The Once and Future

Posted in Feature on August 16, 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."
Coalition Relic
You may have noticed that at various points during the Time Spiral Block season, the title of apparent "best deck" has shifted, and more than once. At the beginning, after Grand Prix–Montreal, I predicted that Green-White Aggro—simple, effective, and the Grand Prix winner—was going to be the enduring most popular deck. Possibly because that prediction threatened to be true, not just in the digital realm but in the hearts and minds—and deck boxes—of the PTQ regular, relatively quickly, Black-Blue Mystical Teachings variants, including Coalition Relic decks spread over as many as all five colors, rose to the top of the pile, predators over Green-White with what seemed like two inches of creature elimination headlined by the incomparable Damnation. Somewhere along the line, Poison Slivers exploded in popularity... and burned out so quickly it was barely registered on the metagame radar. Most recently, Mono-Blue (and transformative) Pickles decks have shown themselves to have the most potent strategy in the format, mixing the take-on-all-comers attitude of Tsuyoshi Fujita's color screw-proof Yokohama control with a combo end game capable of beating anything. Pickles can lock a tapped out opponent out of a game with a yawn, sliding invincible permanent after invincible permanent down after a Teferi... and it doesn't hurt that the deck is probably the format's best option against the once towering popularity of Black-Blue.

Yet with another week, this format has shifted once again. It is stunning how different PTQ Magic is today than it was just three or four years ago. The closeness in power level between even the top cards allows for a dizzying number of permutations, and well-placed swaps between main deck staples can mean the PTQ given the right Top 8 opponents. Playing PTQ or Grand Prix Magic in the age of the Tier Two card is almost the opposite of formats like Vintage or Legacy, where players brand themselves as adherents of one archetype or another, mastering a single deck. Not only can you just not do that in modern Magic, if you wait a week, the onetime top decks might not even make any Top 8s, anywhere across the country!

Case in point: Going into last week, if you asked me, I would have said that the best decks in Time Spiral Block so far were 1) Mono-Blue (transformative) Pickles, 2) B/U/x/y Teachings with Coalition Relic, and 3) Reanimator. Of those decks, only Pickles even scored a Top 8 last week... and it didn't win!

Poison Slivers
Green-White Aggro
Blue-Green Aggro
Blue-Green Morphs
Blue-White Morphs
Black-Blue-Red Discard/Control
Mono-Black Beatdown
Mono-Blue Pickles
Sliver Aggro
Blue-Green-White Aggro

Instead this past weekend has given us a couple of minor renaissances, with Poison Slivers taking a slot, last week's Mono-Black Beatdown making another appearance, and—if you will indulge the old man a little pride in his younglings—the possible appearance (a kind of renaissance itself) of a brand new The Best Deck (could it be?).

For those of you who have not yet laid eyes on the Poison Slivers deck, this is what it looks like:

Viet Tran

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Virulent Sliver
While the deck has a kind of a bullet engine between Homing Sliver and Summoner's Pact (the two Summoner's Pacts are the only non-creature—non-Sliver—cards in the deck!), allowing it to attack from Screeching angles, lock down the board Telekinetic-style, or draw a million cards between the Dormant and Frenetic brotherhoods, this deck takes its name from the favored style of the Lachmann and Van Lunen for a reason: four Virulent Slivers.

The blunt object strategy here is no different than it was when Chris and Jacob broke the format and ruined the weekends of a couple of hundred more experienced pros at the Pro Tour past. Set up Virulent Sliver. Attack. That's it. Telekinetic Sliver can tap down some blockers. Two-Headed Sliver makes blocking difficult or even impossible. Might Sliver means that even if you're protecting yourself—or trying to protect yourself—from the poison patrol, someone might just huff and puff and blow your blockers down... or crack you in the head for actual damage to the tune of 20 rather than 10.

Is Poison Slivers a gimmick? Hell yeah. Is it effective? Can I hear a Hell yeah? This is the kind of deck that can be beaten with simple cards that have been floating around the format since the Pro Tour (think about playing against a creature deck, or just a Sprout Swarm, packing defensive Hivestones). It has glaring inefficiencies with its mana base, and its creatures are substandard to a man Sliver when dealt with mano a mano... But if this deck is allowed to assemble unmolested, like Standard target practice dunce cap Dredge, Slivers can play like a tidal wave, with each pointy-faced teammate contributing to a sum many times the value of its individually fragile parts.

