Tomorrow is the North American Challenge (when I use the word "tomorrow," I assume you are reading this on Friday, 18 August 2006). As I want to win, or in the alternative "do well" at the said Challenge, I need a good (pre-Coldsnap) Standard deck. After reading the coverage of the 2006 Germany National Championship, I elected to spend the week testing Maximillian Bracht’s First Place Erayo combination / Ninja aggro-control deck, a very different U/G deck than the one the PT: Honolulu standout used to make Top 8 in Hawaii. In case you haven’t seen this many-faceted throwing stone, here it goes:
- 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 3 Higure, the Still Wind
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
This deck plays two unrelated, but individually powerful, themes. The one that guides the majority of the card decisions is an Erayo combination. That is, the cards were chosen in order to quickly reach a critical mass of spells with Erayo in play. There are any number of Erayo flips that can be accomplished as early as turn 2, for example:
Note that flipping Erayo is not a "win" per se, but against most decks of mid-range or more ponderous speed, an on-line Essence generates a tremendous amount of tempo, or more accurately, grinds the opponent’s forward momentum to a halt. Because his mana becomes less efficient, it naturally becomes more valuable and scarce, meaning that Mana Leak becomes a functional hard counter at any point before the true end game.
The second core strategy of Bracht’s deck is as an offensive Ninja deck. It plays eight creatures that can set up Ninja of the Deep Hours with evasion on turns 1-2 (Birds of Paradise and Ornithopter), and Erayo itself is a cheap evader. Whether or not the "primary" Erayo flip plan is successful, Bracht’s deck will have to win, strategically, by Ninja beatdown (actual combat damage) essentially every game that reaches its natural conclusion.
I played exactly Maximilian’s list as much as I could this week, but I will be the first to admit that my understanding of the deck is not perfect and that I don’t comprehend why all of the cards are present, or why they are present where they are present.
Three things to remember:
1) This deck plays only twenty lands; if you run it, you have to make your early game and especially mulligan decisions armed with this knowledge.
2) This deck has no main-deck Blue cards with Converted Mana Cost of three. That means that you can never pitch to cast Disrupting Shoal against Mortify, a pretty important consideration in a format where Mortify is the key method by which the most popular MTGO deck will seek to disrupt both your primary and secondary plans.
3) You must Must MUST conclude games by Ninja beatdown if your opponent actually forces you to win rather than conceding out of frustration. Every decision you make developmentally is guided by your limitations of a) getting Ninja of the Deep Hours through and / or setting up Higure, the Still Wind as your unblockable threat (or facilitator thereof). The Bracht deck has problems with permanents because it has to use Repeal on its own permanents in the early-to-mid games, and therefore can fall behind in a game where the Ninjas didn’t show up, or couldn’t get through, in time to bury the opponent. Though it largely plays like a combo deck, the Bracht deck is notoriously vulnerable to Umezawa’s Jitte, both because it has Has HAS to win with 2/2 and 3/4 beatdown, and because Jitte can kill Erayo with flip on the stack.
I actually have a great deal of respect for the Erayo strategy, even though it is seldom played now, because Pierre Canali smashed me in Standard testing with his U/W Erayo deck, shaking my initial confidence in Aggro-Ideal some months ago. The present format is one where some of the most popular decks are mid-range disruptive (rather than true) control decks, viz. Solar Flare / Japanimator and Vore. Bracht said in the German coverage that Vore is his deck’s best matchup. The fact of the matter is that Vore is but one of several decks with similar speeds that are thriving presently. There are many permission-poor control decks that seem hopeless against the quick Erayo draw, and just as many ostensibly prepared decks that will commensurately fold to the Ornithopter-into-Deep Hours one.
Steve Sadin was with me when I discovered Bracht’s deck on Sunday. At his urging, I have been playing MTGO 8-man tournaments essentially non-stop in my free time to test the deck and figure out if it is a viable contender for tomorrow…
1.1 – B/U/W Ghost Council / Weenie
I can’t say that I had seen a deck like this one before. First I thought it was Solar Flare, then all of a sudden there was a Ghost Council on the other side of the table. There isn’t much to say about this one… Bracht’s deck can’t really lose to slow mid-range decks unless it’s quite screwed on the draw or it gets eaten by Jitte. I just attacked correctly and won with Higure.
