The Funnerest Deck In Standard

Ari tells you about the unforgettable deck he drafted at GP Philadelphia, his thoughts on the recently changed trigger policy, and his latest Standard creation that you could have a blast trying at SCG Open Series: St. Louis.

I would not be writing an article about this deck with so many other similar strategies floating around if I didn’t think it was better. I also think that it reveals something very telling about the current state of Standard that this strategy is even remotely considerable.

The more I watch it play out, the more this Standard format feels like the Magic Online Cube. The cards are all very powerful on an individual level, and the format is sorting out into a pile of midrange good card decks beating up on aggro decks.

In Cube, the abstract best deck by far is ramp. Some of this has to do with the raw power of the ramp spells, but a lot of it has to do with metagame positioning. If their cards are two for ones and you start slamming four for ones or just combo out, you will win the fight. The tradeoff is that you have to spend the first few turns durdling around and "wasting" cards on mana.

In Standard, we’ve mainly been seeing good card piles of two for ones. Huntmaster of the Fells, Thragtusk, Lingering Souls, long-term advantage with planeswalkers. The biggest anyone’s been going is Angel of Serenity, which admittedly is a pretty big game. Still, even that isn’t as big as I want to go.

The format has capped in the realm of "normal/fair" Magic. What if we just go over the top? What if we had a Time Sieve or a Pyromancer Ascension? It appeared to me neither of those existed, so I just went back to thinking about big ramp. Gilded Lotus: good in Cube, must be good in Standard. I had no idea what I wanted to be casting, but my first guess was Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. Unfortunately, I never got much further than that due to needing to focus on the Pro Tour. The idea remained that the best way to fight these grindy two for ones, especially Thragtusk, was to just not play the same game as them and do something fundamentally "broken/unfair/absurd."

(Comically, this lack of incentive to play Standard also helped cement the idea of Gilded Lotus in my head. If the format doesn’t matter to me, I may as well have the most fun possible playing it.)

After the Pro Tour, a few things happened. The first was I began hearing about an Epic Experiment deck that made Top 8 of a States event. I don’t have that list, but I watched Travis Woo play some with it and found myself impressed with the fundamentals but not with the result. In too many games Epic Experiment was "just" a seven for one. You could easily cast the card for your ideal amount of X=7 and lose the game. For a deck looking to tap a million mana and seal the deal, this was simply unacceptable.

Enter Josh Begian. You may remember him as the Pod player from the PTQ I won for Seattle who made Top 8 with a list featuring the Falkenrath Aristocrat / Fiend Hunter / Angel of Glory’s Rise combo. We’ve kept in touch since then, and he messaged me looking for crazy combo decks to play in Standard since Angel Reanimator wasn’t cutting it. I brought up the Epic Experiment list, and we got to talking about it. He mentioned a previous brew with Omniscience doing the same thing, and it sounded nothing short of awesome. We transplanted some of the tech from the Epic Experiment lists and started tweaking it.

After a few rough drafts, here is where we’re at currently.

First thing, this deck actually aims to kills them when it goes off. Epic Experiment just takes another turn and makes some 1/1 Human tokens after Wrathing. You take one or more extra turns and attack for lethal damage.

Second, and probably most important, we get to play real cards in the maindeck: four Thragtusk and four Angel of Serenity. For those who don’t remember the Kibler article, those cards and Ranger’s Path actually form a deck on their own. Epic Experiment decks had huge aggro issues, and these cards mean you can steal game 1s from Zombies. Not only that, but you actually get to completely transform post-board into a deck that should crush the aggressive strategies.

Take out all your pure combo cards and you turn into something that just triggers Centaur Healer and Thragtusk five times before casting Angel of Serenity and ending it. So far, I’ve found that plan to be absolutely dominating. Thragtusk can also provide a nice speed bump if a midrange opponent gets one of their "fast" draws, and Angel of Serenity legitimately colds a lot of those decks on its own a lot of the time.

(For those looking for an exact anti-aggro sideboard plan: -2 Omniscience, -1 Griselbrand, -1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, -3 Gilded Lotus, -3 Increasing Ambition, -1 Temporal Mastery, +4 Centaur Healer, +4 Restoration Angel, +3 Oblivion Ring. One Ambition may also be better than the third Mastery.)

Third, yes, that is a combined colored mana cost of WWWUUUBBBBRG in the maindeck. Don’t worry—it all works out most of the time. We didn’t even need Vivid lands this time (admittedly, that mana base supported WWUUUBBBRRGGGG, which is even more excessive).

So now that we have the plan B out of the way, let’s move on to the combo part. You’ve resolved an Omniscience—now what?

