How much of Constructed Magic is in-game decision making? How much is mindset and focus? How much is knowledge of interactions and game states? How much is deck selection? How much is deck design?
There is no question that these areas overlap a great deal, and it can be very difficult to isolate specific skill sets. Additionally, people that tend to be good in one area are far more likely to be good in others. Still, the list of the ten best deckbuilders of all-time is not the same as the list of the ten best players of all-time. There are some who have an extra degree of creativity, expertise, or strategy that goes even beyond their own in-game play ability. Every day this week, we will be examining two more names from a top ten list selected by a committee that I polled while researching my next book. Part 1 can be found here , and Part 2 here . The committee that voted on this list consisted 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, we will be looking at some of the greatest decks that Brian Kibler and Tomoharu Saito had a hand in and reflecting on their methods. As we study each of these deckbuilders, we’ll have our sights set on understanding their perspective on the game. What do they look for in decks? How do they approach metagames? What can we learn about their styles?
If you want to succeed at something, watch people who already do and imitate them. We are not talking about copying their decks, but rather imitating the things that go into their preparation and perspective on the format. We don’t need to do this “from now on,” or anything. Rather, we are just putting ourselves in their shoes for a bit. When we do so, we can better see the game the way they do and consequently have access to more of the tools they do.
6th. Brian Kibler
Hall of Famer Brian Kibler is well-known for many things; his love of the fatties (particularly Dragons), his karaoke rendition of Ice Ice Baby , his nearly maniacal confidence, his extensive tournament success, his work on the Ascension card game , and of course his winning smile. In addition to all of this, Kibler is well known for being one of the greatest deckbuilders of all-time.
Early 2000’s Kibler made it his quest to break the barrier set by Lauer and grow into the title of Greatest Deck Designer of All Time. He acquired the most impressive set of bullets of that era but in my estimation never got there. It was only after nearly a decade away from the game that this eventual Hall of Famer helped design the greatest sustained Standard deck of all time, with Caw-Blade in 2010-2011. -Flores
While Caw-Blade itself involved a much larger group, including Brad Nelson and the ChannelFireball guys, as well as being developed simultaneously by many players, the version that Kibler worked on proved the strongest (a common theme among people who have tested with him). Kibler doesn’t always try to invent new archetypes, but he also doesn’t steer away from them either. He just builds what seems good to him, and his judgment and creativity do the rest.
The first Kibler deck I’d like to cover today is one that is particularly near and dear to Kibler for a variety of reasons. This is the list that carried to Kibler to his lone Top 8 back before he was reconstructed as an unbeatable Cyborg Magic-Winning-Machine. Additionally, it involved Kibler putting Armadillo Cloak on Rith, the Awakener; Kibler is a small child.
Red Zone by Brian Kibler; 3rd Pro Tour Chicago 2000 Standard
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 River Boa
- 4 Blastoderm
- 4 Ancient Hydra
- 2 Rith, the Awakener
- 3 Jade Leech
Kibler is a Spike, no question, but he is also truly a Timmy on the inside. This is not because he plays lots of fatties. Remember, Zvi Top 8ed this event with Blastoderm and Two-Headed Dragon, after all. A pure Spike will play whatever. What makes Kibler a Timmy is that he loves it. He fantasizes about entering the red zone with giant monsters and crashing. We’ll be sitting at a GP talking about possible decks, and one of Kibler’s contributions is also imagining how big of an attack phase we can reasonably get. You think you just take out the Kird Apes and add Baneslayer Angels because you are a normal, sane person who doesn’t have an addiction to fatties?
As far as Red Zone goes, this deck existed in a primarily two-deck format. Basically, the entire field was either R/G or Rebels. In fact, Jon Finkel, Rob Dougherty, Michael Pustilnik, and Zvi Mowshowitz all Top 8ed with R/G Fires decks, and Hall of Famers Kai Budde and Kamiel Cornelissen Top 8ed with Rebels (Kai W/g and Kamiel Counter Rebel). The lone other rogue deck was Jay Elarar with Mono-U Rising Waters. As a side note, with six Hall of Famers in the Top 8, this is widely regarded as one of the absolute best of all-time.
Kibler was the only Armageddon deck among them, which brings us to an important point. Kibler’s deck actually has a surprising amount of hate, but what about when you play against non-Fires/Rebels decks? Armageddon is a very powerful plan in and of itself. You can drop basically any fatty, then Armageddon, and even if you have some mediocre cards in your hand, you are in great shape. When you build a deck to prey on a narrow metagame, it’s nice to have an overpowered card to use as a crutch in other matchups.
