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What’s the Best Deck in Historic? Just Play the Broken Ones.

The past few months have revolutionized how we play by dropping two brand new formats into our laps: Pioneer and Historic.

Today, I’ll be discussing some of the basics of the newer Historic format, but first: what the heck is MTG Historic? I’ll admit I was a little confused at first! Since, “historic” (legendary and artifacts) is a mechanic keyword from Dominaria and the format was touted as a casual Arena-based variant, for the longest time I assumed it was a Commander variant based around artifacts and legends! NOPE.

“Before R&D settled on Historic the name used for the rumored format was “Standard Plus“.[4] The format includes a Historic Play queue (both best-of-one and best-of-three), Direct Challenge, practice matches with Sparky, as well as some rotating events that are not beholden to Standard (such as Pauper, Singleton, etc.).” MTG WIKI, Historic

Historic is actually the MTG Arena equivalent of the wildly popular Pioneer format of MTGO and IRL Paper fame, and includes all cards currently released on the Arena play platform. No longer do Arena cards rotate from Standard and enter the land of misfit toys (i.e., wild card fodder) but now have a new home where they can be played and enjoyed. WOTC has also teased the idea that remastered versions of pre-Arena sets are on the way in 2020, which will add to the depth of the format and thus bring it closer to true Pioneer.

In addition to giving rotated staples a second life in the Arena, the format also introduced 20 previously non-Arena cards into the Historic card pool:

Serra AscendantSoul WardenKinsbaile CavalierTreasure HuntDistant MelodyCryptbreakerHypnotic SpecterPhyrexian ArenaTendrils of CorruptionKiln FiendGoblin MatronHidetsugu's Second RiteElvish VisionaryFauna ShamanImperious PerfectBurning-Tree Emissary

Be sure to keep these favorites in mind as potential deckbuilding options going forward! The Pauper fan in me can’t help but notice many of these cards are distinctly Pauper staples, which gets me excited—big things may be in store for MTG Arena Pauper down the road.

Strategy: Do the Things You Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Do!

While MTG Historic has been introduced as a casual MTG variant that can be played in either best-of-one, or best-of-three; with a card pool larger than Standard, the power level of a competitive deck will be higher.

Another thing worth considering about Historic is that there are currently no banned cards, not even the cards currently banned in Pioneer, or even Standard!

Field of the DeadOko, Thief of CrownsVeil of SummerOnce Upon a Time

Also of note: While Nexus of Fate was banned in Standard BO1, it is not banned in Traditional or Specialty formats, so it’s also fair game.

Nexus of Fate - Foil - Buy-a-Box Promo

It’s also strange to me while Veil of Summer and Once Upon a Time are banned in both Pioneer and Standard that they are currently legal in Historic. If a larger card pool can’t handle these cards and neither can a smaller one, it seems unlikely these cards will be long for the Historic format. There’s little metric metagame information available on the format, but I suppose that anything is possible and Historic could be the right mix for these powerful cards to play nicely with the other cards (in the same way winning the lottery is possible—I wouldn’t count on it!).

My experience and observations of the format line up with an easy take on how I’d advise anybody to approach it: JUST PLAY THE BROKEN CARDS!!!

It’s not rocket science. If a card exists that shouldn’t, players gain a huge amount of equity in matched play from playing with it rather than without it. The problem with this approach is twofold:

  1. It’s not a realistic long-term plan.
  2. We’re playing a broken format!

However, if you are looking to get results it’s also true the quickest path between two points is a straight line, and there is no clearer path than playing with cards that have proven time and again they are too powerful and efficient. Playing clearly broken decks is a great way to rack up the wins and the gold in Historic.

I’ll openly admit War of the Spark era planeswalkers are what turned my focus from playing Arena (which I love playing, BTW) toward playing MTGO Eternal Pauper, and so the style of play currently offered in Historic is counter to my preference. With that said, Magic is a huge, globally popular game that appeals to diverse preferences of game and play style and there should be a smorgasbord of play options available to satisfy different tastes. The folks who enjoyed Standard before the bans are going to have a field day in Historic, as those strategies tend to be among the strongest and most potent.

It’s unclear to me at this point which of the two options will ultimately guide the development of Historic:

  1. The DCI is growing the format in a similar way to Pioneer by starting with everything legal and using results to cull the dominant strategies.
  2. Historic will offer a dramatically different play experience from Standard or Pioneer in terms of what is allowed.

