ue to the nationwide Morningtide
release tournaments (stock up on those Countryside Crusher
s, everyone!), we have no new Extended PTQ Top 8 lists to discuss this week (sorry about that). What I decided to do was dial it back to my original bread and butter; I mean before PTQ Top 8 breakdown analysis was my Swimming with Sharks bread and butter, my preferred digital butter to be spread across the vast bread that was and is the Magic
Internet was historical analysis of interesting archetypes and the truly great players that have graced this truly great game.
As with any critic with any kind of worthwhile opinions, I began with my own presuppositions and biases (my #1 deck didn't change despite poring over dozens of historical Top 8s and ancient .txt format tournament reports on what remains of The Dojo)... But what seems really strange is that this list has no Rock, no straight or combo reanimator, no legitimate Tinker deck, and no red deck.
My guess is that maybe half of the decks that made my Top 10 could reliably trade games with a modern Dredge deck... But that doesn't mean anything, any more than it means that either boogeyman Dredge or newcomer Doran is one of the best Extended decks of all time. The most important thing to me when analyzing formats is the edge and appropriateness of a deck when contextualizing to a particular format. How much better than a default deck was this deck at the time? How likely was it to win the tournament? What if they ran the same tournament again? Dredge is a modern-day monster, certainly out-gunning even most of its contemporaries and breezing through tournaments when unencumbered, but it is rarely the most likely deck to win any particular tournament, any more than Doran or Red Deck Wins, even though any of them is capable. Compare that to Broken Jar, Miracle Grow at its debut, or Oath of Druids in the able hands of Robert Maher, Jr. The next most important thing to me is the legacy that a deck leaves behind. How did this deck leave its mark on Magic? Did it somehow change the universe? Many of these beauties did.
#10. Miracle Grow – Alan Comer, 9th Place GP–Las Vegas 2001
Alan Comer's Miracle Grow
Alan knew he was drawing into 9th place. It was a shame for Miracle Grow's debut tournament. Alan left a Top 8 that featured future Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty with combo Reanimator and seven Deuce, Rock, or Junk decks. No offense to eventual winner MikeyP, but I think Alan would have shredded that Top 8.
At the time, when Miracle Grow was young (this was its first tournament), the world didn't realize how devastating it was against black-green decks or how it demolished straight beatdown and red decks. If you look at the deck, Miracle Grow really looks as though it will lie down for a Pernicious Deed
... But that's not really how it worked. One well-placed Daze
or Force of Will
and the opponent was tapped for a Deed that would never resolve, locked under a Winter Orb
, and dead to a Quirion Dryad
before he could blink. Submerge
was so brutal for these decks, as the expensive Spiritmonger
was an automatic four-of in 2001. With Winter Orb
it was five or even six Time Walk
s. Quirion Dryad
needed perhaps two turns to finish the game.
Alan's deck was primitive for Miracle Grow decks. Lord of Atlantis did not survive past the Las Vegas weekend and Werebear became an automatic include following Mike Long's Top 8 with the same archetype perhaps one week later in Sendai. However the core strategy of the deck, walking the opponent into an expensive play, locking him with Winter Orb, and generating progressive tempo with Quirion Dryad on offense was compelling to the point of irresistibility.
If you are not familiar with this deck, you are in the same boat as many GP and PTQ players when Alan brought it to Las Vegas and rattled off an undefeated Day One. Miracle Grow was a paradigm-changing strategy that dealt with card advantage and tempo fluidly, a precursor in some ways to Sadin Greater Gargadon Green-Red and other decks that operate on nontraditional metrics. Gush and Foil didn't set this deck back. Winter Orb slowed everyone down to a snail's pace, and the deck could do everything it wanted with two lands... Free Counterspells, regardless of their drawbacks, were golden at holding the advantage that Miracle Grow—due to its vastly superior tempo in essentially every matchup—could generate in almost every early Game 1 situation. Because Quirion Dryad grew with every Counterspell, every extra card drawn, every offensive or defensive play, the combination of mana suppression and relentless proactive tempo made Miracle Grow nearly impossible to beat with anything but a dedicated anti-two drop strategy, viz. Oath of Druids.
