Tuesday, June 10, 2014

cult classics compilation (#1-#12)

Two out of every three weeks, I write a 200-300 word column for the Card Kingdom newsletter called Cult Classics. As a Music Nerd, the albums I tend to like are the ones that don’t sell terribly well when the first come out, but music critics won’t shut up about them for the next three decades, and nerds like myself get the album art on t-shirts so we can nod to one another and go “nice.” These are the Magical equivalents, or the closest thing tournament Magic has. None of them get at the horrific despair and loneliness that those albums do, but I’m hopeful that Khans of Tarkir remedies this.

The criteria to be a Cult Classic: it had to be a reasonable tournament deck, not someone’s awful ‘rogue’ concoction they played at FNM, nor an experiment to do the weirdest thing possible. During the time it was legal, maybe it even won some tournaments. However, it can’t be the #1 deck that people remember from an environment. Any deck that was ever “the best” for more than ten minutes is almost certainly out (though there’s a very specific deck I’ll break this rule for; that’ll probably be next week’s column).

Most importantly, it has to be cool, and since this is my column, what’s cool is entirely subjective. The deck that I immediately knew I had to write about, as soon as I had the idea for the column, was Tight Sight. If you don’t think a creatureless combo deck that kills by infinitely looping Predict once it has infinite mana off an empty library is cool, we have very different aesthetic sensibilities, and you might not enjoy these decks as much as I do. Basically, if a deck does something that sounds completely unbelievable for a competitive deck to do, or if it’s constructed in such a bizarre way that it looks like the base of it is going to creak and fall over at any second, it has potential to be a Cult Classic.

A lot of this I don’t consider to be my best writing. Due to the medium and the audience, I stay relentlessly positive the whole time, and I don’t have enough space to go into the personal connection I have with certain decks. Others, I needed to write something and only had one 15-minute break to write it. There are some passages and phrases, like the intro to “Dredge,” that I enjoy, though.

All the writing and coming-up-with-the-deck-to-write-about is mine (unless I’m forgetting someone’s suggestion and imagining I remembered it myself), but the writing shown has received some edits from a few people at Card Kingdom: Jordan Short, Chris Rowlands, and Justin Treadway, for which I’m very thankful. For example, there was one Frankenstein monster of a sentence that had a comma, a semicolon, a parenthetical, and maybe even an ellipses in it. They made sure to replace that with periods, and it certainly reads better for it.

The columns here were published from March to June of 2014. Anything I’ve added will appear after an “Additional commentary:” tag.

If you’d like to read these as they come out, along with some other excellent content from the aforementioned Card Kingdom people, go to and enter your email address on the righthand side of the screen.

One final note (really): sometime soon I'll go back and link all these cards to have mouseover functionality so that people aren't expected to know what Telekinetic Sliver is off the top of their head, but for now, I'd just like to publish this while it's current. Paste decks into or something similar to see what everything is.

Wild Pair Slivers – Time Spiral Block Constructed

4 Forest
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
6 Island
1 Mountain
1 Pendelhaven
1 Plains
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza's Factory

1 Darkheart Sliver
4 Dormant Sliver
3 Frenetic Sliver
4 Gemhide Sliver
1 Might Sliver
1 Mystic Snake
1 Reflex Sliver
3 Telekinetic Sliver
1 Venser, Shaper Savant
4 Wall of Roots
1 Whitemane Lion

4 Coalition Relic
4 Foresee
2 Take Possession
4 Wild Pair

3 Detritivore
2 Extirpate
1 Frenetic Sliver
1 Mystic Snake
3 Riftsweeper
1 Sliver Legion
1 Telekinetic Sliver
1 Teneb, the Harvester
1 Vesuva
1 Whitemane Lion

Wild Pair Slivers is a deck that takes all the “bad” slivers left over from drafts, four copies of a six-mana enchantment that does nothing when it comes into play, and what appear to be leftovers from someone’s trade binder and turns them into one of the most bizarre and powerful decks ever played in a Block Constructed format.

