The Greatest Underdog Story Ever Told
By Dan Felder on April 17th, 2009 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now
(except maybe for that one with the boxer guy)
Imagine a person called Ian. He’s a nice guy, if a little scrawny and not quite as attractive or masculine as you (yes, he’s less manly than even a female reader). He plays magic and has maybe a couple hundred cards, mostly leftovers from starter decks and a few booster packs. He might have started playing a little while ago, or maybe he just picked up the game again. Either way, he’s exactly the kind of person you want to see sitting down across the table from you at a local Magic tournament.
We’ve all been Ian at one time or another. Few of us inherited a play set of Bitterblossoms or comprehensive knowledge of every DCI ruling in existence. No, most of us had to work our way up the ladder – buying cards and researching strategy until we became the mighty planeswalkers we are.
Not Your Average Inheritance
But not all Ians can lift themselves out of the mud. Sometimes they need a little push, a little support until they find their legs and shed their identity as Ians to don the more respectable robes of Timmys, Johnnys and Spikes.
But when they do, oh it’s a sight to see! There is no more glorious sight in all the multiverse than that moment of transcendence, when a common mage finds his spark ignited – his weaker self blasted away in a rush of insight and power – and begins his journey across the planes.
And so I bring you the story of Ian, from whom the name comes from, and his journey to ignite his planeswalker’s spark. And yes, there will be decklists throughout. But I beg you, don’t just skip down to the lists. Immerse yourself in the story of a man who was once very much like yourself.
It was a cold Tuesday evening, dusk had settled in and Ian was at my house working on an Economics project with me. We were taking a break at the moment, one that had begun shortly after he’d arrived and was still going strong four hours later. However, something was wrong. In all this time Ian had not once suggested that we play a game of magic. For him, that’s like a politician not suggesting that the opposing party is to blame for the recession. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Something was wrong with my friend and I needed to find out what.
“What’s eatin’ you, fellow planeswalker?” I jibed, a subtle hint if ever there was one. Ian shrugged, but I refused to be deterred. “Come on, you’ve gone four hours without a game. What’s wrong?”
Ian sighed. “I’m giving up on Magic,” he said. My jaw dropped. Friends don’t let friends give up Magic! “Why?” I asked, staring at his face as if searching for symptoms of a strange disease. Ian shrugged again. “No reason. I just don’t like it any more.”
“Don’t give me that,” I snarled, “I’ve seen you. You love playing the game.” Ian shook his head, started another exclamation and then stopped – deflating before my eyes. “Not with my decks,” he whispered, ashamed to speak the words aloud.
I patted him on the shoulder, “Confess your deck’s failings and be forgiven.” He took a deep breath and exploded into a stream of litanies.
“Well, I just can’t win! Everyone has all these incredible creatures like Progenitus and Darksteel Colossus and the best I’ve got is a Vizzerdrix! I don’t have any combos or synergy, I don’t have any mass removal – heck, my best kill spell is a Dark Banishing. How am I supposed to win like that?”
Well, at least it has a Shakespere quote.
I stroked my imaginary goatee. “The problem seems simple to me, my son,” I pronounced. His eyes lit up with sudden hope. “Teach me,” he murmured, falling to his knees and clasping my hands in supplication. I smiled down at him, “Buy some better cards.” Ian slumped. “But I can’t,” He whispered. “I don’t have enough money.”
“Nonsense,” I tsked, “It doesn’t take much money to build a good deck. How much do you have?” Ian did some quick calculations, “I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to spend more than twenty-five dollars. But a theme deck can’t stand up to you guys and your Ajani Vengeants.”
I grinned. “Who said anything about a theme deck? Look, some people I know are having a tournament in about a month – it’s very casual but these guys are good. Give me a few days and I’ll come up with some decklists for you – all under twenty-five dollars and all dangerously cool.” Ian was stunned. “For that I’d give my soul,” he whispered, kissing my fingertips reverently.
Well, who am I to turn down someone’s immortal soul? I immediately set to work. Three days later Ian showed up at my door, his face electrified by eager anticipation. He was hardly inside before he blurted, “Did you come up with anything?”
“Of course. I’ve got a combo deck, a control deck and a tempo deck. Which do you want to hear about first?”
“What’s a tempo deck?”
“Well, you know what a control deck is right?”
“Yeah, you kill and counter things until you drop a big guy.”
“Umm… Yeah, that’s the general idea. The point is you control the early game and then play your threats afterward. In a tempo deck it’s the opposite, you play your threats and grab an early advantage then spend all your time maintaining that advantage.”
