Serrated Illusionist – #TBT

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With a Block Constructed pro tour coming up soon, I wanted to take a look back to the tournament that first made the format one of my favorites. Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight were the first sets designed in what would become the recurring block style, with an initial large set followed by two smaller ones, built around a central theme. Ice Age/Alliances was the first Block Constructed format in which tournaments were ever held, but it was something of an anomaly because it only ever had two sets. Still, it was the format for Pro Tour Columbus, won by Olle Rade’s infamous Spider deck, as well as a an entire season of PTQs with it. I played in an Ice Age Block PTQ for the Junior Pro Tour and won, qualifying me for PT Dallas. By the time the next Block Constructed season rolled around, though, the Junior Pro Tour was no more and I was playing in qualifiers for the real thing.

The most popular deck in Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight Constructed before the Grand Prix was aggressive mono-black with cards like Fallen Askari, Necratog, and Crypt Rats backed up by Dark Banishing and Nekrataal for removal. Shortly before Grand Prix Toronto, Gary Wise (yes that Gary Wise, future Magic Hall of Famer) posted a tournament report on The Dojo – which back then was the hub of all things Magic on the internet – about his victory at a Toronto-area PTQ with a Song of Blood deck that was able to run over the mono-black decks by stocking up his graveyard and overrunning them with cheap black creatures against which their removal was ineffective.

Thinking I was on top of the latest “tech,” I played the deck in a local Boston-area PTQ where I ran into longtime IRC and occasional IRL friend Brian Schneider (who would himself go on to work at WotC years later). Brian had a mono-blue Ophidian deck that seemed pretty cool to me, and we played a number of games waiting for the tournament to start. I felt like he was missing some key cards like Impulse, but I liked the deck, especially when he kept beating me. As fate would have it, we played in the first round and he won.  After I picked up another loss shortly thereafter (to a field that was full of Song of Blood decks) I dropped from the event.

That was when Mike Bregoli (of misetings.com fame) told me about something called a Grand Prix coming up. This was around the start of the entire Grand Prix circuit, and the idea of playing in a big event like that was extremely appealing to me. I had just come off a disappointing finish at US Nationals where I had won the absolute final last-chance qualifier and fought my way to the last round of Swiss in contention for Top 8 and then lost a heartbreaking match to eventual US team member Jeff Butz to end my tournament in a disappointing 12th place. I wanted another shot at the big time and a ten-hour drive seemed like a small price to pay to get it.

Here is the deck I played:

Serrated Illusionist Decklist

windingcanyonsHow many of you even recognize most of those cards?  This was in 1997, a very different time when it came to Magic and not just because of the cards. There were only two major resources when it came to learning about Magic online – Usenet bulletin boards and the Magic Dojo. Still, the Song of Blood deck had managed to spread like wildfire from Gary’s tournament report to anyone who was at all tuned in to Magic, and I really liked my deck’s ability to combat the new menace.

Over the next week I playtested the Ophidian deck nonstop online – and what “online” means in this case is via Apprentice because it was years before Magic Online came around. My opponents were the other denizens of the IRC channel #mtgpro and included Brian Schneider, Lan Ho, Matt Place, and Eric Lauer. The week before the Grand Prix, Matt Place won a PTQ with a very similar deck, though he had Drake Hatchlings in the place of Vodalian Illusionists. I expected an upswing in the popularity of mono-blue among players who were paying attention to the results, and added two copies of Winding Canyons to the deck’s mana base to allow me to better play a control game than anyone else who decided to copy the deck.

serratedbiskellionvodalionillusionistI don’t remember when exactly the Illusionist/Serrated Biskelion combination went in, but it was really the defining feature that set it apart from the other blue decks in the format. The “combo” gave the deck an enormous edge in the mirror match, which was largely defined by Ophidians staring at each other as each player tried to force them through with Abductions and bounce spells. While the combo is straightforward to anyone who looks at the two cards these days – you activate Serrated Biskelion targeting an opposing creature, then phase it out with Illusionist, which results in a counter on their creature and none on yours – in those days rules were much less codified and much more open to “interpretation” than they are today. I remember the question coming up at one event and a judge said the Biskelion had to put a counter on itself to put the counter on another creature (even though that’s not what the card says at all) so I basically had to hope that the Head Judge at the Grand Prix ruled correctly for my deck to work.

The ruling came out in my favor and so did the rest of the tournament. After battling through a veritable murderer’s row of opponents over the two days of competition including Alex Shvartsman, Terry Borer, Steve OMS, Matt Place, and Worth Wollpert, I made the Top 8 where I faced off against Mike Turian, Matt Place, (again!) and Erik Lauer in the elimination rounds en route to my first Grand Prix title.

floodgatesnakebasketThere were some other really cool things going on with the deck, and many of the little card choices – especially in the sideboard – reinforce exactly why I love block constructed so much. Little things can give you a big edge, like the Floodgates I played to beat opposing Snake Baskets, or the Undos and Flooded Shoreline that were so powerful in the mirror match that was so tempo based. Finding constructed uses for cards that are typically relegated to limited – like Knight of the Mists, which was a great tool against the black decks whose best card against you was Fallen Askari – is what is so fun to me about smaller constructed formats.

Most people these days think of me as always playing green decks, but my first big success came playing Monoblue. For most of my early playing days, I was actually best known for playing control, and the card I was most closely associated with for a long time was Ophidian, not Knight of the Reliquary.

My, how times have changed.

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