Top 10 Things I Learned From the 2004 Championship Deck Challenge

Magic: the Gathering Champs
logoTo better prepare our readers for Champs, StarCityGames.com hired some of the best Constructed deckbuilders and writers in the world to explore the new Standard format, and according to the feedback we received on this project, it was one of our most successful ideas ever. Today Mike looks back on everything that he learned from designing and testing decks for the Challenge and shares with you ten lessons that will help you rise above the competition tomorrow and secure a spot in the top 8.

10. I Love Dan Paskins

Actually I already knew that. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I quite like Dan’s writing. I have followed him since the summer of ’99 and the breakout of the original Red Deck Wins with Viashino Cutthroat. Most recently, I came to appreciate the simple elegance of his deck design with Sitting Dead Read.

Dan has a rare skill as a designer: he can flaunt convention in a way that immediately makes sense.

In this project, I appreciated getting Dan’s “second opinion”, looking in on the tweaks and approaches taken by a team of designers whom I respect very much. The “official” versions of Dan’s first two articles that went up were a little bit different (and by “different”, I mean “funnier”) from the ones that I got to sneak a peek at prior, but the net result was the same.

9. Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Testing Sharpens Play!

I think I sort of knew this, but would not have readily admitted it. Someday I want to work through an article or series of articles about playtest methodology, but this item will only touch on that. The way I approach playtesting is twofold. One phase is a process of figuring out which decks are good – allowing for liberal take backs, talking through stacks, and so on (Matt Boccio and Steve Sadin give me about one take back per turn); the second is actually testing for top level competition. One level of testing is for the decks, the next is for our play. MikeyP, as an example, is a notorious martinet in playtest circles. He disallows take back, sideboards without talking about his strategy, none of it. The good Doctor playtests like he is in the finals of the Pro Tour, and giggles while doing it.

I approached the testing for the 2004 Championship Deck Challenge from a really conservative position. I tried to show the other writers’ decks the most respect that I could. I played slowly through sequences to make sure that I wasn’t flubbing strategies overmuch, while trying to assess the unique card choices. Obviously mistakes were made, but I ran take backs to give deference to the decks, mulliganed to the best of my intuition, all of it.

The sum of these labors was… Making Top 8 of a Limited PTQ. You see, playing multiple hours of Constructed Magic every night for two to three weeks Actually Made Me Play Better Sealed Deck. I looked for avenues of penetration, walked my opponents into traps, and tapped my mana better.

As soon as I realized that this had happened, I immediately ceased enthusiasm for my nightly Apprentice appointments and paused for a couple days before finalizing last week’s U/G deck.

8. Peer Through Depths should be called POOR Through Depths

I find it a bit funny that Osyp wrote:

Most U/W Control decks in the past ran Thirst for Knowledge. Now although this card did provide a small amount of card advantage in the late game, provided you had one of your very few artifacts in hand, the main reason it was played was for card selection. At three mana, it was perfect to dig through your deck and find that Wrath of God you so desperately needed.

“For this reason, I feel Peer Through the Depths would be a suitable replacement. It serves the same basic role as Thirst for Knowledge does, but I think it’s actually an improvement. Being able to dig five cards as opposed to only three can often be very important when you need that Wrath. It also allows you to find that counter you need in the control matchups without having to pitch away lands that are also very important. I’ve never been a big fan of Thirst for Knowledge because, although it did serve an important role in the deck, often it would force me to make a difficult decision upon discarding, as I more often did not have an artifact to pitch.

Like Osyp, I am no fan of Thirst for Knowledge. I played it in the mono-Blue deck only grudgingly, and as Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 will tell you, my current version (like the updated British one) is down to two copies. I thought it was bad in Nassif’s Worlds deck, at least when he could have played more copies of Eternal Dragon, and replaced it with Thought Courier in my U/G deck. That said, Peer Through Depths is actually worse.

