Party Like It’s 1998

Posted in Feature on September 28, 2006

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."

They weren't kidding.

Time Spiral is set to shake tournament Magic up in ways none of us laymen could possibly have predicted.

Gaea's Blessing
Over the past couple of years, specific definition of the color pie and paring down of utility cards in favor of mechanical synergy has forced us to play Magic in particular ways, letting go of our reliance on cards like Gaea's Blessing. A younger Brian Schneider, before he was the (now former) Lead Developer and merely the second most impressive deck designer on the planet, said that only wimps and weaklings needed more than their two copies of Gaea's Blessing to win - such that we buckled down and learned to win with different, ostensibly weaker, descendents like Krosan Reclamation... and still managed to build and play winning decks. Limitations on the utility side both forced us to widen the vistas of our perceived possibilities and bolstered the effectiveness and popularity of mechanics-driven decks based on Madness, cycling, or Affinity for Artifacts.

Either because it was too good at too many things, or good to a degree unheard of by other colors, Blue has "required" a larger set of shears than other colors when the time for cuts came. Slowly, but methodically, Blue has lost stalwarts since Alpha as well as its trademark instant speed card drawing. As with the rest of the Magic, Blue has coped with its incremental limitations and continued to thrive through a combination of innovation, compromise, backpedaling, and stealing other colors' specialized effects, if only temporarily.

While permission is that slice of the color pie that is uniquely Blue, it is not the only leg that supports the success of the mighty color's trademark control decks, and is probably not even the most important to the overall success of Blue control. Painted with a broad brush, permission is essentially one of many opportunities for one-for-one exchange in Magic, not unlike most mana denial or even just trading bodies and tricks. For certain there is a difference between the best versus least desirable permission spells, just as there is a difference between Sinkhole and Rain of Tears or Wild Mongrel and Balduvian Bears, but the fact remains that in Standard, at least, the blunting of permission efficiency has had little effect on the popularity on that aspect of Blue Control (how else might you explain the even moderate adoption of Discombobulate?). Instead, what seems interesting to discuss are the strategic implications of Research and Design tweaks to the other main legs of the Blue Control tripod.

The Phantom Menace

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This deck by Zvi was a Top 16 build from Grand Prix--Memphis in 1999. The format was Urza's Block Constructed, which was an interesting time for Blue. Blue was hands down the most powerful color in Urza's Block given Windfall, Time Spiral, and Tinker... But as you probably know, you can't even play four copies of these cards in Vintage. While Blue was a big winner with cards that it could play on its own turn, permission was notoriously weak, perhaps to encourage the success of such cards. Here you can see that Zvi played the narrow Annul, the lukewarm Miscalculation, and the inconsistent Power Sink. Alternately Mike Donais advocated the less-than-sunny Rewind because "at least you know how much mana you need to cast it." Even given Blue's permission woes in-Block, the control strategy was successful to a degree, and not by virtue of its counters. The in-format strengths for Blue control became more focused with Accelerated Blue, or PatrickJ.dec.

"If not for innovators like me, people would still be playing their Morphlings on turn six."
-Patrick Johnson


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TreacheryThis version of Blue Control differed from everything since Mana Vault had been legal in Standard for turn 2 Air Elementals... The goal here was to utilize Grim Monolith to exploits Blue's then-greatest strengths. Its best cards in-Block (excepting Windfall etc.) were not finesse counters but its raw muscle, namely Morphling, Treachery, and the bulk card drawing spells, which could themselves serve as finishers. Rather than worrying about holding back early game for Counterspell as Blue players may have historically done, PatrickJ.dec aficionados set up Grim Monolith early game in order to make their best cards faster and stronger. Racing with the third turn Morphling was a common game plan for this deck.

