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CasualNation #48 – Top Ten Theme Decks of All Time

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Hello, Nation! I was perusing my extensive collection of theme decks the other day, and I realized that this would make a fun Top Ten article. I have a copy of virtually every theme deck ever printed, and I have played them extensively.

What are theme decks? I love buying premade decks and playing them for a quick and ready game. Last week, I played three hours with the Commander decks in a four-way game (in my office). I own all of the duel decks, premium decks, Commander decks, Archenemy decks, and Planechase decks.

Precons (preconstructed decks) were first introduced as theme decks in Tempest. They were used in league play, and you would play a precon in Week 1, and then modify it by adding and subtracting up to fifteen cards (with the extra cards making your sideboard) in subsequent weeks. This meant they had to have enough juice for competitive play. For a while, theme decks were quite interesting and good.

Then I think something changed, and they became ways of marketing the latest set. Here is a deck on Sunburst, and here is one on Affinity, and here is one on another of the latest mechanics. Boring. Ho, hum. Then add predictability to the decks. Here is yet another take on White Weenie, yet another take on Green big creatures, yet another take on a Red aggro/Goblin deck, yet another take on blah, blah, blah.

For many sets, the theme decks became pretty bland (especially in the Mirrodin/Kamigawa/Ravnica years). Finally, when Time Spiral broke out, they became interesting again. While still highlighting new mechanics, they did more interesting things, and I have to give them a strong nod, as they did well.

In Shards of Alara, they ended theme decks and created intro decks. Intro decks were even more into marketing and selling than the theme decks, and thus ended theme decks. Every set from Tempest to Eventide had four theme decks (except two had three, and two had five) and every core set during that time had them as well (they had five, one for each color, and they are notorious for being bad decks).

What I want to do today is to count down the best of the theme decks, from Tempest through Eventide. Which ones really stood out to me? What are my favorites? You can still buy these today—which ones do I recommend?

Honorable Mention #1 – Domain – Planeshift – This Planeshift deck is quite interesting as one of several good theme decks from the block. This one is built around the all-in-one theme of the first two sets, and uses all five colors. It is built around powerful cards, especially the rare Quirion Dryad. It does feature a lot of domain cards, like Allied Strategies, Worldly Counsel, Ordered Migration, and Tribal Flames. In addition, it rocks a variety of interesting cards for the strategy—two of the Charms, Harrow, Stratadon, and more. It has reliable creature-kill (Breath of Darigaaz, Tribal Flames, Exotic Curse). However, it lacks a late-game punch, and should have had in-set Draco as its rare instead of Magnigoth Treefolk. It also lacks the megapowerful Global Ruin that the Invasion five-color deck Spectrum has. Still, it’s a good deck and fun to play. You’ll really enjoy it!

Honorable Mention #2 – Replicator – Nemesis – I really like decks that have a fun game plan. You’ll note how powerful Squadron Hawk is, and playing one creature that gets you three more copies is quite good. In Masques block, Green had this ability as a mini-theme, and Replicator uses that theme to the limit. What could you do with all of those extra copies of creatures? You could discard them to spellshapers. We had five different spellshapers, including removal (Plague Witch) and pump (Stampede Driver, Deepwood Drummer, Cackling Witch). You could also discard these extra copies to something like Saproling Cluster. And that’s not all, because you have serious beats—four copies of Blastoderm, a Hunted Wumpus, a Squallmonger, and Saproling Burst. It’s a very creature-heavy deck. Then add a smattering of extra cards (Seal of Doom, Invigorate, Flowstone Armor). You have your deck. It’s a fun little synergetic deck, but it lacks serious, late-game punch. It also lacks a consistent vision—why is Blastoderm a four-of? Saproling Cluster may be super-lame as a rare, but at least it is on-theme. What does Saproling Burst add? I think Volrath the Fallen would have been a better choice from the set, as it would grant another outlet to discard the extra creature cards acquired from Howling Wolf and its pals.

