Flashback to Flashback

Posted in Top Decks on December 15, 2011

By Mike Flores

Yes, yes, we have some very nice flashback today.

Patrick Chapin says that Desperate Ravings is so good we will someday consider it a kind of Preordain and players as successful as a Gerry Thompson or a Jon Finkel will bend their decks to accommodate it. Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy do—if not everything a blue mage wants—enough, such that Nick Spagnolo once confessed that he just wants to play with them "forever."

And then there is Snapcaster Mage, which doesn't in fact have flashback, but makes it so that everything else does.

Yes, we have some very nice flashback and I am sure you all love playing with it.

But—and this is especially for the newer players out there—flashback has a long and storied history in Magic: The Gathering, and today's article is going to talk about some of the many exciting flashback cards of yesteryear... The ten best, in fact.

But before we get to those—Alter Reality.

Long before I was the columnist on Top Decks— or its predecessor column Swimming With Sharks— any writing I did on this website was actually more casually focused. My original not-column was focused on Mental Magic (and you can peruse the very beginning of my archives to see what was going on there).

I even did a whole series on using flashback proactively in Mental Magic, which you can read here, and among the many power cards referenced in that one was the seemingly humble Alter Reality.

This is what I said about it back on May 23, 2003:

Alter Reality
The power of this card stems from its innocent face. It doesn't do anything does it? Nope, Alter Reality doesn't do anything except win the counter war that would have ended with Burnout; counter Execute, Perish, Soul Rend, and Slay; and generally leave your opponent tapped out in the middle of his own turn. One of the great joys in Mental Magic is walking your opponent into an unwinnable counter war in which you are going to fight that impending Red Elemental Blast with a card in the graveyard that he or she ostensibly already dealt with.

If there is one single card that I try to cast every game, it is this one.

    And Now, the Top 10 Flashbacks of Yesteryear!

Yes, yes, this is a "Top 10" list and yet I open it up (already) with a savage cheat, essentially unable to figure out which is better: Firebolt or Lava Dart?

The question has bedeviled even the strongest Red Deck strategists for years. Which is the more compelling? Firebolt with its clear route to card advantage (and 2 points) or Lava Dart with its speed and cunning?

When playing the mirror match, you can tap out on turn three or four or five with a Lava Dart in your graveyard. The most important thing (other than Cursed Scroll control) is to just not get hit by Blistering Firecat, and Lava Dart has you there. You can use Lava Dart to clear more blockers, faster, as well.

But look at Firebolt! Part of what makes it so compelling is who was playing it. Off the top of my head I can summon up a couple of Hall of Famers. Three even!

When the two were legal at the same time, there was no consensus over which was the right one-mana flashback burn spell to run... so I see no reason to break this tradition with my Flashback Week Top 10 list.

Uncertainty it is!

Extended Contemporaries:

Patrick Sullivan's Red Deck Wins

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Shuhei Nakamura's Red Deck Wins (Tsuyoshi Fujita design)

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Moment's Peace is a... what? A Fog? Since when is Fog good enough?

The problem is... It's not a Fog; it's two Fogs. Worse than that, it is often threeFogs. Worse than that, it's not a Fog at all, but a Time Walk. And by "Time Walk" I mean Time Stretch (stapled to a regular old Time Walk) (on account of there being three of them).

Three? How do you get three out of this?

Pat Chapin's Mirari's Wake

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There are quite a few different decks that played Quiet Speculation into Moment's Peace, but Patrick Chapin's 2002 Michigan State Finalist deck dovetails best into my next segment, so there you have it.

In this deck, Moment's Peace was in some cases better at controlling creatures than Wrath of God, such as when the creatures were Blistering Firecat or other haste attackers. Really, what you wanted was to prevent the damage the creatures had pointed at you (and in a sense killing creatures is really just one of many ways to prevent their bonking you for 7 or whatever).

In Patrick's deck, Moment's Peace was there to buy time so he could activate Krosan Verge to accelerate, eventually setting up Time Stretch (or Burning Wish for Time Stretch), at which point it was all about Crush of Wurms and winning in extra turns.

Crush of Wurms? That didn't make the list, did it?

