The Ten Best Decks I’ve Ever Played: Finale
To destroy any built-up suspense, I won my win-and-in for Day 2 against Martin Juza despite missing an attack and giving him an extra draw step, won a critical match despite accidentally playing a Preordain as a Ponder, got lucky in my penultimate round with two turn-3 combos, and drew into Top 50 with Ari Lax to lock up invites to Pro Tour: Honolulu and Worlds in San Francisco. I was only playing the third-best U/R combo deck at the tournament, and it was still pretty darn good! (For what it’s worth, Sam Black’s Blazing Shoal Infect and Jon Finkel’s U/R Storm decks were far better, but it still felt amazing to cash my third Pro Tour.)
Back at school, I again had that undeserved swagger that comes in the days and weeks following every Magic player’s first breakthrough finish. Classes were easy, I was gaining confidence (and some semblance of social skills, to match!), and I thought that I was almost certainly ready to take on the world. That first semester flew by, and before I knew it, I was trying to persuade professors to let me bump my finals in order to fly to San Francisco. Fortunately, I used my disarming charm to great effect, and while my peers were grinding out some Linear Algebra, I was en route to the last big World Championships! Importantly, around this time, a few innocuous cards saw print that would come to define much of my Magic career. Innistrad was a great set for a number of reasons, but it’ll be a cold day in hell when Wizards tops Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. Of course, I played both of them in my Illusions deck in Standard, but I couldn’t convert a 4-2 start into anything meaningful after a disastrous Limited day. (This would come to be a pattern with me for the next year or so!)
A failed Pro Tour: Honolulu and two near-misses at Grand Prix saw me with 22 Pro Points and no invitation to Barcelona for the final three to push me to Gold. As had become a recurring theme in my life, It seemed like it was time to take a step back from Magic and focus on school, and maybe get more involved in other hobbies or work. That is, until I received a message on the eve of my 19th birthday from Scott Larabee:
“Beginning with Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, Wizards of the Coast is awarding Sponsor's Exemption invitations and airfare to players who showed excellence in play and positive community activity during the qualifying season but did not earn an invitation through other means. Wizards of the Coast has determined that you fall into this category of players. Congratulations!”
Well, with the possible exception of my Game Boy Color with Pokemon Red Version for my seventh birthday, that special invitation was probably the best birthday present I have ever received, and it re-ignited my fire when I was starting to burn low. Even losing the last round of that Pro Tour to miss cash wasn’t a crushing blow, because at that Pro Tour, I felt like Dante Hicks in Clerks. Every round, I thought to myself, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” and locking up qualifications for the next year was the only prize I needed. As a newly-minted Gold pro, though, I began to hunt for Pro Points with the first GP of the new season in Minneapolis. Avacyn Restored was poised to mess with the Standard format a bit, but I was sure that I was going to play U/W Delver no matter what. The only question was, what four-drop were we supposed to play? Dungeon Geists? Hero of Bladehold? More equipment? Well, there was an under-appreciated Angel that Matt Costa recommended we try, and it quickly proved its worth over the course of the tournament. With shades of Mistbind Clique and an absolutely backbreaking effect when the opponent didn’t see it coming, Restoration Angel turned U/W Delver into the juggernaut that dominated a year of Standard. That first week, though, no one saw it coming. Here’s the first list of many that would come to rule over Standard with an iron fist . . .
5. U/W Delver
U/W Delver — Avacyn Restored Standard | Ben Friedman
That summer was one of the best summers of my life, living in a house in College Park and playing in Magic tournaments basically every weekend. I even took an extended trip up to visit Matt Costa, Dave Shiels, Adam Snook and the rest of the Boston crew prior to GP Boston-Worcester, where we ate lots of ice cream and played lots of Magic. We didn’t have any video recording equipment, but Matt and I wanted to dive into a Legacy matchup between our respective favorite decks, which I won, if memory serves! Stoneblade vs. Delver circa 2012-2013 was a skill-intensive battle, and I’d love to battle it again if I could, but the format is simply in a different place now. True-Name Nemesis, Deathrite Shaman, Miracles and others have conspired to change Legacy into a new animal entirely, but I’ll still always have my repository of old decklists to remind me of my old flame.
Initially, I couldn’t figure out which decklist I wanted to go with for my trip down memory lane, but I eventually settled on my 12th place list from GP Atlanta 2012, which saw me lose a win-and-in to perennial foe Daryl Ayers, playing (what else?) RUG Delver.
