Twelve Must-Play M12 Cards + Some M12 Theme Decks

This article by deckbuilder extraordinaire and acclaimed Magic writer Mike Flores is about building decks based on an idea or theme, as well as the perils of doing so. Use this roadmap to build some of your own theme decks!

The first tournament I ever won was with a Theme Deck. I can’t reconstruct the deck exactly and in its entirety, but here is a good faith

4 The Rack
4 Black Knight
4 Dark Ritual
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Hypnotic Specter
1 Mind Twist
4 Mindstab Thrull
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
3 Sengir Vampire
4 Terror
23 Swamp

Did you see the theme?

The deck probably wasn’t the best possibly tuned deck for its format, but it did something pretty well, which was to hit people with Hypnotic
Specter and Hymn to Tourach and generally ruin their days.

The deck was not particularly clever, but I thought it was. You see I figured out a hidden key; I pulled back the curtain the same way I did when I saw
the cards Magical Hack and Karma, or Kird Ape and Taiga. The Rack was so super-effective when combined with “blowing up the opponent’s
hand” that I did not even include its buddy Black Vise—which, capable of winning miser’s games all by its miser’s solo-self,
was counter to my theme (which I pushed to the degree that my collection at the time could push).

I probably got confused about the difference between an idea and an actual deck; but as I said, it was the weapon I used to win my first tournament.

You may have read that the most common question deck designers get asked from Magic readers amounts to “can you make my tin can competitive with
that Star Destroyer?” … and that is a question that is borne of a similar disconnect between an idea or a theme and an actual deck. We have
in fact elsewhere defined What Makes a Deck.

This is an article about ideas and themes, and the danger of following ideas and themes.

For example, think about my mono-black discard deck. I had an idea (blow up the opponent’s hand) and pushed only those things; I
didn’t play Black Vise because they didn’t go with the theme (ignoring the potential wins that might come from playing powerful—and
fast—cards like that). I think that is a potential pitfall that can come from playing a “theme” deck. Just one caveat here:

No matter what you think the theme of your deck is, the actual theme should be playing whatever cards make it most likely for you to win.

First up, let’s talk about twelve (see the theme?) new [that is, new-ish to Standard] cards from M12 that will definitely see

Oblivion Ring

I wouldn’t be surprised if, for as long as WotC prints Planeswalkers in the base set (that is, probably forever considering how recent
sets—and sales!—have gone), Oblivion Ring remains somehow in print as well.

I ain’t sayin’ that if Oblivion Ring were in print that we wouldn’t have had the controversy around Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but it
probably would have helped. The weird thing about Jace was that it wasn’t clear that Jace was the best last year, and Jace was being held in
check by Bloodbraid Elf (and in particular Bloodbraid Elf + Blightning). Vengevine had a lot to take over with the Alara rotation, and a combination of
Titans and Swords kept it from doing that job.

Point being: the format lacked a diversity of non-Jace anti-Jace tools; Oblivion Ring would have lessened that somewhat, if not cured all ills.

Azure Mage

I think it will be fun figuring out what the right turn to cast Azure Mage is. I am leaning on turn five or six against another blue deck, probably
turn six. On turn five you can at least pay for a Mana Leak or leave up counterspell mana, and on turn six the same is true except you get an
activation if you want it; of course it is dangerous to pull the trigger on an activation and then see a Titan resolve.

Of course on the play you can run it on turn two, or turn three with some kind of one-mana counterspell in hand, but I would probably lean against
Azure Mage deployment for the next few turns.

This card is bonkers, of course.

We ran a clean sweep of the States Top 8 with Jushi Apprentice, which by most measures is just a much worse card. Azure Mage hits harder on offense
(not that Jushi Apprentice attacked very often) and can legitimately reposition a blue deck against another blue deck. It isn’t quite Stoneforge
Mystic, but it is very Stoneforge Mystic-y, in terms of both potential card advantage and how and when you use your mana. At some point the card,
unanswered, is just the mad lockdown. Draw two extra per turn? Phenomenal Trish topdeck any time after turn eight.

