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The Onslaught Top Slot... Okay, Slots

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The letter W!hite was the unconditional king of Onslaught tournament play. I would argue that the most enduringly strong cards from the set—and, when you get to cards like Akroma, Angel of Wrath from Legions or Decree of Justice and Eternal Dragon from Scourge, the whole shebang—are the poster children of this block. White in Onslaught was a flashing neon sign that advertised utility and unconditionally useful and mana consistent spells, a refreshing reversal of the previous Wild Mongrel- and Psychatog-centered Odyssey mechanics-driven strategies. White's best card—and arguably the best card in the set if not Onslaught, Legions, and Scourge together—remains one of my absolute favorite spells.

Winner Winner: Akroma's Vengeance

Most main sets have a Wrath of God wannabe, for example Winds of Rath, Rout, or Kirtar's Wrath. Those cards are generally staple in block play, and often claim market share in Standard. Onslaught's Wrath of God proxy was special in that it was actually a Nevinyrral's Disk update... It's just that few noticed because Akroma's Vengeance came to the ball all accessorized with White ManaWhite Mana next to its four colorless mana in the top corner instead of a plain brown border.

Besides a certain single, narrow, linear strategy and its Onslaught Block components, Akroma's Vengeance might be the most widely successful card of the set. Not only did this big sweeper dominate at and ultimately win Pro Tour–Venice, it took top honors at the following year's World Championships, contributing to numerous decks in between. At the Grand Prix level, Akroma's Vengeance helped to bring Bob Maher yet another title (some half a decade after the height of his game), and unlike the expensive block Wrath of God replacements found in most other supplemental sets, actually made it to Extended play.

Part of the reason Akroma's Vengeance was, and remains, so good is that the next Block gave tournament sharks the Ravager Affinity deck. A well-built Akroma's Vengeance deck can stall Affinity and then blow up everything, lands included. In (Onslaught) Block play, or many Standard matchups, Akroma's Vengeance played as a multiple enchantment sweeper against creature-poor decks (even traditional Wrath of God would not necessarily have been effective against, say Rift / Slide).

Few people would cite Onslaught as a powerhouse block. It doesn't compare, fundamentally, to Mirrodin and its Affinity, nor Odyssey with its Wild Mongrels and Psychatogs. However, even fewer would discount the enduring effectiveness of Akroma's Vengeance, an expensive and ponderous sorcery actually worth its six mana.

Runner-up: Astral Slide

Astral Slide was something special. It was in a sense a supplement to (see below) Lightning Rift in the default deck of Onslaught Block, something persistent with which you could gain (even more) value from cycling cards. However, unlike Lightning Rift, which was kind of a stack of Shocks, Astral Slide offered an essentially unique effect. Not only could it help defend against creatures of any size (where Lightning Rift could mostly defend only against small(er) creatures), Astral Slide, pointed at your own cards, could prove very beneficial. In Osyp Lebedowicz's many red-white decks, Astral Slide set up Exalted Angels on turn four (play the Angel face down, block, Slide it out with a one-mana cycling card, be ready to attack with a 4/5 lifelink flyer the following turn. Julien Nujiten won the 2004 World Championships with an Astral Slide deck focused on re-seeing his Eternal Witness every turn; with nothing else online, that two-card combo would help Julien to cycle through his own deck and return his cyclers; a second Astral Slide would allow the champ to go bonkers.

Runner-up: Exalted Angel

Bob Maher once told me he thought this was the best overall Limited card in Onslaught. The edge on this card over Visara, Rorix, or one of the other incredible six-drop threats was that while Exalted Angel was a six-drop, it wasn't really. You could pay seven mana but have it fully online on turn four. The combinations with Astral Slide were of course fantastic. I found it very difficult to beat tuned red-white decks with, say, Goblins because this card was so good at racing. Unlike certain other Block or linear superstars, Exalted Angel has had a fine career in Extended, making a Pro Tour Top 8 in Nick West's NO Stick and beating people up in a variety of roles to this day.

Eugene Harvey, second; Josh Ravitz, third;Tony Tsai, eleventh; Osyp Lebedowicz was the big loser with a Top 32 twenty-ninth. Five pilots, four money finishes, including two in the Top 4... and it took Bob Maher on a Brian Kowal deck to beat the Eugenius. Most people would point at his Pro Tour winning build of Red-White as Osyp's signature Slide deck, but it was this deck, from Grand Prix–Detroit, that is the crown jewel of his deck design resume, a clear break in the format rather than just a great individual finish.

Osyp was in love with Wing Shards from the first time he saw it. "You wouldn't believe the deck I could have played in Venice if I had that card available, Mike..."

"Why? Because you could have done so much better?" (Osyp won that Pro Tour.)

Well, it looks like he could!

Blue

Blue was like the opposite of white in Onslaught Block, unanimously considered the almost unplayable stone dregs.

