Innovations – The 10 Best Deckbuilders Of All-Time: Dougherty And Comer

Patrick Chapin continues with his countdown of the best deckbuilders of all time, honoring Rob Dougherty and Alan Comer today. Taste a piece of Magic history, as Patrick covers their amazing contributions to the game.

Welcome to the second installment of The 10 Best Deckbuilders of All-Time. Part 1, covering the tie for 9th place, can be found here . Each day this week, we will be discussing two more members of the top 10 list, selected by a committee comprised of:

Randy Buehler, Jon Finkel, Michael Flores, Mark Herberholz, Zac Hill, Scott Johns, Frank Karsten, Darwin Kastle, Brian Kibler, Ted Knutson, Erik Lauer, Osyp Lebedowicz, Mike Long, Billy Moreno, Gabriel Nassif, Matt Place, Ben Rubin, Steve Sadin, Tomoharu Saito, Brian Schneider, Jay Schneider, Luis Scott-Vargas, Adrian Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Gabe Walls, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Zvi Mowshowitz, and more.

The instructions given to each committee member were to:

“Please select the ten greatest deckbuilders of all-time, by whatever metrics you consider appropriate. Please do not include yourself or myself, if either of us would have made your ballot.”

Today’s deckbuilders are a pair of Hall of Famers who have contributed a ton to the game, in addition to achieving massive Pro Tour success. As we examine each of the deckbuilders in this countdown, we would do well to ask ourselves what these players do. How do they approach deckbuilding and preparation? What makes them true masters of the craft?  

By studying those who succeed at what we want to be and do, we can often find ways to mimic and build on their success that we aren’t even aware of on a conscious level. It is not that we seek to copy them, but rather by experimenting with thinking the way they do, we can see more of what they see. Deckbuilding is truly a “standing on the shoulders of giants” type of activity.

It is also worth noting just how different the styles of deckbuilding are on this list. Deckbuilding is an art. There is no one right way to paint a picture; there is no one way to write a song ; and there is no one right way to build decks. Still, studying the styles of the masters can help broaden our tools for developing our own style. Additionally, when we understand what “schools of deckbuilding” we ascribe to, we can focus on the work of others from that school to see what else we may want to consider. For instance, the two deckbuilders we examine today have very different styles, indeed.

8. Rob Dougherty

One of the founding members of Team YMG (Your Move Games), Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty is primarily focused on running tournaments, these days, but still shows up and puts up good numbers at events. Most recently, he actually developed the other successful Puresteel Paladin deck in Nagoya, finishing 20th.

Rob’s period of greatest dominance was without a doubt, the peak of the YMG years. During this era, Rob, Darwin Kastle, David Humphreys, Justin Gary, a young Paul Rietzl, and others formed one of the greatest deckbuilding teams the game has ever seen. They actually had a reputation for consistently designing multiple decks that were better than anything anyone else had, which sometimes led to amusing tournament situations where they would each play different decks, but each achieve great success.  

The combination of Humphries/Kastle/Dougherty always came up with some very strong decks. Often they would go to the PT with everybody playing a different deck, as they couldn’t figure out which was best. -Alan Comer

Rob actually competed in the first Pro Tour, back in early 1996, making him one of the very few players that have been around since the very beginning. It wasn’t until another Pro Tour in New York, three years later, that Rob first broke through to Sunday. Remember, not every master was a master their first year on the Pro Tour. Part of what separated Dougherty from the rest is his continual striving towards perfection. He has never been content to rest on his laurels after a successful deck. His honest, fearless self-evaluation forced him to continue to improve.  

This is the strategy that both Dougherty and teammate David Humphreys (who actually cracked the top 20 deckbuilders list himself) Top 8ed with, Rob’s unusual “Utility Belt” take on Tinker/Academy.

Utility Belt by Rob Dougherty; 5th Pro Tour New York 1999, Urza’s Block Constructed

Utility Belt was so jam-packed with technology, it is hard to appreciate it all in one glance. This list was multiple generations ahead of most of the Tinker/Academy decks people used. To begin with, Rob used significantly more creatures than any of the other Academy decks. At the time, industry standard was two Crater Hellions and a Phyrexian Colossus. Utility Belt actually featured 15(!) creatures, including the Goblin Welders that almost no one else in the game understood how to use yet. Rob knew that everyone knew how good Tinker was, so he took it a step further. Goblin Welder could sit in play and threaten to undo almost any Tinker, not to mention provide backup in case his own artifacts were countered or destroyed.

Rob also realized just how important Tolarian Academy was to the format. In fact, he suspected that most of the people who succeeded without Academy would be fueled by Gaea’s Cradle. In reaction to this, Rob’s deck featured four Avalanche Riders, as well as Citanul Flute to search them up and Lifeline to recur them.

