What does it mean to be a good deckbuilder?
This is a question that has been asked nearly as long as the game has been played competitively. Depending on who you ask, you are likely to get very different answers. Some people give extra weight to new strategies that defy convention, decks built outside the box. Others care about results more than anything; so even if it is just a matter of tuning an existing archetype to be the exact perfect build for that week, a master deckbuilder never has to come up with anything “new.” Some would say that a deckbuilder who can do alone, what it takes other teams many people to do, is an advantage, while others would argue that deckbuilders who make whomever they are testing with produce better decks means they are actually “good” at “deckbuilding.”
In a quest to more fully understand deckbuilding, I have been doing a bit of research. Part of this research has been interviewing some of the greatest deckbuilders of all-time, as well as some top authorities who have had a lot of experience working with a number of the greats. This panel included:
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.
One request I made of everyone on the panel was 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.”
The results from that survey have been compiled to form the list we have been examining all week and will be concluding, today. Herberholz and Flores at 9th can be found here . Dougherty (8th) and Comer (7th) can be found here . Kibler (6th) and Saito (5th) can be found here . Lauer (4th) and Fujita (3rd) can be found here .
Today, we have finally reached the top two deckbuilders, receiving the most nominations to appear on the top 10 of all-time lists of the above-mentioned panel. We’ll be taking a look at some of the best decks that each of these men played a major role in the design on. This isn’t just a trip down memory lane, however. We are best served by studying the work of these masters and asking ourselves what we can take away from their successes. When we encounter card choices we don’t understand, it is well worth it to click over to the card in question and look at it for a minute. Why would they play this card? Why not this other card? What was their thought process? The more we understand about how they think about deckbuilding in Magic, the more tools we will have at our disposal as deckbuilders.
2nd. Gabriel Nassif
Gabriel Nassif is not only one of the greatest players of all-time, he is also one of the greatest deckbuilders of all-time. I have had the privilege of working closely with Gab for a number of years now, as well as becoming close friends. When I was a kid, I remembering wondering what it must have been like to play baseball on the same team with Ted Williams. At this point, I think I have a pretty good idea.
Nassif has been a part of a number of the greatest collaborations in the game’s history, as he has a way of bringing out the best in those he works with. His longest and most consistent partnership was, of course, with Mark Herberholz. On occasion, Nassif has received some credit for decks that Mark was a larger player in, such as Martyr-Tron; though Mark would be quick to point out that it goes both ways, such as Mark’s Top 8 with Nassif’s Mono-U Faeries list at GP LA 2009. Still, at the end of the day, both would tell you that their decks are so interwoven with each other that separating them completely isn’t really fair.
Though Heezy and Nassif have been consummate testing partners, they have not always played the same decks. Heezy likes a good control deck but does have a bit more of a taste for the beatdown; whereas Nassif is more drawn to aggro-control, running control more often than beatdown. One area where they both agree, however, is that they both absolutely love a good combo deck. Nassif has been a part of quite a number of sweet combo decks over the years. Finding the best unfair combo deck has helped give Nassif the reputation of being a guy who, Â when he says, “I broke it,” might have actually broken it.
Here is one of the most broken combo decks Nassif was a part of.
So first, some context. This was the Tinker Pro Tour. Remember how Survival of the Fittest eventually led to a metagame dominated by the paper-rock-scissors of Beatdown Survival-Control Survival-Combo Survival? Well, amusingly, the Tinker Pro Tour was dominated by the metagame of Beatdown Tinker-Control Tinker-Combo Tinker. All three were lightning fast artifact decks revolving around Tinker, but where they went from there differed wildly. The Top 8 decklists, which included three Severance/Belcher Tinker, three Upheaval/Masticore Tinker, one Welder/Metalworker Tinker, and one Psychatog can be found here .
