A Stake Through The Heartbeat: Controlling Team Standard

Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that Heartbeat is the must-have deck in Team Standard. It’s the strongest deck in the field, or so we’re told. Chad, however, has a different opinion. With Aggro on the decline, what’s the best way to combat mid-game sorcery-speed shenanigans? That’s right… Control. Looking for a deck that crucifies Heartbeat? Look no further…

What to play?

I hadn’t had a ton of time to practice. Okay, I hadn’t had any time to practice. Between Your Move Games, my wife, and the Jadester (who is now two years old and quite happy to tell you so if you ask her), I hadn’t played a single game of Standard (let alone Team Standard) when it came time to pick our decks for the upcoming Neutral Ground Pro Tour Qualifier. My teammates, Anthony Shaheen and Go Anan, expressed no concern over this. My guess is that this is because Anthony thinks I can win with any deck that has Islands in it, while Go doesn’t talk that much and is probably too polite to say something like, “I can’t believe I’m teaming with someone who will probably show up for the tournament hoping the other team passes him Compulsive Research.”

At least we knew I’d be playing Islands.

Go apparently wanted to bring the beats, although he had some Wood Elves deck from Japan that he thought might be good. Anthony was going to play Godless Shrines with some number of Black and/or White cards accompanying them. Our original plan was that I would play Wildfire. Hey, it would be just like my first Pro Tour, except without Tinker, Citanul Flute, or Goblin Welder. Or Academy. Oh yeah, and we didn’t run Wildfire.


So Go and Anthony come over to my house for a night of playtesting. I beat the living crap out of Go’s GW deck with Wildfire so he switches over to Zoo, after which I stop winning. It’s actually a fascinating matchup to play and by the end I think I’d worked out the best-bet plan, but it was still tough beats. It may well be (see recent Mike Flores articles) that I’m not playing the deck correctly, but it felt like I was making every opportunity I could with much the same formula. I’d take early damage, I’d stabilize, and I’d get burned out.

Worst of all, Wildfire isn’t really a Blue deck at all. Even when I won I didn’t feel like I’d outplayed my opponent. I’d just answered his questions, or given him questions he couldn’t answer, and then blown up his world. That’s not really a bad thing, but it’s not what I like when it comes to a deck that everyone expects and has a plan against.

Good rule of thumb: you should have more playtest games with your deck than your average opponent should have against it. (In fact, you should have multiples more, since your opponents have to playtest against an entire gauntlet.)

I mentioned to Anthony that I’d put together a mono-Blue deck online. He said, “Really?” Really. “Is it any good?” How should I know… but it felt like a good deck with which to intercept the metagame.

Intercepting the metagame means recognizing which way the metagame is shifting, and running a deck that might have been a poor choice last week or two weeks ago but is a good choice this week. In viewing the forums and – considering I was headed for Neutral Ground – reading the recent articles by Mike Flores, I anticipated the following shifts in the metagame:

More Heartbeat combo — nearly one per team.
More Wildfire, a.k.a. Sorcery.dec.
Less beatdown, to the point that some teams might not field a beatdown deck at all.
More “utility” decks with powerful midgame spells and search, especially people running Chord of Calling.

So what do you run when the early pressure goes down a notch and people want to do all sorts of powerful things during their main phases? Islands, of course.

Here’s what I ran:

Total Eclipse of the Heartbeat

Before I go on, there’s one obvious improvement — one Island should clearly be exchanged for Minamo, School at Water’s Edge. With limited time to think I never really got past the general impression that in most decks the Legendary Lands don’t do a ton, and they open you up to getting Strip Mined. With multiple decks in the format aiming at mana denial (and running Blue mana), I wasn’t interested. In fact, I didn’t even take the time to remind myself what Minamo did — I remembered that the other one could return to your hand, but figured that any time it was out my opponent would have at least an Island to aim at, so why bother.

More on what Minamo does later.

The deck is designed to slaughter Heartbeat, and to beat decks that don’t apply a ton of early pressure and try to do cool and powerful things in the midgame. The Wildfire matchup is tougher than I expected (I only got to practice it afterwards) but instinctively I couldn’t believe that Sorcery.dec could be particularly good against Islands.

