Attacking Skullclamp

So what you have with Skullclamp is a whole lot of people who know how good it is going to be and a smaller – but still substantial – number of people trying to figure out how to beat it. The thing is, you can’t necessarily go up against a Skullclamp and attack it directly. That’s like trying to play a G/W deck full of Uktabi Orangutans and Monk Realists in an attempt to beat Trix. Sure, you can technically destroy their relevant permanents, but you can’t do so in a timely enough manner for it to matter.

The more I think about the Standard format as we approach Regionals, the more frightened I become. I just finished talking about how great White Control was in the pre-Darksteel Standard (with Antonino doing the same over here), but White Control lacks a little something that I think most of the big decks are going to have come Regionals: Skullclamp.

Skullclamp is going to be a format-defining card. Think of it as the Necropotence that can go in any deck (well, any creature-heavy deck), instead of just the mono-Black deck (okay, or B/r, or combination deck). Yes, Skullclamp is that good. It takes White Weenie off the laughable shelf and has top-level designers debating the merits of Leonin Shikari plus Lightning Greaves with Savannah Lions pure Clamp card advantage. Skullclamp takes Goblin Bidding, already an amazing deck, and gives it another long game. It probably also makes Elves a Tier One Extended deck, but that is neither here nor there.

So what you have with Skullclamp is a whole lot of people who know how good it is going to be and a smaller – but still substantial – number of people trying to figure out how to beat it. The thing is, you can’t necessarily go up against a Skullclamp and attack it directly. That’s like trying to play a G/W deck full of Uktabi Orangutans and Monk Realists in an attempt to beat Trix. Sure, you can technically destroy their relevant permanents, but you can’t do so in a timely enough manner for it to matter.

One friend was telling me how he still believed in the strength of AnGGRRRy Slug and was just going to add Oxidize to that deck to kill Skullclamp, planning to mop up Affinity and Goblins per normal with the hated Equipment gone. Without asking him what to cut out of a rather tight deck list in order to make room for Oxidize, I asked him an easier dealbreaker: What happens when you draw Oxidize, but Goblin Bidding doesn’t draw Skullclamp? Can you still run with the Goblins?

He thought a second and conceded: probably not. It is a dangerous game to match four Starstorms with four Patriarch’s Biddings, because you cannot reliably match answer-for-threat one-for-one in this game and reliably have an answer every time. That is the nature of threats and answers: as the King taught, there are no wrong threats, but answers have to be specific. It is even more dangerous in the case of AnGGRRRy Slug against Goblin Bidding: you will often get ahead early with a Starstorm, but any post-Starstorm Bidding is generally going to trump. This is also a case where, because of Skullclamp, the Goblins can draw more Patriarch’s Biddings than the good guys can draw Starstorms, making an uphill climb even steeper.

So the plan becomes fighting the Goblin deck’s Black lands to keep them off of Bidding mana. Good luck with that. If you fight just a mana game, you can lose to either beatdown or Skullclamp, and if you draw your anti-Skullclamp card and they don’t play their Skullclamp, you are going to be sandwiched between beatdown and Bidding. The net result? The beatdown deck makes it hard for the control deck to play control. In fact, the beatdown steals control elements like card advantage and slips them in its back pocket for later use. I don’t know if the best deck from States is the best anything in a post-Darksteel Standard.

All of that being said, here is Aaron Muranaka’s Utah State Championship build:

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Vine Trellis

4 Troll Ascetic

4 Ravenous Baloth

4 Molder Slug

1 Silklash Spider

4 Creeping Mold

4 Plow Under

4 Stone Rain

4 Starstorm

8 Forest

6 Mountain

2 Contested Cliffs

3 Shivan Oasis

4 Wooded Foothills

Here is my current build, modified not for Skullclamp decks, but the mirror and White Control:

4 Creeping Mold

4 Krosan Tusker

4 Molder Slug

4 Plow Under

4 Rampant Growth

2 Ravenous Baloth

4 Vine Trellis

4 Dwarven Blastminer

2 Hammer of Bogardan

4 Starstorm

2 Contested Cliffs

7 Forest

7 Mountain

4 Shivan Oasis

4 Wooded Foothills

This version can no longer have stupid Birds of Paradise into Stone Rain draws, but it also has no fear of a Shivan Oasis in the opening hand and can absolutely demolish some decks with a fast Dwarven Blastminer.

