The Twelve Decks before Christmas

Posted in Feature on December 20, 2007

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."

It's the first ever Swimming with Sharks year in review!

Over the course of the past twelve months we have seen numerous great players navigating a wide palette of impressive decks. For this, the last column of 2007, I decided to review the top twelve decks of the year, one deck a month, scouring the Swimming with Sharks archives from January to December. Let's take a walk down Memory Lapse Lane, shall we?


Scott Schauf's Loam

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Life from the Loam
Scott Schauf won a PTQ the first week of January 2007 with what would become the dominant deck of the Extended PTQ and Grand Prix season. Life from the Loam in various strategies has been taking names since Antoine Ruel's Pro Tour–Los Angeles, but last year's Extended gave "the best card drawing engine since Necropotence" a new showcase.

Eschewing the Solitary Confinement of the CAL, and not quite as aggressive as earlier builds with Wild Mongrel, the 2007 Loam decks (generally considered to be patterned after Emilio Lopez Campos's 5-1 Vinelasher Kudzu deck from Worlds 2006) drew some cards early, controlled a very little bit, and then won immediately with a single big turn. Devastating Dreams has no drawback when combined with Life from the Loam... In fact, it might just make a Terravore in play big enough to kill. Ten (or fewer, given the Extended mana base landscape) lethal lands? That's no problem for Life from the Loam plus Seismic Assault.

While the spirit of Tier Two was strong during last year's Extended season, if there was one deck that showed itself to be a little bit ahead, it was this archetype, which was a favorite of champions like Paul Cheon, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Kenji Tsumura.


Mark Herberholz's Domain Zoo

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Sideboard (15)
1 Unknown Card 3 Leyline of the Void 4 Ancient Grudge 2 Krosan Grip 3 Pyroclasm 2 Chainer's Edict

Embarassingly enough, this deck did not play the full Domain (unlike the deck that unhorsed Mark in the Top 8 and eventually won Grand Prix–Dallas).

Why was this one of the top decks of the year? Thanks to the Tier Two structure of the format (at least pre-Tarmogoyf) Extended was a Wild West shootout of speed, power, and absolutely no color discipline. There was Tenacious 'Tron, Haterator, Bests, Ichorid, Heartbeat, NO Stick, and twenty or more others... So why Mark's Dallas Top 8 deck? Not only was this look at Domain Zoo a unique one, combining the power of Sensei's Divining Top, Dark Confidant, and dedicated land destruction, but like a future collaboration, this deck didn't have any bad performances. The deck was played in three consecutive tournaments, where it scored a PTQ Top 4 and Top 2 finishes for Aaron Breider and Eric Taylor before Herberholz's in Dallas. Moreover, it was a window into the future. Pat Chapin designed this deck for teammate Mark Herberholz, then—and perhaps still—considered to be the top American player, in what would be just the first instance of what would be a very profitable collaboration (skip down to December if you don't remember last week's article).

The glory of any Domain aggro deck is the ability to play basically every great cheap card in the format, from Kird Ape to Lightning Helix to Vindicate, and do so profitably. Dark Confidant was the engine that kept this look at Domain Zoo moving, an innovation that would influence future builds (just skip forward in time to Pro Tour Valencia). Unlike many such decks, Chapin's Innovator Zoo respected the Great One's potential ire, and left room for Kamigawa Block's (least?) favorite artifact.


Raphael Levy's Gaea's Might Get There

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Raphael LevySo what about the deck that took out Herberholz in Dallas and won the whole show? Why didn't we make that February's deck of choice? It seemed a little redundant considering Raphael Levy followed up his Dallas Grand Prix win the very next tournament with the same archetype. Gaea's Might got there twice for the Hall of Fame superstar. Levy accomplished the nearly impossible: two wins in a Grand Prix season, consecutively, followed by a Top 8 at the Pro Tour they fed with another beatdown deck. Wow! Way to back up your Hall of Fame induction!

