Once in a Great While

once-in-a-great-while

I. Wait til Tomorrow

June 1995. Ice Age is released, about seven months after the disappointing Fallen Empires. Today that gap doesn’t seem so long — the next year’s wait for Alliances would be even longer. But for a youngster who’d first picked up the cards in the summer of 1994, those seven months of waiting represented more than half the time I’d played MTG. Today I’m glad for the delay, which kept me buying Revised packs long enough to complete my set of duals. Still, Ice Age is a set for which I have a history of waiting.

October 2019. Having missed last year’s Fall Brawl, it has been eighteen months since I’d had a chance to brew with Ice Age for Old School 95. At my prior outing, the split format Novicecon, my Necro-Land’s Edge deck went 2-1 with the loss being a 2-0 sweep by Reanimator. Those eighteen months of waiting represent more than half the time I’ve played Old School. But I’ve made use of the delay to plot for the Reanimator rematch.

The pre-Gathering gathering

II. ’cause you know where I’ll be found

It’s October 12, 2019 and 22 mages Gather to sling 1995’s hottest cardboard technology. The venue was Metropolitan Brewing, a gorgeous space in a re-purposed tannery at 3057 N. Rockwell along the Chicago River. In addition to our decks, everyone brought a donation toward the Lords of the Pit’s 2019 Toy Drive in support of Cradles to Crayons Chicago, a community-focused organization with a mission to make life better for children in need.

Toy Haul

The decks were varied in their approaches, some using a handful of ’95 cards to tweak a ’94 archetype and others doing something different entirely. Necropotence and the ’95 cantrips made multiple appearances. A few mages were drawn to the raw destructive power of Jokulhaups, most notably in Lord Piquard’s list where it became a win condition by hatching Rukh Eggs. The amazing jts_mtg_alters altered an autumn-themed Necropotence, which appropriately went to Lord Rohr, whose monogreen Stunted Growth deck led the field in the number of ’95 cards played. Lord Agra cracked the code with Enchantress, not so much by winning but rather by scoring Most Creative and a Beta Island for his Vercursion list (somehow beating out Butzen’s Instilled Demonic Hordes build). Most of the other prize cards were BYO, with the instructions being “bring your own 1995 card to have signed.”

The Loots (not everyone got the memo)

III. How Bazaar, How Bizarre?

When Lord Moss tallied up Reanimator’s historical performance after the 2018 Fall Brawl, he noted “an astounding 17-3 run.” Those results excluded Novicecon (due to the unified deck construction constraint), but it performed similarly at that event. Despite its dominating record, I gave scant thought to borrowing Bazaar of Baghdad and playing it myself. It was a “Tier Zero” deck and I wanted to defeat it.

Reanimator only does one thing, but in Old School 95 it does it with brutal speed and efficiency. In its typical builds, interaction is minimal (usually a Chaos Orb and a Strip Mine, along with a few Triskelions and a Mind Twist). The addition of Demonic Consultation, Dance of the Dead and Ashen Ghoul to the card pool elevates what is a relatively poor ’94 archetype to the top of the heap in ’95. Demonic Consultation was restricted a month or so before this year’s Brawl, but the deck gained the benefit of the new London Mulligan. It was unclear how much the net effect would slow the deck.

Houtman vs Silenus

What was clear was that my fragile Necro Land’s Edge deck was toast. Lord Elleman had independently brewed the same combination back at Novicecon and done well with it then, but struggled when he ran it back at Fall Brawl in 2018. Plus, I already knew from Novicecon that my version was weak to Reanimator. All of that was before Consultation’s restriction, which certainly didn’t do any favors for Necropotence-based fast combo. My attention turned to trying to find a weakness in Reanimator to attack. The answer obviously hadn’t been found last year as Reanimator already had a giant target on its back then but still dominated.

Perhaps the most intuitive answer is to attack the Bazaars, which are the deck’s engine. However, Bazaar will always get at least one activation before a Strip Mine or land destruction spell can destroy it. That activation might be enough, and even if not, it digs toward the next Bazaar (or Deep Spawn, which provides both a clock and a redundant effect). Blood Moon can stop the activation if it comes down first, but that is hard to do consistently. Worse yet, all of those cards are terrible top-decks when already behind on board.

