"Okay Sherman, Set the WABAC Machine...."
The year is 1202.
Leonardo Bonacci has just published Liber Abaci, "The Book of Calculation". A watershed work in the history of mathematics, he introduces a sequence of numbers that is based on the population growth of rabbits. In the sequence, each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. This would become known as the "Fibonacci Sequence".
Later mathematicians and scientists would build on his work, finding a direct correlation between this sequence and the "Golden Ratio" where the ratio of two quantities are in the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. It is seen everywhere in nature, from the petals of a flower, to a nautilus shell and even the proportions of the human body. It is the perfect mathematic equation and one that has been unintentionally echoed in man-made works for thousands of years. It is simply put, perfection.
The year is 1996.
It is June in "Hotlanta".
Magic is just a three year old toddler, learning to walk and find its way. Atlanta is a city vibrating with energy. The Olympics are less than a month away. The entire city is one gigantic construction zone and residents are preparing for the worst traffic in history while international news crews invade every available hotel.
Amidst all this, a Magic Pro Tour Qualifier fires off. It is the year of the first Pro Tour, and everyone is dreaming of winning the big cash prize. Paul Sligh brings a deck to the tournament and places in the top 4. The deck splashes onto the Internet, redefines deck-building and changes the game forever.
The perfect curve.
The Sligh deck had been around Atlanta for a while. I'm a Georgia girl and can remember hearing about this deck before the PTQ in '96. Designed by Jay Schneider in 1994, the Sligh, or "Geeba" deck as Jay called it, was a dominant force in the tournament scene. The deck's strength lay in its use of the "mana curve". Today this is a core concept of the game - something every deck builder takes into account - but in 1994 it was revolutionary thinking. No one had ever analyzed a Magic deck in that way; or come up with a solution for it as elegant as Jay. It was the Fibonacci moment of Magic.
The "Sligh" mana curve is to Magic as the "Golden Ratio" is to Mathematics. It describes the most efficient way to build and play a deck. Sligh theory says that when building a deck you want to make sure that you have something to play on every turn and that you use all your mana on each of those turns. Jay's "Geeba" deck was the first deck strictly built with this in mind.
Simply speaking, building on a "Sligh" mana curve means that you include an amount of spells and creatures at each converted mana cost proportional to that cost. (more ones than twos, more twos than threes, etc.). "Sligh" decks value the raw cost of the card over its power. This means that a "Sligh" deck will typically run cards that, on their face, are less useful than other cards in the given environment.
If we take a look at a mana curve of Jay's "Geeba" deck vs. a typical curve you can see it drops off pretty dramatically and is "one sided", vs. a typical mana curve that is usually described as a "bell". You will also notice that Jay's curve doesn't exactly match the perfect Sligh curve in green. The one CMC and two CMC cards are both at 14. So why is that if he invented the thing?!? This is because the raw curve doesn't tell the entire story. For that, we are going to have to look at what was going on at the time he built it, the cards he chose, and why.
Let's set the stage. By the time the Pro Tour Qualifiers had begun in Atlanta "Black Summer" had descended upon the world of Magic. Ice Age and Alliances had brought Necropotence based decks to the top of the food chain and the addition of Black Vise to the restricted list removed the last thing keeping the Necro strategy in check. Necropotence decks relied on card advantage and hand disruption. Necro was brutal to play against, you watched your hand (and combos) disappear while your opponent's filled with cards. Sligh, however, mitigated all the Necro deck's strengths and was consistently beating it on the Atlanta tournament scene - but no one outside of Atlanta knew it. News traveled much slower in the Magic community back then, and with no tournament circuit to speak of there was no one place for players to look for all the best deck designs and brightest minds of the game.
So the Pro Tour Qualifiers were the lit fuse for the next wave of Magic design. Sites began to pop up all over the Internet, cataloging decks and following the blossoming tournament scene None of these sites were bigger than the Magic Dojo. Before Wizards had a large web presence, this is where you went for your daily dose of Magic content. Players from all over the United States began reporting results from large local tournaments and the Pro Tour Qualifiers to The Dojo. When the Atlanta PTQ reports came in people realized someone had cracked the problem of the Necro deck and brought with it an innovative way to design decks. Everything converged; the Magic internet exploded, and a new way to think about deck design was born.
Jay had been building decks using the "Sligh principle" for two years. As we previously mentioned he had named the deck "Geeba". "Geeba" was a slang term in role-playing games for Goblins or the Goblin language and it fit the mono-red, "goblin-centric" build.
