I Challenge You!

Posted in Feature on July 10, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

You win the game.

There has never been, and likely never will be, a more powerful line of text on a Magic card. Think of the most broken, degenerate, and absurd cards that have ever been printed. Tinker. Skullclamp. Yawgmoth's Will. Those cards still aren't better than the actual printed text "You win the game."

Battle of Wits | Art by Jason Chan

Card advantage? Tempo advantage? Life advantage? Those categories have nothing on game advantage.

Of course, it's never really that easy. To get such a dramatic, powerful, and, well, truly game-ending effect, you have to jump through some hoops. Usually blazing hoops made from piranha teeth that have winged cobras circling above.

In this case, you just have to pay and wait until your upkeep.

...and have 200 or more cards in your library.

Battle of Wits

I received plenty of decklists this week. You'll see them later on—Planeswalker control, Stuffy Doll Tezzeret, and all kinds of Rancor decks showed up, just to name a few.

But a Battle of Wits? For the princess?! To the death?!?

Challenge accepted.

Battle of Wits decks are a ton of fun because they give you a good excuse to play with a lot of different cards. And hey, sometimes you can just win the game on turn five. Potential Hall of Fame inductee Huey Jensen played a Battle of Wits deck at Grand Prix Milwaukee and said it was one of the most fun decks he had ever played—then promptly made Top 8 of the tournament!

Since the time meddler of Magic 2013 has brought Battle of Wits back to us, players once again have a chance to relive that experience!

How powerful is it this time around? Well, spending so much time just shuffling a deck in our internal playtesting is a poor use of company time. So who knows, maybe it's totally broken. I guess it's time to find out!

Three plucky readers sent me their Battle of Wits decklists. Let's start this week by taking a look over each of them, and then I'll get into the details.

First up, Jack Champagne's take on the archetype:

Jack Champagne's Battle of Wits

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Impressively, Jack managed to do it all within blue! Considering Standard's size, that's quite the feat.

Next up is an Esper version by Luke Paulsen:

Luke Paulsen's Battle of Wits

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In Luke's list you see many of the same blue cards to support the enchantment, but plenty of solid control spells in the other two colors.

Finally, the Horde of Notion podcast's weapon of choice:

Horde of Notion's Battle of Wits

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Planeswalker (3)
3 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Other (15)
4 Drowned Catacombs 3 Alchemist Refuge 2 Dungeon Geist 3 Rune Scarred Demon 1 Sheoldred, the Whispering One 2 Karn, Liberated
252 Cards

The crew of the Horde of Notions podcast made this deck live to submit into ReConstructed, and they opted for some green acceleration and fixing alongside a creature-based strategy. Birthing Pod is one highlight, and plenty of removal, card draw, and "tutoring"—cards that search your deck for other cards and put them into your hand—to help to round out the deck.

Birthing Pod
Increasing Ambition

The Battle of Wits Has Begun!

So, who is right and who is dead? Which build is superior?

Before getting into that, I want to talk about this archetype some and some of the constraints around it.

Consistency and Redundancy

In a deck this large, you aren't really going to have much consistency in the individual cards you draw. It's difficult to find one of your four Day of Judgments every game. Furthermore, many of your primary sources of consistency—such as tutors—are going to be used to find the namesake enchantment and just win the game. However, you can make up for this with card redundancy.

Day of Judgment and Black Sun's Zenith and Terminus aren't exactly the same, but they're close enough that you can play plenty of variations on this effect and end up drawing one often enough. There are some classes of cards that do have plenty of redundancy and some that don't, and in a Battle of Wits deck you mostly need to build around the ones that have it.

Black Sun's Zenith

It's for this reason that a Battle of Wits deck that focuses on an aggressive beatdown angle isn't really feasible. Aggressive decks take advantage of the best cards on each point in the curve, and Standard doesn't have a lot of redundancy in those slots. Sure, you can start off with Stromkirk Noble and Spikeshot Elder, but if you want to consistently have a one-drop then it's not long before you're down to the Somberwald Vigilantes of the world.

Not to mention, the reward for Battle fits better in a control-based strategy. You want the game to go long and to run a lot of powerful, expensive cards. As a result, you want your Battle deck to stay more control focused.