Osyp’s deck whiffed on Peer Through Depths an unacceptable number of times. By “unacceptable”, I mean more than once. This card is no Impulse. If it let you grab a land, it would be much better. Even when it contributes to a six mana Unspeakable, Peer Through Depths is an under-performer.

7. Keiga, the Tide Star should be called Keiga, the Porn Star

I randomly tried Keiga in the first deck I built for this format, fell in love, and never looked back. Keiga is absolutely fantastic, one of the best finishers I have ever played in a Blue deck. It performs very well against cards like Arcbound Ravager, and is reasonably costed for its massive size. I liked Keiga so much from the start that I crammed it into even my Tooth and Nail deck. Before I went all-out on anti-metagame cards, I had two copies in my U/G deck as well. Basically, if a deck can cast Keiga, I at least try it as the kill mechanism.

About the only card that I have found to be reasonable against Keiga is Kumano, Master Yamabushi. It is one of those matchups where Keiga only gets in a fight with Kumano if Keiga wants to, and Kumano goes down anyway. Not that bad. Not that bad.

6. Arc-Slogger is the single most dominant creature in this format

That’s not to say that Arc-Slogger is the best creature. Arcbound Ravager is the best creature. Arc-Slogger is not the second best creature, either. Eternal Witness is the second best creature. But for a clunky Red five-drop, Arc-Slogger is awfully good. Once it comes down, the opposing deck usually has to either set up a win, immediately neutralize the Arc-Slogger, or lose. As soon as the Slogger hits and the Red Deck gets an untap, The Game Changes (note that this is different than fighting Affinity’s creatures; careful players are always wary of being hit with a Cranial Plating from turn 3 on, and Disciple and Ravager can strike from nowhere, though never fully without warning).

But Arc-Slogger is different. From the Red Deck side, when he resolves, I immediately alter my thinking, re-work my plan. I think about how many cards I can burn to fight through whatever pathetic creatures are on the other side. I switch from trying to jockey for positional advantage and assess whether or not I can just win immediately. I start doing math.

From the other side, cards that you fight to set up, like Plow Under, become completely irrelevant. The plan goes from trying to win to trying to contain the Arc-Slogger. The game is all about getting enough mana to play a Rude Awakening before you die and nothing else.

Traditionally, we think of Green having great creatures and Red Decks being stalled by those great creatures. Well, the green creatures of today – from Sakura-Tribe Elder to numerous 187 three-drops to Molder Slug – are pretty fantastic.

And they barely slow down the Slogger.

Once the Slogger comes down across the table, I hate putting even Molder Slug in the way, and often wish I had Giant Growth (which would be a bloodbath that would make even the most Fearless Red Deck weep).

In early Mirrodin Block testing, before I figured out that what Jelger had told me at lunch one day was true (I’m dumb), I tested numerous Green decks. They all had the same problem: they could not beat Arc-Slogger. In Block it was even worse, because sometimes Arc-Slogger came down on turn 3 instead of turn 4 or 5. By the time I figured out how to beat the Slogger, it was too late: I already realized Vial Affinity was the best deck (more on that later), so it didn’t matter.

Even today, with multiple Rude Awakenings main in all my Green decks, from Tooth and Nail to three color mid-range to U/G, I still like the Red Deck against the forestfolk due to this card.

5. Oddly enough, Justin Polin was right

My old writing partner Justin Polin was full of theories. Some conformed to my own and others were wrong.

One of Justin’s best was “extremes in metagaming.” The idea was that in rogue deck design, you should concentrate on a limited number of matchups (usually the best and most populous two or three decks), and if you couldn’t beat a particular deck (as long as it wasn’t the Number One), you should completely ignore it. In some cases you could devote a lot of sideboard space to a particular matchup, but more often, you should dedicate none whatsoever. You can always afford a single Swiss loss, and the added strength you get against every other deck with the extra space can potentially make up for your weakness in what should be a lone bad matchup.

