Battle of Wits: The Next Big Thing?

Veteran traveler and Asiaphile Eli Kaplan examines the weighty issue of 240 card decks in Standard at length, and explains his picks for the Invitational.

The title’s irrelevant. Battle of Wits is already the Big Thing, as anyone who’s sat across the table from it can attest. The deck intimidates some opponents. You could have anything in that giant stack. You could be smuggling small children somewhere in those clumps of cardboard. Other opponents snicker… “gee, they’ve got to be playing Battle of Wits in there! How stupid a strategy is that? Anyone can tell!”

This article will explore the history of Battle of Wits and the varied approaches builders take to the enchantment in Standard. If you are allergic to clicking links or long decklists, don’t read this article. (How did you find this article, anyway?) I will link to articles from MagicTheGathering.com to retain my sanity and ability to type. How does a deck like this win, anyway?

The answer’s fairly simple. Battle challenges the opponent. Your opponent doesn’t know what’s coming. Are you going to attack his resources? Are you going to execute every last one of his creatures that hits the table? Are you going to go for the throat and slap your win condition onto the table as fast as possible? Are you going to rip his hand apart so that you can’t put up a fight? Are you going to deck him? Do you have the countermagic to break his combo apart? Every single play poses a conundrum for your opponent.

Once upon a time, Jon Finkel took a Battle of Wits deck to a 3-0 record in the Invitational. Back in the glorious days of Invasion/Odyssey Standard, the deck had access to large numbers of tutors. Diabolic Tutor, Insidious Dreams, Burning Wish for Diabolical Tutor, and Tainted Pact helped you cut right to the chase. Finkel packed card drawing in both instant and sorcery varieties, and backed up his board control with spot removal and discard. He also packed Merfolk Looter and Shadowmage Infiltrator for even more card drawing redundancy. Psychatog was his alternate win condition. The deck was unanticipated, and didn’t lose a game. But Jonny Magic didn’t win over many hearts with his choice, and Battle of Wits took some time off until it resurfaced in Ninth Edition.

(Many pro players rely on borrowing their decks from friends. One reason you won’t see many pros playing this deck is because borrowing 240+ cards is a lot more complex and bothersome than borrowing sixty.)

The first major sighting of the contemporary happened at Los Angeles last year, where Eric Froehlich used the tower of power to grind his way into the main event. (Alas, BDM didn’t finish the deck write-up.) Aaron Forsythe brought his green stack to the table to crush Japan’s dreams of beating R&D. At the Finals, I saw two bewildering monstrosities. Top pros Masahiko Morita and Akira Asahara — possibly Japan’s wackiest deck builder — finished in the top eight with the biggest deck of them all. Ted Knutson pointed out that various builds have been cropping up on Magic Online. The deck’s cost drives many away, so there has to be something there to keep players interested.

Battle of Wits, without fail, needs to play Black and Blue. The “official” win condition requires Blue, and most of the tutors in the format capable of finding Battle of Wits require Black mana. That’s a no-brainer. Is it worthwhile plugging in a third color, and which color brings the most to the table?

EFro, Morita, and Asahara take the route of playing as many Wrath of God effects as possible. White gave them Wrath of God, Final Judgment, and Enduring Ideal, one more way to play Battle. They anticipate a creature-heavy metagame and packed accordingly. All three run the Enduring Ideal utility belt (Confiscate, Form of the Dragon, Zur’s Weirding). Finkel’s build demonstrates its influence here.

Aaron Forsythe, on the other hand, takes a different tack. Instead of having mass removal, Forsythe added Green, and pulled out all the big, burly men that his teammates weren’t using in Team Standard. Instead of playing the expensive Blue sorceries that draw two or more cards, Forsythe added a glut of game-winning creatures. Sure, Kokusho, the Evening Star, or Keiga, the Tide Star won’t win the game for you on the upkeep after you play them. But they turn sideways and are extremely efficient for their casting cost.

Playing Green also gives Forsythe excellent mana ramping. Playing ridiculously huge monsters quickly requires considerable. Wood Elves and Sakura-Tribe Elders are a boon for Forsythe’s mana-hungry deck. The guy even goes so far as to play Rampant Growth. Talk about dedication.

The other nifty little trick to Forsythe’s deck was his approach to utility. He ran Muddle the Mixture, Dimir Infiltrator and Shred Memory to transmute into a tight little toolbox. He could decimate his opponent’s hand with Dimir Guildmage or Nezumi Shortfang, strip his opponent’s graveyard with Nezumi Graverobber, draw cards with Jushi Apprentice, return all his fatties to hand with Death Denied, destroy an Umezawa’s Jitte with Manriki-Gusari, fetch a land with Farseek, or tutor yet again for the legend of his choice with Time of Need. How can you say no to that?

