Scurrying to the Top

Posted in Feature on July 26, 2002

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."
Liege of the Hollows

Introduction: Squirrels and Sharing

If you’re an old timer like me, you may remember a card called Liege of the Hollows. The first Squirrel-centric card to have any kind of effect on constructed play, the Liege was briefly used in a green-white Armageddon deck played by Team AustiKnights in the summer of 1997. No, that deck doesn’t quite rank up with that team’s best efforts, which include the original Senor Stompy and the “other” black-red Necropotence deck in the Top 8 of Randy Buehler’s Pro Tour - Chicago… but this is Squirrel Week, so the Liege deserves a mention.

If their introduction to tournament Magic doesn't ring a bell, it’s probably because Squirrels wouldn't quite ready for prime time for another two years. While the multiple-tokens-generated premise of Liege of the Hollows was a sound one, it wasn’t until Squirrels quit sharing that they made a big splash.

During Urza's Block, that time when incredible card advantage engines were being printed in every set, when Windfall made players wince, Memory Jar gave Tinker its first call up to the big leagues, and Yawgmoth's Bargain paved the way for the first of several powerful combination decks, green got into the card advantage scheme as well. Urza's Legacy gave us a bang-up Elf of incredible talent: Deranged Hermit.

Deranged Hermit

A Crazy, Colorful, Elf

Deranged Hermit, although himself an Elf, was the first really substantial card the Squirrels got for tournament Magic. He was the best token-generating creature since Verdant Force, and seems to be the forerunner for the Squirrels-as-card-advantage theme that has run through almost every block since. He remains, three years after his debut, the most significant constructed card ever printed... that can also qualify for a nod during Squirrel Week.

Deranged Hermit quickly became a veritable celebrity, making appearances in all sorts of decks. He was getting calls from all the top designers, and had more quick success than any elf since Llanowar Elves was printed back in 1993. Immediately thrust into the spotlight, Deranged Hermit showed up at Pro Tour - New York 1999 (Urza's Saga/Urza's Legacy Constructed) in the Eric Taylor/Pat Chapin "Snap" deck, which is literally the strangest deck of all time. It rarely won the same way twice, sometimes crushing creature decks by generating more creatures than they had, sometimes making the opponent draw his deck, sometimes drawing its own deck first, and sometimes not winning at all. I would like to say that the Snap deck revolved around the synergy of Snap (or Barrin, Master Wizard + Cloud of Faeries), Deranged Hermit, and Gaea's Cradle (Snap the Hermit, untap the Cradle, re-play the Hermit, generate more and more squirrels), but as I said, the deck was extremely strange, and win or lose, it never made very much sense to me. What I can say for certain, is that the Snap deck was better at generating a larger raw number of squirrels than any other competitive deck in the history of Magic.

The Snap deck took Chapin to Top 16, and if his deck hadn't been stolen in the next-to-last round, PT New York would likely have been a fourth PT Top 8 for him.

"Snap" - Patrick Chapin

With the release of Urza's Destiny in the summer of 1999, Squirrel lovers everywhere were both rewarded and challenged by the new set's powerful rares. On the one hand, the life expectancy of the average Squirrel dropped quite a bit with the appearance of a surly Masticore, himself rotten to the 'Core; on the other hand, the exciting Opposition made for a brilliant new synergy between blue and green. Completely muscling the Snap deck out of the Urza's Block Constructed spotlight, the new U/G deck of choice, Squirrel Prison, proved very efficient and ultimately quite successful. Each Deranged Hermit in this deck represented not just a significant threat (or cluster of threats), not just nine power worth of attackers, but also "five Icy Manipulators."

Squirrel Prison hit hard immediately, and gave Dr. Michael Pustilnik a first place finish at Grand Prix - Memphis.

Squirrel Prison - Michael Pustilnik

The Masques Block Also-Rans, Rans, and Additional Also-Ran

"Everyone gets 15 minutes of fame."

"Here today, gone tomorrow."

"I love you..."