Armageddon was also Kibler’s primary plan against Rebels. In addition to his mana producers, he could just stick a larger creature, then Geddon. Without lands to fuel the Rebel chain, Kibler wouldn’t actually have to care about the Rebels at all. Add to this a sideboard full of surprise Tsabo’s Decrees and Flashfires to totally take advantages of decks full of Rebels and Plains, and we are talking about a very hateful man. Tsabo’s Decree powered by four Birds of Paradise and four City of Brass? Nice!
As for Fires, Kibler made use of four maindeck Wax / Wane. Wax / Wane could destroy the namesake enchantment or the Saproling Burst that they relied so heavily on. It was never a dead card, since Kibler could also get at least a mediocre Giant Growth out of it. It could even let him do little unexpected plays, like break a Rising Waters lock.
Ancient Hydra is a little bit of an unusual choice, but the ability to spray mana Elves proved super effective against Fires decks (often followed by an Armageddon). In fact, one of Kibler’s laments was that he only had two Simoons in his sideboard, a card with a similar functionality that was even better at this job.
The other big innovation was cutting all of the burn for more monsters. While Fires decks would often feature cards like Urza’s Rage or Rhystic Lightning, in addition to their Fires of Yavimaya, Kibler’s build was nothing but monsters, Wax / Wane, and Armageddon. A hybrid of Kibler’s love for the fatties and for identifying weaknesses in a metagame, this deck reminds us that we don’t have to completely wash our hands of our own natural style. It is easy to become slave to our own biases, but those biases are the foundation for our inspiration. Bleaching our soul completely would be a monumental mistake. Just look at the decks we saw from Flores on Monday, Comer on Tuesday. You don’t have to abandon your style to succeed at deckbuilding! You just need to be able to step outside of it, when the times call for it.
When it comes to unique strategies, Kibler was one of the best. Kibler would often brew some original decks with his partner in crime Ben Rubin, but I think he was really at his best when he took an existing strategy and just vastly improved it. The 3 best examples I can think of with this is his Miracle Gro deck from GP Houston, where he basically just took Alan Comer’s deck and added another color to improve the mirror match and combat the expected hate. His Fires deck from PT Chicago was a perfect example of taking the most dominant deck at the time (Fires) and changing it slightly so you could dominate the mirror without losing much against the rest of the field. And his PT Winning Zoo deck that added the Punishing Fire engine was simply a genius innovation that impacted the metagame for a long time after his win. -Osyp
Hall of Famer Ben Rubin, who finished 11th in the vote, goes hand-in-hand with Brian Kibler, as the two had been life-long testing partners before Rubin’s untimely disappearance to The Island. Throughout much of Kibler’s career, it would be impossible to separate the accomplishments of Kibler and Rubin, as Rubin taught Kibler so much of what he knows, and they always helped each other to a degree such that there was no one person leading many of their decks. While Kibler has returned as one of the best players in the world in the past few years, Rubin was one of the true greats years ago. The player Finkel wanted to play against least, Rubin was a prodigy and a Pro Tour monster, even at the age of 15.
Kibler and Rubin’s most famous collaboration is probably Rubin-Zoo, which Kibler piloted to a Pro Tour victory in Austin, in 2009:
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 3 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Baneslayer Angel
Heezy, Nassif, and I tested with Kibler and Rubin in Austin and had been playing Punishing Fires in most of our decks. Rubin was primarily playing Tribal Flames style Zoo decks. Kibler was very interested in Baneslayer Angel. Paul Rietzl was primarily interested in Arcbound Ravagers. Rubin was more than happy to play the role of Zoo against our control decks, and at first our Punishing Fires were proving fairly effective against him. Once he added Punishing Fires himself, the tides turned…
Kibler suggested actually trying Baneslayers in the Zoo deck, since it was already slowing down and picking up a great endgame from Punishing Fires. After spending a couple days primarily working on the deck with Michael Jacob and Matt Sperling, they arrived at the Rubin-Zoo deck that posted one of best archetypes records of this era.
They figured that Zoo was the best strategy, so they wanted to be Zoo that beat other Zoos. The way they did this was take out the worst small creature (Kird Ape) and replace it with the best creature against other Zoos (Baneslayer Angel), which was made possible by using Knight of the Reliquary in ways that most Zoo decks couldn’t take advantage of. While Knight was often a 4/4 that became a 6/6 for other people, here she was also a mana source to fuel early Angels, as well as a “tutor” for Grove of the Burnwillows or Ghost Quarter to stop other people’s Groves (or Dark Depths). These Groves combined with Punishing Fire to give them inevitability, letting them go long against people in way that Zoo generally is not able to. The sideboard full of hate addresses the weakness this strategy saddles them with (a soft combo matchup). Additionally, the ability to tutor up Treetop Villages provided much needed additional beatdown for a deck with so much removal.
