Last week I did one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life, and it wasn't even Magic related: I was filmed for TableTop, a popular YouTube show hosted by Wil Wheaton. Being on the show was a great experience and definitely on my list of top 5 most fun things I've done, and I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do something like this if it wasn't for Magic.
The whole experience got me thinking about how far I've come as a Magic player and this week I'm going to talk about the best five decks I've ever played. These decks may not be the strongest decks, but each of these decks taught me a valuable lesson that I was able to use to improve as a player.
5. Black-White Tokens, Modern
I was pretty lost during the early stages of Modern's existence and had no clue what to play. I had some success with Affinity during Modern's first few months, but once players knew what was going on it got severely hated out. I tried out a bunch of decks but nothing felt strong and I was getting discouraged. I was even thinking about canceling my trip to Grand Prix Toronto in 2012.
I was given Black-White Tokens from a Boston friend and he swore by it, so I trusted him and took it to Toronto. To my surprise, the deck was great. The deck was my style, had interesting lines, and was good against Jund, Modern's Public Enemy Number 1. The most important cards in the deck were the Thoughtseizes and Tidehollow Scullers, as they allowed me to see my opponent's hand and told me exactly how to play my mine. Windbrisk Heights also gave the deck some incredible game, and not just because of the free card. Windbrisk Heights made opponents play so much differently. They would do anything they could just to prevent me from activating it! It's pretty crazy to see opponents Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile a single Spirit Token just to prevent me from activating a Heights.
Unfortunately Black-White Tokens became obsolete once Birthing Pod became a dominant deck in the metagame, so I stopped playing it. It also couldn't beat Tron ever, so the deck kind of sat on the bench for a while. With Pod being gone from Modern and Tron losing Eye of Ugin, maybe it's time to dust off Black-White Tokens again.
4. Faeries, Lorwyn Block Constructed, 2008
In 2008 I played Faeries in pretty much every low-level tournament I could and was doing really well with it. I felt like I knew the deck inside and out and it was the strongest deck in Standard, so I didn't see a reason not to play it.
When I found myself qualified for Pro Tour Hollywood, which was Standard, I knew I wanted to play Faeries. I worked on my list for weeks and was more than happy to register Faeries for the Pro Tour. However, the Pro Tour did not go well. Everyone was prepared for Faeries and I got crushed on Day 1. Usually when I scrub out of Pro Tours I try to take advantage of the city I'm in and do some sightseeing or some other fun, non-Magic activity, but after this event I was not at all satisfied with how I played and I went back to my hotel room and worked on my Faeries deck for the Block Constructed PTQ the next day.
Aside: Up until about five or six years ago, Pro Tours were gigantic, Grand Prix-level events with lots of side events and things to do for players who weren't qualified. There were no less than four Pro Tour Qualifierss during the weekend—the Last Chance Qualifier for the Pro Tour on Thursday night, and one each day—and dozens of competitive events with great prizes. Pro Tours were always a great time and I always tried to attend even when I wasn't qualified. These days Pro Tours are more exclusive and while they are open to the public now, you won't see any side events there, let alone PTQs.
The PTQ I played in was the very first of the season, and I did pretty well in the nine-round event. While I didn't win the tournament, I learned a lot throughout the day. The most important thing I learned was how to adjust a deck to a predicted metagame. As I played throughout the day, I was able to flesh out the format and after the nine rounds were over, I knew the exact seventy-five cards I wanted to play for the PTQ in Boston the next week.
I won that PTQ without dropping a match.
3. Mono-Red Aggro, Magic 2015 Standard
I hate Mono Red. I remember years ago as an inexperienced player thinking that Mono Red was the "easy" deck and a way to get lots of free wins. Boy was I wrong. Mono-Red was one of the most frustrating decks for me to ever play. I had absolutely no control over anything. There were so few lines of play and I was pretty much committed to attacking every turn no matter what. If I ever drew more than five lands in a game I wouldn't have enough raw power to win.
During my testing week for Pro Tour Magic 2015, my team (Team Revolution, a great team that was sadly disbanded after some of us left to go our separate ways), included Brad Nelson. Brad Nelson had an incredibly strong Mono-Red Aggro deck that was built to exploit the newest red cards from Magic 2015: Goblin Rabblemaster and Stoke the Flames.
