Sad to say, the best deck I’ve ever designed will probably never see a Premiere Event Top 8.
Very Short Summary
1. Very Good against everything almost everything.
2. Not Very Good against Solar Flare.
Short Form on Mistakes
1. According to Josh, we probably should have just played this deck at Regionals.
We didn’t have the nearly indomitable, fully tuned, version for Regionals, but it would have been good enough, I think, with all the major engine pieces there. Small tuning elements that create big swings in percentage – like one and then two Ghost Quarters, and certainly the sideboard that Josh and Steve eventually played at Nationals – were a result of exhaustive testing and contributions by multiple players in the group… But the deck would have been good enough. So why didn’t we play it? I was testing with Pierre at the Invitational, and he insisted on playing an Erayo deck. He had "natural" flip on turn 3 – if not turn 2 – eight straight games (and this is motherloving Standard). Osyp and I played one game, and it was the only game loss I would ever take in testing to Husk, which if you recall was the best deck at the time. Couple that with a soft Heartbeat matchup, and I was rattled. Sorry to say, I had The Fear*.
2. Flat-out Hubris.
Josh was Top 8 at Nationals last year. Steve is the best drafter of both Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension and triple Coldsnap that I know. Ant made Top 8 anyway (but with his draft record, he could have been playing anything). I just assumed that with any kind of passable records, the lads would storm to the National Team on the wings of the best deck I had ever designed… and that would be that. Small n, even with such talented players in the pool, can tank a deck’s ability to post Top 8 because everyone has an off draft. Mike Aten tried to solicit from both myself and BDM (for his little brother), but we demurred. Ant, who audibled at the last minute, and Tim who never got the deck, did just great anyway.
3. The SHIFT…
Well, that can’t be summarized in a pithy-small paragraph, so if you are interested, you’ll have to make it through the several paragraphs past the deck list.
Long Form on Everything Else
To give you an idea how long we have kept this deck under wraps, the impetus for the deck came out of an Enduring Ideal article by Richard Feldman in the middle of April. Feldman had a strong understanding of Enduring Ideal as a one-dimensional strategy, but failed at the Pro Tour due to an inability to cope with common interactive components of the field even when his intended long game was firing. The goal of Hybrid- or Aggro-Ideal was to create a deck that could functionally operate at bare bones as well as Richard’s in the long game, but also attack the format from multiple directions so as not to fail to, say, a naked Cranial Extraction, as might a one-dimensional combo deck.
One of the things that impressed me about Richard’s version was his claim to a robust matchup versus Boros Deck Wins, due to three Faith’s Fetters and four copies of Wrath of God. As part of my tuning process, I wanted to make the deck completely unbeatable facing beatdown, by adding early game speed bumps like Sakura-Tribe Elder and complicating the board control issues with Loxodon Hierarch.
The remainder of the deck flowed from a Kamigawa Block set of core competencies. Even the earliest "leaks" of the deck, before I realized how insane it was going to end up, produced at least one U.S. Nationals invitation, as well as some impressive, if unsung, Team PTQ records.
I will not bore you with every iteration of the deck that we produced since its inception (previewed many months back in Richard Feldman‘s forum, and then my own "Clip Show"), but suffice it to say, a deck with this much manipulation can see massive percentage delta in a matchup via the change of a single card. The sideboard that I had around Regionals had multiple Zur’s Weirdings and a different creature transformation that included Sosuke’s Summons; Seshiro, the Anointed; Kami of Ancient Law; and of course, Umezawa’s oversized silverware. The sideboard shown above is the result of testing through to the last possible week, a reaction by all of us – but primarily Josh and Ant – to fight the surging Solar Flare deck (see below) and to create yet another potential plan.
Despite recent changes to the pre-Coldsnap Standard universe, I am still convinced that this is the best deck in the format in the sense that it is ahead against the largest number of raw opponents. It is flat-out unbeatable for most decks, and has perhaps three bad matchups in a format with forty or more distinct archetypes. The problem is that at least one of bad matchups is on the up-swing, and the bad matchups are extraordinarily difficult for Aggro-Ideal. If the format were at equilibrium, my advocacy of Aggro-Ideal would come completely without reservation; however, given the explosive popularity of Solar Flare, it is not only possible but probable that Aggro-Ideal is no longer the, um, Ideal choice for the metagame.
Forgetting about the metagame and speaking in the abstract for a moment… What makes this allegedly best deck tick?
Aggro-Ideal is awesome because it has at least two distinct game plans, either one of which is trump in most matchups. You can play entirely as Deck A (a TOGIT-style Three-Color Control, a la Kamigawa Block) or set up as Deck B – with or without Boseiju inevitability – as 80% of a first-string Enduring Ideal combo deck. In fact, back when I was still playing the deck actively on Magic Online, the majority of games would play out as Deck A attrition, where the opponent would (after several turns) think himself crawling to a positive position, and then abruptly say the same thing, over and over, matchup after matchup:
"I really didn’t expect that."