4. Esper Stoneblade
Esper Stoneblade — Legacy | Ben Freidman
Speaking of Modern, let’s fast-forward a bit, all the way to early 2014. I’d been making lackluster performances at Pro Tours my calling card for all of 2012 and 2013, and after going from 9-2 to 9-7 in the back end of Pro Tour: Theros, I yet again put my Magic aspirations on the backburner. That winter break, my friend and protege Joe Demestrio practically bullied me into driving all the way to Connecticut to PTQ and then drive back to hang out with him at his mother’s lovely house in New York. I’ll forever be in debt to him for saving my Magic career, because I won that PTQ, propelling me once more to dive into the trenches and battle for glory at the highest levels of the game. And it paid off, because I soon saw my third GP Top 8 arrive in March at GP Richmond, playing a deck that I’d been playing for a long time in Modern. Allow me to present the deck that I helped (in my own small way) to get banned, Melira Pod.
3. Melira Pod
Melira Pod — Pre-Birthing Pod Ban Modern| Ben Friedman
Now, the summer of 2014 was a big summer for me, Magically speaking. I posted back-to-back Pro Tour Top 16 finishes, which brought me within a hair’s breadth of Platinum (or as Alexander Hayne would say, Platinum-Minus.) I lost three separate win-and-ins for Top 8s, and missed Worlds, Platinum, and thousands of dollars as a result. I don’t know whether to consider myself lucky for the opportunity and the success, or unlucky for the isolated random events that left me on the outside looking in when it came to the absolute highest echelon of competitive play. I will say, when Ivan Floch topdecked a Sphinx’s Revelation to bury my carefully wrought advantage in the final win-and-in of Pro Tour Magic 2015, I thought I was going to retch. Time has softened my memory of the tournament, though, and I have a healthy dose of pride in my achievement. The deck I used, B/W Midrange, was one of my best Constructed calls for a Pro Tour, and it showed. I destroyed the semi-mirrors against Mono-Black Devotion with relative ease, and even got to unlock the coveted achievement of using Whip of Erebos to return an Obzedat, Ghost Council permanently against none other than William Jensen.
Incidentally, I also lost in the finals of an Invitational that summer, playing the same trusty Orzhov pile. That decklist is the more readily available one on Internet archives, so I’ll use it to represent my small heater that I went on during that last summer of college.
2. B/W Midrange
B/W Midrange — Journey into Nyx Standard | Ben Friedman
The basic idea here was to have most of the power of the Mono-Black Devotion deck with an edge in the mirror due to Banishing Light as an amazing catch-all answer to opposing Underworld Connections or creatures. Elspeth and Obzedat weren’t too shabby, either!
Though I lost a lot of high-stakes matches with B/W Midrange, it’s one of the decks most responsible for putting me back on the Pro Tour when I was about to fall off. For that, it will likely remain my favorite Non-Blue deck for quite some time.
Of course, there’s one more deck of the past that I’m particularly proud of, and this one led to a hilarious (and tilting) camera feature match at a win-and-in for an SCG Invitational. I’ll link to the video first, then the deck.
1. Bant Heroic
Bant Heroic — Dragons of Tarkir Standard | Ben Friedman
I played this deck as a false tempo archetype, forcing opponents to make suboptimal use of their mana while patiently waiting for an opportunity to gain advantages in cards, mana, or board presence. The deck had fine card selection with all of the scrying and cantripping, and it had a great matchup against the Red aggro deck of the format. If it weren’t for Abzan Aggro, this would have been far and away the best deck of the format, but I never could get the matchup above 50%. I’ll always remember making that goofy face when I lost to a Winds of Qal Sisma into a topdecked Siege Rhino, though, and that’s what makes this the most recent addition to my collection of most memorable and best decks from my Magic history. (Mostly because thanks to it being on the “Best of SCGLive” coverage, I’m not really allowed to forget!)
Of course, there were other candidates for pivotal or memorable decks, including the Blood Moon Zoo deck I played to my first PTQ win, my Bant Eldrazi list of recent Modern memory, and the Delver deck I’ve been tweaking for the past six months. But as we all look back on 2016 and our pasts while contemplating what the future holds, I felt compelled to keep this list more in line with the best decks in my past tournament history, rather than decks I am likely to play in 2017 and beyond. And who knows? Maybe next year I’ll try to find all of the worst decks I’ve ever played!
I promise a return to more traditional strategy and advice as the new year starts up and spoilers for the new set make their way to our eager eyes, but until then, take stock of your Magic history from time to time. Often, the memories of tournaments and decks of yesteryear are some of the best rewards you can obtain in this game.