Many commentators see Onslaught Block as a grand experiment. What would the world look like if we didn't have Counterspell? Would people play expensive, gigantic, creatures? Would they be good? Well, in the absence of Counterspell, people did, indeed, play big creatures, hard-casting eight-drops in the Top 4 of the Pro Tour. Goblins ended up ruining it to some degree, but at least it wasn't blue: blue wasn't ruining much of anything.

If you compare Onslaught's top blue cards with the top cards from other colors, you will easily be able to see how weak the color was, by comparison, in tournament play; cards like Arcanis the Omnipotent and Callous Oppressor are serious candidates for top billing! This is not to say blue didn't have a place, but it was not a powerhouse like white or its challenger red, and it lacked the enablers of green. Consider:

Winner Winner: Chain of Vapor

Is this really it? I looked over the list of blue Onslaught cards and checked it twice, scratched out my initial picks, wrote and re-wrote... and I think this minor singleton / sideboard card is the best that blue had to offer to the set. I guess somebody has to be the worst in every set, and blue usually gets to be the best.

Chain of Vapor has been relatively enduring, playing a very specific role in combo decks all the way to Vintage. While most decks use it to get rid of problem permanents like Ivory Mask, some storm decks actually pick up their own permanents to keep their single turn counts up!

Runner-up: Future Sight

This card is very interesting. I think that sometime before it rotates out of Extended we may again see it in a key role in a very good combo or control deck.

In the right deck, Future Sight is like a personal Howling Mine, albeit much more powerful given a favorable top of a deck. Its only downside -- and it isn't that much of a downside considering the fact that without Future Sight you don't get anything extra -- is that Future Sight is not particularly synergistic with reactive cards, limiting its usefulness in non-explosive combo decks.

Andrew Cuneo's Psychatog

All that said, to me, the quintessential Future Sight deck is Andrew Cuneo's, which he used to win the 2003 MTGO Worlds Qualfier. Zev "Standstill" Gurwitz would eventually adopt Andrew's Future Sights in the Psychatog deck he used to qualify for U.S. Nationals.

Runner-up: Annex

When I first saw Annex, I thought of it as "a Control Magic for lands," which according to both cost and functionality, it essentially is. This card has been hot and cold over the years, everything from overrated to a killer sideboard card in control-on-control. Last year, Annex-Wildfire was a key anti-Gifts Ungiven Standard deck, and Annex has been a middling-to-very good sideboard card in various UrzaTron decks, used both for disrupting other powerful, if slow, decks and completing 'Tron in the mirror.

In the red-and-white world of Onslaught Block, this card was never popular.

Annex-Wildfire, originally designed by onetime Single Card Strategies columnist Adrian Sullivan for the Wisconsin State Championships (which he won that year) is an interesting and synergistic implementation of this card. Basically Signets allow for third turn Annex, and Annex allows for untapping with six mana in play on turn four. Lay a Dragon (five toughness) or bust all the lands as you wish (sacrificing one of the opponent's lands, naturally). You'll generally keep a Dragon and he'll generally walk away with nothing.

Black

Black was the precise Jan Brady of Onslaught, right in the middle, but still worth an episode or so focused just on her.

Winner Winner: Patriarch's Bidding

This card is elegant and brutal at the same time... It is sort of like a fatal car crash involving a newly shined classic European sports coupe. Bidding decks have served Beats, Goblins, Zombies, and even Elementals! The most famous sort of Bidding deck is of course a Goblin deck, which generates critical mass with Skirk Prospectors and Goblin Sharpshooters, jacking mana, dealing damage, untapping, eventually playing the Bidding (getting back Goblin Warchief, of course) and doing it again until the opponent is dead. The masters of Goblin Bidding could win seemingly out of nowhere, starting with a single Goblin Matron but ending the game the very same turn.

This is Greg Weiss's Elemental Bidding deck, which made Day Two of Antoine Ruel's Pro Tour–Los Angeles. The concept here is to use Careful Study and Mental Note to dump Stinkweed Imp into the graveyard. Then it is all about putting a critical mass of Elementals in the graveyard. When Bidding gets played, there is almost always a Flame-Kin Zealot in the graveyard (this deck was a predecessor to Dredge)... More than 20 come across; the opponent invariably has to read your cards. Living Hive? Really?

Really. I've seen the deck kill on turn two.

Runner-up: Visara the Dreadful

It pained me to give Visara a sub-first place rating, but as much as I personally like her, the statistics were overwhelmingly in favor of Patriarch's Bidding. Visara was mostly played in variants of The Rock or reanimation decks. Here is one that finished second in a Pro Tour:

Rob would use Entomb or Last Rites to get Visara (or some other relevant monster) into the graveyard (and quickly!), and then pull her right back out with Exhume or Reanimate. Visara online is hard to beat on turns six and seven, when she's been played at retail. On turn two... The opponent had better be cheating, too.

