On books and bannings

Today we have another glorious guest. Svante Landgraf is one of the most prolific The Deck players in the format. Fresh of a top8 in the Stockholm Ivory Cup, and that's just after picking up a trophy in the n00bcon 9 top8, the dude knows his way around old school control decks. He is also an old Pro Tour player with a few success stories from pretty much all sanctioned formats. Svante likes his control decks, and seriously considered the impact of a Jayemdae Tome restriction last month. The Tome got a stay this time, but that didn't stop him from graciously sharing his thoughts with us here. Let's take the ride. Enjoy! /Mg out

I love books and libraries. I love books so much that I spent the last six years getting a Ph.D in what essentially amounts to Comparative Literature (technically, it’s something called "Culture and Society", but wtf does that even mean), to the dual benefits of now being unemployed and being able to call myself a Doctor of Science Fiction. Eminently worth it, I must say.

Consequently, when it comes to Magic, there are few things I like more than drawing cards. I have a soft spot for broken combo things, but ever since reading about blue-white control in the December 1995 issue of Centurion, Sweden’s finest ever Magic magazine, I was hooked on that archetype. The possibility of playing The Deck again is a huge part of why I’m even a part of the 93/94 community. I know, I know, I’m the bad guy.

So, I’m currently mostly unemployed, and I usually take long runs before lunch almost every day. Sometimes so long, in fact, that I need something complicated to think about in order not to collapse from pure boredom. One day I started building all the basic decks in 94/95, but that’s a topic for another time and another place. And one other day, shortly after n00bcon and before the B&R announcement, I started thinking about what to do with The Deck should Jayemdae Tome get restricted, something I thought quite likely at the time.
That’s the topic of this article. Imagine we live in a world where the Tome got the axe some weeks ago. One day, we might live in that world. What do we do? Is The Deck dead? Do we all have to start playing actual win conditions? Fear not. I will walk you through all the opportunities, starting out with straight-up replacements, working my way towards new directions the deck might take. Who knows, there might be some gems in here which are applicable even in a Tome world?
The most obvious replacement is Jalum Tome. There’s even some argument for including a single Jalum in lists with multiple Jayemdaes, as the two cards are synergistic with eachother. The problem with relying on multiple Jalums is that it doesn’t actually provide card advantage. You can toss excess land or removal, but you never get ahead on resources the way you do with an active Jayemdae. Jalums are best used to quickly cycling through the deck, finding other things that can fill your hand so the cycling can continue. In this way, Jalum plays well with all the restricted cards. Should Recall get unrestricted, this becomes increasingly attractive, as you can use Jalum to find Ancestral or Demonic for Ancestral to draw cards, then Jaluming into Recalls to continue the process for quite the reliable card advantage. With multiple Jalums, I even think there might be a case for running Wheel of Fortune in The Deck. Timetwister is a deceptively powerful card in the deck, after all. Jalum also fits well with the next card on the list: Sylvan Library.
Sylvan Library is one of my all-time favorite cards, easily in the top 5 at least, possibly number 1. I love everything about it: the weird old-school art where it’s hard to make out what it’s actually depicting but everything looks great, the power level, the tricks you can use, the weird wording that has changed more times than I can count. I used to beat people with the Sylvan/Abundance combination back in year-2000 Extended Oath of Druids. I also think Sylvan is criminally underplayed in 93/94. Sure, shuffle effects are hard to come by. The only free one is Demonic Tutor. Still, against decks not hurting you, like the mirror, a Sylvan Library is fine to have on its own in The Deck. But maybe you can get a few shuffles in?
Land Tax is the classic combo with Sylvan, even since the first days of Erhnam-Geddon in 1995, but it requires a bit too many basic lands for what The Deck really wants, I think, not to mention the fact that you have to have fewer lands in play than your opponent. If we had Zuran Orb, Land Tax would work, but now, I’m skeptical. There is another opportunity, however, and that is playing Untamed Wilds. You still need basic lands, but fewer; I think three or four would work. As an added bonus, you get extra insurance against Blood Moon. You only get a few shuffle effects, but timing them correctly, they do provide quite a large advantage. I could definitely see a build featuring some Sylvans and 2-3 Untamed Wilds. The mana base would have to change, using Tropical Islands instead of Volcanic Islands, minimizing the red, probably to only a Fireball and a couple of Red Elemental Blasts in the sideboard, but Ice Storm steps in nicely for Stone Rain.
And you can also get around the Sylvan restrictions by using Millstone on yourself. Millstone also doubles as a win condition, of course. However, as you will be milling yourself occasionally or frequently, as well as drawing more cards than your opponent, winning with just Millstone might be hard. I recommend using one Tormod’s Crypt so you can late-game Timetwister + Crypt and then using Millstone as a finisher. Feldon’s Cane would also work but is much slower.

