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Building Behind Decks

March 03, 2022
Corbin Hosler

Magic is a game steeped in lore. From the characters on the cards to the cards themselves to the characters casting the cards, the story of Magic is always being written—from the historic run of Kai Budde in the late '90s to the days of CawBlade and "Eldrazi Winter" to Yuta Takahashi's Magic World Championship win a few months ago.

Deck builders build history. Some of the most memorable tournaments and decks in Magic left lasting impressions on both the Magic world and the competitors who would come after them, as players work to create something that no else as created before to etch their place in the game's annals. On the rare occasions when that works—when the eyes of history land on the Eye of Ugin—it becomes an unforgettable moment that lives on long after the tournament hall has shut down.

But putting it all together is no small feat, and only a handful of players in Magic's history have consistently been able to build new decks all the way to the top of an unknown metagame. Now the premiere of the Alchemy format at the Neon Dynasty Championship provides a chance for another chapter of Magic lore to be written.

So how do the game's best do it?

"I'm kind of messing around with nonsense that won't be good while my teammates do actual work," wryly explained the legendary deck builder Sam Black, who has four lifetime Top Finishes at a team World Championship.

Sam Black, at the 2015 Magic World Championship

It's an ironic way to describe his process, but it's not altogether off. After all, most of the time a new deck is put through its paces, it falls short. And in that case, the "nonsense" may not amount to much.

But other times, it's Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011, also known as the debut of the Modern format. And it was there that Black made hist first career Pro Tour Top 8, with his "Mono-Blue Infect" deck featuring the decidedly red card Blazing Shoal and Dragonstorm.

That kind of new-format excitement is impossible to replicate, but it's kept tournament Magic intriguing for a generation. Now comes Alchemy with digitally rebalanced cards: a format shifts regularly and rewards those that adapt on the fly in a quicksilver format.

Even if that takes them in some unexpected directions.

When building decks "I ignore what the top deck looks like," explained DreamHack 2020 champion Aaron "littlebeep" Gertler. "I've been collecting every deck that looks vaguely interesting. As a spectator, I miss the days when the Pro Tour was two weeks after the set dropped—it was fun—and this is kind of like that. I've been playing a lot of Alchemy this week, but Wizards also released an all-time Draft format (Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty), so that's been taking up a lot of my time."

Aaron Gertler, finalist 2020 Season Grand Finals

When he's not busy first-picking Jellyfish Equipment or one of the other many combinations Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty has to offer, Gertler is known for innovating his way to the top of the MTG Arena ladder. He finished one win outside the money at GP Vegas in 2017, and when MTG Arena hit he dove in fully. Before long, he was rocketing his way to No. 1 Mythic rankaing on the back of the Simic Mass Manipulation deck he designed.

"That was the first real deck I was known for, and after that, I went to DreamHack with Temur Clover," Gertler said of his rise through the ranks. "I was mostly just doing Reddit writeups at that time, but I always try to only go really deep on a brew and say it's worth crafting wildcards for if I believe in it—I hope that leads people to trust me."

Gertler's story is familiar to those that follow Magic's competitive innovators—he built a deck on his own, refined it through countless hours of work, took it to a big tournament, and won it all—and now he's playing, building decks for the biggest events in the game, and working with the testing team Sanctum of All—a team that includes accomplished competitors such as Black, MPL member Chris Botelho, and three-time VML winner Arya Karamchandani.

"My main role is looking for weird things and trying to prove if someone can build something to beat a couple of the top decks," Gertler explained. "Should we think about playing this, or should we adjust to it with our other decks?"

For that latter part, Gertler stressed that it takes a village.

"It takes a whole ecosystem to be able to work" on new decks he explained. "I have confidence I can learn to play a top deck well in a short time, because there are teammates I know I can lean on who know how to do the conventional stuff well so I have the freedom to explore the most."

That team aspect has also propelled Tristan Wylde-LaRue to success, two decades after he first picked up Magic with his dad and a pair of gold-bordered World Championship decks. In a short time, his testing team has gone from a small group of somewhat unknown MTG Arena players to one of the best teams in the game—in no small part thanks to Gertler's ability to push the envelope—highlighted by the team putting two people into the Top 8 of the Strixhaven Championship and five of six players into the Top 32 with their breakout Mutate deck. Wylde-LaRue himself came just one win short of his first career Top Finish at the Innistrad Championship in late 2021.

"A year ago, we were a group of mostly grinders, people like David 'tangrams' Inglis, Nathan Steuer, Sam Rolph, Simon Nielsen, Jonathan 'Ginky' Guttman, Matti Kuisma, and Arne Huschenbeth," Wylde-LaRue recalled. "I guess nowadays we're one of the more established teams, which is still kind of crazy to think about given where we started a year ago. Since then, we've gotten three people into the Rivals League, one person into the MPL. Now we have all-star players like Austin Bursavich, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and Javier Dominguez working with us."

That's a team with all of its bases covered, from perfecting the top decks at the moment to trying strategies with no set path. And for Wylde-Larue, who is a strong position in the early race for the World Championship thanks to his deep run at the Innistrad Championship, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Tristan Wylde-LaRue

"My fundamental approach to competitive Magic is that the most important decision you make is the decklist you decide to register," he said. "The thing that I'm the most proud of in my Magic career have been the decks I've worked on. I don't think I'm the best technical player and if you watch any of my games on coverage, you'll undoubtedly see me forget to attack or make some other small mistake, but I think if you have the best deck, then those things almost don't matter. I think Alchemy is not so different than any other unexplored format. I hope that we'll be able to find some wacky mutate-esque combo deck!"

Watch as the best players battle to break Alchemy and beyond at the Neon Dynasty Championship, March 11–13 live at!

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