A good example is when edt talked about former Michigan State Champion Aaron Breider’s Iron Phoenix deck. Aaron built a metagame deck based on Shard Phoenix and Peace of Mind. It crushed Trix, and strong game against any single-minded beatdown deck… but could not beat Survival of the Fittest.

“Aaron Breider’s answer to that problem was to just make Top 8 after Top 8 until finally he was in a Top 8 where he didn’t have to play against a Recur/Survival deck, and he took home the prize.”

Now you can’t really go Aaron’s route at States, but the principle remains the same. The example I am thinking about is the U/G deck that I worked on for Green Week. Instead of playing a bunch of ineffectual counters like most of the U/G lists around the Magic Internet, I just played four copies of all the most extreme cards. Few decks have a full hate suite from Oxidize to March of the Machines and room for Plow Under for the Urzatron. The result was the only deck that I tested that has a favorable game one against both Affinity and Tooth and Nail. If Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 is right and Big Red is less of a factor… U/G might just be the deck to play.

4. It’s easy to make a bad Tooth and Nail deck

Over and over in testing, because I tested against Tooth and Nail every time, with every build of every deck that I thought viable, I learned a lot about the giant Green. What I learned is that I hate the Urzatron versions out there. They don’t have enough green. Look at Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2’s article from yesterday. He has de-volved into the original TwelvePost version that Nassif unleashed in the Block Pro Tour finals? Why? So he can get his first green mana.

Cloudpost is less powerful than the Urzatron, but the Urzatron takes up a ridiculous amount of room. Look at Dan and John’s Mono-Green version of Tooth and Nail. They play Talisman of Unity. Why? Because they need that first Green and they aren’t guaranteed to get it from their lands. A Cloudpost deck can play more Green mana to support such fellows as Sakura-Tribe Elder and Vine Trellis on turn 2.

That said, here is my own personal version of Tooth and Nail (decide for yourself if it falls under the “bad” category):

1 Darksteel Colossus

1 Duplicant

1 Platinum Angel

2 Keiga, the Tide Star

4 Eternal Witness

2 Kodama’s Reach

4 Oxidize

4 Reap and Sow

2 Rude Awakening

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

4 Sylvan Scrying

4 Tooth and Nail

4 Vine Trellis

1 Leonin Abunas

4 Cloudpost

2 Island

16 Forest


2 Duplicant

2 Keiga, the Tide Star

4 March of the Machines

2 Kodama’s Reach

4 Viridian Shaman

1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All

I had a lot of fun playing with Sundering Titan and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker in testing, but honestly, you pretty much always win when Tooth and Nail resolves, if you play it right. Against control, going for double Colossus is a kill of similar speed to Sundering Mirror Breaker, and harder to break up, if less flamboyant. At the end of the day, the difficulty of consistently playing Kiki-Jiki is the main reason it is not included in my list.

Conversely, I picked a very similar idea to Dan and John in my construction. In the same way that they play with four copies of Triskelion, I just want to draw Keiga, the Tide Star and play it. Setting up one of the Blue sources is pretty easy, given the mana base. I am no longer as in love with Kodama’s Reach as I once was, but it serves a strong purpose in a deck like this one. Especially with the extra two copies in the side, Kodama’s Reach helps the deck’s resistance to Death Cloud and Big Red, and offers an alternate mana acceleration route against decks that want to blow up Cloudposts.

In the mirror, the plan is to side up to all four Keigas and use them as Control Magics. It is possibly right to run a Kiki-Jiki and Sundering Titan in the side, as both cards are powerful in the mirror. I don’t know that it represents enough, though, because you can only play Kiki-Jiki with a Tooth and Nail, and if you resolve a Tooth and Nail in the mirror, you can either play for the win or just go for double Keiga and demolish the other guy. Like I said before, what pushes this eccentric choice over the top for me is the ability to just draw Keiga and kill the other guy.

