Today I’ll be taking a break from Magic Online Pauper to get back to my roots in paper Magic! I miss shuffling up in the evenings with my friends back home in Michigan and today I wanted to talk about a handful of cards that inform how I like to play the game. If play style is indeed a thing, and I think it is for most players, these are the ways to win games of Magic that truly lend themselves to the strategies and decks I enjoy playing the most.
Today’s article isn’t a discussion of the objectively best or most dominant win conditions in history. I’m going to do something a little bit different and write about my subjective favorites and what they have taught me about Magic strategy over the years.
If I were going to be “objective” it’s a simple matter of looking at:
“What are the most powerful and undercosted cards and how long were they the able to remain the most powerful options before either being banned, or usurped by a more powerful card in the meta:
There are hundreds of cards like these that have been the default best cards informing metagames and/or the most efficient finishers across formats.
Delver of Secrets is a great example. Before Delver people jammed Nimble Mongoose in their Legacy Xerox Blue decks. Delver is simply a better card in terms of synergy, color identity and stats. Wizards of the Coast hasn’t printed a better Delver, nor banned Delver, so it remains the flagship Tempo threat.
Other cards, like Deathrite Shaman, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Oko, Thief of Crowns are simply so much better compared to the next best replacement option that were entirely warped around building around or adding these cards because they are, simply put, more powerful and efficient than other cards that exist.
It’s also interesting to me that most of the cards on my list tend to be signature strategic components of specific decks. Unlike Deathrite Shaman, which is an awesome card and sort of found its way into most decks, a lot of the cards on my list of favorites tend to be ones a deck builder often needs to work for getting the most out of.
Is Play Style a Real Thing?
Absolutely. If a player is more comfortable executing certain types of strategies than others it will always bias and inform their deck choice. A Pro Tour Champion once told me that of all the players on our team, I had the largest range in terms of decks I could pick up and play well and that’s a compliment that meant a lot to me.
I’m certainly not limited by my play style preference as much as others because I’ve played Magic for such a long time, but it still informs what I like to play and how I approach the game.
If all types of strategies were equally viable, I would always choose to play an attrition based strategy. I enjoy long drawn out games that are battles over resources that force both players to make a lot of different evaluations about what is important over the course of a long game. I typically find, that because I am an experienced player with a large range of experience, that the more decisions both players tend to make the more I tend to be favored. I personally enjoy these types of chess matches.
I also enjoy flexibility. Who doesn’t? I don’t like “all or nothing match ups.” Since most of my Magic experience is based on playing paper tournaments where every game and match matters toward qualifying for Top 8 contention, I like to play decks that don’t crumble to specific strategies when possible. With those two factors of my preferences in mind, let’s take a look at what have been some of my favorite cards and strategies to build around over the years.
8. SPIDER WALLING
Tactically, I love the ability to “Spider Wall” people in games of Magic. I love advantageous blocks and setting up board states that make it difficult for an opponent to properly leverage their attacks and combat damage. I’m also a big fan of Limited formats where 2/4 creatures are viable blockers and often tend to dislike Limited formats where being able to make advantageous blocks isn’t encouraged.
I have a special soft spot for Spider Spawning because I loved drafting the self-mill archetype in Innistrad Limited. It reminds me a lot of drafting Storm in Magic Online cube where card evaluations shift dramatically by virtue of building a linear archetype. Spider Spawning is also one of the most powerful win conditions in my Danger Room Battle Box.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow was a centerpiece of my favorite “The Rock” deck I’ve ever played, BG Delirium with Traverse the Ulvenwald in Battle for Zendikar Standard. I helped the Ann Arbor guys work on the 75 for Pro Tour Kaladesh and Kyle Boggemes really put together a nice core for the BG deck we worked on, tuned and played at that tournament.
I loved the synergy and consistency of that BG deck and the fact that it could tutor a creature like Ishkanah to make it really difficult for an opponent to profitably attack me. I’m a big fan of strategies that allow me a lot of good options and obviously a huge fan of decks that allow me to tutor for the right card in the right situation. My competitive Magic play has always been informed by my Vintage days where “tutoring” was a fixture of every Mana Drain deck I played for years.
The concept of making it difficult for an opponent to make profitable attacks is derivative of another favorite card of mine from back in the day, and one I’ve tutored for in Vintage (or in Legacy with Enlightened Tutor) many times:
A lot of decks tend to be based on attacking to win the game, so I love having the ability to address that popular strategy directly in the decks I sleeve up.
