Originally this article was going to be some kind of Top 10 list, but that has lost any kind of cohesion, so you’re just going to have to deal. Also after working out my alleged Top 10 I realized I had, um, more than 10 things I wanted to write about, so I ended up crunching things together. “Remand” and “Spell Snare” became “Remand and Spell Snare,” for instance.
10. The Ins and Outs of Remand and Spell Snare
Previous to Coldsnap, Spell Snare was the best card in Standard. By “best card” I don’t mean that it was some kind of Windfall or Yawgmoth’s Bargain bannable babycake, but that it had an insanely relevant effect on the development of a great many games, and consistently. It was very common for an aggressive player to crumple in his chair like veteran tinfoil when the Blue mage, on the draw, showed a Spell Snare before playing his second land.
I have probably mentioned this already, but Spell Snare was initially quite underwhelming in our Time Spiral testing, specifically in CMU (Cuneo or Schneider, take your pick) Blue decks versus Zoo. Spell Snare was out.
Meanwhile Remand has been called the best spell in Standard, off and on, since around Pro Tour: Honolulu. Not everyone ran Remand at Champs last year (I mean, some people who were very forward-seeing, and recognized the power of Karoos in control and stuff like that, might have), but everyone eventually recognized the effectiveness of this card and it became Staple almost across the board.
Like Spell Snare, Remand was under-performing in at least some decks (for example, U/G beatdown against Wrath of God). In our playtest session last weekend, Paul Jordan made a leap that Jeroen Remie separately suggested to me and tore the Remands from our U/G deck like a suckling newborn from her mother’s bosom; then, like a murderous Fanatic bent on killing babies, hurled poor ooh ooh gah gah Remand into the Snow.
As our gauntlets have evolved, my attitudes on Spell Snare and Remand have started to come [back] around. Spell Snare was often mis-played as a sideboard card against aggressive decks (it sure deals with a Watchwolf) until it was realized what a stone cold killer the card was in maindeck. The interesting thing about Spell Snare in this format is that I want it back in my control decks, but for almost opposite reasons than it was originally played.
Rakdos – You want Spell Snare on the draw against Maher if you can stick it.
Smallpox – If Smallpox takes off, you may want to Spell Snare that. You may want to let it resolve early (for example, you can conveniently discard something like Akroma, Angel of Wrath), but late game, you don’t really want the opponent to be able to answer Akroma for BB.
Cruel Edict – Rakdos has few outs against the good control finishers. Unless you have something like a Court Hussar to soak up splash, you will probably want Spell Snare to fight Cruel Edict.
Versus Mid-Range and Blue Control:
Solar Flare Variants – One of the best uses of a Spell Snare pre-Time Spiral was countering a Signet. The only way Solar Flare could beat U/W Control (happy Chapin, Aten, whoever?) was to get a mana advantage on Signets or force a game winner with Remand. Those cards cost two mana.
Any Permission Deck – Most of the good counters cost two mana. Spell Snare counters two mana cards.
It may be a sign of in-breeding, or at least too many repetitions, but if the Blue decks are removing Spell Snare from the main as I have, Volcanic Hammer gets good again [in Zoo]. I’ve been playing without Hammer from the outset for this format. Just a thought.
9. The Evan Erwin Show, Part 1
This is the first of two sections that have been inspired by Evan Erwin YouTube video series. Those of you who have followed misterorange’s exploits know this man loves a Rakdos deck. In particular he likes this card Dark Confidant. I thought of a lot of these issues not just by my own playtesting, but while watching Evan play Magic.
I was on the Maher bandwagon from the beginning. This is an excerpt from my Ravnica set review:
This card is better than you think. I know you think it’s good. It’s better than that. Bob Maher, Jr. is good on his own and better with Sensei’s Divining Top; he goes in beatdown or control… and might find space in combo decks, too. In Extended, he can keep from out-living his welcome with Cabal Therapy, but in a deck with all cheap costs, it is likely the opponent who will try to extirpate him. In any case, Dark Confidant is a 2/1 for two mana, more than reasonable whatever the block.
That said (and most of it ended up true, even the combo part), I am pretty sure that Dark Confidant is the #1 most overrated card in Standard.