Six years ago, before Birthing Pod or Combo Elves made creature-based combo engines a normal part of Magic, Wafo-Tapa was putting his entire deck onto the battlefield with Wild Pair, removing creatures with Frenetic Sliver to flip a ton of coins (he won the flips, obviously, because this deck gives great karma), then drawing cards with Dormant Sliver when they came back. Wild Pair only cares that creatures have the same added power and toughness, so casting Wall of Roots and adding a counter fetches Dormant Sliver or any of your silver bullets for zero mana. Nothing. Which is about all your opponent can do against all-stars like Telekinetic Sliver.

Have you read those cards before? His opponents hadn’t. Some of them were probably too embarrassed to ask what just happened as they signed the match slip in his favor. The text boxes included such implications as “tap your entire board every turn for the rest of the game,” “I have a two-mana counterspell with buyback zero” (Whitemane Lion into Mystic Snake does quite a bit), and “I can attack with my entire deck because it all came into play with haste.”

Decks with small creatures got stalled out and combo’d. Decks with large creatures were too slow to compete. The incredibly popular blue-black control couldn’t draw enough cards to deal with Slivers. Next time you’ve never heard of your opponent’s cards, watch out.

Additional commentary: I don’t like how much I play up the “you’ve never heard of these cards!” in this explanation, because hopefully, all of the decks I write about use obscure draft leftovers. Otherwise, what are they doing in this column? Plus, Time Spiral Block Constructed had so many goddamn cards that no one could keep them straight. Still, though, I’m in awe that they designed a Sliver variant of Frenetic Efreet, got it to print, and it was actually good. Those must be the two best coin-flipping cards of all time, almost by default.

Tight Sight – Odyssey/Onslaught Standard

1 Flooded Strand
9 Forest
11 Island
1 Windswept Heath

4 Careful Study
3 Cunning Wish
3 Deep Analysis
4 Early Harvest
4 Far Wanderings
4 Future Sight
2 Krosan Reclamation
4 Mental Note
3 Moment's Peace
3 Predict
2 Quiet Speculation
2 Rampant Growth

2 Delusions of Mediocrity
3 Mana Short
1 Memory Lapse
1 Moment's Peace
1 Naturalize
1 Opportunity
3 Ravenous Baloth
1 Ray of Revelation
2 Roar of the Wurm

This deck is Art. In thirty years, when there is a Magic wing in MoMA, there will be a looped video of someone playing Tight Sight. Sure, any combo deck can sneak in a one-of as the only way to win the game, but how many decks can hide the fact that they have any win conditions at all?

Step one: get Future Sight in play. Step two: mill your entire library. This was before any fancy-pants dredge or Tome Scours existed, so you had to do it the hard way, meaning fetching every land from your deck, drawing cards, and using Early Harvest to not run out of mana. Step three: with zero cards in your library, cast Krosan Reclamation targeting Krosan Reclamation and Early Harvest. Cast those spells from the top of your deck with Future Sight an arbitrarily large number of times, then do the same thing except with Predict to mill your opponent. To reiterate: the deck’s win condition is Predict.

While it might seem a bit slow for modern tastes (a turn five win happens with a good draw), it’s surprisingly resilient against seemingly-faster agro decks with Moment’s Peace, which will make them sigh deeply every time you flash it back. The Cunning Wish package has some tricks, as well, including some surprise anti-control cards if they’re keeping their mana up for your big turn.

Anyone interested in combo decks should take a few minutes to goldfish Tight Sight a few times, because there has never been a more machine-like combo deck to see play in Standard. Once Future Sight is in play, all those cards that seem to do nothing work together to create a harmonious masterpiece, and that, deckbuilders, is true beauty.

Additional commentary: I started this blog several years ago to write about combo decks. At that point, I was playing Elves religiously. I started playing that deck because Storm was no longer legal in Extended. Years before that, I attempted to play Tight Sight in Standard. I say “attempted,” because I think I only ran it in a tournament once or twice; the local card store only had two Early Harvest in stock, which as you might imagine, was rather key to it functioning.

For some unknown reason, I thought my four rounds at a local tournament with a known-suboptimal version of a deck was worth writing up and sending to StarCityGames, back when The Ferrett was the editor in charge. He sent me a very nice personal rejection note, explaining why he wasn’t going to publish it. I don’t remember if I sent that in before or after my card-by-card review of Legions.

My strongest memory of the deck, though, was proxying it up to goldfish. I wasn’t up on the technology of using draft leftovers to make proxies (also, I didn’t draft), so I wrote the names of the cards on index cards and shuffled those, then played endless games sitting crosslegged on my bed next to my stuffed animals.