How the deck works is rather obvious, but here goes. You don’t have a lot of card drawing outside of the Jushis, but you have a good amount of card selection in Sleight and Telling Time, as well as cantrips in Remand. This results in a deck that performs very smoothly indeed — smoothly enough to run a Night of Souls’ Betrayal in the board even though you’ve got only eight lands that produce Black mana. If your opponent gives you enough room, you get out a Jushi and protect it. When you can, you draw cards… and eventually you win the game.

Shadow of Doubt — one of Mike’s “underplayed cards” — is quite lovely in this deck. It’s Dismiss for UU or UB against Kodama’s Reach or Chord of Calling, and it’s Stifle against Transmute or Gifts Ungiven. Against other decks, it’s mediocre… but so what? At some point you’ll cycle it, which isn’t the worst thing ever, and with all the card selection there’s a good chance you’ll put it on the bottom of your deck while putting a Remand into your hand.

Another oddity is the lone Threads of Disloyalty. I’m a big fan of running one-ofs if you’re almost always happy to see the first copy. I used to run a lone Misdirection in all my Blue decks because the first Misdirection was always good. It was Force of Will in a counter war, or it threw a burn spell back onto a Jackal Pup. Two might be bad, but one was always good. Against decks with small creatures the first Threads is naturally quite lovely, while in the matchups where it’s a “dead” card there are a lot of three mana spells you may want to counter, e.g. Kodama’s Reach, Compulsive Research, Stone Rain, Phyrexian Arena, etc., etc. A lone dead card in a deck with three copies of Force of Will is unlikely to remain dead. So far, theory has been backed up by practice — Threads was good for me in every matchup. In general, moreover, potentially powerful singletons are always worth considering in a deck with good search.

Speaking of Force of Will, Disrupting Shoal is absolutely essential to the deck. It lets you, for example, play Jushi on turn 2 versus Wildfire, counter their Pyroclasm and then untap. It gives you game versus beatdown, whether giving up Sleight to counter a turn 1 Kird Ape, protecting Jushi or enabling you to tap out and not take four to the dome. It also lets you win permission battles against almost every deck out there.

The sideboard was created on a mix of instinct and experience, and while it isn’t awful I’m sure it can be substantially improved. The most obvious thing is that I’m loaded for bear against aggro Green decks. Three Slay and four Threads after boarding means I can abandon the plan of countering their main threats and just two-for-one them into oblivion. The main danger to such a plan is that they will finish me off with burn… enter Ribbons of Night.

Whether this approach works is still unknown, but I think it should be solid. My one match versus RG (see below) didn’t answer the question, but game 1 gave a good picture of how well this deck can actually do versus RG when it has tools, and the tools are plentiful after boarding. I’ve played some test matches since then (in MTGO, but against decks that seemed pretty standard) and it’s held up well there, too.

Another odd card in the board is Remove Soul. This is a nice upgrade against decks where you need a hard counter versus creatures. It’s not massive against any deck but I boarded it in frequently, and it often caught my opponents by surprise when they had enough mana to force a spell through either Remand or Mana Leak.

On to the matches:

Round 1: Heartbeat of Spring

Remember when I said the deck was designed to kill Heartbeat? That’s not to say I actually tested a game or anything. It just seemed impossible to lose, but it’s always interesting to see whether you’re so dumb you can build a deck to beat deck A and then find out it doesn’t work.

This match provided no evidence that I’m that dumb. My opponent had no answer to Jushi, and I Remanded his Kodama’s Reach twice before allowing it to resolve post-Shadow. I was happy to let the game continue on, since in theory he can transform after boarding, but eventually began to swing with a couple of Jushis, one of which had flipped. When he went off I ignored all the mana increases and had Hinders for anything that mattered.

Quick tactical point: let’s say you’ve got two Hinders and one Remand, while your opponent has two game-winning spells and a Muddle. Mana is infinite. How do you stop one of the business spells from resolving? Simple…you Hinder it, and when he Muddles your Hinder you Remand your own Hinder.

