Magic’s Greatest Secrets Revealed!

Literally the Oldest Trick in the Book. Kind of. Almost.

Literally the Oldest Trick in the Book. Kind of. Almost.

Even though Chris Cade gets all the credit for”The Prison”, in truth, this archetype was put on the map by none other than eventual high ranking judge Marc Hernandez at the 1995 World Championships. Here’s Marc’s deck:

3 Armageddon

1 Balance

2 Circle of Protection: Red

3 Disenchant

2 Island Sanctuary

2 Land Tax

3 Swords to Plowshares

3 Wrath of God

2 Earthquake

4 Black Vise

3 Fellwar Stone

4 Howling Mine

1 Ivory Tower

3 Winter Orb

3 Icy Manipulator

3 Zuran Orb

9 Plains

4 Mountain

4 Strip Mine

1 Ruins of Trokair

2 Adarkar Wastes

Sideboard (15)

1 Disenchant

1 Sleight of Mind

2 Earthquake

2 Fireball

3 Lightning Bolt

3 Pyroclasm

3 Mountain

Yes this deck is beautifully tuned at 20 lands for 62 cards. The additional two cards were very important main-deck Circles of Protection… or maybe those two extra Zuran Orbs no one since could run. Or maybe those two strategic Adarkar Wastes. Woo hoo 62! You too can play in the finals of the World Championships!

In all seriousness, Marc’s deck might seem clunky from our modern perspective, but it has a lot of good going for it. Besides an engine that would win big for years to come – including providing Jon Finkel first PT Top 8 at Randy Buehler Chicago – Marc’s sideboard is the first secret trick of the trade.

Notice how Marc’s deck is almost mono-White? There was a problem with that. That problem was Gloom. Gloom, especially backed up by Dark Ritual, was a big ouchie for a deck like this one. Marc’s solution? He played a couple of dummy Adarkar Wastes in his main – despite never intending to play a Blue spell – to bluff the Sleight of Mind. Hernandez would actually sit down with his sideboard face-up purposefully showing the top card – always the Sleight of Mind – to his opponent. The enemy, in the case that he was playing Black, would see this devastating top card, probably believing there to be three or four of them in Marc’s board (little did he know about those basic Mountain). Because Sleight of Mind serves not just to”counter” a Gloom but to turn it against its own master’s Black spells, Marc’s Black opponents, after seeing the Sleight that he wanted them to see, would elect not side in the Glooms that were so horrifying for this White deck.

Ha Ha, thinks the Black Mage. I’ll Strand Those Sleights! If ‘Virtual Card Advantage’ Had Been Coined As A Term, That’s What I Would Be Thinking About Now! I Reiterate: Ha Ha!

Secret Number One: Beat the bad matchup by tricking the opponent into not playing his trump cards.

altran. Hater without the Hatred

People are always bugging me about doing event coverage for them. I hate event coverage. I don’t hate reading about who wins, but I don’t enjoy doing the reporting myself. I used to get all excited about doing it, and believe me, traveling to far off lands on someone else’s dime, eating in nice restaurants on The Man, and all the rest? It’s cool. What’s not cool is being at the Pro Tour – possibly the funnest place you can be, among gamers and friends you only see at the Pro Tour – but being unable to enjoy yourself because you are too busy working.

Also there’s the politics.

For a taste of”the politics,” here are some deck lists, among the first deck lists I ever typed up for event coverage way back in July of 1999. The first four my”friend” altran typed. The second four I typed. You probably know that altran is among the most famous Black beatdown players ever, and once carried the title of King Consult (back when you could still play Demonic Consultation); though a Black beatdown player, altran was not a Hatred player as I was. Nevertheless, tell me if you can see where I was hated out.

