My Top 5 Decks

Do you have a favorite deck that you wish you could still play? Carsten looks back at the five decks he’s enjoyed playing the most throughout his Magic career.

Merry Christmas everybody and welcome to the last installment of Eternal Europe for 2013! I hope you’ve enjoyed the holidays as much as I have at my parents’. There’s only one thing to regret about the holidays—no big Magic events to play in and watch coverage of for some time. So with the metagame on hold for the moment and the season putting me in the mood to lay back and relax, I’ve found myself contemplating the past. When you’ve been playing this game since the mid-90s, there’s obviously a lot to remember, and one thing that always trickles into my consciousness when thinking about the time I’ve spent with Magic is the decks I miss.

We all know those decks I think. The ones that for one reason or another just hit a perfect resonance with what we want to do in a game of Magic. In a perfect world, we’d still get to play these decks, relive the glory of their power, synergy, or just raw and unadorned fun factor.

Today I’d like to honor those old war horses publicly, talking about their strengths and weaknesses and why they mean so much to me. Come and join me on this trip down memory lane!

#5: WillNecro

The only reason this one is number five is that it was a Standard deck and I really didn’t get to play all that much Standard even back in the day. It’s a piece of utter beauty I instantly netdecked from the 1999 Duelist Invitational, where Brian Hacker had gotten the full 3-0 out of it in the Standard rounds of that multi-format event. I obviously made it "better" by adding a Masticore as the 61st card to, but the deck’s raw power and beauty still shone through.

Having access to Dark Ritual, Necropotence, and Yawgmoth’s Will in the same Standard format sounds like it should be utterly broken, but don’t forget we had just come out of Combo Winter. Broken is a relative term. What I loved about the deck was how many cards it drew and how well it used both of its engines all while looking not at all overpowered. You were planning to win late in the game with Corrupt and Drain life after all.

An active Necropotence gave you a nearly unlimited supply of removal and Drain Life effects, which in turn allowed you to draw more cards with Necro until the opponent finally was out of options so you could start firing Drain Lifes at them and Nevinyrral’s Disk to make sure you could deal with any disturbing permanents or your own Necropotence should you run out of life-gain options. Yawgmoth’s Will served as a way to recur both Dark Rituals and Drain Lifes to ensure you’d get around to killing the opponent eventually.

Yaggie’s Will also served as an engine of its own though. It wasn’t rare to fire off a Duress and Diabolic Edict early while also cracking an Urza’s Bauble or two, only to follow that up with Dark Ritual and Yawgmoth’s Will to do it all again on turn 3.

And yet the deck was far from overpowered. Yes, it was one of the best decks in the format and had access to absolutely unfair lines of play, yet the other decks in the format could keep it reasonably well in check. As a result, you played a lot of long and interactive matches but also got to draw a ton of cards along the way.

#4: Maher Oath

This is the deck that taught me the true strength of silver bullets and tutoring. No matter what kind of threat the opponent represented, this deck had an answer and generally a backbreaking one at that.

If your opponent played creatures, Enlightened Tutor found Oath, and suddenly you had access to a continuous Fog and life-gain engine thanks to the Spikes and Gaea’s Blessing with a two-mana Morphling, who was still Superman back then, thrown in for free. Ivory Mask dealt with Corrupt and discard; Null Rod shut off Nevinyrral’s Disk; and if the opponent actually refused to threaten and challenged you to a control battle, you could take your sweet time trying to set up Sylvan Library plus Abundance.

Because the Oath lock was such a perfect way to deal with creatures, you had room for an incredible amount of library manipulation and countermagic to fight everyone else with until the correct silver bullet finally resolved and actually locked them out of the game. With all the library manipulation, games were decision laden and variance was extremely low—essentially the perfect control deck. This is the kind of Oath deck I miss, not those bland Forbidden Orchard and dumb fatties Oath decks we’ve seen ever since Champions of Kamigawa.

This is also the first deck that ever won me a Black Lotus—in an Extended tournament no less—and obviously holds a special place in my heart for that reason alone.

#3: Caw Cartel

If you’ve been following my articles for long enough, you already know this baby. This is the only Legacy deck I’ve built so far that consistently felt one step ahead of everything else in its format. You can read the story of how this deck came to be here, but really what the deck did was play a game very similar to that of Maher Oath with different tools.

The heavy cantrip shell of a combo deck combined with a strong tempo-efficient disruption suite allowed this deck to constantly trade one-for-one and stay alive. Once you had managed to get both players’ hand sizes down, you could then resolve Squadron Hawk to go back up to seven and use your cantrips to locate a Brainstorm or Jace to turn the extra Hawks into instant business. You literally did nothing but answer threats and draw bursts of extra cards all game until your opponent finally couldn’t keep up and you won by default.

The deck shared one of the beauties of the WillNecro deck—everything you did looked utterly fair and unassuming but was extremely powerful in reality. A lot of situations that looked like game over—for example, active Punishing Fire / Grove of the Burnwillows on the other side of the table—were actually beatable thanks to the raw power of the draw engine since you could often push them into a situation where they had to Punish both Jace and your Hawks and just couldn’t deal with both angles in time.

