After looking into the future to soon to be legal Journey into Nyx last week, this week I’d like to take a look back—pretty far back in fact to the very dawn of organized Constructed gameplay and deckbuilding. Sadly that means there won’t be all that much here that grizzled veterans of mid-’90s Magic don’t already know, but I hope you’ll enjoy the nostalgia. Today’s target audience however are people that didn’t play back in the glory days when Constructed Magic as we know it today actually came into being.
And that origin point is exactly what I’ll be looking at. To be exact, I’ll show you the three decks I consider to be the most important designs in the twenty years of the game and talk about why I think they deserve that title and how they relate to present-day Magic. Sound good? Let’s get going then!
The first deck I’d like to talk about actually predates the invention of Type II (Standard in today’s vocabulary) and is simply known as "The Deck." A telling name, isn’t it? Sadly The Deck is old enough for me to not be able to find the true first version, though the one I have found (here for those interested in looking at old-school MTG talk) is what became the dominant force of tournament Magic for quite a while (remember, this was before Standard was invented). Does it deserve the moniker? Well, judge for yourself:
- 4 Mana Drain
- 2 Counterspell
- 4 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Mind Twist
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Braingeyser
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 2 Red Elemental Blast
- 1 Jayemdae Tome
- 2 Disrupting Scepter
- 4 Disenchant
- 1 Recall
- 2 Moat
- 1 Mirror Universe
- 1 Timetwister
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
Did I just hear "but that’s just a control deck using some really weird cards?" That’s a pretty reasonable description in all honesty, and it also contains the truth about why this deck was so important—you aren’t looking at a control deck but the very first control deck ever. When Brian and his friends came up with this deck, Magic was in its infancy, and running a deck with only two win conditions and a million defensive pieces simply wasn’t something people did. Nobody had thought about it before, at least not in a way that worked.
The reason for that is simple—the very basics of Magic weren’t even understood yet. What Brian and company realized was that one resource in Magic is significantly more important than all the others: cards. If you don’t have any cards in hand and no relevant cards in play, nothing else matters—you are going to lose. This was the discovery of card advantage.
It’s really easy to underestimate the importance of both these facts. Card advantage has become such an omnipresent concept for dedicated players to understand, use, and manipulate to their benefit that it is hard to imagine not being aware of it. It’s "obvious" that a two-for-one is a good thing, right? Try to remember when you just started playing. Did you even know what a two-for-one was? Card advantage is simply so fundamentally important that it becomes almost impossible to not recognize once you’ve grasped the concept. And luckily for us, today we are told about it. We don’t have to figure it out for ourselves like they did.
And that discovery led to something beautiful—the first deck that didn’t just try to match spells and see who got out ahead, but one built with the sole focus of abusing the underlying nature of the game. All the deck did was answer whatever the opponent played while occupying itself instead with drawing more cards and taking them away from the opponent, eventually locking them under a Disrupting Scepter while The Deck sat there with its seven-card hand brimming with options.
Descendants of the strategy are everywhere today, from Standard Sphinx’s Revelation decks to Modern U/W/R Control to Legacy Miracles and Shardless BUG. The latter is probably the cleanest rendition of The Deck’s approach to the game in Legacy in spite of the number of creatures it runs. Your games generally revolve around an onslaught of Ancestral Visions, Hymn to Tourach, and value creatures all creating a differential in active card counts until the opponent at some point runs out of cards and dies to whatever happens to be left on the Shardless BUG side.
While the above war cry probably doesn’t mean much to today’s players, it’s the intended name for the archetype we usually know as Sligh today after Paul Sligh, the first player who qualified for the Pro Tour with this:
- 2 Brothers of Fire
- 2 Dragon Whelp
- 4 Brass Man
- 2 Orcish Artillery
- 4 Ironclaw Orcs
- 2 Dwarven Trader
- 2 Goblins of the Flarg
- 3 Dwarven Lieutenant
- 2 Orcish Librarian
- 2 Orcish Cannoneers
Does this look not just janky but outright bad to you? Don’t worry—that’s completely normal. Nobody could believe that deck had qualified someone for the Pro Tour at the time either. After all, the deck is a pile of cards that most of us would consider essentially unplayable. I know I wouldn’t be caught dead with 90 percent of the cards in this deck in my list even in Limited. And yet I’m quite sure this is the second most important deck ever designed and not as a cautionary tale either. Actually, the only reason I consider The Deck more important is that it was the first one built around a fundamental concept of the game. In overall impact, Sligh would likely take the crown. Most decks seeing play today make use of the major innovation this deck abused after all.