Tournament Subtotal: +7
1.2 – G/W Glare
This was another uninteresting match. I love Glare as much as the next guy (unless, I guess, the next guy is Craig Stevenson), but again, Bracht’s deck is very strong against mid-range creature decks… Nothing to see here.
Tournament Subtotal: +13
1.3 – U/W Soorani-Tron
I thought Shaheen’s U/W deck would be a good matchup, but the deck kind of crapped out on me this one. In the first game I kept a hand with lands (Maximilian’s deck doesn’t play so many), Sleight of Hand, and Remand on the draw. Maybe I should have mulliganed? This was a speculative draw for sure, but it had lands, nice early game ways to fix itself, and I didn’t know what I was up against. Really the only decision I had was whether to Shoal a turn 2 Signet (didn’t). I would then have had literally no action, and anyway I was on the wrong side of a Tidings without ever drawing anything.
In the second game I mis-clicked, but I don’t think I would have won anyway, having no real way to deal with a resolved Keiga and no such answers in the top three or so cards. The cards just didn’t come together in this one and I was out-classed by much more powerful lands and spells.
Tournament Subtotal: +7
Deck Total: +7
2.1 – B/U/W Solar Flare
In the German coverage, Bracht said Solar Flare is the deck’s worst matchup, but I don’t see how that can possibly be the case. Soft answers to Mortify (for either Deep Hours or Erayo) or no, it always seems like Erayo / Ninja has the initiative in this matchup. I lost the second game by a turn when Kokusho resolved (this deck has few outs against permanents), but the other two were complete blowouts on Erayo.
Tournament Subtotal: +9
2.2 – U/R/W Firemane Control
The central inducement to Erayo / Ninja seems to be an explosive early game against control decks but Firemane actually has numerous tools to disrupt the Bracht deck’s ability to dominate with either plan. I got the Ninja draw but he had Lightning Helix; it pained me, but I Shoaled the Helix to get in. He had another Helix. I had another Ninja. That Ninja went and found me another Ninja. He had an Angel. The race promised to be a bit odd, with me striking for five and him striking for four but gaining a life back, but I always figured I could chump with Ornithopter, and he was only drawing one card per turn. Then again, he had burn spells and was up five or so from the onset. After a couple of ‘phid strikes he decided he was not going to keep getting face-planed by unblockable Ninjas and tapped low for Wrath. I could have Forced with Deep Hours (thanks Higure!) but I decided to let it hit, following up with a full Erayo combination and fresh ‘thopter the next turn (and my Deep Hours still in reserve).
At this point he had two Angels down (one discarded, one Wrathed by God), and was going up two at a time while I was clocking for two, if drawing a card. I decided that I didn’t want him getting to ten mana, so I started Repealing Signets and he conceded. I was up cards, but I didn’t really think I had it locked up, at least not yet.
The next game was quick. I got two Ninjas early and he conceded.
Tournament Subtotal: +16
2.3 – B/W Orzhov Descent
This was a really frustrating match. In Game 1, I mulliganed to five or six cards, including two lands and two copies of Sleight of Hand. Five or so turns later, I conceded with two lands and nothing else in play. In Game 2, I quickly blew him out with Ninjas. Knowing that Bracht’s deck is very good against mid-range creatures, I was feeling pretty good in the final… and got murdered.
Game 3 was essentially the opposite of Game 1. I made every play, was constantly gaining card advantage and preserving life total… but my extra cards were all lands whereas he drew multiple Jittes to win that war. My favorite play was a monster sequence of Remanding Paladin En-Vec to force a discard after he played an Orzhov Basilica, then letting him play Paladin and Umezawa’s Jitte, then blocking the Paladin with Carven Caryatid and repealing the Jitte mid-combat to eat the Paladin and keep counters off the Jitte (which I then Leaked). Basically every turn was some new way of gaining value… and I eventually just died with five lands in hand.
