Bias in the Media: Champs 2005 and the New Decks to Beat

Posted in Feature on October 27, 2005

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

For the first time in recent memory, with no specter of Affinity, no grandfathered Goblins or Astral Slide looming over Standard from either Block or the previous Standard, 2005 Champs was a wide open format. Players came to claim their turf with a huge variety of decks... Sure, they had Gifts Ungiven, but some played aggressive Gifts with Black and Blue bears. White Weenie -- possibly the most popular deck from the summer PTQs -- returned from Kamigawa, sometimes combined with Red cards from the new Boros Guild, sometimes in its traditional one color mode. With just over half the North American Champs reporting at the time of this writing, we can already see more than 30 different archetypes posting Top 8 finishes in the various Provincials and States.

Here is our first look at an unofficial tally of what we have so far:

WW and WWr
Fungus Fire*
Gifts Variants
Heartbeat Variants
Blue Control
G/W decks**
3-5 Color Control or Godo
The Critical Mass Update
B/U Aggro
U/W Control
Enduring Ideal
Greater Good
Battle of Wits
B/U/G Dimir
R/G/W Aggro
Black Control
G/U/W Ninja
Red LD
U/b dedicated
Rogue (other)
Winner Top 8

*including "no Fungus" R/W Burn/control decks
**including Glare of Subdual decks

The decks at the top are perhaps deceptive; I combined the White Weenie and Boros decks in a single row and the R/W burn decks with and without Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree in a single category of Fungus Fire... even if some of those decks had no Fungus. There was also great variety in the composition of the B/G decks... Some were Dredge, some fairly controlling, and others were more aggressive. Like Black Hand in the Kamigawa Block PTQs, these decks played many of the same cards, headlined by Ravnica's utility removal centerpiece Putrefy.

Two Looks at Gifts Ungiven...

Philippe Gareau - Gifts Ungiven

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Jim Roy - Gifts Ungiven

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Gifts Ungiven "variants" led all decks in actual Champs won, but as you can see, the decks were not uniform. Gareau's winner from Quebec is a pretty straightforward implementation of the Kamigawa Block best deck... The new cards are the ubiquitous Putrefy and a couple of dual lands... But contrast with Jim "Rotting Giant" Roy's Alberta winner. Roy's deck looks almost like a Blue Control deck... but out of nowhere has these crazy cards like Akuta, Born of Ash or dedicated main deck removal spells. Roy has been an advocate of "threat diversity" over the more commonly held redundancy theory, and his Alberta first place deck is a good example of Jim's unique outlook.

Of course, if you shift Jim Roy's rogue deck from the Gifts camp to the Blue control, the “top” of the format looks quite different (see the bias, below)…

Great Shades of Ice Age/Alliances! (With and Without the Dude Ranch)

One of the most hyped cards coming out of Ravnica is Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. An even more hyped up card is Lightning Helix. Many players went to Champs with a retro R/W burn philosophy in tow. Coming into this past weekend, the so-called "Fungus Fire" deck, which combined the Saproling-generating Vitu-Ghazi with burn cards, and a dissenting version with no Fungus, both picked up some attention in independent online leagues.

Chris Ripple

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Jin Su Chong

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Godo, Bandit Warlord

Chris Ripple's Pennsylvania winner is a reasonably "classic," if improved, look at Fungus Fire. I actually like his version better than most because it has Godo, Bandit Warlord. Many of these decks play only Firemane Angel for threat creatures, but that never made much sense to me... Fungus Fire plays Sunforger!

The general philosophy of this deck is board control/burn. It races creature decks with the multifaceted Lightning Helix and can close long games by getting Sunforger into play. Fungus Fire exploits one of Ravnica's most popular draft picks in a unique and effective way. In this deck, Faith's Fetters goes a long way. It is a clunky Pacifism, and also a bad Gerrard's Wisdom; together, these two effects make for quite an annoying enchantment from the opponent's perspective. In the post-Kamigawa Standard, which is defined by Meloku from the control side and Umezawa's Jitte from the beatdown side, Faith's Fetters is particularly annoying. The only way to get another Jitte or what have you online is to play a second copy... but the Legend Rule then gets in the way because the first, if immobilized, has not actually left play. Quite messy.

