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May 28 2014 12:00pm
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The Top 10 Clerics in Tournament Magic

by RexDart

Worship, eh?  Now there's an interesting topic.  You can worship just about anyone or anything you like.  Money, power and washboard abs seem to be the most popular at the moment.  Also pop singers, reality TV stars, and a variety of foods high in carbohydrates.  It's truly an age of reason here in the West, you guys.

Or you can go all traditional and pick a deity.  The conventional choice is to pick a benevolent deity.  These guys will help you out if you worship them, because they're cool like that.

Benevolent deities can be spotted by their resemblance to lions and ability to seduce a lady and then suddenly care way too much about her despite having like literally no more than 15 minutes of screen time with them up to that point.

Alternatively, you can go with an evil deity.  These guys will assuredly kill you, and probably all life as we know it.  I gotta admit, I don't really see what people expect to get out of this deal.  If I wanted to be terrified, mutilated, and eventually murdered, I can be in East St. Louis in ninety minutes, and East St. Louis has strip clubs.  Still, I guess if you gotta go, being torn to shreds by a malevolent force is one of the cooler ways.  Would you rather choke on a ham sandwich or be ripped apart by the Pain Lord?  That's a tough choice.  Actually, if you choose wrong, it's totally okay, because he'll choose for you.  Hint: he's not choosing the ham sandwich.

Most evil deities prefer to cover their body in pointy metal spikes.  Cthulhu's girlfriend doesn't have time to make fancy cos-play outfits for him, so he skips right to the part where he murders you and everyone you love.

But in the end, whichever deity you choose, the important thing is finding people who will tell you the correct ways to worship it, and then paying those people.  It's about tradition, folks.  A tradition dating back to 1974, when Gary Gygax first told everybody what kinds of people they would be putting in their fantasy games for the next 40 years.  So if you want to harness the power of the gods to protect yourself and your minions, or to make sure they are properly sacrificed, you're gonna need a Cleric.

Looking back on the history of tournament Magic, the Cleric tribe has been surprisingly powerful.  Although it was one of the featured tribes in Onslaught block, it has been mostly known for a series of very powerful individual cards rather than tribal synergy.  Unless you had a Cavern of Souls in play, you probably didn't even realize a few of these were Clerics in the first place, though you will see a few recurring themes at work.

10.  Order of the Ebon Hand

These guys are followers of Tourach.  As we can tell from the pointy metal spikes, Tourach was an evil deity.  And as we can tell from the protection from white ability on a black creature, Order of the Ebon Hand survived every competitively-played spot removal spell on the day of its printing except for Lightning Bolt.  To understand the historic power of the so-called "pump knights" back in the 90's, you have to understand Necropotence.  Specifically, you have to understand that we were all terrible, terrible players with no idea how to use Necropotence.  At first nobody used it because it was obviously an awful card.  Then literally everybody used it, but in suboptimal mono-black aggro decks.  Eventually somebody figured out that drawing a dozen cards was pretty good in a combo deck, and that was the end of pump knights.

Or maybe not.  The 2007 Legacy Grand Prix in Columbus is known today for the degenerate Flash-Protean Hulk combo deck that was capable Turn 1 wins, and which was so fearsome that Flash was promptly banned in Legacy and remains so to this day.  There were 12 copies of Flash in the Top 8 of that tournament.  Amazingly, there were seven copies of Order of the Ebon Hand.  Yes, mono-black aggro put two pilots into the Top 8, including this list by Bill Stark:

Mono-Black Aggro
Bill Stark, GP Columbus 2007
Creatures
4 Carnophage
4 Nantuko Shade
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
4 Stromgald Crusader
16 cards

Other Spells
4 Dark Ritual
4 Duress
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Sarcomancy
4 Umezawa's Jitte
4 Unmask
24 cards
Lands
16 Swamp
4 Wasteland
20 cards

Hymn to Tourach

 

This deck made some serious concessions to Flash-Hulk, with a full playset of Leyline of the Void in the board to combat the graveyard combo and a full set of Serum Powder to help mulligan into Leyline.  That's some intense sideboard hate.

9.  Martyr of Sands

 

Pure lifegain is rarely a good strategy.  Martyr of Sands is pretty much just that, unless you consider the 1/1 body relevant.  But the ability to recur this from the graveyard with Proclamation of Rebirth inspired many lifegain enthusiasts to reach ludicrous life totals.  Along with some of the other cards on this list, the same core idea has been reborn in Modern and continues to be a popular Tier Two deck choice in that format.  In any aggro matchup, this card is very difficult to race.  Against any dedicated burn deck, this card single-handedly "counters" three of their spells, if not more, and at a very low cost.

