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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Archetype Primer: Prep for Eternal Weekend 2016

Updated 09.10.2016 - Added  two additional decks (AtogSmash, AtogFlare) with additional explanation.

Updated 09.05.2016 - Added three additional decks that were previously unrepresented (Fork Combo/Burn, U/W Distress, MUD) and to flesh out underdeveloped archetypes.

With Eternal Weekend 2016 around the corner, I thought it might be useful to help with deck preparation for what is looking to be the largest 93/94 Old School event in ever held the United States. We had 12 people in 2014,  54 in 2015, and 75 are already registered for this year's event. No doubt the competition will be fierce, and the Chaos Orb flips will be practiced.

Before I jump into a deep dive about prominent archetypes, decks, and cards, I think it would be prudent to step back and understand what this event, and this format, are all about. Old School is not like Standard, Modern, Legacy, or even (sanctioned) Vintage – players enjoy this format for the laid-back atmosphere, oddball interactions, nostalgia, and the community. I understand that most MTG players enjoy winning, but playing in this tournament expressly to win would be overlooking much of what draws people to this format, and would likely negate the most enjoyable parts of playing in an Old School event (speaking for myself and most of the people that I have ever played the format with).

I love discussing strategies and optimizing decks for Old School MTG, but I wouldn't want to point readers in a direction that overlooks the key attributes that make this format special. If you attend the Eternal Central 2016 Old School event at Eternal Weekend, I'd recommend going foremost to have fun, make new friends, and experience the true joy of such a large event celebrating this casual home-grown format. If you happen to do well, that is just the icing on the cake, but please see the forest for the trees.

Eternal Weekend 2016: What to Expect
With such a limited card pool, 93/94 possesses defined and well-tuned decks that fall into a handful of archetypes. These archetypes still dominate Magic formats today, but obviously pull from completely different card pools. I've assembled a list of archetypes, and popular/successful decks that fall into each. I've intentionally included decks that have had top tournament finishes, and associated the specific information with the deck pictures. Finding exact dates has been a nightmare, but I think most of these are right, but please message me with any corrections if you see an error.

There may be a page like this out there somewhere, but I wasn't able to find one. More specifically, I have not been able to find anything like this that specifically relates to 93/94 Old School MTG. This guide will not only be helpful for deciding on a deck for the EC Eternal Weekend tournament, but should also provide a good survey of the format and help newcomers understand the established competitive decks that define the format.

Control
In 93/94 (and I keep using that term in this post instead of "Old School" to avoid confusion with additional variants of throwback MTG that may include newer cards, such as '95 that would include Ice Age), the mainstay "control" deck is The Deck, which I have discussed in previous posts. In a nutshell, it utilizes control elements (a.k.a. "answers") to handle threats and slowly wins the game with one of few main-deck win conditions.

Classically, Brian Weissman's The Deck won with Serra Angels. With modern combat rules and 20+ years more MTG theory development (although Wessman actually had most of the big ideas figured out), Mishra's Factory has become the unanimous preferential way to close the game out. The Deck is one of the benchmarks in Old School decks, and is a strong contender for best deck, although it does have its weaknesses – largely discard, mana denial, and quick aggro starts.

The Deck is a combination of four main card types: permission, draw, mana, and removal. Outside of these basic types, everything else is in extremely short supply – most notably, creature-based win conditions.

The Deck (creature-less, heavy Tome)
Kalle Nord's The Deck – 1st place
n00bcon 7 – 04.04.2015 – Gothenburg, SE
The Deck (creature-less, heavy Abyss)
Randy Buehler's The Deck – 1st place
EC Eternal Weekend 2015 – 08.20.2015 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
The Deck (with Serra Angels)
Martin Berlin's The Deck – 1st place
n00bcon 8 – 03.26.2016 – Gothenburg, SE
5-Color Hive Control (variant of The Deck)
Jeff Anand's The Hive 5C Control – 2nd place
EC Eternal Weekend 2015 – 08.20.2015 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
U/W Control (variant of The Deck)
Alastair Kennedy's U/W Control – 3-4th place
UK Old School Championship – 03.17.16 Blackpool, England, UK
Combo
Unlike Vintage, Legacy, and Modern, there are very few true "combo" decks in 93/94. This is largely due to lack of "combo enablers" in tandem with viable "combos" in the format. Combo enablers are generally card draw (see blog name), "tutors" (referencing the original Demonic Tutor, tutors are cards that search through your deck), and mana acceleration. "The combo," is the combination of cards (optimally two) that win the game immediately when played together.