In porting PatrickJ.dec to Standard, Zvi streamlined Blue again. Even given the upgrade to Standard permission spells, he chose to focus and re-focus on these same elements, finishers and card drawing, that made the deck so powerful in Urza’s Block. This is the version Zvi used to 3-0 ace the Standard portion of the 2000 Magic Invitational:


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Notice how Zvi upped the land count from Patrick's Block version from twenty-five to twenty-freaking-eight lands. Literally all Zvi wanted to do was hit his mana so that he could hit his big, better-than-Green, endgame creatures. He reinforced the Urza's Block creature suite with Masticore (the dirty dog of Magic) and Palinchron (overpaid free agent). Interestingly -- and this became a point of some contention between Columbia alumni and then-Neutral Ground regulars Johnson and Mowshowitz -- Zvi elected to switch out of Patrick's Opportunity for Stroke of Genius. The cards both have their strong points, but in 1999-2000 each player found the other's card choice sub-optimal.

For some months PatrickJ.dec was the template for Blue Control in Standard, with decorated Pro Tour Champions from Mike Long to Gab Tsang adopting it as Weapon of Choice, even in the face of faux-combination decks like Replenish and Tinker that gained popularity once the summer Championship season hit its stride (even Johnson and Mowshowitz defected to Replenish). While PatrickJ.dec is very clearly a "Blue Control" deck, its game plan is not even remotely similar to some of the other decks we have studied here on Swimming With Sharks. As a refresher, here is Randy Buehler's undefeated Standard deck from Worlds two years previous:

Cuneo Blue - Randy Buehler

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Almost a diametric opposite in the early game, Randy's deck never wanted to do anything on its own turn if it could possibly help it. The Cuneo Blue school started with Force Spike on one, any of several permission cards from turn 2 forward, traded one-for-one as much as possible, and finished on Whispers of the Muse. In stark contrast to the motley zoo of Morphling, Masticore, Palinchron, and even Temporal Adept played by the Columbia PatrickJ.dec cadre, the Worlds version of Cuneo Blue had a single Rainbow Efreet, but its preferred kill was to activate Stalking Stones - again on the opponent's turn - and untap with the ability to protect that land forever.

In large part, the tension in Standard Blue Control decks revolves around which geographic area the format says is best, New York or Pittsburgh, Columbia or Carnegie Mellon, Neutral Ground or the O.

The Blue decks that have been successful in Kamigawa-tinged Standard have in fact been an extreme caricature, strategically, of the Urza's Block "brute force finisher" camp. The failing of these decks has in large part been the result of players thinking that because of their (sometimes) numerous counters and because they fall under the blanket Blue Control umbrella, they are the more publicized Draw-Go.

Julian Levin - Flores Blue Control

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Jushi Apprentice
Consider Julian Levin's deck, which won the 2005 New York State Championship for Constructed. While this deck plays a lot of permission - competing with Randy at seventeen permission spells - the baseline game plan is very different. Rather than try to gain complete control by leaving open mana and countering everything like a Draw-Go deck (which is actually impossible given that the Mana Leaks are useless long game, the Remands are soft-to-useless long game, and the Hinders do not actually stop anything forever), the deck was about tapping out and dominating the board. While Jushi Apprentice is no Grim Monolith, it asked Levin to tap out on turn 2 in order to create a potential long term advantage. The deck, which leaned on permission heavily, had rather a ponderous and in fact fragile card drawing mechanism... Like Zvi's Accelerated Blue, the Jushi deck's incentives came from the giant threats long game.

With permission acting as a kind of time control, Mana Leak "hard" only in the early game and Remand resolving but never actually solving any problems long term, Jushi Blue sought only to stay alive until the point that Meloku or Keiga could come down as a sort of Green-esque analogue to Fact or Fiction. You see, against the typical opponent, a 5/5 flying Control Magic is worth about three cards.

