Is there anything more fun in Magic: the Gathering than inventing sweet, new technology, or finding an awesome card that addresses a specific problem or matchup and then having it work like a charm? For me, this is probably my favorite part of the game. I live for moments where I’m able to blindside an opponent with a play or sequence they simply didn’t, and couldn’t, anticipate because they’d never seen it before.
It’s sort of the Magic dream. To win because you thought of something that everybody else overlooked. Today’s article is a celebration of super-secret tech:
But, not the Unhinged rare! One important thing to remember is: most mainstream technology started off as somebody else’s creative thinking that was effective enough to become widely adopted in the metagame.
Here’s a quick example:
When Shadowmoor was released, people knew these two cards combined to make a powerful combo, but most wrote off the interaction as cute rather than good. I played a Vintage Power 9 event release weekend and the talk of the tournament was how a small team of players developed a functioning list with the combo as the centerpiece and put multiple copies into Top 8. By day’s end, the tech had gone viral on TMD and was no longer a secret, but a known piece of the metagame.
Cards are either effective or ineffective, and understanding the rationale behind why exciting card choices have worked in the past can be a terrific predictor of the types of things that might work in the future. Today, I’ll be discussing a few of my favorite pieces of tech that I was involved in developing and what I learned from those experiences.
It’s a good jumping off point for thinking about how to come up with creative solutions to deckbuilding. I’d also love to hear about some of the coolest innovations you have come up with and how they worked out. I’d love to hear some interesting war stories in the comments section!
8. Vintage: No Country for Old Men (Just a Trophy)
The 2004 Vintage Championship at Gen Con was one of the first large Magic tournaments I traveled to attend. I went with a couple of Vintage pals from Michigan and one of them, Mark Biller, came home from Indianapolis a champion.
Mark played Control Slaver (the greatest Vintage deck ever created) and had a unique piece of technology buried in his sideboard:
Magic, and especially Vintage, was quite different back then. There were few large events (something that would change shortly thereafter with the SCG P9 series) and the metagame moved extremely slowly as a result (and would change dramatically after this event). The popular deck of the time was U/R Fish, which was basically a Null Rod Tempo deck.
Old Man of the Sea was a house here for a couple of reasons. First of all, most people played Fire // Ice as removal as opposed to Lightning Bolt, since back then there was nothing worth Bolting! Not only was Old Man immune to most removal outside of Red Elemental Blast, but OMotS was adept at stealing Grim Lavamancer and locking the Fish player out of the game.
I distinctly remember walking with Mark from one dealer booth to another the day before the tournament searching for the obscure Arabian Nights rare. Fun times.
7. Old School Magic – Time is on My Side (Yes It Is)
It’s amazing there is still tech to be invented in a format that hasn’t gotten a new card since The Dark over 25+ years ago! But that is the case with Old School Magic!
While the cards may be static and the metagame clearly defined, it’s still possible to dip into one’s bag of Magic tricks and pull out a rabbit.
My perception of Old School’s metagame is that The Deck is the gold standard simply because that strategy has access to better spells than the other options. The metagame is a complicated dance between tweaking The Deck to match up favorably against people trying to beat it, while having enough strong cards for the mirror match.
So I played Time Elemental out of the sideboard and in a worst-case scenario it overloaded my opponent’s Red Elemental Blasts, and at best it completely murdered their mana base at instant speed or helped facilitate an unbreakable hard lock by protecting itself and/or Disrupting Scepter from topdecked, well, anything. Even in a format that was “solved” two decades ago, it’s possible to surprise an opponent with a devastating card they didn’t expect!
6. Modern – A Predator That Predated Modern and “Posted” Great Results
One of the coolest experiences I’ve had playing Magic was everything leading up to and including Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011. For starters, the tournament was unique in the sense that it was the first Modern tournament of all time, and players and deck builders were frantically trying to piece together what the format might look like.
I wish more Pro Tours, now Mythic Championships, featured bold, exciting, and new formats like PT Philly in 2011, and allowed players to showcase more innovative deck building opportunities. It was awesome.
I’m not surprised that I had my best Pro Tour finish playing a format that was far from solved and had a lot of space to explore. I finished 10th (missing on breakers) and played a brew that featured some pretty sick technology!