Jace, Memory Adept

I am done doubting any cards with the word “Jace” on them. I was an avowed non-fan of Jace’s Ingenuity… and a year later it turned
out to be a key card in a deck I used to win a big tournament. Jace, Memory Adept is a lot less not-good than some pundits are claiming. It grinds
upwards while getting you ahead (which I guess is the model for the more expensive Planeswalkers).

Think about it like this: You are often perfectly happy to pull a late-game Jace Beleren, which does the same thing while dropping loyalty, right? I
mean there is no obvious Sun Titan combo, but the principle is the same except Jace, Memory Adept is substantially better in every other late-game

I can see some kind of neo-Next Level Bant with Vengevine doing guard duty and potentially benefitting from Jace’s [+1] ability (or any
ability, actually). It can also hook up with some kind of Planeswalker deck. I am a sucker for anything with three different Planeswalkers in play.
Probably one of them will be Chandra, the Firebrand.


The super exciting short-term is going to be this card along with the next one and existing one-mana draw spells Gitaxian Probe and Preordain in
Pyromancer Ascension. The long-term is going to be this card largely taking over Preordain’s spot in the format. That depends somewhat on the
presence of decent shufflers (we are going to lose Misty Rainforest, Scalding Tarn, and that squad), but there is a reason Ponder is a Legacy staple
and Preordain has made much less of a splash in the wider world. The card is good, we know it’s good, and it has been played in every
Extended-down since it first saw print.

Visions of Beyond

As above, this card is going to be the actual hookup with Ponder, Preordain, and Gitaxian Probe in Pyromancer Ascension. I think it is perfectly
reasonable to increase your fetchland count to include a full set of Misty Rainforests to turbo-charge Visions of Beyond; really, it shouldn’t be
that hard. Even as a one-mana straight “draw a card,” it isn’t bad, and unlike the other three, Visions of Beyond is an instant.

You will probably see Visions of Beyond long-term in a deck like B/U Control the same way U/W Control 14 years ago ran its Impulses and Brainstorms.
B/U Control plays more of a one-for-one attrition game with Go for the Throat and Inquisition of Kozilek, so I think the fit is more natural, but
running Ancestral Recall 20 turns in is probably fine for U/W as well. Decks will have to modify themselves a bit to make sure this is good, but when
it is good, it will be really good. See also Jace, Memory Adept.


Rune-Scarred Demon

Keep ‘em coming!

I am not sure where this card rates relative to Grave Titan in B/U Control, but Rune-Scarred Demon has some superb advantages. It can chain Demon into
Demon, or grab your singletons (Black Sun’s Zenith, Liliana Vess, even Karn Liberated), and race. A 6/6 flier is pretty good at that.


As soon as it was printed the first time, Smallpox put Ken Adams on the map as a brewer. The card is going to be a really big problem for at least some
stripes of beatdown. Say you have a situation like this:

You: Creeping Tar Pit.

Him: Mountain, Goblin Guide; swing with Goblin Guide, revealing a Verdant Catacombs.

You: Mise run Verdant Catacombs! Make a SwampSmallpox.

You still have a Creeping Tar Pit, and the Goblin Guide paid for your card in hand somehow.

Your opponent has no permanents in play and lost his 2/2. You are on 16, which is kind of ooh-sucky-sucky, but your opponent is completely kolded and
hasn’t taken his second turn yet.

Smallpox is a Cruel Edict you can play around (but he probably can’t), a Sinkhole you can build around, and a complement to what black already
does best in Standard: beat up on the opponent’s hand.

You know what gets better? Grim Discovery.

Sorin’s Thirst

At first I thought this was a functional reprint of old Flores favorite Vicious Hunger. I took some hive mind artillery the first time I advocated
playing Vicious Hunger, but it was obviously right / awesome then, and vindicated over and over.

That said, Vicious Hunger is nowhere near where you want to be in a Standard where Phyrexian Obliterator teeters on the verge of irrelevance, and the
most powerful threats are all 1/4 or 6/6.

And then BDM pointed out it was an instant.

Chandra’s Phoenix

How is this card even real?

You know there was a time when some of the top minds in the game were trying to make Hell-Bent Raider good?

Most games Chandra’s Phoenix is going to be as good or better than a Staggershock… and speaking of which, this card and Staggershock make quite
the destructive duo!