Jin Su Chong's Montana winner has almost the same philosophy as the stock Fungus Fire, but removes Vitu-Ghazi and the Green component entirely to focus exclusively on its proactive burn/board control elements. Chong mixes up the very GargoyleHaups-looking deck (which even has a long game unstoppable White flyer) with Searing Meditation. Combined with Firemane Angel or Lightning Helix -- or Faith's Fetters if Jin had played that card, say -- Searing Meditation provides a recurring source of direct damage.

Nobody Remembers Fifth Place

Bennie Smith

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Stinkweed ImpNot just for draft anymore?

Check out Virginia's number five... That's our own Bennie Smith behind... one of the ugliest decks I've ever seen. Bennie is actually a former Virginia State Champion with B/G. It looks like he figured out how to grab the old lightning and post another B/G States Top 8.

Now it is said that nobody remembers second place, and certainly fifth place is not usually something to write home about, but Bennie's deck is genuinely... odd. Running a Stinkweed Imp engine to hold off even the most efficient, sleek, and beautiful threats on a persistent basis, Bennie can Dredge through his deck to set up a Demonic Tutor-like availability of graveyard options. The selection is extreme in this case when we hit Dimir House Guard. I am sure that I am not alone in double taking that particular 2/3 for four mana... In constructed deck?

In Bennie's deck, Dimir House Guard plays a poor Diabolic Tutor for one mana less. He can set up a fourth turn Nekrataal, draw into Greater Mossdog, or set up his mighty 1 + 3 Nightmare Void in Game One.

264 Shades of Jon Finkel

A few years ago, Jon Finkel went 3-0 in the Standard portion of the Magic Invitational with Battle of Wits. High on this accomplishment, he inexplicably decided to play Battle of Wits in every format possible... but never matched that first 3-0.

But this isn't Extended. Today we are talking about another Standard format, one where Battle of Wits is again available. Toby Wachter's onetime baby is viable and might even be quite good.

Keyafar Saleh - Battle of Wits

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Saleh's deck is quite simply insane. When you have 264 cards to work with, you can fit in just about everything. He has an Enduring Ideal engine, complete with Hondens (the Ideal can of course fetch Battle of Wits); He has more counters than a Mono-Blue control deck, and can even go crazy Gifts Ungiven style.

Notice that cards like Brainspoil are playable as Dimir House Guard in Bennie Smith's deck due to Transmute. Saleh can swap the clunky Brainspoil for his signature win condition and, given all that mana acceleration, can probably take the game home by turn five.

Is That Good?

Apparently it is, because three out of the four players in Donald Swindler's crew made Top 8 at South Carolina States with their Greater Good variant (the fourth missed Top 8 by losing to another copy of the same deck):

Donald Swindler

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Greater Good is a uniquely Green look at the same Tribe Elder/Divining Top engine that drove much of Kamigawa Block, from Gifts Ungiven to TOGIT Three-color Control and others. Swindler's team can set up Yosei after Yosei with Gleancrawler keeping the juice flowing for exactly one side of the table. Of course the Greater Good deck is filled with many very good creatures, so it doesn't need to rely on the Time Walk combination.

Here Comes That Bias

Go up one state and you'll hit North Carolina. That state's champion took his Champs with The Critical Mass Update, a U/G deck designed by yours truly. This deck also won the enormous Ohio States (twice the size of most other Champs), where three Critical Mass Updates placed in the Top 8, and did well in several other events.

Orrin Beasley

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Brian Fulop

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The general philosophy of The Critical Mass Update is to play the very best threats in the format... All of them. What other deck plays the Tribe Elder/Top engine, Jitte, and four copies of Meloku the Clouded Mirror? On top of those, what deck has an even better early beatdown game than White Weenie or Boros?