Ishkanah and Spider Spawning also hit my wheelhouse as cards I love to play with because not only do they make combat a nightmare for the opponent, but they also double as win conditions. I’ve drained many, many opponents out with Ishkanah’s activated ability on a stalemated board.
7. THE SOFT LOCK
I qualified for my first ever Pro Tour playing an Isochron Scepter deck in Extended back in the early 2000s. I was a Vintage Magic player back then and wasn’t particularly interested in playing other formats… until I saw Masashi Oiso’s Scepter Chant Deck.
I thought the deck looked cool, fun to play and was so stacked with cards I already enjoyed playing in other formats that I decided to build it and start playing it locally. The deck was so good that I qualified for the Pro Tour with it without even really intending to! I really just wanted to cast Fact or Fictions and Counterspells for eight rounds in a row against other talented players at a PTQ.
Again, the thing I loved about Scepter was that it was so flexible and effective in a strategy that was all about winning a war over resources. It allowed the deck to establish a soft lock over an opponent’s entire turn sequence since Orim’s Chant can be “kicked” to deny combat even when cast by activating Isochron Scepter.
Scepter could also be a draw engine with the right cards.
Or, a counter wall.
Or double as extra removal, life gain and a win condition:
Few decks before or since have offered such a compact and effective package of utility and flexibility.
The deck could do all these awesome things and had sweet tutor in the form of Cunning Wish to find the right bullet at the right time. It was also one of the most brutal decks in terms of giving an opponent a lot of “no win” Fact or Fiction piles to divide.
6. Pod and Toolbox
Another style of deck that I enjoy are “Toolbox” decks built around a powerful lynchpin engines.
Survival of the Fittest is a tutoring engine that’s so powerful in facilitating graveyard strategies it’s actually had a renaissance in Vintage over the past year.
The thing I loved most about playing Pod was that not only was the card a powerful engine capable of running people over, but it also allowed me to have specific tutor targets in my deck that I could search up in key match ups that were inherently strong against my deck.
Of all the various shapes and sizes of linear decks, Storm is my favorite deck to actually play.
I mentioned earlier that I enjoy drafting Storm decks in Cube and building these decks forces players to make really interesting card evaluations that are archetype specific. I love when Limited formats have narrow sub-archetypes that really give the cards more variable value depending upon the style of deck I’m building. I’m also a huge fan of the deck because it turns games of Magic into a puzzle whereby I’m trying to figure out how I can deploy my win condition through an opponent’s defense.
If I’m going to choose a proactive strategy, rather than a reactive one, I love playing a deck like Storm that doesn’t care about an opponent’s creature removal and is difficult for most decks to race to the finish line.
Storm remains a powerful choice in formats where it is legal including Modern, Legacy and Vintage. Most of the cards that have “Storm” have been banned from Pauper simply because it’s such a powerful and linear strategy that it’s difficult for decks to defend themselves against.
If I’m approaching a metagame where I don’t feel like controlling or interacting profitably with a large swath of the viable strategies is an option, Storm is always my favorite linear combo deck to sleeve up. If I don’t feel being reactive is a well positioned strategy, I’m typically inclined to sleeve up something that demands specific types of interaction to be countered, such as Storm or Dredge.
4. Taking Time
The way I tend to think about attrition-based strategy is that the objective of every play I make, from turn one onward, is informed by the idea of putting myself a turn ahead of my opponent. In turn, you leverage that advantage to get two or three turns ahead to the point that the opponent simply doesn’t have enough draw steps to find enough relevant cards to win the game.
If I can get my opponent hellbent and have a Counterspell in my hand, that means they need to draw a relevant threat in order to progress their game and force me to use my countermagic. It’s essentially a strategy that puts an opponent behind and then continues to pull further ahead. If I have a Spider Wall or Moat in play that’s keeping my opponent from attacking, every creature they draw is unlikely to matter which allows me to save my Counterspells for cards that actually matter.
Cards that allow a player to take an extra turn are ones I tend to think of as incredibly powerful. When Magic was first being playtested there was confusion over the wording of the original extra turn card.
It actually read “Target player loses next turn” originally.
