Whenever a big Standard tournament like Regionals happens, I can't wait to see all the new decklists, as are most fans of the format. Of course, most people are trying to get an accurate read of what the metagame will look like going forward, but I'm interested in how R&D did with their own internal metagame a year ago.
Below I'm going to compare seven decks that finished highly (second or better) in Regionals this year with their vague analogues from the R&D labs—the “Future Future League”—of a year ago, when Guildpact and Dissension were in development.
A reminder about what we try to do as developers: The FFL wants to understand future metagames in a general sense. We want to know what colors are powerful and which are weak, how many cards each set looks to be contributing to the environment, and what we'll need to push in future sets to shake things up or balance them out. To that end, we build and play tons and tons of decks, of which the seven I chose are but a small sampling.
We generally come close to what ends up really happening a year later once the cards hit the streets. For example, we knew that Zoo and Gruul beats would be defining decks, but we never made a great “Steam Vents” deck at all—we couldn't tweak the numbers quite right, and didn't try the Urzatron in two-color builds. We had “Ghost Husk” pegged as a major player for the Orzhov, but couldn't get our Early Harvest combo decks to be consistent enough. In every case, the decks that you took to Regionals were better than the decks we had internally, so I wouldn't look to this column for much in the way of “tech” - instead look at it as a glimpse into the world of development. We walk a fine line—know too little, and the environment could be a train wreck; know too much and it feels hyper-engineered and “pre-built.”
I'll present the “real” deck first, and then follow it up with R&D's decklist pasted exactly as it appeared in our email folder where we collect competitive deck ideas during development. Our decklists are full of playtest names and shorthand, but they'll give you an accurate view of how we communicate with one another. I'll follow up each R&D deck with some notes explaining our card choices and how our decks influenced how cards were printed.
1) Ghost Husk
“Ghost Husk”—Orzhov decks featuring Nantuko Husk and Promise of Bunrei—were the big stars of Regionals. Many pundits call it the best deck because it is resilient, has good threat diversity, and can win out of nowhere.
Internally, our version of the deck was very good, winning a couple small tournaments. The following list features Soul Warden as the one-drop of choice (over Isamaru) simply because the card is more “combo-riffic.”
Wilt-Free Zone – FFL – Aaron Forsythe
4 Jack Spicer
4 Soul Warden
4 Hand of Cruelty
3 Ghost Council
4 City of Kids
3 Terashi's Grasp
2 Seize the Soul
2 Moratorium Stone
What's going on with that decklist:
Some call her....Trent.
- “Wilt-Free Zone” refers to the fact that this is an Orzhov deck without Mortify. The playtest names of Putrefy and Mortify were “Wither” and “Wilt” respectively, and this deck oddly didn't pack the latter. I believe my earlier attempts at this deck had Wilts instead of Jittes, as I figured I could handle opposing Jittes with all my sacrifice outlets. I ended up relenting and playing Jittes anyway. It's interesting to note that the real-world version of Ghost Husk played Mortifies but no Jittes.
- All the Guildpact Rusalkas had playtest names taken from the kids cartoon Xiaolin Showdown; Jack Spicer is Plagued Rusalka.
- Everyone should know that “Bob” is Dark Confidant, named after Bob Maher, Jr. Bob's mana cost was changed from BB to 1B so that decks like this one would be enabled.
- “Trent” is Teysa, Orzhov Scion. Her design name was “Trent, Goth Executioner.” I had no idea at the time that I was designing the card that was meant to be the Guildpact novel protagonist, which is why her abilities aren't a great match for her character.
- Orzhov Pontiff was an interesting card in development. It took us a long time to come up with an ability we liked for it (his art was commissioned based on a previous ability that wouldn't fit on a card). We eventually came up with a 1WB 2/1 that had haunt and did both of the Pontiff's current abilities instead of being modal. He got taken down a couple notches and still ended up being a powerful card.
