Defining Best Decks

What makes a deck the best deck in a format? How do we know when we’ve reached that point? Are we finally there in this Standard? Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax is one of the best, and today, he talks about the best of the best before you make your #SCGPORT deck selection.

At many points across basically any format, there are people proclaiming that there is a “best deck.” Not a best deck, in the sense that Sultai Reanimator
was the best deck for last year’s Players’ Championships, but a best deck, in the sense that Caw-Blade was the best deck.

Right now, all of Magic’s major Constructed formats have something people would call a best deck. Standard before the RPTQs and the Open Series in
Cleveland had Esper Dragons. Modern is a bit wider, but it has Splinter Twin as the deck that has won or made the finals of the last few major events and
various G/B Midrange decks as the deck that has dominated for years. Legacy is even wider, but from everything I’ve seen, Miracles looks to be a head above
the rest since it has the raw power against the core metagame that Delver has matched with the random garbage resistance from the soft lock and power of
Miracles that Delver sometimes lacks. Finally, Vintage has had and likely will always have Mishra’s Workshop.

Sometimes, the best deck really is that. Everything else loses to it, even the decks that should beat it or people claim beats it. Maindeck Oxidize? Yeah,
one mana Vindicate is not good enough for Arcbound Ravager. More often, this isn’t the case. In fact, this usually isn’t the case, otherwise competitive
Magic would be pretty miserable.

The questions I’ve been thinking about are these:

The theoretical “What divides the best decks that really dominate from those that are just part of the metagame?” and the practical “Are any of the decks I
mentioned above really dominant best decks?”

Threat and Answer Specificity

This section boils down to one question: How easy is it for your opponent to select cards that line up well against your deck?

Let’s take Caw-Blade for example.

Mana Leak? That’s a card Wizards has explicitly stated they aren’t reprinting because it is too good at universally negating opposing cards.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor? You have to have multiple creatures able to connect in play to neutralize it due to the -1 ability, and if you don’t, you aren’t
getting anything other than two-for-one’ed or defeated.

Stoneforge Mystic? If it dies you still have a Sword of Feast and Famine, and just sitting with it in play forced your opponent to also sit in wait to
prevent Sword from landing and connecting.

These are not cards that it is really possible to position against.

Some other examples?

Arcbound Ravager? Has to die twice thanks to modular.

Affinity creatures like Myr Enforcer and Frogmite? How can you trade mana efficiently for a free card? If your opponent throws out a few of these early,
how are you going to answer them in time?

Skullclamp? Yup, just immediately getting ahead if that one ever activates once, it’s not like it’s hard to do for the low retail price of one to play, one
to equip.

On the flip side, this is part of where Mono-Black Devotion struggled in maintaining its best deck status last year. Thoughtseize was quite generically
powerful, but the number of other answers required meant you had to play a lot of situational ones. Depending on whether Abrupt Decay, Bile Blight, or
Devour Flesh was the prevalent answer of the week, other decks would jockey for position to beat the Mono-Black deck that was best positioned for the
expected metagame. One week you could win by sacrificing your Judge’s Familiars to their Devour Fleshes, and the next week their swap back to Bile Blight
made Gladecover Scouts or Polukranos, World Eater a good choice.

How do the current set of contenders stack up?

This may be part of where Esper Dragons is strongest. One of the big parts of Dragonlord Ojutai being great is exactly the same thing I described with
Stoneforge Mystic. Your opponent has to become the reactive player to avoid the old Anticipate plus Lava Axe from one hit, and suddenly you as the control
player are in position again. Hero’s Downfall? Yup, kills everything. Silumgar’s Scorn? I just described Mana Leak as absurd in this position, and Scorn
doesn’t lose value going late. It also solves the old U/B issue of it being possible to line up more mana efficient threats with your three cost removal
without diluting your deck with Bile Blights in the lategame.

Splinter Twin in Modern? Not so high on the spectrum here. The flash mechanic does count a lot as it does the whole “force your opponent on the reactive
side” thing, but the individual cards aren’t broad. In terms of the Modern format, that basically means they aren’t black cards, but more specifically,
Remand is terrible against half the format, and Lightning Bolt is so ubiquitous in the format that it has already reshaped the threat base to be good
around it. Bolt is good against the half of the format that Remand isn’t, but drawing the right half of your deck against the right half of the metagame is
far from a guarantee. Of course, this lines up with what I’ve experienced since Temur Twin first showed up on the scene. It’s exploitable by shoving the
right threats down its throat with only moderate disruption, basically so long as said threats don’t die to Lightning Bolt.

