Battle Royale: The Second Inquisition

Chris has presented his deck… now it’s the turn of Richard. In this Sunday’s Battle Royale, only one can survive to the next round. Where do your loyalties lie?

“I need a non-pro sometime-PTQ player who’s up for doing a series of articles with Chris Romeo.”
Craig, via email

Huh. Wonder what the ol’ editor’s up to this time. Well, I guess I fit the job description; might as well email him back.

“A series of articles” sounded innocent. They always do. Little did I know what the nefarious Scousemaster had in mind. Here’s what he told me, in case you haven’t already read about the challenge in Romeo’s article.

  • Chris and I each have $25 (read: 25 event tickets) with which to build a Standard deck on Magic Online. (It is assumed that all Standard-legal commons can be acquired for free through giveaway channels, casual trading, and so forth.)
  • We each submit independent articles explaining how our decks work; these articles are published at the same time so that neither of us can read the other’s piece until after having already submitted his own.
  • Having now seen each others’ decks, we meet on Magic Online to battle to the death in a best-of-five match.
  • Here’s the best part: The match will be held on Sunday 18th June at 9.30pm, in the “Anything Goes” room of MTGO’s Casual Games area. The entire StarCityGames.com readership is invited to come spectate!

That’s a lot of readers.

… So no pressure, right? My first-ever competitive budget deck, up against quite possibly the most prolific budget deckbuilder on the planet… and the whole world gets to watch the match live on MTGO. Kickass!

Luckily, I’m the type who works well under pressure.

“Let’s do this,” I say aloud, then crack my knuckles, stretch my neck to either side, and boot up MTGO.

I. Building the Deck

My first instinct is to try and find an expensive, powerful rare that I can play extra copies of by tutoring for it. Meloku isn’t cheap, but Time of Need sure is. Jitte isn’t cheap, but Godo sure is. That way I can play all the busted rares I want, albeit a turn or two later than I’m used to playing them.

Turns out Jitte is in the neighborhood of 9 tickets, and playing multiple legends so that Time of Need doesn’t blow after the one Meloku is used up would be even more expensive than the Jitte. So much for that plan.

Then it dawned on me that I won’t be having access to any kind of dual lands or painlands; a single dual land would take up almost all of my $25 budget by itself. For a second there, I had a horrible flashback to last year’s Mirrodin-Kamigawa Standard, where nearly every deck was monocolored because the only playable non-Green mana fixers in the format (including lands) were the Talismans and Wayfarer’s Bauble. Shudder.

Luckily, the Ravnica bouncelands are common (and thus free), so I made a mental note to play four of those in whatever deck I chose, unless I decided on a fast aggro deck of some sort.

But wait – a fast aggro deck? Me? Hell with that. I’ve never been a turn-all-my-men-sideways kind of guy, and very well may never be. The fastest aggro deck I’ve taken to a real tournament was the B/W deck I played at Regionals this year, and even that was slow enough to play four bouncelands.

So I want to play a control deck, most likely. But what to use as a finisher? All the quality ones are really expensive, and I can’t settle for a slow-but-effective one if Romeo goes for a lightning-fast beatdown approach. Cerulean Sphinx maybe? He’s no Tide Star, but he does have the stats and the evasion to get the job done, as long as he doesn’t get killed. Of course, by that logic, Jugan starts looking pretty enticing…

… Blech. There’s got to be something better out there.

I start absently scrolling through the price listings on the MTGO marketplace while pondering potential finishers, until something catches my eye and my jaw drops to the floor.

Firemane Angel2 tickets?

That’s game, boys.

The first deck I ever wrote about for this Standard season was a hot little number called The Spanish Inquisition. I played it at States and was banished to the draw bracket after I refused to concede to a triple-Cranial Extraction draw in game 2 (to be fair, the guy was on one life so I still thought I could finish); I lost anyway, and then ran out of time for game 3. The deck was too slow to escape the endless control mirrors of the draw bracket, so I fell out of contention pretty quickly.

However, The Spanish Inquisition has always had a warm place in my heart. There’s nothing quite like attacking with Genju of the Fields when you have ten mana open and Searing Meditation on the table. (For those unfamiliar with this situation: You get an extra “gain 2 life” trigger each time you activate Genju of the Fields, and each of these in turn gives you another Searing Meditation trigger. It’s a neat little arrangement.)

But wait… Wrath of God is a billion tickets, and I can’t hope to play creature control without a good board sweeper. Final Judgment and Hour of Reckoning are too slow for what I want, so I’m going to have to look elsewhere – including to other colors.

The three clear options are to head towards Pyroclasm, towards Savage Twister, and towards Culling Sun. Pyro and Sun aren’t flexible enough; I want the ability to kill big guys in the late game against other control decks if I needed to, or else I’m going to be stuck with dead cards in matchups where card advantage is crucial.

That means I’ll be splashing Green for Savage Twister, which has the side benefit of letting me play the cheapest and most effective card selection engine in the format. Say it with me now:

4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Kodama’s Reach

That’s power on a budget, my friends.

