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The Decks to Beat: Developing Your Playtest Gauntlet for Regionals


Monday, March 25, 2002
 

In the tradition of the Decks to Beat, I decided to put together a gauntlet of decks that I think will be representative of what might get played in the US Regionals tournaments.

While one of my current pastimes is scouring internet sites for tournament results and reports for winning deck lists and design ideas. Some years in the distant past I actually got paid to collect these decks and publish them as "The Decks to Beat" rather than to just post them to my email list and ask Josh Ravitz what he thinks about some deck that got 7th place in a Regionals tournament in Brazil. The theory of these Decks to Beat was that readers would be able to go to one source to check out the representative archetypes of any given format, in order to "Study and Grow Strong" (i.e. prepare for an upcoming event, such as Regionals). Of course what ended up happening was that The Decks to Beat were often difficult to beat, and ended up being The Decks That Got Played by the prepared.

In the tradition of the Decks to Beat, I decided to put together a gauntlet of decks that I think will be representative of what might get played in the US Regionals tournaments. Figure out how to beat them... or play them yourself.

This Spring's Decks to Beat are broken down into four categories:

1. Decks that are extensively hyped on the Internet
2. The second-best deck from the previous Pro Tour
3. Decks that have actually won something
4. The obligatory deck with white cards in it

Or if you don't want to read extensive -- yet witty -- commentary, skip ahead to...

5. The Decks to Beat, aggregated

1. Decks that are Extensively Hyped on the Internet

Basically every deck designer I know agrees that g-r could be "the best deck" in Standard. It has access to the single most defining card in the format (Flametongue Kavu) as well as the best overall card to have come out of the Odyssey Block (Call of the Herd). The problem with g-r as the best of the best is that there are at least three different distinct ways to build the deck from a philosophical standpoint, without even getting into the specifics of tailoring a deck to personal play style, or janking up the mana base to add one of the other three colors (which are all excellent and terrible in their own unique ways), so figuring out just which version is "the best deck" is extremely difficult. If everyone is playing controllish blue decks, then Yavimaya Barbarians are going to be fantastic, if you are surrounded by other g-r decks, the slowest version possible, maybe even chaining up to Shivan Dragon (like Brian Kowal did at States) will be the right choice.

An interesting thing that Sean McKeown recently did was to make a "hybridized" fake g-r deck based on cards that showed up in successful Regionals decks around the world... the problem is that his deck was not a real deck, belonged to no specific tribe of g-r, and while filled with an average of the most successful cards to have been played across the two allied colors as a creatures-and-bolts strategy, was not the kind of deck you would actually call representative. Instead, the g-r deck that I am going to pick is the single most discussed deck on the internet today:

Frog in a Blender
Jay Schneider

Main DeckSideboard
4 Karplusan Forest
7 Mountain
6 Forest
4 Barbarian Ring
4 Raging Goblin 4 Grim Lavamancer 4 Basking Rootwalla 4 Yavimaya Barbarian 4 Wild Mongrel
4 Reckless Charge
4 Firebolt
4 Sonic Seizure
4 Fiery Temper
4 Violent Eruption
4 Elvish Lyrist
3 Flametongue Kavu
2 Jade Leech
3 Mages' Contest
2 Engulfing Flames
1 Keldon Necropolis

The interesting thing about Frog in a Blender is that while lightning quick, its main deck totally ignores the two most incentivized cards for playing green or red in the format. While that might seem odd, and while the mana base is positively terrifying on paper, Frog in a Blender has several upsides.

The most significant is that it absolutely demolishes the actual best deck (Psychatog) in game 1. The presence of Yavimaya Barbarian and so much quick damage in general makes Frog in a Blender a terror. Even if the 'Tog deck stabilizes its board position, it has to ration out its control elements over the long haul while Frog topdecks janky burn spell after janky burn spell. A subtle - yet significant - issue is that while many 'Tog dekcs will try to long game with the Wrath-'geddon-Hatred plan of Upheaval + Psychatog, the fact that Frog can just madness out Basking Rootwallas makes winning in a single turn difficult at best.

Additionally...

