‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
– Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
As much as I’d like to begin this with an excerpt that hasn’t been used ten thousand times elsewhere, this one is the most appropriate, and thus, we must
Before We Begin
– the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics. Specific branches of linguistics
include sociolinguistics, dialectology, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, historical-comparative linguistics, and applied linguistics.
I’ve studied linguistics in a sort of incidental way, and to some of you, this will be earth-shattering. To more of you, this will be a thought so
inconsequential and obvious that you’ve either never registered it, or you have and immediately dismissed it due to its trivial nature. Nevertheless, my
goal is to be comprehensive, and to be comprehensive, we must all comprehend.
You see, Romeo is an absolute boob. Juliet is explaining to him that his name is irrelevant and that it has absolutely zero intrinsic value as an
indication of what and who he is.
Language is not universal. Dogs bark, bats click, humans speak and listen. We have categorized our observed experience by using morphemes, diphthongs, and
gestures. Labels. Words. Stuff.
The Sun predates humans. We call it The Sun because, like everything, we need labels for things to communicate. But what was The Sun called before we were
here? What was dirt called? What was rock? What was tree?
The answer is nothing. Human beings have pulled out “Hello. My Name is…” party tags and have placed them upon everything. This is our way of assigning
common visions and common ideas, and truth be told, it’s a pretty great system. But it isn’t perfect. If I approach an infant and tell him/her that he/she
is wearing shoes, it’s meaningless if that infant doesn’t know what shoes are. We have to have already communicated our understanding of things in order to
convey their meaning to others. Additionally, words mean different things to different people, so there’s that.
What does all this have to do with Magic: the Gathering decklists?
If you call a deck “G/W Aggro,” and I call that same deck “James Cromwell,” it doesn’t actually change what that deck is. It’s going to be the same 75
cards regardless of what labels we as human observers are assigning to it. So when people argue over whether to call a deck “Abzan” or “Abzan Midrange” or
“James Cromwell,” all they’re really doing is wasting energy because no matter how many breaths we spend on this, the 75 cards in the deck aren’t changing.
*Gurgly tape rewinding sound
It’s six, maybe seven years ago. I’m at an FNM. I sit down for round 1.
I’m paired against an excitable fellow. No clue what his name is. (Theme. Boom.)
“This is my first time here,” he says. “I’m excited.”
Even back then, I think I played with some sense of sangfroid. I was happy to let him jabber about in order to give me free information or to create his
own vacuum of communication whereby he assumed that what he was saying mattered to me in the least.
“My deck is called The Holy Roman Empire.”
Now, I don’t know much, but what I do know is that no one has ever called their deck that outside of this guy. Cute pet names have always existed,
especially in the old days, but this was obviously something else altogether. Tribal decks were the name of the game (this was during Lorwyn), but
I’m quite sure there weren’t a lot of Soldiers around, at least not in any kind of competitive or synergistic way.
So we rolled dice, we shuffled, we drew. All that.
The dude proceeds to play three or four Elves.
Again, I’m not omnipotent, but I’m quite sure there weren’t many Elves living at the time of Roman rule. In fact, Theros all but confirmed it.
So I Wrathed him twice and won two games. We signed the slip, and I never once thought about telling him what his deck should be called and is typically called because in the context of a random FNM, it does not matter.
So Why Do We Care What Decks are Called at All?
Because some of the time, it does matter.
Magic isn’t playground ball anymore. It’s a real, full-fledged game with its own subculture, its own industry, and its own professionals in that industry.
Cedric and Patrick don’t wear tank tops and cowboy hats on SCGLive for a reason. It’s grown up time. Magic has left the nest. We’ve outgrown the fad fear,
and we’re still here decades later. I believe I recall Aaron Forsythe tweeting recently about how he and Mark Rosewater were celebrating (via ice cream) a
five-year plan pitch to their Hasbro higher-ups. That’s right: While we’re working on this week’s tournament, the powers that be are beginning the work on
what we’ll be working on five years from now and beyond.
Pro players. Judges. Touring tournament staff. Broadcasters. Artists.
Magic, my friends, is what we refer to in the business as, “a thing.”
When small things grow up and become big things, there are expectations of professionalism. You can run around calling your deck whatever you want. Cedric
Phillips, Patrick Sullivan, and Matthias Hunt need to call that deck what it most accurately needs to be called in order to quickly and efficiently
communicate what it is to thousands of viewers and anyone who may see that deck or decklist throughout the rest of time.
