Historic has a problem on Arena: it doesn’t have a parallel in the real world, so it’s of no use for preparing for high level tabletop competitive events. The card pool is too far from both Modern and Pioneer to be relevant for playtesting. The Arena-only cards make such playtesting less valid as they provide avenues of play that don’t exist in any other world.
The one strength Historic has: it provides an alternate constructed environment when you get bored with Standard.
In my trek to mythic for November I started playing an updated version of my Monowhite deck from my last Historic run. That deck handily took me through Best of 1 in Platinum, but I switched to best of 3 for a challenge at Diamond. That led to facing an increased amount of control decks, which meant Turbo Turns was at a disadvantage. It did, however, confirm a truth about Magic at present: The One Ring is the MTG equivalent of Caitlin Clark, that is to say way too good. Even after they attempted to nerf it it’s unreal powerful. Paying 1 mana to draw with it feels far from fair, and it seems impossible that in real world play you don’t even need to do that. To make matters worse: Orcish Bowmasters is no LSU.
If Turbo Turns weren’t going to be the path to mythic, I’d get back on my ole’ “answer your things, recycle the answers, do it all over again.” Here’s UW Baron Harkonnen in Historic:
4 Absorb (RNA) 151
4 Plains (SLD) 63
3 Island (SLD) 64
3 Devious Cover-Up (MID) 48
1 Shark Typhoon (IKO) 67
2 A-The One Ring (LTR) 246
4 Mana Tithe (STA) 8
4 Reprieve (LTR) 26
3 Settle the Wreckage (XLN) 34
3 Devastating Mastery (STX) 14
1 Farewell (NEO) 13
1 Test of Talents (STX) 59
1 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria (DAR) 6
1 Sphinx's Revelation (AKR) 262
2 Union of the Third Path (BRO) 31
1 Calim, Djinn Emperor (HBG) 33
1 Castle Ardenvale (ELD) 238
1 Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire (NEO) 268
1 Castle Vantress (ELD) 242
1 Hall of Storm Giants (AFR) 257
1 Otawara, Soaring City (NEO) 271
4 Deserted Beach (MID) 260
4 Hallowed Fountain (RNA) 251
4 Glacial Fortress (XLN) 255
1 Field of Ruin (MID) 262
1 Blast Zone (BRO) 258
1 Ghost Quarter (ISD) 240
1 Arch of Orazca (RIX) 185
1 Disallow (KLR) 46
4 Dovin's Veto (WAR) 193
3 Tormod's Crypt (M21) 241
3 Farewell (NEO) 13
4 Temporary Lockdown (DMU) 36
1 Tormod's Crypt (M21) 241
A Brief History of Baron Harkonnen
If you’re not new here, you can skip to the next section. For everyone else, pull up your chairs and take a listen. “Baron Harkonnen” refers to the strategy originated by Adrian Sullivan wherein a control deck plays a single creature (Mahamoti Djinn, or the “Baron Harkonnen” in the original version), lands, answers, and a card draw engine to power your end game. Finally, a recycling engine allows you to turn your strategy into an algorithm that keeps getting smarter and smarter as you recycle relevant cards back into your deck while leaving irrelevant ones in your graveyard. Gaea’s Blessing served that purpose back in the 90s, though I relied on Devious Cover-Up in this mythic run.
In a 90’s era PTQ match that might mean a sea of Jackal Pups and Fireslingers getting wiped out by a Hail Storm, a hand getting refilled by Sylvan Library combined with Taste of Paradise to offset the life loss, land drops never being missed with Thawing Glaciers, Dismiss countering relevant spells for no cost, and finally a 5/6 flyer wrapping things up once the coast was clear. Because of the recursion engine the strategy allows you to lean on playing a toolbox of solutions to problems; after all, given that you have “infinite” cards in your deck, a single answer to enchantments or artifacts is, in fact, an answer to ALL artifacts and enchantments on a long enough time horizon.
The key selling point of the strategy is the “toolbox” element that lets you play singletons that are functionally “infinite” thanks to Devious Cover-Up. The spells I chose in this slot:
Disallow: There are some triggered abilities that are problematic for you. A single copy of Disallow makes it possible for you to stop Ugin or Emrakul triggers, or a cycled Shark Typhoon.
Shark Typhoon: You need a Baron Harkonnen, and this is a great one. Instead of being dead early on it turns into a cantrip to dig for lands. You cast it late game more than you cycle for a giant monster because cycling turns on the Fatal Pushes cluttering your opponent’s hands and makes the games go longer than they would if you simply cast it and countered things to make tokens.
Farewell: Killing planeswalkers is important and Farewell doesn’t do that. As a result, it’s the 1-of to Devastating Mastery’s 3-of. Sometimes you’ll have an opponent whose graveyard you need to ace, or even some permanents you need exiled instead of killed. Farewell is your answer. Keep in mind: once you’ve removed a singleton from the game it won’t come back, and if you remove two or more copies of Devious Cover-Up you aren’t “infinite” anymore.
