Baits, Switches, & Post-Board Strategies

In his debut as a regular writer for StarCityGames.com, Andrew Shrout tells you why he’ll probably be playing U/W Control at the Standard Open in Nashville.

Two weekends ago I drove up north to a PTQ in Indianapolis to take my final shot at pre-Born of the Gods Standard. I was sick of G/W Aggro’s shaky mana base and after a string of mediocre finishes decided to put it on the backburner. This left me in the oh-so-familiar position of flailing about looking for a clue as to what I should play, and among those I turned to for advice was my teammate Harry Corvese. On his recommendation, I sleeved up his take on the U/W Control deck recently popularized on Twitter by Tomoharu Saito:

I’ll keep the factual reporting on a dead-format PTQ to a minimum, but the short narrative is the deck ran like a dream. My one loss in the Swiss came at the hands of criminally underrated deckbuilder Bobby Graves, who I had driven up with. (Remember the name, as it will come up later). He thrashed me soundly with his RUG brew, at one point presenting a board of Xenagos, the Reveler; Ral Zarek; Jace, Memory Adept; and Garruk, Caller of Beasts. Good clean beats and an acceptable loss in what felt like an unwinnable matchup.

After that I didn’t lose again until the finals, where I faced Mono-Black Devotion for the sixth time that tournament. Unfortunately I couldn’t complete the 6-0 sweep and ended up sulking home with my booster boxes, tied for last place and still uninvited to Atlanta.

Despite the tough loss, there was little doubt in my mind that the deck had been the perfect call for the weekend. I later learned that while all this was going on Alexander Hayne took the same deck all the way to victory at Grand Prix Vancouver. It wasn’t until the following day when I was discussing the list with others however that I began to notice that I looked at the deck a little bit differently than everyone else. I kept having conversations that went like this:

"That Archangel of Thune deck is busted."

"Huh? What Archangel of Thune deck?"

"The Saito deck. The one that won the GP."

"Oh . . . you mean U/W Control?"

"Yeah, but the version with Archangels in the sideboard."

"Oh, sure. I noticed those. What do you bring them in against?"

"Um, everything?"

It blew my mind a little, but it seemed like even people who had really taken the time to process the list were seeing it as "Divination-less U/W" or "Elixir-less U/W."  The reality is that the only thing that truly makes the deck special is the way Archangel of Thune allows it to adapt to the texture of post-board games. I had seized on this feature immediately, and in fact I almost certainly wouldn’t have touched a Durdly McDoNothing deck like U/W if it weren’t for the extra burst of post-board proactivity. But after I thought about it more I realized I had a bit of a background in this strategy. In particular, there was something very familiar about the line I kept repeating at the end of every conversation:

 "No really, you bring it in against everything."

The Nighthawk Gambit

In the winter of 2009, I was a fresh-faced college graduate who had just relocated to Louisville, Kentucky and was easing my way back into live Magic events. I quickly became friends with the aforementioned Bobby Graves, who had been working on a very clever Grixis Control deck in an attempt to solve the Jund infested Standard format. Not only were there no Standard PTQs at the time, but there was no StarCityGames.com Open Series, at least not as we know it today. Big SCG events were simply referred to as "5Ks," and Bobby took his version of Grixis to the Top 8 of one in St. Louis.

Here’s a quick summary of the format for those who weren’t playing at the time. Small Standard in 2009 was Bloodbraid Elf’s coming-out party. The most played deck by a mile was Jund, which was one of the first "pile of value" midrange decks to really dominate. It didn’t have any particular synergies, but it succeeded anyway because the cascade mechanic allowed for nearly all of its spells to be two-for-ones.

With Jace, the Mind Sculptor still to come in the next set, card advantage options in blue were severely limited, and most conventional attempts at playing control ended up being beaten into the ground by Bloodbraid Elfs, Sprouting Thrinaxes, and Blightnings. The availability of efficient removal also posed a problem for control decks since the go-to finisher of U/W and U/W/R, Baneslayer Angel, was vulnerable to the Terminates and Maelstrom Pulses Jund was loaded up with to beat mirrors.

Bobby’s version of Grixis (which I and many other Louisvillians also played to some success during the period) neatly dodged this problem by never presenting a target for a removal spell at all. Despite getting such a good rate on its threats, Jund was always stuck with a pile of dead cards, including their supposedly universal Maelstrom Pulses and the Bituminous Blasts that were among their most powerful plays. The matchup ended up being quite favorable despite the fact that the fundamental strategy (Courier’s Capsule vs. Bloodbraid Elf) compared so poorly.

The Vampire Nighthawks in the sideboard however were what really sold me on the strategy. It wasn’t hard for our opponents to figure out what we were up to since pretty much everyone had blanks against us. We gave them nothing to target with Doom Blade, Oblivion Ring, or Path to Exile and nothing to sweep with Day of Judgment. The problem with building your deck to stick people with virtual mulligans though is that they can adapt.

In game 2, our opponents drew far fewer Terminates and far more relevant cards like Duress, Goblin Ruinblaster, and Manabarbs. This was a universal truth regardless of the matchup, and it meant we needed to bring in more threats and punish our opponents for not having answers. The package of Vampire Nighthawk and Malakir Bloodwitch was not just a cutesy and clever transformation tactic but a strictly necessary part of our post-board plan.