Even defensively Chandra’s Phoenix drips and reeks of relevance; getting in two blocks while holding the other guy off with Searing Blaze and
Staggershock seems too good. I love how you can block-and-trade, block-and-trade, and then punch in, maybe with a Shrine of Burning Rage hand-in-hand,
arm-in-arm, and burn-in-burn.

Goblin Grenade

It is interesting how R&D has positioned so many red scalpels, like Chandra’s Phoenix and Grim Lavamancer; maybe some give-and-go with the
Firebrand; forced patience with Shrine of Burning Rage; and decisions by drowning cerebral burn players with playables…

And then hands red this water balloon.

Goblin Grenade: Because Standard had become too skill-intensive.

Grim Lavamancer

Not much to say here…

Grim Lavamancer has been awesome in every format it has ever been legal, up to and including present Legacy. Especially as long as Arid Mesa and
Scalding Tarn are legal, this cat is going to cook.


Something tells me Sword of Feast and Famine wouldn’t have had quite the impact on Standard if Manabarbs had been legal last time. Good
catchall sideboard spell.

Now is the part of the article where we sketch out some new card ideas. These are springboards and give structure to themes… They
aren’t decks-decks (though some of them very well could grow up to be some decks).


Theme: Lock down the game with Call to the Grave

Call to the Grave is kind of a modern The Abyss; The Abyss of course being a superb creature control card from the early days of Magic.

The limitations here are:

You might have to play Call to the Grave on turn six; in fact, Call to Grave is always expensive, and even in matchups where it can be good,
it might be difficult to find an open.

A lot of the time when you can play Call to the Grave you are already getting demolished.

Call to the Grave warps how you build your deck with regards to threats.

This card can be really good at killing creatures, but in 2011, just killing creatures might not be enough / that great.

The advantages are:

Call to the Grave does it all! If you get Call to the Grave online, it can lock down your opponent’s offense and end the game.

Call to the Grave is super-splashable… You don’t have to be mono-black.

The theme here includes running eight manlands so that you can keep Call to the Grave on the battlefield even when the coast is ostensibly clear
(activate Inkmoth Nexus at the end of each turn).

I played a very slightly higher number of lands to accommodate the Inkmoth Nexus squad, and there are lots of different Zendikar lands to hook up with
Visions of Beyond (though with no practical working knowledge of the card at this point, I don’t know if they are actually enough).

But like I said… Just a theme.


Theme: Lock down the opponent’s attack with Vengeful Pharaoh. In theory if you can survive a turn, Vengeful Pharaoh can take out even a Primeval

As just a dude, Vengeful Pharaoh isn’t even that bad… Five power for five mana. With all the Equipment, there is a fair amount of fast-kill

This deck idea has a fair amount of suicide to it—Lashwrithe, Sign in Blood, Smallpox, even the Zendikar lands, and of course a deck
designed around being hit in the face—which is why there is so much life gain built in.

Zombie Infestation might be too cute. The plan here is to discard Vengeful Pharaoh during combat. Mise!

It might end up better as another Sorin’s Kiss, Nighthawk, solo Liliana Vess, etc.

The Two-for-One Deck

Theme: Almost all of your cards are two-for-ones, or at least generate some kind of extra value when they hit (or sometimes leave) play.

I learned the Two-for-One technologies from the great Jon Sonne in the age of Thornscape Battlemages, Flametongue Kavus, and sometimes even Horned
Kavus in Standard. Satoshi Nakamura (the first inventor of Swords, specifically Fire and Ice, in competitive play) was an innovator of U/G Two-for-One
in the Fires era, and more modern fans include thirty-something teenage heartthrob Brian Kibler.

Two-for-One was the backbone philosophy of my mono-cascade (my all-time favorite deck), yet still ripe for the brewing with M12. The problem with
Two-for-One is that it is almost always green (strike against), and as a progressive card advantage deck (not unlike The Rock) can fall prey to Over
the Top strata domination where card advantage fails to remain relevant (Upheaval all your permanents, infinite life, infinite damage, etc.).

Standard with M12 is not short of Two-for-Ones. In fact, we get some new-old favorites, like Solemn Simulacrum!