Old School has minimal (but some) efficient card draw in the form of Ancestral RecallBraingeyserTimetwister, Wheel of Fortune, and Winds of Change (technically this is not draw, but it does recycle cards). Tutors show up in even shorter supply – Demonic TutorTransmute ArtifactRegrowth, and Recall. I consider Regrowth and Recall tutors, as they recur specific cards from the graveyard, similarly to what Demonic Tutor does from the deck . Old School does have significant mana acceleration in the form of Black Lotus, Moxen, Sol RingMana VaultFellwar Stone, Dark Ritual, and various other cards that show up less than the ones mentioned.

While this list sounds like it might be viable (hey, I just listed most of the best draw, tutoring, and mana acceleration ever printed), the larger issue at hand is a lack of great combo finishers. The best ones in the format are Underworld Dreams plus any strong draw spell, and the combination of Power Artifact and Basalt Monolith to generate infinite mana, allowing a win using any X burn or draw spell (Fireball, Disintegrate, or Braingeyser).

A close third would be a Mirror Universe-based combo. This is basically anything that can deplete your life total, while allowing you to cast Mirror Universe, (optionally) protect it, and cycle through your deck in the process. Sylvan Library and Channel are pretty excellent cards for these purposes.

Aside from the cards above there are very few viable combos. I wouldn't call Time VaultAnimate Artifact, and Instill Energy a viable combo – it is a three-card combo in which one of the cards is restricted as well as the easiest card type to disrupt using the Old School toolbox, an artifact. The most classic two-card combo is Channel + Fireball, brought into early limelight by Bertrand Lestrée in his game-changing Zoo deck (a dedicated tempo deck that will be highlighted later in this post).
The "Lestrée pose"
Like the infinite turns Time Vault combo, Channel + Fireball is a sub-optimal combo strategy to base a deck around since Channel is restricted, and has been since 1994. It has the additional downside of opening its caster up to be killed by a well-timed Lightning Bolt. Another unfortunate situation – assuming an opponent has a counter of some type, the opponent allows Channel to resolve, but counters the Fireball, leaving the caster of the combo at a dangerously low life total.

Because of this, I would only consider the following combo decks to be contenders in the format. They are both powerful, consistent, and dangerously quick.

Underworld Dreams Combo
Justin Beckert's Dreams Combo – 5th place
EC Eternal Weekend 2015 – 08.20.2015 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
Power Monolith
Thomas Nilsen's Power Monolith – 2nd Place
Arvika Festival – 02.??.2016 – Arvika, SE
MirrorBall
Martin Jordö's MirrorBall – 4th place
BSK 2015 – 10.31.2015 – Borås, SE
Twiddle Vault (Mirror Universe-based combo with Twiddle+Time Vault for advantage)
Felipe Garcia's Time Vault Combo – 10th place
BSK 2015 – 10.31.2015 – Borås, SE
Combo-Control
Combo-control is just a hybrid of of the two archetypes. That said, Tax-Edge could be considered a straight combo deck, but the inclusion of cards like Swords to PlowsharesDisenchant, Lightning Bolt, and Winter Orb make this deck much more controlling than a straight combo deck.

Tax-Edge below wins with the two card combination of Land Tax and Land's Edge to create a situation in which it can win by discarding many excess basic lands drawn off of Land Tax. This is a brutal combo that is only stopped by DisenchantChaos Orb, Nevinyrral's Disk, and Tranquility.

