Play the Best Decks… Three of Them

Posted in Feature on April 27, 2006

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."

Due to Dissension previews, we haven't looked in on the Pro Tour--Charleston Qualifier tournaments for three weeks. What's more, last weekend was the Dissension Prerelease, so there were no PTQs at all! As such, it seems as good a time as any to catch up with and examine the trends that have shaped the metagame thus far.

Here are some breakdowns for the first four weeks of PTQs:

March 25:

Greater Gifts
   
Heezy Street
   
Vore
   
Ghost Dad
   
Wafo-Tapa
 
Heartbeat
 
B/G/W Control
 
G/W Greater Good
 

There isn't much that we can learn from looking at a single tournament's Top 4, especially as there were no more than two copies of any single deck present. What is interesting to see is how a less popular deck like Heartbeat goes from being played only one team to exploding over the course of several weeks.

April 1-2:

Heezy Street
                         
Heartbeat
                 
B/W Hand
                 
Ghost Dad
               
Vore
             
Zoo
           
Tron Wildfire
       
U/R/W Weirding
     
G/W Greater Good
   
B/W Control
   
Ghost Husk
   
Greater Gifts
   
Wafo-Tapa
 
Ghazi-Chord
 
G/W beatdown
 
Critical Mass
 
Boros
 

In the second week of PTQs, Pro Tour--Honolulu-winning Heezy Street was still one of the most popular decks; it led in both Top 4s and in number of Blue Envelopes earned. Vore at this point is quietly elite, matching Heezy Street's Blue Envelopes with just over half the opportunities.

In Week 2, two significant decks appear; the first is Ghost Husk:

Osyp Lebedowicz

 

Promise of Bunrei

Based on Michael Diezel's deck from Pro Tour--Honolulu, the Ghost Husk deck was called the best in the format by pilot Osyp Lebedowicz. Playing this deck is essentially a puzzle similar to running Ravager Affinity… The raw power of Ghost Husk's cards will allow even an incompetent monkey to win, but when all pistons are pumping, Ghost Husk allows its master to play through any number of board positions.

The deck's core is based around Nantuko Husk (or to a lesser extent Plagued Rusalka) and Promise of Bunrei. Via Promise, the Husk can hit for a ton of damage out of nowhere, similar to an all-in Arcbound Ravager. Ghost Husk starts very aggressively with Isamaru, Hound of Konda, and can cover its leads with Castigate. Alongside the Nantuko attack theme, Ghost Husk also plays the best Orzhov Pontiff game of any B/W deck in the current Standard environment. Ghost Husk's Nantuko Husks allow the deck to break Orzhov Pontiff and set up Haunt with much greater regularity than the majority of other B/W decks.

Ghost Husk's implementation in Team Trios was specifically an anti-Heartbeat maneuver by Osyp. After sideboards, the deck's three Castigates are bolstered by three Mindslicers. Especially given the speed of Ghost Husk's zombie clock, Heartbeat has a difficult time weathering a Mindslicer.

The second different look at some otherwise popular cards is Ghazi-Chord:

James Wright - C

Though it doesn't look it, Ghazi-Chord is an attempt to hybridize the best elements of the Japanese Ghazi-Glare decks from Worlds… and Ghost Dad.

 

Nikko-Onna

The deck uses a lone Nikko-Onna as the center of its Spiritcraft trigger engine. Ghazi-Chord can search up Nikko-Onna at instant speed – often in the middle of combat – to take out cards like Pillory of the Sleepless and create unanticipated bad blocks. The various Spirit creatures and Shining Shoal combine with Nikko-Onna for use and reuse such that a single Nikko-Onna will generally be enough to outlast Tallowisp card advantage through an entire game.

Additionally, Ghazi-Chord may be the best Shining Shoal deck in Team Trios. While all the Shining Shoal decks can stymie the opponent's Wildfire, and Shoal innovating Ghost Dad can set up Tallowisp triggers on the card, Ghazi-Chord sets itself apart by being able to keep Kodama of the North Tree safe. The implications of this interaction are profound in the metagame; Kodama of the North Tree, while absent from the PT Honolulu Top 8, remains one of the problem threats in Standard and the principle reason that Ryusei finally broke out in the format. Control decks – at least those without Wildfire or Wrath of God – have precious few answers to North Side, and therefore have to throw either a Keiga (usually with no profit) or Meloku and a ton of Illusions (generally to the control deck's detriment) in front of the big Craw Wurm. Creature decks have little recourse but combat for the same reasons… Throw Shining Shoal into the mix and North Tree not only splatters the opponent's team, but lives to demand another potentially disastrous gang block. Because of the strength of Chord-into-Nikko-Onna-into-Shining Shoal or just Shining Shoal on Kodama of the North Tree, later versions of the deck – starting with Week 3 winners in California – feature all the Shoals in the main.