This format is notoriously not strategic. Most of the games are about slamming your cards against the other guy’s cards and trying to out-last him; even close matchups on the numbers yield a large number of playtest blowouts for both sides. In a format like the upcoming one, Dark Confidant can shine – it is, after all, a source of much card advantage – but it is also a very dangerous dual-edged sword. In my Rakdos test deck, I maxed out on one-mana burn spells because I think that the correct path is to burn the opponent out with the most efficient possible utilization of mana. Playing a lot of cheap cards (there are only a couple of cards that cost even three mana) limits how badly Bob can hurt me. This is extremely important in a format where you are fighting pressure decks like Zoo.
Remember, Bob may be drawing you an extra card per turn, but he is conditionally drawing your opponent extra cards too. If you flip Giant Solifuge against Zoo, that is like giving the opponent two free cards on the Philosophy of Fire! What many players don’t realize is that the collateral damage that Maher is dealing is extremely significant in matchups where he should ostensibly shine, viz. combo and control. In many formats, combo decks are defined by being able to do command tremendous mathematics… They force you to draw 40 cards or deal literally infinite damage with Goblin Bombardment. In this format if you flip four points of Bob and tap one Sulfurous Springs, you just loosened up Dragonstorm’s kill by 25% (sometimes Dragonstorm actually plucks Bogardan Hellkite and needs a turn to swing). You might not realize it in the abstract, but Maher can serve as a Time Walk for the opponent who is playing a U/x control deck because he invariably reduces the Akroma clock by at least one turn.
I am not saying that Dark Confidant is “bad.” That would be just silly. He was played in the most successful Swiss archetype of Pro Tour: Charleston and a number of defensible Standard decks (if never “the best deck” … and even then you could make arguments for Ghost Husk, Structure & Force, and maybe one or two others). It is important to realize that in a format where Zoo is the elsewise default, combo decks win by tenuous acceleration, and control decks can spring 6/6 haste on turn 4, exactly what it is you are playing on turn 2.
8. “I think anyone sideboarding Freyalise’s Radiance will beat any deck Mike makes.” -ghweiss
I admit it. I love a Snow-Covered… anything. Beyond my acknowledged advocacy of Skred as the best card in Kamigawa-Ravnica-Coldsnap Standard, I have tried a lot of different implementations for Snow-Covered lands. Here is one of the first decks I made for the format, based on Ken Ho’s PTQ Magnivore deck:
1 Temple Garden
1 Breeding Pool
1 Blood Crypt
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Godless Shrine
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Watery Grave
1 Gemstone Caverns
1 Flagstones of Trokair
1 Mouth of Ronom
5 Snow-Covered Forest
3 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Snow-Covered Island
1 Snow-Covered Plains
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
2 Gaea’s Blessing
4 Compulsive Research
2 Spell Burst
4 Crime / Punishment
4 Twisted Abomination
3 Into the North
4 Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
The original version of the deck also had a Magnivore kill, and I wanted to play eight copies of Farseek. I could play Farseek, but Into the North gave me Mouth of Ronom; this was pretty important because one of the key ways the good Wildfire decks from last year would lose to random creature decks was a fellow called Paladin En-Vec, who is notoriously Wildfire-proof.
This deck was really exciting to start because of Mwonvuli Acid-Moss.
It could not beat Zoo.
Obviously the Blue Snow versions of Draw-Go run 24+ Snow lands, but the Schneider / Dumbo Drop versions of Draw-Go should also run some number of Snow-Covered lands if not a dedicated Sheets engine. Check out another one of my early Time Spiral decks:
2 Whispers of the Muse
4 Think Twice
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Hallowed Fountain
7 Snow-Covered Island
4 Snow-Covered Plains
2 Temple Garden
2 Breeding Pool
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
4 Wrath of God
4 Careful Consideration
4 Call of the Herd
4 Rune Snag
2 Gaea’s Blessing
This deck is what I would call “pretty clever.” It doesn’t have any life gain maindeck, but it has a lot of really cool interactions with Careful Consideration. I didn’t really like sullying my Gaea’s Blessing deck with creatures, but these elephants, at least, represented tons of card advantage.
What is the first thing you notice when you see this deck?
That’s right: When you tap six for Whispers of the Muse, they tap five for Teferi and you’re kold.
