Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Championship deck designer Mike Flores writes about twenty different decks from many different eras of Magic that were inspiring, worth digging up, and big influences on him.

I was going to try to be kitschy and talk about “two-thousand fourteen” decklists that were inspiring/worth digging up/big influences on me, but that seemed a little too on the nose. Anyway, I couldn’t choose just fourteen, so I’ll talk about twenty. Really all these decks are amazing, and I wish I could have made even one of them.

Baxter ran the tables at the first Pro Tour before bowing out in Top 8 with this monster.

If some of the cards look weird, Pro Tour I was "Home-dicapped" with players being forced to play five cards from each legal set (including the generally dreadful Homelands), but the general thrust of the deck was to play the best threats available.

If you didn’t have a Lightning Bolt or a Swords to Plowshares handy, first-turn Hypnotic Specter was often game over, and Hymn to Tourach was a sweet follow-up. Erhnam Djinn was generally accepted as the premier offensive creature of the era, but this deck ran it with essentially no drawback. I like to imagine that Baxter ate a creature or two along the way by giving someone Forestwalk and blocking anyway. Gotcha!

Baxter invented the idea of picking the X or so best cards in his colors and just jamming them with some workable mana way back at Pro Tour I (Andre Coimbra thanks him I’m sure). In honor of Baxter’s deck in the mid-1990s, I routinely played local events by perusing Inquest and just choosing the eight or nine highest rated cards and running them together. I in fact once made a Top 8 by replacing Baxter’s Knight of Stromgalds with Order of Leitburs and his Sengir Vampires with Serra Angels.

The irony of course being that Baxter missed the two best cards in the format: Land Tax and Necropotence.

I had just qualified for my first Pro Tour and was just starting to establish the networking connections you need to compete in Constructed at the higher levels. I heard rumor of a deck that Jon Finkel was playing prior to the Pro Tour, and man was it terrifying!

Do you see the tech in this deck?

Jon himself was playing three Disenchants main (which was probably low for these kinds of effects in those days) but had like no legitimate Disenchant targets in his deck! (Zuran Orb was considered a sorcery on the PT.) Jon as a deck designer basically invented "dead card" advantage and didn’t even bother to play his deck at the Pro Tour. Stone Rains were there of course to win the Outpost mirror match. Opposing U/W players would be left with a grip full of Disenchants but no way to kill a man land. Oh Jon.

Dave would go on to 6-0 the 1997 US National Championship with his perfectly positioned Lava Hounds deck and of course win Pro Tour Los Angeles in 1998, but his first substantial finish with a red deck was with this Sligh in Philadelphia. Tom Guevin always said that it was not one of the big events but that PTQ was where Dave drew his line in the sand . . . Everything on the other side was aflame.

"Dave’s" Sligh was inspired by Patrick Chapin’s Juniors finish at Pro Tour Dallas (the 1996 version of Pat beat up Dave and his silly U/W deck until Price reinvented himself), though Dave’s version was of course substantially improved over Pat’s Top 8 deck. The biggest most impressive bit for me is the four copies of Dragon Whelp.

Four Dragon Whelps!

They are like a giant eff you to conventional wisdom and what everybody else thought. I remember asking Dave about them at the time, and in typical Death Stare fashion he asked, "Do you have any idea how much damage they do?"

Playing four Dragon Whelps—committing four at the four at the dawn of the mana curve—was such a statement in certainty. You don’t make decisions like that one without knowing with absolute conviction that you are right. Dave was right.

Counterspells at this point in history were largely used to protect positions, not answer threats.

Threat answering was generally assigned to white, which is why U/W was the dominant control color combination. You know, Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God, and all that. Anyway, how could this deck beat U/W and its Kjeldoran Outpost and restricted cards like Land Tax and Balance? It turns out Lauer intuited "Who’s the Beatdown?" two years early as well.

Lauer invented not just a macro-archetype here (tapout blue) but actual differentiated play sequences. While other Magicians were worrying about how to manage their libraries around Browse, Erik played only two. His card draw of choice was Ancestral Memories. He’d tap out to find a Force of Will so that he could tap out (again) for Fat Moti.

