“The Cutting Room Floor: Baxter’s Prison”
While Standard (or “Type II,” as I still call it) may not be my forte, it certainly was a favorite of mine in the early days of my Magic career. I enjoyed doing incredibly broken things like drawing lots and lots of cards off of Necropotence and Strip Mining opponents’ lands into oblivion. These plays, believe it or not, were very much legal in the early days of Standard. In fact, just about every competitive deck during that time period ran some sort of configuration with cards like the aforementioned weaved into their fabric. This is why a good deal of the cards we recognize as overly powerful in Vintage has long since been banned in both Legacy and its predecessor. Clearing past all the smoke of brokenness that existed during that time, one of the more “fair” decks to rise from the ashes was piloted by one of my favorite players of all time, the legendary George Baxter.
During the summer of 1996 when Necropotence was casting its dark shadow over the game, the format was in search of a means to defeat the menacing enchantment at its very core. This gave birth to the rise of Stasis decks, a natural foil to decks like Necropotence then which clearly only had one specific way to clear the board of anything problematic (including Necropotence itself), that being Nevinyrral’s Disk. With the Disk entering the battlefield tapped, that wasn’t going to do much against a Stasis lock. You see, people back in those days either played Necropotence or didn’t play Necropotence; there was no in between. However, leading up to Nationals in 1996 the meta seemed ripe for the taking as George Baxter and his unsuspecting powerhouse sought to clear the path on its way to a legendary finish.
[Editor’s note – click any of blue card names or featured card images to view and purchase the card from Jupiter Games!]
For starters, let’s have a look at George’s winning deck list from Nationals in 1996. (You have to remember that this deck is nearly twenty years old, so some of the choices are clearly obsolete by today’s standards.)
As you can see, some of Baxter’s choices are not all outdated by today’s standards. There are some incredibly powerful cards included in this list like a set of Strip Mines, Balance and a Black Vise. Baxter purposely used cards like Disenchant and Divine Offering as a means to knock off annoying artifacts and enchantments that existed back in those days, cards like the aforementioned Stasis and Necropotence. The avenue to victory in those days was very clear: either “deck” your opponent by running them out of cards, dome them with antiquated “direct damage” spells or attack with creatures – simple. Baxter’s “Prison” deck (as it became to be known) focuses on stopping anything and everything by clearing the board of creatures and locking an opponent out of the game.
Even Aeolipile was a solid way of knocking off creatures with protection from white like Black Knight and Order of the Ebon Hand. Serrated Arrows was an incredibly powerful card in those days where weenies everywhere made their presence felt.
Let’s go down memory lane and look at some of the iconic cards that made this deck a champion for the ages.
If you remembered anything about this deck, you definitely remembered Titania’s Song. In fact, for the longest time people actually referred to this as a bona fide Titania’s Song deck, but the truth is Titania’s Song focused as more of a surprise win condition in the face of total lock down. While opponents were unable to progress their game state (which in those days was slower) a card like Song completely overwhelmed them out of nowhere by enabling a massive assault of 2/2, 3/3 and 4/4 creatures all at once. Baxter had a massive amount of artifacts in his deck, nineteen to be exact, which made Song all the more powerful.
You’ll also notice that Song turns Disk into a creature, which also makes cards like Swords to Plowshares and Wrath of God live ammo. While somewhat corner-case, having another avenue of defense against one of the more problematic cards the deck faced made it a solid weapon to have. The deck already had great game against a good deal of the format’s top contenders for the title at Nationals, which made it a force to be reckoned with.
Titania’s Song was a card that gave the deck a strong win factor and to this day remains a key element of the deck’s success.
Speaking of success, how about the game it had against Stasis decks? Icy Manipulator for one was just a beating in those days and arguably one of the most powerful cards ever printed. Its utility goes without saying and it could just lock an opponent out of a game in and of itself with multiples on the table. Being able to shut off an opponent’s resources in those days was much more crucial to winning games because the flow of the games was much slower than it is today. While the broken cards surely existed, there weren’t over-powered creatures with low costs (save for maybe Savannah Lions and Ritual-into-Hyppie). So in order to win games quickly, you really needed to have a dedicatedly aggressive approach that wins games.
Icy Manipulator was a foil to those strategies back then. Sure, you could always use it in conjunction with Royal Assassin (which is still awesome, by the way), but Baxter was using it with other plans in mind. Taking a look at his list, it’s quite obvious he was aiming to also tap down his own Winter Orb and enable himself to untap his lands the following turn. This created a paradox within game-states back then as opponents were left helplessly locked out of the game unless they found a way to power their way out of it, which wasn’t likely back then.
The legend of the Icy Manipulator still lives to this day. Even if you’re a casual player and you’re reading this, try and understand that twenty years ago this card was incredibly powerful and very popular, which is part of the reason of its reprint in Ice Age back in 1995. It was a key element of success in Baxter’s list like so many others that came before him.
Acceleration is always a good thing, right? Well, when you have a card like Armageddon staring at you in the face it gets even better. Having available resources fixed on your board after firing off the classic land-destruction spell was instrumental in Baxter’s success with this deck. While only casually playable by today’s standards, Fellwar Stone was a useful artifact that aimed to simply accelerate your board with an array of permanents and trick your opponent into trying to do the same. The only problem was that most players back then could not recover from a well-timed Armageddon, which is why decks like “Erhnamgeddon” experienced so much success back then.