Honorable Mention #3 – Dominator – Exodus – This is the best pure control deck in the theme deck arsenal. There are certainly a lot of control decks out there over the years, but this one is tops. Let’s take a look under the hood. Allow me to give you the full deck list:

[cardlist]

[Creatures]

1 Dominating Licid

2 Cloud Spirit

2 Killer Whale

2 Mirozel

2 Wayward Soul

4 Thalakos Scout

[/Creatures]

[Spells]

2 Capsize

2 Forbid

2 Mind Games

3 Mana Leak

4 Counterspell

1 Time Ebb

2 Fade Away

1 Equilibrium

1 Legacy's Allure

1 Propaganda

1 Treasure Trove

1 Erratic Portal

[/Spells]

[Lands]

26 Island

[/Lands]

[/cardlist]

I hope you can see its sheer power. Just look at the countermagic, for example—four Counterspell, three Mana Leak, and two Forbid. There are no counters that are rough on the mana, like Spell Blast. If you need to counter something, then you will.

This is a more creature-oriented control deck, but the creatures chosen are good. Wayward Soul is the best common creature from this block for a Blue control deck. Cloud Spirit works decently as a clock, Thalakos Scout is vital Shadow defense (which you needed then) or an unblockable attacker, based on who you are playing against. Mirozel is a bit underwhelming, but Killer Whale will do yeoman’s work. Dominating Licid is perfectly playable as a way to steal creatures. All of the Licids are good on defense, because they can block, then become an enchantment. Fun stuff! If you want to steal more creatures, look no further than Legacy's Allure.

Tempo elements are often awkward in a card-sensitive deck like this. Having Buyback on them really helps you lock someone down. With two each of Capsize and Mind Games, feel free to lock down creatures and permanents. Time Ebb isn’t great, but it works, so use it aggressively. Equilibrium and Erratic Portal add to your tempo elements. Erratic Portal can be used to bounce one of your own creatures in response to removal or after blocking. It’s quite powerful. When adding these tempo elements to Propaganda and Fade Away, well, you’ve got something.

What you are missing is card advantage. While the cards are fairly well chosen, the lack of card advantage is staggering. You don’t have small card advantage, like Dismiss, or raw card advantage, except for a single copy of Treasure Trove. You have to protect the Trove more than anything else if you want to win. Now, let’s start kicking about the top ten.

10. Kjeldoran Cunning – Coldsnap – With so many aggro decks in various colors over the years, this is the one that stands up and makes me take notice. What makes this deck work? Well, it’s a U/W deck with a Soldier theme and lords. Both of its rares are Soldier-enablers (Field Marshal and Darien, King of Kjeldor). It also has cards that are on-theme for a Soldier deck and display mechanics from Coldsnap (such as a quartet of Surging Sentinels and their Ripple ability). Everybody knows how good Jotun Grunts are, right? We’ve got one. After your expected body of dudes, we also have two Zuran Spellcaster to give you a Tim. Now, that’s not something you see in your everyday Soldier deck, right? The deck uses Blue for a trio of Brainstorms, a duet of Portents, Binding Grasp, and more fun cards. Then add in the obligatory Swords to Plowshares, and you have a very interesting take on your normal aggro deck.

9. Endless March – Planar Chaos – I’m a bit disappointed that this doesn’t hit higher, but I can’t force it. This is the theme deck built after my own heart. I was surprised by how similar it played to one of my iconic decks of all time—Equinaut. Remind me that I need to write an update of that deck soon. Anyway, the deck is built around gating creatures, which bounce a creature of your own when they are played. Whitemane Lion, Dusty (Dust Elemental), Stonecloaker, and Stormfront Riders all put in an appearance. Playing one will bounce another of your guys. This deck has a lot of ways to use that bounce. The best way is to replay creatures with an enters-the-battlefield trigger, such as Avalanche Riders or Mogg War Marshal. Another way is to bounce a creature back before it leaves play due to vanishing counters. The classic card Calciderm is a good example. Play it and swing, and then reload when it is about to fade out and give it another go. Icatian Javelineers come into play with one counter, so tap them to use it, and then bounce and replay to get another one. After that, you have a smattering of control (Errant Doomsayers) and more (Jhoira's Timebug). The deck lacks focus, with some things not on-theme taking away from the theme (such as Brute Force, which would have been better as Stingscourger). It also lacks power in the ETB creatures chosen, and could have had a better slate of creatures. However, the sheer fun of bouncing and rebouncing for a variety of effects is whiplash-licking-good.