It’s odd for a deck with so much manipulation to lose to feast or famine so starkly, but I actually found screw-flood or flood-screw to be the chief source of non-wins in my tournament matches.
Tournament Subtotal: +8
Deck Total: +15
3.1 – G/R/W Zoo
This felt like a repeat of the previous Queue’s final… I mulliganed in both Game 1 and Game 3, winning Game 2 in a blowout of Ninjas and Jittes. The other two I was flooded. Being flooded is particularly dangerous in the Zoo matchup because they have both a quick beatdown (i.e. the are not necessarily impressed by a flipped Erayo) and they have a lot of burn to deal with your Ninjas, which you need to win. When you are flooded, one Seal of Fire might be it… If he kills your Deep Hours, you might not have any replacement. Even with the sideboard you are generally out-classed by their early game beats and can’t reliably stop their endgame fire.
Tournament Subtotal: -10
Deck Total: +5
4.1 – B/U/W Solar Flare
Really, I don’t see how this is the most difficult matchup. Both games were blowouts. In the second he got Boseiju so that he could resolve Mortify on my Erayo, Wrath on my team, whatever… Boseiju dealt him two each time and I snuck in the requisite remainder, even playing down another Erayo on the way.
The scary cards out of Solar Flare are all five and six casters. If you get Erayo down, they don’t show up for a long time. Without Boseiju, Japanimator is paying six for Mortify, and with Boseiju, your Ninjas look twice as nice.
Tournament Subtotal: +5
4.2 – G/R/W Zoo
Even with good draws, Zoo is not easy to beat. In this case I got awful draws. Game 1 I was flooded and got blown out. Game 2 I mulliganed into a one land / Sleight of Hand six… and got blown out. I hate the games where some Zoo dork comes over +3/+3. Really, I hate that. I was tilting a little due to the draws, and committed a horrendous if irrelevant error in Game 2. I finally drew a second land and played down Jitte to kill his as-yet counter-nude Jitte, but I should have held back. Both of his guys were one drops and I could have Repealed mid-combat to try to draw some more lands while neutralizing the Jitte equally well, and saving myself two points to boot… It hardly mattered. He showed me Char, Lightning Helix, and some other business spell at the end of the game, being the next turn.
Tournament Subtotal: -4
Deck Total: +1
5.1 – B/W Hand
Game 1 I flipped Erayo on turn 3 and that bought enough time to win it. I think he had Bob, maybe Bobs, but it didn’t seem to matter. Game 2 I drew two Jittes to keep him from annihilating me with his Jittes. Ultimately, I won a nailbiter. The Bracht deck plays – and therefore wins – very few close games. In the tournaments described herein, and all the Casual Room playtest I did with the deck, I found it to win blowout games more than half the time, and lose blowout games in most of the others. Literally the only close games seem to be against Orzhov creature decks, specifically where Higure doesn’t attack for one turn, instead holding back to block, while Ornithopter or two mana force through Deep Hours, getting two in and setting up for the following turn’s Alpha Strike with Higure online. Game 2 here was a slight variation that included sending two Deep Hours and Higure on the last turn, tapping six to get them in, and removing two Jitte counters for one overload damage in a game that would easily have gone the other way – even with Jitte – had I attacked wrongly the previous turn.
Tournament Subtotal: +10
5.2 – B/W Orzhov Descent
Game 1 was another rare close game, per usual against an Orzhov creature deck. I set up the two turn Higure endgame clock exactly how I wanted it against his escalating cadre of 2/2s… and then bit a Shining Shoal via Paladin En-Vec (his last two cards), to knock me to a position of no reasonable blocks against his Alpha Strike and where I no longer had the kill even if I survived his first wave. Dead. The sideboarded games were just Ninjas and Jittes, straightforward blowouts.
Tournament Subtotal: +17
5.3 – B/W Hand
The all-Orzhov all the time queue ended in a great match, a real rootin’ tootin’ shootout. After the first two successful Orzhov fights I expected to win… Maybe I should have. I didn’t.