Context: Following Kai Budde's PT win with Blue-Red Donate, Donate was the hands down Deck to Beat in Extended. The deck on the rise was Sol Malka's version of Black-Green The Rock. Even today, seven itchy years distant, pundits, commentators, and ex-PTQ players will not agree who had the matchup (personally, I was 14-0 against Donate with The Rock in 2001, never losing a game and winning both a GPT and PTQ); the fact was that Miracle Grow thrashed both decks. Even when people knew about it, it continued to win, evidenced by the advancements of Mike Long, Top 8 by Alex Shvartsman, and massive improvements to sickestever.dec by Ben Rubin and Brian Kibler.
Legacy: Miracle Grow was an unrelenting tournament crusher as long as Magic R&D let us play with Winter Orbs and Gushes in Extended. In one of the most famous runs in the history of top level play, Alexander Witt crashed his car, managed to barely show up for work on time, won the last-second grinder, and finished up with a Masters win at PT–Nice, rattling off wins against Alan Comer himself, the popular Gerard Fabiano, Solemn Simulacrum and Invitational winner Jens Thoren, and U.S. Nationals and Extended PT winner Justin Gary (who was playing one of the aforementioned anti-two drop Oath decks!).
I really wanted to include Brian Schneider's Suicide King as one of the Top 10 Extended decks of all time (played in four tournaments ever, with three Top 8s, two wins... and Jon Becker will contest for the rest of his days the dubious circumstances of his Top 8 non-win); but with Miracle Grow this far out in the Top 10, that just seemed silly in terms of scale.
Witt's Masters deck:
Alexander Witt's Miracle Grow
#9. Affinity – Pierre Canali, 1st Place PT–Columbus 2005
Rookie Pierre Canali showed the entire Pro Tour the front of his hand... and then showed them the back of his hand in what looked like the easiest win in Premiere Event history. Pierre's play in Columbus was a little rough around the edges, but his deck build—one-third credited to future Resident Genius and PT winner in his own right Guillaume Wafo-Tapa—made the tournament look like a basketball contest between LeBron James and an auditorium full of five-year-olds, with Pierre dominating even the matches he was supposed to lose.
Pierre's deck was beautifully positioned. I think Osyp Lebedowicz said it best. In his Psychatog
tuning, Osyp found himself taking out most or all of his anti-Affinity cards, relying on a "Vampiric Tutor
for Energy Flux
" strategy that much of the Pro Tour discovered. It was at that point that he should have himself switched to Affinity.
The hate was disappearing. Affinity was known but for some reason the metagame shifted away from being able to deal with it; I was doing coverage in Columbus, and saw Pierre beat name pros with Energy Flux
The most popular archetype in Columbus was "some sort of The Rock" with the top-finishing deck two-for-one Red Rock in the Top 16. Most adherents of The Rock assumed that their Pernicous Deeds would allow them to dominate Affinity, but Pierre's Somber Hoverguards offered surprising resistance. Æther Vial in concert with Meddling Mage and Kami of Ancient Law made for some interesting anti-anti- situations. I think that the coolest play of the tournament was Pierre Vialing Meddling Mage into play Counterspell-style while Geoffry Siron (himself a future PT winner) had madness on the stack in the Columbus quarterfinals.
Legacy: This deck didn't actually have much of an impact past Pierre's win. Affinity is still played today, a perfectly respectable linear strategy, but before Pro Tour–Los Angeles, the Powers That Be banned Æther Vial and Disciple of the Vault in Extended, taking a two-thirds chomp out of the Affinity triangle offense. Maybe that itself is a worthy legacy: Pierre and his Affinity deck scared the future out of another fight! In more recent times, cards like Kataki, War's Wage and Ancient Grudge have further suppressed Affinity's ability to perform at the highest levels; then again, it was right there in the Top 8 of the most recent Extended Pro Tour!