The easiest shortcut to think about it while deck building is that you're playing a singleton deck. The size of a Battle of Wits deck (roughly 240 cards) is four times a normal-sized deck, and four is conveniently also the maximum number you are allowed to play of any given card. That means you're just about as likely to draw a card that's a four-of in your Battle of Wits deck as you are to draw a one-of in your sixty-card deck.

Winning Without Battle and Maximizing Upside

You also want to be prepared to win without Battle. You can run plenty of ways to search for the enchantment, but there's still no guarantee you'll find it in an average game. You want plenty of other win conditions around. Fortunately, control powerhouses like Titans are good enough to take the game down on their own.

Frost Titan
Grave Titan

In short, you are basically going to be playing a control deck with some slightly suboptimal cards. The upside is that you can occasionally just win the game for five mana.

When deck building, you want to always try to maximize your upside. In this case you want to play plenty of ways to find your Battle. In this respect, I think playing black is a must because you gain access to a number of tutor effects. So in that respect, I prefer the black builds. Tutoring and drawing extra cards as much as possible is crucial.

The Colors

So, I've established that I want at least blue and black. If this deck wanted to, it could maybe support one more color to tap into some powerful cards, especially considering that you get extra dual lands for that color between the allied and enemy "buddy" lands from M13 and Innistrad and the allied Scars of Mirrodin fastlands.

However, just laying out the cards I want to play, blue and black have more than enough. It sounds completely ridiculous, but in only two colors there are so many strong cards that I already need to make difficult cuts from my 240-card deck. Furthermore, the mana might work okay, but it's certainly a little rough.

Doom Blade | Art by Chippy

The mana fixing for three colors in this deck would be roughly equivalent to trying to play a three-color sixty-card deck with five dual lands and a couple other artifact mana fixers. It can work, but certainly nobody is clamoring to do it.

So that means we're taking an even different path from the one above! That's right—the build I prefer most lies between all three of these! Straight blue-black is what I want to try.

Ready for the deck legwork to begin? Let's go!

Deck Breakdown

All right, so let's start by looking at each card above and analyzing if it deserves to be in the deck.

...okay, so maybe not. I might be crazy, but I'm not Arkham Asylum-level crazy. Instead, we're going to start from the ground up, going over each class of card we want to fit in here—and use the submitted decklists above as models.

Let's first go down the list of control elements.


Blue-Black Control needs plenty of removal to control the board. And with so much removal in the format, you have to narrow it down.

Go For the Throat and Doom Blade are probably the top choices for this deck simply because they're only two mana and extremely versatile. After that, you need to make sure you have more pinpoint removal—remember, four copies of a card in here is roughly equivalent to one copy in a sixty-card deck—and ways to answer both hexproof creatures and large creature swarms.

Go for the Throat
Doom Blade

To fight hexproof and swarms, mass removal is where it's at. Mutilate, Barter in Blood, Curse of Death's Hold, Ratchet Bomb, and Black Sun's Zenith fill this role nicely. Liliana of the Veil and Tribute to Hunger also help to fend off hexproof enemies.

Geth's Verdict is another option against hexproof, but with five options (plus the potential for Phantasmal Image to fight Geist of Saint Traft) I wanted other pieces of pinpoint removal for this metagame. Grasp of Darkness, Liliana of the Dark Realms, and Victim of Night help round out the removal suite, ensuring a strong chance of drawing them early.

Liliana of the Dark Realms
Victim of Night

One notable card I did not include was Tragic Slip. I wanted all of my removal to be strong at any point in the game because the odds of drawing any given piece early is low, and, unless you can consistently get morbid on, Tragic Slip doesn't accomplish that.


There is plenty of reasonable countermagic in Standard—even Cancel is fine. However, this deck wants to tap out to kill things, draw cards, or land threats a fair amount. As a result, countermagic isn't something I wanted to lean on too heavily and instead would prefer something like Duress to be proactive.

Mana Leak

I started with several pieces and slowly whittled the numbers down. The last two pieces left were Mana Leak and Dissipate. Mana Leak is too good to not play, and I definitely wanted access to hard countermagic in a deck with so much card drawing, Snapcaster Mage, and win conditions to protect.

If you're looking for more because you prefer a heavy-countermagic playstyle, Negate was the last cut. If nothing else, Negate belongs in the sideboard.

Card Drawing

This deck wants to dig, dig, dig to try and find a Battle. Cantrips and digging help with that—Gitaxian Probe, Ponder, and Forbidden Alchemy are all excellent for this deck—but you definitely want some ways to significantly pull ahead on cards. Fortunately, there's a surprisingly high amount of solid card drawing available right now.