8. Trounce-o-matic – Odyssey – This is the highest-charting deck that I would truly call “aggro.” It is built around the most powerful cards from Odyssey, and the best mechanics—Flashback and Threshold. If you played in this era, you know just how ubiquitous U/G Madness was after the release of Torment. This deck heralds that power with a U/G Threshold theme. Let’s take a looksee:

The reason this deck hits at #8 and not higher is the lack of consistency in the good cards. Just one Roar of the Wurm? Just two Wild Mongrel? Just two Careful Study? However, the combination of the Flashback and Threshold elements with the right discard elements creates a powerful deck, and the most powerful aggro deck in Theme Deck Land. It’s also good in the early game and after it develops. You have to be careful.

You have early drops that grow big, like Werebear and Nimble Mongoose. You see midrange creatures that jump in size and threat level, such as Springing Tiger and Metamorphic Wurm. You also discover ways to put cards in the graveyard to activate Threshold, such as Cephalid Looter, Diligent Farmhand, Twigwalker, and the aforementioned Careful Study. Cheap spells such as Peek and Predict will fill the graveyard and replace themselves.

What the deck lacks, in addition to consistency of the power cards, is a rare that makes sense besides Stone-Tongue Basilisk. The rares are often the most powerful card in the deck, and this misses with one badly. Why is Ivy Elemental in this deck? It doesn’t make sense or meet the theme. This isn’t a mana-ramp deck at all. This clearly should have been Krosan Beast. It’s still one of the best decks of all time, and the best aggro deck, because you have money cards like Werebear and Wild Mongrel alongside Roar of the Wurm. However, it fails to reach the potential that decks higher on this list will nail.

7. Groundbreaker – Exodus – This is a precon that would never be made today. No one would ever come close to greenlighting it for any set, for any occasion, or for any holiday. This is a theme deck built around one of the oldest themes in Magic history, and yet the least favorite of the current crop of R&D. The current group appears to be embarrassed by this theme, and tries to hide it. During this age, they were not so squeamish, and this deck is a powerful note to demonstrate that fact. We’ve got to look at this deck list too:

Yes, that’s right, it’s a land-destruction theme deck. It’s the only one. A full set of Stone Rain, three each of Rain of Tears and Flowstone Flood with a pair of Aftershock as emergency LD. Then add three Anarchists to bring those back and play them again. Ouch! They certainly were not afraid of destroying lands. I’m surprised that it’s missing Ancient Tomb or perhaps even City of Traitors as a rare. It does have two junk rares that make no sense for the deck. Erratic Portal would have made total sense, but it’s in another deck. I think Volrath's Dungeon should have been pulled for Ravenous Baboons, which actually is on-theme. Then I would have yanked out Thopter Squadron for Sphere of Resistance. That would have worked well here.

The rest of the deck is creatures and removal, which is what you would expect of Black and Red working in tandem. Want to kill creatures? Aftershock will work for that too, and you can call on Evincar's Justice, Nausea, a trio of Diabolic Edict, a trio of Shock, and Searing Touch. Any creature that will is played past your LD will be small, and thus will die to things like Shock and Evincar's Justice.

After that, you have a smattering of poor creatures. Dauthi Jackal and Dauthi Slayer give you a game on the Shadow front. Vampire Hounds makes no sense with a small creature base, but they don’t suck. I guess you could pull off Thopter tokens for them. Thrull Surgeon is solid. Scalding Salamander is odd. You don’t need the best creatures ever, just something that can attack and kill players.

I hope you can see why this deck is worthy of its spot on our countdown. It really is something special.

