In the early- to mid- aughts, about half the great Magic played in these United States came out of a New Jersey store named - mayhap aptly - The Only Game in Town. This store, or rather the community it fostered, produced such legends as National Champions Eugene Harvey and Craig Krempels, Grand Prix Champion Jon Sonne, Planeswalker Points Ironman Gerard Fabiano... And as we'll see later, Pro Tour Venice Champion Osyp Lebedowicz.
Between Red Deck master strategist Patrick Sullivan and human tuning fork Osyp, Team TOGIT often had the best deck; or at least the best version to show up of the best deck at major championships and Pro Tours.
... But like anyone else, they were human and sometimes missed a base.
The story goes like this: Late at Pro Tour Venice, an unexpected foe rose, barring the way between some member of Team TOGIT and Top 8 glory. A Patriarch's Bidding deck centered around Beasts rather than Goblins, this deck seemed to have strategy superiority over TOGIT's deck of choice for that event: Astral Slide.
What did it mean to be able to sweep creatures if they could just name "Beast" and get them all back? Or to sweep again? Slide was widely considered the powerhouse Control deck of the tournament (even if it didn't play Counterspells)... But Beast Bidding was a strategy for which they had no cards to control.
With the seconds ticking away, our TOGIT member chased down [future] Pro Tour Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz. What should I sideboard in? he begged to learn. Zvi, widely considered the greatest deck designer of all time, had defeated Beast Bidding in a previous round. He leafed through the hapless petitioner's seventy-five. What to side in indeed?
"... Cards that aren't in your sideboard," he was sad to say.
The event itself has a mixed conclusion. Zvi himself had to settle for a Top 32 despite taking top position in this anecdote. While TOGIT's Lebedowicz won the whole thing, out-lasting Hall of Famers Gabriel Nassif, Huey Jensen, and Darwin Kastle, all of whom were playing in the elimination rounds on Sunday morning. But the Bidding story remains instructive.
What did Zvi bring in?
While Slide was the "Control" deck from a Who's the Beatdown? perspective, especially against most creature decks, Zvi had built his sideboard to allow him to race.
Stoic Champion came down on turn two, and helped him to finish games against slower opponents, while they were still haplessly cycling big creatures into the graveyard; long before they'd be able to cast one.
Zvi is of course still making great decks, but I can't help recalling this story as one that not only resonates with some of what we've seen at this past weekend's Innistrad Championships, but also echoes the principles of Barbarian Class.
Make Your Own Luck
In our Venice anecdote, the victory - or lack thereof - were all in the preparation. Zvi's Stoic Champion solution was particularly elegant... You don't need to control a beatdown that never has time to develop.
Cowards Can't Block Warriors
That we're talking about this nearly 20 years later is a testament to the reputation of the story! Or the genius of one of its heroes, at least.
faster, Faster, FASTER
And in 2021?
Make Your Own Luck
Let's start with champion Yuuki Ichikawa's Izzet list. While the Top 8 itself was Historic, it bears mentioning that Izzet Epiphany variants were the Standard archetype of choice for six of the men who made Top 8.
Notably, Ichikawa was a member of a Japanese contingent who all played a unique Izzet Epiphany in Standard and Golgari Food in Historic.
Izzet Epiphany | VOW Standard | Yuuki Ichikawa, Top 8 Innistrad Championship
- Instants (26)
- 1 Abrade
- 1 Cinderclasm
- 1 Demon Bolt
- 1 Test of Talents
- 2 Behold the Multiverse
- 2 Fading Hope
- 3 Galvanic Iteration
- 3 Jwari Disruption // Jwari Ruins
- 4 Divide by Zero
- 4 Spikefield Hazard // Spikefield Cave
- 4 Unexpected Windfall
- Artifacts (1)
- 1 The Celestus
- Lands (21)
- 2 Island
- 2 Mountain
- 2 Hall of Storm Giants
- 3 Clearwater Pathway // Murkwater Pathway
- 4 Blightstep Pathway // Searstep Pathway
- 4 Riverglide Pathway // Lavaglide Pathway
- 4 Stormcarved Coast
Again, we are talking about one copy of a pretty unusual sideboard card. In order to accommodate that, Ichikawa ran three copies of Clearwater Pathway // Murkwater Pathway in addition to four copies of Blightstep Pathway // Searstep Pathway. Notably for a Divide by Zero deck with access to Environmental Sciences... He did not play a Swamp.
Think about how strategic all these decisions must have been. The Pathways... The Pathways are almost free. One can be a Mountain most of the time and the other an Island most of the time; and he'd only ever have to flip maybe one total Black in an entire game... And for that matter only a sideboard game. Not free-free... But close to free. A Swamp, even if it would be hyper-consistent off of the Environmental Sciences, would not only not be free (it would take up a land slot that could otherwise be devoted to Blue or Red), it wouldn't be particularly fast either. Ichikawa might even have to take a turn off rather than nabbing the opponent's key five or seven as soon as he ripped Check for Traps.
I think selecting this card was not only deceptively spicy, but a masterwork in execution.