"... but I'm not in love with you."

There are certainly a lot of clichés out there, and basically all of them can be applied to the popularity of Squirrel decks as Mercadian Masques crept onto the tournament scene during the autumn of 1999. Already battling for the spotlight against superstars like Morphling and Academy Rector, Deranged Hermit--once a darling of deck design--now found himself competing for appearances against hungry newcomers like Ramosian Sergeant, Nether Spirit, and Waterfront Bouncer. Things only got worse when Nemesis brought in Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero and a host of excellent utility cards in supporting roles.

For his own part, Deranged Hermit was relegated, at least initially, to bit parts in the dreaded "tier two decks."

On one hand, there was Toby Wachter's Pack Hunt deck. Early on in the Grudge Match at Neutral Ground, Wachter posted a Top 8 finish with a deck that, though tied to the earlier Squirrel Prison archetype, was trying to make use of some of the new Nemesis spells in the hopes of generating more Squirrels than one would expect with a limit of four Deranged Hermits. Unfortunately, its success was tied to a gentlemen's agreement at Neutral Ground that no one play combination decks.

4-Pack - Rev. Toby Wachter

While extremely explosive, 4-Pack was quickly phased out of the Neutral Ground metagame by decks headlined by Parallax Wave or Dark Ritual as US Regionals approached.

Skyshroud Poacher

Then a number of designers hit upon the fact that Skyshroud Poacher, whose job it was to fetch Elves, was himself a Rebel. During rather an embarrassing time for Squirrels in competitive Magic, the once-proud Deranged Hermit was getting pulled out of libraries at the top of a Rebel chain starting with Ramosian Sergeant and stabilized by Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero. The instability of these decks in terms of mana base, and the fact that Deranged Hermit simply meant more card advantage for a deck that was already generating both board position and card advantage via Rebels, meant that few top players would choose the archetype.

In any case, it turned out that there were better Skyshroud Poacher/Deranged Hermit decks to be found.

After some months of wallowing in mediocre Rebel decks, two similar designs arose which played Deranged Hermit as a finisher in a deck otherwise designed to control the board via land destruction. From Europe a whisper called "Trinity Green" was heard--albeit softly--across the Internet. The mono-green deck accelerating out Fallow Earth with Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves had hotly contested origins in 2000, despite the fact that until after German Nationals, it was supposed to be a secret. Mark Wraith, a Top 8 competitor with Trinity Green at English Nationals, credited Ben Ronaldson and John Ormerod; Ormerod is claimed to have said that it was based on the deck played by that year's French National Champion, Yann Hamon. Trinity's design has also been linked to Ireland's John Larkin and The (current) Man himself, German Kai Budde.

Regardless of who is responsible for the original Trinity Green deck, what is not in dispute is that it was the most widely successful Squirrel deck in Magic history until this year. Wraith's Top 8 list, even though it eschews Fallow Earth, is representative of early Trinity:

Trinity Green - Mark Wraith

At about the same time in the United States, the former competitive Magician who runs this very website returned Deranged Hermit and the Squirrels he manages to respectability first at the Ohio Valley Regionals, qualifying for US Nationals with a deck called "Angry Hermit."

At Nationals that year, CMU teammates Aaron Forsythe and Mike Turian both ran the Angry Hermit; also both made the Top 8 of the 2000 US National Championship. Aaron, who designed the deck, additionally won the Type 2 portion of the tournament with a 5-0-1 record, and took a spot on the US National team. Squirrels played an even greater role in the Nationals version of Angry Hermit, as Forsythe and Turian borrowed the Skyshroud Poachers from Trinity Green to increase the consistency with which they could deploy the powerful (and Squirrel-packing) Deranged Hermit.

Angry Hermit - Aaron Forsythe

Lest Deranged Hermit have a monopoly on the tournament Squirrel scene during the summer of 2000, a Prophecy addition by the name of Squirrel Wrangler made a small impact on Masques Block Constructed. Jon Becker played his interesting "The Lost World" in a late Masques Block PTQ and made Top 8 before bowing out to Andrew Stokinger's Blue Skies deck.