While this build did not abuse Tinker the “hardest,” it did seek to prey on a Tinker heavy metagame. Force Spike as the counterspell of choice was absolutely brilliant. While the other two builds to Top 8 splashed black for Duress and Vampiric Tutor, Nassif focused on making his list as consistent as possible, stripping the list down to mono-U (a technique Nassif has used on a number of occasions). Nassif correctly anticipated that almost everyone would build their decks to win or stop someone from winning as fast as possible. Force Spike became a one-mana counterspell, especially given how many of his opponents he caught by surprise. When others eventually heard about it, they were left wasting a turn, waiting to pay for the Spike that may or may not be there.
The use of the Mana Severance + Goblin Charbelcher combo let Nassif “race” the other Tinker decks that merely searched up a Bosh, Iron Golem or Phyrexian Colossus. Mystical Tutor effectively finds either half of the combo, as it can search up either Mana Severance or Tinker, though often Nassif would just race to Slaver people as fast as possible (often using their Tinker as a way to get rid of their artifacts).
Many people were captivated by just how many sweet bullets you could play in your deck to Tinker up, when the game called for it. While this can work, there is a price to pay. Nassif, always one to look for ways to make decks more consistent, stripped his “Tinker Targets” down to just a Mindslaver and a Gilded Lotus, aside from the Belcher. If he needed mana, Gilded Lotus did the trick. If he had Mana Severance, he got Belcher and ended it. If he didn’t, he Slavered them to buy himself time. Platinum Angel and Ensnaring Bridge provided additional targets after sideboarding to try to lock people out completely.
If we take just one lesson away from Nassif’s Belcher deck, it is to be diligent in asking ourselves if there is an even more minimal version, a more consistent approach we could take to our decks.
Nassif quietly broke Extended during Berlin 2008, and the deck he made (mono-U Faeries) completely dominated the season afterwards. His Tooth deck in Kobe and the Martyr deck in Paris (with assistance from Mark Herberholz) are other examples of his insane deckbuilding skill, as is the fact that he won Player of the Year in 2004 despite Nicolai Herzog winning TWO Pro Tours. Of course, I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nassif/Chapin 5-color deck that he used to crush my dreams in Kyoto (game four was one of the best games of Magic I’ve ever played). Nassif is a lock for Top 10 and likely makes it pretty high on the list to boot. –Luis Scott-Vargas
Without commentary, here are a couple other famous combo decks that Nassif played a role in, while collaborating with Olivier Ruel and Mark Herberholz, followed by Herberholz and yours truly (a related video of which can be found here ).
TwelvePost by Gabriel Nassif; 2nd Pro Tour-Kobe 2004 Mirrodin Block Constructed
While Nassif has been no stranger to combo decks, he is often most drawn to aggro-control decks. First, we have the Extended Counter-Top deck that Nassif went undefeated with to sneak into the Top 8 of the 2006 World Championships.
UWR CounterTop by Gabriel Nassif; 4th 2006 World Championships Extended
This is a trademark Nassif style brew, the type that can be a sweet metagame call for a day, but that you wouldn’t want to play over an entire season. One of Nassif’s methods of attacking wide-open formats, like the Extended of that era, is to take a proactive stance but find places where cards that hose multiple strategies overlap. Additionally, we see layers of synergy on top of each other. Trinket Mage sets up Counter-Top, which finds combo decks, as does Meddling Mage. Both are guys to carry the Jitte, as do the Exalted Angels and Meddling Mage designed to hose Red aggro decks. Cheap, versatile tempo plays, like Stifle and Fire / Ice, give Nassif a lot of “play.” This is especially valuable to a player like Nassif, who is so proficient at leveraging these “tricks” into game advantages.
The lesson to take away from this one? Embracing your style really can lead to a deck that gives you better results. Nassif likes to give himself tricks, ways to blow people out, ways to hose people, and ways to put pressure on opponents who try to be “too careful.” Sometimes, trying to play around the tricks Nassif was up to would lead to opponents giving up just a little too much of their life; then a surprising flurry of burn would end their day.