April 8-9:

Heartbeat
                   
Ghost Husk
             
B/W Hand
             
Vore
           
Zoo
           
Heezy Street
         
U/R/W Weirding
       
Ghost Dad
       
Tron Wildfire
     
Ghazi-Chord
   
B/W Control
   
Wafo-Tapa
 
URzaTron
 
Greater (no) Gifts
 
Rogue Vore
 

By Week Three, we see a startling shift in the format. I have been calling Heartbeat “the best deck” in the format since Week One, but by April 8-9 PTQs, it seems no longer up for debate. Look at those Heartbeat of Spring numbers. Of five Pro Tour Qualifiers reporting, all five winning teams featured a Heartbeat of Spring deck. All five! Can you imagine an individual PTQ season where we would have the week's tally featuring multiple decks, but only Boros Deck Wins (or Dredgatog, or whatever) had little blue boxes next to its name?

If you are going to succeed in Team Trios, it seems vital to accept something as fact: Heartbeat is the dominant deck of the PTQ format. Play it or play at least two decks that can beat it on your team (and cross your fingers), or you will not leave your PTQ with the Blue Envelopes.

But what makes Heartbeat so good?

  1. Muddle the Mixture
    Heartbeat is at least arguably the best permission deck in the format. It matches URzaTron 1:1 in counter count, and its Muddle the Mixtures are actually “harder” two-mana counters than Mana Leak against the kinds of cards that Heartbeat cares about. While decks like Wafo-Tapa actually play more permission spells, Heartbeat exceeds the limiting factor of its mana much more efficiently than does the U/R; that is, Wafo-Tapa will have more permission cards in its hand than it can maybe play in a critical turn whereas Heartbeat will not necessarily have this problem.
  2. Heartbeat punishes unfocused decks. Decks that can do lots of things competently but don't specialize in fundamental turn (Ghazi-Chord, Ghazi-Glare, Ghost Dad, and so on) can give Heartbeat the time it needs to play for the win… Tallowisp and Descendent of KiyoMaro can give aggressive decks fits, but they are not a very fast beatdown against this combo deck.
  3. Heartbeat has a dangerous sideboard. In Honolulu, Randy and I commented that it might have been better for the rest of the Top 8 if Max Bracht's sideboard had not been public… The guessing game as to which deck he was presenting in duels 2-5 were as potent as either his combo deck or the hybrid Critical Mass he could be playing in any specific fight. As we noted in previous installments of Swimming With Sharks, Heartbeat can play any of several different sideboards (Vinelasher beatdown, Bottled Cloister, Dragon transformative), so it is difficult to know what the opponent is transforming into, or if he is transforming at all.
  4. Heartbeat is highly resistant to disruption. Heavy discard strategies with tons of Rats, Shrieking Grotesques, and Castigates have some merit against the deck, but the fact that it can reload with a single Muddle the Mixture for Train of Thought while the opponent has spent his resources leaving a pretty pathetic beatdown is telling. Some players advocate Kami of Ancient Law, but in our experience Heartbeat generally has the time to Savage Twister that Bear or just generate sufficient mana in response to its activation to re-transmute for a backup Heartbeat of Spring (this applies much less in a burn deck with Kami of Ancient Law, but Heartbeat generally has B/W covered in the absence of, say, Mindslicer). Unlike many complicated decks, Heartbeat ignores Blood Moon, rather than losing to it automatically.
  5. Heartbeat can do – essentially – whatever it wants. The nature of the Transmute engine allows Heartbeat to spend one slot on essentially five copies of Wrath of God (Muddle the Mixture into Savage Twister), and it can play a better Jitte deck than most dedicated aggressors. Not only does it have the best permission base, but Heartbeat can “pick a fight” at the end of the opponent's turn with Gigadrowse. It can opt for a less-than-full transform with Carven Caryatid to force the opponent to leave in creature control spells while still playing a primary combo plan.
  6. Heartbeat plays the best cards. Probably the most important element of them all, as the best decks play the best cards… Heartbeat plays Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, and Sensei's Divining Top (and Umezawa's Jitte in the ‘board)… all the best cards of Kamigawa Block. It should be no surprise that this deck can outmaneuver opponents with weaker spells and less robust mana bases.

