Thirteenth-ranked Sam Black seemed to insist that the final configuration of his deck at Grand Prix New York was intuitive. “Every card in the deck is in either the Seasons Past deck from the Pro Tour, or the Duskwatch Ramp deck.” Almost. “Except for The Great Aurora,” he said.
Got that? It's part Green-Black Control with Seasons Past—the deck The Pantheon played that took Jon Finkel to his eleventy-billionth Top 8. It's part Duskwatch Ramp, an already hybridized strategy of ramp creatures along with Duskwatch Recruiter and Tireless Tracker. Oh, and it's also got The Great Aurora.
I watched Black in Round 6 make and sacrifice at least six clues, with Tireless Tracker growing to insurmountable numbers—thanks to cards like Nissa's Renewal. And his opponent was just shaking his head, not able to stop the surge of card advantage, board control, and Dark Petition tutoring. He was only not conceding because he was so enamored with all the moving parts. Finally, a giant Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger showed up and Black's opponent said, “Already, you've had enough fun,” and scooped up his battlefield.
There are cards like Grasp of Darkness, Pulse of Murasa, Mirrorpool, Ruinous Path, Ulvenwald Hydra, Seasons Past, To the Slaughter, Pick the Brain, Den Protector, Tireless Tracker, and Nissa's Renewal all somewhere in the 75, and with variable numbers abounding. To the untrained eye, the deck might look like a Gatherer search mistakenly filtered by color, artist, then collector number. But to Sam, it looked just crazy enough to work.
Sam Black was 5-0 when we sat down to talk. Black explained that though the deck looks wonky, the genesis and evolution explains all the choices incredibly. And boy does it.
For those who aren't ancient, like us crusty coverage folk, you might not know the name Dustin Stern. He is an extremely good player who doesn't play very much. He was known back in the day for late-night drafts with Mike Hron (who recently won two Grand Prix in as many efforts). Stern notched two Grand Prix Top 8s in a year, but left Magic in part because of the variance that he didn't win them. Stern and Black know each other fairly well.
“When the new set came out, a little before the PT, [Stern] sent me a list.” It was a Sultai Control deck, as Black said, “with 4 The Great Aurora, 4 Dark Petition, Demonic Pacts, 4 Crush of Tentacles, and the only way it could win was by attacking with [an 8/8 Octopus token].”
Sam, intrigued by the deck but befuddled, asked Stern, “What does it look like when you're winning? I honestly can't tell.” He said that he got that it drew cards, he got that it stopped his opponent from winning, but, as he said, “It's not easy to deal 20 damage with Dark Petitions ... and you can't ever beat ramp, because they can keep up with you, and they play real threats.” Despite these rather gaping holes, the deck clearly had some potential.
He suggested cards like Seasons Past, and after some time, a new list came to Sam. “It was all over the place, a million one-ofs, a card labeled ‘Cut the Throat' ... but I was in full PT-mode by that time so I didn't really have the time.” But with a new list came Tireless Tracker, and Sam said, “Now you're getting somewhere.” Though people often use Tireless Tracker in a midrange, or aggro shell, in a control shell it has the potential to be even more effective. It's does everything control wants to do—be cheap, draw cards, play defense, then win the game.
Fast-forward to after the Pro Tour, Black takes some of his own advice, and at Grand Prix Toronto played what he called “Duskwatch Ramp.” It's a hybrid of the ramp decks and the early-game (and late-game) implications of Duskwatch Recruiter and Tireless Tracker.
The deck was fairly successful and might have been a wonderful deck for weekend, “but Four-color Cryptolith Rite [was] becoming more and more popular.” Maybe Stern's control deck could deal with the Eldrazi Displacer, but the Tireless Tracker deck, much less so.
“I would ramp out an Ulvenwald Hydra, and they'd just tap it until I died,” Black lamented.
Additionally, for this last week, Sam's had something else on his mind—the MOCS. He had to decide on his Legacy and Modern decks too. “And being me, I'm obviously trying to brew for them,” he laughed.
So an amalgam of the Stern evolution and the Duskwatch Ramp deck was born. With little time, and a bunch of problems to solve, Black tried to compensate for everything in one fell swoop. The deck has all the ways to deal with aggro and Displacer, like control, with the elements of early-, mid-, and late-game relevance that the Duskwatch Ramp deck provided. It was a giant panacea band-aid.
Though the deck might look a little off-kilter, understanding this evolution reveals the deck's power. With his MOCS decklists due Tuesday, and an video article deadline, Black saw the opportunity to give this little deck a spin. “And for a goofy deck, it was playing surprisingly well.” Real well. The deck had seemingly found independent solutions to all the other decks in the format.
Put broadly, Black wasn't sure which level the real-life metagame was on. Level 1 is Green-White Tokens; Level 2 is 4C Cryptolith Rite that beats Green-White Tokens; Level 3 is Control, which beats 4C. Without knowing the stage, he went for a deck that can beat all of the above—given the right mélange of cards.
So here we are. Black is right now 7-0, only having dropped a single game all tournament with a deck with The Great Aurora. Plenty have tried to brew with this insanely powerful card, but it works here where it has failed so many other places is for a simple reason: It's not a Great Aurora deck.
To illustrate, Sam brought up Sphinx's Revelation. “You don't max out the number on Sphinx's Revelation and win that way.” He said that no deck's goal is, “... and then I cast Sphinx's Revelation for a million and immediately won.” Instead, you use Sphinx's Revelation to draw into the cards that win you the game. You can cast The Great Aurora for a thousand and still lose, if you're only aiming to max the number on the card.
“But, really, it's just card advantage.” Just like the Revelation. In a control shell, The Great Aurora plays like this: “Cast it, then restart the game on turn five. You're playing a control deck; you can win if you start the game on turn five.” Black reiterated, “It's literally Sphinx's Revelation.”
This deck, and its origin, interweave and overlap melodiously. You can scan the numbers, scan the cards, and see the Magic unfolding. Is it like the Seasons Past deck? Is it a Dark Petition deck? Or an Ulamog ramp deck? Or a Tireless Tracker deck? Yes. Yes it is.