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A History Lesson: The Best Selesnya

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The letter T!his story could easily begin back in 1995, some seventeen years ago, at the end of a wintry trek in the deep snow across New York City, with Michael "Loco" Loconto and his sixty-two-card Blinking Spirit deck, staring across the table from proto-Selesnya champion Bertrand Lestree, the fiery Frenchman and his ErhnamGeddon deck...


In 1995, Erhnam Djinn followed by Armageddon was the height of offense married to the end of the world. The thinking was, if you had an advantage (having a large creature), blowing up the world would leave you with the lead long enough to close out the game.

But green and white would not be remembered by Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall (or the millions and millions of Magic: The Gathering fans today) as our great game's first Pro Tour Champion. Lestree, with a sided-in Whirling Dervish, put Loconto dead-on-board, but in the first great moment of Pro Tour tension, the $16,000 Lightning Helix some ten years earlier—and I would guess most of you have experienced something like this somewhen along the line—Mike plucked a Swords to Plowshares off the top of his deck, staved off the Dervish kill, and eventually ran Lestree out of cards.


Probably such a game would not have played out the same way, today.

Alternatively, we could travel some seventeen years forward to the present day, when on Any Given Sunday, a Green-White Maverick deck is probably challenging to win a StarCityGames Legacy Open, challenging the speed of combo or the relentless synergy of a Goblins or Merfolk with merely some of the greatest creatures of all time. Headlined by Noble Hierarch and peppered with a surprising amount of deck manipulation among Green Sun's Zenith, Knight of the Reliquary, and sometimes-teammates like Fauna Shaman and Stoneforge Mystic, Maverick boasts an angle of sophistication you might not expect from an efficient army of green and white creatures.

But...

Isn't being "Selesnya" a little more than just playing green and white cards?

And really...

Is Maverick really the deck we want to hold the title of the Best Selesnya Deck?

How about this one:

The year is 2005.

Ravnica: City of Guilds is brand new (no Guildpact or Dissension yet), and yet, it is already talked about as one of the most beloved sets in the history of our great game. Katsuhiro Mori—that year's eventual champion—helped to engineer the rare clear break with his Selesnya deck Ghazi-Glare... not only winning the World Championship, but helping to put countrymen Pro Tour Champion Tomohiro Kaji and Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura into the Top 8 with him! And had pairings gone a bit differently (Mori took out Shuhei in the quarterfinals), Ghazi-Glare might have had an even more impressive debut.


I would argue that Ghazi-Glare was not only the best Selesnya deck, but one of the greatest decks of all time (no qualifier). While Ghazi-Glare certainly exhibited a proactive strategy (if you are into that kind of thing), more importantly, Mori showed a brilliant understanding of context—he built a green-white creature deck (not exactly what you think of when you imagine intricate, game-shifting strategies) that in fact out-endgamed the most obviously powerful blue decks of the era, found room for a transformative sideboard, and redefined the language of metagame sideboarding!


Oh, you didn't catch all that in the above seventy-five?

Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree | Art by Martina Pilcerova

Strategy, Context, and Metagaming

During the height of the Kamigawa block + Ravnica block Standard format, some fairly vocal players (a popular columnist and a Pro Tour Champion, and their cohorts, primarily) were going around saying you could—and should—just tap out for Meloku the Clouded Mirror or Keiga, the Tide Star because there was really nothing "better" anyone else could do. And those players weren't exactly wrong... four of the remaining five Worlds 2005 Top 8 decks were Keiga/Meloku builds (although one might want to ask 2009 Andre Coimbra why he had Kodama's Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder in his sideboard).


When you think about the best things someone can do, "Playing some green dudes and tapping the other player's dudes" might not seem as powerful as a single almighty table-snapper that could take over the entire game by itself.

