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The Critical Mass

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The first time I remember it - really remember it - happening was at Worlds 2006.

The most influential deck of that year's Standard was a Dimir Control played by all-time great deck designer Guillaume Wafo-Tapa... But he only finished 5-1 so who cares? You do know Wafo meant it because he played with one copy of Cancel plus one Dralnu, Lich Lord; though.

Instead, scroll up to the undefeated decks.

There were five 6-0 players in 2006. The late, truly truly great, Itaru Ishida played an Azorius Control deck that got the flashback Black for its Mystical Teachings off of literally three Dimir Signets. But he was - as the great Ishida often was - alone.

The other four 6-0 players all ran the same archetype!

Different builds, yes, but the same archetype otherwise.

First there was Nicholas Lovett. Nicholas played two copies of Ronom Unicorn in his main deck and one in the sideboard. Lovett had a quasi-Ponza pseudo-transformation in that sideboard, with two Cryoclasms and four Stone Rains.


Then there were Brazil's Hall of Famer twins.

The most notable thing about their build - same seventy-five of course - was four copies of Giant Solifuge in the main deck. The future MTGO EDEL and Madonna-esque PV supported the comparatively massive 4-drop on only twenty-one lands. I suppose whoever invented playing Boros Garrison in a Standard Boros Beatdown deck mayhap a year earlier was some kind of genius, but it was still a daring choice... Or was it?


Rounding out the four-of-five was arguably the greatest Red Deck deck designer and certainly most influential Boros deck designer of all time: Fellow Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita.

Almost uncharacteristically, Fujita ran twenty-four lands... Yet outside of his Control-killing Demonfires, the leanest Red Deck of the bunch. No 1996-esque Wildfire Emissary. No operating requirements on Magus of the Scroll. Tsuyoshi ran at the definition of low to the ground. Almost all ones and twos, despite the higher land count. To be fair, Fujita had it all figured out. He went harder on Gemstone Mine despite lacking Boros Garrison; and much as he had with his original fetch land / Shock land innovations in earlier Extended play, could find the one Godless Shrine by doubling up on Flagstones of Trokair. This allowed him to support a couple of Rain of Gore in the sideboard in a positively Ishida-esque Black splash.


So...

What's the point of highlighting this tournament way back when? Fifteen years ago now?

As Raaala Pumba compatriots, PV and EDEL obviously worked together; but what is truly shocking is both how differently Fujita and Lovett got to a similar place. Yet at the top of the meta was this Red-and-White consensus. This was to be a Boros-dominated metagame.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. There was simply a critical mass of highly efficient creatures and highly efficient burn cards for the first time maybe ever in Standard. Yes, there had been other Red decks but this was the first time when you'd see a card like Ronom Unicorn split or relegated. Same on Giant Solifuge or Knight of the Holy Nimbus. Unlike in Hawaii the previous year, or any of the times Sligh or Deadguy Red were the best in Standard, everyone was cutting meat... forget about the fat.
  2. The mana also hit a critical mass, which is what ultimately allowed for such a successful consensus. You could reliably hit Savannah Lions on turn one but still support the rr on Giant Solifuge and twenty burn spells. Standard allowed for Battlefield Forge AND Sacred Foundry AND Boros Garrison if you wanted it AND Gemstone Mine as a "dual" land AND Flagstones of Trokair as a kind of quasi-fetch.

It's for that second reason that I think Fujita's was the best of an equally undefeated bunch. He got the leanness perfectly right. So many ones and twos. Same as the conclusion I came to in Modern, but a decade earlier.

But moreover, Tsuyoshi really pushed that mana. Despite such a low curve, he worked his lands hard. What's the downside risk on those Gemstone Mines? They help him cast his ww Knight of the Holy Nimbus on time and finish with his 2r Char, even if they go away. But they're better than PV's Gemstone Mines that have the Boros Garrison synergy because they actually tap for another color: Black.

Still, however, they ALL got it right and all pushed at critical mass in their own ways. Consensus, but from at least three different directions! Okay maybe Lovett least. Wildfire Emissary does kind of look a little silly come 2006 but if the other undefeated decks are all also rw maybe you have a point. It probably goes without saying that the lesser high records were also lousy with Boros. Yet a different version was played by yet a different God Tier Red Aggro player in Tomohiro Saito:


... But he was hardly alone at 5-1.

So that's all well and good for Worlds 2006. Why is this interesting at all in 2021?