Trenchcoat Green Control – David Underwood

4 Spike Feeder

4 Wall of Blossoms

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Yavimaya Elder

4 Creeping Mold

4 Helm of Possession

4 Winter’s Grasp

3 Cursed Scroll

3 Nature’s Revolt

3 Llanowar Elf

2 Masticore

4 Wasteland

2 Gaea’s Cradle

1 Karplusan Forest

1 Mountain

1 City of Brass

12 Forest


3 Parch

3 Tranquil Grove

3 Repopulate

2 Splinter

2 Fog

2 Torture Chamber

Magpie Control – Yi Ching

4 Counterspell

4 Forbid

4 Tradewind Rider

4 Sapphire Medallion

4 Thieving Magpie

3 Hammerhead Shark

1 Wall of Air

3 Capsize

3 Legacy’s Allure

2 Treachery

3 Whispers of the Muse

1 Annul

2 Gilded Drake

4 Wasteland

18 Island


1 Gilded Drake

3 Rayne, Academy Chancellor

1 Whispers of the Muse

4 Chill

3 Hibernation

2 Annul

1 Capsize

Ponza Red – Jamie Parke

4 Shock

4 Cursed Scroll

4 Jackal Pup

4 Mogg Fanatic

3 Fireslinger

4 Avalanche Riders

4 Pillage

4 Stone Rain

3 Hammer of Bogardan

2 Arc Lightning

15 Mountain

3 Ghitu Encampment

4 Wasteland

2 Ancient Tomb


1 Arc Lightning

2 Shattering Pulse

2 Torture Chamber

4 Spellshock

2 Balduvian Horde

3 Mountain

1 Hammer of Bogardan

Enlightened White Weenie – Dan Bolyard

4 Enlightened Tutor

1 Crusade

1 Rune of Protection: Red

1 Humility

1 Pariah

4 Cursed Scroll

4 Disenchant

4 Mother of Runes

2 Shield Mate

4 Soltari Monk

4 Soltari Priest

4 Longbow Archer

2 Nomads En-kor

4 Warrior En-kor

20 Plains


1 Absolute Law

1 Circle or Protection: Green

1 Disrupting Scepter

3 Erase

2 Humility

1 Light of Day

1 Pariah

1 Sacred Ground

1 Sanctuary

1 Scour

1 Worship

1 Serenity

Living Death – Bill Stead

2 Vampiric Tutor

1 Masticore

1 Verdant Force

1 Anarchist

1 Bone Shredder

1 Ghitu Slinger

3 Hermit Druid

2 Llanowar Elves

3 Avalanche Riders

4 Bird of Paradise

1 Uktabi Orangutan

4 Wall of Blossoms

1 Radiant’s Dragoons

1 Spike Weaver

1 Phyrexian Plaguelord

3 Spike Feeder

2 Victimize

2 Oath of Ghouls

2 Living Death

4 Survival of the Fittest

6 Forest

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

1 Phyrexian Tower

2 Gaea’s Cradle

2 Reflecting Pool

4 City of Brass

2 Swamp

2 Thran Quarry


1 Cathodion

1 Blood Vassal

4 Duress

3 Dread of Night

2 Sacred Ground

2 Lobotomy

2 Light of Day

Malka Death – John Shuler

4 Bird of Paradise

4 Wall of Blossom

1 Hermit Druid

1 Cartographer

1 Uktabi Orangutan

1 Spike Feeder

1 Spike Weaver

1 Tradewind Rider

1 Ghitu Slinger

2 Avalanche Rider

1 Anarchist

1 Shard Pheonix

1 Bone Shredder

1 Phyrexian Plaguelord

1 Monk Realist

1 Monk Idealist

1 Radiant’s Dragoons

4 Survival of the Fittest

4 Duress

3 Vampiric Tutor

1 Oath of Ghouls

2 Living Death

8 Forest

4 Swamp

4 City of Brass

2 Thran Quarry

1 Karplusan Forests

1 Phyrexian Tower

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

1 Brushland


1 Oath of Druids

1 Light of Day

1 Oath of Lieges

1 Worship

1 Hatred

1 Dread of Night

1 Scrivener

1 Root Maze

1 Boil

1 Armageddon

1 Spellshock

1 Gilded Drake

1 Uktabi Orangutan

2 Allay

Ponza Red – Jacob Welch

3 Wildfire

1 Apocalypse

1 Shard Phoenix

3 Lighting

2 Masticore

4 Pillage

3 Arc Lightning

3 Fireslinger

3 Parch

3 Fire Diamond

3 Mogg Fanatic

3 Shock

4 Cursed Scroll

16 Mountain

4 Wasteland

3 Stalking Stones

2 Ghitu Encampment

1 Shivan Gorge


2 Repercussion

1 Viashino Heretic

2 Shattering Pulse

4 Magmasaur

3 Boil

3 Powder Keg

Green Control – Paul Julian Buck

2 Plow Under

2 Mirri Cat Warrior

4 Rancor

4 Curse Scroll

3 Smokestack

1 Uktabi Orangutan

2 Weatherseed Treefolk

2 Masticore

4 Creeping Mold

2 River Boa

3 Earthquake

4 Wall of Blossoms

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Eladamiri’s Vineyard

12 Forest

4 Gaea’s Cradle

4 Karplusan Forest

4 Wasteland


2 Thran Foundry

2 Repopulate

3 Choke

4 Hidden Gibbons

3 Yavimaya Elders

1 Spike Weaver

Secret Number Two and the first rule of coverage is this: Split up a Top 8. Take all the decks that are like 4/4/4/… sb 4/4/4/3 and give the other decks to the other guy. Make fun of him when he is still on the second Weird Numbers ™ list while you are done. Don’t help him.