What Jay Schneider, the deck’s designer, discovered and the reason this pile of crappy cards could actually beat decks full of much better cards like Necropotence, Hymn to Tourach, and Balance was nothing less than the importance of a mana curve. Where other decks at the time had learned from The Deck and tried to achieve card advantage or keep the opponent from doing so, the fundamental innovation of the Sligh deck was the realization that playing all of your cards while your opponent can at best deploy one per turn (if that) will win you the game.
So what Jay did was simple—he figured out how many cards of a certain mana cost he would need to generally have cards in hand that would let him use all his mana every turn of the game from turn 1 onward and filled out that mana curve with the best creatures and spells available to him. That the result was a pile of unplayables that could beat up decks revolving around cards too broken to be legal in Legacy is an illustration of how much power creep has progressed in the intervening years just as much as of the power of having a mana curve.
Today we say things like "my opponent just curved out perfectly, so there was nothing I could do" or "your mana curve is too high, so you need to play more two-drops" all the time without thinking much about it. Like card advantage, the mana curve is such a fundamental concept for us that we don’t even question its role or viability anymore.
And we don’t just apply it to mono-red decks either. Almost any deck in any format that isn’t doing something utterly weird—like Manaless Dredge or Belcher—is built with the idea in mind that you need to make sure you can maximize your mana usage every single turn of the game. Some decks, such as RUG Delver, still base their whole strategy on the fact that they will never have to let their mana go to waste and pull ahead of the opponent that way. But even defensive decks like Miracles pay close attention to keeping costs low enough to leave them with something meaningful to do from turn 1 on.
Essentially, Sligh represents the original understanding that there is something that can match or even surpass card advantage in importance in a game of Magic: tempo. If you can cast your spells while your opponent is twiddling their thumbs, you might end up behind on cards, but your opponent will end up dead. Who cares how many cards they’re ahead then?
The last deck I want to talk about is clearly less important than The Deck and Sligh in that it isn’t the result of putting a fundamental theoretical understanding to work. Instead it is "only" the ancestor of Magic’s least obvious archetype: engine combo. Here in all its glory is the deck that blew the mind of everybody I knew when it became known:
What was revolutionary about Mike Long’s Mirage Block Constructed deck (!) was that it was an archetype never seen before. Midrange and aggro kind of come into existence naturally when you try to build Magic decks. Once you see more cards and get used to the game, two- and three-card combo decks become readily apparent. Once you realize you can combine multiple cards, it isn’t all that hard to figure out that casting both Channel and Fireball on the same turn is likely to kill your opponent. Even control is just a logical outgrowth of understanding the importance of card advantage.
On the other hand, ProsBloom is something strange. Instead of trying to set up any particular combo, the whole deck was a collection of interlocking pieces and library manipulation that allowed its wielder to play solitaire, transforming resources back and forth to somehow end up with a dead opponent.
The importance of ProsBloom lies in proving that this is actually a viable way to approach a game of Magic. Heck, not just viable. Academy. High Tide. Megrim Jar. Every Storm deck ever. Many of the most busted decks have relied on exactly this mechanism of using a multitude of different tools to exchange cards, life, and mana until at some point you have ramped up enough resources to find whatever incidental way to end the game you’ve chosen.
This whole "more than the sum of its parts" approach isn’t even necessarily limited to actual combo decks. Skullclamp Affinity, Elves, and Food Chain Goblins can all fluidly switch between playing aggro and combo by relying on a multitude of sad-looking cards Voltroning up to unleash insanity. Without ProsBloom to show us what was possible in the game, nobody would have looked twice at many of the cards we consider broken today.
There you have it—the three decks that I think are the most important in Magic’s history. Two forged major breakthroughs in Magic theory, and one enlightened us as to what is really possible in this game of creatures crashing into life totals. If you weren’t familiar with these, did you enjoy learning about them? Is this kind of history lesson something I should do again or am I wasting your time? Which decks did you expect here? Let me know below!
P.S. In case you’re curious, my runner-up deck is probably this, if only for its importance to how modern Legacy works:
Can you figure out what special thing was going on with that deck?