The g-r also-rans

Gateway Style
Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz

Main DeckSideboard
6 Mountain
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Forest
2 City of Brass
1 Keldon Necropolis
4 Llanowar Elves 4 Raging Kavu 4 Kavu Titan 4 Skizzik 4 Flametongue Kavu 4 Birds of Paradise 2 Shivan Wurm
4 Urza's Rage
4 Fire/Ice
4 Call of the Herd
3 Thunderscape Battlemage
2 Dodecapod
3 Spellbane Centaur
1 Shivan Wurm
2 Tahngarth, Talruum Hero
4 Scorching Lava

Masters Style
Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz

Main DeckSideboard
3 City of Brass
8 Forest
4 Karplusan Forest
1 Keldon Necropolis
5 Mountain
1 Sulfurous Springs
4 Birds of Paradise 4 Flametongue Kavu 4 Kavu Titan 4 Llanowar Elves 3 Raging Kavu 4 Skizzik 3 Spellbane Centaur
4 Call of the Herd
4 Fire/Ice
4 Urza's Rage
2 Dodecapod
3 Engulfing Flames
2 Kamahl, Pit Fighter
2 Shivan Wurm
3 Terminate
3 Thunderscape Battlemage

Dissatisfied with Frog in a Blender? You can look over Steve OMS's g-r beatdown decks from San Diego. An interesting note is that while SteveO played the same basic design in both the Gateway that he won and the Masters in which he was so successful, the card choices over the two tournaments differed as SteveO planned to face more and more Psychatog decks.

The single biggest upside of the SteveO decks is that they are battle-proven, and had the confidence of a Pro Tour and Masters Gateway Champion. The most significant downside is that they have no Torment cards, and incorporating that set's new Madness mechanic would seriously destabilize the topdeck-a-threat-and-play-it plan of this deck.



Aggro Black Deck
Brian Kibler

Main DeckSideboard
16 Swamp
4 Tainted Peak
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Nantuko Shade 4 Mesmeric Fiend 4 Ravenous Rats 4 Phyrexian Rager 4 Braids, Cabal Minion 4 Flametongue Kavu 2 Ichorid 2 Shambling Swarm
4 Duress
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Slay
4 Phyrexian Arena
2 Shambling Swarm
2 Mortivore
2 Persecute
1 Ichorid

The next deck to receive a lot of 'net hype is the Aggro Black Deck that Kibler posted here on the Sideboard. It's been a long time since I've seen a deck that so aggressively attacked the established cards and strategies of a format... Besides the kind of success that Josh Ravitz and Tim McKenna have already had at the Neutral Ground Grudge Match with this deck, the theory behind the specific card selections is - common to Kibler's decks - also quite fundamentally sound.

The cheap card advantage of Ravenous Rats and Phyrexian Rager combines brilliantly with Braids, Cabal Minion... and what a Minion of chaos she is! If there is one card no control player wants to see on turn 4, it's Braids. Quite capable of taking control of the game all by herself, Braids is almost always a source of both damage and disruption. In a format where the defining board control cards are either bounce (Aether Burst and Repulse) or are played only during the opponent's own turn (Chainer's Edict, Innocent Blood, and Flametongue Kavu), Braids either nets card advantage or negates it on the part of the opponent.

And talk about a nightmare for blue! The Kibler b-r deck is an avalanche of Duresses and Mesmeric Fiends in the early game, while its Rats and Ragers create a ridiculous disincentive to bounce strategies. Beating up on an opponent's hand with those same cards and following up with Braids is the death knell to black control decks, which will typically be put into a topdeck situation while their Edicts and Bloods take down cantrip creatures that have already done their job, knowing that they have no long game plan against the inevitable Ichorid.

The downside to Braids? The deck is erratic in the mirror matchup where Duress is sometimes amazing on the first turn and sometimes a mulligan... yet almost always a dead draw later. Playing against decks with Calls and Flametongues is problematic if Shambling Swarm doesn't show his Mummified Beehive head in a hurry.

2. The Second-Best Deck from the Previous Pro Tour

Back in the Spring of 2000 Sigurd Eskeland won PT-NY with a control-oriented Rising Waters deck. So of course the second-best - yet population dominant - Rebel deck was the one to (immediately) graduate to Standard from Masques Block Constructed. Sure, people could game with Dark Ritual, Duress, Phyrexian Negator, Vampiric Tutor, Yawgmoth's Will, Parallax Wave, Replenish, Deranged Hermit, Plow Under, Masticore, and Morphling, yet many players chose the route of small white creatures and a couple of spot artifact removal instead (if memory serves, they were successful only in the Ohio Valley). This year at least, the chances of pairing off against the latest incarnation of White Weenie will be low... On the heels of Torment's being "the black set", and Rob Dougherty's top-of-the-Swiss success with monoblack, it is reasonable to assume that people will come to Regionals with swamp-powered control decks.

