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The Historic Return of the Innistrad Championship

November 24, 2021
Corbin Hosler

When play kicks off at the Innistrad Championship on December 3, viewers will be treated to a look into a pair of brand-new formats. While Standard looks different with the addition of Innistrad: Crimson Vow, it's the return of the Historic format to premier-level play that drew the most attention from competitors looking to gain an edge.

And for good reason: the Historic format has remained in a constant state of flux since its introduction in 2019, and the last time it was featured at such a high level was at the Challenger Gauntlet back in August. That event was dominated by blue decks featuring Memory Lapse. But Memory Lapse has since left the format, and Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, and Jumpstart: Historic Horizons have been added. The format has been turned on its head once again.

Which brings things back to the Innistrad Championship. With half the rounds and the all-important Top 8 as Historic, it represents the best chance for participants to gain an edge on the rest of the field. Historic has been a breeding ground for innovation in the past, and the sense among deck builders is that, with so much change since the format's last showing, things could be ripe again for invention. The player or team that can best crack the far-ranging format will have the inside track to victory, and the game's best deck brewers have been hard at work to break things open.

That's easier said than done. So how are the competitors approaching the unique challenge?

"Nobody really knows what to expect," explained Gavin Thompson, one of the Magic Pro League's newest members who chose to work with a large team filled with fresh faces at the Championship level.

Gavin Thompson

"Historic has always been a relatively open format. Every set championship, people generally bring the meta decks, and I think a lot of people will look to Arclight Phoenix decks with Dragon's Rage Channeler and Unholy Heat—but I also think there will be breakout strategies."

Thompson's approach to finding those strategies has been to cast a wide net. He opted to jam as many games as possible against the full field as his team takes a high-level view of the format. With plenty of opponents to test against bringing a wide range of decks, Thompson believes he can experiment with what works and what doesn't.

Thompson already has success playing emergent decks in the format. He brought Auramancers to the Challenger Gauntlet, a deck which had itself been a revelation in Historic not long ago. Similar to its Modern cousins, the deck aims to play an early Kor Spiritdancer or Sram, Senior Edificer and then stack it up sky-high with enchantments like Staggering Insight and Curious Obsession.

Kor Spiritdancer Sram, Senior Edificer Staggering Insight Curious Obsession

It's a strategy that's proven to punish anyone not prepared to deal with it, and it helped Thompson to a Top 12 finish in the Gauntlet.

The biggest takeaway Thompson had was that whatever deck he brought, it had to be able to do something powerful on its own, an approach mirrored by one of the tournament's youngest competitors.

"I'm treating Historic as similar to Modern and Pioneer, where there are a lot of different strategies and it isn't as much about metagaming as it is about figuring out what the most powerful strategy is," explained Zach Dunn, who at 18 years old may be the youngest in the Championship field but is far from new to competitive Magic.

Zach Dunn celebrated his 14th birthday by going undefeated on Day One at Grand Prix Las Vegas in 2017.

"For Historic, I'm excited about playing the most powerful cards in the format, so I'm interested in looking at Izzet Phoenix because it plays a lot of cards that are a Modern or Legacy power level."

That's not a bad idea, as the short-lived Historic experiment with Brainstorm proved earlier this year. Across the board, the sentiment among Innistrad Championship competitors is clear: the best way to approach a large and open format like Historic is to bring a deck with a proactive game plan, as opposed to an answers-based reactive deck. That has proven effective in the form of Mayhem Devil sacrifice decks, to the explosive power of Muxus, Goblin Grandee in Goblins, to the Emergent Ultimatum ramp decks that go over the top of everything else in the format.

Mayhem Devil Muxus, Goblin Grandee Emergent Ultimatum 513695 Dragon's Rage Channeler

Another common thread among some of the most successful Innistrad Championship builders is something that seems obvious but can pose a challenge in the ultra-optimized world of the 24/7 deck-tuning cycle: keeping an open mind.

And sometimes that means finding inspiration in unlikely places.

"The first thing I do is scour the internet for recent decklists that have done well, of course, but also decklists that have only done mediocre in case they have any interesting card combinations or interactions. I'll construct ten-plus decks to try out that might have gotten a boost from the new set," explained Martin Dang, the Danish former pro making his return to competitive play. "There are definitely some decks that most consider tier one, but I feel like it's a dead race between quite a few decks, and I don't believe there is a single best deck or a boogeyman deck to try and beat. I would say the format is very open. It rewards people who know their deck and sideboard well."

Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir champion Martin Dang is playing his first high-level event in years.

It's a familiar challenge for the Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir champion, but not one that he's flexed in quite some time. Between work and raising his three-year-old daughter, the bulk of his play on MTG Arena over the last few years has come in Limited, which is how he qualified for the Innistrad Championship.

"I haven't played a 'Pro Tour' since COVID put all the live tournaments on hold, but I have been following coverage, and I am excited to experience such a large tournament playing from home," he explained. "The world is slowly starting to open up again, and I'm eager to get out there and play again, so doing well here would further that motivation. For this tournament, I've been focusing on Innistrad: Crimson Vow, which is a particularly strong set and offers many cards that could boost a deck over the top—reinventing and testing those decks with the new cards will be the key to this tournament."

There's one other aspect of building decks for fresh formats like this that can often go unnoticed. While much of the credit and attention deservedly goes to those innovative players who invent new archetypes, turning those brews into specific 75-card (or more with Yorion, Sky Nomad) lists comes down to the last few spots, and those slots can make all the difference in the world when play kicks off.

That's where Simon Nielsen comes in.

Simon Neilsen, second from right, was a member of the 'Daneblast' victory for team Denmark at World Magic Cup 2014 alongside (left-to-right) Thomas Enevoldsen, Martin Müller, and Lars W. Birch.

"I usually see myself as more of a tuner than a brewer these days, so often I will browse through Twitter and decklists and come upon ideas I think are neat but maybe not executed well," he explained. "I did some work on decks like Shaman Tribal and Green-White Heliod, for instance, just trying to see if I could make them more consistent or powerful or develop a coherent sideboard plan."

"Usually that process involves playing a handful of matches, tweaking some numbers, and then diving back into the fray," Nielsen continued. "I try not to pay too much attention to the win-loss results because the Historic ladder has so many different and wild decks, but I can check and see if my sideboard numbers seem to line up, if my mana base works out right, and if the synergies seem to come together in the way I want them to."

That approach led Nielsen to a qualification via a StarCityGames Online Open, bringing him back to the game's highest levels after a brief absence following strong showings at the Zendikar Rising and Kaldheim Championships.

"I felt a bit left behind as I watched my teammates Arne Huschenbeth, Matti Kuisma, Sam Rolph, and David Inglis qualify for the Challenger Gauntlet and crush it," he admitted. "So I'm happy I get to work with them again and hopefully catch up on their impressive achievements."

While many of the recent high-level tournaments, like Magic World Championship XXVII, rewarded strong metagame prediction skills in small fields, the Innistrad Championship is poised to flip that script. However it shakes out, one thing is clear: for fans of the format, Historic at the Innistrad Championship is a can't-miss event.

You can watch all the Historic—and Standard—showdowns at the Innistrad Championship live, beginning at 9 a.m. PT December 3–5, at!

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