Posted in Top Decks on October 29, 2009

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."

One mandate of this column—especially when we are not in the midst of a Constructed PTQ season—is to teach my readers not just about specific decks, but major points and principles driving tournament Magic.

And because I haven't done this in years, I feel like a good place to begin ... is the beginning.


Once upon a time there was an article series called Schools of Magic, which was the predecessor of all the things that are good (good and bad, really) about Magic strategy on the Internet. Reading Schools of Magic was eye-opening for me. Like most players at the time, I was on an island ... an island of my home store. As with many and most we had our ideas, our "Mister Suitcase" (the older player who has actual money to get all the rares) and our equivalent of Friday Night Magic (albeit years before that was a real thing). That said, the heftiest technology my store could come up with was a land destruction deck ... You know, rolling back to Unlimited for the green version of Stone Rain, Ice Storm.

Though Schools of Magic was ostensibly an overview of all known strategies, the biases of its author Robert Hahn were quite transparent. Rob liked control decks, and made the [John] Kim and [Brian] Weissman schools sound positively saucy.

Control decks ... hmmm .... I'm already getting ahead of myself.

What Schools of Magic did for me—from a brand-new-idea, eye-opening standpoint—was to introduce the idea of a control deck. You see, I was at this stage quite happy to push out Craw Wurms a turn or two faster on the back of a Llanowar Elves. And then I saw this thing .... It was like the world changed.

Brian Weissman's "The Deck"

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So what was so special?

How did this thing work?

The idea of a control deck—or this control deck at least—is that defense wins games. That, and life is a resource that can be translated into time and cards; moreover, it introduced the idea of cards (and the accumulation of cards) as a good. A very good.

The Weissman Deck was designed to generate lots of card advantage while making its own individual cards work very hard.

By concentrating on defense (and largely ignoring offense), the control deck can do a particular thing really well while both actively and passively generating card advantage, rather than multiple things poorly, leading to inefficient results.

Consider this deck's backbone, Moat.


Moat is a card (was a card) that could be relied on to stop most of the available threats at the time, most of the time. Even though the opponent has cards in hand, and cards on the battlefield, if they are creatures ... they don't do anything; they are effectively neutralized.

With just two cards containing what amounts to most of the opponent's deck, 58-odd cards were ostensibly left for "other stuff." That other stuff was the creation of an increasingly narrow, permanents-hostile, environment. The net effect of all The Deck's cards was like casting a web that narrowed the opponent's choices while at the same time guiding him or her into increasingly unattractive scenarios.

Moat was the backbone of The Deck's defense, because most threats at the time—as they are today—were ground-based creatures. However the deck could not operate exclusively behind Moat. Not only were there different kinds of threats (other than creatures), but many opponents could, say, pick up a Disenchant and attack the Moat.

Therefore the second of The Deck's three pronged defense was hand destruction. Mind Twist (originally), then Amnesia worked alongside Disrupting Scepter to eliminate the opponent's cards in hand and—with those—options. No cards equaled no action, no choices, no jarring of a status quo where Weissman could sit happily behind that Moat as long as he liked. The opponent would be put into a once-a-turn use-it-or-lose-it scenario, either casting the card (which, if it were a non-flying creature, might generate no incremental effect on the game) or losing during the opponent's turn, to Disrupting Scepter.

Disrupting Scepter

If it wasn't a non-flying creature ... then Weissman might have to think.

In general, unless the card in question was going to destroy one of Brian's key permanents (Moat, Disrupting Scepter, or ultimately Serra Angel), he would let it go, presuming the operation of his remaining regalia. However if there were a good reason, he might actually dip into the third prong of the defense, permission.

You'll notice that The Deck was quite low on permission when compared with even a modern Standard deck ... Only 4 Mana Drains, 2 Counterspells, and 2 Red Elemental Blasts in the main. That is because The Deck did not primarily use permission as a defensive front. Counterspells were used either to start setting up the fortress or to protect it, not specifically for threat suppression.

Mana Drain

How did a Counterspell set up the fortress? The opponent could cast a something and found it met with a Brian Weissman Mana Drain, which would result in fuel for a Mind Twist or Amnesia the following turn, or to accelerate the deployment of one of the other pieces, such as Moat or Disrupting Scepter plus an initial bonking from it.

Serra Angel

Finally, but in most cases only after setting up Disrupting Scepter lock and sitting back on sufficient Counterspells to protect it, the Weissman deck would lay down a Serra Angel, the perfect solution to the problem of how to kill an opponent. Those two Serra Angels were both iconic for The Deck itself and defining for how everyone else approached The Deck (not to mention entirely appropriate to its ongoing operations). The not-so-secret secret was that Serra Angel was a creature, and in fact a creature meant to come out every game, which grandly influenced how the opponent could approach game play and sideboarding. The Deck always has a creature ... So you can't sideboard out all your creature kill. The creature is a 4-toughness one, so it implies a kind of card advantage like Moat; though only one permanent in and of itself, that permanent proclaims that it is worth more than one of the opponent's cards. Finally ,Serra Angel played both offense and defense: It could swing every turn while remaining untapped to block.

For me—and this was pushing fifteen years ago—the take-aways were many.

Rather than just going for big stuff, I found for the first time that there was another way to approach the game, another way beyond either just putting out the best creature I had in my collection or pushing the limits of my small collection's mana acceleration, or just trying to mana-screw someone. The Deck showed me, showed all of us, that we could sit back, make our card choices around a defensive axis, which while restrictive in definition allowed for much more freedom and breathing room in operations, and really, just that new perspective ... Arguably the most important and lasting perspective for close to fifteen years running.