I haven’t actually tried goldfishing this deck in many years. I used to try to port it to Extended on a regular basis, which never worked out. I’m a bit worried that trying it now would be like seeing present-day Facebook photos of my biggest high school crush.

Ghost Dad – Champions/Ravnica Standard

6 Plains
6 Swamp
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Godless Shrine
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Shizo, Death's Storehouse
1 Tomb of Urami

4 Dark Confidant
3 Kami of Ancient Law
3 Plagued Rusalka
4 Tallowisp
4 Thief of Hope
4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
2 Teysa, Orzhov Scion

1 Indomitable Will
3 Pillory of the Sleepless
1 Strands of Undeath
4 Shining Shoal
4 Sickening Shoal

2 Pithing Needle
1 Kami of Ancient Law
1 Enfeeblement
1 Pillory of the Sleepless
2 Blessed Breath
2 Umezawa's Jitte
3 Cranial Extraction
2 Persecute
1 Miren, the Moaning Well

It’s one thing to blindside people with a one-turn ‘win the game’ combo, or a colossal creature on the third turn, or burning people out from 15 life. But sometimes, you gotta take things a bit steadier. Play some 1/3s for two. Enchant some creatures. Trick people into thinking you were giving yesterday’s draft deck a shot in today’s Standard Pro Tour.

That’s right: this deck made its debut in a 2006 Pro Tour. The engine behind the madness is Tallowisp plus the Shoals: your doomed opponent targets one of your guys with a burn spell, and you respond with Shining Shoal for free, tutoring up a sweet aura, saving your guy, and killing theirs. And you were tapped out the whole time. Now you can understand why the deck boasted an unbelievable win percentage against the aggressive Zoo deck that was one of the format’s most popular strategies.

Once the deck has survived the early game with its legion of rejects, forget it. All their guys are not attacking, not blocking, and they’re losing a point of life per turn for the privilege of having them remain in play. The midgame Tallowisp engine coexists happily with the Dark Confidant/Thief of Hope (!) engine to provide an endless stream of removal and 2/2s. Then, when it was pretty much hopeless anyway, Ghost Council provides a completely-impossible-to-deal-with threat to close things out.

In a lot of ways, the deck was ahead of its time: it controlled the game not with huge Wrath effects and “draw three cards” but creatures that subtly took over. The genesis of Faeries is here if you look hard enough, with its two-mana guys that aren’t worth a removal spell but annoy the crap out of you.

Additional commentary: I don’t have a direct personal connection to this one, but I know a lot of people who do. This is The MiseTings deck; for the short period that every good player on that site banded together and played Magic, this is what they came up with, and it led them to the Pro Tour. I’m pretty sure I was banned during this. Most of the people involved are now on GoodGamery, by far the best Magic forum on the internet.

Turboland – Extended (2003)

5 Forest
14 Island
1 Treetop Village
4 Yavimaya Coast
1 Battlefield Scrounger
4 Accumulated Knowledge
1 Capsize
4 Counterspell
4 Exploration
2 Gush
4 Horn of Greed
2 Intuition
2 Krosan Reclamation
3 Moment's Peace
4 Oath of Druids
2 Scroll Rack
3 Time Warp

1 Capsize
3 Deep Analysis
1 Dust Bowl
1 Gainsay
1 Intuition
1 Misdirection
1 Naturalize
2 Powder Keg
3 Ravenous Baloth
1 Thwart

Oh, Extended, our beautiful lost format. Where now we have Modern, once we had the seven-or-more year format where any amount of broken decks ran wild in a shockingly healthy metagame. This week’s deck is not some overlooked also-ran, but a deck that won a Grand Prix whose top 8 also included Psychatog with Gush, UG Madness with Daze, Tinker with pretty much every broken artifact not printed in Alpha, and Angry Hermit which would kill you on turn two with a single two-mana creature. The winning deck? Zvi Mowshowitz’s beloved Turboland.