As a combo deck, Aggro-Ideal lacks some non-essential aspects of a one-dimensional Epic strategy (Privileged Position, any access to Ivory Mask, dedicated kill via Genju of the Realm), but makes up for this with the Yosei/Knell lock and functional alternate kill opportunities even when stuck under Epic – for example, creature recursion or Saproling beatdown.
"Modern" Aggro-Ideal differs from the Feldman forum / Clip Show version in the inclusion of Gifts Ungiven. This little wrinkle serves multiple purposes, and also helps to justify the two Islands earmarked for worst-case-scenario Confiscate. The most straightforward angle of Gifts Ungiven attack, per "Introducing Wild Gifts,” is to make the deck’s long-game unbeatable by a conventional permission strategy. It ultimately doesn’t matter how many Jushi Apprentices, Compulsive Researches, and so on that the opponent can set up, or how many additional cards he draws… you will always have more relevant card advantage due to Boseiju and Life from the Loam, meaning that a huge percentage of the opponent’s extra cards will be blank. Additionally, Gifts allows you to set up a faster Knell game by selecting Yosei (a card no one will typically give you as part of the package, unless they can put it in the graveyard anyway) against either control or beatdown. Finally, the deck – already the best anti-beatdown deck in the entire format – can Gifts for "four cards that bone beats" (say Faith’s Fetters, Loxodon Hierarch, Wrath of God, and Miren… or any number of combinations that might include Yoseis and / or Enduring Ideal, depending on the stage of the game), a la Firemane Control. But the main inducement, though, is the Boseiju loop, so I will lead with that one.
Aggro-Ideal’s Typical Gifts Ungiven Combinations
There are multiple variations on this Gifts package, depending primarily on whether you have a Yosei, whether you want a Yosei, whether you already have a kill condition, and so on. The main thrust of this combination is to get Life from the Loam with multiple lands. In many matchups it is important to fight over Miren, the Moaning Well (despite the fact that you are behind in the matchup, if your game is firing on all pistons, the only way Solar Flare can beat you is by ripping Miren off the top, to deuce your Moaning Well). It is important to get Vitu-Ghazi, because that is at least your bluff as a way to win, and often it wins the game even if it does not actually do the bulk of the damage. Nonsensical as it may seem, in this deck – complete with its Boseiju, beaucoup removal, and manipulation – Vitu-Ghazi is your clock against many Blue decks; though it does not actually win the game all the time, the card forces the opponent to make plays prematurely, or at least block removal on your tokens… sub-optimal courses of action both.
You want your Boseiju, more than anything else, either to lock down the game via Enduring Ideal or to just ensure that all of your spells resolve strategically, viz. Wrath of God. Note that no amount of Jushi Apprentice or Tidings card advantage is going to answer Boseiju and Life from the Loam going long… The opponent needs something like Confiscate to get out of it. One of the reasons that Josh and Steve were irked at my posting White Wafo-Tapa a few weeks ago is that before I posted the deck – particularly with its two Ghost Quarters main – Aggro-Ideal was essentially invincible against true control in testing. However, the combination of Ghost Quarter (for Boseiju) followed by Hinder (for Loam) could turn the matchup around by making the short game tenable for control.
A key variation on this combination is to substitute Ghost Quarter for one of the lands. You will run this primarily against ‘Tron decks, but because the deck is likely to draw something in the above list – or at least set up access over time with the Top – Ghost Quarter becomes a compelling option. If you naturally draw a Ghost Quarter and can resolve a Gifts Ungiven against ‘Tron… That is the kind of draw that makes you think that there is good in the world and, yes, the heroes may yet win. A blowout.
There are many different combinations you can use to bone a beatdown player. In the short game, a common play is:
You don’t usually care about the second card you fetch, but you are almost certain to get the Top. In this case, Gifts Ungiven is basically a Diabolic Tutor for value, because you really wanted the Top or you wouldn’t have included the Top. If you already have the Top and you are in an attrition game, you will tend to beat either control or beatdown. As this deck is already set up to demolish beatdown, the second card is always going to be awesome.
An example of a longer game Gifts might include Yosei, and / or Enduring Ideal, and / or Debtors’ Knell. You will only voluntarily put Ideal or Knell in harm’s way against beatdown… but these cards are nails in the coffin, so you are certain to get the other two, each of which is probably a game-winner in itself. You will not typically set up for, say, Enduring Ideal, unless you are 100% to win if it hits. The remaining 2-3 cards will typically give you a huge advantage the following turn. Even for short-term Gifts, you can substitute Miren or Yosei for Top depending on your mana situation… after all, there is no reason why you can’t go for a massive land Gifts with Life from the Loam if you aren’t under a lot of pressure. I will actually actively go for a Loam short-game against B/W decks that think they can disrupt me.
As always, Gifts Ungiven is a tremendously flexible card that – assuming you are playing an interactive game rather than defending a blowout – can give you anything from an immediate two-for-one to an insurmountable positional advantage, depending on what cards you select, what matchup you are playing, to what stage the game has progressed, and just how bad your opponent is. One thing to note: this isn’t "an Ideal deck" and we did not build a Reclaim / Recollect combination specifically to set up Enduring Ideal, though we certainly considered it. The straightforward plans – especially in concert with Sensei’s Divining Top – are too strong, and we never felt the need to add this kind of a loop because the deck already has a trump Plan A.