Aside on Solemn Simulacrum: This guy takes more heat than Pilgrim’s Eye. However I have always had a lot of luck with him (Kuroda-style Red and many
other decks), and I think he is perfect in a Two-for-Ones theme. The second one in this deck should maybe be an Oracle of Mul Daya, but with no Halimar
Depths, I think double Solemn is better; another option being Phyrexian Metamorph. End aside.

This deck is reminiscent of the Shaman-Twin I posted a few weeks back, but without the Shaman-Vengevine half. Keeping the Deceiver Exarch combo with no
Preordains may prove long-run incorrect, but again, we are in the theme stage… And my theme here is two-for-ones! I obviously borrowed Nest
Invader from smi77y’s 4-0 Daily deck, but the rest is a straightforward chain-up, and a tighter one than some previous attempts.

What I like about this deck is that its Birthing Pod theme is pretty synergistic with extra creatures, and once you get past CMC 1, playing an
attrition game against it is basically hopeless. Plus, the presence of an infinite combo cures some of the inherited ills that decks like this
typically suffer from. But no, it’s probably not perfect. And yes, that Wurmcoil Engine really makes me want to play a seven. Oh well!


The most interesting “Kird Ape + Taiga” self-contained Easter Egg of a combo in M12 in my opinion is the Empires cycle…

Crown of Empires

Scepter of Empires

Throne of Empires

Of the three, the most impressive card is Crown of Empires.

Once you get Crown of Empires online, it is even more powerful than Vedalken Shackles, and Vedalken Shackles has been a breaker in every format it has
ever been legal. It has been a Top 10 card in Extended and is actually one of the defining defensive spells in Legacy. Control of even a single
Vedalken Shackles can in fact determine the outcome of a U/W mirror match.

… And Crown of Empires is potentially even better!

It can take down bigger creatures, and you can use it over and over again.

The limitation is that you need to have the other two, crappier, Empires cards in play in order to have the privilege of tapping three mana on Crown of
Empires. That means you need redundancy on all three Empires cards.

Scepter of Empires is pretty crappy. It would be unplayable if Crown of Empires didn’t exist, though a three-mana artifact that tapped for three
damage (and no mana!) every turn would probably be good enough to play; there were a fair number of Granite Shards in the Top 8 of the 2005 Japan
National Championship, but those could hit a creature.

At zero mana to ping a player for one damage, Scepter of Empires is kind of Planeswalker-y. You get a nominal effect, but it doesn’t cost you
anything, and you are ultimately working towards something; the triple Empires battlefield being your “ultimate.”

Throne of Empires is really crappy. It costs five mana to put a single 1/1 creature into play. I am not sure how I would rate it if you always put five
creatures into play, but you don’t. Maybe insanely awesome? There is an Elspeth-y vibe to this card, nevertheless, and like Scepter of Empires,
you are legitimately working towards something.

The biggest limitations to Empires Control are these:

You need a tremendous amount of operating mana. Even if you go turn two Crown of Empires, turn three Scepter of Empires, turn four Throne of Empires
You haven’t actually done anything. Even if you roll all sixes, you need three operating mana per turn to make Crown of Empires work… Though
presumably Crown of Empires is going to give you enough of an advantage (especially if you are stealing creatures like Primeval Titan) that you can
make up with reasonable efficiency.

Like the previous two deck ideas, the upside to this one is that you lock down creature attacks; as we’ve said a couple of times, not every deck
wants to win with creatures or even can be locked down from an anti-creature angle. Though the three Empires cards can Voltron together in a
very “Planeswalker Control” way (Nicol Bolas, Chandra, and Elspeth!)… Unlike a real Planeswalker Control deck, you have no
guarantee of relevance against the opponent’s plan.

What I wanted to do with this list, in order to counteract an opposing deck’s build-up on the board, was to play cards that are heavily biased in
terms of their symmetry. You might lose Tezzeret, but they lose everything to an All Is Dust. To wit:

Even when you don’t have the full Empires combo, you can use Crown of Empires to tap key attackers and set up All Is Dust (which is, of course,
gas). Key subtheme is Tezzeret + poison, which I’m sure you’ve seen before… Cheap thrills, et al. Plenty of ways to win, regardless.

So what new and different stuff do you think is going to make a splash in M12?