True to its name, the deck works by playing Lots of Land. Exploration plus Horn of Greed is the basic acceleration and card-drawing engine, with Accumulated Knowledge for when three cards a turn isn’t enough, and Time Warp for when you’re not quite ready to let your opponent untap. Then, you Oath of Druids for… some enormous monster? Some untargetable, you-win-the-game-upon-entering-the-battlefield unbeatable thing?! No! Battlefield Scrounger, of course, everyone’s favorite common 3/3 for five. With Scrounger in play and your library in your graveyard, you can recur Time Warp for infinite turns as you cast Capsize with buyback to put your opponent’s board safely back in their hand.

The deck was famous for a few things: having one of the most powerful engines in a high-powered format, taking about half an hour to actually execute its infinite combo, and being nearly impossible to play correctly. Handing it off to anyone else is like tossing the keys to the International Space Station to someone who just got their learner’s permit (for cars, not space stations).

Two-card combos like Splinter Twin make for cool decks, but to me, this is real combo: the entire deck is the engine, with victory subtly nestled among its interlocking parts.

Additional commentary: I had an issue of InQuest magazine (maybe exactly an issue, even), and it featured a piece by Zvi about how the deck works. Can you imagine explaining this deck to InQuest readers? They even made him talk about what you could change for budget reasons. I remember that he compared it to changing an F1 car into a go-kart, and he said the closest thing to Oath of Druids was Propaganda, which I still find to be an interesting idea.

Snap – (Urza Block Constructed)

9 Forest
4 Gaea's Cradle
5 Island
2 Thran Quarry
1 Yavimaya Hollow

2 Barrin, Master Wizard
4 Cloud of Faeries
4 Deranged Hermit
2 Elvish Herder
2 Elvish Lyrist
4 Priest of Titania
4 Raven Familiar
1 Yavimaya Granger

2 Crop Rotation
4 Fertile Ground
2 Frantic Search
4 Snap
4 Stroke of Genius

4 Absolute Law
3 Contamination
4 Meltdown
1 Morphling
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Swamp

A creature-based aggro-control-combo deck that could repeatedly replay Deranged Hermit, tap Gaea’s Cradle over and over, create a huge wave of card advantage, or make the opponent draw their deck. Welcome to two-set Urza Block Constructed!

One of the true “what could have been” stories in competitive Magic, this is a deck that finished Top 16… because it was tragically stolen before that round. Now, if it was me and someone was playing a Snap/Gaea’s Cradle deck in a Pro Tour and their deck disappeared, I’d crack open my binder and lend some cards, but what are you gonna do?

Chapin had to be ecstatic just to get this far with something so goofy: the deck starts off looking reasonable, with a familiar acceleration/Priest of Titania beginning into the popular Deranged Hermit, then things take a turn for the weird once the Snap/Frantic Search action to untap Gaea’s Cradle starts happening. Crop Rotation can even replace the Cradle with a fresh copy. Since your opponent is probably doing something that’s also blatantly unfair, because it’s Urza Block, the Elvish Lyrist and Barrin, Master Wizard should stall them for just long enough to do… whatever it is this deck did.

Before looking it up, I remembered the rough outline of the maindeck, but not the sideboard. That might be the most beautiful sideboard I’ve ever seen. A strictly blue-green main, with basic Mountain, Plains, Swamp, and 11 cards in those three colors in the side. The Contamination, it… it’s for… so that… look, I got nothing here. The Snap deck has broken me completely.

Additional commentary: there are a couple decks that I only know about because Flores wrote them up. I know, Chapin and Flores, my favorite people. Truth is, I used to read mothership Flores articles religiously, and this is one of the coolest things I got from that. Of all the decks I wrote about in the column, this is the one that I most desperately wish I could take to a tournament.

Mirari’s Wake – Odyssey Block Constructed

6 Forest
6 Island
4 Krosan Verge
1 Mossfire Valley
2 Mountain
3 Plains
3 Skycloud Expanse
3 Burning Wish
3 Circular Logic
3 Compulsion
4 Deep Analysis
4 Far Wanderings
2 Flash of Insight
2 Kirtar's Wrath
1 Living Wish
4 Mirari's Wake
4 Moment's Peace
2 Quiet Speculation
3 Time Stretch

1 Ambassador Laquatus
3 Bearscape
1 Cleansing Meditation
1 Envelop
2 Firebolt
1 Firecat Blitz
1 Kirtar's Wrath
1 Mountain
1 Quiet Speculation
1 Ray of Revelation
1 Skycloud Expanse
1 Time Stretch

Readers who’ve been playing for over a decade will scoff at this selection. “Mirari’s Wake?”, their old, creaking voices will ask, “what’s a tier-one Standard deck that won the 2003 World Championship doing in Cult Classics?” Well, I admit, it might be a bit higher-profile than most things featured here… but have you seen what it does?