As with the earlier looks at Accelerated Blue, the Kamigawa-Ravnica Blue Control decks became more focused as time went on and incentives were made clearer. With only eight permission spells (from seventeen) Osyp Lebedowicz's Top 8 deck from Honolulu is in some ways the culmination of what made Julian's Jushi deck good:

Osyp Lebedowicz – Izzetron

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Just as Zvi upped his mana and pared his counters in order to focus on Blue's greatest incentives - the giant men and cards in hand - Osyp's deck took this philosophy to its logical terminus via the ‘Tron and Izzet Signets. Instead of the six States Blue Legendary threats, he went to eight... and ran a fake Red one in the 'board. On the card drawing side, the suite of spells similarly changed. Jushi Apprentice - or nothing - became Compulsive Research, Tidings, and Invoke the Firemind, powerful card drawing cards to be sure... and all sorceries.

By URzaTron, the lines delineating the new system of the world became clear for Blue: Focus less, if at all, on controlling the game with permission, accelerate - really accelerate - into powerful endgame threats, and draw lots of cards... but do that on your own turn. From that point, the Blue control decks became more and more comical caricatures of the philosophy as they morphed completely into decks like Solar Flare with only four Remands or Wildfire 'Tron decks with more absurd threats like Simic Sky Swallower or really really wanted to draw cards on their own turns with three or so Tidings. This process of moving further and further away from the Cuneo "other guy's turn" model with a blunting of the (classical) Blue areas of expertise, the slippery slope from Fact or Fiction to Deep Analysis and Concentrate, taking a detour at Inspiration and a passing glance at Thirst for Knowledge before cementing card drawing at Compulsive Research, Tidings, and even Sift has been like climbing a tall mountain. Remember how Time Spiral was supposed to shake everything up? The new set is like knocking Blue from the top of that mountain, backwards and down, plummeting until it wakes up something like ten years ago.

The loss of the Kamigawa Dragons is an obvious point of change for Blue control. Without their monoliths, they can hardly play the "Snare that, Remand you, Repeal that, Leak your four, untap, Keiga" plan... There is no Keiga. For better or worse, we may see decks that try to win just with Gaea's Blessing.

On balance, Time Spiral offers a suite of instant speed card drawing that hasn't been seen in Standard for something like half a decade. These cards will change the way the game is played, dialing Blue's strategies back to near-CMU levels. Blue mages will un-learn the past few years of compromised skills and deal much of their violence during, or especially at the end of, the opponent's turns. A brief review:

Truth or Tale:

This is probably the weakest overall contributor to Blue Control of the selection and draw cards we will discuss today, but may nonetheless be relevant. Kind of an odd hybrid between Impulse and Fact or Fiction, Truth or Tale can be played a couple of different ways. If you see two or more lands, you can always guarantee yourself the next land drop; same on cheap permission cards. As a "tutor" this card is going to fall short of Impulse, and for that reason it is not going to see the same kind of adoption in decks like Cadaverous Bloom or High Tide. The reason? Excepting doubles, you are never going to be able to "force" the card you actually want out of the top five, assuming you are looking for a particular card. On balance, you can pretty much get the second best card, if you want it, almost all the time. Look for the best players to create 1-versus-4 piles with this to out-wit their opponents.

Mystical Teachings:

Given sufficient mana, this card is awesome even without the Flashback. It curves wonderfully on turn 4 to set up Teferi, but will probably deal the most damage on six mana, when it can nab a two-mana permission spell at instant speed. Generally a one-for-one "tutor" rather than bulk card advantage card (which this also can be, given the Flashback), Mystical Teachings will see a ton of adoption in combo decks... I actually think that the cost is a bit prohibitive for combo, and think Mystical Teachings will be used more often in Blue Control with access to Black mana. Particularly cute is the sort of snowball effect that can be begun on six by, say, nabbing Think Twice.

Careful Consideration
Careful Consideration:

The New York set is actually debating when this card is going to be cast, the opponent's turn or your own turn. Careful Consideration is strong for both Blue Control and combination players, sort of a kingly Compulsive Research. Early game, look for it to get played on the opponent's turn when you are looking for sweepers; the "faux-sorcery" option will show up after initial attrition fights have already been won and Blue Control is looking to start the avalanche of card advantage that will eventually win the game. Combo decks - particularly Reanimator decks - might actually rather discard three cards than two. Mystical Teachings seems powerful, but from the Blue Control side, I think Careful Consideration will be the more popular card, just because you can guarantee card advantage for six less mana, and because for Control decks, sometimes the card you are digging for, say Wrath of God, isn't an instant or flash.

