Content, Character, and Conley

Posted in Top Decks on December 1, 2011

By Mike Flores

Do me a favor and chunk out the next thirty seconds.

Thirty seconds, okay?

Name three things you learned your freshman year of college (in class).



That's what I thought.

Okay now do me a different favor and chunk out the next ten seconds.

Just ten, okay?

Name three characters from the television show Friends.



Most people sputter and stutter on the first one. If you asked me cold, I could probably get out three things, but on a bad day... Probably not. Most people, though? Maybe they'll get one in thirty seconds.

And this is something that cost your mommy and pops probably tens of thousands of dollars!

On the other hand anyone who's anyone (of a certain age, I guess) can rattle out "Monica, Phoebe, and Chandler" lickety-quick.

You know why?

Character is infinitely more interesting and compelling than content.

Only decklist nerds like YT remember things like that Tom's Boss Ross deck had the Basilisk Collar + Cunning Sparkmage combo in the sideboard (a combo that became so prevalent main deck). And while Patrick Chapin could rattle off the differences in Elves decks from Berlin (and why their group's was fastest), most fans just remember LSV. They remember LSV's run, or they remember LSV's come from behind and ultimate success.


Apologies, of course, if you 1) didn't [yet?] attend a freshman year of college, or 2) have never seen Friends. Feel free to fire off "Princess Leia, Luke, and Yoda" or "Kirk, Spock, and Bones" or any number of iconic three-person character sequences from movies or television shows literally decades old (and in many cases that predate the circumstances of our births). As a Magic player I am sure you have the creative capacity to imagine parallel questions, and see how easy, and easily contrastable, those questions are.

This line, the one between content and character, is the essence of what makes following Magic: The Gathering at a pro level so interesting.


All of those names are only three letters long, yet pack fireballs full of passion and fairy tales. I mean how many Roberts are there in the world? How many Bobs? Yet I can say "Bob" and those three letters conjure up so many meanings for basically every Magic aficionado.

Bob Maher, as seen in his invitational card, Dark Confidant

For me they call up an image of someone tall and unstoppable. A player who could come out of retirement to win an Invitational—and give us the Dark Confidant—or defeat the seemingly undefeatable Hat in the finals of a Masters Series event. Bob was a player so preternaturally confident that he could make the worst play in the room... but convince dozens of rapt onlookers that it was the best play available.

In a battle between content and character, content is a poor and whimpering common veiled by the long shadow of the mightiest mythic rare planeswalker.

That is what makes the Pro Tour so compelling: Cheering for our heroes and shaking our fists at the screen as Rich and BDM call the victory going the wrong way. And in the 2011 World Championships, the character of Character was played by master deck designer Conley Woods.

    Transformation Week: The Transformation of Conley Woods

The Conley of the 2011 World Championships seemed like a different man than the rogue deck designer we have all been cheering for the past couple of years. This Conley was sober stone at the feature match table, a calculating executor—and executioner—with only two losses over the first three days, both ultimately helping Woods teammates Luis Scott-Vargas and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa achieve Top 8 themselves. His quarterfinals save against Craig Wescoe will likely spark discussions for years to come.

More than his play at the tables, Conley—a player who made his fame in Magic by summoning Sorin Markov in an Extended Martyr of Sands deck, or by journeying to Magical Christmas Land with Lotus Cobra, four Violent Ultimatums, and four Cruel Ultimatums—dominated Standard as part of a cadre, boasting a streamlined Tempered Steel deck as his weapon of choice.

Could there be a correlation?

Team's Tempered Steel

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Four members of Team—Conley Woods, Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and Josh Utter-Leyton—made the Worlds Top 8 with their Tempered Steel deck. Tempered Steel was one of the most successful decks of the most recent Block Constructed Pro Tour, and was flying under the radar of Standard metagamers. A powerful, extremely fast, deck with few main-deck predators, Tempered Steel has few rivals in the category of unbridled offense.

How Does Tempered Steel Work?

Tempered Steel | Art by Wayne Reynolds

While superficially it is a bunch of artifact dudes pumped up by the enchantment Tempered Steel, I think it is important to note how many evasion creatures this deck packs. Glint Hawk, Vault Skirge, Glint Hawk Idol, and Inkmoth Nexus all fly. Signal Pest kind of flies (on offense). Etched Champion doesn't fly... but then again the average flyer can't block it.

So it's not just that your undercosted artifact dudes hit extra hard due to Tempered Steel; opponents also have a hard time blocking them.

The deck basically always has metalcraft, so Dispatch and Mox Opal are super good. The deck is somewhat vulnerable to sweep spells, but a 3/3 (or even 5/5) Inkmoth Nexus is good against tapped-out opponents.

As with many decks of the current era, the version of Tempered Steel makes fine use of Moorland Haunt. Their four Seachrome Coasts (with a Glacial Fortress in the sideboard!) are basically dedicated to Moorland Haunt activations.

...And yes, Moorland Haunt's spawn also fly.

Conley remained the hero of this tournament through the quarterfinals, where his three CF teammates fell to decks various (Green-Red Wolf Run Ramp, Mono-Red Beatdown, Green-White Token Town), but Woods defeated base-white aggro rival Craig Wescoe to keep his character alive in the dramatic saga of the 2011 World Championships:

Craig Wescoe's White-Blue Geist Aggro

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How Does Geist Aggro Work?

Craig's deck is an update on the White-Blue Humans archetype we have looked at a couple of times over the course of the season. A core White Weenie deck, Craig's plays fast drops and Honor of the Pure to pump them up.