I cut the original TSI’s less synergistic support cards (Kumano, Devouring Light, Journeyer’s Kite) and a couple of lands to fit in the Tops, Elders, and Reaches. I massaged in a couple of Vitu-Ghazis for additional late-game card advantage, and the rest of the deck fell naturally into place from the original version.

II. Purchasing the Deck

The playsets of Boiling Seas and the pair of City-Trees all fit inside a bulk purchase from a 10-for-1 uncommon bot. (I picked up four extra cards while I was at it to complete the set of 10.) I was surprised that Vitu-Ghazi had fallen in value far enough to be considered a bulk uncommon, but apparently it’s just not seeing the kind of play these days as it once was. I was even more surprised that none of the bulk uncommon dealers (even the 6-for-1s) had White Genju, so I had to shell out another full ticket to obtain my two copies.

Nobody was advertising Divining Tops at 1 ticket apiece, but I knew I could get a commonly-played item like that on a one-for-one basis if I put up a buy message. It didn’t take long before the PMs started coming in, and soon I had acquired four at the desired price.

Not many people were selling Savage Twisters, and those few that were all had them up as two-for-ones. I didn’t think it would be worth the time to try and find them at a better price, so I accepted that rate and grabbed a playset. Blaze, Red Genju, and Lightning Helix were all four-for-ones, which seemed perfectly reasonable.

Searing Meditation was the most annoying to track down, as it was underplayed enough to make the two-for-one rare bots’ lists, but most of the bots had zero or one copy for sale when I stopped by. It took some looking around, but I finally found two different bots that each had exactly two copies, so that left just the Firemane Angels to complete the maindeck. These were easy; about half the sellers had the cornerstone of my deck going for 2, while the other half was asking 3. I did business with the cheaper half.

I found both Indrik Stomphowler and Journeyer’s Kite at the rate of two-for-one ticket; this worked out perfectly, as I was in the market for a combined four copies of these cards. Mission accomplished.

All told, the deck’s rares and uncommons added up to the following.

4 Firemane Angel [8 tix]
4 Sensei’s Divining Top [4 tix]
4 Searing Meditation [2 tix]
4 Savage Twister [2 tix]
4 Lightning Helix [1 tix]
4 Genju of the Fields [1 tix]
4 Blaze [1 tix]
4 Genju of the Spires [1 tix]
4 Boiling Seas, 2 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree (plus 4 bonus uncommons while I was at it) [1 tix]
3 Journeyer’s Kite, 1 Indrik Stomphowler [2 tix]

Total Cost: 23 tix

If you want to cut down even further on costs, you could trade the Kites out for one Boros Garrison, one Gruul Turf, and one Selesnya Sanctuary. This would save you another 2 tix (well, 1.5 really), and probably would not hurt your chances too much against decks of a comparable power level. Or, if you’re not worried at all about land destruction, and would only be boarding them against control decks anyway, I’d try out some combination of Boseijus and Vitu-Ghazis. Boseiju plus Boiling Seas is a strong combo, after all, and ensuring that your Blazes and Savage Twisters resolve is just the icing on the cake.

III. Playing the Deck

I reflexively started out testing this deck in the Tournament Practice Room on MTGO, but quickly realized that I was kidding myself if I thought I could tango with PTQ-caliber decks like Magnivore on my limited budget. (I did get game 1 off a Magnivore player, though.)

Then again, the Casual Decks room was… well, not really prepared for a competitive deck. I played TSI in there for about three days in order to get a feel for how it played (and to tweak its manabase, sideboard, and so forth), and never lost a single match. At one point some guy showed up to battle me with a tournament-ready Gruul Beats deck – Chars, rare lands, and all. Luckily, TSI all but comes with a 2-0 money-back guarantee against aggro decks, so I got to end what must have been a lengthy winning streak for the clown who brought the Pro Tour-winning deck to the casual room.

Anyway, here’s how the deck works.

Against aggro, the plan is to get rid of their small fry with early shots from Lightning Helix, Blaze, and Savage Twister, then put yourself back up on life with Faith’s Fetters, Genju of the Fields, and Firemane Angel. Finally, you take over the game with Searing Meditation and/or recurring 4/3 flying first-strikers to finish up. Late-game Blazes to the dome (powered up the old-fashioned way by bouncelands and Kodama’s Reaches; none of this newfangled Urzatron nonsense) also become potent finishers after Meditation has softened up the opponent’s life total a bit.

Against other control decks, things get more interesting. Most of your anti-aggro solutions scale up to handle the larger threats of control decks; Savage Twister trades with Meloku the Clouded Mirror and Kodama of the North Tree just fine once you’ve ramped up your mana, or it can take out a Simic Sky Swallower or Keiga/Yosei/Kokusho/Ryusei(/Jugan?) once the game has gone on long enough. Faith’s Fetters and Blaze can be similarly used to take out Dragons and other such large men, and Lightning Helix paired with Searing Meditation (for five total damage at the fatty of your choice) can often do the same.

