The week before Grand Prix: Houston, I was scanning articles on The Starkington Post and saw one that intrigued me: “UK Nats Qualifier *1st* With Polymorph.” Even more interesting was another article immediately afterwards: “UK Nats Qualifier *3rd* With Polymorph.” I can attribute one Top 8 with a deck to a fluke (though I prefer to give anything the benefit of the doubt before dismissing it) but two copies of the same deck that I’d never heard demanded serious attention. I read both the stories by Grant Hislop and by Andrew Morrison, and was impressed with what they claimed: This deck beat Jund, was strongly advantaged against U/W Control strategies, and smashed Vampires. It sounded like their match-up statements came from sound testing rather than bluster, which of course was somewhat confirmed by their results at the Nationals Qualifier in England. Based on their praise I built the deck to play online, and found quickly that their claims were true; I was winning a lot with the deck, and it was also a lot of fun to play. Rather than rebuild the millionth iteration of Zoo for the Grand Prix (like I should have) I spent the entire week playing and tweaking the deck because I was enjoying it so much. In this article I will talk about the evolution of the deck to the current state it is in, and then leave you with some thoughts on how to change it with Rise of the Eldrazi entring the battlefield this weekend.
First, Grant’s winning deck list:
In his initial discussion of the deck Grant said that they had tried White for cards like Day of Judgement, Martial Coup, or Elspeth Knight-Errant but found that the manabase quickly turned into mush. (Too many lands entering the battlefield very tapped.) They tried testing a variety of these builds and found that none of them performed as well as the simple version that sported Blue and Green only. I took their word for this then (and later when I tried to add White I found that they were 100% correct.) The next point they made was that games where they started with an Explore were much better than any other game. Indeed, a lot of the power in this deck comes from games where you resolve a Polymorph or a planeswalker on turn 3. Standard is such a slow format, and when you can sometimes just lock your opponent out before they really get to play it feels great. Originally they had had Treasure Hunts to help battle Blightning, but slowly cut them as they found it wasn’t doing much in other matchups.
The basic strategy of the deck is to look at 3 cards on turn 1 whether by Halimar Depths or Ponder putting the card or two that we need on top. On turn 2 we often want to shuffle our deck with either a Misty Rainforest or Rampant Growth, and cast some acceleration to get up to 4. On turn 3 if we’re lucky we have a plant from a Khalni Garden to Polymorph and if not perhaps a planeswalker to put into play. From there we are a controlling deck that at any time could go off. We buy time while digging for cards, looking for 1) Polymorph, 2) Polymorph targets, 3) Jace, and/or 4) Negate to protect us while we go off. The deck is very consistent because of how much you get to manipulate your hand and your library. Remember that every card you look at but don’t have to draw is almost as good as drawing through that many cards.
After a lot of testing with their list (and finding that the Jund matchup really was around 70%) , I slowly modified and came up with the following:
I’ll talk about my card choices to explain why I diverged from Grant’s list.
4 Halimar Depths; 4 Ponder; 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor: These 3 cards present a powerful draw engine. We get to look at a lot of cards that we don’t have to draw, and provided we have enough shuffle effects we can keep looking at new tops. This is exactly what we want to be doing when there are only 4 copies of the spell that makes the whole deck work (Polymorph) and not so many copies of the one it combos with. A lot has gone into talking about how to use a Jace, but I think Brainstorm, scry, Brainstorm, scry looks at the most cards when he’s working alone. Sometimes quantity matters over quality though, and infinite Brainstorms are pretty sweet.
4 Explore, 4 Rampant Growth: We are a little shy on sources to cast GG and UU at only 14 of each. We make up for this by having a lot of cantrips and deck manipulation as well as the full set of Rampant Growths. This is the first serious deviation from Grant’s list. Speed of landing an Iona is the main thing that keeps this deck alive against the most aggressive decks, so we want to maximize how often and quickly that happens. The search spell is also a way to reshuffle the deck top without paying life which is a pretty valuable asset with the Blue package above. (Thanks to Max McCall for making the right call here.) Explore is particularly good since it lets us play our enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands without really paying their cost. Turn 2 Explore into Island for Ponder is also a nice line of play when it’s available. We also like Explore a lot since we’re a combo deck digging for cards, and this spell lets us see another card.