But what about White Control? It, too, was one of pre-Darksteel Standard’s best decks. Tower of Fortunes just got a lot of attention from a couple of websites. Can this deck survive Skullclamp?

I think it can. The issue is, once again, having the right answer for the threats at hand. I have this friend who suggested adding Ivory Mask to the sideboard, in order to fight off Goblin Sharpshooter and Siege-Gang Commander. There’s a huge problem with this theory.

Goblin Bidding players use the creature burn plan to get around Circle of Protection: Red. It’s not their primary or even secondary plan. If you start overvaluing hands with Ivory Mask, you are just going to lose to beatdown. If you don’t have the Circle of Protection to start, they don’t even have to go into creature burn mode; they’ll just overwhelm you with Plan A. If you start giving them time by doing absolutely nothing with a four mana enchantment, they are going to gain inevitability with Skullclamp. I don’t think Ivory Mask is going to do it.

You are in a situation where Goblins has an awful lot of aces. They start off with Skullclamp and they top off with Patriarch’s Bidding, which trumps almost everything. Your main point of commerce is going to be life total. If you can maintain life total and restrict Skullclamp, inevitability is yours to lose; if you miss on either end, either he gets inevitability with Skullclamp or you don’t have any more life total. Ivory Mask doesn’t maintain life total unless you have something else propping it up and has nothing whatsoever to say about Skullclamp: if winning with this card is your Plan, it’s not a consistent one. Ivory Mask can play nail in the coffin, but you need something else to put the Goblins in the coffin first.

White Control is in the same boat as AnGGRRRy Slug in the Skullclamp killing department. It needs to destroy this Equipment, but it doesn’t want a potential dead draw. Incidentally, neither deck wants to be in a two-for-three or even one-for-three (or worse) situation with pinpoint Skullclamp removal. How bad is it to take out a Skullclamp as a one-for-one when the Skullclamp has already drawn”only” two extra cards at the cost of some meaningless x/1 grunt?

I’m guessing that the right card for White Control is Culling Scales (I’m sorry I didn’t mention this previously, but I hadn’t thought of it yet, despite there being one Culling Scales in Mike McGee’s sideboard). Culling Scales does several things very well. First of all, it is faster than Wrath of God. If you get it down, you might not even have to Wrath on turn 4, whereas your opponent might actually have to commit more and more cards. Second, it kills Skullclamp with no loss of card advantage. Unless there is a Chrome Mox or Siege-Gang Commander token in play, Culling Scales will cheerfully eat a one-drop that doesn’t come back when Bidding is cast, followed by whoever else is hanging about. Third, and most importantly, Culling Scales is a Time Walk. If you follow a turn 3 Culling Scales with a turn 4 Wrath of God, your opponent will have no possible response except for his bomb. An unlikely straight Goblin deck can play Clickslither and a Goblin Bidding deck can play Patriarch’s Bidding or Siege-Gang Commander. Anything else is just going to get gobbled up for free. It might do two first, but considering the kind of threats out there today, that is the least of your worries. This will many times give you a vital turn to grab some life with a Renewed Faith, play a Story Circle, or mise into a hard-cast Exalted Angel using your freshly-played Temple of the False God.

Skullclamp into Patriarch’s Bidding is going to be an uphill battle for a control deck, but I think fighting on the correct battlefield will go a long way. Did you ever have one of those friends who thought he was going to beat Necropotence by Disenchanting it? Fighting a Skullclamp beatdown deck’s third string with your sideboard is the same kind of strategic misstep. Go down that road and you will not only lose, you might not even realize why.