The first game I lost almost assuredly to a lazy tap. I definitely committed an error… I am just not sure how to characterize it other than "lazy tap." It wasn’t a misclick and it wasn’t a strategy error. Basically I had Deep Hours and Birds of Paradise in play to a Hound of Konda. Opened up the turn with Repeal on the Hound for 1U, tapping Forest, then sending both and getting a second Ninja in play (Higure). I tapped "perfectly" to leave one Green mana to get Birds back down so I could send with evasion for my next Ninja… but due to the Repeal mis-tap of Forest, I had to play Birds on Yavimaya Coast, taking a point.
Now it was annoying and a little embarrassing, but I was on 13 at the time with Higure and probably two more Ninjas beating in the next turn, so I didn’t really care. The problem was that he was counter-striking me and got a Ghost Council with Shizo. I figured I had it when I ripped Ornithopter, but it ended up going down to Ghost Council penalty kicks with him eating each and every non-Council 2/2, and me losing with the Higure-evasion kill in play.
The second game I drew three Threads of Disloyalty, which was awesome, but he kept killing my / his guys with his, um, Umezawa’s Jitte, worn by, um, the invincible, inevitable, Eight-And-A-Half Tails. The third Threads actually ended up on Eight-And-A-Half Tails after an exhaustive battle of Repeals and Boomerangs. He immediately Last Gasped the mighty bear while I was tapped, then LOL’d, ripping a Mortify. Basically he killed my next guy and drew something to hook up with his Jitte – it didn’t matter what – and that was that.
Usually I want to hurl something through the closest wall when I lose – especially when I could have saved a point and likely won in Game 1 – but this match was such a back-and-forth and my opponent was quite friendly, so I didn’t mind losing (much).
Tournament Subtotal: +11
Deck Total: +12
6.1 – Mono-Red
This opponent was a roguish Mono-Red deck. I didn’t see a lot of it because the games were quick and must have been frustrating for him. In the first I got Ninja of the Deep Hours online on turn 2, and answered his successive Volcanic Hammers with Disrupting Shoal and Remand. After two hits I let him kill it and ran out the Erayo combination. He drew twice before scooping to my attacking Ornithopter.
The second game I deliberately ran the Erayo combo into a Seal of Fire… But I had a backup Erayo and actually wanted to get Ninjas in; I got two. This one he actually had Blood Moon, but I made him pick it up and I had Birds of Paradise and had both basics anyway.
Tournament Subtotal: +3
6.2 – U/W with Coldsnap
I realized I had to stop playing in queues with this matchup. I originally wanted to play in 7-10 queues and get in at least 20 matches with sideboarding, but I only saw the Bracht deck on Sunday, and even playing multiple queues per day, Coldsnap went on sale online almost immediately afterward, muddying my ability to play against coherent pre-Coldsnap Standard decks. My belief is that Erayo / Ninja might actually perform better post-‘Snap as players will become enamored of the ponderous and glacial Scrying Sheets, so not only would actual tournament trials become less appropriate, they might err too much on the side of easy prey.
In any case, the first game he kept a one lander and I punished him (he never drew a second). The second game he kept two lands an Azorius Guildmage, and some Signets, but I had every Remand and bounce spell in the world to get him discarding and keep him ‘screwed. It was essentially a non-fight because his draws were so bad… Though you can snarkily claim that’s just how the Bracht deck deals with control.
Tournament Subtotal: +9
6.3 – B/W Rats
I was almost overjoyed when I found myself paired with the fourth Orzhov deck of the evening, especially given an opponent of much lower rating. Yeah, yeah, yeah…
In Game 1 I out-lasted two Plagued Rusalkas to flip Erayo. Unfortunately he had Jitte. Then he had any guy (at first it was a Hand of Cruelty, then an Okiba-Gang Shinobi, then the Hand again). Apparently flipped Erayo is not impressive to a 2/2 Bushido with Jitte.
In Game 2 I made an irrelevant mis-click to not block his Hand of Cruelty with Carven Caryatid (he had two Rusalkas), so I got hit with Okiba-Gang one turn more quickly than usual (I didn’t really have a relevant hand), it was still probably a mistake. This game he opened on Blackmail, followed up with Cry of Contrition (no haunt), and another Blackmail, then Mind Rot.