Felipe Garcia, lover of all decks containing multiple Transmute Artifacts and play sets of Mana Vault, demonstrates that control doesn't always imply the inclusion of Counterspell, but can be achieved through control of the board via cards like Lightning Bolt and Earthquake. This deck can win in a variety of different ways – from a aggro perspective with Triskelion, Su-Chi, Mishra's Factory, or Atog, or with a massive Fireball/Earthquake. The burn spell can be powered by Mana Flare and/or Candelabra of Tawnos, using Su-Chi and Mana Vault, to generate mana when sacrificing them to Transmute Artifact, ultimately providing ways to generate excessive amounts of mana.

Tax-Edge
Dominic Dotterrer's Tax-Edge – 3rd place
Card & Board Old School – 05.17.15 – Archbold, OH, USA
AtogFlare
Felipe Garcia's AtogFlare – 1st place
Playoteket 93/94 – 11.23.2014 – Malmö, SE
Aggro
The name derived from a shortening of the word "aggressive," "aggro" is a foundational archetype centered around the idea of wining the game as quickly as possible. This is generally accomplished using efficiently-costed creatures to close out games, ideally casting at least one threat each turn. Aggro decks are often single-colored, which can come out of budgetary concerns, but function best, a.k.a. quickest, when they don't run into color issues when casting threats.

Aggro decks primarily focus on devoting most resources to pushing damage though, but can include a small selection of cards dedicated to disruption, permission, or removal. Decks that devote a significant portion of slots to non-aggro cards fall into the "tempo" archetype.

One important thing to keep in mind is that with varied B&R inclusions/exclusions around the world (Strip Mine being the most contentious and pivotal), and legality of different sets that allow larger card pools (referring to Fallen Empires), certain archetypes or decks may be more powerful in different locales. Specifically, cards like Strip MineHymn to Tourach, Order of LeitburIcatian Javelineers, and Order of the Ebon Hand bolster both aggro and tempo strategies.

Because Eternal Weekend's Old School tournament is being hosted by Eternal Central, and thus using the Chicago/EC B&R/rules/set legalities, aggro will be a strong choice for those limited by budget. I picked up a Revised (the bulk of the deck), 4th Edition (Mishra's FactoriesStrip Mines)/Fallen Empires (Order of Leitbur & Icatian Javelineers) White Weenie deck for much less than $100. Keep in mind, White Weenie wrecks fully-powered decks all day long, just ask Nathan Mullen.

White Weenie
Nathan Mullen's White Weenie – 4th place
The Relic War – 07.30.2016 – Chicago, IL, USA
Mono Black
Erland's Mono Black – 1st place
Arcon – 06.24-27.2016 – Oslo, NO
Suicide Black & Blue (variant of Mono Black)
Roland Chang's Suicide Black & Blue – ??? place
EC Eternal Weekend 2015 – 08.20.2015 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
Mono Blue
Brandon Sanders's Mono Blue Mutation – 4th place
Clash of Carousers – 05.14.2016 – Chicago, IL, USA
Tempo
"Tempo" is another name for the aggro-control hybrid. It aims to cast quick threats with the intent to overwhelm before the opponent can develop an advantageous board state. The control elements are often found in the form of burn (direct damage) spells, as they not only wipe the board of opposing blockers, but can be dually used to close out the game.

As mentioned before, the defining deck for this archetype is Lestrée Zoo, and has existed nearly as long as the game itself. Much like aggro strategies, locales that allow the inclusion of un-restricted Strip Mines and use of Fallen Empires cards should help the tempo game win percentage over control and combo.

