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Posts tagged “Standard

Standards and Practices: Mo’ Colors Mo’ Problems

It seems the undead horde is relentless, evidenced as much by tournament results as by the increasing number of zombie movies directed by George Romero. (Seven “of the Dead” movies? Really, George? Seven?) For two consecutive weeks, American Grand Prix have been won by aggressive Rakdos decks featuring zombies, dragons, and devils that ride from the fiery pits of hell.

"Hi, mom!"

“Hi, mom!”

In times like these, one might think that streamlining their midrange and control decks, so as to be able to bear the brunt of the undead onslaught, is the correct course of action. “Surely,” quip the commentators, “Any sane man wouldn’t be caught dead playing more than eight shock lands when aggro decks dominate the format.” This is true; any sane man wouldn’t.

But I’m interested in decks built by the metaphorically insane.

Conley Woods

Brewmaster extraordinaire and Andre the Giant understudy Conley Woods recently piloted a four-color deck to the top eight of Grand Prix San Antonio, packing ten shock lands in his seventy-five.  The deck featured format staples like Restoration Angel and Thragtusk alongside aggro-hindering stalwarts like Loxodon Smiter and Huntmaster of the Fells to help brunt the initial rush of damage from an aggressive opponent, with Unburial Rites and Armada Wurm to pressure control decks after they’ve handed down their Supreme Verdict.

In Conley’s case, the life loss from shock lands is mitigated by the life gain from Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk, as well as the fact that Loxodon Smiter and Restoration Angel present a sizable blocker against Rakdos and Selesnya decks predominantly featuring creatures with three or less power. The recent showing of midrange Naya decks as well as the Jund decks that appeared early in the format are a testament to those creatures’ strengths against the hyper-aggressive decks that have come to dominate the format in recent weeks.

However, adding a fourth color to an already solid deck helped Conley shore up the Naya deck’s main weakness: control. Bant control has become a driving force in the past few weeks, being piloted to money finishes by the likes of MTGO superstar Reid Duke and former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald. The deck is very well-positioned against any and all midrange strategies, be they Naya, Junk, or Jund. Supreme Verdict is often a 2- or 3-for-1 against midrange decks, so Unburial Rites basically draws you a creature in the late game, allowing you to keep up on card advantage against the control player.

Lewis Laskin

While not placing in any large tournaments recently, Lewis Laskin’s “Not Black Midrange” deck has received a bit of buzz and seems very well-positioned against the current crop of aggressive decks. For those of you who haven’t seen it already, here is his masterpiece:

Not Black Midrange
Lands (26)
2x Clifftop Retreat
1x Desolate Lighthouse
2x Hallowed Fountain
4x Hinterland Harbor
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Rootbound Crag
4x Steam Vents
4x Sulfur Falls
4x Temple Garden
Instants (7)
2x Searing Spear
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
2x Syncopate
Sideboard (15)
1x Aerial Predation
1x Augur of Bolas
1x Blasphemous Act
1x Counterflux
3x Dissipate
1x Ray of Revelation
2x Rest in Peace
2x Rolling Temblor
1x Silklash Spider
1x Supreme Verdict
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Sorceries (10)
2x Bonfire of the Damned
4x Farseek
4x Pillar of Flame
Planeswalkers (4)
3x Jace, Architect of Thought
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Creatures (10)
4x Huntmaster of the Fells
2x Snapcaster Mage
4x Thragtusk
Enchantments (3)
3x Detention Sphere

Yet again we see ten shock lands shored up by the life gain from Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk (a common trend with these four-color decks). If we look at this list as Bant control attempting to strengthen its aggressive matchup, the red splash helps with both the aforementioned life gain creatures as well as packing a full set of Pillar of Flame and two Searing Spears to blast any and all Gravecrawlers, Geralf’s Messengers, and Hellriders that might be getting too close for comfort.

However, we can also look at it as a Naya midrange deck trying to shore up its weakness to the over-the-top Bant control decks that win through repeated board sweepers and Sphinx’s Revelations. Jace is great at threatening a Bant player trying to win the long game, especially now that those decks have been trimming numbers on Detention Spheres and counter magic. Being able to steal the Elixir of Immortality from their deck can stop their grinding potential, and Rest in Peace out of the sideboard completely hoses that avenue of victory. Tamiyo’s emblem plus burn spells can also quickly end the game, though it does require you to play around Dissipate and Rest in Peace.

I will admit that the mana is stretched to the point of breaking, but any reasonable draw will keep you abreast of the format’s top strategies. I’m not the biggest fan of Syncopate right now, but Snapcaster Mage demands at least a few permission spells in order to be as Cryptic Command-y as he can be. Augur out of the sideboard seems cute but negotiable, and I wonder if the life gain on Aerial Predation makes it better than Crushing Vines, which has the added benefit of taking out errant Runechanter’s Pikes.

Ali Aintrazi

This article would not be complete without discussing the mad scientist himself. Ali Aintrazi is quickly becoming the spiritual successor to Conley Woods, known for such off-the-wall decks as Turboland and Blue-Black Heartless Summoning, as well as the Custom Cube he and Justin Parnell created. However, his most recent creation is probably his craziest, recently piloted to a 15th place finish at Grand Prix Charleston:

3 Doors Down
Lands (27)
1x Blood Crypt
3x Cavern of Souls
1x Dragonskull Summit
4x Glacial Fortress
2x Hallowed Fountain
1x Hinterland Harbor
2x Isolated Chapel
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Overgrown Tomb
1x Steam Vents
2x Sunpetal Grove
4x Temple Garden
1x Vault of the Archangel
Sorceries (14)
4x Farseek
3x Lingering Souls
2x Rakdos’s Return
2x Ranger’s Path
3x Supreme Verdict
Sideboard (15)
1x Abrupt Decay
1x Cavern of Souls
4x Centaur Healer
2x Duress
2x Rest in Peace
3x Slaughter Games
2x Tragic Slip
Planeswalkers (4)
1x Garruk, Primal Hunter
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
1x Vraska the Unseen
Creatures (6)
1x Angel of Serenity
1x Griselbrand
4x Thragtusk
Instants (5)
2x Abrupt Decay
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
Artifacts (3)
2x Chromatic Lantern
1x Door to Nothingness
Enchantment (1)
1x Oblivion Ring

After further testing, Ali posted the updated list on his recent article on StarCityGames.com, including an explanation for his deck choice and the changes he made after Charleston. I’ve been testing the updated list for the past week and plan on playing it in Baltimore this weekend:

3 Doors Down v2.0
Lands (26)
1x Alchemist’s Refuge
1x Blood Crypt
3x Cavern of Souls
1x Dragonskull Summit
3x Glacial Fortress
2x Hallowed Fountain
1x Hinterland Harbor
2x Isolated Chapel
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Overgrown Tomb
1x Steam Vents
2x Sunpetal Grove
4x Temple Garden
Sorceries (14)
4x Farseek
3x Lingering Souls
2x Rakdos’s Return
1x Ranger’s Path
4x Supreme Verdict
Sideboard (15)
1x Abrupt Decay
1x Cavern of Souls
1x Curse of Death’s Hold
1x Door to Nothingness
3x Duress
1x Rakdos’s Return
2x Rest in Peace
2x Slaughter Games
2x Tragic Slip
1x Ultimate Price
Planeswalkers (3)
1x Garruk, Primal Hunter
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Creatures (6)
1x Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
1x Griselbrand
4x Thragtusk
Instants (6)
2x Abrupt Decay
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
1x Ultimate Price
Artifacts (3)
3x Chromatic Lantern
Enchantments (2)
1x Curse of Death’s Hold
1x Detention Sphere

That’s a grand total of twelve shock lands with nary a Huntmaster in sight. To supplement the requisite Thragtusk-and-Sphinx’s Revelation pony show that is the mainstay of every Bant control deck, Ali dipped into the Block-banned Lingering Souls to help prevent some early beats as well as provide a threat against the slower control decks. “So,” you may ask, “What’s the point of adding two additional colors to a deck that already has a proven track record of success? What do you gain?”

Everything.

Playing five colors means you can play every card in the format, so long as you can hit all your colors. The benefits of this are twofold; the first and most obvious benefit is that you can adjust your deck with any number of cards to prey on the suspected meta of the next big tournament. Aggressive decks expected? You have access to Supreme Verdict, Pillar of Flame, Sphinx’s Revelation, Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, Centaur Healer, and Curse of Death’s Hold in the same deck.  So long as you can insure being able to cast these spells in a timely fashion, five color control lets you play the most powerful answers and threats in any given format.

The second benefit is more subtle but equally important; five-color means your opponent has less information about what cards are in your deck. When you play Rakdos aggro or Bant control, there is a finite number of cards that are useful to either strategy, so your opponent knows what to play around. When you play five colors, the only cards your opponents can be sure are in your deck are Farseek and Chromatic Lantern. Everything else is basically good stuff dictated by what colors of mana your lands produce.