4 Garruk Wildspeaker, 4 Khalni Garden: These are currently the best ways for these colors to put creatures into play without actually playing creatures. Khalni Garden is just the nuts since it only costs us a land drop and the Plant is not only good for being a Polymorph, but can also protect Garruk or Jace while they do their work. All the games we can win on turn 3 are based off of turn 1 Khalni Garden or Exploring into a turn 2 Garden. Garruk Wildspeaker advances our agenda on multiple lines, making creatures to Polymoroph, giving us access to mana for Polymorph plus Negate backup very fast, and creating a good win condition in some matches. We also sometimes need to overrun with our Angel due to flying blockers, and Garruk does that all while looking fashionable in furs.
4 Spreading Seas: I believe until the format changes that any card which punishes Jund for existing and doesn’t hurt to play in your deck belongs there. Spreading Seas is a particularly nice fit, as almost every deck in the format has manlands and the card helps us dig further for whatever it is we’re looking for in our deck. It doesn’t hurt that sometimes you just get to lock a player right out of a game. (Sadly, my screenshots of a Jund player with all their lands Spreading Seased on turn 4 are on the other computer.) Very occasionally we even end up fixing our own mana with the Seas. (Though we have to be careful of aiding someone else in locking us out of Green.) Grant had opted to play Tectonic Edges, but I was finding that with all my card draw I had more than enough lands and really wanted to see more other cards. Being able to play 4 answers to manlands or Valakuts I think is much better than only 2, and the card is mostly free. There are also many times where an opponent leaves up W for Path to Exile, R for Lightning Bolt, or RB for Terminate so they can kill a Plant or Beast in response to a Polymorph, and we can punish those plays by playing Spreading Seas on their mana, sometimes even before putting our Plant or Beast into play so they can’t even kill it pre-emptively without the 2-1.
4 Polymorph; 2 Iona, Shield of Emeria: Our combination package. Maximum copies of Polymoprh are a must as we aren’t that great of a deck without Iona as at least a threat. We play two copies of Iona because we need to be able to go off even when we have one Iona in our hand. (I would guess around 30% of games I go off I have one Iona in hand or discarded to a Blightning.) It would be incredibly greedy to set ourselves up to lose when we draw our target and have to rely on Jace to put it back.
4 Negate: Protection for our combination. Most decks will fight us either by leaving mana up for a spot removal spell to respond to Polymorph or with their own countermagic to hit our namesake spell. Our plan is to ramp up to six (or use Garruk to untap for an extra two) so that we can play our four-drop and this sucker. It also turns out to play a useful role against W/U Control in help winning the Jace war and can be a nice rebuff to attempts to Blightning us. (Though, if we don’t have a Planeswalker on the board I really like taking 3 and discarding 2 cards I don’t need.)
2 Into the Roil: This often seemed like the most ho-hum card in the deck. It did its job, but rarely was I digging thinking “All I need is an Into the Roil and I can win this game!” On the other hand, the card is a solid catch-all, and feels pretty good at returning Putrid Leeches, Oblivion Rings, and enemy planeswalkers. (So we can get an activation in before they legend rule them out.) 4 copies of the card in Grant’s version seemed like too much, I rarely wanted to cast it at 2 mana since it is competing against a lot of stronger options. Once we have 4 mana once again we have many other things that look good. However, I have often found passing on turn 4 and then EOT bouncing something to clear the board and drawing a card is a sweet line of play. Going down to 2 I have had little trouble finding good use for them. (I really like having a couple bounce spells in Blue to fix any problem permanent I’ve let get on the board.)