“Makes sense,” said Ian, frowning as he processed the information. “So what does it do?”
I showed him the list. This one here in fact.
Ian looked over it. “These look really weak,” he muttered. I smiled knowingly. “That’s what a lot of people said, but when you put those weak cards together they make something very close to the best tempo deck of all time.”
“Nope.” I said, pointing to Tallowisp. “This guy’s the secret. He’s a card-advantage engine that turns every spell you play into a free search for one of your auras – a.k.a. removal spells. He’ll get you five free cards over the course of the game to take down all your opponent’s best creatures. Even if you don’t play all those spells, they fill up your hand to pitch to your shoals and turn on Descendant of Kiyomaro. The descendant is especially cool here, since he’s almost always better than a Rhox War Monk and a lot easier to cast.”
With this guy around, who needs dark confidant?
“Okay…” Ian said, chewing on the word, “I can see that. But seriously, Thief of Hope? It’s just a Grey Ogre with a bad ability.”
“Bad ability? It has an awesome ability! Think about it this way, you’re going to play tons of spirits and arcane spells over the course of the game, some of them for free. A single Thief can drain 5 or more points over the course of the game. Even if it dies it can still bring back one of your spirits to your hand. Believe it or not, a similar list was used back when these cards were standard and it won quite a few tournaments. And yes, they played Thief of Hope.” Ian was impressed. “How much does the deck cost?”
“Less than twenty dollars. Maybe less than fifteen if you know where to go. Also you could even drop the price lower with only a small decrease in power by getting rid of the shoals. Shining Shoal is incredible, but Blessed Breath does nearly as good a job of protecting your creatures. For Sickening Shoal you could play Rend Flesh or Nameless Inversion. Changelings are spirits after all, and you could even bring them back to your hand with soulshift. But that part was easy, just adapting a really good deck. Here’s another one of those,” I said, pulling out another list – one that looked something like this.
“This deck,” I continued, “is another tournament staple. It’s really powerful and shuts down creature decks altogether. It also has some nice sideboard options in Auramancer and Duegrar Hedge-Mage. With those guys it's next to impossible for the opponent to keep your enchantments down, or keep any artifacts or enchantments of their own on the table.” Ian poured over the list, lips pursed, “But what does it do?”
“Whatever you want! Astral Slide lets you remove creatures from the game and bring them back again whenever you cycle a card. It lets you kill tokens, un-morph creatures, stop a creature from attacking, or block with one of your guys and then remove them before they die. Combine that with comes-into-play or leaves-play abilities and you've got some wicked shennanigans.
"With Aven Riftwatcher you’ll be gaining 4 life every time - plus blocking a lot of damage. Then once you have threshold, and you will get threshold, Pardic Arsonist can come into play repeatedly to smack creatures or players upside the head for three damage. On top of all that, Lightning Rift lets you turn all your cycling action into shocks – taking down creatures and players alike. But the best thing is that you’ll never, ever, have mana problems. If you draw too many lands you just cycle away the excess and there’s no way you’re going to draw too few.
"This deck costs about twenty four dollars, though if you traded in Akroma's Vengeance for more Starstorms it would cost even less. You could also play a Maelstrom Djinns as kill conditions instead of Fledgling Dragon - unmorphing them with Astral Slide. If you do use the Djinn it's possible to make a 5/6 flying on turn 4 - just play astral slide on turn three and then morph the djinn next turn and cycle something to remove it from play and bring it back face up. I prefer Fledging Dragon though, because you don't need a Slide for it to be scary."
“Wow, it looks awesome. That’s the control deck right?”
“Right, because it locks down the game until you kill them with a Fledgling Dragon, Pardic Arsonists or all that Lightning Rift action. I think this version actually has a lot of advantages over most non-budget builds of the deck since Fledgling Dragon kills Exalted Angel in combat and the Aven Riftwatchers gain you life a lot faster than a Kitchen Finks. They’re like Bottle Gnomes on crack.”
“Okay, this is seriously cool. I think I want to build this one.”
“Now don’t be too hasty,” I scold. “Don’t make your decision until you’ve seen all the options. You didn’t really think I’d throw away a real deck building challenge like this by just reworking a few tournament lists, did you? No, I saved the best for last…” Ian laughed. “Course you did. Alright, I think it’s time for combo.”
“Naturally,” I purr, slipping the final list off my shelf. “Behold the power!”