I’d bet on option #1 but that is only speculative. The Historic announcements have not thus far been as explicit about a willingness to ban cards, as was the case with the Pioneer announcements.

Not Brain Surgery: Great Decks

Let’s talk options. The best place to look at the onset are the cards banned in parallel types of formats such as Standard, but especially Pioneer. If a larger card pool can’t handle the card, it’s very unlikely that card will be long for this format!

With that said, I didn’t follow my own advice, and built Gruul Aggro. The idea of actually casting an Oko, Thief of Crowns so thoroughly and deeply disgusted me that I decided to fight the enemy rather than be it. I had most of the cards to build a list that I thought looked sweet and would allow me to play a bunch of matches relatively quickly to get a sense of what the format was all about:

Gruul Aggro

By ZIPPO_INC

7 Forest
7 Mountain
4 Stomping Ground
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Gruul Spellbreaker
2 Skarrgan Hellkite
3 Grand Warlord Radha
3 Questing Beast
2 Robber of the Rich
4 Zhur-Taa Goblin
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Pelt Collector
3 Domri's Ambush
2 Collision/Colossus
3 Embercleave

Sideboard
3 Cindervines
4 Veil of Summer
2 Carnage Tyrant
3 Shifting Ceratops
3 Flame Sweep

Plus, as a bonus, I got to play with BTE which is one of my favorite cards to “stomp the yard” with in Pauper!

Burning-Tree Emissary

While the deck doesn’t make use of Oko, Thief of Crowns, it is able to harness the power of cards banned in comparable formats: Once Upon a Time and Veil of Summer.

Veil of SummerOnce Upon a Time

Overall, I did feel Gruul Aggro was a potent and competitive strategy for players looking to beatdown. With that said, there were instances where I felt a little bit outclassed, albeit not by a huge margin, but by enough that I’d be unlikely to adopt the strategy if I were looking to maximize my match win equity.

Historic Sultai Control

By Semitiming

2 Forest
2 Swamp
1 Island
2 Overgrown Tomb
1 Temple of Malady
1 Woodland Cemetery
2 Breeding Pool
1 Hinterland Harbor
1 Temple of Mystery
1 Drowned Catacomb
2 Field of Ruin
1 Arch of Orazca
1 Castle Vantress
2 Fabled Passage
4 Field of the Dead
2 Watery Grave
1 Castle Locthwain
4 Gilded Goose
3 Arboreal Grazer
4 Elvish Rejuvenator
3 Murderous Rider/Swift End
4 Hydroid Krasis
3 Cast Down
2 Ritual of Soot
3 Phyrexian Arena
4 Oko, Thief of Crowns
3 Once Upon a Time

Sideboard
3 Veil of Summer
2 Unmoored Ego
1 Cry of the Carnarium
3 Noxious Grasp
2 Thought Erasure
3 Broken Bond
1 Ritual of Soot

Unsurprisingly, the deck features a high saturation of cards that are banned in current Standard:

Oko, Thief of CrownsVeil of SummerField of the DeadOnce Upon a Time

I found this deck list online and it is representative of the combinations and synergies of cards I’d call archetype defining for Sultai. Again, this deck is classically powerful by capitalizing on cards that have earned a ban in Standard/Pioneer.

Another archetype that I found particularly potent and faced off against often was Elves:

Historic Elves

By Thisismatticus

16 Forest
4 Castle Garenbrig
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Elvish Clancaller
4 Thorn Lieutenant
4 Imperious Perfect
4 Marwyn, the Nurturer
2 Reclamation Sage
2 Beast Whisperer
4 Steel Leaf Champion
4 Paradise Druid
4 Elvish Visionary
2 Vanquisher's Banner
2 The Great Henge

Sideboard
4 Veil of Summer
3 Once Upon a Time
3 Shifting Ceratops
2 Reclamation Sage
2 Sorcerous Spyglass
1 Grafdigger's Cage

It’s focused, robust, and has extremely easy mana. Those are all characteristics I find important in a consistent deck.

Imperious Perfect

Imperious Perfect is a difference maker within the archetype. A quality Lord that buffs Elves +1/+1 and is able to generate material in the form of a 1/1 Elf Token each turn gives the deck fantastic synergy.

