Domin-8

Posted in Feature on November 25, 2014

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."

Let's play a game.

Let's play a game about the best—no, the most dominating—cards in tournament Magic history. It's tough to get a bunch of even intelligent people to agree on what's "best." Is Ancestral Recall the best card? Yawgmoth's Will? Black Lotus? Is there even any way to measure this so everyone agrees? How do we measure older cards against newer cards?

Vintage Masters Balance | Art by Kev Walker

What we can do is agree on a context.

There isn't any perfect single context, but we do know that cards are largely judged on performance, from a particular place in time, against other cards available at the same time.

Here's one:

Given only Pro Tour and Grand Prix (that is, pro point-granting) Top 8s, what cards appeared most often? Are there cards that appeared in every deck? As four-ofs in every deck? That were, for even a few fleeting moments (or over the course of one spectacular weekend) completely and utterly dominating? Or, shall we say, domin-8-ing?

This is Top 8 Week, so we will talk about the Top 8 most domin-8-ing cards, ever . It just so happens that there are about nine cards, total, for which you could make a consistent argument, and it just so happens that there is exactly one card in six of the seven major card types (artifact, creature, enchantment, and so on). And there is one slam-dunk winner and one very solid also-ran for each of instant and sorcery. We'll talk about all nine in this article.

But how about our game?

For each card type I'll give a little intro, leave a little space, and ask you to guess the most domin-8-ing card. We'll jump, find out about the real deal, and learn a little bit about which decks in what Top 8 gave rise to however many big numbers. Grok?

You grok.

Let's begin!

Instant

When you think about a really dominating instant, or at least the kind of instant that could make its way in big numbers across lots of decks in a single format/tournament, what kind of cards do you think of? What formats do you think of? One of the first guesses I made at this one was actually Dismember. Dismember was a card that, due to its Phyrexian mana options, could be played in literally any deck—no matter what color—and was often played as a four-of (at least after sideboarding) as a catch-all defense to New Phyrexia set-mate Deceiver Exarch. Dismember was a staple in Standard and still sees piecemeal play as a Tarmogoyf hunter in contemporary Legacy decks. What do you think about Dismember? What do you think, yourself?

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing instant?

I wasn't even close with my guess on Dismember; at least not for Top 8s on the Pro Tour/Grand Prix level.

If you really, really think about instants...what kind of card seems the scariest?

That's right, counterspells.

But which counterspells, if any, are likely to see 24, 28, or even 32 copies in a Top 8?

Your first instinct might be Counterspell itself, but Counterspell has never really been legal in any format with any kind of homogenous adoption of blue Draw-Go or Fortress-style decks. There has always been some kind of dissenting voice to Counterspell.

My next guess was Force of Will.

Let me tell you...Force of Will got very, very close. Just last weekend at Grand Prix New Jersey, Force of Will put up 24 copies in the Top 8 (four copies in six different decks), and that wasn't even its best showing.

The most dominant counterspell (and second most dominant instant) in the history of Top 8s is...

But I would argue that is only the second most dominant instant of all time. Why? Because on two separate occasions the next card put up 28.

Royce Walter's Ad Nauseam Tendrils

Royce Walter played a combo deck with four copies of Brainstorm but zero copies of Force of Will at Grand Prix New Jersey 2014; or, was Force of Will's most notorious detractor. Congratulations Mana Leak!

Given a "Top 8 Week" aesthetic of eight cards, I think it's fair to include Mana Leak in our final count, peer to Brainstorm at 28 copies as it was in Dallas-Fort Worth...although with the asterisk that Brainstorm's pulling of 28 copies twice seems the greater demonstration of total domin-8-tion.

Land

Longtime players who have been at this for say, fourteen or fifteen years, can probably guess the lethal land in their sleep. This was a land that, in its day, was widely considered the toughest single Magic card to play against, ever, in Standard.

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing Land?

If you guessed Wasteland, that was a pretty good guess, if ultimately nowhere close.

