When They Said "Great" ... They Meant It

Posted in Top Decks on July 30, 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."

Three more National Championships have hit the books, and in light of these and other recent tournament events, we can start to make some pretty bold claims. Like: "Five-Color Control is the best deck in the format."



It is certainly arguable that we can't make the above statement (even given some pretty amazing finishes, especially in the U.S. and France) ... but how about this one: "Great Sable Stag is the best sideboard card in the format, and maybe ever."

Less skeptical?

Let's take a look at the U.S. Nationals Top 8:

But the list of decks only tells half the story. The other half is told in the decks' sideboards. It's almost like Bloodbraid Elf in our pre-Pro Tour–Honolulu deck roundups: thirty-two ever-loving copies of Great Sable Stag. Absolutely astounding!

Great Sable Stag

In half of these decks, Great Sable Stag pushes Five-Color Control past its most dangerous rival, Faeries, in the heads-up matchup. Great Sable Stag has been described in many ways across multiple contexts, but as a Faeries-hating measure, I think I like Brian Kowal's description the best: "It's basically a Sulfuric Vortex that only hits them." This is a somewhat apt description of Great Sable Stag once it has already hit the table (where it is relentless in its offense against blue-black Faeries players), and it does 50% more damage, most turns, than even the much feared Vortex. But unlike Sulfuric Vortex, Great Sable Stag carries with it a degree of absolute certainty. Because it can't be countered, the Stag always hits the table.

But beyond its efficacy against the fearsome Fae, Great Sable Stag is just a drop—great or simply available—for the decks that choose to play it (and given this Top 8, that is "most" decks). Consider the Top 8 matchup between eventual winner Charles Gindy and Standard-dominating Grinder winner Mark Hendrickson: Both players brought their Stags in for Game 2, despite neither player piloting Faeries. In fact, Hendrickson's deck played neither black nor blue!

The performing Five-Color Control decks seem to be currently enjoying an environment in stark contrast to that just a few months ago during the Regional Championships; that is, one that is Anathemancer-light if not Anathemancer-free. This is a metagame windfall in much the same way that the presence of Great Sable Stag almost everywhere is a deterrent against Fae.

Volcanic Fallout
Hallowed Burial

In general the Five-Color Control decks seem to have adopted a mix of Volcanic Fallout and Hallowed Burial to replace the loss of Wrath of God. In some cases you will see something like seven copies of these sweepers main deck; essentially all of the decks played redundant copies of sweepers (in some cases spreading out to Infest and Firespout) in their sideboards.


The jury seems to be in / back / quite stably decided on the matter of Cruel Ultimatum; looking at this Top 8, Todd Anderson is the odd mage out with only two copies of the devastating seven-mana sorcery. The other three players all packed three copies main deck.

Cruel Ultimatum

All in all, Five-Color Control seems like one of the best positioned decks for aspiring PTQ winners right now. Last week we decreed White Weenie / Kithkin as a—or the—deck to beat, and Five-Color Control came out to prove us liars. Eventual U.S. National Champion Gindy even joked that Honor of the Pure was one of the best Magic 2010 cards for him (White Weenie being a favorable matchup for Five-Color Control). The control deck itself features lots of land, card drawing from Mulldrifter, Esper Charm, or Jace Beleren to help hit land drops (which itself, as a process, is quite happy to be working with 26 lands), and powerful answer spells (most notably Cryptic Command), culminating in Cruel Ultimatum, which addresses the most glaring problem with the strategy ... by handing over 5 life.

How about some of the other decks from the U.S. Nationals Top 8?

Jund Mannequin (Conley Woods Special)

Brett Piazza's Jund Mannequin

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Brad Nelson's Jund Mannequin

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This deck is essentially this year's take on the Makeshift Mannequin strategy that was so successful at States 2007. Rather than focusing on black for Makeshift Mannequin and blue for most of the rest of its spells, this deck, designed by Conley Woods, is a base-Jund board control deck whose only ties to blue are its Mulldrifters.

This kind of a deck can take full advantage of the evoke mechanic; for instance it can be very profitable for the deck to run out Shriekmaw on turn two or Mulldrifter on turn three rather than waiting until it has sufficient mana for the full cast. With one of the Elementals in the graveyard, Makeshift Mannequin comes online that much more quickly.

Almost all of the creatures in the deck have some kind of a profitable two-for-one "enters the battlefield" ability. Caldera Hellion and Cloudthresher are reminiscent of Wrath of God, Kitchen Finks gains life, and Bloodbraid Elf sets up another card; only Putrid Leech lacks that angle, and it is nevertheless a hugely effective offensive weapon in its own right. By choosing specifically these kinds of creatures, the Conley Woods Special improves the potential of future Makeshift Mannequins, especially when playing them during, say, combat.

Red-White Control (The Spanish Inquisition)

Mark Hendrickson's Red-White Control

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One of the most impressive decks on the U.S. Nationals weekend was Mark Hendrickson's Red-White Control. Hendrickson won a grinder on Thursday night to qualify for Nationals and did not drop a Constructed match from the start of the grinder until his unsuccessful battle with eventual U.S. National Champion Gindy.

Like the Spanish Inquisition itself, no one expected an assault—successful or otherwise—from Armillary Sphere (this deck's "Mulldrifter") or certainly Call the Skybreaker. More conventional power cards included a variety of planeswalkers and the planeswalker-like Obelisk of Alara. The Spanish Inquisition combines the relentless offense of Goblin Assault with an unending number of creature kill spells. Poison for some decks ... but not really dangerous for a Top 8 full of creature-poor Five-Color Control opponents.