Ian looked at it. He smirked. “Funny. You’re messing with me, right?”
“Not at all.”
“But it’s just a bunch of random artifacts.”
“To the untrained eye perhaps,” I murmured mysteriously. “The untrained.”
The list was as follows.
Ian shook his head. “Dan, this sucks. Even I can tell it sucks. I mean, you’ve got Mishra in a deck with only crappy artifacts. His whole point as a card is to double your Darksteel Collosi.”
Mom, mom look what I made today at school!.
“One would think… One would think.”
“Yes, one would. I do. Now stop pretending you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi and show me the real deck!”
“This is the real deck! It’s got some incredible flavor – it’s all about Mishra in his younger days before he gained planeswalkin’ power. These are the kind of things he made, these are the kind of spells he cast. Isn’t that awesome?”
“No. I’m not spending twenty-five dollars on a deck for its flavor.”
“Okay, check this out – turn 1 you lay down an island or something along with a Sensei’s Divining Top. Next turn you play an Artificer’s Intuition. Turn three you tap an island to discard an artifact, doesn’t matter which, and fetch Locket of Yesterdays. The locket reduces the cost of all your spells by one for each copy in the graveyard. Following me?”
“I think, but what’s the point?”
“Well, now all your artifacts pretty much read 0: Draw a card. You can easily draw most of your deck, manipulating it effortlessly with Artificer’s Intuition for shuffling effects and Sensei’s Divining Top to better control your draws. After you have Mishra you can usually draw your entire deck in one turn. But you almost never get that far.”
“Because you don’t have to. With Artificer’s Intuition you can pitch an artifact to search for another one that costs 1 or less. So after you fetch the locket you discard something else to search for another divining top. Then you discard THAT divining top to search for a third one.
“Wait, why discard the second top to get a third? Actually, why even get a second top in the first place?”
“Because with a top in your graveyard all your other tops can be played for free. So if you have one in the grave and two in your hand you can play one for free and tap to draw a card, putting it on top of your deck afterwards. Then you lay down your second top, tapping it and drawing the FIRST top again, putting the SECOND top onto your deck. Then you Play the FIRST top again and tap it to pick up the SECOND top and put the FIRST… you see where this is going?”
Ian grinned, the smile of a shark that had spotted a bare behind. “Right into a grapeshot.”
“Exactly!” I crowed, “And it’s almost unstoppable, because storm can’t be countered except by Stifle or something and the Tops can tap to save themselves from artifact destruction. Only Krosan Grip could destroy them before they tapped, darn split second, but even if it does you have Conjurer's Bauble that can put cards from your grave on the bottom of your library to be searched out again. I’ve tested this deck quite a bit and it kills on turn 4 or 5 usually, sometimes going till 6 - though it technically could go off on three.
“Unfortunately, the Sensei’s Divining Tops are pretty expensive, but you can pick them up for 4 dollars if you go to the right places. However, if you REALLY don’t want to buy them, you could just play a few copies of Etherium Sculptor and focus on drawing your deck and then playing a grapeshot rather than going for an infinite loop. Actually, I’ve done that with this version too, even when playing against disruption. Also, the deck has a lot of consistency because it can search out answers and put its important pieces on the bottom of the deck before you shuffle it. One of my opponents played a Tinker combo where he got a Platinum Angel into play on turn 3. I didn’t have a grapeshot so I just searched out my aether spell-bomb and bounced the poor thing. If you did have any extra money, an Engineered Explosives or two would make the deck absurd.”
“It sounds pretty absurd already.”
“It is, it is, and the Divining Top is the only expensive thing in it. Everything else goes for fifty cents or less and most of em can be found for a dime. You don’t even need the artifact lands. I just wanted the ability to search out a land if I need be or pitch an extra land to search for another artifact. However, I almost never did either of those things in any of my play testing so they could easily be cut.
“So there’s your decks Ian. Which one do you like the best?” Ian started to answer, then stopped. He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. He wrung his hands, a thing I’d often heard about but never actually seen done before. He was overwrought.
“I can’t decide!” He moaned, burying his face in his hands. I moved over and held him tight. “It’s alright,” I cooed. “The tournament’s not for another three weeks. You’ll have plenty on time to decide.” Ian nodded and gulped appreciatively. He picked up the decklists and hurried off to parts unknown.
I saw Ian little over the next couple of weeks. I was busy drafting Shards/Shards/Conflux as well as doing some relatively trivial things in my spare time (like studying for college). In fact, it wasn’t until the tournament that I got to talk magic with him again.