I was skeptical due to my hatred for Mono-Red, but I kept getting crushed by it with everything I played. After doing a ton of losing, I realized a few things about the format, specifically that the manabases were bad. What I mean is that aggro decks had to play painlands and Mana Confluence to support their two-color manabase, and midrange and control decks had to play scrylands, making them pretty slow. This gave a deck like Mono Red a huge advantage. It never had to take damage from its lands, nothing ever came into play tapped, and everything could be played on curve.
I ended up taking the deck to the Pro Tour and I did really well with it, and I even beat aggro players who took too much damage from their lands and control players who were wasting time with their slow scrylands. I will never underestimate the importance of basic lands and the strength of mono-colored aggro decks again.
2. Caw-Blade, New Phyrexia Standard
Caw-Blade was probably the strongest Standard deck ever, outside of Affinity during Darksteel and combo decks during Urza's Saga. The deck was literally broken and it wasn't long before two cards from the deck, Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, were banned.
Before the bannings took place we had to play something, and my weapon of choice was Caw-Blade. During this time I wasn't qualified for any Pro Tours so I was pretty much only playing in events like PTQs, IQs and other equivalent events. Since every player in the entire world was on Caw-Blade, I had no choice but to learn the intricacies of the mirror match.
The Caw-Blade mirror match was really interesting to me and I enjoyed playing it. If you were on the play, you could resolve a Stoneforge Mystic before your opponent had Mana Leak up, but if you were on the draw, you didn't want to risk a turn-two Mystic into your opponent's untapped mana. Then there was an entire minigame that was Jace the Mind Sculptor. When do you play it? Do you fateseal or Brainstorm? During this era I learned the answer to all of these questions by playing a ton of mirrors.
The most interesting story I have about Caw-Blade is when I took the deck to a local IQ. The tournament was six rounds plus Top 8, and I faced Caw-Blade in every single round, all the way up to the finals. It was kind of surreal to play against the same deck round after round. Even the matches where I intentionally drew into the Top 8 were against Caw-Blade. After that event it didn't surprise me to see the deck get banned out of Standard.
1. Wolf Run Bant, Gatecrash Standard
While Wolf Run Bant wasn't the strongest deck I've ever played (that was probably Caw-Blade), this was the deck that took me into my deepest run at a Pro Tour and got me into the Top 8. This deck taught me a lot of things about how to prepare for constructed events and how to metagame.
During our testing for Pro Tour Gatecrash, we knew we wanted to beat what we thought was going to be the most popular decks, aggro decks like Gruul and Naya Blitz, and U/W/R Boros Reckoner Midrange (not "Jeskai" as that term didn't exist yet). After spending a week figuring things out we settled on playing Wolf-Run Bant, a Bant control deck that splashed red for Kessig Wolf Run.
The deck was amazing at beating the decks we wanted to beat but its biggest weakness was that it couldn't beat Esper. I'm not saying that the matchup was unfavorable. It was downright unwinnable. It was a little risky to go to the Pro Tour with a deck that had an unwinnable matchup, but we thought that Esper was not really the best choice for this particular Pro Tour due to how good Gruul Aggro was against it. We took our chances and played Wolf Run Bant.
It ended up being a great choice because we predicted the metagame correctly! I got paired against the decks I wanted to play against and only lost twice, one of those was to one match against Esper.
A few weeks later I took Wolf-Run Bant to a local 5k and got destroyed. Players definitely adapted after the Pro Tour but the real reason why I did poorly was because that deck was built for one tournament, the Pro Tour. We expected a very specific metagame and once that tournament was over, the metagame shifted. Esper was more prominent and midrange decks with Liliana of the Veil became popular, and Wolf Run Bant couldn't compete with them.
I learned something valuable about Standard during that time: It's always shifting and evolving. Standard is the fastest changing format in Magic and it's never a good idea to play the same exact deck week after week. Another great example of how Standard shifts came from Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. The players predicted a very specific metagame of Bant Company and White Humans, or more specifically a room full of white creatures. The Black-Green Seasons Past deck Jon Finkel played was a great choice for that tournament. However after the tournament ended it was no longer a strong deck. It was built for that tournament only and became weaker soon after.
This is much different from Modern or Legacy where you actually can play the same deck week after week. The format evolves much slower and while you can change cards in your Delver of Secrets or Infect decks, they are still the same decks that do the same thing.
Magic is a game that you can never truly solve. There is so much to learn about this game and each of these decks that I played taught me a lesson about the game that made me a stronger player. I hope that despite this article having zero decklists, it was fun and insightful to you and you learned something from it. If you enjoyed this style of article please let me know in the comments! Next week we'll be back to Standard brews.
As always thanks for reading!
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