But it is in that statement where we can actually see the genius of Ghazi-Glare:

  • What is Keiga, the Tide Star supposed to do, exactly, about a Glare of Subdual? You can make the argument that the four-mana enchantment isn't supposed to resolve or whatever... but what if it does? Aren't you tapping out for your Kamigawa legend sometime around turn four to six? The Keiga/Meloku decks of the time were base-blue tap out/permission decks; green-blue decks designed to accelerate out, tap out for, and then protect one or two big threats; or Gifts Ungiven-style long game decks (that tended to be long on the green ramp but not on the permission)... none of which was particularly good at fielding multiple threats at the same time. A Glare of Subdual + a "lowly" Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree could make actually winning the game exceedingly awkward. And while a Meloku could "Fireball" the opponent by picking up everything and rushing... that could be a bit of a gamble against a deck that could produce limitless tokens over time with Selesnya Guildmage and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree without such an all-in line in the sand.
  • Mori & co. borrowed a bit from the first Pro Tour, but switched sides with their green-white ancestor. Instead of being the aggressors against powerful threats, they had Arashi, the Sky Asunder. For one thing, Arashi was pretty sweet. A 5/5 for five mana that can assassinate flyers to death? You can certainly do worse. But the channel ability? Unlike Arashi itself in those pre-Cavern of Souls days, you could just dump Arashi out of your hand and Hurricane any number of 2/4, 5/5, or 1/1 flyers... and there wasn't much the blue opponent could do about it.
  • So let's take the most extreme possible case, where a blue control opponent answers almost everything Ghazi-Glare wants to do. It is still hard to win because of this deck's threat suppression. So eventually, you might just get killed by Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, which, by the by, can't be countered.

And as to Ghazi-Glare's active plan?

It wasn't so bad. A lot of these cards are pretty good! You don't have to stare at Selesnya Guildmage very long before realizing this is one of the best two-drops in the format. Umezawa's Jitte was as hellacious in Standard then as it can be in Legacy today... but did even more damage on account of being in a smaller format. Loxodon Hierarch was the breakout creature of Worlds 2005; although too small to tangle with the Kamigawa legends one on one, it was cheap (especially for a Llanowar Elves/Wood Elves deck), and went a long way in holding off other decks, like Boros and similar low-curve aggressors.


Ghazi-Glare was a surprisingly strategic deck.

Congregation at Dawn was an absolute nightmare for a red deck. Turn-two Congregation at Dawn off the Birds of Paradise? You had best have an immediate answer for the Birds (or hope the opponent doesn't have a fourth land) because you were about to face "Three Stupid Elephants" (™)—three Loxodon Hierarchs in a row were just tough to beat for a deck with limited resources focused on getting in and dealing damage.


And what about blue mages who thought they were more clever than they actually were?

Congregation at Dawn? Sure! I'll just use my permission on the creatures you got. Nice job wasting a card! Arashi you say? How many times are you going to split The Sky Asunder with that? Hmmm...

This is going to be a long game.

Congregation at Dawn | Art by Randy Gallegos

The Transformative Sideboard

Ghazi-Glare was effective against blue control decks for the reasons above (they had a hard time winning if the Selesnya pilot could hit his or her Glare... or just draw Arashi and lands) and even better against other creature decks, in particular aggro decks.

When you are "playing fair" with guys, trying to get in with guys, maybe planning to hit one of the opponent's guys on the way in... it's pretty hard to compete with a combination of acceleration and drops on the order of Carven Caryatid, Loxodon Hierarch, or even two-for-one Wood Elves. The opponent can block and trade with value turn after turn after turn, taxing your resources.


And if all the "regular" two-for-ones don't get you, there is still the matter of the Glare of Subdual plan itself. Our Selesnya heroes could just make Saproling tokens (even their Jitte-clearing Disenchant made tokens), tap down all your guys to prevent getting beat down (initially), and then end the game by tapping down all your alleged blockers before alpha striking you to death.

But there are more kinds of decks than just beatdown and permission-based control.

Against these kinds of decks, Mori's contingent had the Greater Good sideboard transformation.

Legend has it that the community at the time was very generous with the Ghazi-Glare format break... the World Championship was in Japan, and the Japanese pros wanted to see their countrymen do well (and as we said, there were three Ghazi-Glare in the Top 8)... but not everyone had the particular special sideboard that history has preserved with the sacred label of Top 8.