Like many of the decks we're discussing, there are several ways to game with monoblack control... creatures or no? Nantuko Shades? Laquatus's Champions? Nothing but Corrupts? On the pedigree of name recognition and sustained success with monoblack builds, I'm going to go out on a limb and post Rob Dougherty's deck from Osaka as something to examine.

Black Control
Robert Dougherty

Main DeckSideboard
3 Cabal Coffers
25 Swamp
4 Nantuko Shade 2 Shambling Swarm 2 Stalking Bloodsucker
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Diabolic Tutor
1 Haunting Echoes
3 Innocent Blood
4 Mind Sludge
4 Mutilate
4 Rancid Earth
1 Skeletal Scrying
4 Braids, Cabal Minion
4 Faceless Butcher
2 Ghastly Demise
2 Skeletal Scrying
3 Mesmeric Fiend 

The downsides: It's a block deck.

The upsides: Any deck with this many Edicts and Bloods, as well as Haunting Echoes main is going to give Psychatog fits. It has a lot of answers, including Mutilate, which is an all star in Standard. The deck can be improved in several ways (running Duress or reducing the anti-Squirrel Nest cards to start).

On a related note, I don't think that Compost necessarily shuts down Black Control as an archetype. In fact, I don't know that its availability as a sideboard card is even that significant for the Black Control player... Compost was available at Worlds 1999 when Jakub Slemr and Gary Wise made the Top 8 with Corrupter Black, it was legal when Brian Davis scored his second place appearance in the following Chicago with Three-Consult Necro, and it was legal when Mr. Jon Finkel demolished Nationals 2000 with Napster.

Think about it like this:

What if Mutilate said "Put all of your opponent's animals in a pile. Put that pile in his graveyard. If he is playing green, it is possible that he might draw one card, but not every time, so don't sweat the small stuff, am I right?"?

What if Mind Sludge said "Put your opponent's grip in a pile. Put that pile in his graveyard. If he is playing green, it is possible that he might get one back, but not every time. And what are the chances that that card is going to deal with the Nantuko Shade you have in play? Mise swing am I right?"?

Is Compost good? Yes. In fact, it's excellent. Is it the be-all-and-end-all for Black Control? Hardly.

That being said, the Number One deck from Osaka is also worth a look. The u-g strategy is attractive as a flashback deck, a madness deck, a threshold deck, an Upheaval deck, or as more than one of the above! It's a lot of fun and it makes a lot of enormous men quickly. Again, I'm going to post a block deck; again, you can take out Tarnished Citadel and insert Yavimaya Coast yourself. (Trust me, you don't want me templating your playtest decks for you; my Rebel decks have nine Rebels and my b-r and g-r decks all play Millikin.)

Ken Ho's All Star
Ken Ho

Main DeckSideboard
13 Forest
9 Island
1 Tarnished Citadel
4 Aquamoeba 4 Arrogant Wurm 4 Basking Rootwalla 3 Werebear 4 Wild Mongrel
4 Circular Logic
4 Roar of the Wurm
3 Squirrel Nest
4 Standstill
3 Upheaval
4 Aura Graft
3 Moment's Peace
3 Nantuko Blightcutter
2 Persuasion
3 Still Life

The upsides: It won Lan D. Ho's onetime tag team partner 30,000 bucks.

The downsides: Flametongue Kavu is not in Odyssey block.

3. Decks that actually won something

Much as people try to dismiss monoblack because of Compost, they question the viability of Psychatog purely on the basis of Chainer's Edict. Are decks with four Chainer's Edicts and four Innocent Bloods good against Psychatog decks? Yes. Is Psychatog nevertheless the best mainstream deck in Standard? Also yes.

It's no accident that the San Diego Masters was dominated by Psychatog decks. Psychatog is an incredible control threat card: he's cheap, he's hard to kill, he hits harder than anything. He has a natural synergy with card drawing, and his archetype only gets better when combined with the new cards from Torment.