Think Tank

Attacking the graveyard is another possibility in theory, but the Old School 95 card pool provides limited options. Tormod’s Crypt has been widely tried. It can do some work in G1 for those willing to maindeck it (not super appealing in most decks), but Reanimator can easily refill the yard and will bring in Crumble from the sideboard. Headstone (!) out of Homelands cantrips, albeit slowly, and is a great response to a reanimate spell, however, it does little against the Shadows and Ghouls. Seekers of the creative prize might try Night Soil, but that isn’t going produce consistent wins.

The biggest problem with attacking either the graveyard or the cards that fill it is that Reanimator’s best sideboard plan neutralizes those approaches in games 2 and 3. Specifically, the deck can bring in three or four Mishra’s Workshops and some number of Copy Artifacts and beat down with hardcast Triskelions and Tetravi. I decided to concede the graveyard and try another axis.

Moss – Reanimator (one of two such builds in the field)

Allowing Reanimator to bring its creatures into play means having to deal with them, and many potential answers are neutered by the typical creature suite: four blue 6/6 tramplers that can shroud, 7-8 mid-size artifact creatures and eight small, Hasted, self-reanimating black creatures. Simply blocking that mix of creatures isn’t a practical solution, even with potential all-stars like Wall of Putrid Flesh in the format. Reanimator is an unusually bad matchup for The Abyss and its variety of colors frustrates CoPs and other color hosers.

Blank Animates Juzam from Moss’ bin

Targeted creature removal doesn’t seem ideal — you can’t effectively Swords the most threatening creatures — but white still provides some great answers. Disenchants are solid against the Enchant Dead Creature spells that are the deck’s backbone. Moat is amazing, assuming you can live long enough to draw and cast it — Reanimator isn’t great at removing enchantments. When Lord Petray and I traded some ideas a month or so before the Brawl, he presciently opined “I think you just want to play the best Moat / Tower shell possible.”

That approach did make sense.  I have certainly played my share of Land Tax / Moat / Ivory Tower decks, both in regular 93/94 Old School and back in the actual 1990s. The addition of Zuran Orb does wonders for the ’95 version of the deck compared to the ’94 version, and while Ivory Tower was restricted in the ’90s, it isn’t now. I was more drawn to the other draw engine that benefits tremendously from unrestriction, namely Necropotence. Poring over the Player’s Ball lists from this year, I found inspiration in Lord Blank’s Turbofog list, realizing that in the Necro vs. Reanimator matchup, Fog effects are almost an instant speed Time Walk. For a wincon I added a Zur’s Weirding, which is amazing with Necropotence and a bunch of life gain, and I ultimately fielded this grindy Necro combo list:

Schriver – Zur’s Necrofog

IV. Betrayed desires and a piece of the game

Round 1. I am paired against Lord Elleman, who like me set aside Necro Land’s Edge. While I went down a different Necro combo rabbit hole, he sleeved up a relatively traditional Necropotence deck — a Powered version of the old Black Summer deck with some anti-Reanimator modifications. In G1, I mulliganed to five, keeping a slow hand with three lands and Necropotence. My first two lands were Stripped, but on T3 I top-decked a Dark Ritual and was able to cast Necropotence and reload. This was a really close game. At one desperate point, I Necro’d down to one while facing a pair of pump knights, drawing into a Darkness to save myself. Later, I spent several turns maintaining enough life post-Necro to survive a potential Dark Ritual plus Drain Life, only to die when Lorien top-decked Demonic Consultation and got the second Dark Ritual. G2 was much less interesting – Lorien landed an early Disk and I held my Necropotence in-hand figuring he’d blow up my Towers and Library of Leng. Unfortunately, he Hymned my Necropotence away before doing so, a proper punishment for my biggest play error of the day. 0-1, 0-2.

Elleman – Monoblack Necro

Round 2. Next up is Kyle Houtman on Reanimator. I’m happy to report that my long-awaited rematch against this deck went exactly as scripted. Both games played out similarly, with an early Necro into a couple Fog effects, followed by a game-ending Arboria. Also, Bazaar activations are pretty funny with a Zur’s Weirding out — discard (up to) three, mill two. My apologies to Kyle – I was certainly gunning for your deck, but it wasn’t personal!  1-1, 2-2.