Going into this weekend, I can’t lie that I have some reservations about playing greed.dec. However, this is the type of deck I love to play. I expect there to be a rise in decks designed to beat Rakdos aggro, most of which will be midrange strategies upon which this deck preys. This is what Chapin calls level two; playing a deck that beats the deck which beats the deck to beat. I can only hope I’ll be able to show my opponents the Door.

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Standards and Practices: Back in Black (and Blue and Red)

It’s been awhile since I last graced this space with my words. I’d like to say I’ve been busy with things far more important than a silly little blog, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve just been lazy and not felt the urge to write about anything as of the past few months.

I think it’s time to change that.

For those of you who’ve read this blog in the past, welcome back to Friday Night Malafarina. For those of you just joining us, I hope you enjoy your stay. Now let’s talk about Standard.

Return to Ravnica

Since I’ve been away, the Magic world has been shaken up by the yearly rotation of expansions. It seems like only yesterday we had turn-one Delvers flipping Mana Leaks over into the faces of defeated opponents, while Birthing Pods tapped to turn humble Blade Splicers into savage Ravagers of the Fells. Players were still Pondering the merits of Blue-White midrange versus Delver while Primeval Titans trampled over all who opposed them. Now we live in a strange new world filled with giant, tusked beasts that require two spears to kill, the Return of the demon lord Rakdos spelling doom for opponents, and the triumphant second coming of a four-mana Jace that can claim to be somewhat near He Who Shall Not Be Named in power and versatility. It is a format where a card like Bonfire of the Damned is too costly and inefficient while Mizzium Mortars is just fine at two or six mana, and Geist of Saint Traft isn’t the scariest thing one can face (though it is still pretty scary!)

Welcome to the tier 2 metagame, my friends.

For those of you new to Magic who don’t know what a tier 2 metagame is (and have a premium account on Starcitygames.com), I refer you to Mike Flores’ article from last week. The key point to take away from the article in question is that there are three conflicting models for deck design: the linear model, the tier-two metagame, and the haymaker model. With the linear model, Wizards has more or less designed the deck from the ground up and the players simply fine-tune the intricacies of said deck. This is the case with tribal decks like Zombies and Goblins, or Affinity in Modern. The deck exists because Wizards intended for it to exist.

The haymaker model is the model to which we have grown accustomed in the past few years. While most people would point to the obvious example of Primeval Titan, Flores chooses to point out Tarmogoyf as one of the first indicators that constructed Magic had moved to a more haymaker-based strategy. Before Tarmogoyf, it was perfectly reasonable to expect a game to be won off Meloku, a 2/4 flier for five mana that needed a certain board state to actually take over a game. After Tarmogoyf, we saw decks being built on the backs of the inherent power of each card rather than synergies and card advantage. Planeswalkers are guilty of contributing to this style of deck building, as are the myriad of powerful enters-the-battlefield creatures we’ve been seeing in recent years, most notoriously the Titan cycle.

However, I agree with Flores that Standard has regressed back to the second model of deckbuilding not seen since we last visited Ravnica. While haymakers still exist in the form of Angel of Serenity, Thragtusk, Geist of Saint Traft, and other ridiculous creatures, games have become less about individual threats and more about having a solid game plan, whether it be extreme aggro, total control, or out-valuing your opponent. There are a greater number of viable decks in the current Standard format than there have been in quite some time, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be accomplished if we think outside the box.

Living in a Brewmaster’s Paradise

One of the biggest pitfalls for any Magic player is conflating a previous constructed format with a post-rotation format. Many people entered into the new Standard environment expecting Zombies to be the top deck and expecting Delver to still exist in some form (I mean, the card is still legal and all!) However, in a format devoid of Mana Leak, Vapor Snag, or Primeval Titan-into-Kessig Wolf Run, games tend to go longer and players are not punished for taking time to set up their game plan. As such, control is an actual presence in the metagame and Cavern of Souls is more or less relegated to dedicated tribal decks.

Reanimator, a fringe strategy in the era of Delver, is an actual contender for the “best deck” in the current Standard format, having usurped Jund and Raka Midrange as “the deck to beat” in the last few weeks. While one could consider such a strategy to be indicative of a haymaker format, when a deck like Reanimator becomes the boogeyman it means the format is very receptive to new ideas, as its “unfair” strategy is easily hated out and thus can be forced to play a fair game against any deck in the field.

This is the kind of format that rewards innovation and punishes complacence, as relying on a deck that did well in the previous week can have you hated out the following. All of the “top decks” we’ve seen over the past few Grand Prix or Star City Games Opens have all been very near in power level, with no clear frontrunner in sight. Eventually, the metagame will reach equilibrium, but hopefully Wizards’ recent policy change of not posting Magic Online Daily Events decklists will have the intended effect of slowing down the evolution of the format enough that it won’t grow stale before the release of Gatecrash.

It is important to keep this in mind when brewing control for the new Standard. While your local metagame will vary only slightly from week-to-week, you have to be able to anticipate the next big deck at higher-level events and be able to figure out the answer to last week’s winners, then either play that deck or be prepared to beat that deck (or, as Patrick Chapin calls it, finding Level 2).

Level 2

With Reanimator on top for the past few weeks and aggressive strategies like mono-red and Zombies on the downturn, the format is ripe for a control deck to take the gold at the next big event. Most of the top players are on Reanimator, Selesnya Aggro, Raka Midrange, or Bant Control, meaning our main offenders are planeswalkers, Geist of Saint Traft, Angel of Serenity, and what is more or less a glorified White Weenie deck. With this in mind, I believe I’ve found a deck that can go toe-to-toe with any and all of these titans of the format:

The Legion of Doom

Instants (13)
1x Cyclonic Rift
3x Dissipate
2x Forbidden Alchemy
2x Izzet Charm
3x Think Twice
1x Thoughtflare
1x Ultimate Price
Lands (25)
4x Blood Crypt
1x Desolate Lighthouse
4x Drowned Catacomb
4x Island
3x Mountain
4x Steam Vents
4x Sulfur Falls
1x Swamp
Sideboard (15)
3x Cremate
2x Essence Scatter
2x Olivia Voldaren
3x Rolling Temblor
4x Pillar of Flame
1x Slaughter Games
Sorceries (9)
1x Bonfire of the Damned
2x Dreadbore
2x Mizzium Mortars
2x Rakdos’s Return
2x Sever the Bloodline
Planeswalkers (6)
3x Jace, Architect of Thought
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
2x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Artifacts (2)
2x Rakdos Keyrune
Creatures (5)
1x Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
2x Snapcaster Mage
2x Thundermaw Hellkite

My love of Grixis Control may not be as well-known as my love of Mono-Black Control, but I’ve been known to cast my share of Cruel Ultimatums, or resolve a Nicol Bolas or two (not two at the same time, mind you!) While this deck seems to be a “sit back and react to everything my opponent does” sort of control deck, it is more proactive than it appears. The deck is packed full of answers to the various threats in the format, but subscribes to the concept of “the best defense is a good offense,” as is the case with the most substantial new inclusion to the deck:

2x Thundermaw Hellkite

I wasn’t initially sold on this card in control, opting to play Olivia Voldaren in its place at my local shop’s most recent Standard tournament and keep the hasty dragon in the sideboard. Then, I took Steve Campen’s advice (always a risky move!) and sided in this card against control decks, regardless of whether or not they were packing Lingering Souls.

I did not give this card the credit it deserved.

Having an opponent drop a Jace onto an empty board on turn four, only to chomp down on it with a 5/5 hasty dragon and leave him having to find a way to deal with this new threat sans his draw engine felt almost like casting Cruel Ultimatum. Going into the second round of a recent Grand Prix trial, I played against a hybrid Grixis-reanimator list that replaced planeswalkers with Lingering Souls and an Unburial Rites package. I realized in hindsight that, had I been playing Thundermaw Hellkite over Olivia Voldaren, I would have easily stomped my opponent in spite of his repeated recursion of Angel of Serenity, simply for the fact that I would get the dragon back to my hand and immediately smack him in the face for five, Lingering Souls be damned. On top of that, I realized that I was winning most of the games where I continually put pressure on my opponents before finishing them off with a Rakdos’s Return, and a 5/5 haste flier is a great way to put an opponent on the back foot.

Suffice to say, I used my winnings from the tournament to pick up two more of this guy and happily switched Olivia to my sideboard.

2x Rakdos Keyrune

By the same token, my closest games were the ones involving Strangleroot Geist, Rancor, and Silverblade Paladin. With Pillar of Flame in my sideboard, I was more or less a dog to the super-aggressive Selesnya strategies going into the tournament, mising a match win off a Selesnya beatdown deck in round three only to lose to a similar deck the following round. While Rakdos Keyrune may not have won me those games, it would have helped stem the bleeding against Thalia or Silverblade Paladin long enough to let me come back. The fact that it curves into Thundermaw Hellkite is just gravy.