Erik made a point that he ran more mana acceleration where others played card drawing or Nevinyrral’s Disks.

Erik made Mahamoti Djinn cool! Zvi Mowshowitz would side it in against Blastoderms years later, and his contemporaries were all running it in their various U/R and U/W decks; obviously super influential not just by making it acceptable to play straight blue as a control strategy but for stuff like answering 2/1 pump Orders with Wall of Air or winning wars against Erhnam Djinns with Control Magic.

Chapin likes to talk about players not understanding the level of technology in the decks they play, but whoa was Erik ahead of his time. Fellwar Stone to activate Kjeldoran Outpost? The one Plains for Circle of Protection: Red in the sideboard? About a dozen years ago, Brian Kibler accused me of putting Lauer on a pedestal so high no other deck designer could ever equal him; I see no reason to revise my position.

This deck was built to fight other Draw-Go decks by having way more lands. I’m not sure if it was already conventional wisdom that whoever cast the first spell lost, but Randy played like crazy to not be the one! 26 lands starting with four more in the board? Obviously this deck echoes the Finkel CounterPost deck somewhat with its huge land count and use of utility lands as the primary way to win.

The standard operating procedure for Draw-Go decks at the time was to tap out for Steel Golem against Sligh. Randy (with Erik Lauer) realized that they weren’t winning with Steel Golems and played all the Force Spikes main, which simply hadn’t been done before.

The eight-pack of Sea Sprites and Hydroblasts made sideboarded games with red . . . about even. :(

Most people know Sol’s more famous Recurring Nightmare deck, The Rock and His Millions (or "The Rock" for short), but he cut his teeth with builds like this one in the late 1990s.

Sol would later perform with decks like Big Poppa Pump (Albino Troll) and The Rock (where Spiritmonger actually made sense), but in 1998 he was playing River Boa as a four-of that made no sense.

Didn’t it?

I remember losing in the finals of a random Standard consolation tournament at Neutral Ground to future good friend Daniel O’Mahoney-Schwartz because my CMU Blue could neither block nor Disk away River Boa.

Color me impressed.

This is the original Red Deck Wins!

You can scroll down and probably see how heavily later versions (including Tsuyoshi in Extended) would rely on the original 1999 template.

The 1999 RDW played a hefty amount of lands (23 was one up from the average at the time) in order to get Cursed Scroll going and ramp up to Viashino Cutthroat operability. Viashino Cutthroat was not just powerful as 25% of the opposing Red Deck’s life total but with three toughness was out of Shock range.

Obviously players like Patrick Chapin and of course Dave Price had already made red decks cool; Paskins would of course make a science out of basic Mountains. This was step one.

RDW at UK Nationals was unbelievable in performance; Wraith beat Paskins in the 75-card mirror in the finals with more copies in Top 8, including one more on the UK National team! We wouldn’t see a one-team set of finishes like this until PT Tokyo, and after that? Not even Worlds 2007.

One year after his metagame-snapping finish with CMU Blue (Erik’s deck), Randy came back to Worlds with a Draw-Go variant of his own design.

Buehler Blue retained many of the elements of CMU Blue (lots and lots of lands, more lands in the sideboard) to the point that Randy once told me he thought they were "the same deck." I have always disagreed in large part because of the threats.

CMU Blue didn’t want to win, didn’t want to tap. It played one Rainbow Efreet. Honestly, tons of the CMU Blue game wins were just Capsize lock, with the vast majority of damage done with Stalking Stones.

Buehler Blue not only added Faerie Conclave (and moved Wasteland main) but relied heavily on its threat: Masticore. Masticore was the do-everything card in this deck. The defining characteristic was to pick this great threat that could win in short order, but it was also a great defensive card in terms of blocking power and of course pinging of weenie creatures.

Every time I played a Keiga, the Tide Star after, I was channeling Randy in 1999.

Luhrs scored a Top 8 at Maher’s Chicago, but the strategy had been innovated by Cabal Rogue members Brian Kowal and John Shuler the year before.

This strategy exemplifies something I "learned" from Kowal (or at least adopted), which may or may not have been a net positive.