The best numbers I could come up with for Wasteland were 20 copies in the Top 8 of the 1999 World Championships. That said, the complexion of the 1999 World Championships with 20 Wastelands was a dramatic shift from the Top 8 of the 1998 World Championships one year (but a handful of Wastelands) earlier. The 1999 World Championships featured four mono-red (really three mono-red and one mono-brown) decks, two mono-black, and two mono-green. ALL monocolor! Wasteland severely restricted players' appetite for trying more than one color because it was so easy to have a color cut off.

What was even worse?

The answer, of course, is the 2000 version of Wasteland...

The narrative of Pro Tour New York 2000 was Rebel dominance. Most of the Pro Tour expected heavy performance from Ramosian Sergeant and Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero...and with good reason. The Top 8 of that tournament featured five mono-white Rebel decks and two mono-blue Rising Waters decks. The lone two-color deck in the Top 8 was from Pro Tour Hall of Famer Ben Rubin, with a GW deck.

Ben Rubin's Green-White

Ben's deck's success was a dual-edged sword, though. Its "12 Forests and 13 Plains" doesn't look anything like a consistent Constructed mana base when you need to hit a first-turn Ramosian Sergeant, and he could only afford one copy of Rishadan Port (decreasing that total 28 number).

The winning deck was Sigurd Eskeland's Rising Waters deck.

Sigurd Eskeland's Rising Waters

In a deck featuring all four copies of Rishadan Port, the big Viking did good work with his!

It's tough to say Rishadan Port was flat-out tougher to beat than Wasteland, but not impossible to say. Coexisting with Rising Waters was only part of Rishadan Port's anti-multicolor campaign; Wasteland never turned off a basic.

Lands Post Script:

For purposes of lands, I considered only nonbasic lands. I'm sure there is a Top 8 somewhere with 80 or so Plains in it! Separately, the encyclopedic Patrick Chapin suggested it is possible that there were as many as 32 Strip Mines in the Top 8 of the "Type I Pro Tour" at PT Dallas in 1996...but we couldn't find any record to confirm that.

Creature

Is there any more iconic Magic card type than creature?

What do you think of when you think of a dominant creature? A first-turn Hypnotic Specter? A first-turn Goblin Guide? Or Disciple of the Vault? A ban-worthy Deathrite Shaman? Something else that costs one mana?

What about a gigantic monster that destroys whole worlds with every attack? Emrakul, the Æons Torn mayhap? I'll agree that Emrakul is powerful...but I'm not sure it is dominant in the sense of raw numbers in a single Top 8.

Creature is so exciting!

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing creature?

I don't suppose you picked...

Wow.

Just, um, wow.

...more on this in a second.

Enchantment

That whole "creature" thing didn't really work out the way I thought it would. A 0/3 defender? Really? Let's try this again.

Is there any more iconic Magic card type than enchantment?

Land Tax...Illusions of Grandeur...Survival of the Fittest...Friggin' Necropotence ? Boom! Bitterblossom is literally my least-favorite Magic: The Gathering card, ever, it was so frustrating to play against.

Enchantments! Now there are some Magic cards! In fact, I can't think of any more powerful, defining, dare I say dominating—or domin-8-ing—cards than enchantments. Surely we will find...um... twenty copies of Necropotence in a Grand Prix Top 8?

Hold on! Where are the mono-Bitterblossom Top 8s?

What do you mean there weren't any?

Twenty copies at Grand Prix Kuala Lampur 2000...is not even close.

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing enchantment?

The most dominant enchantment ever is...

A big part of the fun of Magic: The Gathering is how it defies expectations. If you think of a really, really dominant creature like Stoneforge Mystic...what does it say to you that there have never been more than sixteen copies in the Top 8 of a Grand Prix or Pro Tour? Same on Squadron Hawk.

But Sylvan Caryatid? One heroic beatdown deck from the perfect 32! Ditto on "enchantment" Courser of Kruphix. These are two different, clearly good but generally unassuming, defensive cards that just help you cast your spells more consistently.