6. Barrage – Planeshift – The highest-charting precon not from the first two blocks or Time Spiral block is Barrage. I originally had this at #5, because it added to the diversity of blocks in my top five, but I really couldn’t justify it over the one that made it, so I had to drop it one. It’s still the sixth-best theme deck of all time, and that’s no slouch. What makes this deck so good? It’s a rg deck of wonder and magic. It is built around the powerful allied combos from Planeshift, such as Thornscape Familiar and Thunderscape Familiar. It has a copy of Fires of Yavimaya, and you want it to have four. That’s one of the best cards of the era. Add to that two Flametongue Kavu, a Thunderscape Battlemage, a pair of Sparkcasters, and useful cards from Assault // Battery to Serpentine Kavu. Every deck has some chump creatures, and this is no different, with cards like Kavu Recluse getting the nod. What keeps it from the top five is that, despite the presence of major power cards like FTK and Fires, it has the worst group of rares in any deck in today’s list. Mogg Sentry? Gaea's Herald? Those are a pair of wimps. Where is Shivan Wurm? It would have made total sense here. I grant that there is not an obvious other choice, but Tahngarth, Talruum Hero looks a lot better than Mogg Sentry for this aggro/control deck. It’s a lot of fun to play, and I know you’ll enjoy it.

5. Migraine – Stronghold – This is the third deck from Rath block to make our list. It will not be the last. Migraine is one of the most synergetic decks ever (that is not built around Slivers). It’s a discard deck, with Bottomless Pit as its banner card. It has two of them, plus discard like Mindwarper, Coercion, Dauthi Mindripper, and Mind Peel. Along with the discard, it rocks three copies of one of the most popular enchantments in multiplayer history—Megrim. In addition, it has Ensnaring Bridge to disable large creatures from attacking. With a full set of Pit Imps, it can swing with the 0/1 flyer, and then pump it later, thus getting past the Bridge even if you have no cards in your grip. The other creature are small, and easily able to swing—Foul Imp, Dauthi Horror, and Rabid Rats. Then you add a lot of removal, since you are already in Black. Dark Banishing, Diabolic Edict, and Death Stroke are running around. You also have the interesting Hornet Cannon, which is cool, but I’m not sure why it’s in this deck, and the very underrated and nifty Portcullis. Despite my professed love of Portcullis, it doesn’t match the theme very well. There really aren’t a lot of good choices for the third rare, but I would have gone Volrath's Stronghold to allow you to draw creatures once you have none when under a Bottomless Pit. This is a deck that works really well together, although not nearly to the degree that the top four do, so it falls just inside of the top half of our list.

4. Rituals of Rebirth – Planar Chaos – The top four will each have their deck lists posted, because they are all of such high quality. This is a great look at something you don’t see often in the theme decks—reanimation.

This is actually a great deck with a ton of built-in synergies. If you’ll recall, I mentioned earlier that most theme decks have some chump creatures that just add to your density of creatures and attack, block, and so forth. Here, there are no chump creatures—each one does something quite useful. Let’s take a look.

What creature looks like the most random inclusion? Icatian Crier? It’s a spellshaper that discards a card for two token creatures. Surely we could get a better discard outlet, right? Actually, no. Take a look at Dread Return, which we have three of. What is its Flashback cost? Sacrifice three creatures, which is exactly one activation of Icatian Crier plus the Crier itself. If you discard a Dread Return, you can immediately play it, and if you discard a big beater, you can get it out forthwith. That’s a lot more synergy than initially appears.

Fa'adiyah Seer draws land and puts other cards in the graveyard for Flashback and reanimation purposes; Greenseeker gets you land and important things in the graveyard; Wall of Roots will block early stuff, accelerate your mana, and sacrifice to a Dread Return later; Evolution Charm can accelerate your mana or act as a Raise Dead at instant speed or even jump a beater into the air for some damage; Twisted Abomination cycles for later recursion while getting you a Swamp; and so forth. Everything works very well together, and you have a fun deck as a result.