4 Misty Rainforest, 6 Forest, 6 Island: I decreased my count of sac lands from Grant’s deck for a few reasons. First, we have more Rampant Growths which also allow us to shuffle. Second, life loss is not the best thing for us. I’ve had a few matches be decided by just a couple life and I dislike being on the wrong end of the equation. Finally, sometimes we do want the cards on top of our deck and being forced to shuffle is a problem. There is a fine balance between opportunities and costs when it comes to searching our library.
4 Ice Cage, 4 Mind Control: Initially I was having a lot of trouble beating back aggressive decks like Allies that would just keep packing guys onto the board. I realized I needed some removal or these matchups were never going to go well. (I tried Fog for a while, but it just didn’t do enough.) Ice Cage is great because creatures can’t use abilities and, other than equipment and Cunning Sparkmage, there is little in the format that is going to remove the cage without also killing whatever is in it. Mind Control is definitely the better of the two spells in matches you can afford to cast it (which appears to be most of them) since it’s one of the best 2-1s in Magic. Your best creature? Okay, thanks. I think Mind Control is the best argument that this deck does not need Wrath. Why tap out to kill all their creatures when you can blank them by taking the biggest? Also, Mind Control works well with Polymorph. I’ve considered moving some main deck since they are so good, perhaps over Into the Roil.
3 Cancel: A recent addition to help fight against other control and combo decks.
Our sideboard is obviously radically different from Grant’s, but the main deck only changes 6 cards and changes the manabase very slightly. -2 Into the Roil, -2 Wind Zendikon, -2 Tectonic Edge, +4 Spreading Seas, +2 Rampant Growth. With the deck sketched out, let’s talk about matches.
Jund: 7:3 This is close to our best match and the reason we want to play this deck. The weakness of Jund is that it is tremendously slow, with Putrid Leech being its only threat on turn 2 and Sprouting Thrinax on turn 3. We are attacking this weakness by ramping into very powerful cards by turn 3 (possibly even an Iona). Jund faces an additional problem of slowing themselves down even more if want to play around us turning a Plant into an Angel by leaving 1 or 2 mana open for Lightning Bolt or Terminate. Even when we don’t combo on turn 3 or 4 we get to use Spreading Seas to retard their development further, and decrease their threat density by taking out their manlands.
Unless you’ve got a grip full of them, Spreading Seas is generally worse than accelerating on turn 2. Jace to Bounce and Into the Roil after a Spread Seas can be very good at getting rid of a Leech getting into your face. In general its better to run out Garruk before Jace since at least you’ll get a Beast if they Blightning you to kill Garruk. When you stack your deck, remember that you want bad cards in your hand to throw away (or get Duressed after board) while wanting your best card on top of your library where it is safe. Keep in mind what you have on top of your deck so you can make smart discards, and also whether you have mana to cast a cantrip so that maybe your best card can be down two and you can chain into it.
Sometimes (especially when you have more than 1 Polymorph) it can be right just to go for it when your opponent has 1 mana up. Especially early in the game, he is only about 50-50 to have the Lightning Bolt, which isn’t bad odds on straight-up winning if you don’t see the game moving in your favor. Just because you can wait for a safe shot with counter backup doesn’t always mean you should. When you do get Iona, you want to name Black to turn off Terminate, Maelstrom Pulse, Blightning, Sprouting Thrinax, Purtrid Leech, and Bituminous Blast. You still need to fight Siege-Gang Commander, Bloodbraid Elf, Lightning Bolt, Garruk and/or Master Of The Wild Hunt. Do not be afraid to bounce a Siege-Gang Commander back to its owner’s hand. If you have been Spreading the Seas they will probably be short on Red sources and not be able to do much but recast it. Obviously, this works well if you’re bashing with Iona, and less well if you don’t have a clock going.
Sideboarding: -2 Into the Roil, -4 Negate, +2 Mind Control, +4 Flashfreeze; on the draw you may want to go -2 Into the Roil, -2 Rampant Growth, -4 Negate, +4 Flashfreeze, +4 Ice Cage to stop Putrid Leech from getting you early.