I took a second to talk to Patrick Chapin, winner of Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, about not just his deck, but the topic of dominant cards in Magic as a philosophy of deck design.

Top 8 Week's 8 Questions with Pro Tour Journey into Nyx Domin-8-or Patrick Chapin

Does it surprise you that—by number of copies of a card in a single Pro Tour or Grand Prix Top 8—Sylvan Caryatid is the most dominating creature of all time? Mightn't you have guessed something like Stoneforge Mystic?

No, I wouldn't have! Stoneforge Mystic is the "best" creature of all time but would not be set up to rack up Top 8 numbers in the same way because it was always set up against powerful things. Not having seen your whole list, I'd assume most of the results would be skewed either to Block (like my Top 8 win) or cards from "broken" formats that were eventually banned.

How about Courser of Kruphix as the most populous enchantment? Something like eight copies better than Necropotence's best Top 8 showing and better than Bitterblossom, too.

Bitterblossom I understand not being in the 28+ range because there were always good things for it to fight. What I wonder is HOW MANY YEARS was Necropotence legal...and we could never get there? I think Land Tax is a weaker candidate because it was restricted in the first year of the Pro Tour, but Necropotence is really surprising.

Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix supported several different archetypes in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Journey into Nyx; can you talk a little about how you chose yours instead of one of the flashier Sultai or Constellation-Abzan builds?

I just tried to play the most "best" cards. I don't really care too much about anything but how much the cards cost and what you get out of them.

Sultai was really fun because you get to manipulate your library, but I didn't think it was "better" than the cards I played, and I just wanted to play more and more of any cards that gave me a good rate.

The best example is probably Fleecemane Lion. Going white for Fleecemane Lion is comparable to playing, say, the Sultai colors; comparable, but off the radar so people were under-prepared for it. I played against a number of people who had Magma Jet instead of Lightning Strike. Fleecemane Lion ripped them to shreds.

Being different for the sake of different is worth very little, but being different where people under-prepare can be a good reason to play that different, comparably powerful, strategy.

Do you think your time as a member of the Magic R&D team impacted your thinking about identifying great cards over great synergies or decks as a specific skill?

Not really.

Is there one skill that you think would most benefit aspiring deck builders?

Mastering the balance of being open-minded and rational.

For a successful deck designer, it is more important to get to "the truth" of the situation than it is to "be right" in an argument.

What do you think the most potentially dominating card to play in Standard is, right now?

The three best cards in Standard are Siege Rhino, Dig Through Time, and Courser of Kruphix (and Courser is a distant third).

Many people are poor at evaluating Siege Rhino and are still surprised by its performance—even in Modern—despite the fact that it has already won a Pro Tour. If you just do the math...it really is THAT good. Loxodon Hierarch was a good Magic card in its day...Siege Rhino is like a Loxodon Hierarch that draws an additional card!

Forget about "domin-8-ing" cards...What is your favorite tournament Magic card?

Jace, the Mind Sculptor! Although Courser of Kruphix is really high up there.

You're clearly one of the best and most experienced deck builders in the history of the game, and with your Pro Tour win, one of the most successful. How can players hear more from you?

I am a columnist at StarCityGames.com and the author of Next Level Magic and Next Level Deck Building. I just started a new Magic podcast at www.toplevelpodcast.com

Thanks to Pat!

Back to cards!

Artifact

There have certainly been a slew of dominating artifacts in Magic. The problem when thinking about them in terms of pure numbers and Top 8 tonnage is...so many have spent their lives restricted. No big deal that every deck in a Top 8 might have played Zuran Orb (or if you go back far enough, Black Vise or even Black Lotus)...when you were only allowed to play one copy.

I pretty much knew what the top artifact was going in so I'll refrain from more at this time.

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing Artifact?

It was...