Brian DeMars, 9th-16th Pro Tour Philadelphia
1 Forest 1 Plains 1 Mountain 4 Arid Mesa 1 Dryad Arbor 1 Ghost Quarter 4 Grove of the Burnwillows 1 Horizon Canopy 3 Misty Rainforest 1 Sacred Foundry 1 Stirring Wildwood 2 Stomping Ground 2 Tectonic Edge 1 Temple Garden 1 Birds of Paradise 1 Gaddock Teeg 4 Kavu Predator 4 Knight of the Reliquary 4 Noble Hierarch 1 Qasali Pridemage 3 Tarmogoyf 2 Beast Within 4 Boom/Bust 1 Fiery Justice 4 Green Sun's Zenith 4 Oust 3 Punishing Fire Sideboard 1 Bojuka Bog 1 Fiery Justice 1 Kitchen Finks 1 Obstinate Baloth 4 Path to Exile 2 Rule of Law 2 Seal of Primordium 3 Thoughts of Ruin
I’ve always been really proud of this deck because not only was it extremely well positioned, but it was also pretty busted.
I played some cards that ended up being banned, but what tied the room together was an unsuspecting little critter:
The way the deck beat aggro decks was to tutor a bunch of Glimmerposts into play to stay out of range while the deck accelerated into critical mass. Kavu Predator throws a huge wrench into that tactic since it gains an equal number of +1/+1 counters and thus functions like a giant, trampling Sulfuric Vortex that can even attack into giant Primeval Titans.
I also got great help tuning the deck. The two other players I worked with, Ari Lax and Matt Sperling, also played the deck at the event and piloted it to cash finishes. It was a great deck for that event.
The takeaway is never to forget about cards that you think are sweet but can’t quite find a home for. I had recognized that Kavu Predator was a powerful Magic card when I was drafting Time Spiral block but never found a home for him. The key was that when I saw the Glimmerpost decks, I thought about Predator as a way for aggro to combat the life gain and keep the beatdown flowing.
When things are shaken up (or a new format coined) there’s often an opportunity for cards that didn’t have a home to find a nice place in the mix, so be mindful of cards that look powerful but don’t quite have a place in the here and now.
5. Vintage – Strat-o-Caster
One of the wildest Magical rides I’ve ever been on was the Vintage Championship in 2007. The format had been turned upside down by Restrictions (Brainstorm) and the format felt like the Wild West.
I had a janky Control Slaver list I was planning to play. The day before the event I was looking through a binder of random cards at a dealer booth and stumbled upon this little gem:
Portal 3 Kingdoms had been made legal a few years earlier, but I wasn’t even aware this card existed. It was unique in the sense that with 4x Brainstorm legal there wasn’t room for this kind of card, but it did look like it might be good in my deck now that Brainstorm was nixed.
I bought the card for about $5.00 and tried it out. I drew it and it was great. I drew it again and it was great. I bought another copy. It took about five games before I was playing the full four copies. I was convinced my deck was great and bought every copy in the room.
One of my friends, Jimmy McCarthy, was impressed with the list, wanted to play it, and luckily I had lots of extra copies of the obscure P3K uncommon.
We both went undefeated in the Swiss with the deck before both losing to Paul Mastriano in the Top 4 and the finals. It was one of the most busted decks I’ve ever played because nobody was prepared to fight against Control Slaver at that tournament since the deck “shouldn’t exist anymore.”
It was also funny because that event was the most I’ve ever seen the price of a card jump because of tournament play. I had bought the card for about $5 each the night before the event and sold all the copies I had bought back for well over $100.00 each.
Bannings and restrictions are a great moment to look for new tech. In this case, Strategic Planning was kind of a “bad Brainstorm,” but when Brainstorm is suddenly not allowed, even a “bad Brainstorm” can be an extremely useful card.
4. Standard – This is an Intervention. Please Stop Winning with Bad Cards!
While not impossible, secret tech is more difficult to achieve in these modern times because there are more people reporting results than ever before. Not only that—people also want to come up with cool ideas and share them, and understand these outside-the-box choices are a place where significant advantage can be gained.
One cool piece of tech I invented a couple of years ago and used to great success:
I played a fair B/G Constrictor list in Standard for a while before the Saheeli/Mardu results led me to switch decks. One of the few innovations I liked was to include a copy of Heroic Intervention in my sideboard. While it’s sort of a weird and unfocused card, I found that having one in my deck tended to give me some seriously awesome options across a few different matchups.
First of all, it’s a fine card in general. It can counter a removal spell or a wrath, but that wasn’t what I wanted it for: I found that there were a couple of ways my B/G mirrors played out. The first was that somebody ran the other person over and there wasn’t a ton I could do about those games. The other was huge stalls where neither player could really attack. I also had a bunch of deathtouch built into my deck:
With a copy of Heroic Intervention in the deck I could essentially alpha, or block a seemingly game-ending alpha, cast Intervention, and win the combat and the game handily.
When you find that certain matchups tend to end up in a certain pattern, such as the B/G mirror, there is a ton of value to having a card or two that breaks the dynamic wide open.