W/U Tapout Control: 8:2 The advantage we have over this deck is that we have counterspells while they don’t. The only tools they have to combat Iona are White and Jace, so if we can win the Jace war we should be able to force through our Iona. Their best lines of play involve Wrathing, Oblivion Ringing, and Pathing our tokens so that we can’t Polymorph them. How sick is that for us? Be sure to keep an eye on their Celestial Colonnades, its an easy way to carelessly lose a planeswalker you don’t need to lose. Be sure to also watch out for a Beast getting pathed and then your Garruk getting killed by Knight of the White Orchid. It’s not strictly bad, but know that it can happen to you. Game 1 always drop Jace as quickly as possible. In later games they will bring in countermagic, so we need to play a longer game where we sculpt a hand of countermagic to protect our planeswalker of choice or let them be the first to blink and then punish them by getting our Jace on the table. When you resolve an Iona, choose White, since that’s all their business, but know that unless you have Jace on the table or a counterspell, they can easily Jace and bounce your Iona. Very occasionally naming Blue is right when having your Iona killed would be less bad then having her bounced and your opponent with a Jace. Basically we have a cheaper win condition and are better at fighting over Jace. Don’t lose the Jace war, as it’s the most important thing going on in this match. Also be careful about fetching for Forests preferentially at the beginning of the game so they don’t Spreading Seas away your chance to get Garruk. Another play I love is Into the Roiling their Borderposts end step, either to take away counter mana or put them a turn behind on land. Also, watch out for them getting to 12 mana with Everflowing Chalice to power up two manlands at once.
Sideboarding: -2 Rampant Growth, -1 Spreading Seas, +3 Cancel. This match is less about speed and more about control, since if you ramp to a turn 4 planeswalker you often just get blown out by Negate/Cancel and then they untap to planeswalker you.
“Boss” Naya: 5:5 This matchup may have gotten better than my initial tests when I didn’t have Mind Control, but I’m not sure. Naya has some slow openings where they Terramorphic Expanse into a one-drop and a tap land, or some really fast ones where they Noble Hierarch into a Knight of the Reliquary. The slower draws are obviously better for us, as we get to lock more cards into their hand using Iona. The match is mostly a straight-up game 1, where they don’t have a lot of removal or ways to interact with Iona while we have a few tools to stall their ground attack. Of particular trouble is Basilisk Collar, which can make it impossible for us to kill them faster than they get us, and makes Iona unable to block effectively. Play your Into the Roils and Negates with this in mind. Iona should usually name White to protect herself from Path and turn off Ranger of Eos and Knight of the Reliquary.
Sideboarding: -2 Into The Roil, -1 Negate, -1 Spreading Seas, +4 Mind Control. With fewer Negates we have to go off naked a little bit more, but we should be able to really mess up their plans by stealing their Knights Of The Reliquary, Baneslayer Angels, or Scute Mobs.
Naya Allies: 4:6 This match depends heavily on the die roll and the quality of their draws. The real problem is that they have a lot of hasty guys and Iona can have trouble choosing a color since they have problematic threats in three different ones. In general, it seems the two correct choices are White to take out their Kabira Evangels (which stop you from blocking and often assure death) or Red to turn off all their hasty men. Of course, we never know if they are a version with removal, so White is generally the best choice since it turns off Journey and Path. Fortunately this deck only seems to be popular online. It is cheap to build and reasonable, but can’t make it very far through a gauntlet of the best decks in the format. Be particularly aware of bouncing Harabaz Druid, as he can usually cast a fatal number of spells in a single turn or activate manlands if allowed.
White Weenie: 8:2 Without much speed or reach this isn’t a very scary deck. It also plays only a single color, so this is Iona’s dream. We just want to combo almost as quickly as we can (with protection if they seem to be leaving up a White). Garruk and Jace can usually buy a lot of time with their Beast and Boomerang abilities. Pay attention to the fact that a Path to Exile might reshuffle your deck and stack accordingly.