No. Rest assured, there is no Crush of Wurms in this Top 10, although between it and Firecat Blitz we have quite some odd (but conditionally deadly) flashback threats. In Patrick's deck, Mirari's Wake would help him produce so much mana that, thanks to Time Stretch, he would have ample opportunity to make some huge amount of power... and actually attack with it for lethal.

And if not?

...there was always another Time Stretch!

Look at these handsome faces!

This quick interview was from Grand Prix Milwaukee 2002, where Patrick finished second and even yours truly finished in the money.

We had such an enormous amount of respect for Roar of the Wurm that, if enabled by Quiet Speculation, there was a fear that it would be too good. And that wasn't really that far out there: I actually played Roar of the Wurm in that Grand Prix (enabled by Wild Mongrel and Merfolk Looter), and it was already quite good.

Later decks ran it with stuff like Breakthrough or Careful Study, and it represented just what we would today think of as an Abyssal Persecutor that didn't fly.

But again, if you had Quiet Speculation going, Roar of the Wurm was three 6/6 giants for one card, and each of them only cost four mana. And if you actually had seven for the front end? It would be pretty difficult to lose a war of attrition, don't you think?

Roar of the Wurm ultimately contributed to any number of highly effective and ultimately famous decks, primarily green-bluedecks with Wild Mongrel. It was a sideboard card in control decks as a Plan B, and a rule breaker in all the best senses of that term. With Roar of the Wurm, green-blue decks could shatter the age-old paradigm that Aggro-Control would always lose to beatdown; in those days, green-blue Aggro-Control could, in fact, contend with red-green and their little Lavamancers.

This is how respectable Roar of the Wurm was:

Jeff "ffeJ" Cunningham's Green-Blue Madness

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ffeJ never got the memo he was playing Extended.

So he managed to Top 8 Grand Prix New Orleans with a Waterfront Bouncer (more-or-less) from an Odyssey Block deck!

Mystical Teachings did everything a certain wing of players ever wanted.

It drew cards.

It drew cards again (thanks to the flashback).

It even drew specifically the cards you wanted (provided you worked with it and played all instants or cards with flash).

Teachings was a card that proved effective across all different formats. It won its own Block Constructed Pro Tour, was a standout in Standard, and even performed in as big a field as Extended! You could build Teachings decks based on redundancy (with it breaking the rule of four, kind of), all silver bullets (with it getting one-ofs on demand), or some combination of the two.

There was no player who loved Mystical Teachings more— or was as successful with it— than Pro Tour Champion Guillaume Wafo-Tapa.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Block Teachings

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Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Standard Teachings

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Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's Extended Teachings

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The cool thing about Dread Return is that it is basically a Zombify.

You remember Zombify, right? The Solar Flare decks in the original wave were all perfectly happy to Zombify after researching compulsively.

But if you had Dread Return, you could Zombify at no mana cost, provided you had three creatures.

No problem, right?


The problem is, sometimes it is easier to string together three creatures than it is to rustle up four lands. For example, say you are very lucky (and also very cruel).

You might...

Play a first turn Nomads en-Kor, then follow up with a second turn Cephalid Illusionist (I told you, you were lucky).

You repeatedly target the Illusionist with the Nomad's damage prevention ability, setting yourself up to put every card in your deck into your graveyard, if you so choose (you more-or-less so chose). Along the way, you flip three copies of Narcomoeba, all of which happily hit the battlefield.

When your graveyard seems jazzed enough, you flash back the one copy of Dread Return (you only need one as you are going to get it inevitably by binning your entire library) by sacrificing the three Narcomoebas. Then you have a Sutured Ghoul of enormous size, wearing, incidentally, a Dragon Breath.

And you kill the other guy.

Turn two.

There have been many decks that could follow the pattern described above: Shuu Komuro's standout deck from Worlds 2007's Legacy portion is quite illustrative, however:

Shuu Komuro

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Sorcery (7)
2 Cabal Therapy 1 Dread Return 4 Ponder
Artifact (4)
4 Aether Vial
Enchantment (1)
1 Dragon Breath
Other (4)
4 Nomad en-Kor
60 Cards

I first saw Deep Analysis in competitive action back at the aforementioned Grand Prix Milwaukee. Future Hall of Famer Brian Kibler played one copy in the sideboard of his Blue-Black Psychatog deck:

Brian Kibler's Blue-Black Psychatog

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To be fair, at the time we got to play with Fact or Fiction, and it wasn't immediately obvious that Deep Analysis was that good. Kibler played the one copy— in his sideboard no less— simply so he could call his deck something uncouth (notice the three copies of Probe in the main deck).