While Kibler benefited greatly from his collaborations with Rubin, he has also enjoyed great success in this past year, with less direct involvement from Ben. Here is the so-called Treehouse deck that Kibler and Brad Nelson built for Pro Tour Amsterdam:
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Doran, the Siege Tower
- 4 Treefolk Harbinger
- 1 Chameleon Colossus
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Putrid Leech
- 3 Loam Lion
Piloted by Luis Scott-Vargas, PV, Ben Stark, Owen, and most of the ChannelFireball guys, this Doran deck followed Kibler’s classic formula of playing just a few more fatties than the next guy. They realized early on that the metagame primarily revolved around creature decks, combo decks, and Punishing Fires decks. Having narrowed the format down to a few types of strategies, they were able to devise a strategy that elegantly attacked each. The discard was obviously the first line of defense against the combo decks, but the Treefolk Harbingers were also an important player. The turn one Harbinger, turn two Harbinger + Treetop, turn three Doran line of play was a natural 20 points of damage by turn 4 (and all you needed in your opening hand was a Treetop, two other lands, and a Harbinger!).
The anti-Punishing Fires plan involved taking out every single creature that died to it. Noble Hierarchs? Birds of Paradise? Gaddock Teegs? Canonists? Scullers? Pridemages? Brad and Kibler wanted Punishing Fires to have no good targets, as it was already going to be able to kill plenty of creatures for five mana (Punish, get it back, Punish). By making every creature require two Fires to kill, they would have decent chances of tempoing people out.
As for the creature decks, we use a favorite technique of Kibler’s, fight creatures with bigger creatures! Notice, we aren’t talking more expensive creatures, just bigger ones. This is a great example of taking an existing archetype and redesigning it from the ground up, looking at what the format is demanding, not just what the best cards are.
Brian Kibler is truly one of the legends of the game, but due to his high profile and activity, his abilities are probably already well-known to most readers of this column. As such, I know he will be honored to share some of this limelight with Rubin. As a bonus, here are a number of decks that Rubin succeeded with, with Kibler collaborations on many of them.
Dancing Gnomes by Ben Rubin; 2nd Pro Tour Los Angeles 1998 Rath Block Constructed
- 4 Tradewind Rider
- 3 Staunch Defenders
- 4 Bottle Gnomes
- 1 Mawcor
- 4 Manakin
- 1 Kezzerdrix
- 2 Dauthi Mindripper
- 1 Cloudchaser Eagle
W/G Rebels by Ben Rubin; 5th Pro Tour New York 2000 â€” Masques Block Constructed
- 4 Ramosian Sergeant
- 4 Blastoderm
- 1 Ramosian Sky Marshal
- 1 Ramosian Lieutenant
- 4 Fresh Volunteers
- 4 Voice of Truth
- 1 Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero
Domain by Ben Rubin 1st Barcelona Masters 2001 Invasion Block Constructed
SuperGro by Ben Rubin; 4th Grand Prix Houston 2002 â€” Extended
5th. Tomoharu Saito
Number five on our countdown is Japanese superstar, Tomoharu Saito. Saito is a consummate beatdown player, with all but three of his twenty best finishes involving aggro decks (the other three were Elf combo and Hypergenesis twice). Counterspells? Sure, Saito has played counterspells a couple times. He won a Legacy GP with Merfolk (still very aggressive), and he has sideboarded Negate in his Zoo decks. Saito plays counterspells the way Mike Turian plays counterspells… as Time Walks, so he can beatdown even harder!
There is no denying that Saito has been mired with controversy over the years. Years ago he was disqualified and banned for unsportsmanlike conduct and bribery. Then last year, just weeks before he would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame despite this, he was given an 18-month ban for unsporting conduct/stalling and his invitation rescinded. Of course there is also no denying that Saito is one of the game’s strongest players and one of the greatest beatdown tuners of all-time. Saito still attends GPs to trade and hang out and has an undying love for the game. People make mistakes, but it would be a mistake to think Saito won’t be back next year. He will have to start over, in a way, but he has never been afraid of a challenge before.