Advanced Resource Management
Raw Zur’s Weirding
Believe it or not, there are many matchups where you will want to play a Zur’s Weirding on turn 3. If you know your next couple of turns, or you can set up with a Sensei’s Divining Top when the game is even, you can often guarantee a win. It is sometimes dicey, especially against B/W with Kami of Ancient Law or Mortify, but the way the threats are set up, you can often guarantee the long game. The secret? The opponent can’t stop you from Dredge on Life from the Loam! Therefore, if neither of you is doing anything, you can pretty much always win, given enough life to contain his threats, by eventually getting your Loam and Vitu-Ghazi. Dumb? Maybe. In some matchups – in every matchup, given the correct board position – it’s also inevitable.
Ghost Quartering Yourself
Ghost Quarter is mostly in the deck to ensure the matchup against ‘Tron, but it is also a useful resource management card. I have written in other articles about how you can use this card to fight Annex (and it’s great here, too), but an odd play that came up a half a dozen times or so in testing was the "early game Quarter myself," which both Josh and Steve ran to great success in testing. Josh once ran the Ghost Quarter on his Boseiju when he only had two land; he tapped the Boseiju for mana, blasted it burying both non-basics, fetched a Forest, and cast the Life from the Loam he already had to and re-buy both his previous lands, immediately reversing the seemingly idiotic resource management and turbo charging his middle turns. From that point, he had shuffled his deck for Sensei’s Divining Top and got his Loam in the bin where it could do the most damage. Also keep in mind that the considerable acceleration and early game action of Aggro-Ideal may simply justify setting yourself behind in the short term because you are not behind him, per se.
Lands and Ideal in the Long Long Game
Enduring Ideal is kind of like Tooth and Nail. You cast it, and you assume you are going to win. Is this an oversimplification? Usually, no… but as with Tooth and Nail, the answer is "sometimes." Because of this, it is important to manage your resources post-Epic very carefully. Optimally, you will have Sensei’s Divining Top in play when you are under Epic, so the most important thing is to make sure you aren’t drawing your enchantments. Additionally, if you have Zur’s Weirding down, don’t forget that you are actually in control of what gets drawn. Zur’s Weirding gives your opponent many opportunities to throw the game away… Present Yosei. If the opponent moves too quickly, it can end up in your graveyard; note that under Epic you can’t cast Yosei, but from the graveyard, you can sculpt a lock win with Debtors’ Knell. Generally, you will want to draw lands and keep your uncastable spells far from your hand. Even though you can’t technically play spells post-Ideal, it is important to continue to play lands for multiple reasons. First and foremost, you need operating mana for Vitu-Ghazi, Loxodon sacrifice, Miren activation, and so forth. Against Blue decks, you want to position yourself to Confiscate the Meloku and pick up all your lands for the lethal lone alpha (this also helps you discard when you have Knell down but no Dragon Spirit). The most important thing to remember is that you can pass on Ideal if you want to. There is no rule that you have to find anything every turn, and it is often best to wait until the opponent plays a card worth neutralizing or stealing, especially if you have extant beaters or an active City-Tree.
(The Other Guy’s) Kami of Ancient Law
One semi-problematic situation is playing against a Kami of Ancient Law in play. It is counter-intuitive that you can go for the Ideal long-game, but remember that you can immediately fetch Faith’s Fetters to neutralize the Spirit if the opponent passes properly. Usually you will want to follow up with Zur’s Weirding if you have enough life to fight his board, then Form of the Dragon to finish. Zur’s Weirding and Form of the Dragon is a powerful one-two punch; Form of the Dragon’s reset to five life gives you essentially infinite Weirding fuel, and wins the game in a few short turns.
The worst card in the deck, and the only enchantment that we can’t cast, Form of the Dragon is an important element nevertheless. It is a Moat and a Fireball both. It is creature defense, more creature defense, and a way to win. Additionally, it is a dual-edged sword that can cost you if you don’t know what is going on. Usually you will play Form of the Dragon via Enduring Ideal only when you are a) desperate, or b) planning to win with it, having mentally plotted out the next several turns. Unless you are certain to lose to ground-pounders the next turn, I would caution away from deploying Form unless you have Weirding down already. The most important element of the game when winning with Form is not losing to Shining Shoal. Given sufficient information, you will want to set up the game with Debtors’ Knell, potentially Confiscate (for Ivory Mask or Privileged Position), or Faith’s Fetters to circumvent Shoal kills. Note that you will often have to find a Form to stop a Maher that would otherwise give your opponent the chance to draw enchantment removal out of a Zur’s Weirding.
I’ll be back tomorrow, with matchups and more.
* Which isn’t to say the R/W deck wasn’t awesome… I just don’t know that it was as good as Ideal.