Think Twice:

I know I am in the minority for now, but you heard it here first: Think Twice is the best of the new class. This is the card that, probably along with a much-reviled reprint, will facilitate sit-there, Draw-Go, permission Magic. Think Twice costs two more mana than Compulsive Research for the net, but then again, it nets almost all the time with Flashback, whereas Compulsive Research does not. Blue decks often do nothing with their first two mana, so you can actually argue Think Twice doesn't cost any extra mana at all in some games. Compulsive Research is better in combo decks (again, specifically Reanimator or something with Firemane Angels or Shard Phoenixes), but should be generally worse in True Control. Look for Blue mages to cut a land when they play four copies of this spell.

Whispers of the Muse:


I never thought I'd see the day.

Think Twice is nice, and will serve as a kind of homage to Visions as a poor man's Impulse plus nifty Inspiration, but the card that really allows Blue to play on the other guy's turn is Whispers of the Muse. This card is the young buck that kicked bed-ridden grandma Jayemdae Tome down the stairs to claim inheritance and primacy in the Standard arena, and the sole cog that facilitated Draw-Go and countless sister strategies. Whispers of the Muse is incredible because early game you can burn it to draw into lands, and late game you can buy it back to bury the opponent. This card is perfectly acceptable at one mana, strong like bear at six mana, and a brick to the skull anywhere north of twelve. Look for cagey Blue mages to fight at about fourteen mana, "lose" the counter war over Whispers, and then resolve some unbeatable threat with a seldom cast main phase play against the tapped out opponent (for an example of such a threat, I refer you to the Rainbow Efreet in Grand Poobah Buehler’s 1998 Worlds deck, above).

Now the predicted renaissance of Draw-Go requires two (actually two-and-a-half) components. The loss of the Kamigawa Dragons is a fake one that merely removes the incentive from the 2005-2006 "attrition / tap out" plan; the printings and re-printings of instant speed card advantage is a central contributor... But Blue mages still need reasonable permission or they are sitting back for very little value. Standard still have a glut of great two-mana cards - Mana Leak, Remand, Rune Snag, and even Muddle the Mixture - the best one-mana permission spell of all time, and other options, but Time Spiral shows us one more counterspell that is probably worth mentioning:


Cancel is a comparatively weak card... that is surely Tier One. This card will be played more than either Rune Snag or Mana Leak in Blue Control because people like certainty. Cancel leaves a bad taste in my mouth because I never really loved Hinder even if I played it, and Cancel is generally a bit worse. Hinder had the Lapse option for a fake "Time Walk" and putting a card at the bottom of the opponent's deck is usually better than putting it in his graveyard where he can fool around with reanimation and so forth. Cancel is also strictly worse than Counterspell on the mana. In the current Standard, it will in fact cost more mana than what it is countering a fair amount of the time, allowing wily beatdown players to squeeze in threats and out-play the cerebral Blue Control mages.

Like I said: Tier One.

A card I really, really, thought I'd never see again (especially since they just reprinted it in Red) is...

Psionic Blast:

The main thing here is that Blue isn't scared of anybody any more. Once upon a time, Blue had to hide behind its wall of counters, or lean heavily on the Disk, but between this, Mouth of Ronom, and Repeal, nobody is getting in. A small corollary that is sure to be relevant is that Psionic Blast, besides being a great Burning-Tree killer, is a Time Walk of its own. Imagine you can get three hits in with a 5/5 or 5/6, or three hits in with Akroma, Angel of Wrath in U/W... With Psionic Blast Akroma kills them on the third swing, and as for some Fat Moti... They had best not have tapped an Underground River.

To say I'm excited about the new possibilities for Standard would not be an understatement, precisely. Don't tell anyone... But I'm also a little scared.

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