Timeless Lists: Reflections on Masterpieces in Deckbuilding

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This week I wanted to do something a little bit different from my past couple articles. Leave it to me to propose a tonal shift to my article topics, and then immediately afterwards break from the mold to do something different. Still, a couple personal/opinion pieces in a row suggests a shift every now and then, and I found myself hesitant to discuss Ixalan spoilers this soon, or MTGO tournament results. Instead, I thought it would be a fun exercise to take a look back at a few archetypes of ages past that have stuck in my mind through the years. Each deck has impacted me personally and spoke to me in one sense or another. I find this interesting as a sequel of sorts to my article about identity in Modern, and I think this is a topic we can all take something from, or at least break from the mold and entertain ourselves for a little bit as we reminisce. For those seeking the ever-elusive "edge," I’ve found success with this before—by breaking outside of the box that is the current Modern landscape, we can often stumble upon something that we can apply to our decklists (or thoughts) today. So, let’s get to it!

As a brief note, these lists are not meant as examples of the "best lists" in Magic, but rather a small collection of decks that impacted me personally. I encourage you to reflect on your own, and let me know in the comments what they are and why you chose them!

This one is almost six years old at this point, and it’s still one of my favorite decks. This particular Open was my second-ever high-level tournament, fresh off of a stomping at GP Pittsburgh a couple months before. Illusions was all the rage back then, and Delver was the talk of the town. Mono-Black Infect was packing ten removal spells in some lists, and UW Illusions, Tempered Steel and Humans were priced into racing.

I show this list not because it's good, but because this event taught me the value of responding to format perception, beyond just playing a strong list. Illusions players were playing 20 lands and eight one-drop creatures, and their success depended entirely on whether they could overload opposing removal and curve out consistently. Sound familiar? For me, Timely Reinforcements and Day of Judgment were much more interesting spells to be casting, but I was worried that classic UW Control was too slow to succeed against all the tempo-aggro and Wolf Run Ramp running around.

So, I had the bright idea of jamming some token generation, instant-speed tricks, and four copies of Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration into a control shell in an effort to "pivot" and disguise my plan against my opponent. Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration was public enemy number one on the weekend, and most of my cards suggested I was playing some slightly larger UW Illusions amalgamation, so I thought I had a good chance of confusing some opponents and generating some poor sideboarding decisions in my post-board games.

Amazingly, it worked beautifully. Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration was killed on sight almost always, but opposing removal was quickly made awkward in the face of Midnight Haunting and Moorland Haunt tokens. This played right into my plan of forcing my opponent to spend time, mana, and resources dealing with my threat instead of playing their own. Swords made every single creature a threat, and my opponent couldn’t afford to tap out to overload my defenses for fear of getting hit with a Sword of Feast and Famine on the backswing. Opponents were forced into slowing down and spending removal on tokens, which played right into my Gideon Jura and Consecrated Sphinx endgame. After board, they had the unenviable decision of keeping in removal for Delver and Sword-wielding tokens, while I could tune to their exact gameplan or blow them out with things like Geist of Saint Traft and Batterskull.

It was a Frankenstein, but it worked. I took 10th, on the back of a ton of misplays (remember, second tournament, and I was very much interested in playing pet cards and archetypes like Consecrated Sphinx over the consensus best option). I won my win-and-in and missed Top 8 on tiebreakers. I was hooked. While the decklist looks like a monster (no one-for-one removal in the maindeck in an Illusions format?!), the thought process behind my decisions were spot on, and I almost got there in a format where playing anything but Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration in an aggressive shell was considered a mistake.

The lesson, if I can give one, is that the consensus version of a deck isn’t always the right one, and value can be found in other places than on printed cardboard. This, more than anything, translates directly to Modern, where players spend countless hours tweaking decks and practicing matchups. Looking past the novelty of going rogue, the right list, on the right day and with the proper conditions, can do anything—even in the hands of an inexperienced pilot.