I think that the greater legacy of Affinity, and Pierre in particular, is the transformative attitude it brought to the Pro Tour. I think that the top players have in a sense "learned their lesson" and have shown that they are not going to lie down for a popular linear strategy. Just look at the lists from PT–Valencia, with many—enough—decks stacked to the rafters with Dredge suppression: no free turn-two kills!
#8. Tax Rack – Randy Buehler, 1st Place North American Extended Championship
Land Tax is, historically, one of the most interesting cards in the history of competitive Magic. After the first Pro Tour, a player who ran two copies in his Top 8 deck declared that you could only compete in Standard if you played Land Tax or Necropotence. Land Tax was subsequently restricted; Necropotence wasn't (ha ha). Land Tax allowed for the most interesting mind games and bluffs. How did you play it? How did you play against it? How did the other guy?
In one of my favorite PTQ Top 8 stories of all time (Extended of course), the amazing Al Tran was up against a first-turn Land Tax
. He refused to play lands. His opponent seemed to say Fine! I won't play lands either!
If he couldn't get an advantage on Al playing lands, no one was going to play lands. It turned out Al was just mana-screwed, and the whole "sit-there" game just bought him time.
Land Tax was the kind of card that turned "mulligan to four" into "automatic win." Land Tax was, conditionally, more difficult to play around and play against than even the skill-testing Fact or Fiction. And it was cheap. Look at Randy's deck! Everything cost one or two. He didn't have to play any lands past the second; his opponent probably did. Free Ancestral Recall! Scroll Rack let him put back those lands, trade them in for spells, and Tax for the same paltry eight basics over and over again.
Context: Randy's deck was simply the perfect deck to win the tournament. He handled the more popular "PT Jank" look at red-white weenie with tremendous card advantage; the world will not likely see a player with better Firestorm skills again.
Legacy: Tax Rack was probably the best Scroll Rack deck ever in terms of sheer efficiency, but following the rotation of Land Tax from Extended, there were certainly some other interesting looks, including Zvi Mowshowitz's numerous engines and the deck that Randy used to win the Standard title at the 1998 U.S. National Championships, Mulch-Rack / Oath.
Before the rest of the world recognized his sheer perfection at Magic: The Gathering, Jon Finkel flew himself down to Rio de Janeiro (site of that year's Magic Invitational) and won the concurrent Grand Prix with a similar Land Tax strategy. Note the offense of Empyrial Armor (nice combo with Land Tax!) over the controlled elegance of Buehler's mana costs emphasizing his engine:
#7. Ped Bun Oath – Dr. Ped Bun, 2nd Place Extended PTQ
It was perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of PTQ Magic. Dr. Ped Bun, innovative deck designer and future Regional Champion, had his opponent locked out in the finals of the last PTQ of the season. The blue envelope was an inch away. Impulse; look at the top four... Damn it! That's Brainstorm! Three cards not four! Game loss.
Ped's creation didn't die with that tragic PTQ finish. Far from it. Bob Maher, who had made Top 8 of Grand Prix–Kansas City 1999 with the deck a week earlier, chose to make it his memorable Weapon of Choice in Extended. Of his numerous memorable Extended finishes, the win at PT–Chicago is probably the most memorable; Bob followed up with a win with essentially the same deck at Grand Prix–Seattle the same year, on the way to his Player of the Year title.
Context: By the win in Chicago, Oath was known. Moreover, it was known to be one of the best decks. Nevertheless, Maher navigated hostile tournaments on consecutive occasions to win in Chicago and Seattle; the latter being even more impressive due to the emergence of Pooh Burn (the anti-Oath red deck) and more importantly, the Your Move Games Hall of Fame duo of Dougherty and Kastle with Black-Blue Trix (both would make Top 16 in Seattle and Top 8 later in the season).
