Or, a Technique for Producing Good Decks
A lot of you guys already know this first part from other stories, blog posts, podcasts, interviews, whatever; but I had a personal transformation
right after Brian Kibler won Pro Tour Austin with his Rubin Zoo deck.
Ben Rubin was in town, staying at Jon Finkel’s house, and we chatted a bit on how he built his epic Zoo deck. They knew from the get go that Zoo
would be a good deck, and a popular deck, but what Ben identified that was so special was that Zoo also had the best cards. I mean, why not
just play the best cards?
For Ben, and for Brian ultimately, that was an amazing breakthrough. While everyone was talking about the Punishing Fire / Grove of the Burnwillows
combination, it was more than that; Noble Hierarch driving into Blood Moon; Knight of the Reliquary serving as a one-card combo against Dark Depths
combo decks; Baneslayer Angel sailing over the Red Zone and dominating the entire tournament as – what Brian would later say – is the best
large creature of all time.
I mean, why not just play the best cards?
My adoption of the Rubin strategy probably seems pretty transparent, ultimately. I looked at what Ben did and played as many of the same cards as I
could, more or less… But the overarching theme was to play as many of the best cards as I could. In fact, given the climate at the time,
before the discovery of Spreading Seas and the publication of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, I’d hazard that Naya Lightsaber played the most Top 10
cards of any deck in the format…
I mean the only big biggie missing from the time was Blightning (and maybe Lotus Cobra, but even I hadn’t figured out how to play it right, yet);
okay, Knight of the Reliquary. But the deck probably played at least six of the Top 10!
For reference, Naya Lightsaber:
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Woolly Thoctar
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 4 Baneslayer Angel
- 1 Scute Mob
For the past year or so, I’ve marked this deck as a turning point for myself. As you know from last week’s Flores Friday, I’m often plagued by
a desire to be the cleverest boy in the room, and that has prompted the play, at times, of inferior cards included solely motivated by the perception
of cleverness, rather than something else / better / win percentage / &c.
So since, I’ve made a concerted effort to play mono-awesome cards, deliberately de-emphasizing the role of the deck designer (in this case, me)
in favor of using my experience and evaluation capabilities to figure out which cards are good – that is, the best – and just play them. My
best tournament performance since Naya Lightsaber was probably when I qualified for US Nationals via my undefeated Grixis deck. Consider:
I didn’t play Bloodbraid Elf or Vengevine, and Jake Van Lunen hadn’t broken Pyromancer Ascension yet, but the rest of the deck, at every
curve point, was mono-what you’d think of as the best, highest impact, most efficient cards…
At the time (prior to the return of Mana Leak), I had Cruel Ultimatum-slash-Mind Sludge as the only reason(s) to play counterspells in
Standard. Everything else could be dealt with more efficiently via spot removal, planeswalkers, even Blightning-driven surgery. In terms of
counterspells, Countersquall was the stones. Most folk just never figured out why Countersquall was so much better than Negate when you could pay the
Anyway, even the non-”obviously Top 10” cards had unreal impact. Sedraxis Specter was game over in some matchups, and Malakir Bloodwitch
was arguably a more decisive closer at the time – when the world was defined by decks with white planeswalkers but no counterspells – than
vaunted Baneslayer Angel. At the very least, Malakir Bloodwitch could stare Baneslayer down for as long as necessary, before coming in to crush.
Correctly identifying the Top 10 cards in a format I’m interested in playing has become one of the most important things to me. I mean I just want to
play as many of them as I can, right?
A few months ago, Patrick and I had a long discussion on Twitter over the Top 10 cards in Standard; we came up with a list that I discussed in this blog post.
Obviously things shift; at the time, Nick Spagnolo had cut Grave Titan from his B/U list, and Frost Titan was the preferred finisher of U/R Control,
winning R/U/G lists (surprisingly – from my perspective – over Primeval Titan), and Pyromancer Ascension sideboards. Point being, Grave
Titan certainly came, back, but I think the list was tight for its time.
Now some folks didn’t like the list because we didn’t include Goblin Guide. Now the problem is that I’m not particularly interested in
representing a spectrum of different decks (in the abstract) when working on something like that. The fact that there exist decks that play Goblin
Guide has no bearing on whether or not the card Goblin Guide is better (in my mind, its presence is more proximate to winning) than any of the cards we
Notice anything about this list?