Another way of handling the downsides of Sylvan is not getting rid of the top cards, either by shuffling or milling, but instead gaining life so you can draw more that way. The best plan is probably Ivory Tower, already fringe playable in The Deck and highly synergistic with the burst card advantage Sylvan can provide. Mirror Universe also becomes a better maindeck card if you play a bunch of Sylvans.
In his original The Deck (or at least in a later version which is what I’m able to find at the moment, a list with Amnesias after the Mind Twist banning), Brian Weissman played 2 Disrupting Scepter and 1 Jayemdae Tome. Randy Buehler runs 2 tomes and 2 scepters in his current The Deck. The latter is horribly wrong, the former only probably so, but maybe there is something here? After all, the scepter does share many treats with the tome, both being mono artifacts converting a bunch of mana into card advantage

However, while the scepter can be effective against control and some midrange decks, it just doesn’t offer the raw power the tome does. It’s not at all an engine for the deck, it’s a very specific tool. It’s not a bad card, and playing fewer tomes might open up slots for other mana-intensive cards like scepters, but it doesn’t remotely do what the tome does for The Deck.

That being said, maybe the best way to handle the loss of tomes is changing the strategy a bit?
I usually play a bunch of angels in my sideboard. When boarding in Serras, I frequently cut one book. There’s just so much heavy end the deck can sustain. I’m not a big fan of Serras in the main deck, because of all the swords being played, but without tomes, they might be worth it. Without the tomes, you can’t count on card advantage as giving you perfect inevitability, so killing the opponent is one possible solution to that. The problem with the Serras is obviously that they are quite weak against anything with white. Trading 5 mana for 1 isn’t where you want to be. If not everybody is playing white, they get better. They also get better with Disrupting Scepters or Amnesia. If you go too deep on the Serras, the deck starts morphing into U/W Skies with multiple Serras, Serendibs, and probably Moat and Psionic Blasts, but then you’ve left The Deck territory and ventured into unknown lands. The same goes for accepting the lack of inevitability caused by fewer Jayemdae Tomes and going for a combo kill, likely Power Artifact. There might be merit to some more hybrid builds in this world, but it’s not really The Deck anymore then.
But when it comes to durdly win conditions, I have to spare a word for The Hive. I first saw it in action at the very first 93/94 tournament I played, at LIGG in Stockholm in early 2016, where I believe Seb Celia ran one copy (probably in the sideboard) of his The Deck. When tomes are eating your mana each turn, it’s hard to justify paying 10 for a 1/1 flier, or 15 for two, but when tomes are out of the picture, maybe it’s time for the wasps to shine? They do provide a very resilient win condition against removal. They are also some of the only win conditions dodging both Moat and The Abyss. I’m still highly skeptical, and it doesn’t really solve the problem of providing you with enough resources to bury the midrange decks, but it is an option.