Maher's win in Chicago was just magical Magic. Maher v. Davis remains my favorite PT finals of all time, and I think that the color commentary by Brian Hacker is simply the best commentary ever, or at least until you get to BDM's bluff discussion in Karsten v. Soh. You should really just go download it now. It's awesome.
Legacy: Oath was an Extended monster for as long as R&D let us play it, probably the chief rival to even more broken strategies like Trix and Tinker at their heights. Justin Gary's PT win was behind an Oath deck in Houston, in a Top 8 that ironically featured Maher's comeback after his suspension, (that time with a combo reanimator deck).
#6. Blue-Red-White Midrange – David Mills, 2nd Place PT–Chicago 1997
David Mills' Blue-Red-White Midrange
Tongo Nation's performance with this unique deck in 1997 was among the most impressive team efforts in the history of the Pro Tour, one that would not even be approached until Team ABU's four green-red decks in the Top 8 of PT–Tokyo. In addition to Mills in second place, Tongo had Dallas Junior PT Champ Justin Schneider in 5-8 and Mike Long in the Top 16 at 9th... an absolutely fantastic set of finishes for their team, thanks to an innovative and largely misunderstood deck by Long, Brian Schneider, Andrew Cuneo, and individual tweaks by each member of the Nation.
At Chicago 1997, many players with pre-Cursed Scroll
/ pre-PT Jank "Gun" decks thought they were on the same page as the Tongos. In fact, this difficult to categorize deck may have had some cards in common (Lightning Bolt
) but was often the control rather than the beat down. At the same time, because it could establish a quick advantage on the board with threats like Frenetic Efreet
or the hard-to-deal-with Wildfire Emissary
, even light control elements could help the deck hold the advantage until it was time for a game-ending Fireball
(often thanks to an end-of-turn Impulse
Context: According to Lan D. Ho (who else playtests decade-old PT finals matchups?), the blue-red-white deck was actually ahead of LauerPotence in the head-to-head matchup. The deck could stall specifically the key Lake of the Dead-driven life gain, suppress life total short term, hold off the "pump" Orders with Suq'Ata Firewalker, and eventually finish with a lone Fireball. That's not actually what happened in the Chicago finals, but that was what was "supposed to" happen. Overall the deck was set up very nicely in the metagame. Mills beat Jon Finkel in his Top 8 debut thanks to a solid number of angles of attack... Many decks in the format had serious problems with a protected Dwarven Miner, and Jon's fragile mana base was particularly vulnerable. The deck's creatures were notoriously difficult to deal with in the format, and many players expressed great displeasure at the defining performance of Frenetic Efreet. With three copies so high in the final standings, this remains one of history's most impressively positioned PT decks.
Legacy: The blue-red-white deck had essentially no life beyond PT–Chicago. While some players experimented with Ophidian versions later on, the presence of Wasteland and Cursed Scroll created some very different incentives in Extended. The finishers became unreliable given Wasteland resistance, and the Gun players won out, with Jank becoming the most popular deck of the following PTQ season.
... None of which diminishes the deck's pedigree for the tournament it was intended to dominate. One or two turns different and we would have seen a different champion crowned, shuffling about a great many elements in Magic development and history.
#5. Broken Jar – Buehler and Lauer, 3rd and 4th, GP–Vienna 1999
Randy Buehler and Erik Lauer's Megrim Jar
To the best of my recollection, this is the only deck to have ever prompted an emergency ban of a card in the middle of a season.
Randy at the time (and years before the Players Club) was all over the international Grand Prix ("Randy Buehler makes Top 8 at more European Grand Prix than every other American attends, combined."). His teammate and playtest partner Erik Lauer was much less serious about the Pro lifestyle. However after a couple of playtest games with the Broken Jar deck, Erik realized he was leaving money on the table and went for a last-minute ticket to Vienna. The teammates finished 3rd and 4th and their creation was quickly eliminated.