Looking at Saito’s decks, there are some interesting lessons to be learned that are not the type most commonly discussed. For instance, sometimes the greatest deckbuilding decisions are what not to play. We begin our look at Saito’s decks by starting with his Pro Tour Charleston winning Ravnica Unified Team Constructed deck:
Dark Boros by Tomoharu Saito — Seat C, Kajiharu80; 1st Pro Tour-Charleston Team Block Constructed
This was the one Team Constructed Pro Tour (so far…), and in this event each team of three had to play with no more than four copies of a card. As such, to understand the deck construction that went into Saito’s deck, we must also examine the decks his teammates Tomohiro Kaji and Shouta Yasooka piloted:
BUG Control by Tomohiro Kaji — Seat A, Kajiharu80; 1st Pro Tour-Charleston Team Block Constructed
Solar Flare by Shota Yasooka — Seat B, Kajiharu80; 1st Pro Tour-Charleston Team Block Constructed
It can be hard to fully grasp just how clever this configuration of decks is without remembering the context, and specifically, Loxodon Hierarch. Loxodon Hierarch was one of the most hyped cards in that era, and just about every other team in the event had a “Loxodon Hierarch deck,” i.e. a deck with both Green and White in it. As a result of Saito’s willingness to abandon this sacred cow, his team was able to assemble an unusual combination of decks unlike any other team. A basic element of this format (and Ravnica block) meant that not all the good cards could get played. There were just too many great gold cards and no five-color enablers, meaning each team would have to leave some on the sidelines. To get away from what many considered the most obvious card? Incredibly disciplined.
Examining Saito’s list reveals a little bit about the thought process that can go into building aggro decks for under-powered formats. Ravnica was also quite strange because of the mana requirements of the powerful cards. Because of desire to split the powerful cards between three decks, there was strong incentive for players to play three colors. Making a true beatdown deck under these conditions proved very challenging, and many teams ended up just using a two-color aggro deck, leaving even more powerful cards on the bench. Saito managed to find a way to beatdown and play three colors. Â
His solution? A combination of being mid-speed and hitting from different and unexpected angles. Most of Saito’s creatures were powerful threats that each need to be dealt with. The one exception to this, the Skyknight Legionnaire, had both haste and evasion, meaning it functioned much like a burn spell. Saito knew that most of his opponents were likely to be fairly slow and would have to spend three or more mana to answer each of his threats. By making each creature one that opponents would have to respond to, Saito could dictate the tempo of the game and accumulate a stockpile of burn to finish people off after sneaking in a few hits.
Here we also see the fluidity that separates good beatdown deckbuilders from great ones. Just as we saw Kibler and Rubin’s Punishing Fires Zoo deck do above, Saito’s Dark Boros could adopt the role of control deck against other aggro decks. Cheap removal, card advantage, and some mid-sized creatures allow the deck to take a new form and adapt to the opponent. We see time and time again: many truly great beatdown decks can transform into a bigger version of the mirror.
Up next, we have another Block Constructed beatdown deck of Saito’s. He is truly a master of finding the optimal beatdown deck for underpowered formats. So often, players will make the mistake of building very obvious surface-level aggro decks in Block. Because of the far lower card quality than other formats, this has a more drastic effect on the quality of suboptimal builds. Then, people rely on results they get from testing against these suboptimal builds and come to conclusions like “Mono-R sucks,” or “White Weenie is the best beatdown deck” (in that format, in the days leading up to the event, Magic Online results seemed to suggest that White Weenie was the best, a trend that did not reflect real world results in any meaningful way, aside from “ironically”).
Here is the list Saito took to 4th place finish:
Once again, we see a streamlined, clean execution of a simple idea. The format may be slow and under-powered, but the principles of mana-curves still apply. Sure, he doesn’t have access to Wild Nacatls, Kird Apes, and Tarmogoyfs, so the curve needs to go a little higher, but it’s still there. Â
The format’s lack of dual lands made almost everyone give up on multicolor aggro decks. Dreadship Reef and Prismatic Lens were thought to be the only mana-fixing in town. Saito’s solution? First of all, Terramorphic Expanse can be made to work as a dual land, especially since there weren’t a lot of one-drops Saito wanted to play anyway (meaning he could count it as a one-drop on his curve). Next, he just brute forced it and played 25 land in a deck whose curve would normally call for 23. A pair of Pendelhavens gave him a little more utility out of his lands than others, plus he had the full four Stormbinds, letting him trade the inevitable mana flood for more Shocks, later.
This list is actually subtle in its brilliance, as it appears on the surface just a random collection of creatures and burn. Looking closer, let’s start by considering the context. This was another format that was basically driven by U/B/x Teachings and Mono-W Aggro, with a few R/G midrange decks and Mono-R aggro decks floating around. While some players prefer wide-open formats (you can play anything!), many top deckbuilders find they get the biggest edge in narrow formats, which allow them to fine tune their decks to defeat “what’s popular.”
