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The Week That Was: Setting the Standard in Standard

April 24, 2024
Corbin Hosler

Magic events are famous for their champions. Legendary winners, all-time greats, epic runs—it's all a part of the story we watch unfold over the course of three days of the most competitive Magic on the planet. Every event gives us a worthy winner and a winner's story worth telling.

But sometimes Magic tournaments become famous for their decks, too. It's rare—often we'll see a field full of various midrange flavors that lack distinguishing features and all perform similarly—but when a memorable deck breaks out at a Pro Tour, everyone catches the news quickly and it's always a moment to remember.

Squadron Hawk Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord

Take, for example, famous examples like Caw-Blade at Pro Tour Paris in 2011 or Eldrazi at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch in 2016 or "Sorin Tell" Vampires from Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor earlier this year. Those events weren't just standalone tournaments but launching points for surprise decks that broke formats wide open in the hands of innovative pilots.

That's the dream of building a new deck in a format, and it speaks to just how difficult it is to attain that kind of sucess. Brilliant people play and compete in Magic across the world. There are millions of minds taking in new cards and thinking about how they can be used, which makes the odds of discovering something "new" incredibly unlikely.

But that's exactly what the best minds in Magic do, time and again. Standard traditionally served as a fertile brewing ground for deckbuilders, and with the format on the table at Pro Tour Thunder Junction it's all eyes on one of Magic's most competitive formats—and by all accounts has far more going on than you might expect.

The Standard Path

So how are the game's best approaching a Standard format that's almost completely untested at the highest levels since the release of Outlaws of Thunder Junction?

"As a team, we start with the top decks for our gauntlet, and then I personally start brewing around cool interactions I think can beat the top decks," explained Neon Dynasty Championship winner Eli Kassis.

Eli Kassis

"Sometimes we just grab a partner and play, other times we'll do meetings and try to form a plan on how to proceed in our testing. Then we just jam until we get a good feeling on it."

"The gauntlet" is where all hopeful decks must eventually go, and it's where most new decks die. No matter how powerful a deck might be in the abstract, Pro Tour level events always come down to how that deck matches up with the rest of the field—the gauntlet of opponents players can expect to face if they want to win the trophy.

"You start with whatever the current best deck or decks are, and you decide if you're going to try and beat that deck or optimize that deck. Personally I always want to try and attack that top deck, but you're wrong to not try both," explained Derrick Davis, whose off-the-wall Enigmatic Fires deck helped him to a Top 4 finish at Pro Tour Phyrexia last year.

Derrick Davis

"That's a big benefit to having a team. Some players can focus on playing or beating the top deck, freeing up other people to just explore."

The conventional wisdom is that players are too good and systems too streamlined and decklists too optimized for any real innovation to be possible. But conventional wisdom can itself hamstring invention: someone has to try, right?

This concept was first illustrated to me by Hall of Famer Reid Duke at one of my first Pro Tours a decade ago.

Reid Duke

I asked him what the team had been working on—they were playing an aggressive Red-White Vehicles deck featuring Toolcraft Exemplar and Smuggler's Copter that was about as far away from the grindy Jund decks Duke is known for—and he told me that his personal testing for the event started simple: he took Depala, Pilot Exemplar and every Dwarf creature he could find. It felt shockingly straightforward—and the final deck looked basically nothing like those early tests—but it did help the team find out just how strong Toolcraft Exemplar could be.

Depala, Pilot Exemplar Smuggler's Copter Toolcraft Exemplar

That's what Davis means by the importance of exploring ideas that will never work out.

"You have to have that approach, especially when you're going into new set releases in Standard. You want to try a bunch of stuff but don't get married to it, because 90% of what you're trying to do will be worthless but you're trying to find that 10% because that 10% may mean winning a Pro Tour."

That brings me back to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor and that Rakdos Vampires deck that debuted in Chicago and went on to take the Magic world by storm. The original build of that deck, the one that Paul Reitzl scribbled on the back of a proverbial napkin and started work on? It was mono-black, and a far cry from the "stock" lists you'll see in Pioneer or Explorer today. Like the CawBlade menace that terrorized Magic for months or the Eldrazi Winter of Modern in 2016, the moment that made it all possible never comes out a perfectly formed product.