Jay's deck building was dedicated to the most efficient use of resources as possible on each turn. This not only took into account casting costs, but the activated abilities on a card as well. In his design there was a distinct turn pattern in his "Geeba" builds. Turn 1 was always a Lightning Bolt as direct damage to the opponent or a one casting cost creature. Turn two could be (A) a two casting cost creature, (B) a one casting cost creature plus the activated ability on the creature from turn one or (C) a one casting cost creature and a Lightning Bolt. Subsequent turns scaled in the same fashion, but all of them used all the available mana. Jay's perfect mana curve applied continuous pressure with its aggressive creatures and direct damage while continuing to grow his board state. Unfortunately when he started building a deck for the PTQ, Jay ran into a problem.
Jay couldn't build the PTQ version of his "Geeba" deck using his optimal curve... why? The short answer is Fallen Empires and Homelands. Both of these sets were in Standard - known then as Type II, but no one was actually playing the cards. The cards from these expansions were not at the power level of the rest of the cards in the environment, many of them were downright bad, and in and case, they just weren't selling. Retailers were sitting on a pile of these boosters and they needed to move. The solution? Wizards enacted wacky requirements for the PTQ - every deck had to include at least five cards from each available expansion. Five. Have you looked at Homelands? There are maybe five decent cards in the entire set and Fallen isn't much better. Jay did the best he could and fared better than most. His deck design didn't rely on combos or a large amounts of mana; but even so he had to do the best he could with card selection, which is why his curve isn't perfect.
Jay's full card list is on Star City Games' website. It is important to remember though that the deck is not about individual cards but "slots". In the Summer of 1996, TheDojo described the deck like this:
- 1 mana slot: 9-13
- 2 mana slot: 6-8
- 3 mana slot: 3-5
- 4 mana slot: 1-3
- X spell (fireball, etc.): 1-3
- One-shot Artifact/LD: 2-5
- One-shot Direct Damage (Bolts, Incinerates, etc.): 8-10
- Utility land (Mishra, Strip, etc.) 4-8
- Red Mana Land 15-18
This is really what makes this design timeless and more deck building theory than a "one-off" build.
Reaction to Sligh was immediate as everyone playing Type II retooled to combat it. Reading the tournament reports of the day that I could get my hands on are hysterical. They make me smile and realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let's check out a couple. The first is from a tournament report from the original Atlanta PTQ:
One of the more entertaining aspects of Sligh is the looks on opponent's faces as they die to a Orc or a Dwarf. Many opponents only realize what this deck does after the second game. Most opponents do not take it seriously, and figure anybody playing it is a newbie (after all, who plays with Orcish Artillery and Ironclaw Orcs?). In many of my games with the Sligh deck people look at it and give me advise on how to improve it. (Adding white, bigger creatures etc.) Also, don’t expect to get much respect with this deck (the first time around). Comments such as “I shouldn't have lost to this, My deck always beats this deck...” etc., will abound. Make no mistake though, the Sligh deck is a strong deck, and will get stronger with the addition of Visions... the Goblin Recruiters and Lightning Cloud alone will make up for the loss of the Librarian!
Or this slightly shorter one from later in the Summer of 96....
Side in the Manabarbs after the first game - look at their face when you play one. Ghostlike....
It was a new way of thinking about deck building and it was taking time for a lot of existing players to adapt and understand it. Sligh was efficient, had answers most of the day's most popular combos and was very resistant to board wipes and land destruction.
What is truly amazing is that twenty years later you can assemble this exact deck for $34.00. It shows that a great deck doesn't necessarily mean money. It is almost worth assembling this just as an exercise in deck construction. After building and playing this deck a few times you will understand the game better than you did before. If you fall in love with it, I'm pretty sure you could still build a somewhat competitive version of this for Standard today, even with direct damage being slightly more expensive. It may not top 4 at a PTQ, but it would hang in there on a Friday Night.
So why call it Sligh? For Jay, fate intervened. Jay was going on vacation the same week as the PTQ, so he gave his deck to Paul Sligh to pilot. Paul had been playing mono-blue "Draw Go" Stasis and that archetype had been struggling against Necro. The rest they say is history. When tournament reports were posted on TheDojo, they listed "Paul Sligh" as the player and his name stuck.
Until next week, may all your Circles of Protection be Red and all your paths free from the Goblins of the Flarg!