We played half of the [proposed] Top 10 cards in Standard in the U/G Genesis Wave deck!
If we had done a better job considering lands or predicted how Spreading Seas would come back, the inevitable inclusion of Tectonic Edge would probably
have shown even more Top 10 intensity in the decklist.
Anyway, that’s basically the way I try to do things now: Figure out the awesome cards; figure out how I can play as many of these awesome cards as
possible; develop a mana base that allows me to actually play as many of these awesome cards as possible.
The format that’s interesting to me right now, rather than Standard, is Extended. I actually love playing Extended, and the reason is that there are so
many great decks and so many ways to set up the best cards in different awesome combinations.
How do we determine what the best cards are?
One way is to just dial back to our memories of the individual Standard formats that drive the current Double Standard, but that isn’t perfect.
Bitterblossom is awesome and everything, but the problem with relying on memory is that the entire second half of the “double” part of
“Double Standard” hasn’t been revealed yet.
Instead, what if we just look at all the cards by converted mana cost and discuss which ones are interesting at all?
Of the Worldwake manlands, I chose only Creeping Tar Pit to look at seriously. Stirring Wildwood gets played mostly because it won the land lottery,
being the same colors as Knight of the Reliquary. While the fetchlands are almost ubiquitous, you can’t really slot half the Top 10 with them…
The appropriate one(s) typically get played no matter what strategy we’re exploring.
Murmuring Bosk, though… That’s something different. The guys who are into the Doran colors get a special tool that works with their fetchlands
in a way that no other color combinations can take full advantage of. G/W can piggyback, too.
Tectonic Edge and Valakut would probably make Top 10 if we reworked the Standard list right now, but I’m not convinced that Tectonic Edge (at least)
would make the break in Extended. That said, I think Valakut makes a legitimate argument, and Windbrisk Heights is a certainty for Top 10.
Windbrisk Heights – or at least Windbrisk Heights in concert with Spectral Procession – was the best card / combination of cards in
Standard for at least part of the time they were legal. In Extended, you get to cheat out Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; not just a Cloudgoat Ranger.
Yes – Windbrisk Heights
Maybe – Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Remember when Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves were so special that it was a big deal to be able to play both accelerators in a list like Bests?
Now they are outmoded badly by Noble Hierarch, and even Llanowar Elves has competition in Elf strategies; like Heritage Druid, Arbor Elf, and so on.
So what do we think about these one-drops?
I added Duress and Spell Pierce mostly for discussion purposes. In Standard, Spell Pierce is comparable to Duress and Inquisition of Kozilek, but
Inquisition is generally better than Duress. In Extended, Thoughtseize is a bit better than Duress and Inquisition due to its flexibility; I was really
impressed with Thoughtseize’s ability to pick fights around turn 10 against other blue decks. Spell Pierce can force down planeswalkers on turn
4, but it’s not like the single-B trio can’t do something similar… Plus that whole late game fight-picking thing.
A lot of these cards are fun to talk about… For example Pithing Needle; but despite Pithing Needle’s ability to help win attrition fights
against planeswalkers, I don’t know that anyone actively thinks of it as a Top 10-caliber card. The same is probably true of Goblin Guide.
Despite the success of red decks recently, I don’t see Goblin Guide as the main reason for the deck’s viability. Red decks are about smooth
draws and critical mass, and their banner man, as far as YT is concerned, is Lightning Bolt (also of 4CC, Jund, and many other strong strats).
Now we start to get to the meat of this list. One of these cards is not like the others! Okay, at least two of these cards are not like the others.
Bitterblossom and Mana Leak are unconditional Top 10 cards. Bitterblossom is the threat that makes the best deck in the format (or at least what most
people consider the best deck) threatening, early, and Mana Leak is even better! Mana Leak, even more than Cryptic Command (I know, heresy of
heresies), is what makes a lot of these blue decks so much more competitive against Jund-like stuff than they were in Standard. BDM recently pointed
out to me that Mana Leak does great service to Faeries as well. In Standard, Spellstutter Sprite would almost never have sufficient buddies around to
take down a Spectral Procession (nominal cost of six) on curve. Now that Faeries has Mana Leak access, it doesn’t have to.
Other interesting twos:
Fauna Shaman – Jund’s “other” two-drop.
Gaddock Teeg – Worth a conversation.