A sideboard that supports Burning AND Living Wish. Nearly unbounded turns with Time Stretch. Quiet Speculation for Moment’s Peace, which was practically 150% of a Time Stretch against aggressive decks. Finally ending the game with Firecat Blitz tokens, and that art is just adorable.

Wake was that rarest of monsters: the combo-control deck, possibly the first of its kind in Standard, that was just as comfortable sitting back on card selection, mass removal, and counters as it was going nuts and making tons of guys. This is an earlier (Pat Chapin-designed) version, because I think it’s the coolest. The deck eventually evolved more toward three-color control that just happened to win off three copies of Wake; the more combo-oriented ones would have gladly played six. Such is the fate of powerful wackiness: the oddities get stripped off, the deck streamlined, and things like Burning Wish for Time Stretch fall by the wayside.

Time for some Serious Deckbuilding Lessons inspired by this: just because a new deck idea seems completely out-there, bizarre, or like a rickety schoolbus screaming down a winding hill at 120MPH, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s not the framework for a viciously-tuned championship-winning behemoth waiting for the right tuning (or a couple cards from the next set) to move it from the casual tables to the Top 8. Don’t write off weird decks just because they’re not quite there yet.

A final note: other Wake decks used Mirari to cast Cunning Wish, copy it, and return the original copy of Wish to their hand. It was amazing. It doesn’t work anymore. This keeps me up at night.

Additional commentary: Chapin deck number two. I found this because I wanted to show off some Wake deck, and this one popped up on a search. I think Chapin said something about how the format would be unplayable once people knew about Wake, or something, whatever. I didn’t even realize it was a Block deck and not Standard until I had to look it up while compiling this.

Gassy Knoll – Time Spiral/Lorwyn Standard

4 Fungal Reaches
4 Molten Slagheap
12 Snow-Covered Mountain
4 Spinerock Knoll

4 Bogardan Hellkite

4 Dragonstorm
4 Grapeshot
4 Incinerate
4 Lotus Bloom
3 Pyromancer's Swath
3 Rift Bolt
4 Rite of Flame
4 Shock
2 Tarfire

2 Ancient Grudge
4 Dodecapod
2 Empty the Warrens
2 Ignite Memories
3 Sulfurous Blast
2 Wheel of Fate

We’ve all played burn decks, right? Even the Mountain-averse among us have a basic familiarity with how they work. First, you spend a couple turns picking off important creatures or whatever. Then you build up some mana. Then you deal ten damage to your opponent, which lets you play a nine-mana spell for one mana off your land that was hiding it, then you tutor up four dragons that kill your opponent on the spot.

Classic mono-red burn deck, or something.

This deck was a very brief flash in the pan before Morningtide invaded with its Bitterblossoms, but what a flash this deck was. Though it didn’t win, the deck (yet another Patrick Chapin creation- what can I say, the man makes cool decks) had an incredible showing in the Standard portion, and two of its pilots made it all the way to the top 8. Its hybrid of Pyromancer’s Swath burn with Dragonstorm combo isn’t really comparable to anything in Standard; my researchers tell me the best analogy they can make is to the bizarre Cephalid Illusionist infinite life/reanimation combo decks of old Extended. When a mono-red deck with 17 burn spells has no point of comparison, something weird happened.

Time for our serious business Deckbuilding Lesson of the day: if your weirdo combo deck isn’t quite there, try shoving it together with another not-quite-there deck that shares some overlap. In this case, both Pyromancer’s Swath and Dragonstorm weren’t quite enough to make it on their own at the time, but the hybrid attack impossible to plan a gameplan against. Think of it like a Reese’s cup, on fire.

Additional commentary: holy hell, ‘Gassy Knoll’ has to be the worst deck name ever devised. ‘Tight Sight’ is embarrassing enough, but this is a deck name that’s 1) a pun, 2) awful magic slang, 3) a reference to the assassination of a President. That is simply unacceptable. When I told Justin Treadway the name of the deck, well… he wasn’t happy. Also, this is the third Chapin deck in a row, prompting Justin to threaten to change my column’s name to “Chapin It To The Limit.”