Cowards Can't Block Warriors
If the name Simon Gortzen is familiar... Let's just say that this isn't the first time he battled his way to the finals of a major event with an unusual deck. Back in February of 2010, Simon won Pro Tour San Diego with The Deck to Beat in front of him: Jund... But it was a spicy - or perhaps more accurately extremely, extremely not-spicy - Jund that came to be called "All Lands, No Removal".
This time Gortzen nearly took it all with the most roguish performer of the Innistrad Championships: Mono-Black Zombies.
Mono-Black Zombies | VOW Standard | Simon Gortzen, Innistrad Championship
- Creatures (25)
- 3 Headless Rider
- 3 Jadar, Ghoulcaller of Nephalia
- 3 Undead Butler
- 4 Champion of the Perished
- 4 Fell Stinger
- 4 Shambling Ghast
- 4 Tainted Adversary
- Planeswalkers (3)
- 3 Lolth, Spider Queen
- Enchantments (4)
- 4 The Meathook Massacre
Gortzen's deck is one that people are going to be talking about, and admiring, for just how refreshingly different it was; but there is a lot of vital strategy going on here as well.
First off, in some matchups, this just plays like Mono-Green. It's a threat dense creature deck than can put up some power. Champion of the Perished is finally getting its due; but the 3-drops Fell Stinger and Headless Rider hit harder than they initially look.
We talked last week about forcing the opponent to make mistakes by presenting unusual cards, and man-oh-man does Headless Rider punish the uninitiated. Let's just say that Cinderclasm doesn't always work out the way you want it to despite some ostensibly low toughness in this deck.
And Undead Butler? Who even had that guy on their playables list?
Like some Blood on the Snow decks in the past, Gortzen's Mono-Black can play a The Meathook Massacre sub-game that is dangerous both for slow decks with removal but especially enemy creature decks. The sheer number of creatures in this deck (relative to a Blood Money) means more opportunities to exploit The Meathook Massacre, whether it's with Decayed tokens or Eaten Alive chip shots. Opponent on exactly three? Let me tell you about topdecking my buddy Fell Stinger...
faster, Faster, FASTER
Mono-Green Aggro | VOW Standard | Christian Hauck, Innistrad Championship
- Creatures (20)
- 2 Tangled Florahedron // Tangled Vale
- 2 Ulvenwald Oddity // Ulvenwald Behemoth
- 4 Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley
- 4 Old-Growth Troll
- 4 Sculptor of Winter
- 4 Werewolf Pack Leader
- Planeswalkers (1)
- 1 Wrenn and Seven
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Blizzard Brawl
- Enchantments (4)
- 4 Ranger Class
- Artifacts (4)
- 4 Esika's Chariot
I really like Christian Hauk's Crimson Vow update to Mono-Green. For that matter I like playing Mono-Green at all. In the prior format Mono-Green ended up a bit less popular than Mono-White, but I always thought it was the better deck against u-r.
Hauk does two things here that are worth mentioning:
The Packleader (which is a weird name to think about given the incumbent Werewolf Pack Leader) was the most popular Green creature to come out of the new set, in terms of potentially making an impact on the archetype. And it's not to say that the card doesn't do anything... But maybe more that it doesn't do anything with greater expectation than the tools that were already available. Most players were cutting cards like Ranger Class for Ascendent Packleader; if not high-end cards like Unnatural Growth or Wrenn and Seven that could trigger it at all. In the absence of such cards, it's mostly just a 2/1 for ; which, while serviceable in many formats, isn't particularly exciting relative to the value addicted model of the rest of the deck's threats, and 1-drop or no... Might not be all that fast.
But what about Ulvenwald Oddity // Ulvenwald Behemoth? I think that early comparisons to Esika's Chariot were a bit unfair, or at least mislaid. Ulvenwald Oddity is "worse" than Esika's Chariot much of the time and few would argue the opposite. But in the vein of making your own luck, here is a deck that not only plays a ton of land - twenty-nine out of sixty when you consider Modal Double-Faced Lands - but also additional acceleration. Hauck ran the Snow shell with not only four copies of Sculptor of Winter, but the front-side of Tangled Florahedron. The deck can get to four; and it can get to four ahead of time. At some level, playing another big bomb at four just lets this deck get a little luckier a little more often and marries exploiting good formula draws with a little bonus speed, which is what we're after here.
Ulvenwald Oddity being a Haste creature obviously makes some draws faster. It can peel post-sweeper and rumble for lethal out of nowhere. It's like a cheaper Froghemoth that you can cotton running in the main. This is doubly sexy given Level 3 on a Ranger Class. One of the biggest knocks on Mono-Green to date is that it so often achieves Level 3 but so rarely goes off once it gets there. Well, here's a payoff, and one that strikes like lightning.
Subtly, Ulvenwald Oddity is also a hedge against Green's worst matchup: Blood Money. Another 4/4 with trample backing up Old-Growth Troll is exactly what the doctor ordered to gain percentage against that terrible foe. From the perspective of marrying trample with speed, it can help close out games before Black can take control with Blood on the Snow or The Meathook Massacre. Perhaps even better, assuming the inevitability of even an average Blood Money draw, its ability to actually matter, and immediately, off the top more than justifies its inclusion.
Plus, the flip side is just horrifying: