The subject I get asked about most that I generally am not able to give a satisfying answer to in just a couple lines is deckbuilding.
“How do you build a deck?”
“How do you build a mana base?”
“How do you know what decks to build?”
“How do you know which cards to play?”
“How can I become a master deckbuilder?”
As such, my next book examines and breaks down this exact subject. Part of the project involves looking at those that have been most successful at deckbuilding so that we can understand and learn from what they do. But who are the best deckbuilders? To answer this question, I asked a panel of some of the game’s greatest deckbuilders, as well as some experts that have had first hand experience with many of the greats. This panel included, but was not limited to:
Randy Buehler, Jon Finkel, Michael Flores, Mark Herberholz, Zac Hill, Scott Johns, Frank Karsten, Darwin Kastle, Brian Kibler, Ted Knutson, Erik Lauer, Osyp Lebedowicz, Mike Long, Billy Moreno, Gabriel Nassif, Matt Place, Ben Rubin, Steve Sadin, Tomoharu Saito, Brian Schneider, Jay Schneider, Luis Scott-Vargas, Adrian Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Gabe Walls, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and Zvi Mowshowitz
Each panel member was instructed to:
“Please select the ten greatest deckbuilders of all-time, by whatever metrics you consider appropriate. Please do not include yourself or myself, if either of us would have made your ballot.”
The results from these ballots have been compiled, and each day this week, we will be studying two more from the list. Out of the millions of players to ever build decks, these players have been selected by their peers as the greatest the game has seen. We would do well to study each of these players, and ask ourselves how we can emulate their success, as well as how we can build on what they did. As we review a few of the best decks ever built by each of the players on our countdown, we’ll have an eye to what we can learn from them, to improve our own deckbuilding.
The Ten Greatest Deckbuilders of All-Time:
Tie – 9th. Mark Herberholz
This year, one of my five votes for the Hall of Fame goes to the consensus best player in the US just four years ago. “Heezy” has taken the past year off from going to Pro Tours to work a job, but it’s only a matter of time before the fever becomes too great to resist. Already Mark has gone back to brewing like a mad man, just for the love. In fact, Mark designed the deck that David Sharfman won Pro Tour Nagoya and Pat Cox Top 8’ed with. That Puresteel Paladin has been discussed recently here , so today we’re going to look at a few other decks that Mark is famous for.
First, we have the deck Mark is probably most famous for, “Heezy Street,” a R/G aggro deck built in an era when few played that color combination and those that did usually used few of the same cards Heezy did. Pro Tour Honolulu 2006 was Standard with Guildpact as the most recent set. Popular strategies of the era were heavily influenced by the recently printed Steam Vents and Godless Shrine, including U/R Tron, U/r Howling Mine/Sudden Impact, U/r Magnivore, B/W discard decks, B/W Promise of Bunrei token aggro, and B/W Tallowisp decks. Additionally, Heartbeat combo was a big factor. The third new dual land from Guildpact, Stomping Ground, was generally reserved for R/G/W Zoo decks, and those that did play straight R/G generally used Rumbling Slum, Shock, Volcanic Hammer, Gruul Guildmage, Sakura Tribe-Elder, Llanowar Elves, and maindeck Umezawa’s Jitte
Herberholz is probably one of the best deck builders when it comes to aggressive strategies; his R/G deck from Honolulu was a perfect example of that. –Osyp Lebedowicz
That event, Mark was part of a beach-house testing group that was primarily focused on a B/G/W midrange junk deck. Mark wasn’t satisfied with the “beach-house deck” and decided to go rogue; however he credits much of his success for that event to his testing group for figuring out what other people would be up to, so that he could then get one step ahead of that. Here is Heezy’s Pro Tour winning R/G deck:
- 4 Kird Ape
- 3 Frenzied Goblin
- 4 Burning-Tree Shaman
- 4 Dryad Sophisticate
- 4 Giant Solifuge
- 4 Scab-Clan Mauler
- 4 Scorched Rusalka
The big breakthrough was completely scrapping “accepted wisdom” about R/G and starting from scratch. Instead of using the nine “best” R/G cards, Mark used the cards that he thought would be best against the decks his beach house teammates thought would be popular. Mark found Jitte to be only good against creature decks, but Moldervine Cloak good against everyone. The removal that everyone else played because that is just what you do, Mark boldly cut, replacing with Flames of the Bloodhand. Flames was hardly on anyone’s radar, since it couldn’t actually hit creatures. However, it was just about the best answer to Loxodon Hierarch and Faith’s Fetters life gain. The lack of removal was partially made up for by Frenzied Goblin preventing blocking (a far more efficient solution to Loxodon Hierarch than Shock), and additional reach was provided by Scorched Rusalka.