Kowal was super proud of being able to make unfair/broken decks interact. He wanted to beat them with decidedly unbroken decks. His major innovation was to add Demonic Consultation to assemble Sliver-Voltron . . . and other awesome stuff.

Can you imagine a combo opponent thinking the path was clear and going for it, only to see this deck Consult for Force of Will and return Hibernation Sliver to hand to pitch for it?

Yeah, pretty cool.

Fires of Yavimaya was the strategy of choice at this point; Birds and Elves making 3/3s on turn 2 and 5/5s on turn 3. Nakamura took the Fires shell and added it to Fact or Fiction and Gush.

Despite the fact that you’ve probably never heard of it, this deck was incredibly influential because big-name deck designers and influencers all fell in love with it. Brian Kibler and I spent like a month on AIM (remember AIM?) making Beast Attack versions when Odyssey came out the next year (Kibs and Chris Benafel would play one at the next year’s Magic Invitational).

It was perhaps more importantly the grandpappy of the next deck:

Sonne had been infatuated with breaking Fires of Yavimaya mirrors the previous summer by trying to identify and run all the two-for-ones. Everyone had the same basic shell, but Sonne theorized he could get an advantage by playing not just Flametongue Kavu but Thornscape Battlemage . . . maybe even trying for Horned Kavu for more and more 187.

The emergence of Nakamura’s U/G deck opened the door for Sonne to create his masterwork. If memory serves, he won NJ States with it while Tony Tsai won Connecticut and Brian Kibler Georgia all the same weekend!

Not only is Sonne’s deck stacked bottom to top with two-for-ones, but come the midgame you might only play spells when something else was on the stack. It was all about not just bouncing your Flametongue Kavu with Repulse but picking up multiple 187 creatures as your Aether Burst got better and better, perhaps Mystic Snake while your opponent had a key threat on the stack.

The deck was positively oppressive in games of fair Magic. Damage used to go on the stack, so you could not just get a two-for-one with Flametongue Kavu but block with it and bounce it after putting lethal damage on one of the opponent’s creatures.

Unfortunately UpheavalPsychatog was invented.

Oh well!

Osyp Lebedowicz’s R/W Slide deck was thought to be the clear break for this format, with Josh Ravitz and Eugene Harvey finishing second and third (Eugene eliminating Josh), Tony Tsai in Top 16, and Osyp himself in Top 32 . . . But Maher.

Maher’s R/W deck, another designed by Brian Kowal, is a design I have stolen from again and again. It was the template for both my G/W deck (Brian Kibler’s Top 8 deck from US Nationals 2004) and the Windbrisk Heights / Biorhythm deck.

This deck allowed the opponent to commit to the battlefield with the long-term plan of gaining card advantage (and flipping the battlefield) with Akroma’s Vengeance. Planar Cleansing defense against Detention Spheres today can thank Kowal and Maher and their Vengeances beating up on Lightning Rifts and Astral Slides.

This was quite the "kill your darlings" deck. No Astral Slide, no Exalted Angel . . . but Silver Knight? Kowal had more than a little of Buehler’s Masticores on the battlefield on the second turn.

Weiss’s StOmPy deck was simply perfect for the metagame. The dominant decks of the era were U/G Madness and Psychatog. Madness could not race the evasion of Vine Dryad and River Boa (neither could be blocked). Troll Ascetic—coming off of many accelerators—basically wasn’t going anywhere against Tog. They pretty much had to block it, which would tax Tog resources over and over again. Or Troll Ascetic could hang back and block (still going nowhere).

Tangle Wire, Cursed Scroll, and the various utility lands were just powerful.

I made Top 8 of a PTQ with Weiss’ deck and liked it so much I flew to an LCQ for just the chance of playing it in the following Extended Pro Tour. I finished outside the LCQ Top 8 but got the chance to do my first commentary in the booth by being there.

Though it looks like a straightforward Goblins deck, Dan’s Regionals deck was essentially a hybrid deck.

A metagame deck that had a substantial advantage against the dominant Goblins deck of the era (Goblin Bidding) and had the edge over Affinity, Dan figured out how to fit Shrapnel Blast into the Goblins linear via Skullclamp, Chrome Mox, and an eight-pack of artifact lands.