Test of Talents: This is the biggest stretch. Technically it means you can reduce an instants/sorceries heavy deck to 0 cards by just slowly exiling all their spells. That was appealing enough to me to try it. If I’m honest it’s probably a sideboard card at best in a “real” tournament (not that those exist for Historic) to be replaced by more late-game card draw maindeck.
Sphinx’s Revelation: This is the biggest spell you can have in the end game, but it’s garbage early cluttering your hand and causing you to die against aggressive decks. It’s in over a third Ring because I wanted a bit more lifegain.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria: What I learned playing this deck is that other players really hate this card. The number of Monogreen players who used Stone Brain to nail this card, only to find I only play a singleton was…intriguing. It’s a solid late-game card-draw engine building towards a very powerful ultimate. In a pinch it’s a backup win condition allowing you to go ultimate and blow up all your opponent’s stuff, then cast it and use its second ability on itself to ensure you don’t get milled. This is an outlier amongst outliers, but it’s a line you should be aware of.
Calim, Djinn Emperor: Okay I’m a softie for the classics. This is the actual Baron Harkonnen analogue and like most modern creatures it’s far superior to its 1990s peer. As a cantrip early it not only fogs a creature that could attack, but lets you dig towards land instead of cluttering your hand. It mocks Approach of the Second Sun a bit by enabling you to cast it for free, on your opponent’s turn, after digging seven cards deep a few times (side note: what is it with UW win conditions planting themselves seven cards deep in your library?). Historic lets you go “infinite” on a different avenue by cycling this guy a lot and reshuffling it with Devious Cover-Up. The most I ever put back into my deck was 4 in a game I was certain to win, but it’s another fun corner case to consider.
These are the spell singleton slots, but I also had a few reserved for the land section as well. As a control deck it’s important you don’t miss land drops. You also have some staunch requirements on your mana, most notably Devastating Mastery at 2WWWW for the full effect. I wanted 24 lands dedicated to paying the colored elements of my spells, but 28 lands total. That left 4 slots of “bonus” lands I could play with for function, and within the 24 lands dedicated to being blue and/or white I could add singletons so long as they contributed to the cause. Here’s where I wound up:
Arch of Orazca: this is your “Whispers of the Muse with buyback,” a 90s era card draw engine. It costs the same but does you the solid of not taking up a card slot in your hand. Your late-game is powered by sitting back on a clear board and out-drawing your opponent one activation at a time.
Blast Zone: This catch all gives you Mastery/Farewell redundancy.
Field of Ruin/Ghost Quarter: I’m putting these together as they’re similar, but the distinct inclusion of both is separate and intentional. Field of Ruin allows you to deal with problematic lands, usually creature-lands of some type, without going down a land drop. Monogreen likes to put more enchantments on their basic Forests than a Pixar house in Colombia, which Field of Ruin can’t touch. Ghost Quarter, however, not only lets you zap those festooned Forests but also gives you a long-game where you could Strip Mine your opponent out of lands entirely. Don’t forget this big brainer: in a pinch you can Ghost Quarter your own land as mana fixing. It puts you down a land, but I did use it once to enable Mastery.
The ”can make colored mana” singletons are:
Castle Ardenvale: This is a redundant win condition which can also create blockers to deal with your opponent’s threats. Just remember: by the time this thing is active your opponent is sitting on a boatload of removal. You don’t care if they kill your threats, and you should almost never counter removal targeted at them, but prepare to be patient as they get through all the useless spells they’ve been sitting on all game. You win the long game, not the impatient one.
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire: With the exception of its interactions with Glacial Fortress and Field of Ruin, a single Eiganjo is as good as a basic Plains but sometimes will save your life.
Castle Vantress: This would be a second Arch of Orazca if that land could tap for blue, but since it cannot this is the next best thing.
Hall of Storm Giants: Another redundant win condition, Hall is at its best when it sneaks in to kill an unassuming planeswalker because your opponent forgot it was there. It also occasionally punches heavy for a surprise win while your opponent mistakenly thought they had more time. However, in infrequent games its “enters the battlefield tapped” clause is problematic. If you re-built this deck and cut this for an Island or dual land I wouldn’t hate it.
Otawara, Soaring City: Like Eiganjo this is mostly an Island with slightly added utility in that it can bounce your own The One Ring to reset counters. I genuinely used it for that far more often than defensively.
The other cards in the deck:
The most powerful counterspells in Historic are Mana Tithe and Reprieve. The latter works as a win condition, truly, demoralizing opponents. My nightmares of late have replaced me giving a speech only to realize I’m wearing no pants with casting a spell that gets Mana Tithe’d only to sheepishly then play my land for the turn. Seriously, 90% of the time this happens your opponent just scoops. Absorb is a bit pricey but the 3 life allows you a two-for-one, doing something like “Counter your creature and regain the 3 life I lost from <Lightning Bolt effect>.” Finally, Devious Cover-Up is your late game counter and recursion engine. Exiling stuff is also relevant.