Incidentally, Visara is my pick for best open in Onslaught... I once had both an Exalted Angel and a Rorix Bladewing in play and lost to this monster.

Runner-up: Smother

Though it wasn't universally played at the onset, Smother grew into one of the set's key role players. Why? Think of the context that Smother found itself in when first printed for Standard. What were the defining cards? The defining creatures? Though ineffective against many signature Onslaught threats, like Visara, Rorix, or Arcanis, Smother put a real hurt on Wild Mongrel and Psychatog. For this reason, Smother has remained popular in Extended, though in recent years, it has lost some market share to Putrefy (which can also fight Isochron Scepter) and Sudden Shock.

Red

Red was superb in Onslaught. Some players will disagree that white was the strongest, and they will do so because of red; red, in the form of Lightning Rift and sometimes Starstorm and Slice and Dice, was an integral part of the default white deck. On top of that, red had its own color, its own strategy: Goblins. As a strategy, Goblins is the most enduring to come out of Onslaught (Block); it is one of the most popular decks in Legacy, and still sometimes played in Extended.

Winner Winner: Lightning Rift

I think that second-turn Lightning Rift decided more games in the Onslaught Block Constructed PTQ season than any other factor. Though Akroma's Vengeance was an almost incomparable staple, to my recollection, Lightning Rift was the actual best card in the format. Consider "Bad Form":

Alex Shvartsman

Main Deck

60 cards

Forgotten Cave
19  Mountain
Temple of the False God

27 lands

Gempalm Incinerator
Rorix Bladewing

6 creatures

Form of the Dragon
Lay Waste
Lightning Rift
Shock
Solar Blast
Spark Spray
Starstorm

27 other spells

Sideboard
Menacing Ogre
Misguided Rage
Sparksmith
Thoughtbound Primoc

15 sideboard cards


Alex didn't play white at all in his Top 8 deck! This deck had 24 cycling cards to break Lightning Rift, and it was able to do well without the added redundancy of Astral Slide. Its long game was to play Form of the Dragon and sit for a few turns... Lightning Rift would quicken the "five a seek" clock, naturally.

Runner-up: Rorix Bladewing

Now we're talking. The best of the Pit Fighter Legends for Constructed, Rorix Bladewing was played in a variety of decks, from a sideboard card in Goblins for the mirror, to a go-to creature for numerous cheaters. Though Rorix is usually behind Akroma in the combo deck pecking order, it is still consistently on the list, making the cut essentially always. Rorix headlined Tsuyoshi Fujita's Sneak Attack, one of history's few straight red combo decks.

Tsuyoshi Fujita / Sneaky Go

This deck is incredibly cool and incredibly fast both. The mana acceleration helps get Sneak Attack or Through the Breach up and about; either one would be a harbinger for hasty red death. Or... Tsuyoshi could just Song out a quick Rorix, say turn three... slow for this deck, but pretty brutal in general.

If you ever find yourself in a dark alley with Sneak Attack, you should make it a point not to get hit by any creature attached to a Blazing Shoal... But a hasted Dragon Tyrant is liable to kill you outright.

Runner-up: Goblin Piledriver

I was torn as to which Onslaught Goblin should get the nod. If you take all of the past four years into consideration, multiple Goblins could reasonably be considered more significant than one or both of the previous red cards... But Lightning Rift was the best in Block, and continues to inspire even in Extended, and Rorix is arguably the best six-drop creature ever, a superstar of cheating, and, like Akroma, good enough to see play at retail. We could arguably have considered...

Goblin Sharpshooter: The centerpiece of Goblins and Goblin Bidding critical mass... Besides once played in a cute Kamahl, Fist of Krosa theme deck for land destruction purposes, the Sharpshooter has seen little or no play out of the core Onslaught linear archetype, and even there, often shows up only as a bullet one-of.

Sparksmith: A truly abusive Limited card (especially at common), Sparksmith has been a component in the Goblins decks as a one-of bullet, all the way to a four-of suicide cannon in creature-heavy formats. Like Goibin Sharpshooter, this card serves a unique and powerful function... but not one that is necessarily core to the Goblins strategy.

Skirk Prospector: This card is sort of the hand of the Goblins decks. This is the deceptively little tool with which Goblins performs all of its mischief. There is no Siege-Gang / Sharpshooter critical mass without Skirk Prospector, and even the vanilla broken Piledriver draws all start with Skirk Prospector, if just to get Warchief into play on turn two. It has been a four-of in nearly every serious Goblins deck since the debut of Onslaught.