1x Ultimate Price, 2x Izzet Charm

There were games where I would drop a Jace and activate his +1 ability, thinking him safe to my opponent’s assault on the following turn, only to have him eat a Rancor, Wolfir Avenger, Silverblade Paladin, or any other haste creature that could have been avoided had I been packing instant-speed removal. The presence of such cards in the format requires me to include removal which is narrower like Ultimate Price or less efficient like Izzet Charm, with the added bonus of Izzet Charm being able to counter planeswalkers, making the loss of a Dreadbore less painful.

2x Dreadbore, 2x Sever the Bloodline

I have been very impressed with Sever the Bloodline in current Standard, where exiling has become a very important mechanic to combat Reanimator and where token swarms are common. Dreadbore is a solid card, but I don’t think I need to run more than two to reliably deal with my opponents’ threats.

1x Bonfire of the Damned, 2x Mizzium Mortars

The miser’s Bonfire of the Damned is more theory than practice at the moment, as I added it after the tournament and only was able to test it against hybrid Reanimator, where it is basically dead. The logic on this card is threefold. Against Geist of Saint Traft, it kills the problematic creature a turn sooner than Mortars. It also provides an early board wipe against  weenie swarms, but can come into play against control as well by taking out a planeswalker or doming them for lethal.

3x Dissipate

This used to be three Syncopates. What happened?

Control is a major presence in my local metagame, and Syncopate isn’t a good card in those situations. Sure, it’s great when you’re trying to counter a Geist of Saint Traft on the draw, but it’s better to have a way to force through a planeswalker when you’re playing the draw-go mirror. With the addition of Izzet Charms as the cheaper, “soft” counter, I’m comfortable main decking three of this card.

1x Cyclonic Rift

Grixis is notoriously soft to enchantments, and the widespread use of Detention Sphere and Oblivion Ring means that having a single Cyclonic Rift is a necessity. I had the pleasure of overloading this against a control player when they were at ten life, tapped out, and I had two Thundermaw Hellkites hidden under his enchantments.

It’s also super sweet to end-of-turn this into…

2x Rakdos’s Return

No Grixis control list is viable without this card. I considered running a one-one split between this and Devil’s Play, but testing has shown that this card is the game-ender against any control or midrange deck, and it is the most reliable way for this deck to actually win the long game. Nugging an opponent for four with this, then using Snapcaster to finish off their hand is completely reasonable, and actually won me a game in the top eight of the recent Grand Prix trial.

1x Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, 1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

For those times when Rakdos’s Return simply won’t cut it. It is impossible to lose a game once you’ve untapped with either of these cards in play. I won a game off Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius without ever activating his ability, simply using him as a 5/5 flying Ophidian while leaving mana up to counter or kill all of my opponents spells.

3x Jace, Architect of Thought, 2x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

I originally ran four Jaces, but testing has shown this deck is very good at protecting a Jace for more than a few turns. It may still be right to run four, as he is one of the main reasons to play blue right now, but I think cutting the last one for Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is entirely reasonable, as this deck already has very few win conditions to speak of.

Side note: Rakdos Keyrune allows for a turn-four Tamiyo, which is awesome!

2x Forbidden Alchemy, 3x Think Twice, 1x Thoughtflare

I am happy with this combination of spells for my draw engine. Forbidden Alchemy is an all-star alongisde all the flashback spells and Snapcaster Mage, and Thoughtflare is almost as good as Sphinx’s Revelation when you can bin excess lands and spells with flashback. I’ve been wavering back and forth between Think Twice and Desperate Ravings. Each has its merits, but I’m erring on the side of caution and running Think Twice at the moment. This deck already has a lot of card draw and very few win conditions, so randomly discarding said win conditions can be brutal.

2x Snapcaster Mage

Originally a three-of, he’s a solid card that I found stranded in my hand one too many times for my comfort. He almost always does something and I may bump the number back up to three in the future, but he’s a two-of for now.

1x Desolate Lighthouse

This card has never been bad for me, but I would never run more than one as it becomes much, much worse in multiples and strains the mana a tad too much.

3x Cremate, 1x Slaughter Games

Cremate inevitably comes in against Reanimator and Zombies, with Slaughter Games pulling double duty against Reanimator and control. Having a cantrip answer is always preferable in a control deck, but Angel of Serenity can be a real beast against this strategy and Slaughter Games naming Angel of Serenity makes any matchup involving that card a lot easier to win.

2x Essence Scatter

As stated in my explanation for the main deck Dissipates, this deck has a problem being on the draw against Geist of Saint Traft, so boarding into Essence Scatter seems like a reasonable answer when it can also deal with Restoration Angel, Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, or any other problematic creature in a pinch.

3x Rolling Temblor, 4x Pillar of Flame

Rolling Temblor is included in the sideboard to deal with Geist of Saint Traft (to which this deck is somewhat weak), but also serves as an answer to Selesnya Aggro and Zombies. Pillar of Flame comes in only against Zombies and Selesnya Aggro.

2x Olivia Voldaren

As previously stated, this comes in when facing down Selesnya Aggro. It can also come in against Geist of Saint Traft decks, as it stacks up reasonably well against Restoration Angel and Moorland Haunt.

Playing the Deck

As with any control deck, the key is to know what is or isn’t a threat, and properly sequence plays. There are times where it is correct to counter a planeswalker (such as when you’d need the mana up on your turn to drop a threat of your own), but sometimes it’s equally correct to let it resolve, then Dreadbore or Thundermaw Hellkite it the following turn. It all depends on which planeswalker it is, and whether or not allowing the opponent to activate any of its abilities is too threatening.

By the same token, do not run out your threats unless you know you can protect them. This deck is relatively threat-light compared to a lot of other strategies, but has the necessary tools to keep its threats on the table. The only time when you can be liberal with casting spells is after resolving a Rakdos’s Return for your opponent’s entire hand, as you will almost always be ahead of them on cards for the rest of the game and as such can lose one or two threats to their answers. Just don’t get cocky.

Jace, Architect of Thought is probably the most difficult planeswalker to play optimally outside of Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Against any non-black creature deck, it’s almost always right to use his +1 ability unless you have to dig for an answer, as he will buy you a nonzero amount of time while your opponent repeatedly bashes creatures into him. He is there to blunt the assault so you can force your opponent to over commit, or simply lock creature strategies down in tandem with Tamiyo. He also makes Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius very good against most creatures in the format.

The most important part of playing control is to never get too cute with your plays. In the quarterfinals of the Grand Prix trial, my opponent was facing down a tapped Thundermaw Hellkite and Snapcaster Mage with his Tamiyo at a reasonable five loyalty. Rather than keep my Thundermaw tapped while he waited for an answer, he chose to use her -2 ability to try and dig for that answer a turn early. This ended up costing him the game, as I had a second Snapcaster in my hand to swing in for lethal on the following turn. When in doubt, always go for the safer play; it is always preferable to put yourself behind to make sure you survive another turn rather than hope your opponent doesn’t have you dead to a risky move. This deck can out-attrition most other attrition-based decks, as it has plenty to do with its mana in the late game between flashed back Forbidden Alchemies and Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius activations.

The Takeaway

This Standard format is far from solved, and as such this list is far from final. As the metagame continues to shift, so too must its answers. Now is the best time to be a brewer like myself; the current trend of SCG Standard Open results and Grand Prix finishes have shown that innovation is rewarded with a trophy and a write-up by Conley Woods or Patrick Chapin. Whatever your preference, make sure you know what you’re setting out to accomplish and know what obstacles lie in your way.

It’s all one big Epic Experiment; now is the time to don the white lab coats and get to work.


Standards and Practices: In Defense of Mono-Black Control

A week ago, Wizards of the Coast spoiled the newest incarnation of Liliana Vess:

Then yesterday, Mike Flores spoiled one of the most exciting reprints appearing in M13:

Those of you who know me personally know of my love of forcing mono-black in Standard whenever a new, exciting black card is spoiled in an upcoming set. When I first started playing Legacy, I built “The Gate,” what was, at the time, the Legacy equivalent of mono-black control. While the deck is Tier-2 at best, I already had a number of the necessary cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nighthawk and Hymn to Tourach, and the lack of dual lands in the mana base made it a more affordable entry point into the format. It was a great jumping off point; had I not had immediate, albeit moderate, success with the deck, I probably would not have pursued Legacy as a format. I’m quite glad I did, as it has become my second favorite format behind Commander.