Tournament Subtotal: -1
Deck Total: +11
I turned a profit on the Bracht deck, but it was not out of this world (and believe me, I realize I mis-clicked and made other small but noticeable errors in several of the games I lost). The deck seems good enough to consistently perform at better-than-break even on MTGO, but it doesn’t give you very much margin. It’s the kind of deck that only wants to hit a home run. As such – unlike with, say, an Affinity deck – small errors are very punishing, and I don’t trust the Zoo / Red beatdown matchups even with Maximilian’s hyper-aggressive sideboard. Besides playing fewer-than-normal close games, Erayo / Ninja is highly draw-dependant… What cards you draw and in what sequence matter much more than when you play very general decks, viz. Budget Boros. Winning with it is, however, exceedingly fun.
I haven’t ruled out Erayo / Ninja, but I probably won’t be playing it tomorrow. Decks I considered / am considering include my Boros deck, which seems to fit in nicely with the current metagame, given its dominating percentages over most of the B/W beatdown decks (though not Orzhov Descent), most or all of the opposing Red beatdown decks, Heartbeat, and Vore. I also made this cool Wildfire deck based on Ken Ho’s PTQ design, but I haven’t put enough playtest into it yet. That said, it seems like a perfect candidate for Coldsnap translation, especially given the huge number of cheap mana fixing sorceries, any number of which could grow up to be Into the North:
Ken’s original deck had even more acceleration, including Gruul Signet! The Confiscates are kind of random; at different points they were more Rampant Growths, Invoke the Firemind, whatever. Ken had two Putrefies and two fewer Magnivores, but I decided to cut the Black and play more duals. Once I had the Annexes in (previously some mix of Wreak Havoc, Thoughts of Ruin, and Sowing Salt), I realized I was just playing Ben Lundquist deck with more spell acceleration to make up for a lack of natural land acceleration, and no counters. Playing a ton of Sakura-Tribe Elders and castable card drawing – not to mention Kodama’s Reach into Compulsive Research, which is just awesome – makes the deck super consistent… I don’t know if it dominates many decks, but it certainly gives you a lot of room to out-play the other guy. Ironically one of my more recent looks at the deck has a million Black sideboard cards, including Cranial Extraction, Execute, Slay, and Ribbons of Night. That’s what happens when you don’t playtest enough and you aren’t sure if your deck beats beatdown, or, um, what exactly it does beat, um, exactly.
My present front-runner is, of course… You probably already know.
After I beat Chad Kastel in the NAC Qualifier with White Wafo-Tapa two weekends ago, he called me up for the list… and proceeded to win the following NAC Qualifier in New Jersey himself! Great job, Chad!
On that note, I just want to make a quick note about my Swiss match with him. Last week I wrote something like "I won Game 3, but couldn’t morally report a win given that it was only via a take-back that I got the second game. I offered the draw, which Chad happily took. Good karma prevailed, and we ended up meeting in the finals."
The way I characterized this match in the article could easily be construed as fraud, and that’s my fault. Fraud is bad. In an effort to not commit fraud and to help clarify matters for readers who, like me, have or had an imperfect understanding of the ID rules so that they might not unwittingly commit fraud in the future, I called up Andy Heckt at WotC.
The confusing point is that the very first line under "27. Intentional Draw" is "Players may mutually agree to accept an intentional draw at any time before the match or game result of a Swiss round is submitted." The sticking point is that, despite this liberty, players do not have the freedom to commit fraud. That is, you can report a draw… as long as there wasn’t already an intervening and real match result.
Now even though the rules say that you can ID at any time before you turn in the match slip, if the match reached an actual conclusion, you are bound to accurately report that conclusion, or it’s fraud. A fraud might be winning 2-0 and giving the other guy the 2-1 for his breakers because you are "nice," for example.
Okay: You swing for lethal. Damage is on the stack. You offer the draw.
Not Okay: You swing for lethal. Damage resolves. You offer the draw.
The distinction is that in the second case, the game is actually over, and you are bound by what actually happened to properly record the result.