Ticking Gnomes seems unassuming, but was actually quite brilliant on multiple levels. First of all, just as a body, it was an excellent size for helping hold off Mono-G’s assault. Then, its ability to ping gave Rob the advantage in Goblin Welder battles (for those few who actually figured it out). Additionally, Ticking Gnomes provided a much-needed solution to the Weatherseed Faeries that were such a popular sideboard card against U/R decks of that era.

The Arcane Laboratories in the sideboard were a precaution that few took advantage of. Rob had anticipated combo decks like Zvi’s Top 8 Fluctuator deck, “Zero Effect,” and the Snap-Cradle build, a deck that—after getting stolen in the second-to-last round—put yours truly in 11th. Rob’s sideboard correctly anticipated the extremes of the format, as well as had a greater ability to morph into a hate-deck against the two most popular strategies (Heretics against Tinker and Steam Blast/Hellion against Mono-G), and still found room for new dimensions like Whetstone to open up unexpected angles of attack.

From Dec 2000 to Nov 2002, Rob was easily the most dominant Constructed force on the planet. There were 5 Constructed Pro Tours in that time span, and Rob made Top 8 of 3 of them (Osaka, Houston, Chicago) and built the deck that put two of his teammates in a fourth (New Orleans). –Osyp Lebedowicz

Sometimes formats call for new strategies that hadn’t been invented yet, like Citanul Flute/Goblin Welder. Other times, the right angle of attack is to find the best version of a popular archetype. Pro Tour Chicago 2001 was one such tournament, where Rob developed and Top 8ed with his take on the Fires of Yavimaya strategy. Another such tournament was Pro Tour Osaka, where Rob finished third with what was one of the two popular archetypes (U/G variants being the other).

Mono-Black Control by Rob Dougherty; Pro Tour Osaka, 3rd place, Odyssey Block Constructed

Four Mind Sludge? Four maindeck Rancid Earth? Four Diabolic Tutor? Only one Skeletal Scrying? You don’t arrive at these numbers by accident. Featuring more removal than most Mono-Black decks, Shambling Swarms, and Rancid Earth to deal with Squirrel’s Nest, Rob’s build was better equipped to combat U/G than most. Additionally, he realized a couple big fliers would be very helpful for going over the top of blue and green creatures (which did not yet have access to Wonder). Most people had Laquatus Champion in this slot, but Rob wanted a flier. He initially eyed Sengir Vampire but ended up adopting teammate Paul Rietzl suggestion of Stalking Bloodsucker because of the natural curve of turn four Mutilate followed by turn five Cabal Coffers for the turn five Bloodsucker.

As for other Mono-B decks, Rob realized that being the first guy to Mind Sludge was the most important part of the matchup. With four Mind Sludges, four Diabolic Tutors, and four Rancid Earths to stall their Mind Sludge for a turn (as well as hit key Cabal Coffers), Rob fought to get whatever edge he could in the razor-tight mirror. This is a classic example of focusing on what matters in deckbuilding. We hear that all the time in game play (focus on the game, rather than letting your mind drift to unrelated subjects), but master deckbuilders use this as a guiding principle in design. What decides the matchup? How can you do that as much as possible and decrease the chances of your opponent doing it?

Much like CMU, I’m not sure about the inner workings of this team, but their 1-2-3 finish in Houston with three different decks is no less impressive. –Luis Scott-Vargas

Pro Tour Houston 2002 was a particularly memorable example of YMG’s deckbuilding dominance, due to Justin Gary (Gary-Oath), Darwin Kastle (The Rock), and Dougherty (Reanimator) taking the top 3 spots after testing together and each deciding to run a different brew. At the time, Reanimator decks tended to be U/B, so the idea of stripping the deck down to just a single color was a major breakthrough.

This deck has proven to be among the more influential in the game’s history. For instance, even still today we see Entomb-based Reanimator decks in Legacy using 5-6 fatties, primarily as one-ofs. It may seem obvious now, but at the time many people questioned Rob: “If Verdant Force is the best, why would you not just play more Verdant Forces? After all, if you cast Last Rites, you want the best fatty possible to discard, right?” Rob helped pioneer the idea of using Entomb as a tutor engine and filling your deck with an assortment of “bullet” fatties.

City of Traitors looks a little strange of the surface, since it helps cast relatively few cards in the deck. Imagine this line of play:

Turn 1: Swamp, Duress or Cabal Therapy

Turn 2: City of Traitors, Last Rites (discard all but one card)

Now your opponent is just-about defenseless, making the Reanimate or Exhume you kept as your last card almost surely game! The sideboard took especially good advantage of the City of Traitors that almost no one had, powering out Plagues, Negators, and Butchers.