So What Makes You The Deck Authority?
Happenstance mostly, but since we’re here, I’ll explain in a little more detail.
It’s very convenient that I’ve been around Magic a long time, because I frequently have to draw on that experience to pull forth precedent. Subculture
languages change (like all languages), and it’s important to evolve with the times. And right now, we’re living in a time where information is pounced on
by the entire world immediately after it is shared or discovered. We’re living in a time with countless opportunities to play Magic through SCG Opens, SCG
IQs, GPs, Pre-TQs, all of them. And most of those events have top 8 decklists, and those decklists need to be published on StarCityGames because people
need them to learn about the game and its respective formats. They need data. They need to see their name beside 1st place because it feels good.
And somebody has to be the poor dope that Evan Erwin and Cedric Phillips task with getting those decks to you.
If it’s been a few days and your IQ deck isn’t up yet, please, just give me a little more time. I promise it’s coming.
It isn’t the majority of my job by any means, but yeah, I’m partly responsible for getting those IQ decks public. And together with Cedric and a few others
in the coverage and event arena, we’re mostly responsible for what these decks are called, or at the very least, we’re responsible for taking the giant
ocean of historical precedent, theory understanding, and community jargon and pairing them all together to make a few words that tell you what the hell
you’re looking at. Really, it’s the community that does most of the work, even if they don’t know it. But we try to translate, and we do it constantly.
I promise I’m not bragging. Imagine all the things I could’ve done for a living if it helps to put my complete lack of ego into correct perspective
(doctor, lawyer, an actor like James Cromwell). But for what it’s worth? I probably spend more time labeling Magic decklists than anyone else on Earth.
Listen closely. You can probably hear my parents shedding tears of pride. Yeah, that’s what that is. Pride.
How Do We Name a Deck?
Decks are named with the following considerations:
Aggro. Control. Midrange. If you’re reading this, you know what these are.
“Dragons.” Is that deck an aggro-ish deck? Maybe. But “Dragons” does a much better job of explaining what the deck is doing than a broad label like “aggro”
“Dragons” works here too. Affinity and Infect are also good examples, as are the recent crop of “Megamorph” decks.
Affinity is another good example here. If you actually look at most of today’s Affinity lists, they contain very few cards with the actual affinity
mechanic. However, because “broken fast artifact deck” means “Affinity,” the name gets to stay. Trying to call it Metalcraft after all these years is a
The best recent example of this one is the G/R Bees deck Sam Black played at the Pro Tour. It was a strange little beast, and it’s hard to say whether we’d
have stuck with G/R Bees as a concrete archetype name (It has four Hornet Nest; that’s only four of that type, and they aren’t even bees technically), but
ultimately, it didn’t matter. The Pro Tour coverage embraced it, Sam’s team had been calling it that for weeks, the community embraced it, and at that
point, we’re happy to call it what the world has willed. Again, we’re just translating.
Stuff like Reanimator. Regardless of the format, we’ve pretty much used this term for describing cheating big creatures out of the graveyard since way back
when. This is also a great tool for introducing newer players to ideas in older formats. (“These decks are called Reanimator. Why is that? Because Legacy?
What is Legacy?”)
As a general rule, tradition should be obeyed cleanly if possible. Standard is a format where you can clean up anything without much mess. Older formats
have too much tradition involved in some cases to try to “fix” it now. The Khans of Tarkir clan names are an easy swap (though we don’t do much
reverting from before they existed), but it is far too late to call a deck like Nic Fit something that doesn’t sound ridiculous. The seeds are sewn.
Carsten Kotter recently did great work on reviving an
old all-in G/B Legacy archetype based on the very old Suicide Black decks. This crop of Eternal decks were mostly known as Eva Green decks back then (I
presume she’s an actress or model, I refuse to look or care). Though the name has no relevance to informative Magic deck labels today, and really never
did, I triumphantly maintained the archetype’s historical precedent.