Another take on mana efficient green:

Historic Green Devotion

JMGH

10 Forest
4 Hinterland Harbor
4 Breeding Pool
2 Castle Garenbrig
4 Gilded Goose
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Incubation Druid
4 Paradise Druid
4 Hydroid Krasis
4 Voracious Hydra
4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
4 Vivien, Arkbow Ranger
4 Leyline of Abundance
4 Once Upon a Time

Sideboard
1 Impervious Greatwurm - Foil Buy-a-Box Promo
1 Verdant Force
1 Polyraptor
1 End-Raze Forerunners
1 Meteor Golem
1 Sphinx of the Guildpact
1 Tishana, Voice of Thunder
1 Verdant Sun's Avatar
1 Thorn Mammoth - Brawl Deck Exclusive
1 Pelakka Wurm
1 Howling Giant
1 Gargos, Vicious Watcher
1 Questing Beast
1 Stonecoil Serpent
1 Ghalta, Primal Hunger

I really like the way that JMGH works Leyline of Abundance into the list here and makes it look more like a pre-Leyline-ban Pioneer list.

Leyline of Abundance

Again, while the context for Historic is slightly different from either Pioneer or Standard, it is similar, and looking for cards that were problematic in parallel formats is a great way to maximize the power and consistency of your deck.

Another strong option:

Historic Bant Golos

Thendless

1 Island
2 Forest
1 Plains
1 Tranquil Cove
1 Blossoming Sands
1 Temple of Triumph
1 Temple of Silence
1 Temple of Mystery
1 Blast Zone
1 Scoured Barrens
1 Godless Shrine
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Temple of Epiphany
2 Fabled Passage
4 Field of the Dead
1 Castle Vantress
2 Breeding Pool
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Temple Garden
1 Hinterland Harbor
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Sunpetal Grove
3 Arboreal Grazer
4 Golos, Tireless Pilgrim
4 Elvish Rejuvenator
4 Hydroid Krasis
1 Kenrith, the Returned King - Collector Pack Exclusive
3 Realm-Cloaked Giant/Cast Off
4 Growth Spiral
1 Cleansing Nova
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Teferi, Time Raveler

Sideboard
3 Leyline of Sanctity
3 Unmoored Ego
3 Field of Ruin
1 Realm-Cloaked Giant/Cast Off
3 Knight of Autumn
1 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
1 Swamp

It’s back! Dedicated Field of the Dead strategies are also a potent place to look for a solid and synergistic deck blueprints. Basically, any iteration of the strategy is on the table as a potential design to work from.

In fact, for the time being, any of the archetypes that have resulted in a Standard banning over the past year are EXACTLY where I’d look for inspiration in Historic. There’s a reason these cards have all been banned in Standard, and a slightly expanded card pool doesn’t insulate you against these strategies.

Historic is branded as a fun and casual format for players to explore, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that quirky brews are going to hold a candle to these established powerhouses. The “best decks” are all strategies that could not be effectively combated during their time in Standard outside of a ban!

On the other hand… If you fell into the camp of player who really enjoyed the type of gameplay from Standard before the bans, Historic is likely right up your alley! Right now, Historic is an Extended, no banned list, Standard variant! Which, I can certainly see as something that would be appealing to a lot of players.

I know I take pot shots at the B&R when it doesn’t coincide with my own play preferences, but assuming that eventually the Remastered Series adds all Pioneer-legal sets to Arena, it actually makes a ton of sense to have three formats:

Standard
Historic
Pioneer

The “No Banned List” Modern formats have a loyal and faithful following, and there’s really no reason that there isn’t room for a “No Banned List” Pioneer variant to exist for the players who want it.

My take on the format is that it is defined by the play patterns that resulted in mass bannings from Standard (at least for now). If playing the most broken iterations of the decks from the past few years appeals to you—this is your format! If you’d prefer to move forward with the more balanced take on Standard, I’d stick to that (at least for now). I do think the most interesting thing about this format is as follows:

Will WOTC bring the banned list into play in a similar fashion to Pioneer and Standard, or will Historic continue to exist in its current form as an alternative style of play that utilizes more powerful and broken strategies? I predict the result will largely depend upon how large the market for this “more powerful” variation of gameplay actually is!

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