Houtman – Reanimator

Round 3. My opponent is Lord Marty Silenus, who I’d last played at Solocon in this same venue back in June. This time he was on a variation of the Naya Land Tax deck that Zuran Orb brings to life. Marty took on the additional challenge of not running any ABU cards other than those reprinted in Ice Age. Regardless of card selections though, I felt good about my deck in this matchup. Tax / Orb / Tower is great against traditional Necro because it provides life gain and blanks to discard. I wasn’t running much discard nor do I care about my opponent’s life total and Necropotence is much faster than Tax plus Sylvan / Winds. Our games more or less bore this out. The most entertaining play of this round was Marty casting Winds of Change with Zur’s Weirding and Library of Leng in-play on my side, and with nine cards in his hand to 24 in mine. This took a while to resolve, and he made me discard the same Darkness eight or ten times until his life total got too low. The Zur’s Weirding lock eventually resolved the first game in my favor. G2 effectively ended when a Guardian Beast from my sideboard landed to protect my Chaos Orb. 2-1, 4-2.

Silenus – Delice sur la Glace

Round 4. My opponent this round is Anthony Zinni, who was on a creatureless The Deck variant without many ’95 cards. In G1 I was able to land a quick Necro and use it aggressively in the absence of pressure on my life total. At some point I was able to stick a Zur’s Weirding, which locked him out of drawing further interaction (and eventually, any cards at all). G2 was my first opportunity to swap in creatures and discard en masse against a creatureless deck. An early Hypnotic Specter did some work until he landed Serra Angel (apparently also having sideboarded in creatures), however, I was able to Necro into and again resolve Chaos Orb plus Guardian Beast, which nuked the Serra and effectively ended the game. 3-1, 6-2.

By Zur’s Command

Round 5. This time I’m against Lord Semmens, whom I’ve played many times casually but somehow never at an event. I was pretty sure he was on combo (and also that he’d be pretty sure that I was on combo), so I figured my pile of Fog effects would be dead cards. I managed to resolve a quick Zur’s Weirding, a silver bullet against combo decks. Unfortunately, when Shane laid down his hand, I saw that he was already holding Power Artifact and Fireball to go with the Basalt Monolith he had in play. Game over. For G2, I brought in most of my sideboard, allowing me to respond to Shane’s Demonic Tutor, pass, with a Hymn. Ominously, I pulled two lands, and it went downhill from there. 3-2, 6-4.

Semmens – Power Monolith

V. What you may have heard and what you think you know

While I was getting stomped by Shane, Jaco and Carter were sitting next to us duking it out for the title. Jaco had apparently taken G1 with his NecroDreams deck and Carter stabilized in G2 and ground it to a halt as Tax / Tower decks tend to do, eventually resolving Land’s Edge for the win just as time expired in the round. The tournament was then resolved in overtime via Chaos Orb shootout with Carter prevailing and taking the Swiss.

Final Standings

It is risky to draw too many conclusions about the metagame one tournament after restricting Demonic Consultation. For this event at least, Reanimator was kept in check, posting a 5-5 overall record. In addition to restricted Consultation, Reanimator faced a spectacular amount of sideboard (and even maindeck) hate that will presumably be reduced quite a bit next time. Carter had the sole BuehlerTax deck in the room and went 5-0. Four Necropotence decks with three very different designs went 15-5.

Meatball Incinerated the competition, finishing undefeated

My own deck was the laggard among the Necropotence builds, finishing 3-2. While it was too focused on fighting the last war versus Reanimator, it at least won that particular war with ease. Darkness & Friends did their job, but I would run fewer Fog effects next time and more of them would be in the sideboard. The Ivory Towers with Library of Leng were able to shoulder much of the defensive load. I loved Zur’s Weirding as a wincon, with its ability to convert a minor advantage into a game-winning lock.  Overall, it was a fun deck that felt unlike anything that exists in regular 93/94 Old School, and I’m glad I played it.

Rohr harvested this fantastically altered Necropotence by playing
the most original cards (22) from Ice Age and Homelands

I’m excited to explore the next iteration of the ’95 metagame and I certainly don’t see any need for further restrictions at this point. Black Vise, which is terrible against Reanimator but great against Necropotence and Land Tax, seems poised to make a move. If graveyard hate declines enough in light of a weakened Reanimator deck, perhaps Forgotten Lore recursion decks become playable. Until next time, I will once again eagerly await the Ice Age.

VI. Decklists & Candid Photos Gallery

The Chicago River as seen from the deck at Metropolitan Brewing, facing South
The site where Metropolitan Brewing now sits, circa 1922

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