The deck posted for Pedigree:

Psychatog
Ryan Fuller

Main DeckSideboard
4 Cephalid Coliseum
9 Island
4 Salt Marsh
2 Swamp
4 Underground River
4 Psychatog
4 Counterspell
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Force Spike
1 Gainsay
4 Memory Lapse
4 Peek
4 Predict
3 Repulse
3 Undermine
4 Aether Burst
3 Disrupt
1 Divert
1 Force Spike
1 Gainsay
3 Hibernation
2 Lobotomy
4 Slay

The upsides: Ryan Fuller won tens of thousands of Magical dollars with it so it must be pretty good.

The downsides: Ryan Fuller won tens of thousands of Magical dollars with it.

The deck posted with modifications:

.5x+1Y
Zev Gurwitz

Main DeckSideboard
4 Salt Marsh
12 Island
5 Swamp
4 Underground River
4 Psychatog 4 Nightscape Familiar
4 Counterspell
4 Circular Logic
4 Aether Burst
4 Repulse
4 Standstill
4 Fact or Fiction
3 Upheaval
4 Ghastly Demise
4 Slay
4 Exclude
3 Gainsay

Zev Gurwitz's Wrath-'geddon-Hatred deck is the quiet darling of this year's Neutral Ground Grudge Match tournaments. If you think about the Napster, Replenish, and even Junk decks that have debuted and then gone on to do quite well at Regionals over the past two years with the same origin stories, .5x+1Y is probably a deck worth a look.

The upsides: In the tradition of great black and blue combination decks of the past, .5x+1Y spends setup turns drawing a ton of cards and demolishing the opponent's game position, and then wins with a the tag team of single blue sorcery and single blue permanent. The addition of Nightscape Familiar increases the resistance to non-targeted black spot removal, but like all decks with the general 'Tog strategy, it remains vulnerable overall. .5x+1Y is extremely against the projected field, and makes excellent use of some overlooked spells.

The downsides: Unlike the Fuller deck, .5x+1Y lacks the cheap cantrips that fuel the Psychatog in the early-to-mid game. That makes the 'Tog himself more reliant on hand size when he first shows up, and the deck more reliant on the Upheaval Wrath/Geddon/Hatred combo-kill. Additionally, .5x+1Y plays really non-intuitively against aggressive decks, and will reward only practiced players in those matchups.

4. The Obligatory Deck with White Cards in It

I think there will probably be more Karplusan Forests than plains at Regionals...

One of the challenges of building the Decks to Beat when I did it professionally was to figure out a way to show the broadest color representation possible, even when one or more colors (often green) were underrepresented in competitive archetypes while other colors had multiple viable decks (Deadguy Red and Ponza, Hatred and Necropotence, Accelerated Blue and Magpile, for instance). I think that this both rewards players who do their homework and helps stimulate interest in underused cards and colors even if the underrepresented colors deserved to be underrepresented.

While I think there will probably be more Karplusan Forests than plains at Regionals this year, I still wanted to get a deck with some white cards into the overall gauntlet.

This deck was really successful in the JSS tournaments of the East Coast prior to Torment, and Rob Dougherty was able to pilot it to an excellent finish in the San Diego Masters.

Balancing Tings
Robert Dougherty

Main DeckSideboard
4 Ancient Spring
4 Archaeological Dig
4 Geothermal Crevice
4 Irrigation Ditch
4 Seafloor Debris
2 Sulfur Vent
2 Timberland Ruins
4 Tinder Farm
4 Nimble Mongoose 4 Terravore
4 Balancing Act
4 Chromatic Sphere
3 Fact or Fiction
4 Fire/Ice
3 Obliterate
3 Orim's Chant
3 Syncopate
1 Bearscape
2 Disenchant
2 Dodecapod
1 Mana Short
3 Memory Lapse
1 Mystic Enforcer
1 Orim's Chant
1 Questing Phelddagrif
3 Repulse

B.Tings has a lot of issues. Its mana base is uglier than even that of Frog in a Blender. All of its lands come into play tapped. Every objection to the 'Tog deck due to the presence of Chainer's Edict and Innocent Blood can be repeated for B.Tings, while the deck lacks 'Tog's access to Circular Logic.

And yet, exploding lands coupled with Obliterate totally dominated last year's Regionals... there is no reason to believe the feat cannot be repeated. Jon Sonne of Slay, Pillage, Massacre points out the fact that its spells create the most dramatic swings in tempo and board position of any archetype out there (with the possible exception of .5x+1Y's three Upheavals), and that the archetype was primarily designed and developed by children... Surely a more tuned version is out there; surely white will not be totally frozen out of Regionals 2002.

