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Attention to Detail #51
Did you ever sit down to try some delicious new food, and after the meal had finished you realized that a burger probably would have been just as good? Sometimes Magic is like that. Sometimes no matter how many new flavors we are presented with, the best things remain.. well, the best things. When a new Magic block comes out, there are three types of Standard decks that people play:
1) Decks which try to maximize the themes of the new block. These decks are often composed of nearly all new cards. They take whatever theme the block presents and try to run with it. An excellent example of this would be the first Affinity decks that appeared right after Mirrodin was released. They didn't have a wide variety of cards to play with (since the previous block – Onslaught – was seriously lacking in artifacts), so they made do. Cards like Steel Wall suddenly became viable, if only for a short time.
2) Decks which try to incorporate the strongest pieces of both the new block and the old block into some cohesive mix. These are often combo decks which are propelled by some strong combo between and old card and a new card. An example of this would be the first versions of Psychatog, prior to Torment. With only one set of Odyssey block around, the deck leaned heavily on similar elements from Invasion block. This changed somewhat as the block went on. Eventually only the most powerful of Invasion block cards still had a place in the machine known as 'tog.
3) Decks which largely ignore the new set. They may borrow a card here or there, but it almost always a utility card which replaces a similar card from the older set. The theme of the deck is one that is clearly an old theme. The win conditions are usually all old cards.
It's the third variety that I want to talk about today. I'm propelled in this direction by the winning deck from Grand Prix – Kyoto, piloted by Yuuya Watanabe. Here it is, and you may find it to be somewhat familiar:
4x Urza's Tower
4x Urza's Mine
4x Urza's Power Plant
4x Steam Vents
4x Shivan Reef
1x Urza's Factory
4x Sulfur Elemental
3x Bogardan Hellkite
4x Mana Leak
4x Compulsive Research
2x Spell Burst
4x Izzet Signet
2x Dimir Signet
3x Bottle Gnomes
2x Serrated Arrows
1x Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1x Mystical Teachings
2x Vesuvan Shapeshifter
Out of the 60 maindeck cards, only 10 are from Time Spiral block. And this is from a deck which is playing only two basic lands. The sideboard is a bit heavier in this direction, utilizing 7 out of 15 slots for Time Spiral's offerings. And, as I mentioned earlier, a large number of the cards in the maindeck which are new are replacements for older choices that accomplish the same purpose. Spell Burst, for instance, is a very strong card for a deck that can produce a lot of mana, but most of the time it's just another counterspell. The one big shift is the creatures. Instead of Niv-Mizzet or some other Ravnican monster (and, of course, without the option to play any of Kamigawa's heavy hitters like Meloku anymore), we've got two strong creatures from Time Spiral block, Bogardan Hellkite of Dragonstorm fame and the new kid, Sulfur Elemental.
Without regards to my personal feelings about this deck (I do love control), I want to take a moment to examine the mindset of why someone chooses to play an old deck rather than a new deck or a hybrid deck. There are a few options, once again presented to you in easily referenced numbered format:
1) The deck has a particular element which plays very strongly in the metagame. An example of this would be the survival of Fires-type decks from Mercadian/Invasion Standard to Invasion/Odyssey Standard. Although Odyssey only gave a few more options and removed the big power of Saproling Burst from the deck, an aggressive deck stood a stronger chance against Psychatog, and so it remained popular for a time.
2) The deck is simply so powerful that the new cards can't compete. Sometimes there's a combo or a card that is simply so good that new sets won't let it die. Some cards are powerful but can be adapted to new decks, like Umezawa's Jitte. Yes, it was brought to us during the age of snakes and foxes and really bad goblins, but it could just as easily be used on any other creature-based deck. A better example of this option would be the powerhouse decks of Mirrodin-era Standard. If Affinity hadn't been gutted by bannings, it would have carried on through Kamigawa era and the only thing that would have stopped it from posted top numbers for two solid years would be its removal from the format. But instead we got a different sort of powerhouse deck, Tooth and Nail. T&N adapted it's strategy over time to incorporate the best targets for its namesake spell (moving from the early Triskellion + Mephidross Vampire combo over to Kiki-Jiki + Darksteel Colossus). But for the most part, the deck was the same. It used the Urzatron (starting to see the similarities to the focus deck?) in combination with green's strong land searching cards in order to power out the huge T&N that would propel it to victory. As sets came and went, T&N changed the creatures that it propelled into play, but it didn't change the basic structure of the deck.
3) Sometimes someone just really likes a deck. Hey, it's been known to happen.
