At the Gathering – A Choir of Angels

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Wednesday, October 28th – I’ve had a deck for Standard I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, but other columns have managed to push their way to the forefront instead. However, this week, I really wanted to get it out there for the readers. Why? Because as much as I love the deck, I’m sure it can be improved in some manner.

“And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
Luke 2:10

I’ve had a deck for Standard I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, but other columns have managed to push their way to the forefront instead. However, this week, I really wanted to get it out there for the readers. Why? Because as much as I love the deck, I’m sure it can be improved in some manner. As I mentioned previously when talking about how having a quality playgroup can make you better, I believe that a deck will get better the more eyes it has on it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back into the misty past. [insert shimmery wave effect here]

Our first flashback memory occurs in a Patrick Chapin Article from Dec 16, 2008, entitled “Another Anatomy of a Control Deck.” The article was good, as is typical with the Innovator, but the line that struck me was this.

“Manuel B came up with the same answer he has twice before. Plumeveil. Plumeveil is a pet card of his that he likes to innovate every couple of months.”

That line makes me remember to remember. It tells me that formats run a cycle, and cards that were good become not so good, but they will become good again. Sometimes the question was already answered before; you just need to remember when and how. Right here, most writers would put in that quote about history, and doomed to repeat failures, etc. I’m sure many of you are already thinking it, so I won’t. If you’re really curious, you can Google it.

So, with that in mind, I thought about cards I liked against mid-range and aggro decks from Shards block, and then about the block tournaments that were held, both Pro Tour: Honolulu and the Block Championships at GenCon. Mostly, I looked at what Brian Kibler played at both of those, as he Top-8’d Honolulu, and then split the finals of the Block Championships. Since the great rules upheaval of ’09 changed the meta from PT Honolulu, I focused in more on the GenCon lists. One card that struck me was Wall of Denial. I looked at Jund, and saw exactly zero cards that can kill it. Seems like it would be good in the matchup.

The other part of my blast from the past that I’ve been trying is a card from Kyoto that we all probably recognize, Wall of Reverence. Another big wall, with life gain to boot. Yes, it can be removed, but saying it dies to Terminate rules out almost every single creature in the format. If it absorbs one block, and gains you a few life, it was probably a good idea. With this as the backbone, I sought out a decent Esper shell to build. However, what I quickly came to realize was that Black was pretty much not needed. Spot removal? Hello Path to Exile and Celestial Purge. Esper Charm was the only temptation, and frankly, it’s not worth wrecking your manabase over one card unless it rhymes with School Ultimatum.

Here’s the list I arrived at:

The deck went 19-11 against the first place Jund list from the StarCityGames.com Philly S5K. It started out 8-2, a lot of which I felt was based on the opponent getting to know how to play against the deck, and what his best lines of play are. Still, after that, it went 11-9, so I think it’s a pretty decent option. Let’s talk about some of the Card choices.

Luminarch Ascension and Jace Beleren: These cards are both there for the same two reasons.

First, they provide card advantage and inevitability in the late game. If Jace is allowed to three-for-one you all game long, you probably won’t get there. If Luminarch Ascension is allowed to make 4/4 Flying Angels for zero cards, it’s probably going to win the game.

Second, they make the opponent play differently. Playing against either of these cards affects how you play the game. Do you attack Jace? Or do you let him go and try to take the opponent down? Do you swing into a bad situation just to avoid having your opponent get that fourth counter? Do you leave Jace alone in order to avoid the Ascension counters? There are a lot of choices to be made when either of these cards are on the board, let alone both, and it makes the opponent stumble. One game, they get wrecked by a Jace, and then the next, you should have left him alone. It’s hard to get the proper mental shortcuts for these, meaning your opponent has to actively think about it every game.

Hindering Light and Negate: Counters to their removal and burn spells. Hindering light gets the nod for the 7th slot over Negate because we have far more white than Blue, and cantripping is good. Negate is better against Planeswalkers (Garruk) than Light, but both are going to see enough use throughout the game. I haven’t tried Essence Scatter in there yet, as it seems to be a bit too narrow, and I’m counting on my creatures to answer their creatures.