Will it win again next week? I wouldn't put money on that, no.

The other big winner of the week, though, I can really get behind. Last week a forum poster pointed out that Bring on the Bad Guys was "a couple of deck lists that other people made" (which actually prompts us to wonder if he had read this column during a Constructed PTQ season any time since BDM was writing it)... Hopefully I can make him a happier camper with the New York results.

Joshua Ravitz

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Asher Hecht

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#1 Apprentice-elect Asher "ManningBot" Hecht got back from a month-long rock climbing expedition in the wilds of the American west last week, re-establishing himself with the Internet, and perhaps electricity itself, for the first time in weeks (Asher, sadly, had to miss Nationals weekend and the MSS). His first phone calls and IMs? To the old man, of course.

"What am I playing on Saturday?"

Longtime #1 Apprentice emeritus Josh Ravitz and I had been working on a deck to beat the Northeast metagame. Our criteria was simple: halfway good all-around, must beat Blue-Green, must beat Mono-Blue. Josh was the innovator of Mono-Blue in the Gray Matter territory, already handing down a slot to PNaps with Kenji Tsumura's list. This past Saturday he elected to play in the PTQ rather than attend my daughter's birthday party (my wife's big toe thanks him).

Initially, Josh and I worked on a green-white deck with all the spoilers for Mono-Blue: Serra Avenger, Scryb Ranger, and Stonewood Invocation. Not even Kenji can easily beat a Serra Avenger, and Scryb Ranger is even more problematic for the Pickles player, setting up not only an attacker each turn, but reloading the opponent's mana. Scryb Ranger single-handedly foils the Pickles combo. Stonewood Invocation—particularly when stapled to a threat like the Ranger—allows Green-White to play positively red, turning 6 life to 1 in a relative race.

Josh had lost to Green-White-Red previously with Mono-Blue, though, and we decided to improve on that deck due to the versatility of Green-White-Red over Green-White, which, for example, has no outs to a Vesuvan Shapeshifter (I beat numerous opponents in my Pickles PTQ on the back of a Shapeshifter wearing Temporal Isolation). Blue-Green Donkey Pong is the second most popular deck in the Gray Matter region, and that deck trumps Green-White when piloted by the right magician. However, a correctly tuned Green-White-Red seemed to have the tools to beat both decks... But as when Goblins maven Dan Paskins cut the Gempalm Incinerators to fit Shrapnel Blast or Tsuyoshi Fujita removed his Goblin Piledrivers because they were bad both in the mirror and against Arcbound Ravagers, we had to kill some darlings. Josh quickly realized that we had one Forest in the deck despite having tons of manipulation... Darling One was history before we even had a working draft.

Kavu Predator
Is Green-White-Red Predator a brand spanking new archetype? Obviously not. It has been a contender since the Week One Grand Prix, and has shown up in a fair number of PTQ Top 8s. The synergy between Kavu Predator, Grove of the Burnwillows, and Fiery Justice is obvious, with the first making the latter two bearable, and at times even advantageous. That said, the deck, like many in the Tier Two formats, was open for customization and improvement. In the end, both players playing our version, two-of-two, made Top 8, and in fact, made Top 4. The deck was a solid choice, and the changes seem material and noteworthy.

1) No Call of the Herd. This is the big one. Just ask BDM. He will tell you that some good player will IM him "When you are Blue-Green against Mono-Blue, you take out your Calls, right?" and the next minute another player will IM him "When you are Blue-Green against Mono-Blue, you leave in your Calls, right?" As a former Mono-Blue player, I can tell you that I am overjoyed to be playing against Call of the Herd. This card is substandard in almost every deck that it has ever been played in. It is particularly bad in a metagame predicting Venser, Riftwing Cloudskate, and Snapback. On advice from Zvi Mowshowitz (albeit not regarding this deck, but a blue-green Standard deck we were working on at his apartment a few weeks ago), we replaced Call of the Herd with the versatile and valuable Flametonge Kavu Riftsweeper. When you are Mono-Blue, you don't want to be playing against Riftsweeper. It cancels your Ancestral Visions and pours molasses on your Riftwing Cloudskate's shoes. The card is not so devastating on the ground... yet you find yourself losing to it time and again.