While we call the deck red-white, it is important to note that Hendrickson dipped into all five colors via the sideboard. Great Sable Stag represented green, Hindering Light blue, and Identity Crisis black; while his deck lacked a Cruel Ultimatum, Identity Crisis is Mark's slightly faster, still tremendously damaging, big sorcery. Stick Identity Crisis, and the opponent will probably have to topdeck Cruel Ultimatum to get back in it.

Hindering Light
Identity Crisis

You can find the rest of the U.S. Top 8 decks in the coverage.

Italy National Championship

Luca Ravagli's Cruel Control

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Luca Ravagli's win at Italy Nationals with yet another Five-Color Control deck did little to shake the apparent dominance of the archetype we described in the U.S.-focused section. Many of the same themes appear in Ravagli's deck, including Great Sable Stag, a heavy reliance on sweepers, and three main-deck copies of Cruel Ultimatum (some might "blame" reigning Player of the Year and newly minted Japan National Champion Shuhei Nakamura for these developments).

Baneslayer Angel
Bogardan Hellkite

Interestingly, Ravagli tapped into a variety of different threats for his offense. Baneslayer Angel is the most obvious and powerful for its cost. On the flip-side, Bogardan Hellkite—exactly the kind of expensive Dragon Baneslayer Angel is proof against—shares deck space with the sleek new white weapon.

Marco Monetto's Three-Color Faeries

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Italy's results point to perhaps the once and future next best deck (and the reason why Great Sable Stag is already being called Great Staple Stag), Faeries. An interesting build comes care of Marco Monetto. How effective is Great Sable Stag when the Fae deck has Firespout and Lightning Bolt? The answer is probably still "pretty effective" ... But at least Monetto's version has a plan against that powerful attacker, and numerous fast cards to keep the Stag out of the red zone. The presence of Lightning Bolt helps to hold down green-white Combo Elves decks (like the one played by Gennaro Mango) in any case.

Gennaro Mango - Combo Elves

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Mistbind Clique
Lightning Bolt

You can find the rest of the Italy Top 8 decks in the coverage.

France National Championship

Coverage of the France National Championship is here.

No Treetop Village? No Problem!

Mongilardi Gilles's Elf Rock

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France's new National Champion defied the loss of Treetop Village to take home the title with a resurgent Black-Green Elves deck; any missing 3/3-ness was made up for by Gilles's maximum number of Great Sable Stags starting.

More and More Time Walks

Guillaume Matignon's Faeries

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Louis Deltour's Faeries

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Time Warp

I bet that sub-head had most of you pegging this section on Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel and his Time Sieve decks. But nope, we are highlighting the Time Warps in certain Faeries Top 8 decks. A big part of the danger that Faeries decks pose comes from the Time Walk-like power of their Mistbind Cliques ... Not only is a Mistbind Clique a lethal 4/4 flyer for four mana, but it typically robs the opponent of the fourth turn. Time Warpliterally robs the opponent of a turn. While it is not 100% proof against Great Sable Stag, if there is one thing that can help win a race, certainly it must be preventing the opponent from being allowed to participate in said race.

The World's Most Awkward (And Currently Only) Diabolic Edict

Warren Weirding

Deltour had a very interesting solution to the Great Sable Stag problem: Goblin sorcery Warren Weirding.

Unlike targeted removal like Nameless Inversion or Lightning Bolt, Warren Weirding is a kill spell that Faeries can use to eliminate Great Sable Stag, without dipping into red. If the Great Sable Stag is the only sailor on (the other side of the) board, Warren Weirding can actually throw it off the prow. Since the goal is to bag an Elk rather than a Goblin, there is typically no downside to this spell (though it certainly can be sticky if the opponent runs out a Sable Stag post-Kitchen Finks, or perhaps flips it over with a Bloodbraid Elf). Those situations, should they come up, will require a little more maneuvering, but Warren Weirding can still give Faeries a chance against this now most potent of sideboard spoilers.

Let's Do the Time Warp Again...

Olivier Ruel's Time Sieve

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One of the coolest decks to come out of Magic 2010 was the Time Sieve / Open the Vaults combo that Mikko Airaksinen used to take Finland Nationals. Olivier Ruel sleeved up a version and played Time Sieve to France's Top 8 last week.

This strategy has two things that make it get up and go. The first is the many cantrip artifacts like Elsewhere Flask and Kaleidostone. These cards draw a card when they come into play, and therefore mitigate the potential loss of card advantage represented by using Time Sieve.

Time Sieve
Open the Vaults

The second half is new floor general Open the Vaults. This Replenish-like card returns all the sacrificed Elsewhere Flasks and Kaleidostones to play, filling the Time Sieve player's hand with more action, and giving him another set of artifacts to sacrifice to Time Sieve. With extra turns from Time Sieve and Time Warp, the deck can set up for a kill with Tezzeret the Seeker or just draw lots of cards to continue to fuel its turn-stealing mission.

The rest of the time the deck operates much like a conventional Fog deck, using Howling Mine and Jace Beleren to draw sufficient Fog effects to "not die" even as the opponent expends energy, cards, and little bits of his soul (maybe even future years of his life, doubtlessly stress-filled ones) to kill the frustratingly slippery Fog player.

Howling Mine
Jace Beleren

So if there is one thing we can draw from this past week's big tournament results (besides the unbelievably surprising efficacy of Great Sable Stag in the U.S.), it is that there is still a tremendous number of viable decks that you can choose to try to win a Standard PTQ. If it is true that Five-Color Control is a far-and-away winner in the metagame, you may want to try one of the Blightning Beatdown decks that did well in France. Anathemancer is a solid main-deck card in a default Five-Color metagame, and Banefire (as seen in Antoine Menard's deck) tears right through the Five-Color Control defense, along with the hard-to-deal-with and positively (and we mean positively) confusing Demigod of Revenge.

You can find the rest of the France Top 8 decks in the coverage.

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