The confusion was whether the caster takes an extra turn or if the opponent actually loses the game next turn. It was obviously fixed and clarified before Alpha was released but I think that original, confusing wording gets to the heart of what makes taking extra turns so powerful – it deprives opponent’s of their opportunity to take game action while propelling the caster further ahead.
Clearly, repeatedly depriving an opponent of their ability to take their turn has been proven to be an absurdly powerful ability, especially when that card can be shuffled back into the deck, redrawn and recast over and over.
Infinite turns is a combo that I’m all about when it’s an option in a format and something I would always try to shoehorn into a deck if it’s viable. When we get to various endgame scenarios that powerful decks can execute, simply depriving an opponent of their turn repeatedly is basically the next best thing to simply winning the game. If an opponent can’t play, they can’t win.
Whereas Scepter Chant was a “soft lock,” (an opponent could still untap and draw a card for their turn and cast instants during their upkeep) some of these other “time” based combos are much harder to break out of. The difference is, when going off with Key + Vault or looping Nexus of Fate, an opponent never actually regains control of their turn and thus cannot interact profitably.
If I were building a Commander deck that was trying to do the most powerful things possible, I would lean hard on taking extra turns. What’s better than skipping one opponent’s turn? Skipping four opponent’s turns!
3. The Most Powerful Proactive / Reactive Combo of All Time
Another strategic core that has made its way into a ton of my decks over the years.
I played this combo in Standard, I played this combo in Extended, I played this combo in Vintage and I played a ton of this combo in Legacy before it was ultimately banned.
In my observation, Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top is probably the most flexible and most powerful attrition-based combo ever in competitive Magic. Sensei’s Top is already a straight-up powerful card on its own that would be great in nearly any deck. When paired with this two mana enchantment, it allowed a player to essentially counter an opponent’s spells repeatedly over the course of a long game without ever having to invest resources.
Sensei’s Top already synergizes to create a soft lock over an opponent’s ability to resolve spells but it also set up other types of powerful combos.
Tapping a Sensei’s Top to draw a Terminus from the top of the deck during an opponent’s combat step allowed Miracles decks access to a one mana, instant speed super-wrath! Looping and replaying two Sensei’s Tops with a Monastery Mentor in play was an incredibly potent win condition that typically allowed Miracles to end the game in one large attack step on the next turn.
Being able to win quickly is really important in paper tournaments, especially in attrition-based decks that can have an issue with going to time and potentially drawing the round. The fact that when the game goes to turns the Miracle player could deploy a Mentor, make a bunch of monks and attack for hundreds of damage on the next turn meant that it had legitimate ways to win quickly and concisely.
In timed rounds, a threat that can be deployed and immediately threatens to win the game on the next turn, even when an opponent has blockers, is so much better than needing ten turns worth of combat steps to attack with a singular uncontested creature.
Most combos we tend to think of as proactive, like Reanimating a Griselbrand or storming off to win the game, but the Counter-Top combo was a defense-oriented combo that could be proactively put onto the board to generate advantage turn after turn. This style of deck is something that resonated with how I like to play with a defensive and attrition based mindset.
Clearly, Sensei’s Top is a bonkers card that has been cycled out of most formats but for many years this powerful defensive combo was my go-to core for decks in every format where it was allowed.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking about how I prefer to play an attrition-based game where I’m working to get turns ahead of an opponent. I’ve even talked about how powerful I tend to view cards that “skip my opponent’s turn,” or creating soft locks that mess with my opponent’s timing, but nothing compares to Mindslaver activation. If skipping an opponent’s turn is powerful, taking control of an opponent’s turn is the creme de la creme of a Time Mage’s arsenal!
In a lot of games, gaining control of one of an opponent’s turns is often enough to win the game outright, especially in a format like Vintage where Mindslaver was at its best. When both decks involved in a game are so powerful, it was often the case that I could simply make my opponent kill themselves when I took control of their turn by making them tutor for Necropotence, or tutor for Ancestral Recall and force them to target me with it or simply sacrifice all of their best cards to their own Smokestack.
Not to mention, Mindslaver can be recurred with cards like Goblin Welder and Academy Ruins to create a soft lock of owning somebody else’s turn. Control Slaver was usurped by a more efficient Temporal combo in the form of Key and Vault but it was still a particularly unique and dominant deck for many years and is my favorite Magic deck of all time.