This one should be obvious on my list. While (Gabriel Nassif) steals some credit for my decks (grins), he was still responsible for Tooth and Nail in Kobe, Tinker/Charbelcher in New Orleans, and Faeries/Wizards in Berlin. The Mono-Blue Fae deck while not finishing in the Top 8 of that tournament completely warped the format. He always has something new and fresh in an environment, and he has been doing it forever. –Mark Herberholz
In this same aggro-control style, one of the best archetypes that Nassif invented was that of Mono-U Faeries. Pro Tour Berlin is best known for the emergence of Elf Combo, fueled by Glimpse of Nature. While most Faeries players were stuck in the mindset of U/B Faeries (mirroring Standard Faeries lists), Nassif and Wafo-Tapa developed a new style, Mono-U.
Faeries by Gabriel Nassif; Top 32 Pro Tour-Berlin 2008 Extended
Once again, we see a classic case of being willing to “kill your darlings.” Few players could conceive of playing Faeries without Bitterblossom. Wafo and Nassif realized that Riptide Laboratory was an even better engine to power their strategy with and led to a more consistent mana base. Besides, they correctly anticipated Zoo and Elves as the two most popular decks. Those are not the matchups where you want Bitterblossom. As always, Nassif asked, “Do we need to play two colors?”
Without a pilot in the Top 8, the Faeries archetype stayed a little under the radar. The top 16 actually contained quite a number of Faeries decks that just missed a chance to sneak into the Top 8 and beat up on their best matchup, Elves. Even those decks were primarily U/B, though. It wasn’t until a couple months later that Nassif totally turned the Extended format on its ear. Here is the updated Mono-U Faeries list that proved the most successful archetype of the 2008 World Championships.
Mono-U Faeries by Gabriel Nassif; Worlds 2008
Despite the more colorful mana base, this is still an extremely stripped down, minimalist build. One of the cleverest innovations was the use of Breeding Pool, Hallowed Fountain, Steam Vents, and River of Tears to help fuel Engineered Explosives. Nassif decided that he needed Trinket Mage to be able to access the Explosives to help against Zoo and Elves. While Explosives for one is fine, he really wanted to be able to do it for at least two, if he needed to. Stifle was very popular at that event, so Nassif wanted to avoid using fetchlands to find a shockland or two (the technique that most people used). By using one of each color, Nassif would never have to risk getting Stifled but could also make his Explosives larger, depending on how many he drew. This seems simple, but it was a new idea, and sometimes the best ideas are the most simple.
As always with Nassif’s aggro-control decks, we see a very different deck when we look at the deck from the perspective of how to fight aggro (trade one-for-one, high-tempo plays, getting ahead with Explosives, Jitte, and eventually closing out the game with Lab) vs. a combo deck (putting a clock on them with so many counterspells that they can’t go off, then using Riptide Lab to gain an extra layer of protection with Spellstutters and Vendilions). Being able to build “three-dimensional decks” that have depths depending on which way you look at them takes practice but is the mark of good aggro-control decks.
Nassif was arguably the first player to have it all, all at the same time. The best player in the world after the height of Kai Budde, Nassif was simultaneously the game’s then-greatest deck designer. He racked up an impressive number of consecutive Constructed Top 8 appearances on the Pro Tour along with a Player of the Year title and infinite additional laurels. -Michael Flores
- 4 Figure of Destiny
- 4 Ethersworn Canonist
- 4 Knight of the White Orchid
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Steppe Lynx
- 4 Student of Warfare
Nassif’s White Weenie list isn’t fancy, but it is consistent and consistent with Nassif’s minimalist approach. Nassif correctly read the metagame as being just a little too combo and anti-combo. No one was expecting White Weenie, so the combination of anti-combo (speed, backed with a layer of disruption) and anti-anti-combo (tons of threats, resiliency, tempo plays like Brave the Elements) caught the format off guard. White Weenie proved a one-weekend deck, as it went on to fail completely in the season that followed; but Nassif didn’t build it for a season. Like Mono-R Dragonstorm, like his U/W/R CounterTop deck, it was just the right deck on the right day.