Lestrée Zoo
Mikael Mällroth's Lestrée Zoo – 1st place
Arvika Festival – 02.??.2016 – Arvika, SE
Dead Guy Ale
Hashti's Dead Guy Ale – 4th place
Arvika Festival – 02.??.2016 – Arvika, SE
Electric Eel (variant of to U/R Tempo)
Heiner Litz's U/R Electric Eel – 1st place
EC Eternal Weekend 2014 – 10.24.2014 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
Troll Disco
Max Weltz's Troll Disco – 1st place
Ivory Cup – 06.25.2016 – Stockholm, SE
Arabian Aggro
Martin Berlin's Arabian Aggro – top 8 (first seed in swiss)
From Russia with Love – 08.20.2016 – Stockholm, SE
B/W Flyers & Distress
Magnus De Laval's Undead Party Crasher – 1st place
From Russia with Love – 08.20.2016 – Stockholm, SE
Midrange
"Midrange" decks employ a strategy of early-game mana ramping, often using acceleration like Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise to generate early mana in order to cast quick large threats as soon as possible. Like aggro, midrange decks attempt to win largely though repeated use of the attack step. But unlike aggro, midrange decks put on little early pressure with permanent-based threats.

The hallmark of a midrange deck, at least for Old School, are creatures that have converted mana costs of four or higher. In modern formats, midrange is often defined by threats with converted casting cost of six or higher. Midrange can have the advantage over traditional aggro strategies because all of the creatures are simply larger than those in the aggro deck. Popular midrange creatures in 93/94 show up in the form of efficient spells like Erhnam Djinn, Juzám Djinn, and Serra Angel, but include the ranks of Mahamoti DjinnForce of Nature, or even larger summons.

Big Creatures (I'd love to know if there is an official name for a deck like this)
Dominic Dotterrer's Fatties – 4th place
The Relic War – 07.30.2016 – Chicago, IL, USA
ErhnamGeddon
Jason Jaco's BantamGeddon – 2nd place
EC Eternal Weekend 2014 – 10.24.2014 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
MUD
Greg Kraigher's Mud Tron – 1st place
Chicago Old School – 11.21.2015 – Chicago, IL, USA
AtogSmash
Johan "Freespace" Andersson's Atog Smash – 2nd place
Playoteket 93/94 – 11.23.2014 – Malmö, SE
Burn
The "burn" archetype is extremely similar to aggro, but rather than dropping creature and permanent-based threats, burn attempts to close out the game as quickly as possible through instants and sorceries that deal direct damage to the opponent. A benefit to this is that these burn spells can be used to eliminate opposing creatures when needed.

The downside, which is quite the downside, is that each burn spell is a one-time source of damage; unlike a creature that can continue attacking every turn that it is able to do so, once you play a burn spell, let say Fireball, it will not be able to deal damage again without some additional effect, such as Regrowthing it out of the graveyard for a second use. Because of this, burn can have a difficult time providing a continuous source of threats, which is why red-based burn in 93/94 is often paired with blue for draw. It also helps that the only blue burn spell ever printed, Psionic Blast, was printed Alpha through Unlimited.

Burn in 93/94 Old School MTG contains a core group of cards that will show up in all burn variants due to their efficiency and versatility: Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and Fireball. The U/R Burn deck, often containing Serendib Efreet, could also be considered a tempo deck, as you will notice is closely resembles the U/R Electric Eel deck. There are only so many playable cards in the first two years of the game...

R/W Burn
Nick Rohr's Big Pink – 5th place
The Relic War – 07.30.2016 – Chicago, IL, USA

U/R Burn
Ben Perry's U/R – 2nd place
Card & Board Old School – 05.17.15 – Archbold, OH, USA
Fork Burn (could also be considered combo)
Marc Lanigra's What the Fork – 1st place
MKM Old School – 05.15.16 – Frankfurt, GE
Prison
The final archetype I will touch on is "prison." This archetype originates from Type 1 legend Sean O'Brien who still actively plays Old School and Vintage. If you've ever read any of Robert Hahn's Schools of Magic at the Classic Dojo, you should recognize the O'Brien School of Magic. The concept is simple – if you don't have mana, you can't play spells, and that's exactly how a prison deck intends to shape the game.