As popular as Skirk Prospector has been in this and related archetypes, the All-Star has to be Goblin Piledriver. People kind of forget that the only third-turn kill in Block (second turn Goblin Warchief, third turn three or even four Piledrivers) needed a Prospector assist... To them, it is a trinity of 7/2s striking them in the face while they are tapped for Astral Slide or Explosive Vegetation. Goblin Piledriver has raced second-turn Akroma and cemented Goblins as the deck of Legacy. It is the icon of offense, and, as far as I can remember, has only been cut once, when the metagame was all Goblins mirrors and Affinity. There are countless successful decks with one Sharpshooter, one Sparksmith, four Prospectors, and four Piledrivers... Just for kicks, Tsuyoshi's winner winner from the 2004 Japan National Championships is the reverse:

Tsuyoshi Fujita

Main Deck

60 cards

City of Brass
Forest
12  Mountain
Wooded Foothills

23 lands

Clickslither
Goblin Goon
Goblin Sharpshooter
Goblin Sledder
Goblin Warchief
Siege-Gang Commander
Skirk Prospector
Sparksmith

29 creatures

Electrostatic Bolt
Oxidize

8 other spells

Sideboard
Naturalize
Skullclamp
Starstorm
Viridian Shaman

15 sideboard cards


Green

I think that green in Onslaught is the hardest color to discuss. It wasn't completely flaccid like blue, and it wasn't overflowing with format dominance like white. It had numerous cards that did certain things well, or uniquely (Explosive Vegetation); seductive, blue-like effects that got creative juices flowing (Krosan Tusker), and newly repositioned staples (Naturalize)... but none of those do it for me, not for what we are discussing, really. The Vegetation deck was exceptional at the Pro Tour, but had numerous structural flaws that were exposed over the course of an evolving metagame, and Green-White Silvos was never seen again come three-set PTQ play. Krosan Tusker is still brimming with potential because no one has utilized it outside of a niche role in Slide decks or as a supplemental fixer. Naturalize consistently finishes second behind whatever other option is available—Wear Away, Rending Vines, Krosan Grip, even Seed Spark—and has never really succeeded in fulfilling the popularity of the original Disenchant. Consider the following:

Winner winner: Ravenous Baloth

Do you realize there was a time when green-white decks were willing to play Nettletooth Djinn on the Pro Tour?

Look at how far green 4/4 creatures have come!

Loxodon Hierarch has marginalized Ravenous Baloth somewhat in Extended (Ravnica lands make the white splash too easy), but Ravenous Baloth still sees play as a redundant four-drop and is preferable in Beasts themed or sub-themed decks, helping to give those decks additional value on Spiritmongers, Indrik Stomphowlers, etc.

This is Baby Huey's deck from the Top 8 of Pro Tour–Venice. He lost a match against eventual winner Osyp Lebedowicz in a game where he was in commanding position, because Osyp played Akroma first. That match, where Billy was helpless against the 6/6 polymath despite having Akroma of his own, prompted the rewrite of the legend rule to make it less luck-based.

Runner-up: Weird Harvest

It took a couple of years, but Weird Harvest ended up a key component in one of the most successful decks in recent memory, Standard Heartbeat. In this deck, one Weird Harvest was enough (Muddle the Mixture could proxy for four more copies thanks to transmute). While many combo decks over the years could "fizzle," Heartbeat wouldn't, not if it stuck Weird Harvest. Nabbing a ton of Drifts would allow Heartbeat sufficient mana to transmute for Heartbeat of Spring and Early Harvest.

Runner-up: Wirewood Savage

Surprised? In the right circumstances, this card will allow you to draw your deck for essentially no mana! Cavern Harpy is a beast. I mean sure, Cavern Harpy was awesome in Invasion Limited, but she is also actually a Beast. You can play Cavern Harpy as many times as you want. She has to return a blue or black creature when she comes into play... Why not herself? With Aluren out, she comes down for free. So Aluren + Cavern Harpy + Wirewood Savage allows you to draw your deck without any mana cost... Once you've done that, you have by definition seen all your toys and you should probably be able to win. Might I suggest gaining infinite life with Soul Warden, then dealing 20 (or however much) to both players with Maggot Carrier?

Lands

Everyone knows that the real winner winners from Onslaught were Bloodstained Mire, Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand, Windswept Heath, and Wooded Foothills. These cards remain better, even today in Extended and Legacy, than any other cards from the set or block. They are played in red decks to fuel Grim Lavamancer and Fledgling Dragon, splash Kataki in Psychatog decks to beat Affinity, marry Psychatogs to Wild Mongrels in Madness love-fests, find Forests (or Forest dual lands) to power up Kird Apes in nongreen decks, and thin out Goblins draws because everyone knows that you don't win by actually paying retail.

All that, and they make sure that you have the right mana to pay for your spells in the early game. I have this cycle ahead of the Ravnica duals (both staple cycles), and everything short of the originals... and Graven Cairns (that dual is awesome).

Whew. I almost thought this theme week was about this card:

Why would they do that?

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