Looking back over the past several years, Cruel Control, U/W Control, Tezzeret, a number of the best decks I have worked on have benefited greatly from Nassif’s input, and I can attest to just how much those around him benefit from his input, his perspective. Thank you, Gab.
Well, we have finally reached the end of our countdown. Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz is a legend in so many areas of the game, it is almost comical. When you ask people about the best players in the game’s history, Zvi’s name comes up. When you ask about the best writers in the game’s history, again Zvi. Deckbuilding? No name comes up more.
Zvi is bold and innovative, like Comer and Lauer, but with a batting average that makes him seem like a deck tuner. The thing is the decks he is “tuning” are decks that didn’t exist before him. It isn’t just that a current incarnation didn’t exist, like Boros or U/W Control. He creates new archetypes multiple times a year.
To say that Zvi’s contributions to Magic theory can’t fit in a single article is an understatement. To begin to wrap our minds around Zvi’s body of work, we have to begin with a cover-to-cover read of his My Files: Volume 1 , a collection of articles of his that paint a picture of his approach to the game.
If you asked him, Zvi would tell you that Zero Effect, the Fluctuator deck he took to a third place finish at the 1999 Pro Tour New York, would be among his favorites:
Zero Effect by Zvi Mowshowitz; 3rd Pro Tour New York 1999 Urza’s Block Constructed
In a format dominated by U/R Tinker–Wildfire decks and Mono-G aggro, Zvi sidestepped the format completely with an unlikely “combo” deck that few would be able to figure out during their match against Zvi. While the format did contain a number of busted cards, it wasn’t nearly as fast a format as you might guess. As a result, Zvi’s turn four kills were significantly faster than what most of the format was capable of. Fluctuator seems a little strange in here, at first. After all, most of your lands enter the battlefield tapped. Plus, over half of your cards don’t cycle. What’s going on?
The key is to consider what the deck looks like once you have a Fluctuator on the battlefield. To begin with, you obviously don’t draw lands for your turn anymore. Additionally, all of your other card draw is magnified. Frantic Search sees an average of 1.7 spells, instead of 1.2, as it once did. Every Opportunity, every Stroke, they find you that much higher a concentration of Grim Monoliths, Voltaic Keys, Frantic Searches, and Strokes of Genius. Â
Another brilliant element of Zero Effect was the Thran Turbine that actually served as a backup Fluctuator of sorts. This solved the major hurdle with most Fluctuator decks that one would imagine (how to win without a Fluctuator). Additionally, Zvi’s list played more answers to opposing Academies than most, though it could “start going off” despite its opponent having the Academy (which many Academy decks struggled with, under the old Legend rules). Then, once it got going, Lingering Mirage or Rescind would let him turn the tables.
1) Zvi Mowshowitz. Consistently produced extremely good decks. In my mind, nobody else on this list came close. -Alan Comer
Not all of Zvi’s decks have been as crazy or shocking. The 2000 Pro Tour Chicago was dominated by Rebels and Fires of Yavimaya decks. Zvi determined that Fires really was the best deck and too good not to play. This was his build, as explained in the seven-part My Fires series, which is as detailed as it is infamous.
My Fires by Zvi Mowshowitz; 7th Pro Tour Chicago 2000 Standard
As you can see, this list isn’t crazy; it is just the product of extensive tuning. Two-Headed Dragon? Zvi tried all the fatties. Assault / Battery? Zvi wanted to kill an early Birds of Paradise or Ramosian Sergeant, but he also didn’t want to get stuck without a threat later in the game. Was Zvi capable of coming up with other decks? No question; however he isn’t a slave to innovation. If the best deck he comes up with is mostly mainstream, so be it. He identifies what a format calls for, then produces the best version of that, even if it is not exactly “a secret.”