In any case, he finally scooped up game 1 with maybe seven minutes left in the round. With so little time I boarded out my threats in exchange for spells that would be good against the transformation. I was in full control when time ran out.

Anthony and Go win as well, so we sweep.

Round 2: Orzhov

Aggressive Orzhov is very difficult for this deck. The combination of pressure and disruption has always been difficult for a pure control deck. I don’t remember all the details, but he had a clear edge all the way. I surprised him game 2 with Night of Souls’ Betrayal, but it wasn’t enough.

Round 3: Zur’s Angel

Okay, so apparently there is a deck that is even easier to beat than Heartbeat. This deck can’t ever win a permission war with me, and a single surviving Jushi Apprentice pretty much defeats it single-handedly. All I really needed to do was be patient enough to be able to use my Boomerangs as permission spells (for saving Jushi Apprentice), and the win was quite simple.

Round 4: Orzhov

Boourns. Other than an embarrassing moment where I thought I could Threads a three-mana creature, see round 2. It’s not unwinnable, but it’s very tough.

Round 5: Heartbeat

My opponent realized pretty early on that he had no chance, but kept trying… probably to his detriment. He didn’t scoop up game 1 until the round was nearly over, and then compounded his difficulties by announcing that he had no sideboard against me and not even picking it up.

Magic is a game of hidden information. You should always at least pretend to sideboard. If he boards in eight cards and takes eight out, I have to assume he’s going aggro… and bring in dead cards like Threads, and maybe even removal. That’s unlikely to be enough, but if he gets off to a good start he could at least hope to combo me out during extra turns.

Round 6: Gruul Beats

I was quite lucky this match, but the way game 1 played out gave me some confidence that my sideboard plan was actually viable, and that I didn’t have to give up the Gruul matchup. I had my one Threads in my opening hand plus a Boomerang, and while my opponent got to go first he didn’t have a turn 1 threat. On turn 2 he brought out the Sophisticate, and on turn 3 he tried to Cloak it up.

I considered taking the five and then stealing his 5/4 on my turn. If he burns it he wastes his fourth turn and gives up three cards for one, but I was less sanguine about the prospect of Giant Solifuge taking me down to eleven. I’d still be in solid shape as I could untap with mana up and a 5/4 blocker — better still, if he trades creatures I could then Boomerang the Threads.

That’s a tempting plan but I don’t think it’s optimal. I Boomeranged the Sophisticate, meaning I played my third land facing an empty board and with me at twenty life and still holding Threads. That’s a pretty sweet position to be in, and eventually Threads took a different Cloaked creature.

Game 2 he double-mulliganed and then drew lots of land. I stole one creature, and Boomeranged the Threads when it was trading with another. When he finally resolved a Burning-Tree Shaman I went back up to eighteen life and drew a card off it, while still holding two Threads (one of which he knew about) in hand, as well as a Disrupting Shoal.

By the way, if you’re wondering how my team did… every round I lost we all lost and every round I won we all won. It wasn’t matchups, as far as I can tell… it just worked out that way.

Round 7: Izzet Tron

This is a really interesting matchup, insofar as I am completely dominated strategically. His threats are more powerful than mine, and he can even steal mine with Confiscate. That would be okay, but in addition he has enough mana to render eight of my permission spells dead once we get out of the early game. As long as he recognizes this and doesn’t try to rush things (or get a bad draw that forces him to), he’s got me in major trouble.

Game 1 he built up a big mana advantage and resolved Keiga; I resolved Meloku and prepared to fight a tough battle over Wildfire. Instead I made that irrelevant when, after he attacked and ate a token, I decided to swing back with my remaining token and Meloku.

Remember I said we’d talk more about what Minamo does? How awful.

Respect the badge! He earned it with his blood...

After I scooped, Anthony suggested that I should have just made a ton of tokens and hoped. Given that Keiga protects and serves, my game plan would have to be to block Keiga with all of them, essentially losing seven (five from damage plus the one he steals and the one that trades with). In theory that could work, and it would certainly have been my plan if we were in game 3. The problem with doing that in game 1 is that only he will know if he’s got me crushed or not, and I run the risk of having no time for games 2 and 3.