The Lost World - Jon Becker

The Lost World was an extremely powerful, if eccentric, build. Designed to generate tons of forests via Skyshroud Claim, the deck then used Squirrel Wrangler to convert each of those forests into multiple Squirrels, continuing with the Squirrels-as-card-advantage theme. Because Squirrel Wrangler's "other" ability would then make the numerous Squirrels also very large and dangerous, The Lost World could open up a game by stalling the ground with Vine Trellis and Rib Cage Spider... and then end it immediately with one huge attack.

Squirrel Wrangler

It would have been interesting to see what kind of effect Squirrels would have had on the Masques Block Constructed metagame if Skyshroud Claim/Squirrel Wrangler had been discovered earlier, but in at least one tournament, the Squirrels showed they could hang with the Rebellion.

Invasion of the Down Time

If the next block brought any Squirrels, they certainly didn't chatter around the top tables of competitive events. With the Invasion-spurred rotation of Urza's Block, Deranged Hermit hung up his pointy ears and took a good long rest. He would need it.

Squirrels got their next call to the big show in the late summer of 2001. Though no longer part of the relevant Block Constructed format for Chapin or Pustilnik, now rotated out of Standard where he had been relatively successful in Regional and National events the previous year, Deranged Hermit would be taking on his biggest format yet--Extended--at the 2001 World Championships in Toronto.

Though many players had strong finishes with "Cradle Elf" decks, it was Franck Canu of France who posted a perfect record with the Deranged Hermit at Worlds 2001 with this version:

Cradle Elf - Franck Canu

Canu's deck, though a focused mono-green beatdown build rather than the strangest deck of all time, is oddly reminiscent of Pat Chapin's deck from Pro Tour - New York 1999. With Gaea's Cradle and Priest of Titania generating tons of mana,

Coat of Arms
Cradle Elf could churn out expensive threats with a relatively low (18) land count. Moreover, this deck introduces an idea that we have seen in only one deck so far, and as a less central theme... Not simply Squirrels-as-card-advantage, Cradle Elf, by virtue of Coat of Arms, rewards Deranged Hermit, and its associated masses of Squirrels and Elves, with additionally high power based on just how large their numbers are.

We will see more instances of giant Squirrels in the next section.

Cradle Elf had a lot of raw power, and was one of the fastest decks to appear at Worlds 2001. Improvements to the Illusions of Grandeur/Donate decks, the increased popularity of Pernicious Deed, and the eventual discovery of Miracle Grow nevertheless made its day in the sun a short one.

Odyssey Block: Where Squirrels are Many and Large

Many Squirrel-based cards have come out of the most recent Magic expansions. Though the old theme of Squirrels-as-card-advantage is certainly there, a new idea, that of the Squirrel-as-giant-monster, has also been explored through a couple different cards. The two most relevant for constructed thus far have been Krosan Beast and Squirrel Mob.

While Krosan Beast himself has yet to make an appearance in a hugely successful deck design, his influence on one of the most dominant decks of the last Extended season is a significant one. After a fabulous Swiss run with Miracle Grow at GP Las Vegas, Alan Comer speculated that one or more Krosan Beasts might be appropriate to the design... After all, it was relatively easy for a deck digging for mana with Gush, Land Grant, and Sleight of Hand to reach threshold quickly.

Miracle Grow - Alan Comer

What ended up happening was that at a subsequent Grand Prix, Mike Long added Werebear to the deck as an alternate threshold card. While this did not further the cause of large Squirrels per se, in the early days when threshold was considered primarily a Limited mechanic, Krosan Beast's roundabout influence ended up quite significant, especially for the eventual Osaka U/G deck lists.