“So, which did you get?” I asked, flopping down beside him on the couch. Ian smirked and reached into his backpack, pulling out a deck box. “None of them.” My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t believe it. He’d traded his soul for those decklists and now he was just going to throw them away?!?
“Ian…” I began, calmly as I could, “Your normal decks can’t cut it here. It’s madness I tell you!” Ian shrugged, “Well, good thing I’m not playing my normal decks. I designed this one myself.”
I grabbed his arm. “It’s not too late – if we hurry back right now, we can grab you a deck from my house!” Ian shook his head, stubborn to the core. I knew by the steely look in his eyes that there was nothing left to say. He was determined to be crushed, and there was absolutely nothing, nothing, I could do to stop it! I threw up my hands in defeat, murmured a prayer for him, and moved off to talk to the rest of the group – trying to drown the wound in my soul with empty conversation. But all too soon it was time for the first round.
My first match was difficult, but that was mainly due to play mistakes as I worried about Ian. I kept glancing over to his table, trying to see what was happening. I couldn’t quite make out the actual cards but the signs weren’t good. The first time I checked, his board was nearly empty and he was staring down three or four creatures. When I looked back a minute or two later there was nothing but a few lands on the table and some random artifact on Ian’s side. I winced. They were already on game two.
I finished up my own game, my Martyr-Tron deck finally locking down a host of goblins while I enjoyed the turn-skipping fun of winning with Chronosavants. If you haven’t yet tried out the 5/5 giant, you really should pick up a few. They’re absurdly fun and quite a dangerous threat if you can manage to lock down the board.
If it's good enough for Gabriel Nassif....
My match had gone the longest, life gain combined with turn-skipping will do that, and after the Giant had finally lumbered in for that last few points of damage it was time for round two. This time Ian was seated much further away and I couldn’t begin to make out what was happening. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him between the rounds and, seeing my opponent drop a Spiketail Hatchling, I knew I was in for another loooong match.
The games were fun though. In any match between two control decks it’s all about who can gather the most card advantage to power through a threat. Life almost doesn’t matter. This put my martyr engine at a disadvantage; but that’s why you have Chronosavant! They keep coming back no matter how many times they’re countered (well, minus Counterbore). The funny thing was that I won both matches by decking. When you skip seven or eight turns over the course of a game, you can just sit back and watch your opponent draw himself to death.
Once again, my game had gone the longest and I had barely scooped up my cards when I was muscled over to my seat for round three. I flopped down into my chair and prepared to greet my opponent.
It was Ian.
My jaw dropped. It couldn’t be, there was no way he could have won two rounds! He must have died, crushed beneath the weight of his no-doubt humiliating defeats, and was now left wraith-like to walk the earth; seeking some piece of vengeance for his fall. It was the only possible explanation!!!
“Hey, are you okay?” asked the ghost of Ian, a worried look passing over its mock-features. I reached out my hand, gently brushing his arm. My fingers touched flesh. He was alive!... But that meant something far stranger was going on. “Yeah,” I murmured, gathering my wits, “Congratulations. What deck are you playing?” Ian grinned. “My own,” he insisted. “Cross my heart.”
Well, if there’s one thing Ian isn't, it’s a liar. Whatever he was shuffling had been made by him. I wondered briefly how much he’d bribed his first two opponents to forfeit their matches. I shrugged and drew my starting seven. Ian mulliganed to six and the game began.
And what a game it was!
Oh, it started off innocently enough. I lay down an Adarkar Wastes and Ian answered with a Darksteel Citadel. I shook my head. He must be playing affinity. Well, that was nothing I couldn’t handle. Even if he managed to steal game one I’d just side in my Fracturing Gusts and take games two and three. I dropped a Calciform Pools, leaving mana open to play Memory Lapse, while Ian dropped a… Mountain? What was he playing?
I put it out of my mind and the game wore on as I played deck manipulation effects like Court Hussar and countered the odd Incinerate or Sulfurous Blast. Ian dropped more random cards including another Darksteel Citadel and a Darksteel Ingot. Meanwhile I had gained 43 life through Martyr of Sands and Proclamation of Rebirth, which put me at a comfortable 51 (I let a few of the flames through). On the other hand, Ian was at a scant 12, having taken a few hits to the face. I began to relax. I knew he couldn’t win, I was well out of burn range and had three counters in my hand. It was all over but the crying.