8.  Weathered Wayfarer

...And speaking of the "Martyr-Proc" deck, one of the more interesting variants of it was the so-called "Martyr-Tron" deck.  Thanks to a timely core set reprinting, Weathered Wayfarer was in Standard together with the Urzatron lands, ready to make your big-mana dreams come true.  This version of the deck put Gabriel Nassif into the Top 4 at Worlds in 2006:

 

 

Weathered Wayfarer continues to be popular in Commander, as one of white's best tutors.  But its days in competitive Magic appear to be behind it.

7.  Ethersworn Canonist

One of the premier "hate bears" in the Legacy format, Ethersworn Canonist is useful for shutting down many of the format's powerful combo decks, notably including all the Storm variants.  It can be tutored up by Enlightened Tutor, making it a valuable sideboard inclusion for any "fair" Legacy deck that touches white.

6.  Loxodon Hierarch

The quintessential midrange creature, Loxodon Hierarch does it all.  Against aggro he provides a good body for a good cost, and life gain when he enters play.  Against control he offers a regeneration shield for the rest of your team... well, that might have mattered more if Wrath of God had about four fewer words of rules text.  Oh well.  This card just oozes value from every pore.  Hierarch was in literally every single Ravnica block constructed deck.  In Kamigawa/Ravnica Standard, he saw play in decks ranging from Big Zoo to Ghazi Glare to Junk Aggro.  

5.  Soul Warden / Soul's Attendant / Auriok Champion (i.e. the "Soul Sisters")

The so-called "Soul Sisters" deck gained fame in August of 2010, during the last weeks of Alara/Zendikar Standard.  Conley Woods, then known almost exclusively for his rogue deck-building proclivities, took a lifegain core of Soul Warden and the near-functional reprint Soul's Attendant and constructed a white weenie deck that captured a ton of enthusiasts basically overnight.  With the simple idea of playing eight one-drop lifegain creatures, adding in some incremental card advantage, plus a bit of raw card quality in the form of Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Conley's deck was the fan favorite at US Nationals.  The deck proved to be a flash-in-the-pan, and in the end it could not survive the rotation of Elspeth -- a loss white weenie enthusiasts still haven't quite gotten over.  But it remained a casual favorite, until its revival in the Modern format.  

Here is Conley himself talking about the deck at US Nationals:

 

 

4.  Academy Rector

Probably the card on this list with the most raw power, Academy Rector surprisingly hasn't been relevant to tournament Magic in quite a while.  Although the printing of Omniscience gave her a brief return to prominence -- and a nice little price spike -- she did not make the cut when the deck evolved into OmniTell.  It doesn't help that both Necropotence and Yawgmoth's Bargain are banned in Legacy, depriving us of her two juiciest targets.

Rector's most shining moment has to be considered Pro Tour Chicago in 1999.  The Extended format at that time had a deck called "Fruity Pebbles", which used Enduring Renewal and Goblin Bombardment to recur free creatures such as Shield Sphere and Phyrexian Walker and generate infinite damage.  A major innovation in the deck was the addition of Necropotence, creating the "Cocoa Pebbles" deck.  Unsurprisingly, a deck centered on a two-card enchantment combo, one of which was a sac-outlet, was interested in the Academy Rector's clerical services.

 

 

Dobson was one of four credited co-creators of the deck, but the only one who made Top 8.  Sadly for Dobson, in a Top 8 that featured three future Hall of Famers, Dobson somehow went out in the quarterfinals to a complete unknown named Bob Davis. Davis then crushed Raphael Levy 3-0 and took Bob Maher to five games before eventually losing and never being heard from again.  That's Magic for you.

3.  Deceiver Exarch

And we go from the card with the most raw power to the card on this list with the least raw power.  But context is king when it comes to Magic.  Intended as a card for limited play, Wizards completely failed to predict what this card would do in Standard.  The New Phyrexia godbook leak gave us the entire spoiler overnight, and many top players immediately recognized that this would combo with Splinter Twin to produce infinite creatures.  And how could they not??  The Pestermite/Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo was well-known and saw occasional play in older formats.  The combo was inherently strong, as card selection was great in Standard, there was good countermagic, and you could play half the combo at instant speed while holding up counters.  When top players began to point this out on Twitter, Aaron Forsythe stated straight-up that if there was a Splinter Twin combo deck in Standard, they did not foresee it.  Well, whether or not they saw it coming, it was here.  

The Standard format of spring 2011 was dominated by Caw-Blade and a few other rogue Jace decks.  The day after New Phyrexia released, Exarch-Twin decks took two of the top four spots at the SCG Open in Orlando.  The deck continued to place week after week.  Before long, a hybrid of Exarch-Twin and Caw-Blade emerged, known as Twin-Blade, which was likely destined to be the top deck of the summer.  The Jace banning put a damper on things, but the deck lived on as part of a RUG Birthing Pod deck until Splinter Twin left the format that fall.  

Exarch-Twin was the last "true" combo deck to exist as a Tier One deck in Standard, as a cleric presided over the death of an archetype.