- The Ghost Council used to cost zero mana to activate. He was really dumb. The funny thing is that we left him that way for a long time.
- I had several versions of this deck that featured multiple copies of Belfry Spirit. Hence, the Spirit's mana cost was increased from 2WW to 3WW. As you can imagine, he was ridiculous at four mana.
- “City of Kids” is shorthand for Promise of Bunrei's playtest name—“City of Lost Children.” The City was one of development's pet cards; we expected it to show up a lot in Standard. Until recently, it never really delivered. And yes, I had to find out the hard way that creative and/or templating made the tokens colorless. That's why there's only one Teysa left in the deck.
- “WB2” is shorthand for “white-black dual land that costs me two life,” otherwise known as Godless Shrine. It is not Orzhov Basilica.
- Grave-Shell Scarab, Firemane Angel, Soulless Revival, and Life from the Loam were all very heavily played internally, hence the Moratorium Stones in the 'board.
Zoo, popularized by Craig Jones at PT--Honolulu, seems to have outlasted “Heezy Street” (Gruul) as the beatdown deck of choice. With a fabulous suite of burn spells and a horde of super-efficient creatures, the deck can win blazingly fast.
Internally, lead developer Brian Schneider first put forth the idea that RGW beatdown had to be insane with Guildpact, even if the deck's mana did 14 damage to its controller. Paul Sottosanti built the “touchstone” version that we all used to bounce our other decks off of. If a deck couldn't hang with RGW, it probably wasn't a “real” deck.
Three-Deuce – FFL – Paul Sottosanti
4 Kird Ape
4 RG 3/3
4 WG 3/3
4 Stone Rain
4 Shambling City
4 RG Land
4 WG Land
4 RW Land
1 R Legend Land
1 G Legend Land
1 W Legend Land
3 WG Pain
2 RW Pain
4 RG Pain
4 Creeping Mold
3 Pink Bolt
What's going on with that decklist:
- “RG 3/3” and “WG 3/3” are Scab-Clan Mauler and Watchwolf, obv.
- “Baloth” is Loxodon Hierarch, also obv. Note that most of these cards had real names by this point, but we generally take the path of least effort when writing decklists.
- “Kids” is, again, Promise of Bunrei (I told you we liked it), and “Stone Rain” is, well, Stone Rain. Paul's version wasn't as burn-heavy as the successful real-world Zoo builds; instead, it was more of a fast, disruptive, three-color beatdown deck. (“Three-Deuce” was the name of a popular RGW Extended deck that packed efficient creatures and disruptive elements.)
- “Shambling City” was going to be the name of Rumbling Slum until someone reminded Matt Cavotta that there was already a card named Shambling Shell in the block. The Slums only lasted a week or so in the deck before they were replaced with the faster “Christmas Ants,” now known as Giant Solifuge.
- Why no Burning-Tree Shaman? Simple… it didn't exist yet. We created the Shaman relatively late in Guildpact development as a foil to some of Kamigawa's annoying hallmarks—Sensei's Divining Top, Umezawa's Jitte, and Meloku. Later versions of this deck contained the Shaman.
- In the sideboard you'll see “Position” and “Pink Bolt.” The former is Glare of Subdual—it has the name “Position” because it wasn't quite “Opposition.” The latter is Lightning Helix, given this cute moniker because, well, red and white make pink.
- The Terrarions in the board are part of the “I'm scared of Blood Moon” package that Paul devised. The Creeping Molds can up the number of LD spells to eight; we loved playing Karoos in the FFL and Paul frequently made us pay for it.
Some people call this deck “Critical Mass,” but because the (Gnarled) Mass has been removed for the new hotness—Plaxcaster Frogling—I'll stick to the simpler moniker “Graft.”