Again, the Khans stuff doesn’t fairly apply here because it is laughably stubborn to ignore new tools for simple archetype and deck naming that apply so
easily across all formats. Eva Green would need to be called something like “G/B Suicide” or “All-in G/B” or something else unsavory that doesn’t work that
much better than the weird name it already has. Preserving some names in Eternal formats is great for gaining the interest of new players who wonder about
the history of the game and its archetypes. On the other hand, calling the same triple color combinations two different things at the same time in two
different formats is just odd and confusing. Think about if “U” wasn’t the long-time abbreviation for blue. Nobody called Jeskai decks “Wur” decks. BUG and
RUG were happenstance as a byproduct of that system. It’s so arbitrary to keep those titles, but to have the Shards of Alara shards representing
Tradition is great, but any time “it’s the way it’s always been” is your reason for doing something, you’re treading on well-worn and horrifically
dangerous ground. And that doesn’t just apply to Magic.
Keep in mind, you can call the decks whatever you want. But when operating in an official capacity, it’s important to be consistent if possible. I’m not
going to lie and say that all the rules are cut and dry or that the database has complete uniformity since the dawn of SCG.com. It isn’t true. There’s too
much change, and there’s too much other work to be done to waste time being that unbelievably anal retentive.
And yes, there is also a ton of subjectivity. Archetypes blur. Colors bleed. Terminology varies from place to place (do you have any idea how they refer to
soulbond in Japanese?). But at some point, someone has to make judgment calls and just call the decks something already so that people can have a general
idea of what’s going on. This game is complicated and inherently alienating enough. Calling the same deck 100 different things isn’t doing anyone any
Our Style Guide For Naming Magic Decks
So with all that fluff out of the way, here’s how we name Magic decks:
The ultimate goal is for deck names to be as descriptive as possible while being short. Brevity and communicative accuracy are king.
Two-color pecking order:
All other things being equal, these are the order I place the colors in. It’s important to note that I disagree with one of them, and there’s a bit of
wiggle room on another. G/U is a concession to avoiding people calling anything “Ugh X,” but U/G Madness was the first prominent deck of those colors I can
think of, and it always weirds me out to hear it the other way. W/B has become a semi-replacement for B/W lately, and this makes the least sense of all to
me. B/W Tokens, B/W Control, and B/W Midrange were all widely talked about, but for some reason, I keep getting W/B in more recent affairs. It may just be
a shifting of the way players and writers talk, but it still sounds a lot different than what I’m used to. At any rate, I opt for B/W, but I guarantee you
there is a multitude of both, here and elsewhere.
Either way, what I think isn’t particularly relevant in the big picture. My goal is to represent the most common ways decks are currently communicated
while maintaining a consistent style guide, and this is what I’ve got at the time this is published. It will never be set in stone, but right now, this is
what I hear and read most often.
Note that if one color features prominently more than the other, it is placed in front regardless of the traditional style order. W/U Heroic is the most
obvious recent example of this. There is also the common lowercase second letter (B/g Devotion, etc.) as a means of indicating that there is barely any of
the second color. Although the vast majority of naming attempts are only aimed at maindecks (Is U/R Twin even U/R Twin if they board out the combo every
game 2 and 3?), if there are enough sideboard slots devoted to the second color, it gets the lowercase second letter treatment. The number of cards I look
for in the board for this scenario is usually three or four or more, but again, it’s subjective.
Also note that red aggro decks have their own bullcrap, and I’ll talk about that more in a bit.
The ten tri-colors are as follows:
Everything else is going to depend entirely on judgment of the format and its mechanics. Every Standard is going to be a little different. G/R Dragons and
Esper Dragons are called as they are to highlight the cards that make them different than their other aggro and control counterparts. Dragons of Tarkir helped to include drastic differences to these archetypes, so it seems only appropriate. The decks that are running Deathmist
Raptor and Den Protector (and sometimes, Hidden Dragonslayer) should be noted for their intent of using megamorph as an inherent part of their primary
gameplan. We already know what traditional Abzan decks of other varieties look like, so differentiating these seems natural, though more and more, that
package is present in more aggressive Abzan decks. Do these two archetypes deserve differentiation at that point? Who knows? But at some point, my guess is
we’ll take a shot at it and stick.