Context: First of all, look at the cards this deck played. Ancient Tomb, Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Mana Vault, Tinker, Vampiric Tutor, Yawgmoth's Will... It was like a Who's Who of various Restricted and Banned Lists. I don't know that a modern R&D would have emergency banned right after a new card first saw daylight, but there is no denying this deck was unbelievably brutal as well as being the quickest kill in the format—Tinker into Memory Jar into either Yawgmoth’s Will or a second Memory Jar, for a Megrim kill at end of turn..
That said, it isn't even clear that it was better than High Tide. Kai Budde actually won Vienna with his High Tide deck!
Legacy: They banned Memory Jar essentially immediately. Most of the rest of the deck has seen Restricted List and Banned List action in various formats. The fact that the deck had a window of less than a single season due to its raw power is a legacy that no other deck can claim.
#4. CMU Academy – Erik Lauer, 5-8 PT–Rome 1998
I remember first meeting Aaron Forsythe. Big, friendly, handshake like the iron of Pittsburgh itself. We met at a PTQ. I recognized his name associated with Team CMU, was pretty sure he had played in the most recent Extended Pro Tour. "Yeah, CMU Academy... I didn't play very well but the deck was so good, I still made money!" Classic Aaron, first as always.
Their deck for PT–Rome was, if not the best, one of the three best decks, certainly better than the Academy deck Hovi actually used to win the event. In addition to the lone PT Top 8 of Lauer's career, this deck put Buehler about half a match outside Top 8 himself.
The deck has a strange history... Apparently Andrew Cuneo was the first team member to discover the power of Tolarian Academy, with a deck featuring "all eight Baubles" powering out Mahamoti Djinn. Once the team figured out Time Spiral, they realized they had a better way to win.
Contrast CMU Academy with Hovi's deck, which gave him his second PT win:
Not only did Hovi not play Wasteland main (controversial to say the least in a tournament defined by Tolarian Academy) but his deck was bogged down with lots of Mind over Matters. Team CMU predicted that the speed of the format would make true control unpopular, which allowed them to position their deck with Vampiric Tutor for faster action.
The glory of that tutor setup is the sideboard... a Vampiric Tutor into a Perish or Gloom would buy all the time in the world for a deck that could kill as quickly as this one.
Context: Academy was known... This was simply the best Academy deck, faster than all the others (which were already wickedly fast).
Legacy: Academy and Windfall were banned, paving the way for High Tide to take over Extended. However the innovative Tutor package created a new branch of Magic theory, helping to usher in future format dominators such as Napster.
#3. High Tide – Kai Budde, 1st Place GP–Vienna 1998
originally appeared at PT–Rome as the anti-Academy combo deck. With many of the same powerful features and nearly the same speed, High Tide
was nonetheless able to dominate the matchup with more Counterspell
s and fewer artifact do-nothings there only to power up the Academy. Subtly, High Tide
was much less vulnerable to Wasteland
(the original decks often played nothing but basic Island
By the time Budde was carving his legacy with it, High Tide had already become the most hated deck in the history of tournament Magic, the poster child for Combo Winter. I think that even today, nearly a decade later, High Tide remains #1: You literally played High Tide or anti-High Tide or you didn't compete at all.
Context: Kai's High Tide deck was better than average, but the strategy was known. Early on, cards like Thawing Glaciers were not yet known, so there was a significant advantage to be had in the mirror. Adding red was a great innovation, though, allowing Kai to play faster reactive cards in such a quick format.
High Tide, properly tuned, was and probably remains the purest and most beautiful control deck ever devised. This was a deck that was all land, great lands like Thawing Glaciers, mana, mana ramping with High Tide itself, permission for defense, and card drawing. It had to kill with a combo; it was too full of purely wonderful Blue cards to win any other way.