In case you were wondering, this Grinder Top 8 was taken by Shuler and Parke. They didn’t play the final.

The Rare Skill of Gabriel Nassif

By now it is fairly hackneyed to talk about what a great deck designer Gabriel Nassif is. He’s pretty much the unanimous number one Constructed guy on the Pro Tour. I could go on about all the things that every other commentator has already said about Nassif, but instead I want to point out his deck from the Top 8 of this season’s French Nationals:


19 Mountains

2 Forgotten Cave

4 Stalking Stones


4 Dwarven Blastminer

4 Arc Slogger

1 Rorix, Bladewing


4 Electrostatic Bolt

4 Pyroclasm

4 Shatter

4 Stone Rain

4 Molten Rain

4 Lay Waste

2 Demolish


4 Culling Scales

4 Flashfires

2 Oblivion Stone

3 Pulse Of The Forge

2 Demolish

This deck is pretty close to the deck that we almost played a Regionals. Rabbit had gotten it from Nassif (though at that point I think it had only 3 Pyroclasm, which made it even more beautiful in my eyes). Ultimately we decided against it because, even though Nassif had deck advantage against beatdown, LD v. Skullclamp was not a fight I was interested in. At least not from the LD side. Look at Nassif’s deck. This deck makes me quake as a deck designer. It might seem simple to you. You might look at it and say”blah blah blah it’s just a redundant Ponza deck whatever,” but that would make you an uncultured dilettante who has no idea how beautiful decks are made.

Nassif has the rarest of skills in deck design, rarer than Weird Numbers tuning (more on that elsewhen). I can count on one hand the players who are actually good at Weird Numbers tuning, but Nassif’s skill is even more narrow. He can strip down an archetype and look past the automatics. He can figure out exactly where he can cheat, and by how much, and skirt the numbers so that his deck does exactly what he wants it to do, and to what opponents. This skill requires giving up comfort, giving up land drops, giving up staple utility and defense… But in the hands of a brilliant technician like Nassif, because the game Magic is built on a binary victory scoring system, it doesn’t necessarily mean giving up deck advantage (and therefore EV), even if it does mean giving up margin for error.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I am a pretty good deck designer and I would have played 26 lands. I would have automatically run four Starstorms, at least to start. I probably wouldn’t have considered Electrostatic Bolt main deck because it’s pretty narrow and Standard ain’t Block… and I’m a pretty good designer. My version wouldn’t have touched Gabriel’s in terms of overall effectiveness against a field, or certainly beauty on the digital page.

Nassif must have figured out that 4 Electrostatic Bolt and 4 (3) Pyroclasm is exactly the minimum removal necessary to remain passable against enough beatdown that his build would remain justifiable. If he had played another land or Starstorms (as I would have), he would have had fewer land destruction spells, which would have adversely affected the core competence of his deck, such that he might have gotten a couple of percentage points against beatdown but lost more against non-beatdown. Jeroen talked about (re-?)adding Starstorm to the deck and why here, but for me, the beauty of design is absolute with Nassif’s version.

To put it in artistic terms, let me quote overrated-yet-absof***inginnovative scriptwriter Warren Ellis on his current Ultimate Fantastic Four collaborator:

“Stuart’s stripped his style down to bare lines for UFF. Now, theoretically, that should be a harder gig for him – there’s strain and precision in boiling eight lines down to one line that does the same job. It’s one of the things that slows Adam Hughes down – he draws a complete piece and then takes out every line that doesn’t do work, which is how he gets those gorgeous crystalline pages. But it’s time-consuming. Someone once told me that Terry Dodson gets a similar effect faster by building carefully from the ground up and simply stopping drawing once he’s got the essential line down, and I guess Immonen’s doing the same thing. Whatever. He must be stopped. He is the reason I’m not being interviewed for a TV documentary about I, Robot this week. I’m going to be either typing or sleeping for the next five weeks. I hate you, Stuart Immonen.”