Internally, we had doubts as to whether or not Simic creature decks would be competitive in Dissension Standard, as we figured Wrath of God was a great answer to every damage source the deck could muster. Of course, with ten counterspells to keep Wrath at bay, the deck turned out to be pretty darned good. Out versions were a little lighter on the counters… unless you're talking +1/+1 counters…
Doubling Graft – FFL – Nate Heiss
4 Wood snake
4 Scatter the Seeds
4 Acorn Couatl
4 Double Trouble
3 Instant 2/2 Kicker-untargetable-man
4 U/G Karoo
What's going on with that decklist:
- “Wood Snake” was the design name for Coiling Oracle. It was a wanna-be Sakura-Tribe Elder (which was “Rampant Snake” here in development) with the size and stats of Wood Sage, a little-known card from Tempest.
- There are twelve graft creatures here—four Plaxcaster Frogling, four Cytoplast Root-Kin (which was “Cytospawn Shambler”), and four Sporeback Troll. Say what? Ah, the Troll. The Troll originally cost just 1G, and at that cost, Nate was willing to put him in the “best two-mana creatures of all time” category. Combined with the Frogling, you could set up a board position where your creatures couldn't die in combat, and they couldn't be targeted outside of combat. (Frogling had an activation of 1 instead of 2 initially, which was incredibly frustrating to face.) We came to our senses eventually and swapped the costs on the Troll and Aquastrand Spider.
- Other playtest names: “Acorn Couatl” was Patagia Viper, “Double Trouble” was Doubling Season, and “Instant 2/2 Kicker-untargetable-man” was Plaxmanta. “Tropical” is short for Tropical Island, which is what we called Breeding Pool.
- Cytoshape, at various points in its life, was (a) two mana, and (b) uncommon. Its power made us change the former, and Mark Gottlieb made us change the latter, as the card presented too many rules problems to be considered simple, regardless of how easy to read the text was. In Nate's deck it plays a lot like Terminate—when you 'Shape an opponent's guy into a graft creature, it becomes a 0/0 and dies.
- Wait a second… Where are the Jittes? The Melokus? Heck, the Yavimaya Coasts? This is a block deck, built to test graft in the most un-diluted environment possible. This gives us a good sense of how powerful the deck and mechanic are going into the next block.
I love Nick's deck. Nick had a keen eye for Constructed back when we'd play against each other in tournaments around Pittsburgh (Tempest / Urza's Saga days), but in recent years he's shifted his attention almost totally to Limited play. So I don't know if he's the inventor of this wacky masterpiece, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was.
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and Dovescape are two cards that most people had a hard time nailing down. Was there a deck for them to go into? Do they spawn their own decks? Even here in R&D we could never quite find good homes for these cards, although we knew they were both very powerful. I'm glad that Nick found some place to feature both of them that looks like it works very well.
The following deck doesn't have all that much to do with Nick's deck, but it is an interesting concoction that was built to put Dovescape through the wringer. It actually did fairly well for me.
Spells Alive! – FFL – Aaron Forsythe
4 Spells Alive!
4 GW Guildmage
4 Chord of Calling
2 Trophy Hunter
1 Nullmage Shepherd
What's going on with this decklist:
- This is another block deck.
- “Spells Alive!”, a.k.a. Dovescape, was five mana for a period of time. Many decks just scooped to the card, and those types of effects should be expensive.
- The goal here was to break the symmetry of Dovescape in as many ways as possible. Blue didn't offer many ways to do that, so I went with green and black instead. Tolsimir and Selesnya Guildmage can make my doves bigger, and Pontiff and Trophy Hunter can kill my opponents'.
- Chord of Calling is ridiculous with Dovescape in play… you can pay X mana+creatures to get X+3 more doves.
- The “Land” included multiple copies of Vitu-Ghazi.
When I first saw “Owl” posted on a message board somewhere prior to Honolulu, I showed it to my coworkers and our reactions were generally the same: “This is really a deck?”
Internally, the closest we came was a goofy Howling Mine Burn deck tossed together by Nate Heiss. It had the capability to catch other decks off guard, but I don't think we ever expected something like it to actually burst onto an unsuspecting metagame. I'm tempted to say we missed this deck internally, but to Nate's credit, I'll only call it a half-miss.