The incredible redundancy is part of what makes this deck so special. Four Entomb, four Last Rites, and four Vampiric Tutor (as well as backdoor routes like Cabal Therapy on yourself) ensured no shortage of ways to get monsters in the graveyard. Four Reanimates, four Exhumes, and four Vampiric Tutors ensure plenty of ways to bring them back.

The maindeck had a subtle depth almost like a Teachings deck or a Gifts deck. For instance, Entomb for Nether Spirit gave one action when one had too many Entombs and not enough reanimation spells. Entomb for Nether Spirit also provided another threat against Counterspell decks. Often, they would give up on trying to fight over the Entombs and just focus on the Reanimates and Exhumes. Nether Shadow could punish someone under these circumstances, or just provide a layer of defense against Edicts.

Rob has been around since the beginning and continues to be a force in the community, both as a deckbuilder/player and as an organizer. Quite frankly, he is likely to be actively involved in the game for the rest of his life, and the game is better for it. There is no question that a great deal of Rob’s success was largely enhanced as a result of one of the greatest deckbuilding teams of all-time, YMG, and it was Rob who assembled that team.

7. Alan Comer

Hall of Famer Alan Comer is well known for his exciting and unusual strategies; however most people don’t realize just how strong of a Limited player Comer was. Despite playing only six years before being recruited to work for Wizards of the Coast, Alan still managed to accumulate five Top 8s(!) including four in Limited events. Comer’s saga is a fascinating one. On the one hand, he was an absolutely world-class player and drafter. However, few if any players of his caliber have actually played as many decks in competitive play that are just too far out there. It is tempting to suggest that perhaps Comer would have done even better had he been more willing to play mainstream strategies. However, this argument is easily trumped by pointing out just how many times Comer permanently changed the way people build decks.

Some people care most about winning in the short-run. That was never Alan. Comer’s genius was so great that mere best versions of decks were boring to him. If he went a month without designing a revolutionary new archetype, he felt like he was slacking. Few deckbuilders in the game’s history have had as many “big” and “different” ideas for deck design.

Alan Comer and Erik Lauer are the two men who inspire me most when it comes to thinking about deckbuilding outside the box, and if there were an award for such a thing, it might have to go to Comer, as the only time that man has ever been in the box has been when he finds a new successful breakthrough and the box forms around him (which he immediately escapes).

This first list is one of the most important in Magic’s history, fundamentally changing the way we think about deck design.

Turbo Xerox by Alan Comer; Standard 1997

A crazy idea man in the mold of Lauer, Comer is responsible for many of the macro deck concepts used by advanced designers, notably cantrips as facilitation for lowered land counts in blue decks. A pioneer of library manipulation, biasing resources, and at the end of the day… honor in game play. -Flores

Turbo Xerox got its name because of how fast exact copies appeared throughout California, partially because of the novel and intriguing concepts at its core and partially because of its complete lack of rares! Remember, at the time, the internet was nothing like today, and information did not spread very quickly; Turbo Xerox was such a radical departure from existing theory that it quickly became the topic everywhere.

In the early days of Magic, bad players would teach each other to play 20 land in their 60-card decks. Early on, it became a sign of a “good” player to play 23 or more land. People couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t beat Turbo Xerox, and Alan, always friendly and helpful, offered to show them his deck laid out. Imagine their surprise when they discovered he had only 17 Islands! How was this possible? After all, Alan’s deck features plenty of three- and four-drops.

Alan Comer actually singlehandedly invented the concept of using cheap cantrips to fix your mana. In fact, Turbo Xerox is the fundamental strategy that most blue Legacy decks are built on! What Comer realized was that even with just seventeen Islands and four Portents, he had about an 85% chance of having two Islands by turn two on the play (almost 90% on the draw). This also doesn’t take into consideration mulligans, which easily pushed him into the mid-90s.

Once he put together two Islands, that opened up Impulse and Foreshadow to further fix his mana. In a pinch, Comer could name Island on himself to just take a shot at drawing an extra card from the Foreshadow, but it was the combination with Portent and Memory Lapse that made Foreshadow so appealing. Sometimes Comer would keep a one-land hand on the draw and not get there by turn two. In situations like this, Force of Will helped serve as a strange sort of Time Walk, buying him more time to fix his mana.

If it sounds like this is a lot of work just to get three Islands by the third turn, it is, but it is not without a payoff. Once Comer made that initial investment to assemble three Islands by turn three, he had a major advantage over every other deck he would face. People with 23 land in their deck draw land 38% of the time. Turbo Xerox draws a land just 28% of the time. This means that more than one out of four times that you would draw a land you don’t need, you instead draw a spell (which is further compounded by Comer’s cantrips accelerating your draws in future turns, such as the aforementioned Portent + Foreshadow combo).

Players already had theories about how to use Rampant Growth and Fellwar Stone as part of their mana bases. Comer showed the world that cantrips could be relied on to fuel decks with far lower land counts than previously thought possible. This is exactly the type of major breakthrough that is only possible when you can escape the box of “what you have to do.”