And that's another key to finding a breakout deck: innovating on the fly.

"There's such a short time frame between the set release and this Pro Tour, you don't get as much data as you want. So you've got to work with very little and make the best inferences you can about it," Davis explained. "You want to have an understanding of how all the top decks interact with each other and what cards or interactions are important in the matchups, so when things inevitably shift you'll have an idea of how to attack.

"In Chicago, we didn't do enough exploration as a team. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is a card that's popped up in Pioneer before; maybe the Vampires idea wouldn't have surfaced anyway but we have to be able to incorporate that sort of exploration: start with high-impact cards when they're on the table and think about the ways to build around it to get it there. One team happened to notice it, and was rewarded."

Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord 646668

The Domain or Reanimator decks in Standard are an example of that deckbuilding approach in action: start with the idea that Atraxa, Grand Unifier is really strong if it hits play, and work backwards from there.

Mana Making New Standard(s)

Another popular approach starts on the other end of the spectrum with a question: "What does the mana allow you to do?" A concoction of powerful cards won't do anything at all if it can't cast its spells. Is it a format where you can look at the powerful Cruel Ultimatum and have the mana to make that happen, or one where playing Plains and Savannah Lions is all your deck can expect to do? A famous example of this came at Pro Tour San Juan in 2010, when Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa won with Temur Ramp, a deck that all-time Standard great Brad Nelson innovated on in the month leading up to the event.

The genius of that design was not starting with some all-powerful threat, but instead by just making as much mana as possible. The team realized that with some ramp, fetchlands, Lotus Cobra, and Oracle of Mul Daya, the deck could make absurd amounts of mana as early as the third turn. Whatever it did with that mana was secondary (it aimed to curve Goblin Ruinblaster into Sphinx of Lost Truths or Avenger of Zendikar).

491841 Goblin Ruinblaster Sphinx of Lost Truths

Whether you build around the means or the ends, the biggest takeaway when it comes to breaking Magic formats is counterintuitive at first glance: it's not all about playing endless games of Magic.

"I think about what's important and go from there," Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings champ Jake Beardsley explained.

Jake Beardsley

"Obviously you have to play a lot to get an idea of how the big decks play out and what's important, but when new cards drop I want to already know what the important things in the matchups are. I want to know what problems need to be solved, and theory craft from there with new cards about how to fill that niche."

Beardsley isn't the first Pro Tour winner stress that: the importance of thinking about the format they're trying to break. There's a time and a place for putting in the practice of hundreds of games with decks—it's in the hours leading up to final decklist submission—but many of the biggest developments in competitive Magic came not at the playing table but in the proverbial shower.

The beauty of competitive Magic is that sometimes those what-ifs become reality. For these players and the hundreds of other deckbuilders aiming to deliver the next famous Standard deck, the opportunity is almost here: Pro Tour Thunder Junction kicks off on Friday, April 26.

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

Speaking of what-ifs becoming reality, no player lived that dream more than Kai Budde. The legendary Magic player was more than just a force of nature on the battlefield; he was the face of greatness for early Magic. As I wrote last week, "in the beginning, there was Kai Budde."

Kai Budde became the German Juggernaut at the World Championship in 1999. Frank Karsten and I are counting down the weeks to Magic World Championship 30 by looking back at each of the previous years, and this week the spotlight falls on Kai's momentous breakthrough at the World Championship level.

Budde cracks a smile en route to winning the 1999 Magic World Championship.

Budde had started his trophy collection with three Grand Prix titles in 1999, but the win at the World Championship in Tokyo—the first World Championship hosted outside Seattle—was the official beginning of Budde's run at the top. He still holds the record today for most victories in a Top Finish with seven (Seth Manfield and Nathan Steuer are next at four apiece and it wasn't until just last year that any two players could combine for as many trophies as Budde).

The dominant run that began in 1999 gave rise to the refrain "Kai doesn't lose on Sundays," cemented Budde as an integral part of Magic history and is still the measuring stick we compare against today.

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