Before The Deck, many players lacked the vocabulary to tell you why card advantage won games; they could tell you it sucked to be hit by multiple copies of Hymn to Tourach but maybe not why or what that meant. After The Deck, those players were empowered with a more specific glimpse of the universe that is probably obvious to each and every one of you in late 2009: two cards (or more than two cards) are simply better than one.

Switching gears somewhat "back" to 2009, I'd like to talk about one of The Deck's thousands of inheritors, the Emeria, the Sky Ruin / Gifts Ungiven deck we mentioned briefly last week, piloted in Austin by onetime Player of the Year Shouta Yasooka:

Shouta Yasooka's Gifts Control

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Emeria, the Sky Ruin
Gifts Ungiven

After Austin, Brian David-Marshall called me up and instructed me to look closely at the deck, as it is the realization of basically everything I love; it plays Sakura-Tribe Elder, runs a number of annoying Gifts packages, and ends the vast majority of games by locking the opponent with Yosei, the Morning Star and Miren, the Moaning Well. All of the wonder that this deck represents can be summed up by a play that might cause you to shake your head in frustrated disbelief, but that spurred all the observers during one of Yasooka's feature matches to ooh and ah and cheer:

Makeshift Mannequin my Eternal Witness.
Eternal Witness gets back Makeshift Mannequin.

Makeshift Mannequin
Eternal Witness

Is that all you've got?

This Yasooka Gifts deck can accurately be described in a number of ways.

It is a collection of very high-quality cards.

It has some potential offensive speed, simply due to the presence of Tarmogoyf, but it is comfortable in the knowledge that it probably won't win the game until more than ten turns go by.

It can generate a number of wildly different, yet all effective, Gifts Ungiven packages.

It is actually quite good in a number of matchups, especially in the first game.

Let's look at some of those Gifts Ungiven packages, shall we?

Yosei, the Morning Star + Miren, the Moaning Well + Emeria, the Sky Ruin + Life from the Loam

This is a plan for the future.

Usually you will end up getting one of the two lands and Life from the Loam (your opponent will probably not hand you what might very well be a game-ending Dragon right there).

This is a package that looks to set you up to win with Emeria in play with seven of the deck's ten Plains (all recoverable, if need be, via Life from the Loam) on the battlefield alongside Miren, the Moaning Well. The goal becomes Yosei, the Morning Star recovery, then sacrificing Yosei, the Morning Star every turn to gain 5 life while locking down the opponent's untap. This four—really eleven—card combination is kind of like the Yasooka deck's answer to an Isochron Scepter lock.

Day of Judgment + Wrath of God + X + Y

Day of Judgment
Wrath of God

The other two elements will be fluid based on what you are looking to accomplish. The important part is the five-card multiple Wrath of God slot on four mana. By combining Day of Judgment and Wrath of God, this deck can grab both of them in a Gifts Ungiven to increase the chances (or even ensure the chances) that it will see a Wrath of God of some sort. If the Yasooka deck has sufficient time, that package might even be:

Day of Judgment + Wrath of God + Eternal Witness + Makeshift Mannequin

What do you give the opponent in that spot? The Witness and Mannequin make it impossible to isolate either card without a specific graveyard-hating option, and Eternal Witness (whether appearing during combat by Makeshift Mannequin or the old fashioned, three mana way) makes for potentially even more card advantage than just handing the opponent one or both Wrath of Gods.

The deck doesn't need to set up a Gifts Ungiven in order to win. As we said before, the card quality is quite high. Against some opponents, this Yasooka deck can just play a purely defensive game ... You know, blocking and advancing the mana base with Sakura-Tribe Elder, then sitting behind Pulse of the Fields like the world's most annoying Moat proxy. Pulse of the Fields was always good, but now that opponent's can't mana burn intentionally (or at all), it has gotten much more difficult to play around.

Overall I found the deck to have a lot of play. It is especially hard to beat for middle of the pack offensive decks in Game 1, where a combination of Pulse of the Fields and good creatures will stretch the opponent's resources for many turns while advancing its mana base for that inevitable Yosei, the Morning Star loop.

Pulse of the Fields

Makeshift Mannequin itself can be an enabler. You don't have to wait for the Emeria lock ... You can just Mannequin back your Yosei, the Morning Star, and the opponent can't even do anything about it. What is he going to do? Target Yosei, the Morning Star? There is a Mannequin counter on him! The last thing you want to do is kill him (or target him in any way)!

One thing that I found myself wanting with this deck—and I suppose you can chalk it up in the "opportunities" section—was another basic Forest. After sideboarding, this deck's options against Blood Moon are somewhat narrow, and hard to find, considering Blood Moon is on the table. I often found myself in a situation where I had four basic Plains in play (so I could operate) but my opponent, while down on the count, was inevitably going to win. My Engineered Explosives were in the graveyard, and I picked up Eternal Witness, but the two could not meet; I would have had plenty of time to get it (hiding behind Pulse of the Fields and Wrath of God that I could play).

One caveat in case you are interested in this strategy: It's a hard deck to play. Any deck that touches the library as much as this one with Sakura-Tribe Elder, Arid Mesa (and its brethren) aplenty, and Gifts Ungiven simply gives the mediocre player lots and lots of chances to make the wrong play. For instance, you may instinctively want to get basic Island and Forest out so you can have untapped, relatively pain-free, lands on the battlefield, but every one of those is actually making your life harder in the long run: they ain't Plains, so they ain't contributing to your stated long game lock.

But other than that, the deck is full of cards that—if you are anything like me—you enjoy playing while also being quite competitive given the field.

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