Teferi was one of the main reasons I went from four Whispers to any Careful Considerations… and why I wanted to play even a couple of Snow-Covered lands. This way, I got to sideboard a bunch of copies of Mouth of Ronom (extra lands are good in control versus control anyway) to at least TRY to fight the Mage of Zhalfir.
So yes, Greg. Enjoy siding in that Freyalise’s Randiance.
7. Ha Ha, Dead Elf
Why don’t people have Shadow Guildmage in their Rakdos decks? This guy is just obviously insane. Sometimes you race an Akroma because you can ping with him. You get to run a clock on turn 1 in games where your plan is Rise / Fall into Stupor or some commensurate disruption against Dragonstorm pre-Solifuge.
No, none of those is the reason you play this creature.
When the opponent plays Llanowar Elves and I play Shadow Guildmage, do you know what I know? I know there is a dead Elf. When I play Magus of the Scroll, I cross my fingers and hopes he blocks or something.
6. Mystical Teachings is Deceptively Awesome
“Careful Consideration is the new Fact or Fiction. You heard it here first.” -Brian Kowal
First there was Whispers of the Muse. Literally. That was the first relevant card to be printed. In Tempest.
As such, and given its pedigree, Whispers was also the first of the instant speed card drawing cards I tried to break (or at least utilize… I am more of a solver than breaker).
Then there was Think Twice. I can’t believe people don’t see how good Think Twice is yet. It fixes your mana! Rah!
Then I started to notice Teferi. Then I realized I didn’t really want to tap six against someone with 2UUU. Then someone, probably Greg Weiss, BDM, or Billy (or all of them, or even mmyoung maybe) told me that Careful Consideration might be good enough. It was definitely Greg who pointed out how good Careful Consideration was with Think Twice.
Poor Mystical Teachings. No one loves a Mystical Teachings.
Mystical Teaching is awesome!
Do you realize you can curve 4 = Mystical Teachings for Teferi, 5 = Teferi, 6 = Flashback Mystical Teachings (it will resolve) for NIV-MIZZET, THE FIREMIND? Mystical Teachings even gets your one Ophidian Eye.
Yes, yes, Heezy. I’m back to Compulsive Research.
Also from the Ravnica Set Review:
This card is considerably worse than Counsel of the Soratami. Counsel of the Soratami was a marginal Limited card and saw little or no Constructed play… but at least you always net one card. Compulsive Research digs one card deeper than Counsel of the Soratami but only nets a card if you discard a land; elsewise you are just breaking even. Unless you are playing some sort of reanimation strategy, core Blue modus operandi is to draw cards and play lands while playing one-for-one answers… which is why card advantage via card drawing is good in the first place.
I don’t know. Compare this card to Probe without the possibility of kicker… Possibly there will be some sort of reanimation theme deck that is desperate for a three mana Careful Study or a Block deck that has no other options for early-to-mid turn selection. Otherwise, I rate this card:
– The Resident Genius
5. U/G? WTF? Really?
U/G, the deck I initially said I would have no interest in playing, keeps coming back (see playtest results at the bottom). Psionic Blast is just unbelievable in this deck. Working with Heezy, I realized this deck is just Heezy Street. It’s all good creatures and Cloaks. It has exactly four Chars for creature kill. Rakdos is supposed to be the stock offensive deck that can beat anything, but U/G can really beat anything (well, not Rakdos, really… Our playtest Rakdos and U/G decks are on opposite sides of the same 60).
Once Paul had a second turn Ohran Viper. Then he had a Cloak. No problem. I had a fourth turn Akroma. He had another Cloak. No problem, I thought… I’ll chump with my Akroma and just make another one… No skin off my back. He had TWO PSIONIC BLASTS for my alleged death machine. I was kold 🙁
Here is our current version:
I kind of don’t love Voidslime, and Heezy thinks not running Remand is insane, even if Mana Leak is better. I think I am going to try cutting a land and the Voidslimes for four Remands, substituting another land with Simic Growth Chamber (better with the Looters anyway)… I think Plaxmanta would be the other cut (what kind of crazy person would run 61 cards with only 21 lands?) but I’m not certain.