Yes ladies, even nine years ago, he was a dreamboat of unparalleled wittiness.

Well, it turns out that that one Deep Analysis was better than anyone had anticipated. You could discard it to Psychatog or Probe and it would be a fine two-mana draw-two. Other players were even more focused and aggressive with Deep Analysis, pairing it with faster discard outlets like Wild Mongrel, Merfolk Looter, or Aquamoeba.

Deep Analysis would go on to have quite the meaningful career.

In the hands of Carlos Romao a few months later, Deep Analysis would serve (alongside Fact or Fiction) as the card drawing backbone of one of the most dominating Standard performances of all time. Romao swept the Standard Swiss, then swept the Top 8, doling out a strategic master class in Psychatog-on-Psychatog play:

Carlos Romao's Blue-Black Psychatog

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Now, some mages will tell you a Standard Psychatog was not fun to play against. I guess I can give you that (from some perspectives), but no one is discounting the wit of a Kibler or the dominance of a Romao (we still talk about how great he was, strategically, almost ten years later). But because of its extremely cheap cost, Deep Analysis— when put in the graveyard somehow— could contribute to the success of some less illustrious players as well. Case in point:

Michael Krumb's Friggorid

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Michael Krumb won this Grand Prix with Friggorid; the Top 8 featured a US National Champion in Antonino De Rosa, a future Ramp;D member in Tom LaPille (both playing Friggorid), and eventual Caw-Blade master Dave Shiels with The Rock.

Anyway, before there was Dredge, there was Friggorid. The general idea was that you would bin various dredge cards with Zombie Infestation (this could occur on the first turn with Chrome Mox) or other outlets, such as Psychatog or Tolarian Winds. Then you would, you know, dredge. Over the course of the game you would put enough black creatures in the graveyard "passively" to continuously attack with your Ichorids, which were pretty resilient to creature removal. Deep Analysis was not the central focus of the deck, but again, you would be dredging cards into the graveyard, and could "passively" put Deep Analysis there. Once down, Deep Analysis— for the bargain price of two mana— could ship another twelve or so cards to the graveyard (provided you had the requisite number of available Golgari Grave-Trolls), which would keep the whole thing going, until somebody put an eye out (you know, with an Ichorid attack).

Possibly the most elegant and beloved of the flashback cards is Call of the Herd.

This is a card that was equally adopted by red-green beatdown decks (which just cast it on the second turn with Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise), midrange decks like some versions of The Rock, and even dedicated control decks. A 3/3 for three mana can be format-defining (depending on the format), and Call of the Herd just gives you an extra 3/3—pure, simple, card advantage. Call of the Herd could block red creatures, soak up burn, or of course threaten to win the game. In later years, its Elephants would carry Sword of Fire and Ice, or rumble into the Red Zone bearing a Moldervine Cloak. It was a favorite of green-blue (though never "Green-Blue Madness"), red-green, and anyone else with a Looter, a Mongrel, or just four lands to string together.

Call of the Herd was the honest player's look at flashback, but like any and all could be spun up to a wild level of excitement when paired with a little bit of library manipulation.

The sorcery hit the scene at its first Pro Tour—ironically, in Extended—where it made it all the way to the finals while being fueled by Intuition (for four Elephants). The only thing that could stop the stampede of so many 3/3 threats?

Kai Budde.

Tomi Walamies

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As we near the conclusion of this Top 10 list, we hit what many consider the most skill-intensive card of all time: Cabal Therapy.

We have already seen Cabal Therapy in some of the above lists. In Friggorid (or Dredge, or in concert with Narcomoeba in Cephalid Breakfast), you could cast it for free. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been to be attacked by some number of 3/1 hasted creatures—none of which were particularly eligible targets for your removal, all of which were coming back next turn—but instead of just dying like they were supposed to (per their text boxes), the opponent had the audacity— nay, cruelty— to sacrifice one to Cabal Therapy you?