I’ve played Mindslaver in Extended, Modern and Standard Tron decks. It’s a very big endgame but much more niche and more challenging to consistently execute than it was in Vintage. .
In Commander, I tend to find cards like Mindslaver and others that allow a player to control another player’s turn are the most powerful threat because they are so devastating when resolved.
I once played a game of Type 4 where a player put a Mindslaver onto the stack in their main phase and by the end of the resolution of that stack every player had put forward every possible resource they could to influence the outcome. It was a forty minute stack. At the end of it, the player who was able to control the Desertion targeting the Mindslaver won the game on the spot.
I also mentioned the “Spider Wall” earlier in the article and how much I enjoyed being able to tutor for that effect in Standard BG Delirium. Well, that deck also had the ability to use Traverse the Ulvenwald to tutor for something special.
I like to play defense with solid, flexible cards and then eventually cleanly transition into a powerful offense when the time is right. In Magic, there are few pivots from defense to offense that are more profound than putting Emrakul, the Promised End onto the stack (at least not from decks that don’t play Blue cards).
1. Creature Lands
I’m all about attrition and few things embody that style of play better than lands that can become creatures to attack or block within a battle of trades taking place back and forth.
Of all the cards in Magic: the Gathering, Mishra’s Factory has likely appeared in my decks more than any other card. It went into my decks when I was 13 years old back in 1995 and it still goes into my decks more than 25 years later. I’ve played blue Counterspell decks, mono brown Mishra’s Workshop decks, Lands.dec, Death and Taxes, Burn, Affinity, Eldrazi and the list goes on and on. More so than any other card on my list, Mishra’s Factory tends to fall into that Deathrite Shaman category of simply being an insanely good Magic card that makes decks better when included in decks.
The reason I love it so much is that it’s such an effective defensive tool. The fact that Factory can be activated, perform a block and then tap to pump itself up to a 3/3 on defense is such a strong interaction. Factory is also a great way to continue making land drops and then eventually transitioning into offense when the time is right.
Factory has always been an ungodly powered Magic card ever since the mid 90s but its value actually increased with the addition of the card type planeswalker to the game in Lorwyn. Simply having a land that can turn into a creature to attack walkers is a very strong tactic.
The addition of planeswalkers has made creature lands an even more important part of strategy in competitive Magic and there are plenty of examples of various creature lands that have made a big splash over the years and I’ve enjoyed playing with all of them!
Blinkmoth Nexus has seen play in the original Affinity decks of Standard and Modern.
Mutavault fits perfectly in Faeries and other tribal decks.
The Worldwake creature lands that were a staple of Standard and remain so in Modern. These beefy creature lands were a hugely important part of gameplay to combat powerful planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Gideon Jura.
Inky deserves its own little discussion among great creature lands because it’s such a devastating threat by virtue of having infect and being able to outright kill an opponent in one swing. We’ve seen Inkmoth Nexus effectively utilized when it was in Standard along with Kessig Wolf Run and Primeval Titan by players like Brian Kibler.
The card is a cornerstone of every Infect deck where pumping it with combat tricks can allow it to present lethal all by itself in a single turn! It was also the best and most frightening threat in various versions of Modular Affinity and regular Affinity because it could simply kill the opponent by moving modular counters around to alpha strike a defenseless opponent with infect damage or simply equipping it with a Cranial Plating to represent a one shot one kill inside of combat.
Something I think that is interesting about writing an article like this one is that it really forced me to think about the decks I like to play and why I like to play them. Even though I consider myself to have a wide range and am able to play many styles of decks effectively, at the end of the day there are certain types of strategies that I naturally gravitate towards.
Everything is contextual. As much as I enjoy playing attrition based decks, I’m happy to jam mono red aggro if I think it’s well positioned in a metagame. Nonetheless, I get more enjoyment out of playing decks that force a lot of evaluations and decisions to be made over the course of many turns, as opposed to simply trying to present threats and apply pressure. I love flexibility. I love decks that can do more than one thing well. I love decks that can pressure an opponent on lots of different axis, such as mana, resources or even tactics.
That’s part of what makes Magic such an incredible game. There’s no right or wrong way to think about these things, but we are always challenged to look at metagames and how decks line up to look for various solutions or new ways to create different kinds of strategic tensions.
I know what I like, but after writing today’s article I have a much better understanding of exactly why I like those things.