There were a lot of reasons why of all the available threats we went with Vampire Nighthawk. Given that the format is five years gone at this point, there’s no point in discussing all of those reasons here. What it boiled down to was that the Nighthawk was cheap enough that it could come down in time to matter against everyone and it did an equal job of pressuring reactive opponents and helping to stabilize against proactive ones.

It often just traded for a card and gained two life against aggro, which was serviceable. But since it dodged Earthquake, it was relatively easy to stabilize with it in play, and the two-life swing every turn made a huge difference once you started attacking. Against other control decks it might seem a little piddly, but post-board control mirrors were all about nickel-and-diming the opponent with burn and then finishing with a big Banefire so the Nighthawk had more than done its job if it got through for six or eight damage before eating a Lightning Bolt.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of a transformational sideboard, but it seems most players think of it as a gimmick predominantly employed by combo decks. This has often been the case because combo decks by their very nature do the same thing every game and therefore are more vulnerable to acute sideboard solutions. As such, it was once common for combo players to assume they’d face a ton of hate and hope to instead jam a big creature and catch opponents with their pants down.

Part of what made the old Bargain and Necro-Donate decks so effective was their ability to sidestep a fistful of disenchants with turn 1 Dark Ritual into Phyrexian Negator. The German Juggernaut himself, Kai Budde, once took down an Extended Pro Tour with Mono-Blue Illusions/Donate, and the most talked about moment of that Pro Tour finals was Budde’s timely game 5 topdeck—not of Donate or Illusions of Grandeur, but of Morphling. It’s a time-honored strategy, and it’s even seen use in Standard as recently as the Caw-Blade era, when Splinter Twin players would tap out on turn 6 for Consecrated Sphinx or Inferno Titan to the surprise of their opponents who had been timidly leaving up mana the whole game for Combust or Dismember to play around "end step exarch kill you."

So if the strategy has been known for a long time, why such a big deal over Vampire Nighthawk? This may seem like a lot of pomp and preamble to glorify a transformational sideboard, but the big takeaway here is that the Vampire Nighthawk plan wasn’t a transformation really because you were still a Cruel Ultimatum deck at heart. The Nighthawk simply created a subgame that all your opponents were ill equipped to play, and it sufficiently distracted them while you went about the business of finding and casting your stupid game-winning eight-for-one sorcery. A little bit of lifelink and misdirection goes a long way toward keeping you alive in the meantime.

Which brings us back to this feisty lady . . .  

Why Archangel Of Thune Is The Truth

The Archangel may be an omnipresent four-of, but it’s not really your win condition. That honor still belongs to Sphinx’s Revelation, which is the card that actually puts the game away when it resolves. The entire rest of the deck is built around making sure you stay alive until that happens. Your pile of answers, like Last Breath, Detention Sphere, and Supreme Verdict, are known quantities, and every single one of your opponents is going to have a post-board plan that tries to circumvent them. The beautiful thing about Saito’s list is that Archangel of Thune in one clean swoop next levels the opponent’s game plan in nearly every matchup.

You’re up a game against a red devotion deck. In game 2, your opponent leads with some two-drops, but knowing not to overextend into Supreme Verdict, they cast Hammer of Purphoros on turn 3 instead of adding another creature to the board. Your sweeper does relatively little, and the Hammer looks poised to take over the game.

Who cares? On turn 5, jam Archangel of Thune and win the game on the spot. What are they going to do, Chained it to the Rocks?

You’re up a game against Mono-Blue Devotion. In game 2, your opponent curves Cloudfin Raptor into Tidebinder Mage into Thassa, God of the Sea. You manage to counter the Thassa, but you don’t have a response next turn when your opponent casts their Bident and draws two cards off of it. You pick off one threat with Last Breath, but your opponent gets in another hit for a free card with the other and then adds a Mutavault to the board and passes with mana open.

Who cares? On turn 5, jam Archangel of Thune and win the game on the spot. What are they going to do, Gainsay it?

You’re down a game against G/R Monsters. You countered your opponent’s Domri Rade and Detention Sphered his Xenagos, the Reveler, but now he has another Xenagos and has Destructive Revelry at the ready if you find another Detention Sphere. Those 2/2 Satyrs are going to add up fast.

What those Satyrs sure aren’t going to do is attack into Archangel of Thune. What’s more is that the opponent will likely +1 their Xenagos so that you can’t one-shot it with your Angel, which will give you a window in your next main phase to play a Sphinx’s Revelation (which you wanted to do anyway) and one-shot Xenagos with a 4/5.

The Archangel even carries her weight in control mirrors. Previously you needed to ration your few win conditions very carefully to work around counterspells. The addition of four Archangels and to a lesser extent the bumped up number of Elspeths allows you to simply tap out for threats as test spells in the midgame, whittling down the opponent’s hand so that your Revelations resolve. Archangel can meaningfully pressure an opposing Jace and if unchecked can actually race an Aetherling.

I’ll be at the SCG Open Series in Nashville this weekend, and I’m likely rocking a U/W Control deck that’s very similar to the pre-Born list up above. Ordinarily I like to play proactive decks just after a new set is released to avoid matching my answers up poorly to new undefined threats, but Archangel of Thune is the cure-all that matches up equally well with everything. So I’m not too concerned with tweaking the list, other than perhaps finding room for a few Revoke Existences. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there!