Cabal Therapy forced you to read your opponent; it wasn't like Duress, in that you got the information (although it worked well with Duress, with one setting up the other).

As an aside, I once missed with both a Duressand a Cabal Therapyin the same turn!

I won the next turn though, as all I really cared about was how big my Quirion Dryad got.

End Aside.

One of my favorite questions came from Antonino De Rosa and Gerard Fabiano at an Extended Grand Prix. The duo were playing Ant's Red-Black Goblins deck, which splashed black for Cabal Therapy. Gerard polled everyone he could find:

"Your hand is pretty scripted. You are going to play Goblin Piledriver into Goblin Warchief into Goblin Ringleader. Your plays after turn one are pretty much all made for you. Your only choice is on turn one, when you cast Cabal Therapy. You don't know what the opponent is, so it is going to be blind...

"What do you name?"

This was the kind of game Magic was at the height of Cabal Therapy. I really had to think to answer that one, but I think I got it right with "Vampiric Tutor" (that is what Gerard actually named, and he won the game).

There is a similar story involving being hit by a blind Cabal Therapy with Vampiric Tutor in hand.

"Vampiric Tutor in response..."

(Putting Vampiric Tutor on top.)


(He won, too.)

Part of what made Cabal Therapy so skill-testing was not just the ability to hit the opponent, but the attitude you took when trying to hit. Some players bragged about their hit percentages ("I get Cabal Therapy 75% of the time!"). Others named what they would lose to rather than what they thought the opponent had in hand. "Who cares if you hit an irrelevant card—even if they have it —if it isn't even going to beat you?"

Cabal Therapy was a rare card embraced by beatdown (as the Goblins we referenced a moment ago), combo (to protect their combos and even enable them—for example, the flashback being used to trigger an Academy Rector), or as a combo breaker. It was used in control paired with Duress, or run solo by the truly confident.

Cabal Therapy still sees some play in Legacy, typically alongside Narcomoeba or Bridge From Below, generally in areas where it is going to be free, and devastating.

My favorite flashback card of all time happens to be legal once again, thanks to being reprinted in Innistrad.

So you can go out and play it!

What put Ancient Grudge over a card like Cabal Therapy, which is thought to be the most skill-testing card of all time? Or over a beloved instrument of fair play, like Call of the Herd?

Simple: No other flashback card has legitimately been "the best card in the format" except Ancient Grudge.

Here's just one of many Pro Tour–winning decks featuring Ancient Grudge (you know, kind of like the most recent one):

Remi Fortier

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Appropriately, Fortier's Ancient Grudges were splashed in a blue-black deck with a Seat of the Synod and a basic Plains. Typical.

There have been Extended formats where really all you needed in life was an Ancient Grudge and a little luck, and you could take on the world. Isochron Scepter? Thanks for making my two-for-one a three-for-one (if not four-for-one). Lotus Bloom? That still hits play sometime before you actually move to your main phase, right? Because if so...

Affinity? Check.

Opposing Jittes and Swords? Check.

That other joker's one Seat of the Synod, or Chrome Mox package, or even Sensei's Divining Top when we get the timing right? Check, check, and— believe it or not— check (sometimes).

Even today, you can play Ancient Grudge as part of an overall package of artifact hate that can send a Tempered Steel mage's head spinning. Four Acidic Slimeand four Ancient Grudge? Yeah, like that's realistic.

But you know what? It can be.

Cabal Therapy is for a surgeon.

Call of the Herd is for a value player.

Dread Return is for— let's face it— a gigantic meanie jerk.

But Ancient Grudge? That card dominates— and dominates often— regardless of what else is in your sixty. Gerry Thompson advocated adding the Copperline Gorge to play it in red-blue. Patrick Chapin stretched his Olivia mana all four ways to include it in his sideboard. Many a blue-black Psychatog deck has leaned on the interaction between Onslaught fetch lands and Ravnica dual lands to borrow just one green mana.


Ancient Grudge is that damn good.

Speaking of good, I am taking the next couple of weeks off here at Daily MTG. You be good, and have a Happy Holidays while you're at it!