A much more dangerous way to attack the Skullclamp problem is to hit everything but the Skullclamp simultaneously. If the opponent has no mana, he can’t play or activate the Skullclamp. If all his creatures are dead, he can’t equip any of them. If he is dead, all of this is moot and you move onto the next round anyway. With that philosophy in mind, I made this deck:

4 Chrome Mox

4 Pyrite Spellbomb

4 Blistering Firecat

4 Dwarven Blastminer

4 Hammer of Bogardan

4 Molten Rain

4 Slith Firewalker

4 Shock

4 Stone Rain

2 Viashino Sandstalker

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

18 Mountain

Turn 1 Slith Firewalker, turn 2 Molten Rain is a fine way to start a game win. Your best draw beats their best draw. Turn 1 Dwarven Blastminer backed up by turn 2 Molten Rain is going to kick even White Control into the not enough land zone. Besides being able to control both tempo and the opponent’s board development, this deck has great options in the side… Flashfires for White Control, Detonate and probably Echoing Ruin for Affinity, Flamebreak for stragglers. But the deck still has many identifiable issues:

First of all, it’s a little mana heavy for a beatdown deck. To fix that, I have Hammer of Bogardan to eat up my late game mana and close the deal against most control decks. Nevertheless, the deck probably has too many Hammers… but also doesn’t want to lose the only one it happens to draw to Scrabbling Claws. It also doesn’t want to cut any burn. I considered playing with a couple of Electrostatic Bolts in lieu of two Hammers, but they seem too inconsistent to me. While pretty good against Goblins and Affinity, I can’t imagine drawing one against White Control or AnGGRRRy Slug… Oh wait. Yes I can. And I don’t like the thought of that one bit.

The deck is probably pretty weak against random creature decks. Adrian Sullivan, defending Wisconsin State Champion and champion of bad Red decks in general ate the big 0-2 with his Chrome Mox / Slith Firewalker deck at States this year because he got paired against two kids who hadn’t got the memo that White Weenie isn’t very good. Now that White Weenie might actually be pretty good, things like Sliver Knight / Worship and Leonin Shikari tricks become more relevant, while decks like this one become less attractive.

Speaking of decks”like this one,” there are a lot of disincentives to its style of play in post-Darksteel Standard. Affinity can kill you in four turns and everyone fears the Goblin rush, but if those guys misfire, they can still take control of the midgame with Skullclamp and reach. While it has reach to spare, this deck doesn’t have Skullclamp, and despite Seth Burn wanting to add it, wouldn’t use that card very consistently: there aren’t that many guys, and Blistering Firecat just ain’t that sexy on five. While this deck has potentially a better best draw than everyone else, it can hit one-trick-pony land pretty quickly. Turn 1 Slith Firewalker is very good; turn 7 Slith Firewalker is not. Turn 1 Dwarven Blastminer will thrash Affinity; turn 5 Dwarven Blastminer will pray for the opportunity to block Myr Enforcer. Molten Rain on your turn one Secluded Steppe is quite nice; Molten Rain on your fourth Cloudpost is just embarrassing.

Seth also asked me why, if I have so much mana, I have Viashino Sandstalker instead of the Bladewing. Viashino Sandstalker does twelve to sixteen damage in the span of time it takes for Rorix to come and play, and most non-Red control decks can’t even kill him. Rorix can do six and then buy an Akroma’s Vengeance, but Viashino Sandstalker is going to close the deal while laughing at the sorceries that the other guy is gripping. Don’t get me wrong. I still like this deck, and decks like it in general. I just don’t know if it’s a better choice for nine rounds of Swiss than the decks that have a Skullclamp midgame.