Even with all that talk of “the best deck,” Week Three was full of non-Heartbeat surprises. Champions Ben Rubin and Ken Ho were joined by the irreverent ptr for a PTQ in California. The Masters Series, Pro Tour, and Grand Prix champions only finished Top 4, but Ho, innovator of Werebear, Still Life, and Squirrel Nest, took a typically (for him) oblique look at Vore that bears mentioning:

Ken Ho

I don't know if this version is viable long term because it leeches Heartbeat cards, but Ken's rogue Vore is quite fun to look at and crazy to play.

April 15:

Heartbeat
             
Ghost Husk
     
Vore
     
Heezy Street
   
Ghazi-Chord
   
B/W Hand
   
U/R/W Weirding
 
Zoo
 
Ghost Dad
 
Tron Wildfire
 
Boros
 

The dominance of Heartbeat continued in Week Four, exceeding even Week Three's numbers. With only two PTQs reporting, both Blue Envelopes teams fronted, predictably and per Week Three, a Heartbeat deck… but what is more telling is that of a possible eight teams, seven brought the archetype to the dance.

Wow.

“I believe in math.” – Brian Hacker

I'm going to finish off this week with a slightly different look at the four week PTQ tallies. Here are all the advancing deck archetypes, organized not by top line, but by number of Blue Envelopes; instead of ordering decks by advancing and then qualifying numbers, I decided to do the reverse, showing which decks won in relation to population, such that Wafo-Tapa, which has only three total Top 4s but two wins, is ranked ahead of Ghost Dad, with the same two wins split between innumerable Top 4 finishes. To wit:

Heartbeat
                                                     
Ghost Husk
                       
Vore
                                   
Heezy Street
                                           
Wafo-Tapa
     
b-w Control
       
Ghazi-Chord
         
u-r-w Weirding
               
Ghost Dad
                             
b-w Hand
                                   
g-w Greater Good
     
Greater Gifts
       
Zoo
                         
Tron Wildfire
               
Boros
   
b-g-w Control
 
Critical Mass
 
Greater (no) Gifts
 
g-w beatdown
 
Rogue Vore
 
URzaTron
 
Nantuko Husk

The four-week tallies make it quite explicit that Heartbeat is the best deck, with the most victories and the most Top 4s. At some point it is unfair to rate the win percentage because with Heartbeat so popular, there will eventually be a limit of 25% that won't affect decks with smaller adoption (like small n all star Wafo-Tapa). All the B/W beatdown decks together outnumber Heartbeat in a raw number of Godless Shrines, but in detail, one sub-archetype distinguishes itself from the pack: Ghost Husk. With fewer Top 4s than either B/W Hand or Ghost Dad, Ghost Husk has more actual victories than both archetypes put together (and a 50% win rate)! Was Osyp right? Is Ghost Husk the actual best deck, rather than Heartbeat? With its sideboard, the Promise of Bunrei powerhouse is one of the few decks actually capable of beating that deck, and winning any matchup, if reports are true.

One thing to remember if you want to win a qualifier is that the Top 8 (or Top 4) of a PTQ is a very different animal from the Swiss rounds. The decks in the elimination rounds have become increasingly acute over this format's first four weeks – more so than any other Constructed season in my opinion – because of the nature of the shared card pools. While your team may get a soft pairing where Sakura-Tribe Elder is blown on Greater Gifts or some such in the Swiss, don't expect that to be the case once you get to the Top 4. There are some decks, such as Tron Wildfire, Zoo, and Ghost Dad that seem fine for graduating to the elimination rounds… but are not finishing in the face of Heartbeat, Ghost Husk, Heezy Street and Vore. If trends continue, we may see every (!) team in elimination rounds finishing with Maga this week, as well as a continued trend towards Nantuko Husk from Tallowisp, Descendant of Kiyomaro, and Hand of Cruelty.

Plan accordingly.

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