Koros: 4:6 A pretty bad matchup given their combination of speed and resilience to our removal package. (Ice Cage is a dog here.) If they don’t come out blazing with Lynx and Geopede, we can occasionally get there. Iona is generally going to name White so we don’t get pathed. I think this deck can’t beat Azorius or Jund, so it’s not really a problem for us. Post-board, the Sparkmage/Collar combo is a problem we need to watch out for since it can kill Iona. Calling Red isn’t always wrong, though Negating the collar or having an Into the Roil ready is probably better.
Mono-Red: 5:5 This match can be very easy if the Red player is careless and doesn’t leave up mana to kill our plants in response to Polymorph. Iona shuts down the whole deck. The only things we need to look our for are manlands (if they have them) and creatures that can be played out of the yard. If we can race these we start bashing immediately, and if not we keep Iona home until Garruk can manufacture enough blockers for us to start smashing (with Iona or the Beasts, as needed.)
Sideboarding: -2 Into the Roil, -2 Rampant Growth, -4 Spreading Seas, +4 Flashfreeze, +4 Ice Cage. You need to keep Spreading Seas if they have manlands. If they don’t have many Ice Cageable creatures (like no Geopedes), I’d look into keeping 2 Negates and 2 Into the Roils (to bounce guys cast from the yard).
Mythic: 0:10 Sorry, I don’t think you’re ever going to win this one. They play everything onto the board before you can shut them off with Iona, and it is often too big to block thanks to Exalted effects. I talked to Brian Kowal and we think after boarding you might be able to pull it out by transforming into a control deck, since they aren’t that heavy on threats. This is just a best guess, but something along the lines of…
Sideboarding: -4 Explore, -4 Rampant Growth, -4 Negate, +4 Ice Cage, +4 Mind Control, +4 Flashfreeze. Iona is torn between naming Blue to stop Jace, Mind Control, and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, or Green to stop almost every fatty in their deck. Keep in mind they probably have brought in Negates.
I think that covers the major archetypes. If you want to know about a match I haven’t discussed here, let me know and I’ll cover it in the forums. Since I think your good matches are top tier and your bad matchups are lower tier and almost non-existent, I think this is a great deck to play right now. I’ve probably made over a hundred tix and gained 200 ratings points on MTGO running it in queues and other events.
With Rise of the Eldrazi coming out, I think this is a particularly exciting archetype to be looking at. The cards that seem like they could fit well are Awakening Zone, See Beyond, and of course Emrakul, The Aeons Torn. (I admit, I first read the articles on The Starkington Post because I was trying to think about ways to cheat an Emrakul into play!) I think Emrakul will turn out to be better than Iona maindeck since we can hardcast him occasionally as plan B, especially in a control match. Against all the aggro decks where we’re having trouble deciding which color to choose, we are saved the trouble and are given a more robust win condition. Essentially, Emrakul is only worse against a Wrath or if your life total is low versus burn and I am sure he will either get 2 slots in the board or possibly be main deck. (If it turns out you can play a slower control game against UW and still win reliably with Emrakul with backup versus Wrath, then he’s our man.) See Beyond might replace a few Into the Roils, Spreading Seas, and/or Rampant Growths since those are our three weakest cards, but they are all very good and it might not make the cut. If you decide to jam 4 See Beyond it may also be possible to go down to only 1 Polymorph target, depending on how that plan tests. Awakening Zone provides a big stream of mana, blockers, and Polymorph targets, and may be better than Garruk(?!) or Into the Roil. It’s a card I’ll have to play with quite a bit to see whether it’s a good fit or a near miss. I don’t see anything else that surpasses the quality of anything else in the main deck.
Give this deck a try. I think it’s incredibly positioned in the metagame, a lot of fun to play, and truly powerful. I think Emrakul will fix a lot of its weaker matches, and put it into tier 1 for anyone who bothers to play it. I think it will have trouble staying tier 1 as it isn’t that hard to game against if people try to, but for an unprepared world Polymorph is ready to steal lots of matches.