What does not work is the lack of good beaters. Havenwood Wurm, Bog Serpent, Jedit Ojanen of Efrava, and Phantasmagorian aren’t exactly the scariest creatures to reanimate. Teneb is great, but the others are a bit lackluster. Ideally, this deck would have included the in-color and time-shifted Akroma, Angel of Fury or perhaps the in-set but not in-color Akroma, Angel of Wrath. That would have made it too good. There really weren’t a lot of good choices for the in-set rares, and Jedit is about as good as you could do, but the other ones could have been upgraded a bit. Still, this is one of the best precons of all time, and I adore it.

3. Unraveling Mind – Planar Chaos – This is a strong deck from beginning to end, and the result is the top-three deck of all time. Yes, this means we have three decks from Planar Chaos in the top ten, but they really are this good. Don’t believe me? Let’s see!

This is a deck built around the Madness cards from Planar Chaos and Time Spiral. The Madness cards were predominantly in Black, so this deck is Black and Red in order to get cards like Reckless Wurm and Fiery Temper into the deck.

Unraveling Mind is easily one of the smoothest-playing theme decks you’ll find. With a large number of Madness cards and discard triggers, the deck is constantly playing creatures and spells off a discard. Let’s start with the discard triggers. Mindlash Sliver is brilliant here, as it forces opponents to discard while also forcing you to as well—many happy Madness possibilities ensue. You have spellshapers like Undertaker and Ridged Kusite. Both are solid, but the Kusite is a bit overclassed. You also have the megapowerful card in your deck—Phantasmagorian. In some ways, it’s the strongest card you have. I regularly get two Madness triggers off returning it from my graveyard to my hand, and three Madness triggers happens on occasion. Once you’ve played the deck a few times, people will learn to fear the Phantasmagorian. Don’t forget things like Lightning Axe and Trespasser il-Vec.

Then you have a host of Madness cards, especially creatures. It’s great to drop Gorgon Recluse in front of an attacker to kill it. You’ll adore things like Reckless Wurm and even Muck Drubb as a 3/3 body for 3 mana off a Madness trigger. Big Game Hunter is super-awesome here. The only Madness card I don’t like is Nightshade Assassin, because this deck wants you to play your stuff and it wants you to hold stuff, so there is an uneven tension there.

While this deck is unique among theme decks, and plays well, its card selection can often piss you off. Why it has random cards like Treacherous Urge and Kor Dirge instead of on- theme cards like more Fiery Tempers and Dark Witherings is beyond me. Its rares are also the least thematic rares I’ve seen in a long time. To be fair, there’s aren’t a lot of options, and they did about as good as they could, without putting in Damnation, so overall, not a bad choice. The last two decks don’t have these sour notes, and thus Unraveling Mind, despite being super-great, just can’t get higher than #3.

2. The Plague – Urza’s Saga – Some of the best theme decks are those built around a card that is not rare, or uncommon, but common. Since these decks have a limited number of cards with the higher rarities in theme, having a deck that is built around a common can be quite powerful. During Urza’s Saga block, the single most powerful common, the common that defined the Limited environment, was Pestilence. Let’s look at a deck built around this powerful card:

As you can see, this is basically one of the most powerful theme decks ever built. It will kick the pants off later, more competitive decks (such as the Duel Decks). It plays like a deck designed to win at Friday Night Magic. Four Pestilences is both nasty and consistent. Then add a lot of cards designed to work very well with them, and you have a potent deck.

It’s hard for decks from the first set to compare with later decks from a block, because they have a smaller number of cards to choose from, but that doesn’t stop The Plague from being a top-three deck.

What cards would you want most in a Pestilence deck? The first thing you’d want is protection from Black creatures, right? Well, we have a trio each of Voice of Grace and Disciple of Grace. That gives you creatures that are immune to the Pestilence. Next, I’d want creatures with really high defense that cannot be taken out easily. See things like Wall of Junk, Sanctum Guardian, and Opal Acrolith. In fact, if the Acrolith is about to die, you can just turn it back to an enchantment and ignore any further Pestilence damage for the turn. Nice! Then we have regenerating Unworthy Deads. That’s a slate of creatures that works perfectly with the setup.