Howling Butt – FFL – Nate Heiss
1 10 at 10
4 Lava Spike
4 Gaze of Adamaro
4 Flames of the Blood Hand
3 Kami of the Crescent Moon
4 Cerebral Vortex
4 Glacial Ray
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Howling Mine
4 Volcanic Island
4 U/R Painland
4 Pithing Needle
3 Blood Moon
What's going on with this deck:
- “Howling Butt” refers to Kami of the Crescent Moon, affectionately known as “The Butt.”
- This deck is clearly more focused on burn as opposed to full-hand tricks. After all, it doesn't even have Ebony Owl Netsuke, a card we didn't put much stock in for constructed play.
- “10 at 10” is Hidetsugu's Second Rite. That Nate is full of wacky surprises.
- “Volcanic Island” is a nickname for Steam Vents, and “Geddon” in the sideboard is Thoughts of Ruin.
- This deck was built to test Cerebral Vortex during Guildpact development. The Vortex was a late add to the set when we had to kill a Wheel of Fortune variant.
I'm really happy that this deck showed up. We figured Blue-White control would exist simply by virtue of us printing Hallowed Fountain, but we wanted to push another class of Azorius cards as well. Because the colors are 1-2 in flying, we figured a flying creature theme might work well. Looks like it did.
Skies – FFL – Brian Schneider
4 Suntail Hawk
4 Lantern Kami
4 2/1 Flier
4 Leonin Skyhunter
4 Kami of Ancient Law
2 U/W Guildmage (Ugh -- should be pro-black Bushido guy)
4 Umezawa's Jitte
4 Brainwave */* Flier
4 2/1 Unblockable gain 4 guy
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Eiganjo Castle
What's going on with this deck:
- This was one of the first attempts at making Blue/White aggro. Our later versions were much better.
- Playtest names: “Pup” = Isamaru, “2/1 Flier” = Mistral Charger, “Brainwave */* Flier” = Pride of the Clouds, “2/1 Unblockable gain 4 guy” = Azorius Herald. Brainwave was the original name of forecast.
- Pride of the Clouds was three mana (1WU) for a long time, and its forecast ability was five mana (3WU). In an attempt to make a “hallmark” forecast card, both numbers were reduced.
Wildfire decks were a tough nut for us to crack. Historically, its power level has fluctuated between World Championship winning when it appeared in Urza's Saga to complete dud when it returned in Seventh Edition. When it came back in Ninth Edition, several decks that used it evolved, from Adrian Sullivan's Eminent Domain to Anton Jonsson's early Magnivore versions, to recent Urzaton versions like Tommy's here.
2 Mark of Eviction
3 UR Signet
3 RW Signet
4 Ghostly Prison
1 Copy Enchantment
4 Faith's Fetters
2 Gifts Ungiven
4 Dream Leash
3 RW Karoo
3 UR Karoo
3 RW Tapland
3 UR Tapland
4 UW Painland
2 UR Painland
2 RW Painland
What's going on with this deck:
- Ghostly Prison was a card we played a ton, yet never caught on all that much in the real world. It works amazingly well in combination with Wildfire and Annex, but perhaps that's overkill.
- Copy Enchantment works really powerfully with Dream Leash; it lets you steal untapped permanents.
- Most of our Wildfire decks were Red/Green with Rumbling Slums and Arashi in addition to Green acceleration. We certainly never had the Urzatron in a Wildfire deck. We did build a version of Magnivore-Wildfire, which you can see here.
And there you have it. Not bad guesses on our part…granted, I'm only highlighting the decks that we came close on. There are plenty of decks I could show you that never caught on, and there are plenty of Regionals decks that we didn't predict. But that's all part of the fun!
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Through a bit of market research, we found out that Discovery Channel was popular within the Magic-playing demographic—something we didn't anticipate. We were curious as to what programs on that channel were popular.