For your inspiration in the endeavor of beating Skullclamp, here is an”anti” deck the great bschneid once gave me, along with the following instructions:

1. Don’t ask any questions.

2. Don’t change any cards.

Suicide King – Brian Schneider, Extended 1999

4 Cursed Scroll

4 Sphere of Resistance

4 Carnophage

4 Dark Ritual

4 Demonic Consultation

4 Duress

2 Flesh Reaver

4 Hymn to Tourach

4 Sarcomancy

4 Skittering Skirge

4 Mishra’s Factory

14 Swamp

4 Wasteland


4 Dystopia

4 Engineered Plague

4 Funeral Charm

3 Spinning Darkness

But bschneid, didn’t Sligh just win the GP last weekend?

What is instruction #1?

It was the spring of 1999. High Tide was the dominant deck. It was winning almost everything, placing highly in every tournament, and an automatic opponent. The above deck had a reasonably fast offensive clock, but paired that with disruptive elements that attacked High Tide’s primary strategy. Duress and Hymn to Tourach could stunt their development before they could set up a Time Spiral while Sphere of Resistance would undo the first High Tide. The deck was fast enough offensively to constrict the opponent’s turns such that he would be unable to assemble the necessary tools to recover after the initial onslaught. It wasn’t great against much of anything else, but man oh man did Suicide King beat High Tide.

It’s strange therefore that I playtested with Mike Donais (TO for the PTQ and my then-teammate), lost almost all the games v. his High Tide deck, earning a”well, we do have side events,” before entering the event. It’s doubly strange that I ran my Flesh Reavers and eight life-gobbling zombies into Sligh rounds one and two, won a Game Three where my only permanent was a Wasteland while the other guy’s board included a Spike Weaver, Lifeforce, Verdant Force, Uktabi Orangutan, and tons of untapped Green, and never saw a Time Spiral until the semifinals. With no out against The Rack, I had to fight through Pox into Kaervek’s Spite at least three times. But the point is, that Sphere of Resistance was somewhat above average at turning off High Tide’s mana production… even if I did drop Game Two to that High Tide guy. I guess it was a good rogue deck.

Bonus Section (that Knut did not include in my previous article, for shame, for shame):

There is a long tradition among Magic players of passing books around to their friends (kind of like VD, but books instead of VD, and largely not involving chicks or sex). Examples include Jon Becker giving his Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels to Donnie Gallitz, and later to me (and my never giving them back), or my giving my Ender and Bean books to Brian Kibler (who also never gave them back), or John Shuler copying my wife and buying Einstein’s Dreams… then giving said novel to Mike Aten, who tried to mail it back after about a year (after Shuler had bought another copy). Because Magic players often have similar tastes in things, both fantasy-oriented and geek-oriented, this practice gives especially the literary minded among us an outlet of community for discussion. I know that when I share His Dark Materials with Brian David-Marshall, I will have an intelligent person with similar interests with whom to discuss the third book’s controversial ending; recently at a BBQ dinner, I had the pleasure of discussing the politics, motivations and characters of A Song of Ice and Fire with Tony Tsai… and had one of the few non-Magic-related conversations I’ve ever had with Jon Sonne.

So anyway, I not long ago finished The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I can say without reservation that this is the best novel I have ever had the opportunity to read. Fans of Orson Scott Card will see that this book has essentially the same plot as his Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel Speaker for the Dead: discussions of relative aging and light speed travel, the convergent evolution of multiple sentient species on a faraway planet, and even Catholic missionary heroes. Stylistically, this book ignores many of the conventions of storytelling that I happen to think of as good writing. It skips around a lot in terms of point of view, there are extended periods of exposition, and I find myself often quite curious at the nature of the narrator. That being said, it is an exceptional effort from a first time novelist, whose skill with foreshadow, pace, and surprise is breathtaking. Though she lays out the tragedy of the story from the beginning of the book, I was nevertheless in literal physical pain at the point of dramatic climax.

I cannot recommend this book more. The Sparrow has, for me, knocked Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Shipping News off of their longtime shared pedestal.

[I second Mike’s recommendation here, as does my wife, who isn’t a huge fan of Fantasy or Sci-Fi, but simply loves amazing stories. – Knut]