Against decks that fell into the midrange, you'd want different tools than you did against the most focused decks.

On balance, you don't need to be as quick. There isn't a fast one- or two-drop coming after you; or you aren't tearing out fingernails scratching yourself up an oppressive wall of permission... you have some time to develop. You have a minute to just accelerate, think about how you want to play these next few turns, play a setup card that doesn't need to have an immediate impact on the game (by the way, although Ghazi-Glare was a default-aggressive deck in context, it wasn't the fastest deck or anything, so playing the mirror match might fall under this umbrella).

That was when the Greater Good plan made the most sense!

Greater Good would come down and give you a no-mana way to sacrifice Yosei, the Morning Star. You could stick your lockdown Dragon, then Dragon after Dragon until the successful completion of your offensive campaign. Between the pure draw of Greater Good (which would be significant when sacrificing a big Yosei) and selection tools like Congregation at Dawn, it was easy to chain and sustain when you had the full four copies in your deck.


When Yosei went to the graveyard (due to Greater Good or any other reason), Ghazi-Glare could not only lock down particularly troublesome permanents... but also deny the opponent an untap at all. Which means that if you can do the aforementioned "chain a bunch of Yoseis into one another" (again, not that hard) you would basically have four turns to kill your opponent, unopposed!

Or, at the very least, you had a great card drawing/filtering engine!

The presence of the Greater Good sideboard transformation was pivotal in Mori's ability to compete with Frank Karsten in the Worlds 2005 finals. Karsten played a dedicated Greater Good deck main deck... but could himself transform into an infinite Arcane Gifts Ungiven deck after boards!

Greater Good | Art by Pete Venters

Rock; Paper; and, in Particular, Scissors

Lastly—and most lastingly, most especially from my perspective—Mori changed the language that deck designers and metagamers use to build sixties seventy-fives and prepare for tournaments.

While it is a bit of an oversimplification, competitive players since the time of Loconto and Lestree have used the Rock-Paper-Scissors analogy to describe how they choose decks in anticipation of other decks. Necropotence overwhelmed white-blue with its speed and card advantage... but as happened in the first PT final, white-blue generally had more than enough answers to overwhelm the threat count of green-white (which supposedly beat Necropotence with its Whirling Dervishes and so on). Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Mori decided to play "paper." He figured "rock" (not The Rock, the green-blue midrange deck, but a class of decks he could identify as "rock") would be the most popular, and made his "paper" deck as a metagame choice to beat that. But better than almost any thought-out strategy before that point, the Japanese realized that a greater proportion of "paper" decks would necessarily survive Day One of the Pro Tour, as the common "rock" decks were eliminated. So via this transformational sideboard in particular, Katsu knocked the age-old metagaming narrative on its ear.

"On Day One we will cover the 'rock'... but on Day Two, we shall become 'scissors.'"

And three of them, at least, did a dandy job of snipping and slicing their collective ways to the Top 8.

As we return to Ravnica, and in celebration of this theme week's centerpiece, that is the deck I wanted to highlight. More than almost any other deck, more than other iconic green-white decks like ErhnamGeddon or Maverick, Ghazi-Glare was the classically Selesnya deck. This was a deck that used the signature Guildmage and the guild land to win in specifically the guild way: Ghazi-Glare made 1/1 Saproling tokens, overwhelmed the opponent with their numbers (sometimes), and at others figured out ways to leverage them to compete with better creatures.

It was a somewhat straightforward creature deck that was anything but one-dimensional. It showed the world that such a strategy could be laced together in a particular way to answer the speed of aggression with quickly and expertly deployed stop signs, cut off control opponents' endgames and exhaust them to death, and transform in such a way as to force the remaining opponents to jump through heretofore unrevealed hoops. And more than being "just" a triple-Top 8 World Champion decklist, Ghazi-Glare was a teacher that, more than a dozen years later, we can still learn from.

And that is what makes Ghazi-Glare the best Selesnya!



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