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The Limit of Almost Every Deck


Sweet, sweet audio version:

If you've only been playing Magic in the last couple of years - in the era of Magic: The Gathering - Arena - the concept of deck authorship might seem odd, or maybe quaint, to you. Today, archetype decks become homogeneous over a relatively short period of time. Maybe - MAYBE - someone has a new or novel way of reducing the opponent to zero life points; but for the most part we see big ideas largely dictated by puppet strings back in Renton, WA; manifesting into near-perfect icons via millions and millions of impacts and online adjustments.

But in Magic's earlier years, we had these things called deck designers; and especially for big events like a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix, part of the fun was seeing what this deck genius or that had produced in service to, or (more likely) unsung collaboration with, his [super] team.

As one of the people who, in his best moments, put together a statement list or two in his time, the greatest compliment I could give to another Magic creator was, "I wish I had made that."

In very recent months, my fellow CoolStuffInc associate CovertGoBlue has ticked off that particular box with his Blood Money engine. Did he "invent" it out of the aether? No idea; but he brought it to me, and catalyzed countless hours of deep thought and Arena gold by pairing Eyetwitch and Shambling Ghast with Deadly Dispute while others flew over with their Goldspan Dragons.

But if you really - really - want to get a gander at some deck design envy, look no further than Reid Duke's Golgari-Twisted Bant Control from the 2012 Grand Prix circuit:

How did this deck work?

Well, it was a Bant Control deck; not so different from our Bant Control decks today. It had Supreme Verdict as its top of the line Wrath of God variant at four; and could fill in the holes with Dissipate countering target spell... Permanently. Like most Control decks over time, it needed to get ahead on cards. To do this it had the 2012 Siphon Insight Version 1.0: Think Twice and all four copies of Sphinx's Revelation. This deck had an extraordinarily powerful life gain sub-theme... Sphinx's Revelation was best in class at two different things... And, of course, was paired with both Thragtusk and Elixir of Immortality.

Though it didn't go all that deep on the combo, Reid could certainly pair his Thragtusk with Restoration Angel for an overwhelming number of defensive triggers... And blockers. By the very nature of Elixir of Immortality, this deck could go the longest of any deck. Even though Thragtusk was both self-contained and resilient, it might not be realistic to think that a four-pack with a little Angel action would always be able to carry Reid to victory through The Red Zone. Doubtless, he simply exhausted many opponents like the truly heartless Nexus of Fate people who got that card banned in Best of One.

Hold on... That's how A Bant Control deck worked. It's not what made this deck such the subject of envy.

Overgrown Tomb

Reid credited his incomparable friends Andrew Cuneo and Sam Black with this deck's especial tuning. Farseek was probably the singular card that most pushed players from Azorius into Bant. Reid, Cuneo, and Sam realized that if they were already playing with Farseek, the cost of a single Overgrown Tomb was very, very low. Not nothing. Not "zero" ... But in a deck with 4 Thragtusk, 4 Sphinx's Revelation, and an infinitely replayable singleton Elixir of Immortality, they could justify two life... Sometimes.

The single Overgrown Tomb allowed their team to play a single Nephalia Drownyard. This is a card that took up a land - a LAND - slot, entered the battlefield untapped... And made every potential Control mirror inevitable. They basically had an un-counter-able way to win. They would eventually find it. Even if the opponent somehow countered all four Farseeks, they would eventually be able to activate it. And in a Control mirror poised to go very, very long; where Sphinx's Revelations were sure to be flying; where opposing Elixirs were uncertain to even be present... just one activation might be enough.

... Not that they were planning for just the one.

There have been other Control decks. There have been other four-color Control decks. But in my twenty-eight years of Magic strategy and analysis, I don't think I've ever seen another deck that so perfectly encompassed...

The Limit of Almost Every Deck

The Limit of Almost Every Deck is set, simply, by what it can get out of its mana base. Think about how we name decks.

"Mono-Black Control"

"Bant Control"

"Dimir Zombies"

... Most of the time we talk color first, and functionality second.

Color is not the only thing. Our mana bases create The Limit of Almost Every Deck in more than one way. Imagine a Legacy Belcher deck.

For Reference:

Belcher decks play an extraordinarily low number of lands; maybe one Taiga. They might play lots of proxies for lands (like Land Grant), and one-shot sources of explosive mana (like Tinder Wall), but kind of the whole point is that any other hand of seven (or eight) cards is going to produce a kill as long as any one of them is a hitter. This is also a cool feature of the Belcher deck. They are the definition of All-In... But if an opposing Force of Will player doesn't actually kill them, they're always just a couple of topdecks away from a mob of angry Goblin tokens.

Or think about one of my other deck designer-envy subjects: Tsuyoshi Fujita's Boros:

The mana base of this trendsetter says a lot about not just the deck's capabilities but also the world around it. The Reid-Sam-Cuneo collective told you about the world it lived in also. It told you that even though it needed sweepers and was okay with dipping into creatures to block, that was a deck that expected to be able to play a very, very long game if it wanted to. Fujita's deck was so lean.

It had twenty-one lands, sure... but not really. Fujita basically invented fetchland-Shock land mana in Los Angeles. His contemporaries were literally trying to get nine lands in play with a tenth on deck so that they could Upheaval and Psychatog with an Island open all in one turn. Even if color were not a factor, this is not something Tsuyoshi could easily aspire to: Only eleven of his twenty-one even tapped for mana. He invented being aces on colors... But had a built-in limit on mana volume.