The last time I saw an inkling of this kind of skill was the Paskins Red Deck, which eschewed Gempalm Incinerator in favor of a hybrid block look at Goblins. I really liked Dan’s deck, but for some reason the skill just doesn’t translate to beatdown the same way it does in a defensive or disruptive deck. I think that the comfort zone that you give up in taking out creature kill in a format full of creatures is what makes a deck that retains justifiable EV so ticklish, so seductive to the critic. The classic example, of course, is Buehler Blue 1999:

3 Masticore

4 Counterspell

4 Dismiss

4 Forbid

4 Mana Leak

1 Miscalculation

4 Powder Keg

4 Treachery

4 Whispers of the Muse

4 Faerie Conclave

16 Island

4 Stalking Stones

4 Wasteland


4 Annul

1 Capsize

3 Chill

3 Legacy’s Allure

1 Masticore

2 Maze of Shadows

1 Stroke of Genius

This is Randy’s deck from World’s 1999. If you don’t follow deck history and design closely, you probably have no idea how beautiful – or maverick – this deck is. It Doesn’t Have Morphling. Randy gave up the card. He ruled Extended with Morphling, but chose not to run it in his Standard deck the same year. It also doesn’t have Thieving Magpie. Blue control decks in this era relied primarily on forcing through Thieving Magpie for card advantage, but Randy’s deck played better short term Magic, which made him deceptively better against fast decks.

This deck is so fantastic because, again, Randy stripped the archetype down to the bare essentials. He doesn’t waste any slots. He has Masticore for creature defense… and for his kill card. edt once had a theory that Extended naturally had to move towards combination decks like High Tide and Trix because the card drawing and overall card quality was so high and so rich. If you have a deck that has all the best counters and card drawing and mana acceleration, at some point it has to be a combination deck, because with all that machinery you only have so many slots left and can no longer play both offense and defense with conventional win conditions and response cards.

Buehler Blue 1999 is the Standard control equivalent of this Extended theory. Because Randy doesn’t waste any space with sub-optimal card choices, he can play an overwhelmingly consistent 28 land (which makes him heavily favored in control mirrors) and more permission (which is versatile across more turns of the long games he would inevitably be fighting). Last, and deceptively most relevant, if Randy’s short term engine is Dismiss, his long term engine is Whispers of the Muse. In a control mirror where tapping out for Thieving Magpie means losing it to the opponent’s Treachery next turn, the fact that Randy has Whispers of the Muse instead – and can kill the opponent with damage without ever playing a threat spell – is immensely relevant.

And – let me hammer this home – because he doesn’t get fancy with any spell choices, Randy still has room to play Masticore as a solid finisher and defensive measure, and doesn’t give up even one Powder Keg or Treachery against the beats.

Secret Number Three is Try This At Home Only If You’re That Good. As I said, Nassif’s skill is a rare one. To pull off the stripping down of the established archetype is work. It’s hard. It’s rewarding. But most of the time – especially when not done right – it’s leaving yourself open to beatdown decks.

The Identity of the Greatest Magic Writer of All Time

… is not even close.

Ted says that I don’t mention him in my articles enough. No, no. He’s not the greatest Magic writer of all time. But we had an argument. Ted says that the Magic writers of today are as good or better than those of yesteryear. I cannot possibly agree. There is not one writer of today who measures up to Robert Hahn. Not by a light year.

As far as I can tell, there are three axes where we can look to find the measure of a Magic writer:

1. Facility with Language. This is a measure by which we can look at any kind of writer. Essentially, how well does he write? Stylistically, I can count on one hand the writers who are even in the same League as Robert Hahn. Maybe two writers – ever – are peers to Rob in terms of how they use and sculpt language to discuss Magic. Not one writer is as significant in terms of the language that is created.

Think of slang. To my recollection, Robert never used slang. He never mentioned”mise,””mize,””cuts,” or”stains.””Infinite” he used only to represent actual infinity (crazy, I know). He didn’t have to mess around with anything less precise. Rob used jargon. Scratch that. He Created The Language that we speak as a community. Card Advantage much? How about Disruption? How about”Control Deck“… you can thank Rob Hahn. Calling someone a barn or hull is pretty superfluous when you are busy outlining the basis for long game strategy in a matchup, for the first time ever.

Rob’s prose was beautiful, which makes sense, as he was trained at some of the best schools in the country. He was incredibly persuasive, and one of the best salesmen ever to step foot on the island of Manhattan. Opinionated neophytes or wannabe commentators on the genre have pointed to everyone from Wakefield to Rizzo in this category… but none of them are Rob. None of them have anywhere near his one of a kind skills as a wordbender. Not by a light year.

2. Significance of Ideas. This one isn’t even arguable. There is no writer whose published ideas are as influential, or as good, as those Rob put forth in Schools of Magic and elsewhere. If you think otherwise, you have a lot of learning to do in this genre.