G/B, on the other hand, is basically the king of this category in Modern. Thoughtseize is the one generic answer, and Abrupt Decay is only slightly less
generic. All of the threats are specifically hard to trade profitably against either from a mana standpoint, like Tarmogoyf, a card advantage standpoint,
like Lingering Souls, or sometimes both in the cast of Tasigur, the Golden Fang. G/B decks in Modern are so good at being generically good against anything
thrown against them that it has been a problem for the format multiple times in the past, and not much has changed in the meantime.

Miracles doesn’t really have a threats department to speak of, so it’s on the answers to be generic here. Swords to Plowshares, Counterspell, Force of
Will, Terminus, Council’s Judgement. Done. Counterbalance also offers further general protection against engine style threats like Life from the Loam.
There are some slight issues with correct answer density, but Miracles has many ways around this.

Deck Modularity

This blends a bit with the above one. You can have a great card in your deck, but if you can’t find it or are never in a position to cast it, that doesn’t

Many potentially great cards have this flaw.

There are two kinds of modularity: card modularity or action modularity.

The card modularity is basically just card selection. Caw-Blade casts Preordain and it finds its best threats or the correct answers basically every time.
There aren’t a lot of tutors any more, but Birthing Pod let Melira always have the right hate card for anything while only playing one and not drawing it
when it was suboptimal. The other secret kind of card modularity comes with recursion, which in practice is just tutoring from the subset of your library
you have already seen. This is one of the reasons Snapcaster Mage is so strong: Even if you only have one or two of a card in your deck, Snapcaster Mage
means you can access that effect multiple times a game.

The action modularity is part tempo, part decision advantage. Caw-Blade had excellent action modularity because it had so many cheap effects to choose from
in a single turn that were all uniquely powerful. Opponent leave themselves exposed? Tap out for a planeswalker. Need to hold back? Play a Squadron Hawk
and leave up Mana Leak. Miss a key land drop? Tectonic Edge them to press the advantage. Your cards also generally kept your hand filled with things to
decide between.

The decision advantage part of this is really best described by Faeries and the old Cryptic CommandMistbind Clique bind. Only it wasn’t just that. A
Faeries player with four untapped mana could easily Mistbind Clique to block your attacker and tap your lands, Cryptic Command to counter your spell and
return your expensive threat to hand, animate Mutavault to block and then Agony Warp, or any number of things. Because all of their spells had flash and
they played with knowledge of your hand from Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique, they always got to play their spells at the best time after you committed
to a line.

Esper Dragons has a fair amount of card modularity thanks to Dig Through Time, but that only really applies in the long game. While they will find their
Silence the Believers to eventually kill your Risen Executioner, forcing them to have specific cards early can still trip up Esper.

This timeframe issue is compounded by the action modularity issues the deck has. While it does have universal answers, they aren’t really uniquely
powerful. There’s a lot of instances where Esper can cast any of two or three answers, but they all are the only spell it can cast that turn, and they all
result in the same one card and one turn for your thing trade as any of the other ones. There’s some long-term action modularity gained as you can line up
your Hero’s Downfall with their Siege Rhino and then your Dissolve for their Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, but again, that’s long game thinking. Again, you run
into a scenario where being proactive doesn’t provide Esper Dragons with an advantage, especially if you aren’t playing into their one spell a turn pace.

In Modern, card modularity is basically non-existent in the best decks because all of the best ways to do so have been banned. Don’t try to sell me on
Serum Visions doing it. The only big hitter left is Snapcaster Mage, and that card isn’t even maximized very well in Splinter Twin. Not shockingly, this is
part of why we see a lot of decks where part of the match is forcing your opponent to have the right hate card, because they can’t even find it effectively
if they have it.

Action modularity is the real driver. Twin has the whole decision advantage of flash and instants locked in, while G/B is more on the sorcery speed mana
efficiency plans. Also note that both decks tend to make heavy use of spell lands like Tectonic Edge, Treetop Village, or Desolate Lighthouse to maximize
their options at any given point.