Full English Breakfast – Extended (2001?)

3 City of Brass
4 Forest
6 Island
1 Savannah
1 Taiga
4 Tropical Island
2 Undiscovered Paradise
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Elvish Lyrist
1 Flowstone Hellion
1 Gilded Drake
1 Morphling
2 Phyrexian Dreadnought
2 Quirion Ranger
1 Reya Dawnbringer
1 Sliver Queen
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
3 Tradewind Rider
1 Uktabi Orangutan
4 Volrath's Shapeshifter
4 Wall of Roots
3 Counterspell
4 Force of Will
4 Survival of the Fittest
1 Academy Rector
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Carrion Beetle
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Gilded Drake
1 Masticore
1 Oath of Ghouls
1 Phelddagrif
1 Pygmy Hippo
3 Pyroblast
1 Recurring Nightmare
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Spiketail Drake

Back when naming combo decks after breakfast cereals was the cool thing, Full English Breakfast came along to shake up the convention and provide the tournament scene with one of the most complicated decks ever made. It’s a creature deck! It’s a counterspell deck! It’s a combo deck with a ludicrously involved combo! It has 23 different creatures between main and sideboard!

This is an Extended deck from way back, when Extended was Ice Age forward, and specifically allowed the original dual lands, but not the rest of Revised. Yes, that was a real format. Survival of the Fittest-based decks were a pretty common alternative to Necropotence-fueled combo archetypes, but FEB was weird even at the time.

A bit of background to start with: Paul Barclay, the deck’s designer, was a Wizards employee who gave official answers to rules questions. He went on to be in charge of all rules for all Wizards TCGs. This is relevant, because no one else would be able to figure out that this works, let alone do all the other timing tricks involving the cards in different arrangements:

Play Volrath’s Shapeshifter. Activate Survival of the Fittest, discarding Flowstone Hellion. Volrath’s Shapeshifter now has haste, so attack. Activate Shapeshifter’s new activated ability eleven times. Before those resolve, activate Survival, discarding Phyrexian Dreadnought. The activations resolve. Shapeshifter is now attacking as a 23/1 with trample.

Okay! Now you know how the basic combo of the deck works. How do you actually play this monstrosity? Well you… cast… spells? Play guys??? Look, I’m a writer, not a pro player. I haven’t the slightest idea how to win a game with this deck. But please, put it together and share the confusion with friends and family.

Additional commentary: I’m sad both that any mention of this deck has to spend two thirds of its time explaining The Combo, and that I can’t find any specific record of when and where this deck saw play.

The naming conventions really went haywire after this deck came out. Cephalid Illusionist got featured in some sort of “variant” that barely resembles the deck at all, hence Cepahlid Breakfast, then it got merged with Life, forming Cephalife… columns like this are actually kind of necessary, just so the experienced players can bring newer ones up to speed on this arcane tournament history.

Also, a personal FedEx Arrow-type moment occurred for me when I realized that Life wasn’t just named that because of how the combo worked, but because that, too, was a cereal.

Cocoa Pebbles – Extended (1999?)

4 Badlands
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
3 Peat Bog
3 Phyrexian Tower
4 Scrubland
4 Academy Rector
2 Phyrexian Walker
4 Shield Sphere
1 Aura of Silence
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Duress
3 Enduring Renewal
4 Goblin Bombardment
1 Mana Vault
3 Mox Diamond
4 Necropotence

1 Abeyance
3 Aura of Silence
1 Defense of the Heart
2 Peacekeeper
4 Pyroblast
2 Mana Short
2 Wasteland

Back when Tempest came out in 1997, it brought a new Big Scary Combo Deck in Extended called Fruity Pebbles: with Enduring Renewal, Goblin Bombardment, and a zero-cost creature, the deck could deal (gasp!) infinite damage. Now, this might seem pretty normal nowadays, but back then it was a bit more special. Around the same time, Necropotence-fueled black decks were the expected deck. Then around 1999, someone tried the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup technique (my favorite) of mashing the two together. The result: Cocoa Pebbles. Tony Dobson played this version at Pro Tour Chicago.