The combo components you should notice are the six-card draw spells. Thoughtflare is the more powerful dig effect post-Omni and is just amazing even without it in play, while Divination is lower impact but plays an important role pre-Omniscience. Three mana means that you can Divination before casting a Ranger’s Path on curve as well as after casting a Gilded Lotus. We tried Amass the Components, but it was a bad halfway point between these two cards. Four was just a bad number for casting spells, and it didn’t dig as hard as Thoughtflare.

These will ideally lead into one of three end games: three Angel of Serenity and a Thragtusk; Temporal Mastery and either Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker or Griselbrand; or Increasing Ambition.

The first of these three was the first to make the cut in the deck and is the least common. Three Angel of Serenity lets you loop them in and out of play if you don’t have to pay for them, with each one exiling the one in play and returning the one exiled by it to your hand. If you add a Thragtusk, you can exile that as well to net a Beast token and five life every other Angel, which translates into infinite life and tokens. A Temporal Mastery later, the game ends. Even if you don’t have a copy of Mastery, it should take your opponent some serious effort to not only handle what you have in play but prevent you from pulling similar shenanigans the following turn.

The second of these is how I found myself winning the most in my early games with the deck. Take an extra turn with Temporal Mastery, and then play Griselbrand. Attack with it, draw seven, presumably play your next Temporal Mastery, etc. If your opponent isn’t an aggressive deck, you will often find yourself in a position to activate Griselbrand immediately, negating the need to even have a Time Walk effect on the spot. Nicol Bolas isn’t as devastating and doesn’t chain the way Griselbrand does, but it ends the game in a similar fashion with extra turns.

The final win, and likely now the most important one, is Increasing Ambition. If you cast Omniscience with this card in hand or a Temporal Mastery in hand and an Ambition in graveyard, the game ends. Take your extra turn, untap, and flashback Increasing Ambition (this costs mana still, hence the need for an extra turn). Find another Ambition and another card. Free roll the second Ambition into a Temporal Mastery, and run back this turn to find more Temporal Mastery, or Angel of Serenity, or really whatever you want. It shouldn’t matter at this point. Most of the time you should be able to attack with Griselbrand or go actual infinite with just the Ambitions.

Some notes:

  • The deck can have flood issues when it goes off on the chaining card draw plan. You can’t expect anything less with 37 mana sources, but having auto wins in Increasing Ambition certainly helps.
  • The real argument against Thoughtflare is the red mana. It adds three or four shocklands to your mana base that don’t need to be there (you might still play one to support Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker). So far I’ve felt like it has been a free roll, but it may not be necessary. The Innistrad block ability lands are also significant gains, with both Desolate Lighthouse and Kessig Wolf Run playing key roles in many game wins.
  • On the subject of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, that card may just be getting too cute. It’s nice to have a Tutorable Vindicate and it’s better than Griselbrand when you have to natural an eight-drop, but it’s not the best combo card.
  • This deck is still soft to counters. I’m not sure how soft it is and am not sure what to do about this, but I don’t expect it to be that big of an issue as long as people keep refusing to play with them. Worst-case scenario against Delver or similar decks, you can just board into dudes and Cavern of Souls and outclass them that way.
  • We tried some other ramp packages in the deck. Mana Bloom was fairly mediocre, but one or two to smooth out the early game may be correct. As is, the deck tends to not do anything until turn 4 without a Farseek. Abundant Growth was in early lists, but the mana turned out to be fine without it. The cantrip was nice when digging for a kill with Omniscience in play, but not knowing about hitting early land drops was an issue, as was taking up a spell slot.
  • There’s a lot more wiggle room in the sideboard than there appears to be. Oblivion Ring is just a solid card, leaving you with what’s really seven slots to devote as you choose past the Healers and Angels.

It’s very possible this isn’t the best ramp deck. You may want more real interaction in a Grixis splash Farseek and Thragtusk shell that tops out at Nicol Bolas. The takeaway should be that Gilded Lotus is a real plan in this format. As long as people are interested in playing midrange mirrors, it will have the ability to crush them.

Grand Prix Philadelphia

Now, let me tell you a story about the wildest draft deck I’ve had in the last five years. Ok, that may be a tie, but Innistrad shouldn’t count since most formats don’t let you draft three-creature Laboratory Maniac decks that win every game with zero cards in someone’s library.

Draft #2 of Grand Prix Philadelphia, I opened and slammed a Mizzium Mortars and second picked an Arrest over a New Prahv Guildmage. The pack proceeded to flesh out a U/W/R control deck a la Brian DeMars, but I noticed a few Ethereal Armors floating around. I made a mental note to pick up answers to that deck and found two of the three Armors in my pile 13th and 14th pick. Pack two I kept an eye open for more copies and wheeled another three, with the same happening pack three.

This was the draft deck I registered.

I went around asking people what their limit on Ethereal Armors was. I heard things like "one," "seven," and "none," and I’m fairly sure the answer is at least ten. At some point you don’t have enough creatures for it, but at the same time you can just cut lands and play a million low-drops to go with your Armors. This particular deck was short about a single two-drop, but you can’t always have it all.