Miracle Grow - Mike Long

Speaking of Pro Tour - Osaka, large Squirrels ended up a significant presence there as well, even if none of them managed to finish in the Elite 8. One deck in particular is interesting for discussion, if only for the fact that it was chosen by The Man emeritus, Jon Finkel:

Mono-Green Squirrels - Jon Finkel

Finkel's mono-green deck was chock full of Squirrels, running Chatter of the Squirrel, Squirrel Nest, and the Squirrel-centric Deserted Temple in addition to Squirrel Mob. Like Canu's deck from Worlds, the Finkel deck didn't just generate card advantage via Squirrels, it rewarded creature size by Squirrel numerousness, both by Squirrel Mob and Overrun.

More important than the gains made in Squirrel size, the current Block has introduced several competitive-quality cards that continue the Squirrels-as-card-advantage theme, including Acorn Harvest, Chatter of the Squirrel, and Squirrel Nest. By far the most important of these is the last card, which won Ken Ho the aforementioned PT Osaka.

Blue-Green Madness - Ken Ho

Ho's deck played on several of the themes that other U/G decks that showed up in Osaka focused on, specifically madness (Arrogant Wurm, Basking Rootwalla, Circular Logic), flashback (Roar of the Wurm), and threshold (Werebear).

Squirrel Nest
Unlike most of the Osaka decks, especially those more centered on madness, Ho's design did not play Aether Burst. Instead, he chose to play with two of the most dominating cards available in the format: Upheaval and the aforementioned Squirrel Nest.

These cards set Ho's deck apart from most other U/G decks, as it excelled against the dominant mono-black control decks that showed up in Osaka. Squirrel Nest especially thwarted the Chainer's Edicts and Innocent Bloods that those decks relied upon so heavily for board control. Ken was so prepared, so focused on Squirrel Nest, that he even ran four Aura Grafts in his sideboard to steal the Squirrel Nests of others! The Ho deck is vitally important to our review because it is the single biggest win, ever, by a Squirrel-based deck.

Not long after, Patrick Chapin, with whom we started our discussion on successful Squirrel decks (U/G Squirrel decks in particular), posted an impressive finish himself at Grand Prix - Milwaukee. Bowing out in the finals to his old deck design partner, Eric Taylor, Chapin's second-place Squirrel Prison deck nicely incorporates both Squirrel Nest and the card that usurped his own Snaps, Opposition:

Squirrel Opposition - Patrick Chapin

Pat credited Squirrel Nest with his success against the dominant Standard deck, Psychatog. Each Squirrel Nest effectively "counters" a Psychatog, even without any other machinery in play. Over time, the addition of a second Squirrel Nest or Opposition to the board will allow Pat's deck to "get ahead", forcing his opponent to try to play the beatdown game. Because the Psychatog decks are so slow and controlling, they are ill-suited to this strategy. All weekend, Chapin was able to sit back on his permission spells, knowing that Upheaval would usually be the only spell he would really have to answer.

Most recently, Team CMU continued to show its dominance at US Nationals, this time with Squirrels in tow. Eugene Harvey, a member of the 2001 US National Team, took a step forward in 2002, running a Squirrel Prison deck originally designed by teammate Mike Turian. The Harvey deck trades some of Chapin's anti-control choices for red, making the deck stronger against other creature decks. Apparently this change did not deter Harvey's effectiveness against control overmuch; his red-inclusive version of Squirrel Prison took out three straight Psychatog decks in the Top 8 to become the 2002 National Champion... winning the second biggest finish for Squirrels yet.

Squirrel Opposition - Eugene Harvey

Instant (4)
4 Circular Logic
Enchantment (8)
4 Opposition 4 Squirrel Nest
Other (3)
3 Fire/Ice
60 Cards

Which brings us to today. In the current Odyssey Block Constructed metagame, Squirrels seem to have fallen by the wayside in favor of 6/6 Wurms as green's creatures-of-choice. Whether or not they can continue their run is tough to say. The rest of this PTQ season, plus the Type 2 and Block portions of Worlds in Sydney will be proving grounds for everyone's favorite furry tokens.

Mike may be reached at madmanpoet@yahoo.com.
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