Behind The Curtain – To Kill A Mockingbird

Valeriy Shunkov is here to kill the mockingbird, bird that’s been terrorizing the format for months. Is the age of Caw-Blade finally over, and is Splinter Twin the new deck to beat?

Caw-Go recently posted twelve more appearances in the Top 16 of the StarCityGames.com Open. Why the hell is this deck so good? Because it slaughters
both Valakut and aggression. How does it beat Valakut? It has Sword of Feast and Famine. How does it beat aggressive decks? It has Day of Judgment and
Gideon Jura. Wait, what? They don’t run Gideon Jura anymore? Hmmm, I think I have an idea.

A few quotes from Twitter:

(Brian Kibler): We’re also two weeks into the format – not much time to brew up answers and lots of people default to the best deck

(Ted Knutson): Uh Brian… they’ve had the full spoiler for two months.

@bmkibler: I’ve played zero games of new Standard. There’s a Legacy GP and Block PT coming up.

@mixedknuts: So what you are saying is that you won’t be playing Standard for a few weeks anyway, and thus we get the same format?

@bmkibler: I’m saying that lots of pros haven’t looked at the format for similar reasons. It’s a bit hasty to claim it’s a bad format.

@bmkibler: As I’ve said before, a weekly tournament series encourages refinement over brewing. GP/PT is different

(Sam Stoddard): I think the SCG series also heavily rewards top plays w/ safe decks

What can we learn from this conversation? SCG Opens have a great influence on the Standard metagame, and Caw-Go’s dominance is like an avalanche; all
the prominent players (slops to Alex Bertoncini for abandoning RUG and joining the dark side) are working on the same deck, making it better, better,
and better, while literally all other the decks combined get less attention from qualified players and deckbuilders.

Such a situation definitely makes Caw-Blade the best choice available (note the difference between “available” and “possible”),
but there is a downside: the focus of Caw’s development is clearly on winning the mirror match. Caw-Blade was able to consistently beat other
decks for a long time, but now there is a turning point.

A healthy metagame is a “rock-paper-scissors” one, but for a long time, it wasn’t the case—because Rock (Caw) beats both
Scissors (Valakut) and Paper (Aggro). I won’t talk about banning anything, but the prevalence of one deck naturally leads to rise of its nemesis. In
our case, the prevalence of Caw-Blade wasn’t enough to spawn some new anti-Caw strategies, and Caw-Blade started to feed on itself, weakening it
to some extent. So, time to brew a Paper deck to catch them off-guard and finally kill a mockingbird!

If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you
consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. —Lee Harper; To Kill a Mockingbird

What has been wrong with aggro decks for the past few months? I spoke to Eldar Tagi-Zade after his top 16 at
Grand Prix Barcelona with Vampires
, and he said that Gideon Jura was the main problem for Vampires. Eldar posted a 7-1 record against Squadron Hawks in Barcelona, and Matthew Landstrom
just made top 4 of SCG Open: Louisville with the deck, so let’s look at it.

The deck’s core didn’t change much after the New Phyrexia release (probably because of the lack of Vampires in the set), but there are some
notable additions. First, no Vampire Hexmages at all. Hexmage is our best weapon against opposing planeswalkers, but Vampires couldn’t care less about
the almighty Jace, the Mind Sculptor, while a playset of maindeck Duresses solves the problem of Batterskull and Splinter Twin alongside with Swords
and post-board removal. I don’t really like zero Vampire Hexmages maindeck, but to cut them to two in favor of Duress seems very reasonable.

By the way, Batterskull, Caw-Blade’s most promising new weapon, allows Vampires to play maindeck Manic Vandal, which is worse than Crush or the
«removal-in-response-to-equip» play against swords. To be honest, Crush is bad too because killing a mockingbird in response to the equip is
much better than destroying the Equipment itself—Vampires needs to win on tempo and to clear their way of blockers—but a recurring
Batterskull is really hard to ignore.

How about the new threat—Splinter Twin combo? Let’s set aside Twin’s absence from the last top 16 and pretend that we still want to
be prepared—probably because nobody wants to pick up a random loss and miss a PTQ Top 8 because of it. Everything is okay—Go for the Throat
is the second-best answer to the combo after Combust—it’s a cheap instant that can’t be redirected by Spellskite. Alongside with
Duress (and occasionally Act of Aggression), it allows Vampires to splinter their hopes to win.

Other aggressive decks are unfavored against thirteen maindeck and five sideboarded removal spells—and against our own Batterskulls! All these
factors combined make Vampires a very promising choice for the field full of Gideon-less Caw-Blade.

Promising choice, but not the only one. If you read
last week’s
Patrick Chapin’s article, you may have noted his “Where are the Fauna Shaman decks!?” Fauna Shaman / Vengevine is a powerful engine that was suppressed mostly by
Valakut—which is on the decline now. Combined with any sort of reasonable support, this engine could effectively fight against Caw-Go.
Let’s look at options.

