new era where combo decks were brutally fast, efficient, and not as easily disrupted as combo's grandfather. 6th edition rules finished pounding the nail in the coffin, as under these rules a player died immediately upon hitting zero life, reducing the effectiveness of Infernal Contract and Vampiric Tutor in a format full of the fastest and most focused aggressive decks Type 2 has ever seen. The prodigal son of combo grew old, and died by being outclassed at his own game.