“Okay,” you might say, “so it added a completely broken card advantage engine to an existing combo deck. So what?” Well, this was actually a pretty big innovation. When you’re casting a turn one Necropotence the win condition you use after that almost becomes irrelevant. In a lot of cases, if you’re doing something as absurd as that, just find whatever kills them the fastest (especially if you can assume that they, too, have access to the same incredible engine that you do).

The big takeaway here that deckbuilders kept coming back to: three-card combos where none of the pieces do anything individually are bad. Card draw engines that pump out a near-endless stream of mediocre guys are pretty good. Card draw engines that find your previously-unreliable combo… okay, that works a lot better. Thanks, Necropotence!

Additional commentary: this one is just a history lesson, because I couldn’t come up with anything else that week.

Miracle Gro – Extended (1997)

6 Island
4 Tropical Island
3 Gaea's Skyfolk
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merfolk Looter
4 Quirion Dryad
4 Brainstorm
4 Curiosity
4 Daze
3 Foil
4 Force of Will
4 Gush
4 Land Grant
4 Sleight of Hand
4 Winter Orb
2 Boomerang
4 Chill
3 Emerald Charm
2 Misdirection
4 Submerge
Fun. Card.

In 1997, Alan Comer invented Legacy.

Now, I don’t mean the format called “Legacy.” That didn’t even get named until 2004, and this deck was made for old Extended. But with this monstrosity comprised of ten land, fifteen creatures, nineteen free spells, and sixteen card draw spells (none of which cost more than one mana), Comer gave us the basic shell for today’s Legacy Blue decks.

The creatures might not seem very impressive today. They were just some two-drops, but they did what the deck needed: you played a guy and used your free spells to make your opponent miserable. Their cards had a very low chance of resolving, with Sleight of Hand and Brainstorm keeping Gro stocked up on free countermagic. Then, you dropped Winter Orb to make sure they couldn’t even try to play anything. With that card on the table, Daze becomes better than free -because clearly that spell wasn’t backbreaking enough when it didn’t cost negative mana.

This deck is to modern Magic what mid-1940s computers are to iPhones. Sure, not all the parts existed yet, but the ideas are all there. With the printing of Odyssey, this deck moved toward Threshold. With Onslaught, the fetchlands made Brainstorm even more incredible. Then Legacy became a format, and UG aggro-control dominated.

Now, Delver of Secrets is king of the top tables, but even Tarmogoyf has the now-forgotten Quirion Dryad to thank for the long history of green dudes and Force of Will.

Additional commentary: the lengths people had to go to before fetchlands existed. When was the last time anyone cast Land Grant in a serious tournament deck? Whether Belcher counts is an exercise for the reader. While this deck’s ten lands was certainly, uh, novel, it turns out that you get to cast more spells when you play more lands, and the deck’s successors played something more reasonable in the fourteen-to-twenty range (and were often three colors).

Spread ‘Em – Jund Standard (Alara/Zendikar, pre-Worldwake)

4 Jungle Shrine
4 Seaside Citadel
2 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Arid Mesa
2 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
4 Island
2 Plains
1 Mountain
1 Forest
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Baneslayer Angel
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
4 Spreading Seas
3 Convincing Mirage
4 Ardent Plea
4 Captured Sunlight
4 Ajani Vengeant
4 Day of Judgment
2 Sigil of the Empty Throne
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Wall of Denial
4 Rhox War Monk
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
1 Sigil of the Empty Throne
1 Convincing Mirage

What do you do when there’s one ‘best deck’ in Standard? Well, you play something that beats it. But what do you do when that deck doesn’t do anything other than play the best cards in the format? Well… you have to get a bit creative. Gerry Thompson’s solution: turn their rather awkward manabase into Islands. Sprouting Thrinax gets significantly more difficult to cast when you have to tap Islands for it.

The previously-thought-unplayable card Spreading Seas was so good that not only is the deck playing a much worse version of it in Convincing Mirage, but also a ton of cascade cards… to get more Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirages into play.

The previous decks I’ve covered in this spot have often been goofy, playing overlooked cards because there was so much synergy with the deck. There is no synergy here; there is only hatred. When tournaments turn into 40%+ of the top deck, and no one can find anything that consistently beats it… well, extreme measures become necessary. You don’t want to be the guy with some brand-new deck that thinks your matchup against Jund might be pretty good-ish, then lose your first two rounds against it.