A quick aside on Abzan: It’s probable that no other color combination in the history of Magic has had the range of possible labels that this deck has had
in current Standard. The lines are intensely gray at times on what version is midrange or control (the aggro versions are usually more obvious). All
season, I’ve tried to take into account the End Hostilities number, the casting cost of the planeswalkers (Garruk and Ugin, as opposed to just Sorin and
Elspeth), and if we were working with maindeck Fleecemane Lions. Furthermore, early on in the format, the “Abzan Midrange” decks had more planeswalkers in
them than the Sultai decks that were being called “Sultai Planeswalkers.” These Abzan decks are a choppy wave we’ve surfed to the best of our ability since
October. Thanks to Yuuki Ichikawa, we’re still surfing.
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 4 Den Protector
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
I did my best, but if you feel your deck was control or midrange and I named it the other one, just play aggro next time and we’ll all be happy. The fact
that they shift drastically after sideboard doesn’t help much either.
Note that an emphasis on consistency and precedent is what kept Abzan Reanimator and Sultai Reanimator the label for us this season. Abzan Whip and Sidisi
Whip are reasonable names, but they’re inconsistent (why is one named for a card, but the other for a clan? Shouldn’t it be Rhino Whip or something?). This
is a case where we opted for the more educational title instead of highlighting the card responsible for doing most of the mid-to-lategame strategy work.
You could certainly make an argument for either, but at some point, we have to just go with something.
The Den Protector / Deathmist Raptor duo in Abzan Aggro also highlights the dilemma of the assumed “improved version.” A number of decks are using Collected
Company as a pivotal piece of their gameplan, but if the archetype still fits under the original archetype’s name, then there’s no reason to change it to
highlight the new tech. It’s hugely important to remember that there are very few times where a deck gets two versions that are considered competitively
equal. In this case, either Collected Company is correct or it isn’t in these archetypes, and eventually, the tournament scene will make its choice. If the
deck name is formally changed to “G/W Company,” it creates a situation where the evolution of the “incorrect” version of the deck to the “correct” version
of the deck is lost. If everyone agrees that running Collected Company is correct, there’s no reason to distinguish it from the obsolete version that
didn’t run it so long as it’s part of the old deck’s new and improved gameplan, as opposed to introducing a completely different gameplan/archetype
Gratuitous Aside on Red Decks
Aggressive red decks have been around pretty much as long as Magic has. Accordingly, it’s one of the few strategies that has carried its evolving naming
traditions throughout the ages. This makes it one of the more obnoxious decks to name. Fortunately, there are some general guidelines.
Card X Red: This is used when there’s a specific card or quality that takes the deck away from just being “another red deck” into something else. Atarka
Red from current Standard is a great example. Rabble Red spent a short while as the name of a Pro Tour deck from last year, but that died out relatively
quickly as more players stopped referring to an aggressive red Goblin as anything out of the ordinary for a red deck.
Sligh: This term has been around for around twenty years now. Well-respected historians like BDM can probably comment more in-depth on the actual origins
of the term outside of its obvious “Lightning Bolt” + “being sneaky” pun. In short, it’s a red deck that spends a lot of time trying to blitz wins more
through strategic pumps, burn timings, and anti-blocking trickery than just jamming fast red creatures on curve. I typically think of the curve of Sligh
decks topping out at two. If you look at Tom Ross’s Boss Sligh builds from last year beside the current crop of Atarka Red and Mono-Red Aggro decks, you’ll
see quite a bit of distinction.
[Thanks to those in the comments who informed me that this was named after Paul Sligh. I find it inexplicable I didn’t know his name until now.–Ed.]
Red Deck Wins: This is maybe the most overused archetype name in the history of Magic. It (in my opinion) should describe the rare once in a
decade red deck that is both obnoxiously aggressive and yet somehow horrifically resilient. The old Extended Blistering Firecat decks are a great example.
They’re decks that don’t go through the motions of aggroing, then either petering out or winning on turn 4 or 5. Instead, RDW decks torch in the earlygame
and still have enough Mountains and monsters after turn 4 to win convincingly even if the game goes far later. Red decks in this camp feel thick. The Demigod Red deck was the last red deck I’d consider putting under this umbrella, but long story short, if R&D is keeping
aggressive red where they want it strategically on the color pie, RDW isn’t a label we should see much of going forward.
Mono-Red Aggro: What 90% of red decks should be/will be called.
Now, onto the other formats.
Most of the same Standard rules apply here, though there is one significant rule that by definition will not apply to Standard most of the time: A
three-color combination with a low curve and no real gameplan outside of merely playing some of the best legal cards in that color combination should just
be known by its tri-color identity.