I have already spoken about pros and cons of Naya, and, as you see,
the metagame hasn’t changed much since that time. Moreover, the deck has gained a solid addition: Urabrask the Hidden. The Phyrexian Praetor
gives the deck such a large tempo boost that no deck can match it. Updated Naya list is the following:

This is really very fast—in fact even Splinter Twin isn’t fast enough to win before you present them with Urabrask or Linvala alongside an
endless stream of Vengevines. Slower decks like our beloved Caw-Blade have even more problems. An opposing Batterskull does hurt us, but there is a
plethora of ways to deal with it and to allow our vengeance to prevail.

Are these two decks the only non-conventional (read—non-Caw-Blade) choices for the current metagame? Obviously not. There were two white decks in
the top 16 of SCG Open: Louisville, and different versions of Mono Red are somewhere around. Adrian Sullivan recently reported about a red deck that
won a PTQ (and he played U/G Fauna Shaman / Vengevine deck to make top 4). Lists are unavailable at the moment, but I hope you’ve already seen
them. Options are countless, and the format is definitely in dire need of innovation.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re
licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. —Lee Harper; To Kill a

The second part of the Twitter conversation:

(Brian David-Marshall): Splinter Twin was all over it here in NYC. Won the 5K and the PTQ and it looked pretty convincing to me

@top8games: The only way @fivewithflores came close to losing any matches against Caw seemed to be by his own hand.

(Lauren Lee): I love Splinter Twin in the format and truly hope it functions as the foil to Caw-Blade. Still, I’m worried–very worried.

(Mike Flores): Standard is SO good. So much innovation possible. It just occurs at a not obvious level so many don’t realize it exists at all

(Evan Erwin): I want to believe this, I really do. But ‘possible’ innovation is stopping people from playing. We need -actual- innovation.

@fivewithflores: BTW The Age of CawBlade is over. We still respect it as best ever (so far!) but Caw is no longer No.1 let alone a runaway No.1

@fivewithflores: Like I just said, Caw isn’t even the best any more. It will take a few weeks for people to catch up, but you will see.

@fivewithflores: I am not saying my deck is the be all and end all. However it’s ludicrous to believe that anything but Exarch Twin is the best Standard deck

@mulldrifting: 😛 Bold claim. You won the battle last weekend, but the war is not yet out!

@fivewithflores: Unlikely Twin ever reaches CawBlade’s level of grandeur. Just saying Caw is no longer the runaway best any more.

What is the point of this dialogue?

From a long-term perspective, Splinter Twin is a new hope (even if it looks like the empire struck back in Louisville), but it needs a lot of
attention. The old Pyromancer AscensionSplinter Twin double combo is definitely bad. The current Grixis Twin version has a bunch of problems
(with its shaky mana base being the worst of them ). Michael’s U/R deck and various RUG Twin versions are very different approaches that still
need to be proven with results and tuned.

I’ve tested different versions of the deck and still have no list that would satisfy me. But despite that, I have some ideas to share. First, we
need good mana—to make sure that a single Tectonic Edge will not ruin our day—and to play our own Tectonic Edges. That means that we are in
U/R or U/R/G (due to the mana-fixing provided by Birds of Paradise and/or Lotus Cobra).

Second, there are three different styles of Splinter Twin: all-in combo, U/R Control with the combo as a win condition, or any given deck with the
combo as a “Plan nine” to win from outer space—for example RUG (even RUG Control or RUG with Fauna Shaman/Vengevine). I have no idea
which style is going to become the most rewarding one, but all of them are quite capable.

Third, a note about two cards: Shrine of Piercing Vision and Gitaxian Probe. The first testing left me very intrigued by the Shrine. In an all-in-style
deck, it can be easily charged for six in three turns, serving as a tutor for combo pieces or for answers to anything. Shrine is, by the way, a free
uncounterable instant-speed more-than-Impulse! I don’t want to play four because like, for example, Khalni Heart Expedition, Shrine is a bad
late-game topdeck, but three looks like the proper number in the deck.

As for Gitaxian Probe, I quickly realized that it’s more like a Brainstorm—turn-1 Gitaxian Probe is one of the worst possible plays. You
may read about the concept of turn-1 Brainstorms / Preordains in an awesome AJ Sacher article, and here I’d like to
say that I would play two or three Gitaxian Probes in the nonblack version of Splinter Twin combo and zero if I have access to discard spells. Gitaxian
Probe will give you a lot more information exactly when you really need it.

The very rough sketch of the all-in combo is here:

The maindeck seems to be obvious, while there are some notable sideboard options. Calcite Snapper is here because a nonblack deck can’t deal with
Combust and to deal with any sort of aggressive decks; Noxious Revival is for discard-heavy decks, especially against Surgical Extraction, which is
surprisingly widely used.

I believe that this deck (and the two previous) would be good starting points for you to crack the format. Happy brewing!

Valeriy Shunkov
@amartology in Twitter
Valeriy dot Shunkov at gmail dot com