This deck is designed to break Vinelasher Kudzu, which is the current Standard's answer to Wild Mongrel or Arcbound Ravager in the offensive two-drop category. With Meloku providing +1/+1 counters until the game ends and Sakura-Tribe Elder and Wood Elves depositing lands in the short term, Vinelasher Kudzu is almost unstoppable in this deck.

The Critical Mass Update plays like a Counter-Sliver deck. It has powerful and fast threats, which distinguish it from a deck like Mono-Blue Control, but can protect a lead with its permission spells. Where a White Weenie deck will lose its board position to KageMaro, First to Suffer or a Wrath of God out of Fungus Fire, The Critical Mass Update will strategically counter the opponent's board control spell and/or follow up with Keiga, Meloku, or Arashi to close the game without having to actually seize complete control.

I am admittedly biased, but I consider The Critical Mass Update to be one of the two best decks in the current Standard. If you test this deck against the other decks to beat, primarily the ubiquitous Boros and Gifts Ungiven and the perhaps over-hyped Fungus Fire, you will see that this deck compares very favorably. It may not be as popular a deck you'll see, but this is itself one of the best available decks to play yourself if you want to win your next Standard tournament.

Now there is one other deck that I particularly like for the current Standard, which I consider to be the best overall. That deck is Mono-Blue control:

Julian Levin - Flores Blue Control

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Dimir Aqueduct
This deck represents the evolution of the Blue-splash-Black deck I posted prior to Champs, and includes many innovations to fight the field. Our baseline assumption going into Champs was that Blue Control was the best strategy, possessing the strongest plan, so we tuned around the potential cards and strategies that could beat us. For example, Dimir Aqueduct is there to trump Suppression Field and Hokori, Dust Drinker. Execute and Drift of Phantasms are in the sideboard to Overwhelm a White Weenie or Boros opponent in fights where Jushi Apprentice is sub-optimal.

In New York, our group played three copies of the Mono-Blue Control deck and two copies of the Critical Mass Update. All three Blue decks made Top 8, finishing 1,2, and 8; one of the two Critical Mass decks made Top 8 (second in the Swiss after the eventual finalist Mono-Blue, finishing fourth), beating the other Critical Mass along the way. None of these Top 8 decks lost to anyone outside the group.

Again, I suggest testing the Mono-Blue against the popular decks in the field. Like The Critical Mass Update, the Mono-Blue deck has highly favorable match-ups against Boros and Gifts, and can beat anything in between.

We haven't exhausted the options in Standard by any means. There are simply too many decks to hit for a single article. The ones I included here are the ones I found most interesting or most important to consider. We will probably revisit Standard in a few weeks, once all the Top 8 decks are in, and maybe crunch a few numbers as we take a break from the “other” constructed format.

Final Thoughts Before We Switch Gears

We'll be going full throttle into Extended for the Pro Tour and the PTQ season starting next week, which means that unless you are playing in the Last Chance Qualifier today, Standard won't be relevant on a large scale until Regionals. However, if you want to take home the next FNM or 8-Man Queue, I would approach Standard thusly:

  • Test against White Weenie and Boros.
  • Make sure you can beat Gifts Ungiven.
  • Be aware of the new decks, primarily the ones packing a lot of Keigas and Melokus, which don't strictly fall between the "original" extremes of the metagame.
  • Don't forget that Hypnotic Specter is the primary limiting factor of the format. Some people can summon the said on turn two.
  • Draw a mix of land and spells.

Generally speaking, I wouldn't play a deck like Fungus Fire because, no matter how good it might be against pure aggro, the best decks in the format are not pure aggro. There may be a lot of White Weenie decks, but the best aggressive decks in the format have Mana Leaks. Also, don't forget that even though none of them actually won a Champs, Heartbeat variants are in the format and quite viable. Decks like Fungus Fire with few if any interactive elements to fight solitaire decks will not be a good choice if the icky combo players catch on.

For reference:

Eric Taylor - Heartbeat

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