One note: Reprieve is called a “counterspell” but it doesn’t technically counter anything. That means “can’t be countered” cards (Dovin’s Veto) can be stopped by it, though you’ll have to have a new solution the following turn. Sometimes it makes more sense to Reprieve your own spell in a counter battle to nullify all the things your opponent is doing to stop it, freeing you up to cast it again.
Devastating Mastery costs 2WWWW which is worse than Planar Cleansing at 3WWW. Both offer a “board wipe” that solves all non-land problems. Mastery takes the nod, however, because it allows you to cast it in a pinch for 2WW. Settle the Wreckage is generally the best Wrath, and the format’s Doctor Dre because hoo boy have most opponents seem to have forgotten it exists. You get free wins by players all-in’ing an attack they simply didn’t need to over-extend for allowing you to wipe the horde in its entirety at a cheaper card cost than you should have paid.
The One Rings
Union of the Third Path is lifegain, but its inclusion is solely because of The One Ring. You play two copies of The One Ring, allowing you to cycle them between one another and refresh using Devious Cover-Up to put them back in the deck. Union combines with those two to put you so far ahead in life your opponent can’t catch back up. I could buy the argument it should be a 3/1 split, swapping the second copy of Union for the third Ring because its power level is just absurd.
Dovin’s Veto: counter battles aren’t a thing with this card, so you bring it against “mostly spells” decks and save this for the biggest, baddest spell-based threat they cast. Because you have infinite spell-based threats you don’t care if they have Dovin’s Veto. The exception to that is an opponent smart enough to recognize that Devious Cover-Up is the key spell for them to counter; in that case, you need to use Reprieve to save your DCU’s from a sad fate.
Tormod’s Crypt: This card comes in the least, and not against “graveyard light” decks. It’s for strategies that are entirely dependent on the graveyard, like Dredge or Mox Amber-based combo. I believe Crypt is the best sideboard solution for those strategies because when you need an answer you need it NOW, and Tormod’s Crypt is the cheapest thing to do that. Rest In Peace might be right, but I didn’t spend too much time on this slot because Crypt is good enough and the archetypes it’s good against don’t show up all that much (but they DO show up enough to keep you honest).
Temporary Lockdown: The aggro decks you lose to can kill you quickly. Lockdown is a great Wrath against them because it’s the cheapest available. Remember when playing it that you must maneuver Devastating Mastery to ensure casting that Wrath doesn’t blow up a Temporary Lockdown and give them an army back. Another neat trick: Otawara on your own Lockdown lets you re-use it to “blow up” the board of weenies again.
Farewell: You have one maindeck, so for the matchups you want the full set (Monogreen as an example) they’re ready in the sideboard. This card is also fine against turbo graveyard strategies as additional late-game Tormod’s Crypts.
Aggro: This is the age-old battle in Magic. Your aim is the same as always: survive with your removal, regain the life you lost to prevent them from going over the top, and win the long game with overwhelming card advantage. The UR Wizards deck can be tough when they sideboard in counters. Elves’ biggest risk is draining you with Shaman of the Pack or setting up a Collected Company into a big Craterhoof when you don’t have Settle in hand.
Sideboarding typically looks like: -the 1-ofs in the maindeck to add in the Wraths. Test of Talents, Calim, Shark Typhoon aren’t that important but surviving to the late game is.
Combo Creature Decks: These are the decks that use creatures to go “infinite” by bringing millions of Squirrels into play with Scurry Oak, or recurring Cauldron Familiar with Peregrin Took, etc. You need to counter the key threats that let them go “off,” and wrath the other things. Also remember: some of their combos don’t matter. Having infinite creatures is irrelevant if you’ve got Settle the Wreckage. Having infinite life isn’t relevant if you can deck them.
Sideboarding: you’re usually bringing in Farewell, though sometimes you bring Tormod’s Crypt in too for the versions that care about the graveyard a lot. Sideboard out Test of Talents, Calim, Typhoon, and a Union of the Third Path.
Control: sit back and hit lands. Nothing else matters until you’re fighting over the big spells, and at that point the person with the most lands will win. Castle Ardenvale and Arch of Orazca are powerful allies that let you gain an advantage during their end step without having to risk any cards. Blast Zone is also powerful allowing you to blow up things that sneak by without having to fight a counter battle.
Sideboarding: usually you sideboard out a Union and most Settles for the 4 Dovin’s Vetos. You don’t want to get rid of ALL your Unions or Settles, particularly if they have Shark Typhoon. Remember to use Veto on powerful threats, not to win counter battles. Also remember they’re likely bringing their own in so your threats will get countered. It doesn’t matter because you have an infinite amount of them.
Closing Thoughts on Historic
It’s a good break from Standard. I wish I could play real Modern or Pioneer instead. This deck was fun, but a number of your battles are against people who concede to Mana Tithe or uninvested players who concede after game 1 in frustration that they’re playing against a control deck. On the plus side, it makes it a lot easier to get to Mythic if you haven’t before.
See you next month!