Raphael's version of Domain Zoo differed from the Chapin deck in several ways. First of all, Raph could actually get there with all five points from the Tribal Flames thanks to Steam Vents and Breeding Pool. He was also able to effectively sideboard Meddling Mage against combo decks for the very same reason. The flexibility of full domain made Gaea's Might a strong inclusion (the card lent its name to the deck), and of course Gaea's Might plus Boros Swiftblade was just the dumbest thing that you could ever imagine... rushing through the Red Zone... on the third turn... damn it. Take 12, please. Tribal Flames? Best not break a land, friend.

Where the Chapin / Herberholz deck was an elegant (if Island-handicapped) machine, manipulating its future with Sensei's Divining Top and managing the opponent's mana base with Vindicate and Molten Rain, the Levy deck was a full-on jackhammer, all aggression, never straying, never letting up, pushing its mana threshold every turn. All this deck wanted to do was pound... making Brute Force an ironic and appropriate singleton inclusion (also good with Swiftblade, as was Armadillo Cloak).


Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Mystical Teachings Control

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The first of two Wafo-Tapa designs we will look at today, Guillaume's Mystical Teachings deck gave him not just a Pro Tour win, but one of Magic's highest honors outside the Pro Tour itself, the nod to participate in the Magic Invitational.

This deck, and the win in Yokahama, catapulted him past a slew of talented thinkers (not the least of whom was his semifinals opponent, Mark Herberholz, whom Wafo-Tapa took down in a mirror match), and had much of the world calling him the best deck designer in the game.

This deck, specifically, was a backbone for Mystical Teachings decks to come. Though Wafo-Tapa expressed some reservations about specific numbers (and specific numbers mean much more than they normally might given that this was a Mystical Teachings / tutor deck), it was his singletons, the Academy Ruins, the Triskelavus, and the Urza's Factory that won him some of his most important victories. Guillaume's deck was a Mystical TeachingsControl deck in the truest sense of the format... Like later decks, he played the bullet Haunting Hymn, but more than that, the Resident Genius ran a full set of Cancels as well as a pair of Draining Whelks for permission.


Steven Sadin's Hulk Flash

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This Billy Moreno creation was quite simply the most perfectly formidable deck ever built.

What made it so good, so different?

First of all, the Moreno / Sadin Hulk Flash was a Hulk Flash deck. It utilized the original wording of Flash to win as early as the first turn, making it one of the fastest decks of all time (Chrome Mox + land; play Flash, revealing Protean Hulk; Hulk goes to the graveyard and finds Carrion Feeder and Karmic Guide, with Guide returning Protean Hulk; Carrion Feeder eats Protean Hulk, who proceeds to find Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, who in turn copies Karmic Guide; in response Carrion Feeder eats Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker so that the new Karmic Guide can bring him back... and they do it all over again). Now for Grand Prix–Columbus, a one-of Legacy "prop" tournament, Hulk Flash was obviously going to be the most valuable strategy, and more than half of the tournament had Steve's specific kill... so why was this deck that much better than every other version?

In addition to playing a super fast combo kill, Steve ran a Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top lock. He could manipulate the top of his deck with both Brainstormand Mystical Tutor, the goal being either to forward his kill or halt threats via Counterbalance, and of course the presence of the Top justified Dark Confidant where he had never been seen before, increasing both the deck's power and consistency. The inclusion of these sub-themes made matchups like Fish, troublesome for less tuned Flash decks, quite simple.

More "real" creatures than usual made attacking a real possibility for Sadin through the tournament, and he supplemented his 1/1 for one and 2/1s for two with a semi-transformative sideboard (though Quirion Dryad was never really impressive). "In my defense," Billy would later say, "we didn't have access to Tarmogoyf yet."


Steven Sadin's Greater Gruul

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Speaking of Tarmogoyf, come U.S. Regionals 2007, some of the game's finest minds were still calling the best two drop in history "bad and unreliable"... but Steve Sadin was not one of them.

It is difficult to assess which Regionals-era deck was the most impressive, Dragonstorm, straight Gruul, Chapin Korlash, or Project X... but especially among the most innovative decks of the period, Steve's seems the most influential. Not only was he playing Tarmogoyf slightly ahead of the curve, he tuned his deck with a keen understanding of how to manipulate Tarmogoyf with Greater Gargadon. All the choices—Mogg War Marshal, a specific set of burn spells including Seal of Fire, and sideboarded Threatens—were chosen to balance speed, synergy, and immediate efficacy.