Some of those drops are extremely annoying, like Doomed Traveler, which is basically Liliana of the Veil's worst nightmare (at least at one mana). Others, like three-drop powerhouses Mirran Crusader and Geist of Saint Traft, are very good and extremely hard hitting... but genuinely frightening when there is an Honor of the Pure on the battlefield

Geist of Saint Traft isn't just a powerful threat with Honor of the Pure, it is one of only a few blue assets (even if only half-blue) that Craig used to give his Humans / White Weenie a bit of panache and play. The other main one is Mana Leak (four total, after sideboards... a problem especially for defensive sorceries, but "all kinds of stuff") and the ubiquitous Moorland Haunt. Moorland Haunt is simply one of the defining cards of this era, a great way for creature decks to recover card advantage in the face of sweepers and a way for them to win attrition wars and creature stalemates with other creature decks. As has already been noted, Moorland Haunt tokens fly, and moreover—where this deck is concerned—they also get pumped up like Governator Ahnold by Honor of the Pure.

For these relatively few blue effects, Craig ran the full set of eight white-blue dual lands and even a basic Island!

While Craig ran the once-again-ubiquitous Oblivion Ring and brought sexy back with the once-ubiquitous (but recently not so much) Dismember, one of the coolest wrinkles in his deck list is creature-based creature control. Gideon's Lawkeeper is a redundant one-drop, and Fiend Hunter is kind of like an undercosted Faceless Butcher. Both work beautifully in the context of this mostly Human deck.

Richard Bland's Green-White Token Town

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Planeswalker (3)
3 Elspeth Tirel
Instant (2)
2 Gut Shot
Artifact (3)
3 Mortarpod
Enchantment (4)
4 Oblivion Ring
Other (4)
4 Garruk Relentless++Garruk, the Veil-Cursed
60 Cards

Richard Bland played a different white beatdown deck. Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold he had... but no Moorland Haunts. Instead, Bland harnessed the power of Gavony Township in a Green-White Token Town build packed with Pilgrims, Paradise, planeswalkers, and punching power.

Bland's Green-White has tons of mana: 25 lands plus 4 Birds of Paradise plus 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim. The accelerators can help him hit second-turn Blade Splicers and Mirran Crusaders, or ramp up to the expensive bomb portion of his deck (planeswalkers or Geist-Honored Monk).

A great many of Bland's cards produce tokens—the planeswalkers, obviously, and many of the creatures (Splicer, Monk, Hero)—but it is really studly that his removal does, too (hello, Mortarpod!). Interestingly, he chose not to play Overrun even with all those token creatures, instead opting for the off-mana (free, really) Gut Shot as a Phyrexian two-of.

Bland's acceleration and quality threats made it all the way to the finals before giving up the Worlds title to eventual winner Junya Iyanaga.

We spent much of the first part of this article singing the praises of, a team (from a website) that has recently acquired many of the top players in the world. David Caplan, however, was flying his own colors. Staying true to his Canadian roots, he wore a shirt emblazoned with, the website of "Captain Canada" Kar Yung Tom of The Eh Team! podcast.

David Caplan's Volt Charge Red

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David Caplan played the Volt Charge version of Red Deck Wins, which is just incredibly exciting.

How Does Volt Charge Red Work?

Now let's assume you are on the play and a savage miser. You cast Stromkirk Noble and pass.

Your opponent plays like a Drowned Catacombs or something, muttering quietly. You get in with the Noble and play Stormblood Berserker, you know, just like the script said you should. Your Stromkirk Noble is presently a 2/2 and your Berserker is a 3/3. In the world of savage beatdowns, you are doing exactly "savagely."

Your opponent plays a blocker and seems very happy about it.

Now you Volt Charge.

I don't know who or what you Volt Charge. Maybe you clear the blocker. Maybe you attack and wait for the disaster-to-be to go on the stack. But you Volt Charge. Before rumbling completes, your Stromkirk Noble is a 3/3 and your Stormblood Berserker is a whopping 4/4! Basically this card is a full-on blowout in Standard RDW, and even does exciting stuff when you don't have the Strom/Storm god-draw.

Volt Charge | Art by Jana Schirmer amp; Johannes Voss

In sum, there are lots of super-exciting things to do with a Volt Charge.

Finally we have World Champion Junya Iyanaga:

Junya Iyanaga's Wolf Run Ramp

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If the first part of the World Championships—more than three days—cast Conley Woods in the character of Character, Iyanaga was spoiler, Dragonslayer, and ultimately big winner. Iyanaga was playing basically an anti–Tempered Steel deck... just atrocious for the crew, our storyline's anointed hero of this event.

Iyanaga wasn't just playing a Kessig Wolf Run deck. This deck actually plays a ton of red removal main deck (Galvanic Blast, Devil's Play, and even a Shock in addition to Slagstorm) and then supplements with not only Ancient Grudge but also Viridian Corrupter.

The Top 8 games were brutal if not quick. Most of them opened with Iyanaga accelerating his mana and then getting x-for-1 with a Slagstorm, then taking control with a Primeval Titan. In sum, his deck was some bad for a Top 8 primarily filled with small creatures, whether artifacts or white weenies.

Iyanaga proved a dominant champion, dropping a single game to Josh Utter-Leyton's Tempered Steel in the quarterfinals.

If you want to be able to handle small creatures but still be able to do something proactive yourself (and the Primeval Titan + Kessig Wolf Run combo is basically the definition of that in Standard), consider Iyanaga's deck.

It's brutal enough to end a story, and powerful enough to turn a whole new page.

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