I won't list all of the pieces I chose, but I will talk for a moment about a very unique one you likely haven't seen played elsewhere since I know it'll raise some eyebrows. The card? Distant Memories!

Distant Memories | Art by Karl Kopinski

This relatively untouched card-drawer isn't too exciting most of the time. You give your opponent the choice over how it works, which is seldom good. But in this deck, it's almost always Concentrate. If you go search up a Battle, your opponent is not really going to have a chance to be a meddling monk: he or she is very rarely going to want to give it to you. Considering Concentrate is above the curve for what has been printed lately, that's a solid deal.

Distant Memories

Yes, it does thin your deck of a Battle—but with so many solid control finishers and tutoring around that's not much of an issue. And speaking of tutoring...


I can definitely see a build of Battle of Wits that features solely cards that are good on their own and Battle of Wits. That way, you aren't messing around and spending turns with tutors or drawing hands full of them. However, the place I want to start is definitely with as many tutors as possible.

With Diabolic Tutor, Diabolic Revelation, Increasing Ambition, and Rune-Scarred Demon, there are a ton of tutors available to this archetype. Yes, it's an expensive route to go down that will eat up a couple turns—but with the end result of winning the game that's not such a bad use of time.

Creatures and Threats

Finally, let's look down the creatures and threats this deck chooses to run. This was actually one of the hardest pieces of the deck to narrow down, as there's so much you can do.

On one hand, there are tons of fantastic top-end creatures, like the Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, Wurmcoil Engine, Batterskull, and more. You can pack your deck full of haymakers that can beat down your opponent.

On the other, there are a lot of great value creatures as well. Trinket Mage can go find cards like Chimeric Mass, Traveler's Amulet, Grafdigger's Cage, Nihil Spellbomb, and more, and if you build a deck with enough spells, Augur of Bolas becomes fantastic. Solemn Simulacrum is another excellent value proposition.

And then, suddenly, you put all of the awesome creatures you want from each category and end up with seventy-six creatures and have no idea how to cut it down.

After making several painful incisions I finally settled on a mix of both.

Snapcaster Mage and Solemn Simulacrum are cards I knew I wanted to play here. The acceleration is invaluable when you're trying to tutor with cards like Diabolic Revelation, and Snapcaster is just too good to not play. Phantasmal Image is also excellent, killing Geist of Saint Trafts and copying creatures to block in the early game while becoming a 5/5 Squadron Hawk later on if a Rune-Scarred Demon hits the battlefield.

Of course, I wanted big guys to finish the game with as well. Grave Titan and Consecrated Sphinx do that nicely, and the aforementioned Rune-Scarred Demon can either end the game by searching up Battle or by just attacking.

Finally, Karn Liberated adds a nice Planeswalker punch. He can deal with any permanents that are keeping you down, and can also strip your opponents of answers. To quote Luis Scott-Vargas, "Karn is good against permanents."

And although I doubt it will ever happen, since the scenario where this is right to do is fairly contrived, if you ever restart the game with Battle of Wits on the battlefield you win 200 Gavin Points.

Round that out with some artifact acceleration and a more appropriate number of lands, and you end up with this:

Blue-Black Battle

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While this decklist doesn't have a sideboard—I think you want to play with the main deck and see if there's anything you would push to the sideboard first—the place I would start is with countermagic and removal. You want to protect yourself from people who aim to blow up your Battle, and you want more removal against the beatdown decks. I'd look at more Grasp of Darknesses and Victims of Night and cards like Negate, Sever the Bloodline, Life's Finale, Grafdigger's Cage, Nihil Spellbomb, and Trinket Mage to start off with.

Grafdigger's Cage

There are plenty of ways you can take this deck and plenty of individual card choices you can tweak, so the best way to figure out how to evolve it is to get out there and play! I seriously think this deck is competitive and am excited to see how it does in the world of Standard. Blue-Black Control with a five-mana "You win the game" card? Sign me up!

Honorable Mentions

Although Battle of Wits is a ton of fun to build around, I received several great submissions for this week. Let's take a look at some of them!

Robert Denton's Faith's Reward Combo

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Jack's Bolas Control

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Noah Stafford's Green-Red Beatdown

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Matthew Robinson's Naya Dragon

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Greg Peck's Rancorwolves

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