2) 3-4 Stonecloakers main. We learned "the Tarmogoyf trick" from Andre Coimbra. Basically, Tarmogoyfs brawl. You put X on the opponent's X+1 Tarmogoyf, and return your Tarmogoyf with Stonecloaker, leaving yourself with a 3/2 flying creature (evasion is king in the Tarmogoyf matchups); when Stonecloaker drops, he takes whatever singleton will pull the opponent's "surviving" Tarmogoyf to X-1/X, preferably Thrill of the Hunt or Call of the Herd. Other times you just fight even and save your guy, 40-card style. Other times your Calciderm is just that damn good. Josh considered Stonecloaker main a key unique element of our build, a nod to additional evasion, and, I pointed out, a subtle foil to Reanimator, which I considered one of the strongest decks in the field; between Stonecloaker and Dead, Reanimator is not hard for this deck to take.

3) No Griffin Guide anywhere. The decks we specifically set out to beat were Mono-Blue and Blue-Green, basically two decks that laugh off Griffin Guide. Griffin Guide isn't even good against Temporal Isolation (or if you're playing Chapin, Bound in Silence) out of Green-White, the deck that allegedly has no removal.

4) Calciderms main, and eight big four-drop fatties overall. We went with Calciderm in the main deck because of their synergy with Stonecloaker; in a differently tuned deck, they could be Mystic Enforcers. We decided to play strong against Blue and Blue-Green main, and sideboard aggressively for Mystical Teachings and other aggressive decks.

5) Four copies of Dead main. While not a unique element of our build, these are by no means universal... I thought they were just better than Sunlance in Green-White, though it took a good deal of prodding to get Josh to switch them in (he was glad he did).

You will notice Asher's deck differs from Josh's by a couple of cards main, and another two in the side. I think he missed a memo, sadly. We went -2 Saffi Eriksdotter for a land and the fourth Stonecloaker main; Saffi is by a wide margin the weakest card in the deck, and Josh liked Vesuva so much he played a second one in the sideboard. We considered the extra land a necessity because the deck goes to eight four drops against Teachings, Mono-Blue transformation, and other Tarmogoyf decks; we debated the fourth Isolation or the fourth Fiery Justice a fair bit... I think the Fiery Justice is better. Young ManningBot lost in the Top 4 to drawing Saffis that weren't even in Josh's deck.

Asher came back from Wyoming ("What is it with your #1 Apprentices and the dubyas? Julian going to Wisconsin? Asher coming back from Wyoming? At least I have the good sense to spend my down time at Finkel's house!" –Ravitz) cold, had no idea who had won U.S. Nationals, let alone what deck to play. I of course shipped the Green-White-Red. He was initially skeptical. "Then I ran ten games against Mono-Blue and five against Blue-Green... 9-1 against Blue, 4-1 against Blue-Green. Sold."

"The best card is Dead. If you draw it, you can't really lose to Mono-Blue or Blue-Green. You kill Mono-Blue's morph before it can beat you, and against Blue-Green you just kill their Looter. They have a good strategy but can't beat this deck if their Looter dies."

Josh said he was happy to have played a deck with an actual sideboard for the first time in two years. "At the U.S. Nationals I made Top 8 had four good cards in my sideboard (Culling Scales); this time I was up to eleven. I never sided in Rebuff the Wicked, though." If Green-White-Red becomes popular, Honorable Passage might be better than Rebuff the Wicked.

"I liked Rebuff," responded ManningBot. "Annul your Tendrils? It's key... Then again I played against Teachings and Josh didn't."

Is Green-Red-White The Best Deck? I don't know. It certainly seemed like the deck to play last week, with both copies of our version in the Top 4 (yes, the retired Josh would have probably handed Asher his first invitation to the Pro Tour if he had made it past Mike McGee). However, this format remains quite fluid. In our region, most of the players in the know had decided Mono-Blue was the best, and Blue-Green has remained popular at all levels. This deck beats both of those, beats straight Green-White, has a shot against Teachings sideboarded, and has a superb three-game plan against other Tarmogoyf decks. In sum, it had the tools to exploit the market... and it didn't hurt that Teachings (the best deck against Green-White-Red) has lost popularity recently. Will Predator win every PTQ for the rest of the season? No more, I'd guess, than Green-White, Teachings, Poison Slivers, or Pickles before it did. Josh predicts that the expiration date will run before Grand Prix–San Francisco (he has regained the fire, regardless of what he tells you, and plans to attend the GP, picking up a deck from Antonino). The old man thinks Predator has another week in it... But I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the last couple of tournaments go.

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