Traditional R/G would have massive problems with a Wrath of God followed by a Faith’s Fetters on the post-Wrath Rumbling Slum. When Mark made the switch to the at the time underrated Giant Solifuge, he caught a number of opponents with few answers. Another popular hate card at the time, Pyroclasm, wasn’t particularly good against Mark, since he had Kird Apes, Scab-clan Maulers, Burning-tree Shamans, and Moldervine Cloaks. Eventually, opponents would trade it with a single Dryad Sophisticate, which Mark would immediately make them regret with the Solifuge.
The sheer volume of deckbuilding lessons to be learned from Heezy Street Gruul is shocking. For instance, despite starting from the ground up and using tons of nontraditional card choices, Heezy stuck to a very basic and pure mana curve:
Pro Tour Honolulu was actually Heezy’s second Constructed Top 8 (and third total). The year before, he developed arguably the best Kamigawa block Gifts Ungiven deck, which he piloted to a 7th place finish at Pro Tour Philly 2005. Here is that deck:
A properly built Gifts deck is always a thing of beauty, and this Block version is no exception. Juggling so many colors in a format without that great of mana-fixing options, Heezy’s deck made it seem easy. He set things up so that he wouldn’t need blue or white mana until he had been able to cast at least one accelerant, meaning his mana wasn’t as demanding as it first appeared. Despite the 1’s and 2’s that go along with Gifts decks, Mark stayed disciplined and used the max on “the good cards”â€”Elder, Reach, Gifts, and Top.
Unlike most Gifts players, Mark used far fewer creatures maindeck, instead setting up the Ethereal Haze + Hana Kami + Soulless Revival “lock.” Additionally, he used multiple copies of cards that most players used only one of, such as Wear Away, Soulless Revival, Cranial Extraction, and Hideous Laughter. This was so that he could Gifts for Hana Kami, Soulless Revival, Eerie Procession, and whatever he really wanted (Ethereal Haze or Cranial Extraction for instance).
Probably the greatest piece of technology Mark developed for this event was the “transformational” sideboard he used. While he was not the first to sideboard tons of creatures, the mix he chose was particularly brilliant. To begin with, game one was often about Cranial Extraction wars, which Mark was better set up to do game one. With Soulless Revival and Hana Kami, he would be able to start recurring Extractions every turn. Because Mark started with so many fewer creatures than most people used, most players would board out much of their removal and try to fight him on the Cranial Extraction level, often going even more extreme than he had started. Because Mark (correctly) anticipated that everyone would do this, he went the total opposite direction, boarding away from his combo-control deck towards a tap-out mid-range deck full of bomb creatures.
Six of Heezy’s eleven sideboard creatures cost only two, letting him get them down fast and start gaining an advantage before opponents have time to set up their game plan. Then, to close out the game, Mark has Meloku, Keiga, Yosei, and a couple Kodama of the North Trees to compliment his Kokusho and Ink-Eyes. Why did he play so many different legends of different names? He knew he was going to be Cranial Extracted every turn starting as early as turn three. Even with just four names worth of legends, he would be at risk of running out of victory conditions against a dedicated Cranial Extraction plan very quickly. Additionally, using so many different names would allow Mark to set up better Gifts Piles (especially when combined with Soulless Revival and Hana Kami).
Herberholz is the quintessence of the “gap” designer, filling format inefficiencies with victories rather than seeking out the most broken possible thing (a la Mowshowitz) or simply pushing a concept. Of these ten, Herberholz is probably the most underrated, but also the most flexible, capable of making both the best gap-beatdown or beat gap-control regardless of format. -Michael Flores
Mark’s most recent Top 8 was four years ago at the Time Spiral block constructed Pro Tour, which I had the pleasure of testing with Mark for, before the event. Here is the Teachings list that Mark rode to a 3rd place finish:
It is a rare deckbuilder indeed that excels at both tutor-based control deck design, such as Gifts and Teachings, but also streamlined aggro, like Heezy-Street. Besides, you have to respect the first men to Top 8 a Pro Tour with four Cancel (along with Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Kazuya Mitamura).
The one-ofs should be no surprise, due to Mystical Teachings, but there is no shortage of spice in this brew. The miser’s Teferi’s Moat reminds us of the value of singletons that attack from a different angle than the rest of your deck. Additionally, it saves Mark a sideboard spot in a list that very much is built to be a 75 card deck. Maindeck Extirpate? Disenchant? Haunting Hymn? Mark even maindecked Pull from Eternity to win the Aeon Chronicler wars! Mark knew that Careful Consideration could pick up the slack from drawing dead cards in the wrong match-ups and pushed it harder than anyone (using more than twice as many one-ofs than even Wafo-Tapa).