Unfortunately, mono-black control has become a bit of a running joke in recent years. Whenever a powerful black card is revealed during spoiler season, there is an immediate response of “OMG MBC IS A THING AGAIN!!!!!” to which there is an almost-as-immediate backlash of “LOL N00B MBC IS TEH SUXXORZ!!!!!” As much as I want to believe otherwise, the backlash is, more often than not, justified.

Today, I would like to take the side of Mike Flores and argue that mono-black control is not only going to be viable in the upcoming Standard format, but will be actively good against the current crop of Tier-1 decks.

Back in Black

The origins of mono-black control can be traced back to Odyssey block, the last time the archetype was Tier-1 in any format for an extended period of time. For most of us mono-black aficionados, the crème de la crème was Robert Dougherty’s mono-black control list from Pro Tour Osaka in 2002:

Rob Dougherty’s Mono-Black Control

Lands (28)
3x Cabal Coffers
25x Swamp
Sorceries (24)
4x Chainer’s Edict
4x Diabolic Tutor
1x Haunting Echoes
3x Innocent Blood
4x Mind Sludge
4x Mutilate
4x Rancid Earth
Instant (1)
1x Skeletal Scrying
Creatures (8)
4x Nantuko Shade
2x Shambling Swarm
2x Stalking Bloodsucker
Sideboard (15)
4x Braids, Cabal Minion
4x Faceless Butcher
2x Ghastly Demise
3x Mesmeric Fiend
2x Skeletal Scrying

The deck was a ponderously slow tap-out control deck that utilized “Swamps-matter” cards like Nantuko Shade, Cabal Coffers, Mutilate and Mind Sludge (their efficiency counteracted by the deck building restrictions they entailed) to overpower the opponent, often winning off a single, huge Nantuko Shade or drawing a bunch of cards with Skeletal Scrying at the end of the opponent’s turn to be discarded to Stalking Bloodsucker on the next. The idea behind a deck like this is that you are constantly getting X-for-1s off of every card, whether it’s Mutilate or flashing back a Chainer’s Edict or having threshold when you cast Rancid Earth.

Flash forward to Fall 2009. The menace that was Faeries had just rotated out of Standard, we’d just been introduced to this strange, new (overpowered) world known as Zendikar, and Jund had taken its rightful place as the deck to beat of the new Standard format. From the world of Zendikar, strange, powerful creatures like Bloodghast, Vampire Nighthawk, and Gatekeeper of Malakir caught the eye of every mono-black junkie in the Magic-playing world. Tendrils of Corruption! Vampire Nocturnus! I think we have a winner!

Except we didn’t, because Jund was just doing what you were doing, only better.

While the reprints of Tendrils of Corruption and Mind Sludge both provided mono-black with the tools necessary to combat aggro and control matchups respectively, Jund was the midrangey-est of the midrange decks, as well as the most-played deck in that Standard format, and vampires simply could not compete with Bloodbraid Elves and Sprouting Thrinaxes by using one-for-one removal and creatures, no matter how efficient Vampire Nighthawk happened to be. On top of that, the aggro matchup faltered without said Nighthawk or Tendrils, as most of mono-black’s early creatures matched up poorly against Plated Geopede and Steppe Lynx. As for the control matchup; sometimes you’d slam a turn-four Nocturnus with three other vampires and flip a black card – or sometimes you’d resolve a harder-to-cast Hill Giant a turn before your opponent wraths away your entire board.

So we mono-black players waited, biding our time, playing other fun decks like Naya Lightsaber until the menace that was known as Jund rotated. Along the way, we saw awesome cards like Kalastria Highborn, Abyssal Persecutor, Consume the Meek, the all-powerful Grave Titan, and even a Nantuko Shade reprint, and we knew that mono-black would have its day in the sun.

So what happened? Four words: Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

To be fair, he is better than all.

Black’s main weakness as a color is its inability to interact with anything other than creatures, the graveyard, and the opponent’s hand, so a resolved Jace, the Mind Sculptor was nigh unbeatable for mono-black in the era of Caw-Blade. On top of that, Squadron Hawk was a paltry target for removal, as it simply replaced itself the next turn. A lack of card advantage combined with an inability to deal with the format’s most threatening card meant that mono-black was simply inferior to its blue-black counterpart, which had access to Mana Leak as well as Jaces of its own. Even Phyrexian Obliterator, heralded as the best mono-black card printed since Cabal Coffers, proved inadequate when you realized that Jace 2.0 could simply bounce your four-mana do-nothing back to your hand, then make you discard it with Sword of Feast and Famine.

Again, we lovers of the dark arts had to wait for the right moment to claim our birthright. Standard season came and went, and Innistrad was on the horizon…

I See a Delver and I Want to Paint it Black

Innistrad and its follow-up expansion Dark Ascension are likely to go down as two of the greatest Magic sets ever printed. They were a flavor home-run, created one of the most fun and exciting limited formats of all time, and spawned one of the more balanced Standard formats in recent memory.*

*Despite what many commentators will have you believe, Delver is not Caw-Blade or Faeries in terms of dominance; it’s more akin to Jund, in that it is a popular deck but can be easily beaten if attacked at the right angle.

From the perspective of a mono-black player, Innistrad block was our greatest hopes and dreams come true. Liliana of the Veil is one of the most aggressively-costed and powerful planeswalkers of all time, playable even in a format as powerful as Legacy. Geralf’s Messenger is one of the most efficient creatures ever printed, harkening back to the powerhouse that was Kitchen Finks (although, as Mike Flores has stated, Shock is better than Healing Salve). In spite of this, mono-black did not see resurgence in the new Standard format, a format largely defined by creatures!

I have a feeling that years of withdrawal had finally caught up with the mono-black community. After having his or her pet archetype decimated by Faeries, then by Jund, then by Caw-Blade, your average mono-black player must have simply scooped up his or her Phyrexian Obliterators and called it a day. Now, when the format is so ripe for the picking, with creatures at an all-time high and planeswalkers at an all-time low, why has no one picked up the torch of mono-black?

Oh wait, someone has!

Recently, Mike Flores discussed the theory of “More-sies” in deck design, offering up a thought experiment involving a red-black deck that sought to win by killing off every single creature an opponent plays. Basically, his theory boils down to the assumption that if your deck is filled with answers to a very specific problem (in this case, creatures,) then you should have a 100% win rate against said problem. His theory is that if all you are playing against are creature decks and all your deck does is kill creatures, then you’ll always be drawing more live cards than your opponents. Once you’ve built a deck that can do that one thing reasonably well, you have a baseline from which you can shore up your weaknesses to other strategies.

“But why now?” you may be wondering, “Surely if mono-black were viable, we would have seen a deck months ago, when Avacyn Restored came out!”

Long story short: in M13, black is the new blue.

Early in the spoiler season, we mono-black pigeons were tossed a few bread crumbs by Wizards of the Coast in the form of Sign in Blood, Vampire Nighthawk, and Duress reprints. Then Murder was spoiled and, while significantly less efficient than Doom Blade or Go For the Throat, is not an unreasonable card for a mono-black player to cast. From there, we heard whispers of a new Liliana; a four-mana Liliana, no less. Everywhere, black players were proclaiming that black was finally to have its own Elspeth, Knight-Errant or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. When the curtain was finally drawn back, we received:

Needless to say, we were a little less than enthusiastic. “She only draws you lands?” some cried, while others lamented, “She can’t even protect herself!” There was even a post on the Magic forums which asked, “I wonder if they’ll ever print another good black card?” As for yours truly; I think she’s fine. She’s exactly what a mono-black deck needs in a planeswalker, offering very real card advantage as well as utility should you draw into more than one copy of her. It’s the same reaction I hear from newer players who read the card Land Tax, to which I always respond, “Even if you’re drawing lands, you’re removing them from your deck and putting more cards into your hand.” As for her ultimate; all we need is one big X spell to really push that ability to the limit…

Oh, right. Well, that’s quite an admirable goal to try and attain, but how are we supposed to get there. One-for-one creature removal isn’t going to stop Blade Splicer, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Grave Titan from spoiling your plans!

I must admit, my first reaction to seeing a reprint of Mutilate cannot be repeated in this blog (this is a family-friendly blog, after all!) While we would have loved a Damnation reprint, the mono-black community has finally been given the missing piece of the puzzle that is a viable mono-black deck. Against the current crop of decks, Mutilate can simply decimate most board states in the same way as Day of Judgment, a card which is at an all-time high in value right now. Moreover, Mutilate can deal with regenerate in a way that Day of Judgment can’t. For the first time in a long time, I have a feeling that mono-black can be a Tier-1 deck again.