Take a look at how Saito’s creatures match up against White Weenie. Magus of the Scroll can pick a creature off every turn, going long. Blood Knight has protection from White. Sulfur Elemental kills Soltari Priest, among others. Mogg War Marshal provides lots of extra blockers. Assault / Battery doubles as much need cheap removal. Timbermare is the odd man out, but we see the sideboard already has this in mind, with Wildfire Emissary replacing him at the four-spot.
Even looking at what Saito didn’t play, such as Greater Gargadon (a card that was in most other Red decks), we see the foresight on Saito’s part. He anticipated that most everyone would have Temporal Isolation or Teferi or Snapback, just to name a few. Gargadon doesn’t provide the defense he needs against White Weenie, and Teachings ensured that the U/B players would rarely fear the card, so Saito left them out. He did recognize the Gargadon’s strength in the mirror, however, but figured others would be expecting them out of him, so he didn’t bother sideboarding them. Instead, he used the much maligned Utopia Vow, to neutralize the advantage gained by his opponent’s Gargadon.
Finally, we come to the progression of Zoo decks that helped elevate Saito to a household name. Saito didn’t invent Zoo, any more than Gerry Thompson invented Faeries, Dark Depths, or Caw-Blade. He just took what he considered to be the best general strategy in the format and tuned it week in and week out. After finishing top 16 at Grand Prix Hanover, Saito went on to win back-to-back GPs with Naya Zoo decks, which he would go on to make Top 8 of the World Championships with. Here is that progression, starting with his redesign in Singapore (after being displeased with his Hanover list):
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 1 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 3 Gaddock Teeg
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Woolly Thoctar
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Ethersworn Canonist
- 3 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 3 Knight of the Reliquary
Zoo by Tomoharu Saito Worlds 2009
Just look at the evolution in strategy from week to week! The first list was built to be as fast and consistent as possible, particularly aiming to defeat Elf decks. After winning the GP with the most streamlined version, he anticipated a ton of people copying him (which they did), as well as people playing decks that were not vulnerable to his huge supply of removal, such as those armed with Kitchen Finks. His response was to take out a lot of the removal and replace it with more threats, including midrange powerhouse Ranger of Eos. More Jitte action and using Knight of the Reliquary instead of Woolly Thoctar gave Saito even more “Big Game” against aggro decks. Cutting all this removal would lower his Elves matchup, so he traded in his Teegs for Canonists, which also punished Storm players that had just been testing against “last week’s version.” Additionally, sideboarding Firewhip let him attack from an angle that Elves players would never suspect.
Later, at the World Championships, Saito continued the evolution by adopting several pieces of technology from Rubin Zoo. Eventual World Champion, Andre Coimbra also piloted Saito’s build, using the Baneslayer/Noble Hierarch package, while skipping the Punishing Fires element that they anticipated everyone to be prepared for.
Any one of these lists would merely be an incredibly well-tuned deck that one might say was the perfect build for that day. That he was able to change and evolve his strategy from week to week, always correctly anticipating what level everyone else would be at and then going exactly one step further, is arguably Saito’s greatest strength as a deckbuilder. All too often it can be very tempting to look deeper and deeper into the format’s future and out-think yourself. Think of it like Rock-Paper-Scissors. If you know they like shooting Rock, you shoot Paper. If they know you know this, they may shoot Scissors. If you know they know you know this, you might shoot Rock, yourself. The key is identifying what level your opponent will be on, and go to the next one. If you go to the level after that, you might be walking into a room full of Rocks armed with Scissors, giving everyone else too much credit.
Many of Saito’s greatest successes came at the hands of decks where he didn’t lead the design, but another of Saito’s strengths is his being able to identify when other people find something that he did not, without being married to his own ideas. For instance, Saito won a Grand Prix with a Demigod Red deck that he got from Michael Jacob, after MJ won US Nationals in 2008. He didn’t even know MJ at the time, but wrote to him about it, as he was impressed, and it was very much his style. Saito certainly didn’t invent the Merfolk deck he won GP Columbus with, last year. He just studied the format, identified the strategy that he felt was best suited for the week, and tuned it based on his experiences.
That wraps it up for today. Join us back here tomorrow, as we break into the top four deckbuilders of all-time! We will be discussing number four and number three, according to the committee listed above. Any guesses as to who the top four are? If Ben Rubin finished 11th in the voting, who would you guess finished tied for 12th? While both of the players we are focusing on tomorrow have Top 8ed Pro Tours, only one is in the Hall of Fame. The other has probably invented more amazing decks first than anyone else on this list…