Many of the specific pieces of technology in Heezy’s Teachings list were not unknown, such as Tendrils + Urborg, but the exact symphony of technology Mark used helps display one of his greatest deckbuilding strengths. He rarely gets sucked into doing things that are “too cute,” but he is also willing to pursue wild and crazy lines that seem super specialized. Mark is one of the best at reading the format and correctly anticipating what everyone else will do. With this knowledge, he is able to develop the exact perfect sequence to counteract opponents’ plans. For instance, he may be planning on Teachings for Teferi to win blue mirrors, with Cancels and Sudden Death to beat Teferi, Chronicler and Detritivore to beat Cancel and Sudden Death, Teachings for Pull from Eternity to beat Chronicler and Detritivore, and Extirpate to fight Teachings.
There are other interesting features to observe from Mark’s build. For instance, Mark identified that mana advantage from storage lands was instrumental in winning blue mirrors (both against Teachings and Vesuvan Shapeshifter/Brine Elemental decks). As such, while few dared played more than four storage lands, Heezy used six. Mark also correctly anticipated that Mono Red and R/G aggro were better than people realized, so he gave himself Teferi’s Moats and Magus of the Tabernacles, as well as the maximum number of Damnations and Tendrils of Corruption after boarding. All these little elements of precision add up to a good clean list. Mark doesn’t always try to break it. Sometimes, you don’t have a broken deck, you just have the best tuned and positioned deck you can.
Mark, like all the deckbuilders we will discuss today, has had far more successful decks than we have room to discuss today, though I would be remiss if I did not remind just how instrumental he has been to both Gabriel Nassif and my success, as well as skill as deckbuilders. Mark was one third of the Mono Red Dragonstorm design that carried Nassif and I to the top four of the 2007 World Championships, which you can see like never before in this video . Heezy was also the lead designer of the Martyr-Tron deck that helped Nassif reach the top four the year before. While both Nassif and I were having success building decks before we worked with Mark, there is no question that he has taught us both more than almost anyone about the craft. When I returned to the tournament scene in 2007, it was Heezy that whipped me into shape and helped me unlock more of my full potential.
Herberholz isn’t just a great deckbuilder, though. He is also one of the most entertaining contestants The Price is Right has ever seen, which you can see here !
Tie – 9th. Michael Flores
There has not exactly been a shortage said about prolific theorist and deckbuilder, Michael Flores, and for good reason. I will spare you the in-depth biography, but suffice it to say that Flores has been a voice in Magic strategy for 15 years, from what is widely considered the best Magic article of all-time,Â Who’s the Beatdown? ,Â up to today being responsible for helping design the most popular pre-banning Splinter Twin deck. You can tell Flores is saying controversial things by watching for when his lips are moving. The other half of the time, he is brewing. This is a man who builds a lot of decks. Flores has developed so many pivotal strategies over the years we can’t possibly but scratch the surface today.
A volume shooter but he can certainly heat up. In case you haven’t heard he was the man behind Napster. -Mark Herberholz
Up first, we have Flores’ most famous deck, the oft-referenced Napster:
What kind of a deck is this anyway? From one angle, it looks like a Suicide Black deck, but from another it is Mono-Black Control. In reality, it was actually a hybrid deck, though back then people didn’t really think about it that way. It had two powerful but distinct lines of play. The first was that of just Mono-Black good stuff, a sort of Mono-Black Control. Yes, Dark Ritual lets you come out aggressively sometimes, but that was just an overpowered card, and not what the deck was built around. You could play spell after spell, then cast one of your four Yawgmoth’s Wills to gain massive card advantage. Just imagine if the Mono-Black control decks today had Dark Rituals and Yawgmoth’s Wills! Getting to play Standard with four copies of each of several cards that were banned or restricted in other formats is always fun.
The other line of play was that of a Vampiric Tutor deck. If you ever cast Vampiric Tutor (aside from its nemesis, Grim Monolith decks) you tended to gain a game-winning advantage immediately. Stromgald Cabal beat Replenish, Engineered Plague and Perish beat Elves, Massacre beat White Weenie, and so on. In fact, the most powerful line was chaining the two halves together. For instance, you could play an attrition game, Vampiric for Yawgmoth’s Will, and then play Vampiric Tutor out of the graveyard to get your next Yawgmoth’s Will. The much maligned Vicious Hunger was a surprisingly effective source of life to fuel the Vampiric Tutors (it also helped to occasionally shoot down turn one Negators).