Lotus Cobra – Very good, and very good in the decks that play it. Don’t know that it rises to the occasion, though.
Prismatic Omen – The closest of the “also-rans” to making the break in my opinion.
Maybe – Prismatic Omen, others
I think three is going to be the hardest mana cost to cull. The cards are so varied, so effective, and so disparately focused, all at the same time. I
mean how do you evaluate Anathemancer versus Volcanic Fallout? Or Blightning versus Vendilion Clique?
Blightning, Blightning, speaking of Blightning… I think this one takes a slight back seat to Esper Charm, if only because of the pedigree of the
players running Esper Charm at Worlds. Generally I’d say that these two cards are so good – and so good in concert with one another –
that I would bend over backwards to play them, lots of them, driving into one another. Last week, I showed one way you might do that and would
consider the entirety of the Cascade engine as just another way to find the right mana.
How about the other threes?
I actually think Great Sable Stag is even better than Jace Beleren in Extended; the main reason being that Great Sable Stag is among the best threats
in the format against Faeries (despite the fact that both cards are mostly just sideboard cards).
As for the rest, I think Kitchen Finks is a legitimate near-Top 10 card, if not certainly Top 10, with Volcanic Fallout even better but Vendilion
Clique slightly worse. Vendilion Clique is of course played in a variety of decks as a hasty threat against combo or [other] control, whereas Scion of
Oona is played just in Faeries and often as a two-of, or not at all.
Despite Wargate having a deck named after it, don’t see that card being Top 10 before Prismatic Omen or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; and I
don’t see many of the rest of the cards at three competitive (for the distinction at hand) at all.
In my opinion, almost all the best cards in the Extended format are at four. Well, two and four, but more of them are at four, with the best card
overall (again in my opinion) at, like I said, four.
I mean all of these cards are stone awesome, and Ajani Vengeant probably warrants a mention even; but let’s be honest: Three cards stand out over
probably the deepest mana cost in the format.
(aka faith, hope, and charity)… the “greatest of which” is Cryptic Command.
Maybe – Mistbind Clique
The fours are really strong as a whole, and I think Mistbind Clique rises to almost the same level as the above holy trinity; only issue being that
it’s a card that you can literally only play in one deck. Not sure that matters considering how good that deck is, but I’d still list her as a
I think it’s interesting that about a year ago, Baneslayer Angel was probably the best creature in Extended. Better than Tarmogoyf, even! I mean think
back to the biasing that Saito and Coimbra did at the World Championships… Their deck was based on Rubin Zoo but ignored the previously defining
Punishing Fire combo for just more likelihood of winning the Baneslayer Angel war. Four Baneslayer Angels over three; Bant Charms supplementing Path to
Exile to increase the likelihood of being able to answer the opponent’s Angel.
All that said, I don’t see any of the fives being legitimate Top 10 cards at present, and the closest of them would be cross-deck elbow drop
Demigod of Revenge.
According to some pretty good players, Wurmcoil Engine is the best of the “Titans” in Extended. It’s staple in 4CC and sometimes played
maindeck in Faeries… But I don’t see Wurmcoil Engine as unconditionally superior to Sun Titan. I was really impressed with Sun Titan in U/W
Control… Sun Titan allows that deck to shrug off relentless numbers of Blightnings by re-buying Jace Beleren and basically ignore Cruel Ultimatum
(Kitchen Finks, LOL, gg).
While all these cards are very good, none of them really sings out as an unconditional Top 10 card.
Yes – zilch
Emrakul is a solid, cross-deck threat, played in both Polymorph combo decks and G/W Hideaway; same on Iona, if somewhat less. Of the super expensive
cards, Cruel Ultimatum is the only one that doesn’t out-and-out require cheating to resolve, and even it is not an unconditional staple.
Yes – bagel
Maybe – Cruel Ultimatum
Okay, where does that leave us?
Can we make a deck incorporating…
… and one other? Say, Kitchen Finks?
Probably not, but I bet we could get in at least six and maybe some of the alternates :)
Check back later in the week.
P.S. So it turns out that my whole “this is a transformational way of approaching deck design” metanoia was actually a whole bunch of bunk. Just look at the deck I’m most famous for…
Four copies each of…
What the?!? They don’t even let you do that in degenerate Vintage!
Looks like Napster was all in the cards, after all!