3. Extended – Tangled Up in Walls
The next piece of weird tech goes down as one of the worst cards I’ve ever played that granted the highest upside. The context is Extended in a Faeries vs. Jund metagame.
Life was grand, but the Jund decks were also pretty darn hateful and were packing:
Great Sable Stag is like the opposite of “super, secret tech” in the sense that it was very obvious the card had been printed to give U/B Fae fits and everybody knew it from the moment it hit the spoiler.
I was deep into the Faeries tank with fellow Michigander D.J. Kastner at the time, and we decided to beat Stag by trying to “Wall it up.”
The technology had a ton of value and we played two copies in the sideboard. While Wall of Tanglecord isn’t good for much, it’s great at blocking Stag, which was a huge problem card for us.
Even bad cards can find a place to become great, especially if they are filing a specific role or shoring up a common and inherent weakness.
2. Extended – Next Level Scepter Tech
One of the decks I had the most fun innovating back in the day was Scepter Chant. I won my first PTQ ever playing the archetype, and I kept playing it for years after because the deck was so darn sweet.
The first PTQ I won with the deck came largely on the back of a piece of technology that was innovated as a result of playing dozens of mirrors against another local player, Kenta Hiroki.
It turns out that the old-school Scepter Mirror was difficult to win. Not much really mattered and it was difficult to find a way to win since the deck was mostly answers and card draw. It was hard to end the game.
It was a popular deck because it was broken, so we set out trying to figure out what actually mattered. It turns out that in a game of “draw go” that forcing an opponent to draw two cards on their end step and discard twice to hand size, untap, play a land, and force them to use cards to interact with spells that you would have had to discard to hand size was the way!
We could deplete their resources to the point that we could resolve a Cunning Wish with a high Storm count on their end step, find Brain Freeze, and win the game with ease. The matchup went from being a coin flip to an auto win.
The next season, when Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir saw print in Time Spiral, the deck added another piece to the lock puzzle that needed to be addressed and we again came up with cool tech to break the mirror.
Mouth of Ronom was one of the few ways to actually force a resolved Teferi off the battlefield through opposing counterspells.
The Scepter Chant mirror match was full of nuance and intricacy, and as a result including even a few cards that actually mattered into the equation paid dividends. Again, this was a case of figuring out what actually mattered and finding creative solutions to a problem!
1. Extended – Back to the Lab Again
Fun fact: I was runner-up at the 2007 5-Color World Championship at Gen Con and built my own Tribal Wizard Control deck. While the format and tournament were casual, and I was just doing it for fun, an important piece of technology came out of that experience:
I stumbled upon Riptide Laboratory when I was sorting some cards and decided to try it out in my deck. It was good. Very good. Before long I was bouncing Sprites and Vensers, and a niche thing I was trying had become a centerpiece of my deck.
It was so good that after watching me spam the combo in a couple of games at my LGS, Patrick Chapin was like, “Why are we not doing this in Extended Faeries?”
And, 10 minutes later, we were. Sometimes great tech is as simple as somebody stumbling on some random card that wasn’t good but got better in the meantime. I was using the card in a silly deck, but another experienced deck builder identified that the interactions were in fact quite powerful and deserved a look in a serious format.
The key to inventing new technology in Magic is first to identify what the problem is and then start looking for possible solutions. Most of these card choices were born in a moment where a matchup or format change posed a specific tactical problem to a deck I was playing and I went looking for a way to shore it up. The important thing is to do your best to really understand what the problem is with questions like:
- Why am I losing to this deck?
- What is actually important in the matchup?
- What type of card would help?
A great way to find new cards is to describe the “type of card” that would help. It sounds hokey, but I often start by thinking about what the best possible card would look like, regardless of whether it exists or not.
“I want a card that does X and Y for 2 mana or less…”
Regardless of whether a similar card exists or doesn’t it teaches us something about what is important in the matchup.
Is it as simple as needing a card that interacts with a specific card?
Is it an issue where you simply need greater coverage of types?
Canopy in Standard is a great example of this.
Canopy isn’t the most efficient way to do either of the things it does, but it’s the best at doing both, which is really important when opponents play Thief of Sanity and Search for Azcanta side by side! I didn’t invent this tech, but somebody did and it’s a wonderful fix.
And last but not least, sometimes you’re a master and see some newb playing a Riptide Laboratory in his 250-card casual deck and connect the dots! I will say, I’m a fan of watching a few turns of Commander games that take place for exactly this reason. You never know when somebody will surprise you with a weird card or interaction that could be applicable to another format. Community format players tend to be less rigid about what is playable or unplayable, and are more focused on finding ways to make things happen.
Sometimes a card exists that can solve a problem and sometimes it doesn’t but the fun is always in the search, and the reward is sweet and satisfying.