Eugene Harvey's Tinker

The Pro Tour New Orleans Top 8 featured several distinct Grim Monolith/Tinker configurations. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif played a combo deck that killed with Goblin Charbelcher. The criminally underrated Rickard Österberg won New Orleans with his "George W. Bosh" deck, that killed with Bosh, Iron Golem. And then you had the relatively vanilla—but still explosive—overlap of mana acceleration and toolbox flexibility (plus Upheaval semi-combo) of a deck like Harvey's.

Why did I pick Eugene as the Grim Monolith/Tinker exemplar?

Those three copies of City of Traitors.

Every other Grim Monolith/Tinker deck in this Top 8 featured all four copies of City of Traitors; but the Eugenius and his three copies brought the City of Traitors count to a mere 27...keeping Rishadan Port's New York 2000 pedigree as most domin-8-ing land unchallenged.

"Thanks Eugene!"
Rishadan Port

Sorcery

Okay, this is easy, right?

Just glance up to the previous section, right?

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing Sorcery?

If you said Tinker...

You were dead wrong.

I, by the way, also thought it was Tinker. I mean Tinker went 28-for-28 with Grim Monolith in the Top 8 of Pro Tour New Orleans. The problem is that there is a sorcery that flat-out outperformed that 28.

Remember at the top of the article when we said there were about nine cards in contention? I feel like Mana Leak's 28 puts it in the same category as Brainstorm's 28. And to be fair, I had to revise this article the Monday after Grand Prix New Jersey because, well, before Grand Prix New Jersey, Brainstorm didn't have a second 28.

But Tinker was never really the most domin-8-ing sorcery.

Sharing Mana Leak's 28 Top 8 was an even more domin-8-ing blue card:

In addition to being one of only two cards to achieve the perfect 32, Preordain may just be the most underrated Magic card of all time. That is saying something for a card that is banned in Modern!

For the purposes of this Grand Prix Top 8, Preordain served many functions. Drawing a Preordain late in a game, when you were in a topdeck war, would often result in a game win (as you could go and find your key cards for a tiny mana cost). But what about on the first turn?

Owen Turtenwald's Temur

Notice Pro Tour Player of the Year and Top 8 competitor Owen Turtenwald played this little two-drop Lotus Cobra. The difference in games that started on a turn-two Lotus Cobra and those that didn't was dramatic. If he followed up with a Scalding Tarn he'd have the mana for a third-turn Precursor Golem (you know, 9 power); or he could play any number of explosive Explore; Oracle of Mul Daya; or Jace, the Mind Sculptor sequences...often with Lightning Bolt or Mana Leak mana back.

Yes, these plays were all about Lotus Cobra, but Preordain went a long way in increasing the consistency of those plays.

You know everything I just said about Lotus Cobra? It goes double—literally double—for Stoneforge Mystic/Squadron Hawk.

Planeswalker

You know how I kind of tricked you just now on Tinker vs. Preordain? There are no tricks here. And really? How could there be?

What do you think was the most domin-8-ing Planeswalker?

Only one Planeswalker is "better than all."

The same Top 8 that gave us 28 Mana Leaks and 32 Preordains cemented Jace's one-tournament perfection, also at 32.

Jace, The Mind Sculptor is simply the best Planeswalker of all time; one of the most powerful cross-format All-Stars to win a Vintage, Legacy, Extended, or—of course—Standard event (but never Modern), ever; and at 32 copies, the single most domin-8-ing single-Top 8 threat in the history of Magic: The Gathering.

In Dave Shiels's Grand Prix-winning Caw-Blade deck, Jace did everything he could usually do, and would let Dave shuffle some Squadron Hawks back into his deck (trading them for "real," or at least different, cards) just so he could Hawk-search-and draw them back again.

Dave Shiels's Caw-Blade

The Top 8 Most Domin-8-ing Cards in Tournament Magic, by Top 8:

Instant (tie)—Mana Leak
Instant (tie)—Brainstorm
Land—Rishadan Port
Creature—Sylvan Caryatid
Enchantment—Courser of Kruphix
Artifact—Grim Monolith
Sorcery—Preordain
Planeswalker—Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Honorable Mention—Tinker

Love,
Mike

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