For the next three months at least, you can be sure that I will be testing and tuning a mono-black list of some sort. Here is the rough sketch of where I will be starting:

Mono-Black Control

Artifacts (9)
1x Batterskull
1x Mimic Vat
3x Nihil Spellbomb
4x Sphere of the Suns
Enchantments (1)
1x Curse of Death’s Hold
Sorceries (10)
1x Diabolic Revelation
3x Duress
4x Mutilate
3x Sign in Blood
Creatures (5)
1x Grave Titan
4x Vampire Nighthawk
Instants (6)
2x Doom Blade
2x Geth’s Verdict
2x Go for the Throat
Lands (24)
20x Swamp
3x Ghost Quarter
Planeswalkers (5)
1x Karn Liberated
3x Liliana of the Dark Realms
1x Sorin Markov

This list is based off the mono-black list Mike Flores advocates in his recent article “All Your Dreams Are About to Come True.” I replaced each Wellspring with Liliana of the Dark Realms or Sign in Blood, as both cards do exactly what is needed from the aforementioned artifacts without having to jump through any hoops. I added Sphere of the Suns instead of Solemn Simulacrum, as this deck wants to hit its fours as quickly as possible, with Vampire Nighthawk allowing the deck to survive the early turns should it not hit an accelerant.

I maxed out on Mutilate instead of the four “board-sweepers” advocated by Flores, as I believe Mutilate does what each of those sorceries do at a much more efficient rate. The ability to curve into a turn-three Mutilate followed by a turn-four Curse of Death’s Hold seems like a great way to lock down the board so that Grave Titan or any number of planeswalkers can take control.

Mimic Vat and Batterskull are included to provide a threat after a board wipe; the same is true for Sorin Markov and Karn Liberated. I decided to include a single copy of Diabolic Revelation to take advantage of Liliana’s ultimate; I think being able to search up a win condition and a Duress to protect it is very powerful and worth a single slot.

Nihil Spellbomb is included as a nod to Undying creatures and Gravecrawler, both of which can prove problematic to mono-black’s main strategy of keeping the board under control. I have not come up with a good sideboard as of yet, as I have spent exactly zero hours testing this list.

I’m hoping that it’s not just my blind love for mono-black control that has me seriously considering this list for the upcoming Standard season. I honestly believe that the Mutilate reprint is the last piece of the puzzle we mono-black players have needed to create a viable strategy for our favorite color, and that the format as a whole is ripe for a mono-black deck to dominate. Even if the format should shift to more ramp strategies and combo-reanimator, Wizards of the Coast have been kind enough to provide black with powerful cards like Nihil Spellbomb and Despise to help combat any and all challengers. The only thing I can see threatening the new age of mono-black is a planeswalker control deck utilizing Sorin, Lord of Innistrad or Garruk Relentless, but no such deck exists in the current Standard format.

As it stands, I say: “Let the reign of mono-black finally begin!”


Standards and Practices: Restoring My Faith

Welcome back to another exciting installment of Friday Night Malafarina! This weekend is the Avacyn Restored prerelease, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t absolutely ecstatic at the prospect of cracking open some packs of the new set. From Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded to Barter in Blood, this set has my creative juices flowing with regards to brewing new decks for the upcoming standard season. However, there is one card above all others that has me the most excited.

FLASH! Aaahhh…

Simply put, I am in love with Restoration Angel.

True love.

Restoration Angel is everything I could possibly want in a creature. It has flash, it’s an undercosted flying beater, and it flickers! For those of you that don’t know, I love cards like Cloudstone Curio, Flickerwisp, and Venser, the Sojourner that allow me to re-buy value out of my “187” creatures, and Restoration Angel far surpasses any of these cards in terms of raw power. Many existing archetypes will profit from its enters-the-battlefield trigger and I think it’s safe to say that Restoration Angel will produce new archetypes all by itself.

I believe Restoration Angel is good enough to join the ranks of Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets in the bogeyman deck of the current standard format. Above all else, it seems to be one of the most powerful cards available in the Delver mirror, as a 3/4 flying body can block every single unequipped creature in the deck except Invisible Stalker. In a more general sense, it can blink a Snapcaster Mage to flashback another spell, or it can save a Geist of Saint Traft mid-combat, allowing for what is more or less a free four damage to the opponent’s face, on top of being able to protect any and all creatures from targeted removal (not that the deck had any problem with targeted removal in the first place).

Unfortunately for Delver, Cavern of Souls looks to be the kind of card that makes Delver’s plan of MANA LEAK ALL THE THINGS a little less reliable, insuring that Inferno Titans will be resolving in the late-game and forcing the deck to beat down quicker against titan decks or lose on turn five. If this is the case, then Restoration Angel will be too slow and durdly to actually impact Delver’s plan in any meaningful way.

However, the most obvious place to include Restoration Angel is Birthing Pod, with its plethora of value creatures that are made all the more powerful with a simple flick(er) of the wrist (I’m so clever!) It can reset an undead* Strangleroot Geist or Vorapede, bounce a Blade Splicer or a Huntmaster of the Fells to produce another token, or even morph a Phyrexian Metamorph to something larger. On top of this, it helps the midrange Green/Red and Naya decks deal with problematic flying creatures without the use of marginal cards like Daybreak Ranger (Kibler be damned).

*I’d like to point out that a creature entering the battlefield after an undying trigger is undead. I have yet to see any writers or commentators use this nomenclature, and I think it’s high time we got this little matter settled (because it’s been such a contentious issue in the Magic community and all).

As previously stated, a 3/4 body is very relevant in current standard; in the post-Avacyn Restored standard format, the Green/Red aggro decks of the previous format may adopt the Angel solely due to the power level of the card and its ability to mess with Delver’s combat math, which is the most important part of that particular matchup.

On top of all of this, I believe Restoration Angel is likely to restore (again, I’m so clever) a long dead archetype that a lot of players have seemingly blocked from their memory.

I Sense Something, a Presence I’ve Not Felt Since…

One of Restoration Angel’s biggest impacts on the current standard environment is the fact that it makes Sword of Feast and Famine much, much better, and this is going to be very important with the predicted rise of Primeval Titan decks this summer. The printing of Cavern of Souls has a number of players up in arms over the supposed death of control, but I think Restoration Angel will (un-ironically) prove to be the savior of the draw-go archetype in modern standard.

Here is a rough sketch of something I like to call Restoration Blade:

Restoration Blade

Aritfacts (3)
1x Batterskull
2x Sword of Feast and Famine
Instants (10)
1x Dismember
1x Ghostly Flicker
4x Mana Leak
4x Midnight Haunting
Planeswalkers (3)
2x Gideon Jura
1x Venser, the Sojourner
Creatures (10)
2x Phantasmal Image
3x Restoration Angel
4x Snapcaster Mage
1x Sun Titan
Lands (26)
3x Ghost Quarter
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Inkmoth Nexus
5x Island
6x Plains
4x Seachrome Coast
Sorceries (8)
3x Day of Judgment
1x Entreat the Angels
2x Ponder
1x Terminus
1x Temporal Mastery

When I say rough, I mean rough. This is a deck list created with no testing, based entirely on theory crafting and my limited knowledge of how the Cawblade decks of the past standard format functioned.

There are a lot of applications for Restoration Angel in a shell like this, and I’m not entirely sure which have merit and which are just me being cute. The obvious one is the synergy between Restoration Angel and Snapcaster Mage, which allows for surprise blocks and quick flashback granting in a pinch. This is one of the reasons I put Midnight Haunting in this list over more powerful options such as Blade Splicer or Lingering Souls; going from zero to four blockers in the middle of combat seems like an absolute nightmare for any opponent, especially if something is equipped with a Sword of Feast and Famine.

The Sword is particularly powerful in this shell, allowing you to tap out on your first main phase, swing in with an Inkmoth Nexus or a Spirit token, then untap and either drop a planeswalker or leave mana up for Restoration Angel or other such shenanigans. There is also the option in the late game of swinging with Gideon, flashing in Restoration Angel post-combat to reset Gideon, then using Gideon’s +2 ability to negate your opponent’s counterattack while also having a 3/4 flying blocker eat one of your opponent’s creatures. This is the interaction I’m most excited about, as we’ve moved beyond the realm of cute and into practical applications for control.

As I was trying to incorporate both Inkmoth Nexus and Ghost Quarter into the mana base (Inkmoth serving as a replacement for the far superior Celestial Colonnade), I was limited by the Planeswalkers I could include in this sixty. However, Venser provides a wide range of utility in this list. He has the capability of saving one of your creatures from a Day of Judgment while also allowing you to re-trigger Snapcaster Mage’s ability at the end of turn, allowing you to re-cast Midnight Haunting or Dismember should the need arise. He can also untap a land to leave mana up for a Mana Leak, or reset a Batteskull that has lost its Germ token. Moreover, in those situations where you can afford to attack, he makes all of your creatures unblockable, insuring that you get a Sword of Feast and Famine trigger.