Check out the Finals of last weekend's most recent Legacy Challenge:



STAINERSON came out on top of PHILL_HELLMUTH but we can see a common theme from Worlds 2006. Similar, but disparate, attempts toward an attempted consensus. Driven in both cases by a critical mass... Well, two critical masses.

Mishra's Bauble
Brainstorm
Ponder
Expressive Iteration

This critical mass is kind of like the creatures in 2006. Splits on Ronom Unicorn or not being quite sure where Giant Solifuge should live. STAINERSON played all four copies of Expressive Iteration while PHILL_HELLMUTH dipped into a couple of zeroes.

I have a bias toward PHILL_HELLMUTH, who is mentioned often in this column. I like Expressive Iteration a lot - and like it in decks with zeroes even more - but can appreciate shaving a two in order to accommodate the ultra-light land count of this most modern Legacy Delver deck. And don't let that eighteen fool you! STAINERSON played the full four copies of Wasteland (to PHILL_HELLMUTH's three).

Tell me... How many cards in STAINERSON's main deck can Wasteland help to cast? What is that true land count then?

I've always been a huge fan of Izzet Delver or Izzet Burn decks in Legacy. When I first started playing them, Delver of Secrets was this wild new toy that Island mages had never had before. The most troublesome Blue tempo decks of times past -- from Forbidian to Blue Skies, Merfolk to Slivers - had always been able to put their opponents on a clock and then "protect the queen" rather than trying to use a finite amount of permission on self-defense. But all those format dominating decks had to wait to play their queens at three if not four mana. Even Accelerated Blue had to wait until turn three to deploy its Morphling with u open.

Delver of Secrets was this odd duck that could come down on turn one and then randomly put the opponent on a very fast clock. Very fast indeed in a Red Deck! The proto-Izzets of my first Legacy forays typically topped up on Price of Progress + Snapcaster Mage.

I eventually became disillusioned with the archetype for two reasons. First, I was never good at navigating combo matchups. It's possible I just didn't play in enough Legacy Opens, but I tended to miss Top 8 by losing to two combo decks before the final round. Second, Izzet Delver is among the most punish-able decks in the Legacy format. You have to commit to Volcanic Island or no on what might be your only mana-producing (or Daze-capable) land of the entire game... On turn one. Sadly, you can be wrong. You could accidentally put yourself too close to your own Price of Progress or simply guess wrong on what kind of interaction you would pull - burn or permission. In an effort to dodge Wasteland you might Time Walk yourself. Or in order to field both colors you might open the door to manascrewed doom.

The first factor, in particular, led me to eventually becoming a Mono-Red guy in Legacy (which predates my being any kind of Red Deck guy in Modern). If I were going to lose to combo anyway, I decided I might as well never lose to Wasteland! In any case, I would never have to choose between leaving up Spell Pierce or tapping out for Goblin Guide ever again.

The 2021 version just doesn't have any of these problems.

Rather than playing for an eventual four mana flashback flurry, it exploits a level of critical mass that makes 2006 Standard seem like an absolute joke.

Delver of Secrets

Dragon's Rage Channeler
Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Murktide Regent

They already had Delver of Secrets!

Dragon's Rage Channeler is a worse Delver of Secrets. But how much worse? When was the last time you wanted to block with your offensive 1-drop? And in a deck with four Lightning Bolt and potentially two Chain Lightning? That Surveil ability is nothing to sneeze at.

Dragon's Rage Channeler pales in comparison to Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. Ragavan is so absurd an offensive 1-drop that apparently no one needs to deign to tap for a Monastery Swiftspear in Legacy any more. To be clear: The critical mass of insane Izzet 1-drops is now so dense that the most underrated creature of all time has become literally unplayable in the archetype where it is arguably at its best.

I haven't played with Murktide Regent yet. As a simple Red Deck mage I've never had to count higher than twenty. This 7-drop is obviously destined for 2-drop-ness in the 2021 Izzet archetype, and is going to come down as an 8/8 an unconscionable amount of the time. Like every animal in these two decks (but the dashing Ragavan, arguably the best of them), Murktide Regent also flies. And by "flies" I mean puts the enemy, evasively, into burn range.

So where does this leave us? Leave Legacy?

I don't know. Modern Horizons 2 has been legal for play for literally three days at the time of this writing. But, again, this is an unprecedented amount of critical mass. The 1-drops and the manipulation and the ability to push the mana base are all overlapping into what may be an Enigma-level of deck performance. Even that might not be too concerning... Except the "support" cards are all one-mana Lightning Bolt variants and free counterspells.

Houston? Have we got a...

Look for this story to develop in the coming weeks.

LOVE

MIKE

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