EFro kept his creature threats to a minimum, only running four copies of Kagemaro, First to Suffer. Morita and Asahara conceded to the awesome power of Meloku, the Orbital Battle Platform. (They also ran Wandering Ones. For the love of God, I cannot understand why. I can only surmise that alcohol played a role in its selection.) One can hardly argue with their results, but I’m still not convinced that their approach is the only sound approach to Battle.

One point that lies within Forsythe’s favor is that his deck is a topdeck machine. In a battle of resources and counterspells, his deck simply has more ways to win. However, all the creature spot removal cards in their opponent’s decks suddenly find targets to aim at, instead of lying fallow in hand. That’s why discard spells play such a major role in Battle decks.

I love guys who let me draw cards or make your opponent discard. We have a glut of choices at the two mana mark. Thought Courier turns bad draws into good draws for no mana. To see a 240+ card deck without Thought Courier breaks my heart. Jushi Apprentice’s brokenness is well known, and is ideal with instant-heavy builds. Dimir Guildmage beats Jushi in the late game in raw power, trades with Boros Deck Wins creatures in the early game, and excels at beating up Combo decks. Alas, he requires too much mana to make him worthy of four slots. Nezumi Shortfang’s another easy way to total a Combo player. I’d run at least two Shortfangs, along with a Nezumi Graverobber to handle graveyard recursion.

The White builds of Battle all play four copies of Clutch of the Undercity. It’s an excellent utility card on its own, and transmutes to get you your Diabolic Tutor, Hideous Laughter, or Nightmare Void. Against slow beatdown decks, you’ll usually want to Transmute this for a turn 4 Diabolic Tutor to fetch a turn 5 Battle of Wits. It’s worth considering running a copy or two of Dimir House-Guard for extra searching redundancy if you’re running a strict Black/Blue build.

Guildpact offers a handful of choice selections for Battle decks. The impact seems small, because even if you add sixteen spells to a mix of 140, that’s a difference of only ten percent or so. But every card does count. We’ll assume that you’ve already added the lands to help make the mana run as smoothly as possible. The spells that will warrant immediate inclusion:

Quicken. At instant speed, Tidings is hot. So are Eradicate, Persecute, Consult the Necrosages, or even Counsel of the Soratami. Diabolic Tutor at the end of your opponent’s turn is excellent. The deck runs a little more smoothly with this gem of a cantrip. Much better in the Wrath-heavy builds, but I’ll run four in any Battle Deck. Keep in mind that Quicken only allows you to play sorceries at instant speed. Don’t try anything fancy-schmancy like playing creatures or enchantments. I saw two people screw this up at the prerelease.

Repeal. This lovable bounce spell clears away problems and digs deeper in your deck. The thought of bouncing an equipped Jitte on the third turn warms my heart. Repeal becomes optimal when coupled with mana acceleration. With Signets and Fellwar Stones, Battle decks certainly deliver on that count.

Seize the Soul. This card fits the classic example of a silver bullet. Provided you have a solid Transmute engine at four mana, you can get a lot of kill out of one card in the main deck. Keep the others in the sideboard.

Mortify – Play four in decks with White. No further thought necessary.

With Guildpact added, my current deck list looks like this. It’s better suited for my local Japanese metagame, but don’t assume that this is the definitive build.

The game plan is simple. Destroy your opponent’s board and counter their threats while drawing more cards and making more mana. If you have countermagic, or don’t anticipate your opponent having an answer to Battle, get it onto the table and finish the game up. Your vulnerabilities are hand disruption and mana denial

Battle’s worst matchup is Annex Wildfire. If they keep you at three mana and you can’t stop the Wildfire, you’re a dead duck. Your only hope is to draw lots of Signets and countermagic, or dump a Keiga on turn 5. Winning the die roll is essential to winning the first game.

Against Critical Mass builds, G/W Glare, and slower beatdown decks, you should go for the throat in game 1 and play out Battle of Wits on turn 5. With a second turn Signet, you can sometimes have Battle hit the table on turn 4. These matchups are in your favor about fifty to sixty percent of the time. Most of the time they’ll throw in enchantment hate and slow their offensive. This affords you the time to set up and smash them. If you’re playing the Wrath heavy version, these matchups go your way very quickly. Most of your removal is spot removal, so be sure to take out the major threats.

White Weenie poses several problems. You have Hideous Laughter, Kagemaro, and spot removal to keep them from rushing you, and if you can get Meloku to hit the table, you’re in good stead. Tutoring for Night of Souls’ Betrayal helps a great deal. If they’re wise, they’ll hold back Kami of Ancient Law until Battle hits the table. Don’t play Battle until you have a hard counter backup, or are guaranteed to lose on your opponent’s next turn. If you need to, Transmute to clear away their Jitte. You want to draw at least two tutors in this game so that you can clear away the early assault and finish him off with the second.