This archetype is defined by oppressive cards that slow the game down and deny players of resources, or prevent a player from advancing the game state: Nether Void, Gloom, In the Eye of ChaosThe Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Land Equilibrium, Mana Vortex, Meekstone, Ankh of MishraBalance, Winter OrbIcy ManipulatorRelic Barrier, Kismet, StasisStrip Mine, Sinkhole, Armageddon, and many others. For an archetype that WotC has vocalized intending not to bolster (they favor creature combat), it is incredible just how many cards the early sets provided to make this archetype viable. Notably, Legends contains a significant amount of non-creature prison cards for a single non-core set.

Black Vise has been the hallmark of prison finishers since is specifically capitalizes on a player that cannot cast spells in his or her hand. While this card has experienced restriction in Europe, it has been un-restricted in most North American play groups, and has seemingly not been oppressive. It really only wins a game when a lock has occurred.

Modern Vintage Mishra's Workshop-based strategies rely on the same concepts that O'Brien defined in 1994, and can be seen at the top tables of contemporary tournaments.

Nether Void
Sean O'Brien's Nether Void – 3rd place
EC Eternal Weekend 2014 – 10.24.2014 – Philadelphia, PA, USA
Stasis
Arkanon's Stasis – 2nd place
WSK - 07.05.2014 – Växjö, SE
Vortex-Equilibrium
Heiner Litz's Mana Vortex – top-4 split
Eudemonia Old School – 01.11.2015 – Berkeley, CA, USA
Mono White Prison
Guillaume Soucy's White Prison – 2nd place
GP Montreal Old School – 07.31.2016 – Montreal, QC, Canada

Matchups and Afterthoughts
I have not personally played/played against all decks in this list, but I have played/played against most of them. I have also read quite a few tournament reports at this point, so I feel that I provide a sound perspective on what deck is likely to win in a particular matchup. Obviously, anything can happen in a given match, but there are likelihoods.

The matrix below contains likely winners in matchups, with specific decks representing archetypes:
Control: The Deck
Combo: Dreams Combo
Control-Combo: Tax-Edge
Aggro: White Weenie
Tempo: Lestree Zoo
Midrange: Big Creatures
Burn: U/R Burn
Prison: Mana Vortex


I can't guarantee these will be exact match outcomes, and additionally not all decks of an archetype are equal. For example, using aggro decks: White Weenie has access to Disenchant, while Mono Black does not, which when matched against Tax-Edge is the one of the only relevant cards in the deck. In this case, while both White Weenie and Mono Black are aggro decks, Mono Black is at a greater disadvantage against Tax-Edge.

Anyways, I'd suggest trying out a few decks before settling on a single one. It's important to find a deck that fits your play style, and one that agrees with your general sensibilities. Last Eternal Weekend saw a relatively diverse top eight, with control, aggro, burn, tempo, and combo represented. There are clearly many viable decks out there, and the format seems healthy with the current Chicago/EC B&R + set legalities.

Also, keep in mind that this is just a guide through established archetypes and top-finishing decks. There's no harm in concocting your own spicy brew and bringing it to battle. Who knows, you may exploit a weakness in the meta that no one's realized. There's also something to be said for just having fun and making your own deck, regardless of how well it finishes. This is a game after all.

On another note, check out Argivian Restoration, a newer 93/94 blog by Guillaume Soucy out of Quebec (his deck from his most recent post referenced above). It is definitely an enjoyable read, and I also liked seeing someone else try out a Mono White Prison deck. I'm happy to see people out there who are equally excited about the format.

//Danny

3 comments :

  1. That's an exhaustive overview of the most played archetypes of the format. Well done! Still, I'm a bit surprised that no artifact based Atog deck made it to your list. I had the feeling it was quite popular. On another note, I piloted my mono white prison deck to an undefeated record (2-0-1) placing second out of five players.

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    1. Thank you!

      In writing this, I figured I'd probably forget something, so thanks for pointing out the missing Atog decks (I even played UR Atog at Eternal Weekend last year). The post has been updated!

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