The deck is meant to play similarly to the Cawblade of old (though nowhere near as powerful), utilizing Snapcaster, Restoration Angel and Sword of Feast and Famine to shift back and forth between a tap-out and a draw-go game. There are numerous lines of play at any point in the game, and the two Ponders help dig for answers while also offering the possibility of setting up miracle blowouts. I kept it to blue-white to make room for colorless lands like Inkmoth Nexus and Ghost Quarter, the former really shining in a deck that wants to swing through the air with a Sword of Feast and Famine.

That Being Said…

I’m not sure if I actually want to play a deck like this come Avacyn Restored, but it’s an interesting build to theory craft regardless. More than likely, I will be jamming Restoration Angels into my midrange Naya deck in place of Garruk Relentless and Birthing Pod and seeing how it plays in practice; I’ve grown quite fond of Huntmaster of the Fells and the wide range of plays that he enables. The future looks a little less than friendly for Delver, what with Cavern of Souls and Restoration Angel being excellent tools to fight the Goldblum menace, so midrange Naya aggro may not be the wave of the future. In spite of this, I will be testing zombies and Naya in the coming weeks, so expect some articles about my findings in the near future.

In the meantime, let’s hope that Wizards keeps up the trend of shaking up standard with every new set they print. As it stands, this looks like it’s going to be a great year to play Magic.


Standards and Practices: Tales from Baltimore

Your mana base is terrible.

Those were the words I kept repeating to my friend Grant as he drove the two of us down to Baltimore for the Grand Prix this past weekend. The weather on Friday was wet and grey and we had spent no small amount of time on our trip discussing (read: bitching) about our respective ex-girlfriends in order to direct the conversation away from my continued discussion (read: criticism) of Grant’s chosen deck for the tournament the following day.

Nineteen forests, two Kessig Wolf Runs, and two mountains, and you want to play Inferno Titan?

I had long since settled on Black-Blue Zombies, after continued testing with Diregraf Captain and Phantasmal Image showed those two cards to be significantly better than anything red had to offer. In addition, Haunted Humans, zombies’ worst match-up, had all but disappeared from the tournament scene, pushed out of the way by the old pillar of the format, Wolf Run Ramp. It was for that same reason that my friend Ted, who had been piloting humans for the past couple of months, and our friend Mark had decided Blue-Black Control was the proper meta-game choice for Baltimore.

Dungrove Elder does not belong in a Birthing Pod deck.

I tried to make Grant see reason. Wasn’t Blade Splicer a better three-drop for Pod strategies? Why not take advantage of Sun Titan and Elesh Norn, cards which were powerful and dealt with a number of strategies we were sure to encounter at the Grand Prix? No matter what I said, Grant assured me that Dungrove Elder was insane and the perfect three-drop for his red-green Birthing Pod deck.

He was absolutely right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Left 5-4 Dead

Before detailing my tumultuous ride to a 5-4 finish on day one, here is the list I registered for the Grand Prix:

Black-Blue Zombies

Creatures (28)
1x Cemetery Reaper
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
3x Fume Spitter
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Phantasmal Image
4x Skirsdag High Priest
Lands (21)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
13x Swamp
Sideboard (15)
2x Corrosive Gale
3x Geth’s Verdict
3x Nihil Spellbomb
4x Phyrexian Crusader
3x Ratchet Bomb
Instants (8)
2x Doom Blade
2x Go for the Throat
4x Tragic Slip
Artifacts (3)
3x Mortarpod

I had decided to switch from Geth’s Verdict to target removal, having expected a field full of zombies, spirit tokens, Snapcaster Mages and Huntmasters of the Fells. I had also allotted four sideboard slots to Phyrexian Crusader, which was supposed to be the trump in the Haunted Humans match-up. Both of these decisions would come back to haunt me throughout the tournament.

Round 2 – U/W Delver

After utilizing my first-round bye to scout the field, throughout which I saw the Haunted Humans and Frites decks I was more than happy to have skipped, I found myself seated across from the bogeyman of the format. I had tested numerous games against the spirit version of Delver and found the match-up to be solidly in my favor, even with Geth’s Verdict instead of spot removal. Skirsdag High Priest is insane in the match-up, and their mass of small creatures makes it very easy to score a 5/5 demon by turn three.

However, a game-one mulligan to five started me off on the wrong foot, and things looked even worse when I saw a turn-two Invisible Stalker from my opponent, making the Doom Blade in my hand look very pathetic indeed. I was quickly smashed by a turn-four Angelic Destiny followed by a turn-five Destiny just for the rub-ins.

Lacking a sideboard for Delver Classic™, I simply sided into Geth’s Verdicts and Corrosive Gales and hoped for the best. However, I mulliganed down to six in game two with another sketchy hand, while my opponent managed to blind flip a turn one Delver and follow it up with a turn-three Timely Reinforcements, quickly putting me out of the game.

1 – 1

Round 3 – Hippo Blade

This was not a deck for which I had prepared, but if you were to ask me my thoughts after this match, I would say the favor is definitely in the zombies’ camp. While their Swords and Etched Champions are a nuisance and they do pack Elesh Norns and Day of Judgments, they have no way to interact with a quick start and their clock is slow enough that a good zombie player will be able to stabilize past the first wrath.

Game one I kept a slow hand with three lords and a removal spell, and almost lost to an Inkmoth Nexus repeatedly smacking me with a Sword of Feast and Famine. Eventually, I stuck a Mortarpod onto a Diregraf Captain and my opponent failed to realize the deathtouch would kill his Glint Hawk Idol, and I quickly took the game back after dropping two successive lords and a Gravecrawler.

I forget what I sideboarded for game two, but it didn’t matter. My curve of Diregraf Ghoul into double Gravecrawler into Diregraf Captain was too much for my opponent. Even with the Day of Judgment, swinging for nine power on turn three with double Messengers in hand was too much for him to possibly stabilize.

2 – 1

Round 4 – Wolf Run Black

While Wolf Run Black has a better game one against zombies than traditional Wolf Run, their lack of Huntmaster of the Fells makes it almost impossible to stabilize from a quick assault backed up by Geralf’s Messenger.

Game one I had a very quick start with multiple one-drops followed by a lord, finally getting Zenithed away with my opponent dropping to eight life. However, his Grave Titan was quickly imaged, and then both it and its controller were quickly dispatched.

Game two he missed a ramp spell on turn two, allowing for my zombies to swing in for an extra turn before being Zenithed away once more. Again, he dropped a titan, this time one of the primeval variety, and again I imaged his titan, killed it, and then killed him.

3 – 1

Round 5 – Heartless Lich

This will go down as one of my all-time favorite matches ever, due in no small part to how friendly my opponent was throughout the whole thing. Even after playing three games of this match-up, I’m still not sure which deck is favored to win.

Game one he got off an early Heartless Summoning while I came out of the gates quickly with some Diregraf Ghouls, Gravecrawlers, and a Skirsdag High Priest, all of which were killed by a Zenith before I was able to make a demon. Irony of ironies, he proceeds to drop a Havengul Lich, steal my Skirsdag High Priest, and use the synergy between Perilous Myr, Lich, and Summoning to pump out 4/4 demons at an alarming rate.

Game two he failed to hit black mana and I smashed him in the face with an endless supply of undead.

Game three was the reason I enjoyed this match so much. Once again, my deck did what it was good at and beat my opponent down to a low life total. It was at that point that he dropped the ultimate stop-sign: Platinum Emperion. I had a Cemetery Reaper online at this point and he had multiple Liches and other creatures in the graveyard, but I had no way to kill the Emperion in hand. What followed was a back-and-forth of me making a zombie and him passing the turn, except for one turn in which he used Treasure Mage to search up Mindslaver, hoping to use my own hand against me. Unfortunately, my hand was a bunch of creatures, so he was forced to simply tap my lands and make me pass the turn. Eventually, I found the Tragic Slip needed to kill the Emperion, and swung through with a massive horde of 3/3 zombies for the win.

4 – 1

Round 6 – Esper Control (piloted by Shaheen Soorani)

I keep making the joke that, at every tournament I attend, I will play against some well-known player and beat them. It started with my first Grand Prix in DC, where I played the Naya Vengevine mirror against Jacob Van Lunen, and continued to my stint in Star City Games Baltimore, where I beat Lewis Laskin’s Caw-Blade deck with Black-Red Vampires. Now it was Shaheen Soorani’s turn to feel my wrath.

Only he didn’t.

Lack of testing against this deck definitely hurt me in the match-up, as I had him on Solar Flare for most of game one, which I won pretty quickly on the back of four Gravecrawlers and Shaheen missing one or two land drops. Having forgotten the Esper Control deck he’d written about earlier that week, I simply sided out my Skirsdag High Priests and sided in my Nihil Spellbombs, looking for a quick, zombie-driven game two.