Against a Blue/Black player control, relax. This is a favored matchup. You have instant removal to remove their Jushis, more card draw, and inevitability. You have more threats and can patiently win by decking your opponent with no effort involved. You can tutor for discard outlets, and they can’t. Once their hand is empty, Battle can win you the game.

Combo decks fare poorly against Battle of Wits. You can rip their hand apart with Nightmare Void or tutor for Cranial Extraction to break their primary win condition. Most Combo decks these days are slow. Enduring Ideal is a highly favorable matchup, since they can’t match your countermagic base. (One time my opponent managed to get his Ideal to resolve. He searched his library for Form of the Dragon. On my turn, I Confiscated it. My opponent was not a happy camper.)

Thanks for reading this whole megillah. No article can hope to do the deck proper justice, simply because there are so many cards to choose from when building Battle. Building and playing the deck requires more effort and creativity than most archetypes, but it’s a very rewarding deck to play. It bears a reasonable pedigree and puts many opponents off their game. Give it a try. You’ll have some of the most memorable Magic games of your life.

Thank you, you’re a lovely audience.

Eli Kaplan
japaneli at hotmail dot com

Post-script: Stop reading if you don’t care about the Invitational, or the politics of the Magic community.

If you voted for the Invitational’s “Road Warrior” slot and you didn’t vote for Olivier Ruel, you didn’t vote for the most worthy candidate. Yes, it’s a big deal for Oiso to steal Boston for Japan. No, it’s not enough to outweigh Olivier. Olivier is the import staple. I think Antonino de Rosa is a good guy, and I know he was able to capture the runner-up slot. I think he certainly deserves a slot at the Invitational. But Road Warrior, he isn’t.

Picking the Resident Genius is going to be a really hard category. If Zvi was in the running, I’d first pick him, but he isn’t an option. I enjoy writing for StarCityGames.com, so I’ll start off by mentioning the home team favorite.

Flores may not be the most consistent of geniuses, but he is certainly the most prolific. He spills more ink than an incontinent squid. I respect a man of his work ethic. I won’t hold his proportional lack of Pro Points against him. (Heck, I got more points last year, and I’m awful at this game.) We’re all human, so if your emotions drive you to vote for BP Flores, don’t feel bad.

I had the pleasure of meeting Alan Comer at Worlds last year, and he was a consummate wit and gentleman. He’s a genuinely curious guy who wants to travel and play Magic for the fun and the people. He wanted to try to learn enough Japanese to put his opponents at ease at the side events. Miracle Gro is my second favorite deck of all time. Unfortunately, his contributions to the Magic community have been programming for Magic Online, and that sort of genius is not the type of genius we’re voting for here. Yes, he’s in the Hall of Fame, he’s a wonderful guy, and so forth. But what has he done for you lately?

When I sit down to watch feature matches, I always dread seeing Akira Asahara at the table. His creations usually catch both spectators and opponents unprepared. I wasn’t expecting him to show up at Worlds with something as, well, pedestrian as Balancing Tings. He’s been a mad scientist for years, and it’s rewarding to see his face on the ballot. But he doesn’t have the longevity or success of our other picks.

You would not be astray in picking Itaru Ishida or Gabriel Nassif. Both have an excellent pedigree of Constructed innovation, and both are time-tested team Limited generals. Nassif has the superior showing at the Pro Tour level, but don’t underestimate Ishida. He has quite a few top finishes in the Japanese Grand Prix circuit, and Japan has been the most competitive Grand Prix region for years. (Some people complain they get too much hype these days. I beg to differ.) You’ll find his writing work throughout the Japanese magazines. He is a community leader.

The only major credential Frank Karsten lacks is leading a victorious team. He is a great sport, he contributes to the community, and he is extremely methodical in all the work he puts into the game. His fastidiousness and drive to quantify details and nuances no normal mortal would ever bother with would give him the nod, if it weren’t for one man.

When it comes to innovation and squeezing innovation and efficiency into a mere sixty cards, though, you have to give props to Tsuyoshi Fujita. He can build super-efficient, reliable beatdown decks. Give him little red men, and he’ll pummel you. Give him gigantic fatties and Burning Shoal, and he’ll kill you on the second turn. He’s a mean Limited player to boot, and when this man plays, he has fun. Don’t challenge him at Dance Dance Revolution, he’ll hand you your feet. An Invitational without Fujita has no soul. In a field with hardly a single poor pick, Fujita stands head and shoulders above the lot.