What about other cards? We have Rune of Protection: Black to keep you from taking damage from the Pestilence. Meanwhile, Urza's Armor will prevent Pestilence damage to you as well, without using any extra mana to activate it. Pariah will redirect the damage back to a protection-from-Black creature. That’s a great rare.

But let’s not forget your ace in the hole—Worship. With that, a Pestilence, and a creature that doesn’t die to Pestilence easily, you can just keep using it over and over, and staying at 1 life due to Worship. Meanwhile, opposing players and creatures will bite it.

Let’s not forget that not only does Black have removal (Befoul, Corrupt, Sicken, Expunge) but White does as well (Disenchant, Humble). Humble is perfect in this deck, because you can Pestilence any creature Humble can target, including those with an ability that would normally keep them alive (such as protection).

This is a deck that is so tightly packed with awesome that is has virtually no false notes. Both rares are mega-good in the deck, the creature base is hot, and the removal is amazing. The only cards that stick out to me are Flesh Reaver and Silent Attendant. Why you have a tapper that gives you a life, I’ll never know. The Flesh Reaver isn’t superhot here, but at least its disadvantage can be tempered by something like Rune: Black or Pariah.

1. The Sparkler – Stronghold – I just don’t see how anyone who has ever played The Sparkler can rate another theme deck higher. The Sparkler makes you a better Magic player. Winning with it takes skill. This is not a theme deck you pick up and can play easily. Without understanding the nuances of the deck, you will lose. It teaches you a lot about what makes a good deck. Interested?

What you will notice immediately is the profound lack of creatures. The Sparkler has just three creatures. Since two are walls and the third is a humble 1/1, you cannot win with creatures. Also note that you lack the Legacy's Allure card that could have been played for this deck—you can’t even rely on stealing creatures as a crutch. You will sink or swim all by yourself.

How does this deck win? It wins in one of three ways:

  1. Getting lucky with a Reins of Power
  2. Burning your opponent randomly with Shock or Lightning Blast
  3. Using Buyback burn (Fanning the Flames and Searing Touch) over time to kill your enemy

Let me reiterate how much burn you have in your deck:

You don’t have a player’s set of Kindles, and full slates of Lightning Blast to reliably win with burn. You must budget your Buyback burn, because it is the only way you can reliably win. The first two routes to victory are random—this is not.

You are playing a deck with three creatures, no mass removal, and only nine burn spells, if you are generous and count Mogg Fanatic as a burn ”spell.” How do you win?

You win through tempo and patience. You win by finding and protecting Propaganda, walls, and more. You Evacuation to give yourself several turns without having to worry about creatures attacking you. You win by using Mind Games and Intruder Alarm to lock down your opponent’s creatures. You win by buying back Capsize over and over again to bounce any threats. You win by playing Reins of Power, attacking with everything they have, which will tap your opponent’s creatures and lock them down under an Intruder Alarm. You win by countering anything that will cause you to lose. Quite frankly, you win by being desperate, the whole time. Every game is a struggle, and every time you play, it feels like you are drowning behind creatures and life loss, until you manage to stabilize at 3 life and win the game.

If you were to ask me what my favorite deck is ever made by Wizards of the Coast, including Duel Decks, gift decks (like Beatdown or Battle Royale), intro decks, event decks, Archenemy, whatever—my favorite deck, of all time, is this one. Nothing else makes you play the whole game on the edge of your seat, and nothing else is more lethal in a good player’s hands. This is the hardest deck to win with, and also the most rewarding. I am happy to give it another day in the sun.

Hope you enjoyed today’s article, as well as looking at the actual deck lists of some of these bad boys. There is always a place in your Magic night for playing with a preconstructed deck. Why not grab a few new ones for the next time you shuffle and play? In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed today’s look through my favorite theme decks of all time.

See you next week,

Abe Sargent

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