Sultai. Abzan. Jeskai. These simple deck names merely indicate “great cards in these colors.” Sultai and Abzan are the most common, though occasionally,
there will be Jeskai decks that utilize a bunch of cards like Geist of Saint Traft and Vendilion Clique without going hard into the control mode signified
by cards like Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation. This is another deck where there is some blur, but again, we try to make a distinction. If the deck
contains the plan of sticking an all-time great tempo threat like Delver (Grixis Delver) or Young Pyromancer (Jeskai Pyro), then that threat should be
emphasized. Delver decks in Legacy are responsible for this precedent.
Combo decks should be typified by their signature card. Pyromancer Ascension, Phyrexian Unlife, Gifts Ungiven, Jeskai Ascendancy, etc. Some publications
chose to use the label “Jeskai Ascendancy Combo” and “Ascendancy Combo,” etc., but honestly, those names are redundant. Other than Jeskai Tokens in
Standard, there aren’t any other Jeskai Ascendancy decks where one would be confused, so simply calling the deck after its most important card is
understood well enough.
Modern also has decks that are named after their respective ports. Death and Taxes is an example of this, though it’s obviously on the fringe of the
metagame right now.
Occasionally, in both Standard and Modern, four-color decks creep in. There’s no hard rule for what to call these. They just sort of stay within the
general umbrella of attempted accuracy and brevity. Atarka Abzan is a Standard example. A Modern example would be something like Four-Color Abzan or
Four-Color Jund, wherein a deck will be almost entirely composed of the usual three-color good stuff but will splash something predictable for the fourth
color. In this case, it’s nearly always Lightning Bolt or Lingering Souls. If a deck has fairly equal distribution of all four colors, it will be called
Modern also has a big hint of Legacy-style precedents. Naya Aggro will almost always be called Zoo as long as most of its inclusions are traditional Earth
animals. Zoo decks have been around since the dawn of cardboard, and it’s far too late to back that up now. Burn is in a similar position. The colors are
mostly irrelevant at this point. Nobody really cares a whole lot if it’s a green splash for Atarka’s Command or if it has black for Bump in the Night or
what. Burn decks are burn decks, and they’re going to do what they do.
Ah yes. The format where the names are most absurd, and we are beyond proud to keep them going. MUD? Sure. Nic Fit? You betcha. Though I must say for the
record, it is criminal that Omni-Tell was able to win the battle over “Know and Tell” when that deck first started appearing. Know and Tell is nothing shy
of perfect. Shame on you people.
People are always going to disagree on matters of subjectivity, and deck names in Magic are, again, highly subjective. The most important thing for you to
keep in mind is that nobody is policing what you can and can’t call things. Go nuts. Be colloquial. Be informal. But be aware that publications read by the
Magic masses can’t operate on that mindset. When you want a job, you submit a resume’ and a cover letter; you don’t send a text message.
Lastly, I just want to state that rules are meant to be broken (actually, probably not, but that’s a saying that applies here, so let’s go with it), and
for every two or three thousand (literally) stock lists I see, I get a deck where none of the rules can safely apply at all, and I get to spend three
straight minutes staring at some abomination, trying to conjure up two or three words that actually tell people what the hell they’re looking at.
Of course, it’s usually involving my friend Ali Aintrazi.
- 2 Garruk Wildspeaker
- 1 Jace Beleren
- 1 Gideon Jura
- 1 Venser, the Sojourner
- 1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
- 2 Jace, Architect of Thought
- 2 Narset Transcendent
I’m probably more proud of that deck title than Ali is of actually building the deck, and that is criminal.
There was one more list I wanted to highlight, but I can’t find it. I think it was a Standard States list from some time in 2014. It’s hard to trace
because it had so many random weird cards that I can’t remember any of it. Seriously, someone dig this thing up. The guy had one copy of a whole bunch of
Standard good cards, but the deck had nearly zero synergy at all. It had one Master of Waves and a bunch of other weird nonsense. He still top 8’ed,
however, which is cooler than anything most of us will ever do. Some of the names I proposed for that deck were, “????,” “Clown Makeup,” and “My Trade
Binder.” We eventually went with something lame like Five-Color Chord.
Man, that guy was awesome.