Flores is like a worse version of Kibler, but occasionally comes up with some gems. –Jon Finkel, who won the US National Championships with Napster
Kamigawa block was especially successful for the Floresian school of deckbuilding. Flores brought “Tap-Out Control” to the modern era, an archetype that had previously only been seen in formats where Force of Will was legal, but is now standard operating procedure and taken as a given. The primary theory that Flores developed in that era was that you can tap out to play a Meloku, Keiga, or other comparable threat, since nothing your opponent does while you are tapped out is going to be as good as what you just did anyway.Â
The most famous of these was Jushi-Blue, which would go on to become the most popular archetype of the 2005 World Championships:
This was tap-out control executed clean and proficiently. In those days, there was no shortage of good countermagic, so don’t let the “tap-out” nature of Flores’s deck fool you. Tap-out decks can use counterspells, a trend we see even today. If you are just buying yourself time play Gideons, Baneslayers, Consecrated Sphinx, and Sun Titans, you don’t actually need to “take control” the old-fashioned way. For instance, why do you need to counter or kill a turn five Goblin Guide, when you just tapped out for one of those bombs?
Jushi-Blue uses Remands, Mana Leaks, Hinders, Rewinds, Disrupting Shoals, and even Boomerangs for basically one purpose: to buy time. Each one is sort of a mini-Time Walk, bringing you one turn closer to that critical moment when you can start tapping out for potentially game-winning threats every turn.
While Jushi-Blue received the most mainstream attention, you have to remember, those were different times. Back then, there were only a fraction of the high-profile Standard tournaments, so the metagame would not evolve and become hyper-netdecked to the degree that we see today. In fact, Jushi-Blue was eventually outclassed by U/G Critical Mass, and even later, we eventually saw what was likely the best Tap-Out deck of the era, a strategy that if it had been played out on the SCG Open circuit today, would likely have been remembered very differently in the history books. That deck is White Wafo-Tapa:
Somewhat like the various KarstenBot decks, this deck was not actually built by its namesake, but by Michael Flores. White Wafo-tapa’s name was an homage to the slightly under the radar (at the time) control deckbuilding master, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. The “White” aspect of the name was because of Flores changing the support color of the deck that inspired this one, a U/r control deck built by Wafo-Tapa.
This is basically just the same Jushi-Blue deck, but with Compulsive Research instead of Jushi Apprentice, Tidings instead of Meloku, Wrath of God instead of Threads of Disloyalty, and Spell Snare instead of Rewind and Disrupting Shoal. Additionally, it featured a Debtor’s Knell, a Yosei, and a Miren the Moaning Well, for an additional endgame lock-down.
Mike may have a million ideas a minute, but it’s people like that who you need on any team. He wasn’t the best tester, and fine tuning strategies wasn’t his strong suit, but when it came to the “big idea” Mike was one of the best. Napster is probably his most famous deck, but there have been countless decks that Mike has designed that have helped many people win tournaments as small as PTQs to as large as World Championships. -Osyp Lebedowicz
Here is that World Championship winning deck, piloted by Andre Coimbra:
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 4 Woolly Thoctar
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 4 Baneslayer Angel
- 1 Scute Mob
Naya Lightsaber wasn’t built to be the best deck from now on, it was meant to be the best deck for one weekend. Slowing the deck down just a notch, allowed the Naya deck to play a very Jund-like game, with Ranger of Eos replacing Bituminous Blast as the compliment to Bloodbraid Elf. Cheap removal, card advantage, and tons of extremely hard hitting threats added up to a formula that was later the inspiration for the Boss Naya deck that Tom Ross, Luis Scott-Vargas, PV, and others used at Pro Tour San Diego to unveil Stoneforge Mystic.
Many of the best deckbuilders of all-time are among the game’s greatest players of all-time. Often, the best way to show people what a deck is capable of is to win with it yourself. Flores is the exception to the rule. Though sometimes the butt of jokes regarding his lack of Pro Tour success, Flores has always been much more of a theorist than an actual tournament player. It is a testament to just how good of a deckbuilder he is, that his peers consider him top 10 all-time, despite never Top 8’ing himself. Flores specialty may be designing PTQ and States-winning strategies, but he has designed numerous Pro Tour winning decks, always piloted by others that know and respect him enough to run his creations primarily on pedigree.
Join us here tomorrow for #8 and #7 in our top 10 countdown. Who will the next two spots go to? Who else deserves to be on the list? Here is a clue for tomorrow’s deckbuilders:
One of them was in New York during the first Pro Tour. The other has had a ton of success in draft, in addition to being one of the most influential deckbuilders.