Though Steve failed to qualify through Regionals—mustering a Top 8 appearance but not the Top 4 he needed to make the break—his deck went on to greater glories come the weekend tournament it was set to feed. Greg Poverelli won the MSS with "Sadin Update," saying that the deck was not only the best choice for that tournament, but would go down as one of the best decks of all time.

"I was next to Sadin a lot at the top tables of Regionals and saw the deck and liked it from the start... [I]t was the best deck in the format but was extremely overlooked."

To be fair, the Sadin Gruul deck probably got better going into U.S. Nationals weekend as Dragonstorm—Steve's nemesis at Regionals—waned with the rotation of Seething Song, but even at its original tournament, it had many things going for it. An absolute beatdown destroyer, the Greater Gruul could manage the board and easily swat other attack oriented decks. The inclusion of Martyr of Ashes (later Mogg Fanatic) and Greater Gargadon made Dredge a near bye (you could remove their Bridge from Below with ease). As for raw proactive potential, the deck could strike with Greater Gargadon seemingly from nowhere, allowing it to compete with almost any deck of its era.


Luis Scott-Vargas's Blue-Green-White Chord

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While Greg Poverelli was doing Tarmogoyf proud in the MSS, across the room Luis Scott-Vargas was busy upgrading his year-to-year U.S. National Team position, winning the big show with an inventive blue-green-white deck.

Blue-green-white Blink was the last-minute deck of U.S. Nationals 2007, so the Paul Cheon / Scott-Vargas Chord deck caught a metagame unawares, with the same colors. In addition to a Chord of Calling-fed Pickles combo and a pair of troublemaking Willbenders, the Blue-Green-White Chord deck also ran a couple of absurd singletons, in particular Crovax, Ascendent Hero and Arcanis the Omnipotent. Crovax could murder any number of Goblins, Rats, or Saprolings, and was basically unkillable. Arcanis, the forgotten cousin to Rorix Bladewing and Visara the Dreadful, made a splashy debut that would make his more popular peers Silvos-green with envy.

Luis ran many permission spells, including a trio of four mana Chord-eligible creatures to compliment his monsters and lock... Simply a superb and surprising new deck.


Luis Scott-Vargas's Cheontourage Relic Teachings

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What was even more surprising was Luis Scott-Vargas's follow-up tournament... Another win!

More than another win, Luis Scott-Vargas, Paul Cheon, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa all made Top 8 with essentially the same Teachings deck (no small feat for an archetype defined by so many singletons and strange numbers), completing a total tournament domination and culminating in the win.

The Cheontourage Relic Teachings deck was built to be faster than the Wafo-Tapa Pro Tour winner. Coalition Relic got the deck to its essential mana points more quickly, and Shadowmage Infiltrator gave it both immediate offense and a way to seize the initiative post-Damnation. Gone were Guillaume's many permission spells, but the Relic Teachings deck had a different ace... Void. In an era where many Predator.dec players sided boarded to sandbag their key four mana threats, Void was a key tool for undoing the opponent's careful play.


Masaya Kitayama's Goyf Rack

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The big question mark for Rat / Rack throughout most of Time Spiral Standard was the strategy's ability to punch on the ground... Sure, the deck could empty the opponent's hand and finish with The Rack, but real creature fights could be an issue.

With Future Sight, the Rat / Rack got a new tool in Tarmogoyf, and a legitimate reason to go green. Call of the Herd—a card many Gruul decks were sideboarding against the discard—went in next to Tarmogoyf, and most of the questions were answered. Tarmogoyf had natural synergy with Smallpox—the two-mana sorcery was often good for +4/+4 or more—so games could finish, favorably, rather quickly.

Masaya Kitayama's Goyf Rack deck was not remarkable in any particular way, except... it took him to victory in arguably the roughest Nationals in the realms of Dominaria.


Christopher Otwell's The Mannequin Deck

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Champs 2007 was a mess.