Unfortunately for me, both games two and three were decided by the curve of Celestial Purge into Liliana into Day of Judgment, backed up by Lingering Souls that quickly beat me out of any chance of winning. There may have been a Gideon Jura in there as well, not like it mattered what with my Geralf’s Messengers exiled or countered and nary a Phyrexian Obliterator anywhere in my seventy-five.

Looking back, had I had Obliterator instead of Phyrexian Crusader, I would have been a lot more favored in this match-up. It also doesn’t help that I forgot to side in my Ratchet Bombs after seeing a mass of tokens in game two.

4 – 2

Round 7 – Grixis Control

The current iteration of Grixis Control is not optimally suited to deal with zombies. While they have the Curse of Death’s Hold to lock down the Gravecrawlers, they lack the Oblivion Rings and Celestial Purges to permanently deal with the Geralf’s Messengers, nor the Nephalia Drownyards that actually provide a reasonable clock once control has been established.

I had long since learned how to pilot zombies against any Blue-Black Control deck; put on early pressure with Gravecrawlers, Diregraf Ghouls, and possibly a Captain, then wait for them to tap out for a wrath before chaining Geralf’s Messengers to whittle away at their remaining life. The main difference between Grixis and straight Blue-Black is the lack of a Drownyard to threaten my inaction while waiting for them to tap out. My opponent’s only real threat in either game was a Grave Titan for which he would invariably have to tap out, after which I would copy it with Phantasmal Image and either kill it or race it.

There was an amusing misplay on my part during game two where he attacked into my titan and two zombies with his pair of 2/2 zombies, to which I blocked with my tokens and he followed up the attack with a Liliana of the Veil to make me sacrifice my titan, but I had multiple Geralf’s Messengers in my hand that allowed me to quickly recover from my misplay to take the match.

5 – 2

Round 8 – Black-Blue Zombies

Have you ever gotten that sinking feeling? That feeling that the day has been going too well, and that something bad is bound to happen?

Yeah, me neither.

In any case, I found myself not only paired against my friend Dean, but the mirror match as well, and I discovered rather quickly that he had been putting in way more testing than I had with this deck. In addition, whereas I had been facing off against different decks all day, Dean told me he had played the mirror match four times over the course of the tournament.

All of this led to a terribly disappointing 0 – 2 defeat of yours truly, courtesy of some Skirsdag High Priests and Phyrexian Obliterators that made my Doom Blades look positively laughable. Dean had cut down on the priests, finding them to be more cute than effective, and upped the land count to twenty-two, both things which I have since adopted in my list. Overall, his list was able to go more over-the-top than my own, keeping me on the back foot for both games from which I was never able to recover.

5 – 3

Round 9 – Township Tokens

I played out the last round for fun, Dean having knocked me out of the running for Day Two. I was summarily crushed by a Township Tokens list that was pretty much cut-and-pasted from Martin Juza’s list from a Grand Prix late last year.

As my deck was tuned to face off against Delver, Blue-Black Control and Wolf Run, I lacked the proper sideboard options or knowledge of the match-up, which already seems to be quite an uphill battle for the zombie player. Any deck that is able to create a mass amount of chump blockers that are more or less immune to spot removal has a good match-up against my deck and when you add in things like Garruk Relentless and Elspeth Tirel there is simply no way for my deck to race effectively.

5 – 4

At the end of the day, all but two of the players from the Encounter, Ted and Dean, had missed out on day two. Dean plowed through both Mark and myself on his way to Day Two (and managed to be paired up against and beat Ted in the first round of Day Two), and Grant made me eat my words by posting a better-than-mine 6 – 3 record for Day One.

If I have learned anything walking away from this tournament, it is the importance of listening to your friends’ advice. My card choices were influenced by my over-confidence in knowing how to pilot my deck, without regard for the advice of my friends who, while having not piloted the deck themselves, were all very skilled players with a good grasp on Magic theory. It was also to my detriment that I did not contact Dean before the tournament, as I knew he was on Black-Blue Zombies and could have used his advice when it came to what cards to add or cut.

It is for this same reason that I was telling Grant what to put in or take out of his Birthing Pod deck, and I was equally wrong in this case. I hadn’t really thought about it at the time, but both Dungrove Elder and Birthing Pod are nightmare cards for the Blue-Black Control deck, which has virtually no reasonable way of interacting with said cards. Add to this that Grant’s deck could function like a Wolf Run deck at times, Dungrove Elder also acts as the perfect trump to the ramp strategies, while his Sword of War and Peace plan-B helped him to steal some wins from the slower decks at the tournament. However, he has admitted that he’s more interested in shifting to the Green-Red Aggro deck piloted by Jackie Lee into the top 8.

I was also a bit short-sighted when it came to reading the meta-game. I knew that Wolf Run Ramp and Blue-Black Control were going to be the top decks of the tournament after Wolf Run’s impressive showing at Worlds, and as such I chose a deck that was built to effectively combat those decks while still having a good Delver match-up. What I failed to realize was the way that the other decks in the format would adjust to the changing meta-game. Delver reverted back to the blade-style decks we saw before the Pro Tour, to which Geth’s Verdict is a much better card than spot removal and Skirsdag High Priest appears much, much worse. I also failed to recognize that Wolf Run Black would make an appearance, as it trumps the Wolf Run mirror with better titans.

Grand Prix Wrap-Up

In spite of this, I did better than I’ve ever done at a Grand Prix and walked away from the weekend feeling very confident about my deck and my skill as a Magic player (it didn’t hurt that I had also won half of a box of Dark Ascension in a side event on Day Two). I have since made changes to my zombies deck (which I purchased on Magic Online as soon as I’d returned from Baltimore). For the record, here is the list with which I have been destroying the two-man constructed queues:

Black-Blue Zombies v2.0

Creatures (27)
2x Cemetery Reaper
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
2x Fume Spitter
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Phantasmal Image
3x Phyrexian Obliterator
Lands (22)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
14x Swamp
Sideboard (15)
2x Corrosive Gale
3x Distress
3x Nihil Spellbomb
1x Phyrexian Metamorph
1x Phyrexian Obliterator
2x Ratchet Bomb
2x Skirsdag High Priest
1x Swamp
Instants (8)
4x Geth’s Verdict
4x Tragic Slip
Artifacts (3)
3x Mortarpod

I didn’t want to max out on Obliterators in the main because I wanted to keep the land count to twenty-two while having the option to side into the twenty-third land and the fourth Obliterator in matches where I become the control deck. I also wanted to keep at least two High Priests somewhere in the seventy-five because they are simply that good against the Delver decks. Geth’s Verdict got the nod over Doom Blade or Go for the Throat simply because I see a return to Geist of Saint Traft in the near future.

That’s all for this week! Next week I’ll be highlighting another one of my many, many Commander decks.

Until then, BRRAAAIIIINNNNNSSSSSS…

(P.S. Sorry for no pretty pictures this week. I’ll make it up to you all next week!)


Standards and Practices: Developing Zombie Aggro

Pro Tour Dark Ascension was this past weekend in Hawaii, with hundreds of the world’s top Magic players facing off for a chance at the title. To say I was anxiously anticipating this event would be an understatement; with Dark Ascension having recently entered the Standard format, I was excited to see what new and improved decks the best Magic players would bring to the highest level of competitive play, and I was not disappointed.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch the semifinals match between Hall of Famers Brian Kibler and Jon Finkel, do yourself a favor and set aside two hours of your day for a match that is, in my opinion, one of the most epic I’ve ever seen:

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the semifinals match from the comfort of my local game store, where I was participating in our weekly Standard and Modern tournaments. Today’s article will focus on the Standard deck I have been toying with over the past week.

All We Want to Do Is Eat Your Brains

This past weekend I took part in two separate Standard tournaments: the weekly Standard tournament at the Encounter and a Star City Games Invitational Qualifier in Doylestown hosted by Cyborg One (all fine retailers of collectible games and comics /endshamelessplug). In the week leading up to the Invitational Qualifier I had been testing Joshua Cho’s black-red zombie list and finding that, while I liked playing an aggressive strategy backed by Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger, I didn’t like how the deck was positioned against Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold. With only four (conditional) ways to kill a Hero of Bladehold, my deck was fairly easily crushed by my friend Ted’s Haunted Humans list.

The night before the Qualifier, I happened upon an article on Star City Games written by none other than Joshua Cho himself, wherein he posited a new zombie-aggro strategy, this time utilizing blue as the secondary color rather than red. I was immediately sold, and quickly hammered out the following list:

Blue-Black Zombies

Creatures (20)
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Snapcaster Mage
Lands (21)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
3x Island
10x Swamp
Artifacts (5)
2x Mortarpod
3x Sword of War and Peace
Instants (7)
4x Vapor Snag
3x Tragic Slip
Sorceries (7)
3x Ponder
4x Gitaxian Probe
Sideboard (15)
2x Act of Aggression
3x Mana Leak
2x Phyrexian Metamorph
3x Ratchet Bomb
2x Sword of Feast and Famine
2x Surgical Extraction

Ponder allows this deck to run fewer lands than its black-red counterpart, while Vapor Snag and Diregraf Captain gives the deck better game against the larger creatures that usually spell doom for this archetype. Vapor Snag in particular offers an interesting bonus when combined with Geralf’s Messenger, allowing me to reset the +1/+1 counter on the Messenger to get further points of damage through to the opponent.