You’ve also got Vitu-Ghazi, Firemane Angel, and Genju of the Fields that provide recurring threats (as well as card advantage when the opponent has to use spot removal on them) with which to gain an edge in the late game, not to mention the Boiling Seas in the board against Blue. Then there’s the Divining Top; by now, I’m sure we all know how good that card is in those drawn-out control mirrors.

The deck’s roughest matchups are against combo and heavy permission decks (Firemane Angel is not friends with Hinder), which is why the majority of the sideboard has been devoted to these matchups. Even with only three Mountains (plus Elders and Reaches to fetch them), a single Genju of the Spires is a Blue mage’s worst nightmare. (Well, that or a resolved Boiling Seas, I guess.) The prospect of a one-mana threat that swings for six damage the same turn you play it, is unwelcome indeed to a Blue mage who boarded out his Electrolyzes because they didn’t have any good targets in the first game. It also provides a scary-fast clock against combo, where you can start swinging with it as early as turn 3 (if you had an Elder or basic Mountain out on turn 2), enabling you to steal games where you just smash in three times with that guy and then seal the deal with a Lightning Helix or Blaze for two. Boiling Seas also doubles as an effective hoser against Blue combo decks.

The oddest part of the sideboard is the strange-looking mixture of artifact/enchantment removal cards I have selected. Here’s the deal – initially, I toyed around with playing four copies of Indrik Stomphowler, then went to four copies of Seed Spark, and so forth… until I realized I really needed entirely different cards against different decks. I knew I’d need some mix of artifact and enchantment removal present to deal with Bottled Cloisters, Phyrexian Arenas, Heartbeats of Spring, and any other nastiness that could not be dealt with using white control’s new “Ol’ Faithful” removal spell, Faith’s Fetters. (Notice, for example, how I didn’t have to put Circle of Protection: Red on that list.) But Seed Spark doesn’t answer Dovescape, Indrik Stomphowler doesn’t answer Heartbeat of Spring (well, I guess if they just play it and say “go” rather than comboing out on the same turn; I’m assuming most decks built around that card will not play it until the turn they plan to win), Kami of Ancient Law answers Heartbeat and Dovescape, but can’t touch Jitte or Bottled Cloister… you get the idea.

I decided on the 2 Seed Spark, 1 Stomphowler, 1 Ancient Law package because that gives me 4 answers to generic enchantments, 3 answers to Heartbeat in particular, 3 answers to generic artifacts, and 2 answers to Dovescape in particular. I feel this mix is appropriate for how much I expect to need an answer to these cards.

I would suggest sliding these numbers around based on what you expect to show up at whatever tournament you’ll be taking this deck. Ancient Law is for Heartbeat and Dovescape; if you are worried about these two cards more than anything, up your Kami count. Stomphowler is for Dovescape and artifacts; adjust his numbers according to your expected need. Seed Spark is for Heartbeat and artifacts; if you’re not worried about Dovescape at all, but are worried about Heartbeat, go for him over Stomphowler. (On the other hand, Stomphowler does provide an extra win condition if you’re worried about Cranial Extraction.) Scour provides a fantastic answer to Heartbeat, but is very narrow otherwise. Just keep these kinds of tradeoffs in mind when making your alterations. I’ll leave the rest up to you.

By the way, don’t be worried about the low Basic Mountain/Basic Plains count in regards to the Genjus. You have eight search spells to find them (plus more if you’re boarding in Journeyer’s Kite, which comes in alongside Red Genju anyway against control), and I’ve never had a game where I’ve had to replay a White Genju more than once, nor a Red Genju more than twice. Every time I’ve wanted to cast a Genju with this deck, I’ve had the correct land to put it on; just use your Elders and Reaches appropriately and you’ll be fine.

I’m going to hold off on sideboarding and strategic advice until the post-battle article, as I don’t want Romeo to know what devious tricks I have in mind for him until after I’ve had a chance to use them in our match. Heh heh heh.

Now of course, I have no idea what kind of deck Romeo’s going to bring to this fight. Whatever it is, I can tell you that I like my chances with this deck. It’s got lots of powerful cards, a great anti-creature plan thanks to all the lifegain, stable mana thanks to all the fixing, resistance to discard thanks to Divining Top… all in all, I’m damn pleased with the way this deck turned out.

You know, this whole experience has reminded me how much fun Magic can be outside the brutal competitive experience how vastly superior we cutthroat tournament players are to casual players. RAWRRR!

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I’m excited to have to the opportunity to duel against a fellow writer Romeo, you’re going DOWN. For the fans at home who’d like to come watch us play bear witness to the merciless obliteration of my opponent’s pitiful creation, head to the “Anything Goes” room of the MTGO Casual Decks area, on Sunday 18th June at 9.30pm EST.

You won’t want to miss it!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]