And then there’s this deck, which taught me to love a collection of 75 cards. GP Orlando in early 2012 was Delver city. Roughly a month after the SCG Open from above, Illusions had shifted away, replaced by Delver/Invisible Stalker/Geist of Saint Traft with Runechanter's Pike and a ton of tempo spells like Gut Shot and the like. I played two maindeck Mental Misstep here—I talked a bit about this event last week—for all the one-drop creatures and removal spells running around, and it was amazing. Patrick Chapin went the other way, playing Pristine Talisman into Curse of Death's Hold. Because, you know, reasons.

Four Desperate Ravings and three Forbidden Alchemy pretty much sums up that format for me. It was insane. The endgame was Sorin Markov and a flashbacked Devil's Play, or just making your opponent concede out of pure boredom. The deck was built to beat up on Delver decks, which were assumed to keep down all of the Wolf Run Ramp titan decks in the field. It’s poetic that Chapin lost in the finals to Conley Woods’ BG Wolf Run Ramp brew, which was packing Grave Titan as an immediate board stabilizer that couldn’t be removed by one card (because only an idiot would play Day of Judgment, right?).

This decklist taught me the lesson of variability at the top tables, and the danger of going too far down the rabbit hole. It’s not entirely fair, as Chapin definitely had a plan for regular Wolf Run Ramp, but Grave Titan was a problem he couldn’t solve. One Life's Finale isn’t enough, and while I love this decklist with all its intricacies (two Blue Sun's Zenith in the board!) this event showed me that you can only control too much (pun definitely intended). For Modern, when I’ve crafted that perfect Spell Queller tempo brew I always look back and remember that in a volatile format, sometimes doing the simple thing is the best thing.

For the last deck of the day, Jacob Wilson’s Little Kid Abzan from Pro Tour Fate Reforged reminds me of what is possible in a card pool as diverse and wide-open as Modern. As has always been the case, the biggest draw for me in Modern has been the varied possibilities and directions you can go in deckbuilding, all while remaining in the same color. BGx has seen every archetype under the sun at this point, from broken combo in Birthing Pod, to pure control like Death Cloud, to midrange strategies like Jund and Junk, to aggressive combo decks like Elves and Abzan Company, to glorified Stompy decks like this one.

I’ve always been one to watch Abzan’s mutations from the sideline, content to play primarily with blue cards, and my view from the outside has given me a clear perspective on the archetype. While it rarely seems to reach the coveted prize, nevertheless it remains an alluring puzzle that players can’t resist picking up. I played Abzan in Standard at Pro Tour Magic Origins, and just playing the deck was tantalizing, to say the least. Spending mana on powerful things, impacting the board with every action you take—in that event, Abzan gave me that feeling of "identity" that I used to feel with blue.


I never was into Yu-Gi-Oh as a kid, but I grew up in the 90's and early 00’s, so I couldn’t avoid it. I know nothing about the game or the lore behind it, but I know about "heart of the cards’" at least, and sometimes I can just about feel that in Magic. I know it’s nothing more than projecting personal feelings of attachment onto the 75 in front of me, but Magic for me has always been about chasing that elusive perfect deck. The one that aligns correctly with proper play and "just right" conditions to dominate a weekend. The one that mutates from a simple collection of cards in sleeves into… something else. Magic, for me, has always been a collection of tools and simple rules, given with trust to me to figure out, like a map towards hidden treasure. I’ve been at it for years, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, and Magic remains as it was after my 10th place finish at my first SCG Open. The addicting, irresistible allure of a puzzle that can never be solved.

Thanks for reading,

Trevor Holmes

4 thoughts on “Timeless Lists: Reflections on Masterpieces in Deckbuilding

  1. The first two decks are standard I guess? You might be assuming too much about what the average joe knows about these historical points in time.

    I have no idea what is neat or cool about thay abzan list or why it would be exciting or inspiring for it to get 7th place at a pro tour. Was this eldrazi era? Twin era? Pod era? Dredge era? Is smiter/liege whats supposed to be the surprise?

    Past standard decks are really low value examples for modern players, but a past modern deck with no context and no insight into what was great about it isnt far behind. Its not like you can take that list and see for yourself since the meta is completely different (presumably) and lots of new cards like push and company (?) exist now.

    1. If I recall correctly this was the protour where they banned twin to avoid a stream full of mirror matches…. so everyone played abzan midrange and this deck is a direct response to that meta. Generally not a great deck in a vacuum, but very good against gbx decks.

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