Miracles, like basically every other Legacy deck, has insane card modularity. Brainstorm alone does this, though describing Sensei’s Divining Top as gravy
seems wrong. It’s more like a second serving. It also has strong action modularity with a bunch of cheap cards. The reason this is less busted than it
sounds is that basically every other deck has the same effects. Basically every other deck matches Miracles on cantrips, free spells, and cheap answers.
Welcome to the format.

Sideboard Answers

The final litmus test of an actual best deck. Without it, Dredge would be the Best Deck of all Best Decks.

Magic matches are best of three. Barring judge actions, you will never play more unsideboarded games in a tournament than post-board ones. If your opponent
is a favorite post-board, you have to be an extreme favorite game 1 to be a favorite in the match.

Many best decks just get better than their opponents’ decks after sideboarding. We see one of the true powers of card modularity here, as your fifteen
sideboard slots are magnified to effectively extend your tool box. On the flip side, threat specificity often drops dramatically post-board. Your threat is
great, but there is probably some card that trumps it. There are the extremes of having Tormod’s Crypt against Golgari Grave-Troll, or the smaller but
significant things like how Divine Offering in the Caw-Blade mirror no longer made an end of turn Stoneforge Mystic activation for a Sword of Feast and
Famine a low risk proposition. Generally this punishes linear strategies and rewards those that can shift plans.

Sometimes there isn’t a trump though. The answers are just bad against the threats regardless of how you try to line them up. I was under 50% against
Ravager with a deck that sideboarded fifteen “Affinity hate” cards on top of maindeck Hearth Kami and Viridian Shaman. I played a deck with maindeck
Creeping Corrosion at Pro Tour Nagoya and still got dismantled by Craig Wescoe playing Tempered Steel.

This spot is where I think Esper Dragons fails the test. There are a number of powerful anti-control options available in current Standard. Both
Thoughtseize and Duress exist in terms of discard. Many planeswalkers that create additional threats exist, like Nissa, Worldwaker, Xenagos, the Reveler,
or even something like Sorin, Solemn Visitor. Each of these cards creates at least a two-for-one if resolved and does so in a way that works towards
closing out the game before your opponent can Dig Through Time back into it. There are even cards like Risen Executioner that just don’t play the same kind
of Magic that Esper is trying to play. The hexproof advantage that punishes midrange decks is also easy to erase. Even if you can’t play Crackling Doom,
Foul-Tongue Invocation and Merciless Executioner exist. You can fight on the stack with Disdainful Stroke.

Twin is a deck that definitely wins in the sideboard game. You can sideboard up on secondary threats like Keranos, God of Storms while also representing
enough of a combo threat to force your opponent to board cards like Combust that play right into the control plan. G/B, on the other hand, is in a weird
spot. I’ve played so many matchups with Jund or Abzan where you don’t have a lot to bring in because your maindeck is so good, but your opponent also
doesn’t have a lot because it’s too hard to sideboard against raw card quality. I’ll call it a wash.

Legacy Miracles is in a similar position to G/B where it should push on sideboarding most of the time as the things that are good versus it are mostly good
generic anti-blue cards people have, but I have noticed the deck opens opponents up to a lot of sideboarding punts. So many people sideboard heavily to
stop the Counterbalance lock, but that’s just part of the deck. Miracles is still a control deck at the core, and if you want to sideboard Krosan Grip
against them you have to accept that you are playing right into that plan by making exchanges. Some decks are fine with that, some aren’t and want to look
for less specific answers at the cost of effectiveness against the lock.

It’s All Relative

Decks don’t exist in a vacuum. The best deck is the best deck because it is better than all the other options.

A lot of the holes in Esper Dragons are covered up by the relative position of the rest of the format. Power has been overriding mana efficiency for a
while, and it’s been a big shock to all of the other decks to adapt to a world where one spell a turn early is playing right into your opponent rather than
being the only way to keep pace.

Splinter Twin and G/B score high on the relative power scale, but it’s on average and not on an absolute scale. Other decks have far better nut draws, but
in exchange, Twin and Abzan have a very high floor for what their deck presents while a lot of the high power cap decks also have non-functional games to

Miracles probably gets dinged the most points in this category. As mentioned above, every other deck in Legacy is also a Force of Will + Brainstorm deck,
often with another powerful disruptive element blended in. Your cards are a little bit more powerful than everyone else’s, you are leaning on a lot of
additive advantages every game and delivering more marginal victories than just crushing.