I hate these formats where there is no dominant deck. You have no rudder. Your data isn't sharp so your decisions are blunt. Everything is good, so... Nothing is good? Elves: great or horrible? What about old decks like Pickles or Teachings? Were black and blue Counterspell decks the be-all and end-all? What about Midrange Black-Green, or Goyf Rack, or Doran variants versus Elves? Weren't there supposed to be Kithkin? Is that a Treefolk deck? What about Faeries? See? You think this paragraph is all over the place? Try playing Champs-era Standard.

Makeshift Mannequin
The one new deck that broke the prescribed tribal-deck-or-old-deck refrain was Mannequin. When I first saw it in the Top 8 of New York States I didn't really understand why anyone would want to play a deck like this, but over time, I came to realize how potent the Mannequin strategy was.

You can see in this early version (Chris Otwell's finalist from Colorado) that the early Mannequin decks played Loxodon Warhammer main... something the Pros are only now coming back to re-emphasize. The other main difference between the early Mannequin decks and today's is the heavy reliance on Grim Harvest as an anti-control element. Mannequin has almost unstoppable card drawing. If you're going to beat it, pick another metric. It will draw into Grim Harvest. From there, they'll not likely run out of Mulldrifters and Mournwhelks.

The card Makeshift Mannequin itself needs to be addressed. What makes an instant speed Zombify with that drawback so compelling? In a deck of all 187 cards—drawing two with Mulldrifter, destroying a creature with Shriekmaw, bouncing a permanent with one of the Time Spiral block 2/2s—particularly with evoke as such a heavy design element, Makeshift Mannequin always does something while complicating combat, setting up a chump block, and certainly surprising a great many opponents. The deck could dominate basically every Champs-era list on some metric. It could kill all of green's creatures, pull out of red's range with Loxodon Warhammer or infinite Bottle Gnomes, or bury Teachings in card advantage. While the Champs decks were certainly less tuned than the Grand Prix builds you would see out of Andre Coimbra or Olivier Ruel, and a fair bit off of Kotaro Otsuka's World Championships deck, they were groundbreaking, format-warping (in the short term at least), and from this writer's perspective the most innovative challengers to come out of Champs.


Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's The Guile Deck ("Sonic Boom")

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... And then this thing happened!

Sonic Boom was immediately format-warping. It routed the Mannequin decks that had become popular immediately prior to Grand Prix–Krakow and put numerous playtest groups into a tail spin leading up to Worlds. Mannequin... Was it the best deck to come out of Champs? While the little Mournwhelks and Mulldrifters seemed to do just fine against Mystical Teachings, they were quite poor against dedicated blue control with Teferi and Guile. What was with all those Deserts? Where did those come from? Hell on Sadin Update and worse for Faeries, Desert put additional importance on finding the Pendelhaven... even if you weren't green.

The Guile Deck solidified Wafo-Tapa's reputation as a deck designer. Here was another strong piece of Constructed from the Resident Genius, earning both him and Amiel Tenenbaum spots in the Krakow elimination rounds... and it was yet another Wafo-Tapa deck. Guillaume first hit the scene with a blue-red counter-Mizzet deck stuffed with permission spells, followed up with Dralnu, Teachings Control, and most recently this counter-Teferi metagame monster, with only a brief combo respite with Heartbeat of Spring in Valencia. It's been said that Guillaume only makes "one deck"... but you can't argue with how well the Resident Genius makes it!


Patrick Chapin's Dragonstorm / Heezy Red Fever / Knoll Dragonstorm / etc.

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I actually spent the majority of last week's article talking about this one, so you can click here to get the fresher perspective.

I am fairly certain that the last time a deck this fresh and impressive was positioned on an established metagame (and credit to the original designer so summarily disappeared), Hall of Famer and World Champion Jon Finkel was battling Hall of Famer and Player of the Year Bob Maher with nearly identical Tinker-Waters decks, in a tournament where most competitors thought the axis was Replenish v. green-red anti-Replenish.


... And that's a year.

There is no writer's strike as far as I know of here at (so no reality shows, rejected pilots, &c.) but we are going to subject you to reruns for the next couple of weeks. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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