I think Zvi approaches deckbuilding in a way most people don’t by identifying the main questions in the metagame and then trying to come up with answers for the questions, instead of just randomly brewing. -Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
While we would be remiss to not mention the notorious My Fires list, we are probably going to glean even more from Zvi’s next big finish. The Invasion Block metagame was dominated by R/G aggro and various U/B/R Control decks. This was Zvi’s solution to the format:
The Solution by Zvi Mowshowitz; 1st Pro Tour—Tokyo 2001 Invasion Block Constructed
Here, we see consistency, where others had ambitious mana bases. We see a massive quantity of protection from red creatures, letting him attack the format in an unusual way that even those most targeted by it were not prepared for. Some opponents would have only one out to a Crimson Acolyte in their deck. Zvi could stick a Meddling Mage on that card, then protect it with the Acolyte, beginning to completely lock an opponent out, before slowly eating away at them with a Voice of All. An aggro-control deck in a format where people didn’t even realize it was possible, The Solution wasn’t broken, nor would it maintain its success if played for an entire season. It just happened to be the solution for that weekend.
In this modern age of Faeries and Caw-Blade, it is easy to take aggro-control decks for granted. Something to remember, however, was that in those days, the concept of an aggro-control deck hadn’t even been fleshed out. People called the archetype “CounterSliver,” since the only aggro-control decks at the time were generally CounterSliver. Zvi’s vision of expanding what a CounterSliver deck could be has helped paved the way for an entire branch of deckbuilding.
Zvi Mowshowitz: (Dominated during a) similar time as Jon, came up with a lot of great ideas, even if he used to be a little too stubborn with them. Sees the game very differently than a lot of people, and is able to work his way through ‘what’s REALLY going on here’ in ways that almost no one canâ€”and with such thoroughness that he almost always played very quickly and was able to explain his thought process later. Bargain, Turboland, Mono-green… these could have been fringe ideas, but Zvi could dig into what really made these ideas viable (even sometimes dominant in his hands and others who could think on his level). –Ben Rubin
Okay, we’re about to jump to modern days, but first, here are a couple more of Zvi’s “crazy” decks that helped expand our ideas of what is possible. Zvi doesn’t just create decks; he creates archetypes. Even to this day, there is no man whose earlier decks are used as the blueprint for new decks as often as Zvi’s.
Dream Halls (TurboZvi) by Zvi Mowshowitz; 1998 Standard
Zvi Bargain by Zvi Mowshowitz; Top 8 1999 US Nationals
While Zvi’s activity has fluctuated in recent years, he has demonstrated that his ability has never wavered. Just last year, he took advantage of his permanent invite from the Hall of Fame to show up a couple times, completely revolutionizing the format each time.
First, at Pro Tour San Diego, Zvi and his Team Mythic unveiled a very different style of Bant deck, Mythic:
Mythic by Zvi Mowshowitz; 2010 Pro Tour San Diego Standard
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Rafiq of the Many
- 4 Rhox War Monk
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Thornling
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Rampaging Baloths
Mythic wasn’t special because of its strength, despite being one of the stronger archetypes to emerge from an event dominated by Jund. Mythic taught us a completely new paradigm for considering mana bases.
Don’t people cut land from their deck when they play mana creatures like Birds of Paradise? Zvi’s deck featured 16 mana-producing creatures, yet still registered a whopping 27 land(!). By removing all traces of removal or permission, Zvi was able to pack his deck to the brim with threats that could win the game on their own.
His strategy? Starting on turn 2, play a potentially game-winning threat every turn until the opponent is dead. Would Zvi get flooded if the game went too long? Possibly, but when his Baneslayers and Rampaging Baloths do the work of multiple cards, he can make up for the implied card disadvantage. Additionally, seven manlands meant that this flood actually just translated into even more threats. Despite containing 43 mana sources, Mythic actually has 33 creatures that can attack for damage!