Overall, the current decks I’ve been using as potential best decks come up a bit short with the possible exception of G/B in Modern. Twin is very similar
to where Delver was in Standard: slightly better at lining up properly than the rest of the format but very close to not being able to do this without a
lot of real power backing anything. Esper Dragons has a number of easily exploitable flaws. Miracles might be a best deck, but it’s so similar to the other
options that playing something else isn’t wrong at all.

And that’s a good thing. Because when people think there is a best deck that’s really just a good deck, the person who proves them wrong is usually

My Top 8 Cards

I’m late to the party, but not without good reason. While I may seem like (or really just am) someone who acts off the cuff most of the time, I always try
to have a good answer to a question. There are often times where I have a feeling of what a good or great response is, but I am stuck and have to spend
time to find the right way to put it.

To lead off, here they are in order:

1- Bitterblossom

2- Thoughtseize

3- Tendrils of Agony

4- Mind’s Desire

5- Vendilion Clique

6- Maniacal Rage

7- Academy Rector

8- Pattern of Rebirth

Top 8 cards, especially for someone who has played Magic for so long and had it play such a big role in my life, is one of those questions. I had an
obvious six, but they were so far ahead of the rest of the options that it got real hard.

A big part of the issue was the fact that the issue is really split between play experience and nostalgia. Moving past that, play experience broke down
into a few categories, which are almost more interesting to talk about than the cards themselves.

Limited is basically not represented here. A lot of Limited cards make the top 16, but the dynamic nature of Limited makes it hard to really attach to
specific cards. The two main categories of play that I draw to also aren’t really represented in Limited nearly as much.

The first category was cards that turned Magic into a pure puzzle: Tendrils of Agony, Bitterblossom, Thoughtseize, and Vendilion Clique. These are my
equivalent of the old line about solid players being drawn to blue decks because they let you “feel smarter” than your opponent because of lining up your
answer. Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique are cards that win the game if you can figure out how things play out for both players, and Bitterblossom does
the same in a slightly more subtle way by letting you sit back and play after your opponent reveals their actions. Tendrils of Agony specifically creates
one of my favorite scenarios, where you make a bunch of actions then wait for your opponent to catch up to exactly how you just won.

The next category is the exact opposite: the cards where you just let it ride. Mind’s Desire is really the epitome of this. You probably win when you play
it, but it’s always a show. Maniacal Rage is the one Limited card on the list, and the decks with it from Shards of Alara/Conflux really
exemplified this kind of game play. Turn 1 Goblin Mountaineer, turn 2 Maniacal Rage, turn 3 Onyx Goblet. My cards are a giant joke… if you can stop them
before you die. Don’t laugh, I probably averaged more than two wins per draft with the strategy.

As for nostalgia, the cards are all about firsts. Maniacal Rage was the first Limited format where I felt like I really got it, regardless of if my deck
was two or five colors. The Faeries trio was my first pro level success, and in Thoughtseize’s case later, first place. While I had a lot of experience
with combo before it, Mind’s Desire was the first card that really just said to me “Why would you play anything else?” Tendrils of Agony was the first time
I really pioneered an archetype by reconfiguring Storm post-Mystical Tutor ban in Legacy.

And while Patrick Sullivan would likely disagree that a lot of these cards are actually good Magic experiences (seriously, Pack Rat math was awesome), I do
share one story in common: the cards that hooked me into competitive Magic. Only Pattern of Rebirth and Academy Rector, the cards I played at my first
Constructed PTQ and ended up top 4ing with, are a little more powerful than his unique choice. Maybe hooked is the wrong phrase considering I was already
at the time gauntlet testing Standard for events I wasn’t even going to. But at that event, I felt like I was ahead of my opponent every match. I knew how
to maneuver around what they were doing, and I felt like their decks were just worse.

That event was the point where I started thinking I might actually be pretty good at this. Of course, I also didn’t top 8 another PTQ for five years after
it, but as I’ve said before, I’ve never really felt like I’m “leveling up” as I get better at Magic. There are distinct times where I start making better
decisions, but those aren’t necessarily directly linked to breaking through on results. After this one event, I knew I could play like I could win a
tournament, and it’s just a matter of the days where I play like it running closer and closer together.