And then Ian taps seven lands alongside his Darksteel Ingot and plays this!
WHAT THE HELL?!?
I loose everything. My lands, my creatures, my artifacts, everything. But Ian, the little freak, gets to keep his Darksteel Ingots and Citadels! And if there’s one thing Martyr-Tron needs to run, it’s MANA… I draw my next turn but don’t get a land and have to pass. Ian untaps, plays a vivid crag and then taps his darksteel things to play another ingot. I swallow, draw, and pass again. Ian draws, plays a mountain and taps everything to drop Hostility, swinging for 6. A few burn spells later he has an army of elementals in play and I am very, very dead.
RAAWWWR! MEE EATS BLUE MAGES!
After a frantic attempt at side-boarding I show up for game two. This time I counter every Darksteel Ingot I see and bounce every land I can. But now Ian’s sided out all his red board-sweepers and he’s throwing burn spell after burn spell at my face, whittling away my counters and life. I’m at only 9 when I finally dig up a Circle of Protection: Red and can sit back safely while I amass my army. Wow, lucky I had been so worried about Deus of Calamity in the rush decks!
Ian thinks for a moment as I lay down the enchantment. He throws an incinerate at me in response, before the enchantment resolves and I’m forced to counter it. He taps two more for ANOTHER incinerate, his fourth so far, and I’m all out of counter magic. I fall to six and Ian lets the enchantment resolve. I pass the turn to him and he lays down a Darksteel Citadel.
“Are you really out of counters?” He asks.
“Good enough for me!” He grins, tapping his five of his seven lands and removing two counters from his Vivid Crags to play… Liliana Vess! He cheerfully takes off two loyalty counters, searching his deck for a card and putting it on top. I don’t have any answers to Liliana so I play a Court Hussar, grab a Chronosavant off the top of my deck and pass the turn back. Ian untaps, lays down a Darksteel Citadel and…
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING...
This time I don’t loose quite everything. You see, Obliterate doesn’t affect enchantments so I get to keep my Circle of Protection. However, there’s another type of permanent that Obliterate doesn’t affect.
Here was Ian’s decklist.
Admittedly it’s a little untuned and in desperate need of some Earthquakes (plus I wouldn’t say no to a bit of black removal). Nevertheless, Ian’s deck ran rampant through the tournament. The mass burn spells killed off the rush decks, his Hostility burn suite put combo on a short clock and any control deck that managed to hold on till the end ran right into an Obliterate. It was madness!
In the end, though, he lost to a particularly vicious Mistmeadow Witch/Reveillark player who kept moving his creatures out of harm's way. Obliterate is a much less attractive option when your opponent is going to be the one with three creatures in play after the dust settles. It was an unfortunate match-up but he took his defeat with a grin and happily scooped up his prize of seven conflux booster packs.
I cornered Ian after the tournament as he sat on the couch, riffling through his packs. “Welcome to the world of planeswalkers.” I murmured, laying a hand on his shoulder. Ian smiled, “Thanks.”
“Pretty expensive deck for you, wouldn’t you say?”
“It wasn’t too bad. I found the planeswalkers for four to six dollars each. I borrowed the Austere Commands, but I found a store that sells them for a dollar apiece. Most of the other cards are pretty cheap and the Beacon of Destruction/Hammer of Bogardan stuff was just gravy. Any good burn spell would work. Plus, I was able to find a legitimate excuse to play Volcanic Spray, which is dirt cheap. Usually it’s just a really bad mass burn spell but it can completely hose weenie decks like goblins, elves and kithkin.”
“Yeah, but that’s still a lot more than twenty-five dollars!”
Ian let out a blissful sigh, “Maybe… But it was worth it.” He cracked open his first pack, sifting through it slowly as he took in the unfamiliar cards. Then his eyes lit up and he plucked out his rare, showing it to me. I laughed, shaking my head in disbelief. It was too perfect.
His very own Progenitus.
By Dan Felder on April 17th, 2009 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now
About Dan Felder
Dan Felder has been playing Magic ever since his friend tricked him into sitting down for a game in fifth grade. He loves Magic far more than he should and has a special affection for budget deck-building and casual play. He hopes to one day pick up the legacy of his favorite Magic authors and write the Building on a Budget or Serious Fun column for Magicthegathering.com.
Dan's currently a game design student at Oregon State University as well as its Senior Game-Research Lab technician and analyst. If you want to talk game design, deck design or anything else - feel free to send him a PM.