Dan talked a lot about The Fear. He had none . . . just as he had no fear about cutting staples like Goblin Goon and Gempalm Incinerator.

Nine by four. So clean.

I spent dozens of hours working on RDW mirror matches because I loved Tsuyoshi’s deck so much. His Fledgling Dragons running off of Wooded Foothills and Bloodstained Mire were a revelation.

Just a triumph of deck design. Really one of the ones that raises the green-eyed monster.

Life was a perfectly viable deck that was completely obviated by the existence of this deck. Why "just" gain infinite life when you can Cephalid Breakfast the opponent too?

What about when you Breakfast your opponent to death in game 1 and he sides in every anti-graveyard card . . . but you just Worthy Cause him out of the match when he thinks he’s in a can’t-lose position?

Two strategies, both so powerful, one list.

You probably know I have tried (far less successfully than Lucas) to recapture his breakfast cereal numerous times on the Open Series. Big fan.

Just one of the most dominant strategies of all time coming from a really unlikely place.

John Rizzo was one of the more popular writers here at StarCityGames.com but a voice to the casual player. He was not considered an elite deck designer by any means . . . until Friggorid.

Basically taking the European Psychatog decks from Pro Tour Los Angeles and pushing them to their furthest point, making Ichorid a real threat as well as fueling the Togs from down below like they never had before, Friggorid was the grandfather to the modern Dredge deck.

This deck pushed a lot of fronts that hadn’t been explored before.

I played the above Riftstone Portal sideboard. Affinity—an equally powerful linear attack deck—was tough, so the plan there was to overload them and/or jam a fast Kataki, War’s Wage (you would often win a game paying for your turn 1 Chrome Mox with itself the entire game); later variations would mill Firemane Angels into the graveyard and just ride life gain.

Cards like Ray of Revelation and the already popular Deep Analysis saw different paths and in a sense greater access than they ever had in the past.

But really Rizzo taught the world to respect Golgari Grave-Troll with this one. Obviously one of the most influential decklists of all time.

If there’s one thing I respect, it’s the break. And this one was the clear break.

Innovator Dragonstorm put together an insane list of superb Standard records, ultimately propelling Hall of Famers Patrick Chapin and Gabriel Nassif to the Worlds Top 8.

The one-event crusher.

The deck that encompasses the entirety of an archetype (e.g. Dragonstorm) but adds the incentive of a Pyromancer’s Swath or the reality rewrite of a Spinerock Knoll.

This is the deck every deck designer wants to produce. When I go to sleep at night, I think of maybe—just maybe—doing something this disgusting. And not at just like States.

Gerry makes Top 4 of a PTQ and wins the next one the next day, breaking the Extended format along the way.

I mean really breaking.

After his win, there were nothing but Thepths wins around the world. It went on to win Grand Prix and get cards banned. Perhaps more than anything else, Thepths made Gerry’s reputation. He was always a good deck designer, but after this one he was on a whole other level.

Thepths put together many of the admirable qualities of some of the other decks on this page. Like Innovator Dragonstorm, it encompassed and surpassed a powerful strategy. It was a hybrid combo like Lucas Glavin’s Cephalid Life, but rather than one GP finals, it went on to completely overwhelm Extended.

Thepths is recent enough that it probably doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation. Just the crown jewel of Gerry’s storied career as a deck designer.

In the vein of players not necessarily understanding all the technology at their fingertips, this deck used Elixir of Immortality to break the rule of four on Sphinx’s Revelation. The Alchemist’s Refuge could be set up to play the same Supreme Verdict every combat against infinite creature decks. One Cavern of Souls to be set to Beasts, and one for the one Angel (believe it or not).

But ultimately?

I’m a sucker for something special.

The low-cost solution to all of a deck’s problems.

This deck had it.

The one Overgrown Tomb.

The one Nephalia Drownyard.

That Drownyard was so spectacular that it singlehandedly rewrote the face of control as Standard evolved with the coming of additional Return to Ravnica Block sets.

I’d be happy to grow up to be any of them.

Happy New Year!


Mike Flores OMG