This deck is for real. It’s not like last year when I felt like I had an unbeatable Standard deck, but maybe this time it’s about having a flexible and powerful and potentially explosive deck that gives you the room to outplay your opponent, card advantage and resistance to stave off his good draws.
Unlike most of the decks I’ve tested, this one doesn’t just roll over to Zoo. Game 1 is only slightly unfavorable, if that, and sideboarded games are very winnable with cards like Gather Courage and Repeal.
4. Moldervine Cloak is the Best Aggressive Card
We generally found that Moldervine Cloak was the most important card for U/G to draw when beating any of the big spell decks (Solar Flare, Reanimator) and decks like Zoo. Zoo is really hard to beat because even though U/G has two-for-ones like Call of the Herd and Plaxmanta, Zoo can often kill every single creature and win with ten Tin-Street hits or something ridiculous like that; it is also hard to beat Magus of the Scroll in the very long game (though you can sometimes squeak in extra damage and steal mana with Plaxmanta).
However, if U/G can force Zoo into a stalled board position, Moldervine Cloak is the breaker. Josh thinks it’s funny to slug with Llanowar Elves that demand multiple blockers, but I have found Ohran Viper to be the best Cloak candidate. With three natural toughness, Viper is only really vulnerable to Lightning Helix and Char, and no one is ever going to let it in when the game is otherwise in topdeck mode. You get two guys a turn “playing fair” but eventually win because you are the one with the renewable trump. If you can steal it with Psionic Blast, all the better.
3. All your clever decks lose to can’t really beat Zoo
Every Mwonvuli Acid-Moss Wildfire, every four color Lightning Helix Draw-Go variant, every Momentary Blink 1827 eventually has to hit Zoo in the playtest process.
“It can’t possibly be right to play Zoo, can it?” -me
“Why not?” -Billy
Billy’s opinion on this is clearly skewed because he made Top 16 with Zoo, and was at least somewhat responsible for the Craig Jones Lightning Helix.
I really don’t know what else to say, except that this is pretty much true. When I work on decks like U/G that can potentially beat a lot of decks but struggle with Zoo, I just tune against Zoo.
2. Demonfire Defines the Strategic Endgame
It was obviously the best Red x-spell of all time since its release in Dissension, but five months of actually playing with the card – in powerful decks like UrzaTron, on the Pro Tour in Charleston – and including it, ultimately, in adaptative offensive decks like Rakdos, has taught players to win, strategically, with Demonfire.
In a format that is largely cards-against-cards, Demonfire allows tactical decks to sculpt into the endgame by distracting the opponent with anything else… Swinging with Vipers or Guildmages, testing with Cryoclasms, drawing defense with Scrying Sheets or Dark Confidant… anything. It always comes down to the Demonfire. Best of all is when the Demonfire comes off the top.
There are numerous games where decks that are cracking with Akroma from turn 4 can only lose one way, and this is it.
All this might seem obvious, but the subtle stuff isn’t…
When the opponent is playing “no permanents” style, how do you get the Skred or whatever out of your hand so that your Demonfire will be Hellbent?
Say you are playing control. Say you seize “complete control” of a game. How do you keep from losing to a long game Hellbent Demonfire? You can’t counter it, and even Honorable Passage won’t save you.
The best players in Magic are distinguished by superior strategy, looking many turns into the future, and distracting the opponent from what is really important in a game. I have found, personally, that playing with Demonfire has been better for my strategic long game than any other exercise in the last twelve years. When Demonfire is your plan, you had better be able to figure out how to get your hand empty the turn you want to resolve it.
1. Akroma is Clearly the Most Important Kill Card
I mentioned last week that I got my tail kicked by ManningBot testing against his Solar Flare deck. Asher won the vast majority of games, and when I won, it was usually because I had drawn a lot of Voids to clear his Akromas. Now everyone who saw the spoiler or figured out from print ads that the You Decide champion was going to be in Time Spiral had a generic notion that she would be playable in Constructed. Asher, though, had to hammer it into my head – usually by hammering me in the head with his Akroma – that she was going to be a key, if not the key, finisher.