I played this deck a lot during the Misstep era, and it crushed both NO RUG (with or without Fires) and Stoneblade. Neither deck could deal with Moat, insane amounts of countermagic, superior library manipulation, and the Hawk card advantage. I think by the time the Mental Misstep ban happened I was something ridiculous like 20-3-3 in tournament matches with the deck, and I firmly believe I’d have crushed GP Amsterdam with it without the ban since almost nobody else picked up the deck, probably because it looked so underpowered.

#2: The Shining

Here’s the first Vintage deck I ever built from the ground up, this time with the help of CAB teammate Stefan Iwasienko aka Womprax, and it’s another deck that I think never got the respect it deserved. This deck was legal concurrently with both Gro-A-Tog and Long.dec during its lifetime (which ended when Burning Wish was restricted) and more than held its own against both decks.

The whole deck came to be because Stefan asked me to help him break Future Sight in Keeper (old-school Vintage Five-Color Control) and I insisted that breaking Future Sight meant getting Fastbond into the deck. In Vintage, if you have both Fastbond and Future Sight, you can generally play enough cards off the top of your library to at least find Time Walk, at which point you get to untap and pretty much play your whole deck.

What really broke the deck wide open though was replacing the traditional Cunning Wishes of Keeper decks with Burning Wish. Between Zuran Orb, Fastbond, and all the restricted goodness, setting up an overwhelming Yawgmoth’s Will or blowout Balance was incredibly easy, and because Wishes could find exiled cards back then, I often cast Yawgmoth’s Will more than once per game and Time Walk what felt infinite times (I think four Time Walks in a row was my actual record).

What I’m particularly proud of is that the deck essentially foreshadowed the future of Vintage as the first true combo-control deck that was all in on the plan of just racing aggressive decks instead of trying to interact with removal to buy time and was able to do so with almost no dedicated combo pieces.

The Shining was incredibly flexible, more powerful than anything but Long.dec itself, and significantly better at taking the control role than any other deck in the format because it was nearly nothing but mana, card draw, and disruption. Also, playing with Future Sight is just absurdly fun.

#1: Gifts

And finally, my magnum opus, the one time I built a broken deck that people actually picked up. I even wrote an article right here on this site about the deck. This is what got Gifts Ungiven on the Vintage restricted list and is also the most powerful, consistent, flexible, and fun deck I’ve ever played. [Editor’s Note: I’ve only played in two Vintage tournaments in my life. I played this deck in one of them. This deck was buuuuuuuusted.]

I built this with the help of another CABler, Maxim Barkmann, when he came back from an evening of powered casual Highlander and called me saying, "We really need to break that Gifts Ungiven card. I played with it tonight, and it’s utterly unbeatable." I had already toyed around with the card—which is why he had it in his Highlander deck—and soon figured out that to truly bust it we needed a way to make sure we’d always be handed a Yawgmoth’s Will when we Gifted for that.

While scouring the Internet, I read something somewhere about the card Recoup, looked up what it did, and instantly realized we’d found our enabler. Gifts Ungiven for Yawgmoth’s Will and Recoup plus any two missing broken cards generally led to a lethal Will and getting Recoup, Tinker, Time Walk, and Black Lotus generally allowed you to Tinker for Darksteel Colossus and cast Time Walk.

The first version of the deck was a bit rougher—Stephen Menendian figured out the use of mass Merchant Scrolls half a year later and finished the deck’s skeleton—but still so much better than anything everybody else was playing at the time that I went on a massive tear, winning three consecutive Moxes with the deck in the span of three tournaments. After that people finally knew what was up and came prepared, which turned the deck from dominant into just the best deck in the format.

What really made this deck so beautiful though was the depth of play it created in the game. Figuring out the correct Gifts Ungiven pile on the fly was actually harder than Legacy Doomsday piles and even forced the opponent to participate in the whole mind game (though you didn’t get punished nearly as hard for screwing up, making it effectively easier) and just end-of-turn Gifts Ungiven could win from the most absurd positions.

In contrast to something like Doomsday, though, Gifts Ungiven wasn’t just a very powerful win now card but also the most broken draw engine available in Vintage. When you weren’t ready to win, you could just get absurd combinations of card-draw spells (Merchant Scroll, Demonic Tutor, Fact or Fiction, and another Gifts was a favorite of mine) or a pile of disruption (Duress, Mana Drain, Force of Will, Merchant Scroll).

This once again gave the deck the flexibility to be the superior control deck against other control and combo decks while still being fast enough to easily race aggro and aggro-control decks and Punish Stax with Mana Drain into Gifts Ungiven. I think this is the best deck I’ve ever played not close and also lead to the most fun and intricate matches imaginable. In short, this is my number one, and I doubt anything is ever going to dethrone it.

And You?

I hope you enjoyed this little stroll through the galleries of decks gone past and find it fitting holiday relaxation. As you can see, the things I value as a player are power, flexibility, and the ability to draw a ton of cards.

Now I’m curious—what are your favorite decks? Are they also tuned tournament lists from the depths of time, or is your favorite that brilliant Commander deck you’ve been having fun with for a year now? Take a look at the decks you’ve enjoyed most—do they allow you to figure out what kind of player you are, what recurrent theme all the decks you’ve loved shared? Let me know in the comments and feel free to share decklists—it’s Christmas season, after all, and love should be shared.

That’s it from me for today; enjoy New Year’s Eve, and I’ll see you next year!

Until next time, play what you love!

Carsten Kotter