Knut says that this isn’t a fair point of comparison. I disagree. I certainly couldn’t have put together Schools of Magic. Nor could I have written any of the significant articles that I did write without Schools. As for non-strategy branches of Magic writing, Rob also wrote the most influential single tournament report, which is something that I talked about in Lucky Seven a couple of years ago. Though he didn’t invent the tournament report, he led by example, and created a domino effect that we are enjoying still today.

Let me put it to you this way: I respect Zvi as a Magic writer. A lot. I don’t think Zvi could have put together Schools of Magic. I think that Zvi has enjoyed a great deal of success, both as a professional writer and a professional theorist, because he read schools when his Magic brain was still forming.

On the other hand, I do think Rob could have successfully pulled off a paid content site. He was talking about doing Premium articles, event coverage, and value added content five years ago… but was talked out of it by his more conservative barns. Rob had the resources at that point to do something really innovative in the Magic content space, but was held back because he was – gasp – scared of pissing off his community.

I Choose You Knut! Which writer of today shows us that he could have led the charge in Magic writing and theory?

[Gah, not only do I have to revive Magic University at the end of the summer (it will be back), but now I have to basically revisit the Hall of Fame idea, which is just going to tick everyone off again. Flores is only partly wrong here, but as usual, Mike is wrong. – Knut, who loves Flores, but disagrees with him almost as much as BDM does]

3. Money. At the end of the day, it’s all about the Benjamins. Who is the biggest content draw of dollars in the history of Magic? It’s not close. Not by a factor of ten. Let me explain a factor of ten to you. One, Ten. Ten, One Hundred. Four Hundred Thousand, Four Million. Those are examples of a factor of ten. Zvi is probably the top money draw in Magic writing today, but he’s not within a factor of ten in terms of cash draws. I don’t know how much Pete pulls in with StarCityGames.com, but his business is primarily card sales (or as Shuler would call it”a business”); that is, though Pete is also a vitally significant producer of Magic related content, Star City’s articles are a driver to their e-commerce, not a revenue producing end unto themselves.

Rob pulled in Wizards of the Coast money, pulled in Angel money, greased in sponsorship from the top gaming retail brand, created the second Magic retail brand largely by accident, found himself sitting on a mountain of venture capital, came within centimeters of buying the aforementioned top gaming retail brand, then got more Wizards money… and that’s not even counting the advertising banners he used to run, which actually paid for The Dojo if you only count me. An entire floor of prime commercial Manhattan real estate? No. My salary? Yes. Twenty-nine other people’s salaries? Not close. But mine? Yes. That last month, anyway. More or less.

Was it a different economy? Yep. Was it a different era? You better believe it. Did Rob Hahn (with considerable help from considerably talented and hard working barns) pull in millions of dollars purely with Magic content? Yes. Multiple millions. What we did with those millions down the line is another story.

In the end, maybe it’s not fair to compare the heroes of the Second and Third Age of Man with those of the First. Not in Magic, nor fantasy novels nor anywhere else. It’s hard to present deeds, or even ideas, as significant when stacked up against those of legend.

ISILDUR: I just cut the Ring from the hand of the Dark Lord Sauron!

BEREN: DARK LORD Sauron? My dog beat up Sauron.

ISILDUR: Seriously, I cut the One Ring from his hand!

BEREN: Seriously, my dog beat his ass up.

ISILDUR: Dude, he’s the Dark Lord.

BEREN: You wanna know about cutting something shiny off of the REAL Dark Lord? Me and my skirt snuck into Morgoth’s lair and cut the Silmaril from his freaking crown. The crown of freaking Morgoth. Valar > Maiar.

ISILDUR: Sauron has these nine riders and stuff. And some Orcs. They’re very dangerous.

BEREN: Morgoth fights with legions of Balrogs and Dragons. You know Balrogs? Demons of flame and shadow that make Gandalf wet himself? Every one of them is as tough as your stupid Sauron. Morgoth has, I dunno, a lot more than nine of them.

ISILDUR: Stop trying to diminish the significance of my deeds against Sauron.

BEREN: Did I mention my dog beat up Sauron. And then gave my girlfriend dating tips! My dog can both beat up Sauron and talk! He’s a smart dog.

ISILDUR: Look One Hand Empty Hand Whatever They Call You, I’m the King.

BEREN: Dave Price is the King.


BEREN: Some king. Why don’t you go get yourself shot up with Orc arrows or something.

Secret Number Four should be no secret at all. If you aspire to any kind of understanding of how we got to the best writers of today, go back and read Rob.