Harm’s Way, Path to Exile, and Celestial Purge: These are your general removal spells, now in White instead of Black. Harm’s Way is a pretty good spell to redirect damage, and it can redirect away from your Planeswalker as well, meaning that All-Out assault on Jace could end up very badly. You can also use it on your Wall of Denial, as it doesn’t target the prevented creature, only the creature it redirects to. The merits of Path and Purge have been written about many times over, so I won’t rehash those arguments. One play that came up in testing twice was Pathing my Angel Token in response to a Maelstrom Pulse, to prevent the pulse from wrecking my other tokens.

Baneslayer Angel and Sphinx of Jwar Isle: These are your big finishers, and each has its own pros and cons. Baneslayer, as you all very well know, it’s Nuts. I mean, we watched Kibler use it to race and beat Progenitus in Austin. It is the premium five-drop in the format, and will singlehandedly win you games. Unless it gets killed, which is a forte of Jund. With Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse, Jund has removal for the Angel. Enter the Sphinx. (Which would make a great Jet Li movie, by the way) while the sphinx costs one more mana, it also has shroud, meaning that, much like the Wall of Denial, it’s not going to die very easily. The peek effect is not to be underestimated either, as it can be quite powerful. I’ve thought about putting in fetchlands in order to utilize it more, but I found I didn’t want to lose the life over it. If you have sphinx out, chances are you’re already in good position.

As far as the sideboard goes, I haven’t solidified one yet, but here are the contenders in my eyes. This is definitely not a definitive list by any stretch of the imagination, just the ones that I’m going to start testing.

Day of Judgment: Standard legal Wrath effect for sweeping away the enemy’s army. The downside is that it kills my otherwise invincible Wall of Denial, and isn’t really great if they have Sprouting Thrinax either. However, it may be necessary in certain situations, and might be something to consider against other builds or as a counter to Great Sable Stag. (Although Path works pretty well, I hear)

Into the Roil: As a non-land Boomerang, it’s not the best card, but it will buy you time and possibly draw you a card. It seems good against Putrid Leech after a pump, or on a Garruk during end step, especially if it’s threatening to go infinite. Do not use it on a Bloodbraid Elf.

Journey to Nowhere: Considered as additional creature removal, but I don’t think it’s needed, as Path and Purge are better, and both deal with Thrinax just fine. Pretty sure we can cross this one off unless there’s some crazy Ziggurat deck out there. Even then, Day of Judgment seems better.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant: She can create an army of tokens for Chump Blocking Galore, can give a Baneslayer Angel +3/+3 (and flying, redundantly) which equates to a 16 point life-swing, and the ultimate ability will protect your Baneslayer Angels well enough from removal, don’t you think? The only problem is that this really jams you at the four-slot, where I’d rather leave some space for instant speed effects to survive on turn 4 and 5. Further testing is needed, but if it is good in Extended, it’s probably good in Standard.

Spell Pierce: Could be an option instead of Negate to counter Planeswalkers and removal. I haven’t noted how much mana they have open when they try to use removal, so maybe this is a better option if they are frequently having just one or zero mana open, but I suspect that’s not the case.

Ior Ruin Expedition: This is not Ancestral Vision. It is slower, less powerful, and less reliable. That being said, it might still be efficient enough to work. It doesn’t require any more mana investment, just an effective suspend of three. Intriguing.

Courier’s Capsule: I don’t think this is very good right now, as Jace is more efficient and makes the opponents misplay a lot more. Jace also has a lot more synergy with the Luminarch Ascension, while courier’s capsule just feels like I’d rather be doing something else with the mana.

I think that a streamlined, two-color version is superior to a clunkier three-color deck. This isn’t Lorwyn Block, and we don’t have the incredible mana fixing we did back then. Unless you have an amazing reason to go three colors (which Jund does, spreading evenly across all three colors for the most part) then two colors is probably the best way to go.

Let me know what experiences you are having with this archetype, and what changes, if any, you have or would make.

Until next time, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.