Fellwar Stone was a rarity because of its unique ability to generate resources as an artifact. It was a pioneering achievement in that respect and one of the most popular inclusions in many of the old Standard’s competitive lists. Acceleration wasn’t as easy to facilitate then as it is today, but Baxter made the most out of something so simple and turned what appears to be an innocuous pebble into a critical resource (and potential attacker) on a post-Armageddon battlefield.
That and it’s awesome with Winter Orb!
Homelands always gets the flack for being absolutely terrible, doesn’t it? Surely it deserves such a jab as cards like Trade Caravan don’t seem to be showing up in any competitive lists anytime in the next century, but there were some gems from that set that really brought out the flavor of the times and the sort of classic weaponry that made old-school Magic really fun to play. Serrated Arrows was one of the best cards in old-school Standard in those days for a variety of reasons. In a format rife with Necropotence and White Weenie decks, being able to pick off annoying critters that were difficult to stop back then was critical in the deck’s overall defensive strategy.
But the card wasn’t just a defensive tool to the untrained eye. With Titania’s Song on the battlefield, this card became a true beater and Baxter just hammered opponents into submission after dropping a bomb like Armageddon or Plowing a path to victory for the Arrows to get in there. At four mana to cast, this was actually one of the biggest bombs in the deck if it resolved. It was just a great card that stands out in a set of sore-eyed choices.
It was even time-shifted in Time Spiral, which was totally cool. That old art with a foil background just gives me shivers.
Aside from Autumn Willow (from Homelands, no less), there were few creatures that couldn’t be touched like the Deadly Insect from Alliances back then. I remember cracking a few hundred of these when Alliances first hit shelves after buying tons of boosters and thinking it was one of the coolest creatures ever. It being untouchable was already cool enough but when I noticed it could connect for six damage, I was totally on the bandwagon. These days just about every other creature outshines the forgotten green insect, but Baxter used it as an ace in the hole when the going got tough to win games.
With removal spells a plenty and Armageddons ready to go, Baxter clearly used this creature as a means to win games out of nowhere based on its one-of novelty. I’m not so sure cost was taken into account on this one, but it was obviously a solid enough inclusion that won him more games than it lost.
Now this one brings back memories!
Good old Aeolipile. Back during the Black Summer, it was imperative to have a means to kill the opposing white or black players’ protected creatures. Targeted removal just wasn’t going to do it, so a good deal of players (myself included) decided that using a colorless source of auxiliary damage would be beneficial to end combat paradoxes where damage impedance was impossible due to the “Protection from X Color” variable. Aeolipile served as a means to not only deal with those creatures, but as straight-up damage to the dome, too. At two mana the card was easily castable and one of the more common sideboard options to grace old Standard decks during that time period.
Baxter clearly wanted to keep his options open by denying opponents running those creatures an opportunity to bypass his removal. Fallen Empires produced a nice assortment of useful cards that people write off these days as useless, but back in those days you could book-dollar a card like Aeolipile which worked serious overtime against the format’s faster and more aggressive decks.
At first you’re probably looking at this card and wondering, “What was this guy thinking?” I thought about that for a split-second and wondered that myself, until it hit me like a ton of bricks. The answer closely resembles the utility of Aeolipile and other cards that cannot be targeted based on their color. Sleight of Mind would enable cards like Swords to Plowshares to exile a Black Knight. The protection thing back then was really important, which is why you’ll notice a good deal of decks’ sideboards would have something not necessarily aimed to hate on a specific archetype but more geared towards hating on a specific color.
It’s more of a catch-all utility spell here, but I can see why it would be important in 1996 Magic.
Forget 1996 Magic, let’s go back to 1993 Magic! Who doesn’t love them some Frostbringers (Winter Orb in German)! Winter Orb was probably the most important card in George Baxter’s deck for so many different reasons – many of which we’ve already mentioned. Not only did it lock opponents out of the game by itself, it also turned on other cards in the deck and made them much better while being paired on the board together. Serra Angel is a great example of this. Not only was she incredibly hard to kill back then, Winter Orb shutting down an opponent’s resources and forcing them to face down an untapped and attacking 4/4 flyer was a huge imposition, not to mentioned the Angel’s potency against Stasis decks.
Winter Orb also was able to shut down dedicated permission decks. Remember, Force of Will’s usage here was in its infancy and not nearly as legendary to the point it is now. Control decks were just brought to their knees when this card hit the table, and few of them could recover if caught with their pants down.
Unfortunately, the Orb doesn’t work as it used it. The now-defunct ability of tapping it to get a clean untap doesn’t work like it used to, but it still gets respect for being one of the best single-serving lock components in the game’s history. Baxter clearly saw that by punishing Stasis decks with it and any other deck that used its resources aggressively.
It’s amazing to see how the game has evolved over the years. I was just sitting down checking out the list from an old Inquest magazine and it blew my mind. A good deal of the time, nostalgia gets the best of me as I have a soft spot for the game’s old days. But I also know a quality Magic deck when I see one, and if the game has taught us anything it’s how to prepare adequately for a large tournament. If you haven’t gotten the idea behind the layers of old cards and classic deck-building I’ve provided, there’s something clear I want to make to you reading this: meta-gaming, even in 1996, was an important part of the game and should never be taken lightly.
George Baxter masterfully crafted a deck going into a predictable field of choices and smashed through the competition to secure a second place finish at the end of the day. Nearly seventeen years have passed since he made his mark on the game with his legendary “Prison” deck, but I for one will always remember the lessons taught to me even as a young grasshopper from the maiden days of the game I love…
…and that’s to always be at least one step ahead of the field, one-hundred percent of the time. Even if that does mean running Titania’s Song.