This deck laid the groundwork for so many strategies that it was arguably the most influential deck of the year. It taught the world how to use Lotus Cobra (play more land, not fewer, use off-color fetchlands, and use them to cast good solid four-, five-, and six-cost threats, rather than Magical Christmas Land scenarios). It started a fad that would last for the better part of the year of playing 0-3 non-permanents in aggressive decks. It provided the skeleton for the Sovereigns of Lost Alara + Eldrazi Conscription decks that would come later that year. Amusingly (to some), it did all this while featuring 49 rares and mythics, among the 53 maindeck cards besides basic land. In some ways, this deck would serve as a reality check to Wizards R&D. You can’t just make rares and mythics better than the other cards.
Not enough can be said (about Zvi). I don’t know how much you ever got to see him in action during the build/test/predict type phases, but he was an absolute BEAST at finding SO many strong decks seemingly as quickly as he could write them. –Scott Johns
Just a couple months later, Zvi’s Team Mythic found another metagame to catch off guard, at Pro Tour San Juan.
Monument Green by Zvi Mowshowitz; Zendikar Pro Tour San Juan, Block Constructed 2010
- 1 River Boa
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Wolfbriar Elemental
- 4 Joraga Treespeaker
- 4 Kozilek's Predator
- 4 Nest Invader
- 4 Vengevine
The format was full of U/W Control, Eldrazi Green, Mono-R, Boros, and Vampires, with RUG being the other big success story of the format. Once again, we see Zvi hitting the format from an angle it doesn’t expect. Again, we see an innovative mana base letting Zvi’s team do things that others couldn’t. Here, we see a potent combination of acceleration, ways to use those accelerators as bodies (not just mana), and lands that function as spells.
So many people get stuck in the trap of only building decks that look like decks people have played before. Zvi has never been bound by such restrictions. Here, we see the fusing of token-based strategies, Eldrazi Green’s mana base, and the structure of the previous year’s World Championship “also-ran,” Monument Green.
How do you build a deck like this? Zvi asked himself what the best card was that no one was playing with. His answer was Vengevine. This suggested to him that there should be a Vengevine deck and that no one had yet discovered it. If you are working a new format and want to try blazing some new ground, remember to ask yourself this same question. There are often more good cards in a format than are being used. Not every card is going to find a good home, and not every card’s day is today. While some cards are obvious, somebody has to be the first to figure out how to use each of the less obvious ones. As every great deckbuilder will tell you, most brews don’t work out. When you strike gold, however, the feeling is indescribable.
This concludes our examination of the top 10 deckbuilders of all-time. Thanks for joining me all this week and a special thanks to the deckbuilders among you who are not only keeping the art alive, but helping it to grow. As promised, here is the full list of the top 30 deckbuilders of all-time, as selected by the above-mentioned committee.
Want to master deckbuilding? How well versed are you in the groundwork that has already been laid for you? Want to succeed at something… Study those who succeed at it. Want to be a master deckbuilder? The most important ingredient is focused time spent building decks (and playing Magic). Part of that is getting the most value out of the time you spend. One very powerful way to do that is to study the works of the masters on this list and seek to learn something from each of them. I recommend reading through this list and making a note of any with whom you are not familiar. Then take a few minutes and do some research of your own, on those players and their decks. The more of these players you study, the more techniques and good perspectives you will have in your arsenal.
Top 30 Deckbuilders of All-Time:
1. Zvi Mowshowitz
2. Gabriel Nassif
3. Tsuyoshi Fujita
4. Erik Lauer
5. Tomoharu Saito
6. Brian Kibler
7. Alan Comer
8. Rob Dougherty
9. Michael Flores
9. Mark Herberholz
11. Ben Rubin
12. Gerry Thompson
12. Guillaume Wafo-Tapa
14. Brian Schneider
15. Kai Budde
16. David Humphreys
17. Jon Finkel
17. Katsuhiro Mori
19. Mike Long
20. Osyp Lebedowicz
20. Adrian Sullivan Â
22. Luis Scott-Vargas
23. Akira Asahara
23. Itaru Ishida
23. Brad Nelson
23. Olivier Ruel
23. Shouta Yasooka
28. Darwin Kastle
28. Billy Moreno
28. Matt Place
28. Jay Schneider