The Ancient Art of Decking

Posted in Learning Curve on February 26, 2003

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

As I come to the end of my second month of Learning Curve, the creative process for the column is beginning to develop a pattern. The feedback from each week's column seems to lead me into a topic for the next one. After my article on Banned and Restricted cards from last week I received the following email:

I'm new to the game. The Neo-Academy deck you show in your column completely baffles me. How in the world does the player inflict any damage to someone besides him/herself?

For those of you unfamiliar with how the deck works allow me to explain. Academy decks rely on using fast artifact mana and Tolarian Academy to generate crazy amounts of mana—sometimes as much as 100 mana as early as the first turn. They then use that mana to play a Stroke of Genius that forces the opponent to draw more cards than are in his deck, which causes him to lose the game. This is one method of what is known as “decking” your opponent.


Today's Lesson:
What is Decking?

Invariably, if I mention the concept of decking in a column or—as illustrated in the letter above—showcase a deck without a source of damage I get a number of emails from perplexed newer players struggling to understand how a deck wins without bashing opponents with Dragons or Angels or burning them with red spells. Long before there was Phage the Untouchable, Battle of Wits, or even Pit Scorpion, there was decking—the original alternate win condition. From page 9 of the Alpha edition rulebook, under the heading “Overview of Play”:

“The object of the game is to reduce your rival's life points to zero, forcing him or her to flee the plane in which you are dueling.[…] You also win if your rival's library becomes so depleted that he or she cannot draw a card when required.”

For a while this was just a happy accident that would occur when two players got locked into a match involving Circle of Protection: Black or Wall of Swords. I imagine that some player facing the unfortunate prospect of running out of cards first reread the Ancestral Recall he just drew two cards from the bottom of his deck and realized that he could use it to force his "rival" to draw three cards instead. Pandora's Box was opened and it would never be closed again. Suddenly Millstones were looked at with a newfound reverence and Braingeyser became as lethal as Fireball.


Stones, Canes, and Blessings

The earliest decks that developed around this strategy were blue/white Prison decks. They relied on Wrath of God, Counterspells, and Millstones to defeat their opponents. You will notice that all of the components of this deck are still available in Seventh Edition and such decks still pop up more than occasionally on the tournament scene.

There have been a number of other “Stones” that accomplished the same task, including the Tempest set's Grindstone, which punishes an opponent for playing a mono-colored deck and Urza's Saga's Whetstone, which can be activated multiple times a turn but milled a symmetrical number of cards from both players' decks. The trick to using Whetstone is to get the final use out of it after you have drawn a card and your opponent has a draw step coming up.

The Millstone was at one point so dominant that Wizards printed a foil to it in Gaea's Blessing. As long as you didn't sit on a handful of Blessings it was virtually impossible to be decked when playing multiple copies of this card. As it turns out, it was also possible to deck your opponent solely on the basis of having a couple of Gaea's Blessings in your deck by casting the card and shuffling three card back into your library as long as one of them was another Gaea's Blessing.

Pursuit of Knowledge

Replacement Effects: How to Not Draw Cards

One of my favorite all time decks was a blue-white-green deck called “How to Keep an Idiot Busy” which was first built when Feldon's Cane was unrestricted. It relied on four copies of the Cane to recycle the deck many times over, and included reset buttons like Nevinyrral's Disk and fun cards like Jester's Cap. When Gaea's Blessing was printed, Feldon's Cane was replaced with the Blessing; as added protection against having your Blessings countered the deck played Pursuit of Knowledge. Pursuit has what is known as a "replacement effect" for drawing cards. This means that anytime you would draw a card you could use the effect of Pursuit of Knowledge instead—another means of eventually decking your opponent. The deck actually made Top 8 at a major tournament but it is by no means recommended as an actual good deck!

How to Keep an Idiot Busy

Download Arena Decklist

If you are building a deck from a modern card pool, Millstone is still available but Feldon's Cane, Gaea's Blessing, and Pursuit of Knowledge are not. That is not to say there are not similar tools available if you want to deck your opponent. Onslaught offers the uncommon Reminisce as a sorcery equivalent to Feldon's Cane. Both Dwell on the Past (from Torment) and Krosan Reclamation (from Judgment) offer the same limited card recursion of Gaea's Blessing. If you are looking for replacement effects you need to look no further than the cycle of Words of Worship cards from Onslaught. All five cards offer you the opportunity to skip drawing a card in exchange for one mana and generating an effect.

I alluded to a Future Sight deck I was working on—using only Standard-legal cards—in a previous column. A friend recently played that deck in the Gateway tournament at Pro Tour -Chicago. While he did not do very well, it is an interesting deck to look at.

Tight Sight

Download Arena Decklist

The deck relies on getting out a Future Sight and depleting your entire library with cheap spells that draw card and search out lands and then using the two Krosan Reclamations along with Early Harvest to make as much mana as you want. Then you use the Krosan Reclamations and Predict—targeting your opponent—to “mill” his entire deck away. Once you have used up all your mana, you let him take a turn and when he fails to draw a card, you win.

One More Way to Do It

I recently watched a tournament match where one player played an Ensnaring Bridge against a creature deck. With no cards in hand and the mana to play out every card he drew, there was no way for his opponent ever to attack again. When his opponent realized there were fewer cards left in his own deck than in the "Bridge" player's, he conceded. Because he had no way to destroy an artifact, or deal damage in any way other than attacking, he saved everyone the time and aggravation of his eventual decking and moved onto the next game—this time with his Disenchants sideboarded in.



As you can see, there are a number of ways you can deck you opponent beyond merely playing more cards than him. Let's take a quick review of the different ways that you can accomplish this:

  • Force your opponent to draw more cards than are left in his library. Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius are old favorites, but you can use something as mundane as Deep Analysis to finish off an opponent low on cards. Just look for those magic words “target player” on card-drawing cards.
  • Deplete your opponent's library with effects that put cards into his graveyard. Millstone was the first of many and is probably still the best but don't overlook odd cards like Predict if you have the right deck.
  • Feldon's Cane was popular in control decks but you can reminisce about it with Reminisce.
  • Gaea's Blessing, Dwell on the Past, and Krosan Reclamation are all green spells that allow you to outlast your opponent—provided you have multiple copies to shuffle back in to your deck.
  • Replacement effects like Words of Worship can keep you from getting decked while generating a useful effect along the way. Old favorites in this category include Island Sanctuary, Abundance, and Pursuit of Knowledge.

Hopefully I have given you some food for thought. Maybe the next time you build a deck you will give those Dragons a well-deserved break and show your opponent what happens when they don't play with a full deck. I'll see you again in seven days when I'll be taking a look at something else that keeps coming back from the graveyard.

Brian may be reached at

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