I board in Remove Soul and two Extractions, and… he mulligans and then stalls on mana. I think he had one land in hand when I cast Meloku.

We timed out in game 3, but he had a massive advantage. His team captain actually gave us the victory 3-0 (Go and Anthony won their matches) as a gesture, since with ratings craziness it wasn’t completely out of the question that 5-2 with best tiebreaks could make the Top 4. As it happens, the two teams on 5-1 that got paired up in the last round beat the two teams with 5-0-1, and we finished 8th.

So what’s the final conclusion?

The deck does what it was designed to do — crush Heartbeat and other slow control decks like Zur’s Angel. After one of my losses I jokingly asked the Heartbeat player why he hadn’t been in the B seat. He declared, “Oh, I win that matchup… all I have to do is draw Muddle and you can’t stop me.” I offered to play him for $100 or any other amount of money he cared to name, and sadly he declined. Apparently he thought that Mono-U was the same thing as UWR, and that worse mana, no Jushis, less permission, and lots of dead cards didn’t really change things.

I expected Stake to crush Wildfire, which I didn’t play at the PTQ, but subsequent testing shows that the battle, although favorable, can actually be difficult unless Stake gets a quick Apprentice into play and is able to protect it. (That’s not outrageous, since they may not have Pyroclasm and you may have Disrupting Shoal.) I don’t yet have enough data to know how well it can do versus Gruul and Zoo, but I’m certainly encouraged by what I’ve seen so far. It certainly wouldn’t be strange to find out that a deck full of board-controlling two-for-ones, topping out with some that gain four life, is good against a beatdown deck.

There is another approach, of course. Just as some Owling Mine players at the Pro Tour gave up the beatdown matchup rather than devote most of their sideboard to it, a Stake player might decide that beatdown represents less than 1/3 of his matchups and accept it as a loss. This would free up a lot of slots that could be aimed at Orzhov, Wildfire, etc. That’s not how I’d like to go personally, but it isn’t the worst idea in the world.

There are some definite changes I would make to the deck. Meloku costs one less than Keiga and can create an army, but Keiga is a 5/5. That puts her out of range of Wildfire and Char, and lets her rumble with almost any creature in play. With my bias against legendary lands removed, she even has the potential to serve and protect. I’m not sure whether it’s 3-0 or 2-1, but I definitely want more Keiga than Meloku. (There’s also the small but not-entirely-irrelevant point that the sideboarded NoSB turns Meloku into a 1/3 Flyer with the ability to return lands to your hand for no effect.

The sideboard also needs some adjustment. I think I’d still go with the anti-aggro plan, although it’s unclear what the exact mix of spells should be (I really wanted to run one Execute but Anthony talked me out of it on the grounds that Gruul was replacing Zoo, and most of the problem Orzhov creatures were immune to Execute), or whether eight or nine anti-beatdown cards is excessive. There are, however, some matchups where you really need more hard counters, and for that reason I would add at least one, maybe two, Rewinds to the board. (I’m currently testing one in the main as well.) It may not be the old days where you could Rewind and then turn on Stalking Stones, or power out a bunch of 1/1s with the extra mana you got from two-mana lands, but activating Jushi Apprentice isn’t the worst thing in the world.

There are a few other options worth testing. One Quash isn’t totally absurd — it costs too much, but it would be pretty sweet versus Wildfire. I don’t think it’s worth a slot, but the surprise factor is always there. More likely, one of my favorite “bad rares” from Limited could take advantage of the multiple blue decks out there that are willing to betray their heritage by casting card-drawing spells during their main phase. In the MTGO practice rooms I’ve been boarding in one or two Plagiarize. It’s one of those things that can sit in your hand doing nothing for quite a while, but pretty much ends the game on the spot.

Oh yeah, remember when Mike said you could pick up your jaw over Goblin Flectomancer being good versus Compulsive Research? The Goblin has to be in play (so only a moron, or someone like me, who forgets to read the cards will cast the Research) and you still have to discard. Plagiarize steals the “draw 3” but lets them do the discard. So nyah.

I’m not even going to discuss the consequences of successfully Plagiarizing a Tidings.

Hugs ‘til next time,