The Limit of Almost Every Deck in 2022

So besides being a short survey of my personal design envy... What makes The Limit of Almost Every Deck topical in January of 2022? Check out this masterpiece:

RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT absolutely hit it out of the park with this deck.

On the surface, this is a "standard"-esque Standard White Weenie... splashing for Halana and Alena, Partners. Is it good to splash for Halana and Alena, Partners? I have no idea. To even get to that question we have to absorb the original statement.

This is a Standard White Weenie splashing for Halana and Alena, Partners.

White Weenie is... Well... White. And it's not just minor-league White. It demands White on turn one for cards like Chaplain of Alms // Chapel Shieldgeist or Portable Hole. It's relatively White-intensive with the WW on Adeline and rewards tonnage of White by kicking Intrepid Adversary over and over. White Weenie decks tend to play Snow-covered Plains for reasons we'll get into in a moment... But color-wise? Not only White but intensively White.

Halana and Alena, Partners is a complicated splash; or would be for most formats. It's two colors, You can't get away with just a single Black pip (like Reid's Overgrown Tomb) or one fetchland break, turning an ostensibly Green Windswept Heath into the Red of a Sacred Foundry, like Tsuyoshi did. That's not just complicated. It's ambitious. It's not just ambitious... It should be costly, right?

In some mana universes past, if you wanted to do this, you might play a Gruul Signet or Gruul Turf. While that might make sure you'd have both your splash colors in your otherwise Mono-White deck, that isn't exactly an elegant solution. All you've done is made your beatdown into a combo deck. Where the combo is a 2/3 Reach. Beyond not being elegant... It's also kind of expensive. You have to dedicate distinct lands (or Signets) that can't help you make Luminarch Aspirant on turn two.

But we already agreed RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT knocked it out of the effing park on this one. What's different?

Note we're highlighting Pillarverge Pathway, rather than the front-side, more traditional, and generally preferred Needleverge Pathway for emphasis.

In terms of mana, RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT paid almost nothing for the Gruul splash. Not nothing... But almost nothing. Overgrown Farmland and Sundown Pass are indeed slower "Plains" on the first two turns... But they won't hurt the deck at all in many games. In others, Branchloft Pathway or Pillarverge Pathway will just be Plains, effectively (to go along with the two actual basic Plains in this list). They'll show up for Green or Red on demand, and only when needed.

This is much different than splash decks of younger eras that had access to lots of duals. We're not talking about a Brushland or a Battlefield Forge here... RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT will literally not take damage to cast Chaplain of Alms // Chapel Shieldgeist on turn one; ever.

In many ways, this mana base driving this ostensibly complicated splash is a love letter to deck design. And like so many such communiques, love is entangled with humor. The splash is tongue-in-cheek as it is cheap. I'd argue that - beyond Overgrown Farmland and Sundown Pass - the net cost is exactly one Rockfall Vale. And RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT got to play some extra powerful cards like Snakeskin Veil that no one will ever see coming or Showdown of the Skalds or amazing, situational, sideboard stuff like Angelfire Ignition.

"You had me for a second, MichaelJ," I hear some of you snapping back. "But this deck plays more non-White than one Rockfall Vale. What about those other four Pathways?"

That would be a great call out! EXCEPT, they are not a net cost. You see, most white mana bases play four copies of Faceless Haven. This deck - already not Snow-Covered - can't support Faceless Haven. Faceless Haven makes colorless; and in this deck, the Red or Green from Cragcrown Pathway are no worse (and of course, contextually, far better). You can make the argument that no Faceless Haven is just wrong, but this deck simply has different limits; and makes up in the creature land department somewhat with all the copies of Cave of the Frost Dragon instead. Surely this is neither the fastest White weenie, nor the most relentless against Control-based removal... But I'd argue that the surprise value of Snakeskin Veil coupled with the haste from Halana and Alena, Partners bedevils Control opponents in much the same way as the odd Werewolves... It's just different.

Once you see the net exchange, it's kind of hard not to chuckle, appreciatively.

Now that we've outlined just how hilariously, reverently, and ingeniously RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT was in splashing Halana and Alena, Partners into a White deck, let's return to our second question... Is this splash actually good? Like I said before, I have no idea. However, the legitimate +1/+1 counters sub-theme of this deck does put the Partners on a different tier than they might be in most of their comfortable Jund shells. Luminarch Aspirant magnifies the +1/+1 counter action, and doubles or triples down more and more as time goes on. Snakeskin Veil is quietly two +1/+1 counters; and Intrepid Adversary helps the cause as well.

I do imagine a train of Legion Angels, all hasty, all increasingly big over two or three turns being a problem for some opponents. Those flying femmes are already challenging as card advantage; with haste and size they echo four words from times and Fires past: The Fix is In. At least a little.

But what ties this all together is of course Thalia, Who Ruins Everything. At the end of the day, Halana and Alena, Partners is a creature; and a creature with a spell-like capability that doubles - and more - White's favorite scion, Luminarch Aspirant; while adding a distinctly different challenge to the opponent's defense and life total. Via a near-free set of splashes, the Partners can partner up with a team already so creature heavy due to their 2-drop Legend to dominate fair games of Magic; especially if RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT were anticipating more creature stand-offs and battlefield development; and fewer sweepers into bombs.

And yet! In practice we know from the Standard Challenge results that RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT beat MTGO luminaries PHILL_HELLMUTH on Dimir Control and GUL_DUKAT on Izzet Epiphany before losing to a straightforward Mono-Green in the tournament finals. Like I said twice already: I have no idea.

But how RANRANJINTIANCHIWHAT got there? Chef's kiss on the splash tech; and solid I wish I had made this one envy from YT.



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