Up next, we have another important Alan Comer creation that wasn’t around during a major tournament, but helped lay the groundwork for decks we see even today.

Godzilla by Alan Comer; 1997 Standard

This was the first successful true “Reanimator” deck in Magic! Sure, people had used Animate Dead in their discard decks before, but it wasn’t until Godzilla (or Comer-zilla as we would affectionately refer to it) that the game got its first taste of a deck dedicated to making itself discard a fatty, then reanimating it.

To begin with, with no tutors, redundancy was far more important, hence the eleven fatties of only four types. It is remarkable to think how far we have come since those days. Necrosavant was selected because of his self-reanimating ability. As for the other three…

The three biggest, baddest creatures you could imagine being in play in those days were literally Verdant Force, Sliver Queen, and Shivan Dragon!

Because those creatures are nowhere near the Ionas and Terastodons we have today, you would often need multiple creatures in order to actually win a game. Hidden Horror helped in this department, as did Living Death and Necrosavant.

Alan was special for being able to just shrug off convention and come up with some completely crazy homebrews, and then make them perform. Alan has to be one of the most successful players of all time in terms of performance with decks that possibly not one other person in the event was playing. As our team systems got more sophisticated, that stopped happening as much, but he was as individual as they came AND managed to do well.

He was also an astute tuner. When I saw a really crazy interesting obscure PTQ winning list from Eastern Europe one day while working on Mindripper updates, I sent the list to Alan with a note that I hadn’t even played the thing but that I thought it looked very promising for GP Vegas but felt like maybe it needed something. I think it was maybe 10 minutes before an email came back saying “Winter Orb has to go in here right? Wouldn’t that be the whole point? It’s so obvious that it’s like somebody was trying to hide it with this list.” A quick playtest, and MiracleGro was born. Admittedly, Alan had a big thing for Worb, but it’s a good example of how well he often could zero in on key things. –Scott Johns

While Turbo Xerox may have been the first step towards cantrip-based low-land counts, it is surely MiracleGro that Comer is most famous for. Not only did he incorporate Winter Orb into an ultra-low-land aggro deck, he also stripped the mana base down even further, playing an unprecedented ten land(!).

MiracleGro by Alan Comer; 2002 Extended

When calculating mana ratios for these super low land decks, it is important to calculate your success rate at each objective. Normal decks may just need three land by turn three or whatever, but as we saw, Turbo Xerox couldn’t count Portent until you already had an Island and couldn’t count Impulse and Foreshadow until you already had two. Here, Turbo Xerox doesn’t mind counting Land Grant out the gate, but you can’t count Brainstorm and Sleight of Hand until you have the first land. What are your odds of drawing one (or a Land Grant) in the opener? It doesn’t matter if you are on the play or draw, as you are not really keeping a seven-card no-land or Land Grant hand, most of the time. Odds of success? 86%.

With nothing in the entire deck costing more than two and 19 spells that can be played without paying mana for them, MiracleGro really didn’t ever have to draw more than two land.

MiracleGro was just that good. -Heezy, on why Comer is auto-in for top 10 all-time

MiracleGro didn’t just utilize the lowest land counts for non-combo decks ever, it also showcased the at-the-time-unknown Quirion Dryad. The use of cantrips to power it up caught players by surprise and changed how people evaluate creatures. Additionally, this was the first big breakthrough for Gush, in what would eventually lead to the banning of Gush in Legacy. It also provided the foundation yours truly would build on to win the Type 1 Championship in 2002 and provided the inspiration for Brian Kibler and Ben Rubin absolute monster, Sickestever.dec (or SuperGro, which basically added white and removed Merfolk).

I know we have already covered three of Comer’s decks, but it is impossible to do justice to the man’s brilliance without paying proper due to the sheer volume of cutting edge strategies he invented. For instance, take a look at this wacky deck he piloted in Pro Tour Hollywood 2008, after returning to the Pro circuit, now that he had moved to another (non-WotC) job:

Elf Combo by Alan Comer; 2008 Standard

Doesn’t seem that strange? Well, remember Pro Tour Berlin and how Heritage Druid caught everyone by surprise? Pro Tour Hollywood was before Nettle Sentinel was even printed!

Numbers 6 and 5, tomorrow, are not without a bit of controversy…

One of tomorrow’s deckbuilders is a former Player of the Year. The other goes hand-in-hand with the deckbuilder who finished 11th, so we will be discussing them both.

Who are your predictions for tomorrow’s deckbuilders? Who would be your top 4?  

The history of the game is important. We owe it to ourselves and Magic culture to keep the memories alive of those who accomplished so much in the earlier days of the Pro Tour. It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of this series this week. See you guys tomorrow!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

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