Arcane Teachings – Good Cards, Faeries, and Merfolk in Standard

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Tuesday, April 1st – With Lorwyn tribes apparently ruling the roost in the current Standard metagame, a number of what can only be described as “fringe cards” are finding their way into decks across the globe. Tom LaPille believes that while such choices are good for deck synergy, you can’t beat a pile of high quality cards…

I’m still learning about Standard, but I have played enough to have some opinions. The first thing that struck me when I started exploring was the stark contrast between stock lists of tribal decks and stock lists of non-tribal decks in terms of overall card quality. Decks that weren’t concerned with maximizing tribal interactions are full of cards that are awesome in the abstract; Reveillarks, Siege-Gang Commanders, Tarmogoyfs, Garruk Wildspeakers, and so on. The various tribal decks, on the other hand, had things like Pestermites and Mystic Tideshapers. I do understand why cards like those two find their way into Constructed, but I think that even linear tribal decks can and should still do their best to emulate normal decks and play as many “good cards” as possible. We’ll look at the rise of the Standard faerie deck in this light, and talk a little bit about merfolk too.

This is the first high-profile list of Faeries that I am aware of. Zvi built it for the Standard portion of the 2007 World Championships, and it’s actually a rather beautiful deck in that it plays a lot of strange-looking cards that happen to work very well together. The Cloud Sprites and Nightshade Stingers ensure that Spellstutter Sprite is able to counter things on curve much of the time and give Mistbind Clique small faeries that can be championed painlessly. They also turn Familiar’s Ruse into an extremely efficient counterspell that does an awfully good job of emulating Counterspell itself when the only extra cost is replaying a random one drop, and they are reasonable offensive threats on their own with Scion of Oona backup. So what’s the problem?

The problem is obviously that you are actually playing Cloud Sprites and Nightshade Stingers in Constructed. These are not “good cards” in the abstract by any stretch of the imagination. When you develop with Nightshade Stinger into Spellstutter Sprite into Scion into Familiar’s Ruse, you are going to look like a genius. When you start with Cloud Sprite into Oona’s Prowler and the best you can do for turn three is another Cloud Sprite, though, you’re not going to feel so awesome. Flying 1/1s for one mana get outclassed easily even in Limited, and when your opposition starts with sixty cards you should expect that people will come up with better things to outclass a Nightshade Stinger with than a Plover Knight.

It’s not fair to the faerie deck to act as though it will get a terrible draw all the time, because it won’t. Most of the time, it will get reasonable draws that show off the many interactions that Wizards deliberately put into the set for us all to discover. However, statistically speaking there will be times when the deck misfires, and when that happens it is going to have to use the tools it has to try to win without any of the tribal interactions that motivated choosing those cards in the first place. If the faerie player didn’t draw a one-drop, he might have to return a Scion of Oona to your Familiar’s Ruse, which is much less impressive, but he’s the one who is playing four Ruses. If he draws two Cloud Sprites, a Nightshade Stinger, and no Scion, his job is to beat his opponent’s sixty with some flying 1/1s. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Grand Prix: Shizuoka was the first high-profile Standard tournament to use Morningtide, and Yuuta Takahashi defeated Olivier Ruel in an all-faerie final that showed how much the faerie deck had changed for the better.

The upgrades from the previous model are so massive that it almost doesn’t look like the same deck. New additions to the team are Bitterblossom, Nameless Inversion, and Sower of Temptation; gone are the Cloud Sprites, Nightshade Stingers, and Familiar’s Ruses. Starting from the top, Bitterblossom is one of the best two cards in Morningtide. It also happens to mimic the jobs that the now-absent one-drops performed for the Worlds-era version by turning Spellstutter Sprite into a near-hard counter, creating endless amounts of random 1/1 flyers for Scions to pump, and helping out Mistbind Clique by either providing plenty of championing food or actually being championed. Nameless Inversion is far better than Psionic Blast for killing things other than players, and it has the peripheral bonus of letting you play Secluded Glen untapped. Sower of Temptation made it into the sideboard before, but Yuuta liked it so much that he made room in the maindeck. The card is a very powerful weapon in any kind of creature battle, and it’s even on-tribe so it can be protected with Scion of Oona.

The other huge change that Yuuta made was to fit in Ancestral Visions. Zvi’s first turns were occupied with Cloud Sprites and Nightshade Stingers, but without that pencilled in there is room to play the best card-drawing spell in Standard. Yes, I said that. Ancestral Vision is an incredible deal. Three cards on turn 5 or 6 is often exactly the kind of thing that lets you overwhelm your opponent, and Vision only asks you for one mana on your first or second turn. People who play Mulldrifters and Reveillarks get a free pass, but anyone else who can reliably make Blue mana on turn one should be playing Vision. It seems obvious to me in hindsight, but Yuuta was apparently the only person to realize that Ancestral Vision was a good card in faeries and I can only assume that this was a very important contributor to his rise to the top of Shizuoka.