I tried to play the minimum number of artifacts that I could. Obviously you need Darksteel Colossus, but you’ll note I didn’t play any copies of Triskelion or Talisman of Unity. They get Oxidized. The only guy I have that can get Oxidized is Duplicant… and I need him to force through my Darksteel Colossus against Molder Slug (nobody can target Platy with Leonin Abunas in play).

For the record, I don’t like Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2’s proposed G/R version. It doesn’t gain much Green, and Green is key. Losing Electrostatic Bolt isn’t that big a deal because gaining Vine Trellis to block Slith Firewalker does the job while advancing your main strategy.

3. Blue/White could not be worse

When Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 and I originally conceived of several writers working on decks, the first question that came up was “what deck do we pick first?” Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 immediately keyed on U/W.

Initially, I thought that U/W would be fine. Nassif, arguably Magic’s best player right now and almost unanimously the best deck designer in the game, played U/W at Worlds, right?

The problem was that U/W ended up completely unplayable. The main reason I didn’t like the deck I’ve already communicated: its finishers are far too inconsistent, expensive, and easy to kill. Whereas the previous U/W decks could morph an Exalted Angel and start gaining life on turn 4 – racing even the fastest beatdown decks – and go long against other control decks with long game unstoppable threats like Decree of Justice and Eternal Dragon, the current U/W decks have… Pristine Angel? I actually played Pristine Angel in an early version of the G/W deck, alongside Silver Knight and Akroma, Angel of Wrath in a Worship version… but I don’t see how a six-mana 4/4 is particularly playable all by its lonesome.

Pristine Angel was okay in Jim’s deck… but not “good” exactly. Others among us tried different things, all the way to The Unspeakable. The general consensus was that U/W is not good. I think that the mono-Blue deck that I submitted is pretty good, but, then again, I deviated considerably from the spirit of the assignment.

Do yourself a favor and steer way clear of this archetype.

2. Echoing Truth can’t be used to save your own man-lands.


1. You should probably just play Ravager Affinity

If there is one thing that I learned in the hundreds of games of testing that I did, it is that Ravager Affinity – probably Aether Vial Affinity – is the absolute best deck. The fact that the first step that I, and every other competent designer, made was to stuff our decks full of artifact elimination is telling. Even moreso is that, despite all the hate, Affinity pulled better than 50% in most of the matchups.

For those of you who have not been paying attention, Affinity’s strength is threefold.

First of all, it is the hands-down fastest deck in the format. Andrew Cuneo said that Affinity is like Suicide Black, except it always gets the Dark Ritual. Anyone who knows my history knows that I loves me my Rituals. Paquette-style speed Affinity routinely plays multiple Frogmites on turn 1… they’re like Carnophages with no drawback.

Pound for pound, Affinity has the strongest cards in the format. Arc-Slogger may be hotter than hot, but Disciple of the Vault costs one mana, and Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, and Shrapnel Blast cost a measly two. That’s their curve. One hit from a Cranial Plating will pull most decks into range for a loss. Considering tapping out against just an Ornithopter or Blinkmoth Nexus? You might just be taking seven.

Third, the deck that is almost singularly focused in one direction somehow has room for multiple routes to victory. Unlike inefficient decks of the past, Affinity is actually great at beatdown, great at opportunistic Cranial Plating strikes, and downright deadly with the late-game Disciple. Players who are focused on fighting the artifact theme lose a startling number of games to Disciple pokes for one life at a time.

A former writer for this site recently said that Tooth and Nail should mulligan any hand that it doesn’t draw Oxidize (as a corollary, don’t play a Tooth and Nail listing that doesn’t have four Oxidize. It is automatically terrible). I don’t think this is far off. Even if you are playing a deck with cards like Electrostatic Bolt or Viridian Shaman, there is nothing like Oxidize. It drills right through Welding Jar and answers Cranial Plating when a loss is on the horizon.

That said, I am not taking my own advice (it’ll be one of the two Blue decks I posted for me). Wish me luck.