5. The Decks to Beat, Aggregated

For those of you who skipped ahead, here are a bunch of decks against which you should smash your own choices, that have been chosen for their freshness in the minds of internet readers, success in recent and related formats, actual success, or the fact that they have one or more white spells. The list may not be exhaustive, but you can go back and look at some of the accompanying commentaries (above) for additional thoughts. You may also want to do some templating of your own. Besides obvious changes to optimize Odyssey Block decks like Rob's, there are other thing that you might decide are obvious... For instance, my friend (and Tongo's Counsel) Jonathan Becker insists that players will make the intuitive leap to play Call of the Herd over Yavimaya Barbarian in Frog in a Blender, while I don't know if that's true, or if it makes the deck better overall.

In any case, beat these opponents, and you might just be prepared for a diverse field; fail to beat them, and you should pick the one that seemed to test best and play it yourself!

Hyped on the internet; aggressively so:

Frog in a Blender
Jay Schneider

Main DeckSideboard
4 Karplusan Forest
7 Mountain
6 Forest
4 Barbarian Ring
4 Raging Goblin 4 Grim Lavamancer 4 Basking Rootwalla 4 Yavimaya Barbarian 4 Wild Mongrel
4 Reckless Charge
4 Firebolt
4 Sonic Seizure
4 Fiery Temper
4 Violent Eruption
4 Elvish Lyrist
3 Flametongue Kavu
2 Jade Leech
3 Mages' Contest
2 Engulfing Flames
1 Keldon Necropolis

Slightly less hyped; slightly more controlling:

Aggro Black Deck
Brian Kibler

Main DeckSideboard
16 Swamp
4 Tainted Peak
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Nantuko Shade 4 Mesmeric Fiend 4 Ravenous Rats 4 Phyrexian Rager 4 Braids, Cabal Minion 4 Flametongue Kavu 2 Ichorid 2 Shambling Swarm
4 Duress
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Slay
4 Phyrexian Arena
2 Shambling Swarm
2 Mortivore
2 Persecute
1 Ichorid

Did well at the PT; heavy board control, featuring creatures:

Black Control
Robert Dougherty

Main DeckSideboard
3 Cabal Coffers
25 Swamp
4 Nantuko Shade 2 Shambling Swarm 2 Stalking Bloodsucker
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Diabolic Tutor
1 Haunting Echoes
3 Innocent Blood
4 Mind Sludge
4 Mutilate
4 Rancid Earth
1 Skeletal Scrying
4 Braids, Cabal Minion
4 Faceless Butcher
2 Ghastly Demise
2 Skeletal Scrying
3 Mesmeric Fiend 

Battle-proven in the current environment; control with a combo-kill:

.5x+1Y
Zev Gurwitz

Main DeckSideboard
4 Salt Marsh
12 Island
5 Swamp
4 Underground River
4 Psychatog 4 Nightscape Familiar
4 Counterspell
4 Circular Logic
4 Aether Burst
4 Repulse
4 Standstill
4 Fact or Fiction
3 Upheaval
4 Ghastly Demise
4 Slay
4 Exclude
3 Gainsay

A couple of white cards; nothing but combo:

Balancing Tings
Robert Dougherty

Main DeckSideboard
4 Ancient Spring
4 Archaeological Dig
4 Geothermal Crevice
4 Irrigation Ditch
4 Seafloor Debris
2 Sulfur Vent
2 Timberland Ruins
4 Tinder Farm
4 Nimble Mongoose 4 Terravore
4 Balancing Act
4 Chromatic Sphere
3 Fact or Fiction
4 Fire/Ice
3 Obliterate
3 Orim's Chant
3 Syncopate
1 Bearscape
2 Disenchant
2 Dodecapod
1 Mana Short
3 Memory Lapse
1 Mystic Enforcer
1 Orim's Chant
1 Questing Phelddagrif
3 Repulse


Mike has been a leading voice in the game's strategy for as long as there has been a Magic Internet. He is the former editor of The Magic Dojo and a sometime Pro player. Michael J. Flores: Deckade, is a compilation of Mike's first ten years of strategy and theory (i.e. before he joined magicthegathering.com), and is available at http://www.top8magic.com.



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