The net effect of all of these changes has been to propel the faerie deck from being a niche deck to being an obviously very good deck that many players I know think is the absolute best deck. I’m not quite prepared to say that it’s the best deck, but it’s definitely strong. Zooming out, what has changed? The simple answer is that the deck plays cards that are good in the abstract instead of cards that are bad in the abstract. Now that we have Morningtide, enough faerie-keyed cards have been printed that one can find enough good cards to fill an entire faerie deck. The new model can’t get awkward multiple-Nightshade Stinger draws because it doesn’t have to play with Nightshade Stinger, and instead is full of cards like Sower of Temptation and Bitterblossom that happen to have “faerie” in the type line but are just good whether or not they come with friends. This is not to say that the synergy isn’t important, because that’s clearly blatantly wrong. Scion of Oona protects Sower of Temptation from opposing removal spells and pumps a Bitterblossom-generated army. Bitterblossom in turn makes Spellstutter Sprite into essentially a hard counterspell, and so on, but a lot of the time Nightshade Stinger and Cloud Sprite are just… bad, and those cards are gone now.

Zac Hill has said over and over again that there is no such thing as a “good card,” and that there are only cards that do what you need done and cards that don’t do what you need done. This is a clever way of presenting the idea because it makes it hard to attack. My problem with it is that sometimes you don’t actually know what you need done before you start playing a game. You may think that you need a Nightshade Stinger or a Cloud Sprite to power up Spellstutter Sprite, but then sometimes when you get into a game you may discover that you actually need to chump block to outrace some ground creatures that have already resolved, or something entirely different. My motivation for playing as many “good cards” as possible is to have my cards be good in as many different situations as possible. It’s not often that a card like Tarmogoyf or Lightning Helix gets completely blanked, and even though this kind of card won’t usually synergize with the rest of your deck that’s not a huge deal. The holy grail is to find cards that are powerful in the abstract that also have good synergy, and that’s what Yuuta did with his Shizuoka deck.

Can we go further than Yuuta Takahashi did to replace bad cards with good cards? I think so. Going back up to his faerie deck, the Pestermites stand out to me as being out of place in terms of power. To preserve the mana curve we are going to need to replace them with things that cost three, and honestly there aren’t many great options. However, we do have Vendilion Clique, which seems to me like a straight upgrade. Three power in the air is a lot for only three mana, and I saw the Clique’s triggered ability do some truly dirty things to people at Grand Prix: Philadelphia. Its legendary status means that you probably don’t want more than two, since drawing the card in multiples is a minor disaster. However, the first two are a great free way to put better cards in the deck. Rei Nakazawa said on MagictheGathering.com yesterday that the faeries have not changed a bit from Lorwyn to Shadowmoor, so hopefully we get a reasonable faerie out of that set that costs three mana so we can cut the other two Pestermites.

Now, let’s apply these ideas to the many merfolk decks that popped up last week. I think that the idea of changing from a faerie deck to a merfolk deck in order to prey the many Islands that are running around is fine, although I didn’t have time to actually seriously try to test one. However, playing a merfolk deck without four copies of Ancestral Vision is a crime; happily, it is one that only punishes the perpetrator. That card is utterly unreal and fits perfectly into a tribal deck that limits your turn 1 options to somewhat loose cards like Merrow Witsniper, Tideshaper Mystic, and Mothdust Changeling, cards that I avoid playing in Constructed. I’m also confused about how few Sage’s Dousings I have seen in merfolk decklists. Dismiss was always awesome, there are plenty of wizards to go around in the merfolk deck, and with Stonybrook Banneret you’ll get a Dismiss for just 1U a lot of the time. Cryptic Command is obviously really good too, but nothing is stopping you from just playing both of them.

Of course, Gerry Thompson and Patrick Chapin got in ahead of me yesterday with this:

This decklist speaks volumes about where Gerry and Patrick stand on this matter.

It’s possible that I systematically undervalue synergy in Constructed decks, but I have more success when I concentrate on simply playing a bunch of awesome cards. Decks like Domain Zoo, Red-Green Big Mana, and the current crop of Black-Green Standard Elf decks that are barely Elf decks at all show very clearly that it’s completely reasonable to just play a bunch of good cards that don’t have any particular synergy to them. No matter what order you draw your cards in, they’re still just good cards and you can play them and you’ll be fine. Playing a deck that puts together a multiple-piece puzzle every game invites more randomness; sometimes you get a hand full of metaphorical Nightshade Stingers, and sometimes you draw them after the point where they are useful. Thanks to Lorwyn’s tribal nature there are plenty of rewards for playing decks that have puzzle pieces that fit together to create awesome things, but you can minimize the risk of inconsistent draws by playing as many “good cards” as possible. Doing this will make sure that your cards have an impact on the game no matter when you play them.

Tom LaPille