Unfortunately, I had a run of bad luck mixed with bad plays that sealed my doom at the Qualifier. The first round against Haunted Humans was won easily enough; this deck is just more aggressive than them and, without any sweepers, my Diregraf Captains create an un-winnable situation for any opponent with a life total near single digits, wherein I could start martyring Gravecrawlers against larger creatures to whittle away at their life.

However, I quickly found over the next few rounds that this deck has a serious problem with 1/1 flying Spirits. I faced off against three different decks packing the little bastards: the humans deck in the first round and two black-white token decks in later rounds. Against both token decks I was the underdog in game one, but I felt like Ratchet Bomb gave me the edge in the following rounds. This was not to be, as both matches were decided by a turn two Stony Silence, effectively shutting off my only answer to their swarm.

I ended the day with an upsetting 1-3 before dropping from the tournament, but I had a plan to insure that I wouldn’t get fooled again…

Rock You Like a Hurricane

Phyrexian mana is a wonderful thing. It allows non-black decks access to premium removal, it allows non-red to punch Jeff Goldblum in the gut…

Checkmate.

…and it gives my blue-black zombies list access to Hurricane.

With a full playset of Snapcaster Mages, it wasn’t that hard to decide that this innocuous sorcery from New Phyrexia was the perfect non-artifact answer to the spirit menace. Though I was less likely to find people playing black-white tokens in my local meta, due to no one making any effort to pick up Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, there was enough of a chance of me facing off against Delver of Secrets and Lingering Souls to warrant its inclusion.

This is the list I took to the Encounter’s Sunday Standard even this past weekend:

Blue-Black Zombies v2.0

Creatures (20)
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Snapcaster Mage
Lands (21)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
3x Island
11x Swamp
Artifacts (5)
2x Mortarpod
3x Sword of War and Peace
Instants (7)
4x Vapor Snag
3x Tragic Slip
Sorceries (7)
2x Ponder
4x Gitaxian Probe
Sideboard (15)
2x Corrosive Gale
4x Mana Leak
2x Phyrexian Metamorph
3x Ratchet Bomb
2x Sword of Feast and Famine
2x Surgical Extraction

I added the 22nd land after testing showed that any fewer hindered my ability to play and equip Sword of War and Peace on the same turn. Since that was my only real way of racing Haunted Humans, I cut a Ponder for another land. I also upped the number of Mana Leaks in the sideboard to a playset under the assumption that I would be siding out every Vapor Snag against control decks. I had cut the Act of Aggressions as I already had a good game against ramp decks, and Phyrexian Metamorph just felt like a more catch-all answer when taking into account this deck’s weakness to hexproof legends.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) I only faced one deck packing Lingering Souls over the course of four rounds, and I still managed to lose to it. While I posted a 3-1 record for the day, I still felt like my deck was performing below expectations. What was the problem?

In a word, the mana base was shaky.

The normal Delver deck’s main threats are blue or blue-white, which means that it makes sense to have Vapor Snags, Ponders, Mana Leaks and Snapcaster Mages to control your opponent’s plays. My deck suffered from running creatures with a high black mana dependency alongside spells that actively warranted blue mana both early and often. I’d draw hands where I had my early aggression but no blue mana to cast Vapor Snag and Snapcaster Mage, and I’d be forced to keep them in the hopes I would draw and Island or a Darkslick Shores.

In addition, all of my early creatures were significantly worse than a flipped Delver. A Gravecrawler is nowhere near as threatening to an opponent as a 3/2 flying insect with a load of counter-magic and board control to back it up..

When I attempted to retool the deck with Geth’s Verdict in place of Vapor Snag, I was finding less and less reasons to even splash the blue, as splashing for Snapcaster Mages, Ponders, and Gitaxian Probes seemed like a waste of a mana base. In light of all of these discoveries, I ultimately scrapped my blue-black Zombie deck and returned to the drawing board (and by drawing board, I mean the coverage of Pro Tour Dark Ascension).

Dead Rising

While there were no Zombie-based aggro strategies in the top eight of the Pro Tour, there were a number of lists that posted records of eighteen points or better which caused me to sit up and take notice. One such list was a spicy little mono-black brew from newcomer Jasper John-Epstein, who took 50th place at his first Pro Tour with the following list:

Mono-Black Aggro

Creatures (24)
1x Bloodline Keeper
4x Diregraf Ghoul
3x Fume Spitter
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
3x Porcelain Legionnaire
1x Skinrender
4x Skirsdag High Priest
Artifacts (4)
3x Mortarpod
1x Lashwrithe
Sideboard (15)
2x Black Sun’s Zenith
3x Distress
2x Mental Misstep
1x Nihil Spellbomb
3x Phyrexian Obliterator
3x Ratchet Bomb
1x Sword of War and Peace
Lands (24)
24x Swamp
Instants (8)
4x Geth’s Verdict
4x Tragic Slip

After testing with this build, I can safely say that Skirsdag High Priest does not get the respect it deserves. This list can produce a 5/5 flying Demon on the third or fourth turn with a high degree of regularity, and from there it spirals out of control unless the opponent can deal with what is, in essence, a Squire.

However, as much as I enjoy playing this list, it has an almost zero percent win percentage in the first game against Haunted Humans. Mirran Crusader and Geist of St. Traft are both very difficult with this deck to deal with; even with four Geth’s Verdicts, Doomed Traveler and Gather the Townsfolk create an army of bodies that make it difficult for this deck to deal with the untargetable threats, and often times my opponent would simply hold back Oblivion Ring until I dropped Porcelein Legionnaire. On top of that, Honor of the Pure quickly nullified my pingers to an alarming degree. Ultimately, I scrapped this list in favor of the red splash piloted by Toshiyuki Kadooka, who took 36th in the same event:

Black-Red Zombie Pox

Creatures (15)
4x Diregraf Ghoul
3x Falkenrath Aristocrat
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
Planeswalker (3)
3x Liliana of the Veil
Sideboard (15)
2x Act of Aggression
1x Arc Trail
3x Manic Vandal
1x Mountain
2x Ratchet Bomb
1x Sever the Bloodline
2x Surgical Extraction
2x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Tragic Slip
Lands (24)
4x Blackcleave Cliffs
4x Dragonskull Summit
16x Swamp
Artifacts (5)
2x Mortarpod
1x Ratchet Bomb
2x Sword of War and Peace
Instants (3)
3x Tragic Slip
Sorceries (10)
2x Arc Trail
4x Distress
4x Smallpox

This deck has a much better game one against Haunted Humans, with two main deck Arc Trails, a full play set of Distresses to try and pull the untargetable creatures out of their hand before turn three, and a suite of sacrifice effects including Liliana of the Veil, which is great repeatable removal, and Smallpox, which not only forces the opponent to sacrifice a creature but also sets them back a land; if this is played on turn two, it gives this deck an extra turn to find an answer to Mirran Crusader or Geist of St. Traft, while also possibly screwing the opponent out of the mana needed to cast said spells.

It also runs one main deck Ratchet Bomb which, while not the absolute nuts against Haunted Humans, can at least kill their tokens in an attempt to set up a Liliana of the Veil to kill a Mirran Crusader. The two Sword of War and Peace in the main should also help take down what is essentially a mono-white deck, though the recent rise of Wolf Run after the Pro Tour could shift humans to main deck Angelic Destiny again, which would be a serious problem for this deck.

I’m more than willing to pick up some Falkenrath Aristocrats, a card which I see as criminally under appreciated in the same vein as Skirsdag High Priest. While it’s downright embarrassing against token swarms, those make up a relatively small part of my local meta and the synergy with Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger is just too good for me to pass up without testing it first.

One Jump Ahead

This weekend, the Encounter is hosting two large-scale events: a trial for Grand Prix Nashville and a Star City Games Invitational Qualifier. Both are Standard tournaments in which I will be jamming the black-red Zombie Pox deck to see if it has what it takes to compete in the current metagame. It’s two weeks until Grand Prix Baltimore and I’ve more or less narrowed my deck choice down to some sort of Zombie-based aggro; now it’s just a matter of deciding what my secondary color will be and what spells will be complimenting my strategy.

Next week I’ll briefly touch upon my record for this weekend and bring you yet another one of my Commander decks for dissection.

Until then, BRRAAAIIIINNNNNSSSSSS…