KarstenBot BabyKiller was my favorite deck going into Time Spiral Standard. I have stated numerous times that Skred is the best card in at least pre-Time Spiral Standard (and even Chapin has come around). However the reasons G/R Snow as a strategy was viable before and Skred was so potent are absent in the focused Akroma metagame. Sure, land destruction is great against any deck hoping to hit eight mana, but what about resistance setting up a four mana Legendary Angel? If she hits, it isn’t like with Angel of Despair, Meloku, or some other old school Solar Flare threat: Akroma ain’t going nowhere.
If you plan to do well at Champs, you need to have a plan for Akroma. There are plenty, by the way… Just make sure you have one.
The Magic Show, part 2
So I know the above looked like a Top 10 list, but I actually wanted to throw in a decklist I was working on last week. It is the second of the Evan Erwin-inspired segments of this article, because I thought of the original, pre-Time Spiral version (but adding Sensei’s Divining Top) after watching misterorange’s Battle Royale fight with the Managing Editor. Anyway, here is my Time Spiral Standard version of Reanimator:
I was initially pretty excited about this deck because the present Standard version has actually been pretty good to me. For this version, I added Akroma for two copies of Simic Sky Swallower and two copies of Blazing Archon.
There are a couple of clever things about this version that are deceptively effective: The eight Karoos let you consistently hit mana despite playing only twenty (and declaring a lot of mulligans), and also allow you to discard for free on the draw. The numerous Green sources let you not only kick Vigor Mortis but hard cast Simic Sky Swallower a fair amount of the time. Despite playing no real interactive elements, this deck can play a very reasonable attrition game with test spells and mixing up hard casts in the long game. If I ended up playing a deck like this one, I would run four copies of Nightmare Void and two copies of Life from the Loam in the sideboard. Dredging every turn can allow Reanimator to exhaust a Blue deck’s permission and set up something lethal to kill with. Flipping Life from the Loam at some point will allow the deck to recoup card advantage and make up for any Nightmare Void-driven missed land drops.
The deck tested okay, but not exceptionally.
The first set was a 4-6 versus Paul Jordan playing U/G. A lot of the games were close. Two of the losses came down to having the wrong Signet and Paul having a Spell Snare (pre-Voidslime version of U/G). We discussed changing the Golgari mana sources, but with twenty sources of Blue mana, Paul pointed out that it was essentially impossible to hit seven mana for Simic Sky Swallower without hitting one Blue, and that Black and Green had to come together for Vigor Mortis… It was just bad luck. This sucked because I was up 4-3 after a rough first couple of games, but I couldn’t hold the lead.
The second set was 7-3 over Rakdos. We agreed that Reanimator just got abnormally strong draws, with fourth turn Akromas in the first five games! I was very greedy and considered playing Tidespout Tyrant more than once, but that would have been awful. All of Rakdos’s wins were borne on the heavy burn component of our deck, and it beat at least one turn 4 Akroma. Yes, I got a lot of turn 4 Akromas.
I was quite excited after all the Akromas and decided the 4-6 was bad variance.
It sure was.
Paul beat me six games in a row with U/G, really picking up his game. He was operating like it was Heartbeat and we were in the Week 1 PTQ in Connecticut or something. For real, U/G is for real.
I think Reanimator has potential, and this version has a lot of interesting interactions. If you play it, you aren’t going to lose to a lot of random beatdown decks. However, the deck is only viable so long as people aren’t playing Vore. All those Karoos make for juicy targets, and the nature of the offense is predicated on the idea that the opponent isn’t forcing you to pick up the big baddies for UU.
The Tidespout Tyrants were kind of irrelevant in our testing. Josh suggests Avatar of Woe instead. I think I like Careful Consideration in this deck, but I would also consider Looter il-Kor. If I went with eight 1/1s, I would sub one Pendlehaven for one Island.
I may actually like playtesting more than actual Magic. For instance I playtested until midnight with Billy once this week, and stayed up taking draws on Apprentice until 2am twice in the last seven days; I have six Sharpie proxy decks in front of me, and when I send this article in to Craig, I will immediately IM Paul to fight. Tomorrow there is a 40 card PTQ at Neutral Ground. So yes, I am showing up to test Standard. The depressing thing is that at this point last year I already had some version of the Jushi control deck, whereas this year I have no deck that I really love. So sad. Wish me luck!