Now, the Izzetron deck isn't particularly pointed at any part of the metagame. It's a control deck, certainly, but it doesn't have any elements that will lock out other strong decks like Dragonstorm. There's no maindeck Arcane Laboratory-type spell or anything. Certainly, it's not bad against the other current deck options like Dragonstorm or Dralnu Du Lourve (although clearly it really shines against Mono Green Stompy, hence the plunge that deck has taken in popularity since Izzetron's triumphant return), or it wouldn't be doing so well. But it's not a pointed answer to the questions raised by other decks. Assuming that Watanabe didn't choose the deck because he just “liked it”, that leaves us with third option – this deck is powerful enough to carry itself through the new format.
My example of Tooth and Nail is particularly apt, as you may have noticed, because of the similarities between that deck and Izzetron. Both use the Urza's Lands to get enough mana to do all their fun tricks, and both decks adopted new kill-creatures with the new set, while leaving the rest of the deck largely untouched. In fact, the similarity goes much deeper than just a few lands. In fact, the Tooth and Nail deck and the Izzetron deck are part of the same thought process. Far more important to Tooth and Nail than the actual win condition was the superior mana advantage that the deck was able to set up. Once you have that much mana, there are any number of expensive cards which you could use to win the game. The truly important facet of the deck is not the kill but the mana base.
So when Ravnica came out, it was not just the strong selection of Izzet cards which led to the creation of Izzetron, it was the continued existence of the Urza's Lands in the format. Until they leave Standard (something which I'm fully expecting we'll see happen when 10th Edition is released), Urza's Lands-fueled decks will continue to exist.
All of this brings me to the point where I feel I need to add a fourth numbered item to my first list of types of decks which see play when a new block is released:
4) Decks which are based off of a card or combination of cards available in the current Core Set, and which can have a deck built around them from the expansion cards.
Tooth and Nail and Izzetron are not metagame decks. One is a combo deck and the other has a control element. Neither deck is particularly pinned down to the cards of any particular block, but rather just making use of the best elements available to it. Instead, I present the radical notion that Tooth and Nail and Izzetron, separated by a couple of years, are in fact the same deck. They play differently and use a different selection of cards entirely. They don't even share main colors. But examining the course of a game played using either deck will show you what I mean. The deck starts off trying to get its lands into play. And then, once it has superior mana advantage, it controls the game and gets its huge threat into play as quickly as possible. It's not a sustained control deck that can hold off any assault for a long period of time. It's a midgame deck that wins by bringing the midgame closer to the start of the game, before the opponent is prepared.
It's a rare situation where cards from the Core Set are strong enough to warrant not just one deck built around them (as we've seen with cards like Opportunity and Seismic Assault) but years of decks built around their sheer power. Urza's Lands were considered to be the domain of the casual player back in their original versions (or even their Chronicles reprints). Part of the reason for this was the larger role that land destruction played in the tournament scene back then (and the lack of Tooth & Nail style land searching cards), and part of it was that the large threats that could be powered out weren't as impressive as they are today. But mostly it was just an understanding of the risks which could be taken to win a game. There is a significant risk in playing with Urza's Lands. If you don't draw one of them, you can find yourself significantly outgunned. Tooth and Nail made up for this with superior land-searching. Izzetron tries to make up for this with superior card draw and control to hold things back until it does find the missing piece. But in the end, both decks are attempting to assemble a three cards of which there are four copies each. Even though the tools to utilize the Urza's Lands weren't as strong back when they first saw print, the basic scheme of things was in place. It certainly makes me wish I could go back to 1994 and try to assemble an Izzetron-clone out of Urza's Lands and the available control elements of the day.
So what have we learned today? Sometimes raw power overcomes the boundaries of set themes. Sometimes raw power goes untapped for years at a time. And sometimes the best change to make is no change at all. The only caveat to all of this is that decks which rely on proven strategies do not have the element of surprise. Decks based on Urza's Land-fueled mana domination have been around in Standard for years now. And with the resurgence of Izzetron in Standard, it's only a matter of time before people pick up on the strategies that they used to defeat Izzetron the first time. Not to mention Tooth and Nail and the various Kamigawa-era decks which used the lands. I don't think this will knock Izzetron off the radar until 10th Edition comes out, but it may put a serious dent in the deck's viability. We're in the midst of one of the wildest Standard formats we've seen in years. Every week seems to present a new top deck or at least a new way of using an old deck. So the biggest lesson we can learn from this is that sometimes when you're looking to build the next big thing, you need to rebuild the last big thing.
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