So, what would this mean for The Deck and for the metagame in general? First of all, are there any other decks than The Deck which are hit by the restriction? Not really. Some U/W Skies lists might play two tomes, as well as some Transmute decks, but those are few and far between. The Deck would be weaker, no doubt about it, but it would still be viable and probably still very good. Fewer people would probably play it and it would be a little bit easier to beat. It would be less about taking complete control and more about beating down with Serras or paying life to Sylvan. This all would strengthen midrange creature decks and combo decks, which are not so good against The Deck, and weaken U/R Burn, which is probably the worst matchup for The Deck. In turn, combo decks would be even better, as they are usually at their best against midrange creature decks. On the other hand, not very many players enjoy playing the weird combo decks, and they tend to be quite expensive. We might see a more creature-heavy format with a slightly larger chance of some combo deck spiking a tournament. And The Deck will continue to put up good numbers, I’m sure.

But what do you think? Am I right in this? Hit me up in the comments!


  1. book of rass + ivory tower?

    oddball xira arien?

  2. I think land tax, makin tome, and sylvan library are all crazy underrated.

  3. I did consider mentioning Book of Rass, but I think it's just far too weak when you're not running a Transmute Artifact shell, and that's too far into another archetype to still be considered The Deck, I think.

    Xira Arien dies to all removal in the world (except REB, I suppose) and needs to survive for a turn. It's a cool card but it's trash here. :)

    1. Could Greed be an alternative though? If we consider Sylvan Library as card advantage with Ivory Tower, Greed gives you card for half the cost, making them much more attractive (and "free" if we eventually hit two towers). It might be a little suicidal (as you never have to pay life with Sylvan to get an effect), but perhaps a piece for discussion.

    2. Yeah, I think Greed is too greedy. Remember, roughly half of the black sources are Cities; also, Greed does nothing if you don't pay the life, and it costs twice as much as Sylvan. Greed might be another underplayed card in the format, but I don't think it'd be very good here.

  4. Nice one. I agree that restricting the book would not have the impact some people want. Hopefully unrestricting Black Vise is a much better action that MG chose to take. I'm not saying it solves problems, if there are any, but it's a better way imho to go at it.

    1. I actually think restricting the book would hurt The Deck quite a bit. Far more than the unrestriction of Vise at least. Something important has to go if you want the deck not to be dominant.

  5. I really like the Sylvan+sindbad synergy, but that´s for another deck i suppose. I play it in a GWu reanimate deck with great sucess (for a Tier4 deck...). Great fun to chump with a Sindbad, draw a card and then cast Reincarnate on the Sindbad to put Arcades Sabboth on the battledfield!

  6. Nice article. I think the time you have spent on this will have value, as I cannot see Tome making it through another year unrestricted. I know that The Deck isn't "dominating", but I think it is because there is kind of a gentlemen's agreement to not play it too often. Everyone knows it is far and away the best deck, but thankfully Old School is about more than winning, and people correctly choose to lower their winning % in order to increase their fun. Feels like everyone who plays it is cheating. But if there were all of a sudden an Old School Circuit, with a bunch of big money tourneys, you better believe it would be all The Decks, specifically anti-Deck versions, as well as heavily metagamed things with maindeck Energy Flux etc.

    Restricting Tome would undoubtedly knock the deck down a peg. It may even remain be the best deck, but not by so much that it feels like cheating whenever someone taps 4 to activate a Tome.

    1. Agree on almost every point.

    2. This was the case a few years back. Alot of UR floated around noobcon partly due to being The Deck killer. I'm not sold on that the solution is restricting.

  7. Great piece but the one card I would mention when talking about "shuffling your deck" is Transmute Artifact. It could make some hybrid The Deck with toolbox, since finding the one Tome, the Orb and perhaps Hive/Scepter/Mirror/other is well worth a couple of Sylvans/Transmutes, especially since Mirror-Sylvan is a good combo.


  8. There is a lot of talk about the Hive but have you ever tried Serpent Generator? It´s omore costly to play but cheaper to activate, and you only needs 10 hits to win. But I guess the lack of evasion is the key here.


  9. how can I get one of these cool old school playmats?


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