2.  Geist of Saint Traft

Although not hugely popular during Scars/Innistrad Standard, Geist of Saint Traft's power level was apparent from the moment he was printed.  His true coming-out party came with PT Avacyn Restored, as part of the Bant Hexproof deck, also known as "Blouses".  The deck put two players into the Top 8, including the legendary Jon Finkel.

 

 

The Block format was largely defined by the inadequacy of its removal spells, and the complete inability of anybody to deal with Wolfir Silverheart in a reasonable way.  In addition to Silverheart, we have Spectral Flight and Increasing Savagery to pump the hexproof beaters.  Though not truly a combo deck, it often played out like one.  When Standard rotated in the fall, Bant Hexproof eventually became a reasonable option in that format as well, much to the displeasure of the many pro level players who found it both frustrating to play against and boring to pilot.

Geist continues to see heavy play in Modern's U/W/R decks.  Until recently, Geist saw substantial Legacy play as well, but the printing of True-Name Nemesis has undercut his position there to some degree.

1.  Mother of Runes

One of the greatest one-drop creatures of all-time.  In a battle between two "fair" Legacy decks, Mother of Runes feels downright unfair.  If your opponent ever untaps with her, the amount of mental gymnastics required to get rid of her can cause your head to spin.  If they get two into play, your head literally explodes from the amount of bluffing you have to do, carefully holding removal spells until just the right time, waiting for blockers to be declared... and then just when you think you got her a freakin' Scryb Ranger comes in at instant speed and wrecks everything.

I feel... crystal clear...

So that's the Top 10 Clerics.  Did I commit the mortal sin of leaving off your favorite one?  Let me know in the comments, and I'll see you guys next month for another theme week!

 

10 Comments

Really enjoyed this article. by olaw at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 13:16
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5

Really enjoyed this article. I found the opening to be particularly funny and I completely agree with your observations on Thor.

As far as the list goes it seems pretty solid. I feel like Disciple of the Vault deserves to be on the list though, particularly as it was actually banned in Standard, Block and Extended, surely the most banned Cleric and very prominent in tournament Magic until its ban.

Clerics are a surprisingly deep tribe. Good work!

Hey thanks, glad you enjoyed by RexDart at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 20:47
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Hey thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

Thought about including Disciple of the Vault, but had talked about it a lot in my affinity article a few theme weeks back.

Per the comment below, I also considered Withered Wretch, but decided Canonist would be my hatebear representative on the list since she still sees play while Wretch is mostly outclassed in 'yard hate options now. Orzhov Pontiff has been coming on strong lately in Modern, and I could have seen slotting it into the list.

I enjoyed the article concept by walkerdog at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 13:44
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4

I enjoyed the article concept a lot, and you nailed some great clerics. I'd have mentioned one of the Odyssey block dudes though (or maybe the land), since they were part of an influential combo deck for a while. They are also more commander-friendly than Wayfarer, in my mind (although he's a beast there too). Hierarch's reign was so short, and Canonist has been mostly underwhelming. I'd cut them both. Wayfarer would have been in slot 10 for me. Exarch wouldn't have made the top 10, in my mind, although it did "make" the standard spliter twin. I guess it's fine.

I wish you'd done 3 top 10s maybe, like Casual/EDH/multiplayer clerics, Standard/block clerics, and Eternal clerics. Modern/extended could fit in either of the last 2 categories, or could have gotten it's own list. Top 10 limited clerics might be fun to debate too.

The biggest misses, in my mind - disciple of the vault, withered wretch, Orzhov Pontiff, Preacher, and Tireless Tribe. None are too glaring, buttttttttt.

Is that the Shrike I spy? by Adam_the_Mentat at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 19:32
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Please tell me sandwiched between Sauron and Cthulhu is the Shrike from the hyperion series...

I'm pretty sure you're by Leviathan at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 19:35
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I'm pretty sure you're right...

Yeah, that's the most by RexDart at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 20:40
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Yeah, that's the most recognizable illustration I could find that wasn't just the paperback cover, but I figured that reference to be a "five-percenter" anyhow. I'm reading that series now, so it's on the brain.

Hyperion series by?? (I am by Paul Leicht at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 22:40
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Hyperion series by?? (I am thinking Frederick Pohl but I don't think I read anything called that.)

It's by Dan Simmons: by Leviathan at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 22:47
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It's by Dan Simmons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperion_Cantos

it's amazing. by Adam_the_Mentat at Wed, 05/28/2014 - 23:48
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drop what you are doing and read all 4 of them.
It's a scifi retelling of the canterbury tells in the first book, and its sheer amazing in total.
His Olympos and Illium were awesome too, but they didn't have as satisfying and lasting of an effect on me as the hyperion books

After I finish this 3 part by Paul Leicht at Thu, 05/29/2014 - 04:12
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After I finish this 3 part book (The Soldier Son Trilogy) by Robin Hobbs who is my current addiction. Hopefully it will be available as an Ebook.