Legacy: Like Academy and Jar from the same era, High Tide didn't last. A series of bannings took it out of tournament consideration... But there are numerous parallels to be made with future Extended superstar Trix. Look at how similarly Kai crafted his Blue-Red Trix deck from PT–New Orleans:
Kai Budde's Blue-Red Trix
#2. Full-on Trix – Scott McCord, 2nd Place GP–Philadelphia 2000
I like to use Scott McCord's deck for the Trix of this era because the basic lands made it so difficult to disrupt, but there were many effective Trix decks from the era. At full power—meaning with Dark Ritual, Necropotence, and Mana Vault all—I put Trix as the single most devastating deck in the history of tournament Magic.
First of all, its card quality was beyond any deck before or since. Trix played four copies of every one of the best available cards—Dark Ritual
, Demonic Consultation
, Force of Will
, and Necropotence
—and was set up to gain 20 life in the middle of a two-card combo. It could demolish the opponent's hand to make sure that the path was clear and protect its own combo with the finest permission spell ever printed. Moreover, Trix had a workable transformative sideboard; at one point, there were decks that started Phyrexian Negator
and Skittering Horror
, then switched to Trix combo; others played Masticore
in the sideboard.
You really haven't seen scary Magic until you've seen...
"Swamp, Dark Ritual, Necropotence..."
"Force of Will that."
"Nah. Force of Will that."
Head-to-head, this one would have shredded High Tide, and High Tide was the combo deck built to outmaneuver combo decks.
Context: Even known, Trix was one of the hardest decks to beat. Attack decks had to respect the 20 life it gained in the middle, and control decks had to figure out how to beat the hand destruction and fast Necropotence. Once this deck started drawing extra cards, its ability to deploy spells was so much better than anything else in the format that there was no keeping up with it. Trix dominated tournament Top 8s for months.
Legacy: Full-on Trix saw its fast mana banned. Regular Necro-Trix dominated the PTQ and GP scene again the following year. Then they cut Necropotence. Kai Budde won the Extended Pro Tour with his Necropotence-less blue-red deck. The two-card combo was awesome, and the full-on version made everything else, ever, pale by comparison.
#1. LauerPotence – Randy Buehler, 1st Place PT–Chicago 1997
Randy Buehler's LauerPotence
So if Trix was the most impressive deck of all time, how can there be a different deck at #1? Like I said in the opening paragraphs, positioning a deck for a particular tournament and succeeding there is the goal more than creating a deck with a fearsome reputation and sustained legacy throughout a format. This deck did both, while exploiting an almost incomparable single-tournament edge.
It is difficult to describe how innovative and important this deck was because so many of its features have become automatic for deck designers. The deck plays super-cheap mana costs—mostly one- and two-mana spells—so as to maximize the card advantage purely derived from Necropotence
. It did not seek to generate card advantage any other way (no Nekrataal
s)... They were just too inefficient compared to Necropotence
Buehler was a master of Firestorm play. He would typically Necro up extra just so he could brain his opponent with the Firestorm, recognizing that a delta of one life point on his part could equate to 5 or 6 damage as he discarded his hand. Most importantly this deck played four copies of Demonic Consultation. Every successful Trix deck that came after can thank Erik Lauer: the default number of Demonic Consultations to that point was between 0 and 2.
Context: It is not often—or at least not automatic—that the best deck actually wins the Pro Tour. This deck was just so special, knew how to win and how to maximize its edges, that it gave Buehler the room to out-play some opponents and bowl others completely over. I think deck designers are still learning from this one.
Necropotence as a strategy temporarily fell out of favor following Randy's win as Tempest hit Extended. Lake of the Dead was a spotty engine when Wasteland was in every red deck and Jank arsenal. If the deck did nothing but put the fourth Demonic Consultation in every deck with Necropotence, that would have been enough to memorialize LauerPotence, but other defining characteristics, such as its strict adherence to curve and its positioning of Firestorm (seen again in Randy's Tax Rack deck, above) were important additions to the Magic deck design vocabulary.