How’d this deck do against the Vampires decks in the format? Lost. Any sort of aggro? Well, that’s what the entire sideboard is for. But tournament Magic isn’t always pretty, and sometimes it’s the ugliest kinds of strategies that are necessary to defeat the hideous monster at the top tables.

Additional commentary: one of the hardest of the columns to actually write, because the deck doesn’t really do anything interesting. It’s more of a Fun Police deck than an actual fun deck; something better talked about than played, like Stasis, or Eggs. Feel free to look back at all my closing lines and marvel at the more awkward-sounding ones. To me, they often read like a nerdy kid crossing his arms and quoting an action movie in front of the school bully, who then punches them in the face.

“Dredge” – Same Standard As The Above

4 Crypt of Agadeem
2 Drowned Catacomb
3 Island
2 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Swamp
3 Verdant Catacombs
4 Architects of Will
4 Extractor Demon
2 Fatestitcher
4 Hedron Crab
3 Monstrous Carabid
4 Rotting Rats
4 Sedraxis Specter
4 Viscera Dragger
4 Grim Discovery
1 Ponder
4 Tome Scour

3 Blister Beetle
3 Deathmark
3 Immortal Coil
2 Kederekt Leviathan
4 Spreading Seas

“You can’t call that deck Dredge!” the old man cries in futility. “There’s no actual cards with Dredge in it! Dredge is a specific mechanic, you maniac kids!” This deck doesn’t care. Sunglasses on, it’s skateboarding down the railing of your grandparents house while playing a wicked guitar solo. “Whatever, dude,” it says as it slams a Gogurt in like two seconds. This Dredge deck doesn’t care about your “rules.”

Like the original Dredge decks, this one has one goal for its early turns: put cards in its graveyard. It has Hedron Crab, Tome Scour, and a bunch of dudes with Cycling to do that. Then, the real engine of the deck comes online: Crypt of Agadeem. Unlike the original Dredge decks, which looked at spending mana the same way that gazelles look at lions, this one can power out some huge things with Crypt for 15, then untapping it with Fatestitcher, then Unearthing pretty much the entire graveyard in one turn. Then, the Extractor Demon triggers means your opponent’s library disappears.

It’s not the fastest graveyard-based deck ever made, but it has a surprising amount of disruption with Rotting Rats and Sedraxis Specter. Even if your engine isn’t fully operational, you can still just cast guys and make attacks and blocks until your graveyard is in a better state. If they use removal, well, there’s a decent chance they’ll see those creatures attacking them again soon.

It’s called “Dredge” because “graveyard-based deck that put a lot of cards in its graveyard to use it as a resource before instantly killing the opponent” was too long, and decks this effective need something snappier than that.

Additional commentary: I was worried the opening paragraph, especially the Gogurt reference, would get edited into oblivion. Instead, Justin linked the word to an image of the product. The man is a true artist in numerous ways.


Unknown said...

dude this write up was awesome to read. that gogurt comment had me rolling on my sides. it was fun to read up on the old combo decks. keep it up!

Ty said...

mtg judge hall of fame had me googling Paul Barclay. found this. also found the original tournament report that you couldn't, so i'd thought i'd share it.

Ecophagy said...

Any chance of more of these? These decks are all so awesome.

Zemyla said...

"When was the last time anyone cast Land Grant in a serious tournament deck? Whether Belcher counts is an exercise for the reader."

Lowland Stompy definitely counts, and uses Land Grant to keep its land count low.

VibratingSky said...

I love your articles, you write well. Informative and engaging.

Just for the record, I saw the Full English Breakfast deck debut in a PTQ in Scotland and I still regard it with wonder. Not Jar broken, but it took Survival of the Fittest to the next level in its ability to insta-kill. Julian Hague, MTG PTQ top 8 regular (and fan of the 5c Green+ Winter Orb, Miracle-Gro, Rising Waters type decks), needed the rules explained multiple times because he couldn't fathom how he could not respond to the Shapeshifter (the dumping of the creature was a cost, not an effect)!

My favourite deck from this period was Necro-Donate - that deck was incredible. I lost a PTQ final having drawn all but one card in my deck - the last card being the Pyroblast I needed to destroy my opponents tapped out Morphling. No trip to Japan all expenses paid for me that day!

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