Cards like Ethereal Armor are what help push Limited formats over the top in terms of fun and replay ability. These niche archetypes aren’t available in every draft so they don’t get stale, but they happen just often enough that you hear about them and get excited to draft them.

Small rant: part of this is why I didn’t like Rise of Eldrazi Draft but loved Innistrad Draft. In Rise, there was nothing but gimmick decks, meaning the sense of discovery and excitement quickly disappeared as you were forced to learn these archetypes over and over. In Innistrad, not only could you draft normal decks, but the "niche" cards were broad in application, resulting in more diversity of those decks. Drafts felt very unique, as they should, instead of things like "the Surreal Memoir deck" or "the Raid Bombardment deck" being every draft occurrences.

Back to the irrelevant part, I went 2-1 with this deck, losing a close one to Paralyzing Grasp and Soulsworn Jury in the "finals." That said, I did get to kill someone on turn 3 on the play in Draft, which was unreal.

Turn 1: I played Dryad Militant; he played Azorius Guildgate.
Turn 2: I played second Plains, double Ethereal Armored my Dryad, and attacked for six; opponent played Mountain.
Turn 3: I double Ethereal Armored again and attacked for eighteen.

And that’s a story I likely won’t forget any time soon.


I’m now going to talk about something very unfun: the new trigger rules.

I will say this: I understand where the DCI was coming from with these changes. It creates a clear guideline for how to resolve what was a previously very fuzzy issue. It also removes a lot of things that were previously small, unnoticeable cheats from ever having to be concerns. You no longer have anyone "forgetting" about triggers when their opponent does and lying about realizing it when a judge is inevitably called.

From what I understand, a large part of the reasoning behind this change was that reminding your opponents to act on triggers was not ideal. Phrases like "you shouldn’t have to play the game for your opponent" and "you shouldn’t have to tell your opponent that they have won the game" come to mind. While I agree that it feels bad to do so, I think the bad feelings caused by the new rules far exceed this. On one hand, you can say that you only have yourself to blame now, but we all know that people hate doing that. When someone is called on a missed trigger, it often simply creates animosity towards the opponent, which results in many other issues across the match.

Here may be my underlying and biggest issue with the new trigger policy. The old rules encouraged helpful interaction among players during matches unless you wanted to be cheating. The current rules encourage "me first" thinking and create an environment where you as an opponent should be the exact opposite of helpful. One of these sets of rules seems like it fosters a healthy community, and one doesn’t. Part of this can be seen in the fact that the new rules are only enforced at Competitive REL and higher, but as someone who has played in those events for years, I can tell you now that they are the ones that need this mentality shift the most. The new trigger rules stand for everything that people dislike about your stereotypical competitive player that many people have tried hard to prove is false.

You can try to "opt out" of this, similar to how Kenji Tsumura tried to halt his opponents from forgetting to pay for Slaughter Pact during Time Spiral block, but this just creates a prisoner’s dilemma. If both players play a respectful game of Magic in this manner, everyone tends to leave the table happy. However, one player can "sell the other out" in exchange for a potential game win, which is very enticing. As much as we can talk about how presumptions of default good tend to realize the greatest long-term rewards in prisoner’s dilemma scenarios, I can’t expect people to apply this here. You are weighing monetary rewards for getting them versus minor moral ones for the opposite, and I’m sure where most people who know the term expected value will fall based on this.

Beyond that, just look at what I’ve said. This is a rule people trying to actively ignore. I understand there are a lot of policy backlashes, but I feel this warrants at least some intense scrutiny.

Also, to go back to something I said in the exposition, I don’t feel that the elimination of "lying to judge" cheats is relevant. This is just one of those irreparable holes in the rules, but getting caught lying to a judge is nearly impossible. As long as you understand how the current rules for the situation you are in work and don’t wildly change your story between calls and appeals, creating an alternate reality where things work out the way you want them to is impossible to catch.

Long-term patterns of behavior can be noticed, but the only one I can think of involved language barrier abuse resulting in accumulated infractions. Many rulings like this end without a warning being handed out, making tracking them very difficult. Once in a blue moon there is someone who goes over the line and gets trapped by hard evidence, but that involves them trying to get away with something extremely greedy. My point is that making what was once undetectable cheating into acceptable behavior changes nothing, especially as it was often ignored before.

I can’t say I have a better solution than what exists, which is unfortunate, but it’s something I will be thinking about a lot for upcoming events. While I understand the need for consistent policy, I can’t get behind one that creates this many negative interactions in the community. At the very least, I want to get people talking about it.

That all said, as mentioned above, I can’t bring myself to not exploit this rule when it comes up. This is only fair warning. I intend to make everyone dislike this rule as much as I do.

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter