Best of the West – Tearing the Aeons in New England

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Wednesday, May 5th – This week I am in New York in anticipation of working on Block Constructed with Zvi Mowshowitz, Gaudenis Vidugiris, Jacob Van Lunen, Jamie Parke, Matt Ferrando, and Chris Calcano. I decided the best way to spend my first weekend in the city would be to finish tuning up the Polymorph deck with cards from Rise of the Eldrazi and hit the local PTQs.

This week I am in New York in anticipation of working on Block Constructed with Zvi Mowshowitz, Gaudenis Vidugiris, Jacob Van Lunen, Jamie Parke, Matt Ferrando, and Chris Calcano. I decided the best way to spend my first weekend in the city would be to finish tuning up the Polymorph deck with cards from Rise of the Eldrazi and hit the local PTQs. (One in New York on Saturday, one in Boston on Sunday.) This article will discuss my final build of the deck, new sideboard cards and strategies, and some discussion of how to play the deck based on my own experiences and watching other people play their own copies. This will probably be the last article in this series since I feel it mostly exhausts the topic (and a few of you have likely had your interest exhausted).

Before I talk about the deck list, I want to talk about the value of humility and listening to others. I have always made it a point to request feedback from people, whether they are my most recent opponent or someone birding a game about what I did wrong and how I can improve my play. People can take this stuff the wrong way, so I make it a point to thank people when they do me this favor and solicit more of it in the future so that they do not mistake me for one of those people. Some of the most important insights I have gotten in the game have come from unsolicited advice. Likewise, in deck construction I think it’s very important to listen to feedback of other people’s experiences. Though your own testing and thinking may lead you in one direction, everyone else’s experiences should never be ignored. Over the last few weeks I have gotten numerous reports that Awakening Zone was amazing in Polymorph, and I had not been playing it. Everyone from Evan Erwin, who posted in the forums of the first article, to my friend Mat Marr, who I talked to on the phone in Oregon, said the card was nuts. I hadn’t liked it the first few times I played it, but I figured I must be doing something wrong. It turns out I sort of was; Awakening Zone is very good, and better with Emrakul than Iona, and I had made the mistake of testing changes one at a time rather than all at once. Likewise, Emrakul was testing a little worse than Iona in important matches, but then once Awakening Zone was added to the deck got much better than Iona. Another important step for the deck occurred while at the PTQ in New York. I was playing against eventual PTQ winner Phil Napoli when in game 2 I was just beat down by a bunch of flying 5/5s. A spectator, Lauren Lee, (the winner of the PTQ the next day in Boston and author of the Mulldrifting blog) asked if I had Eldrazi Monument in the deck. I said I didn’t, and she suggested it would be a very good alternate win condition. This made sense considering I had around 20 Eldrazi Spawn on the board and a Monument any time in the last 10 turns probably would have sealed the game up. More on that later, but once again listening to people’s input proved very valuable. (And in this case an idea that a few other people scoffed at.) I’m sure you get the idea, but I just can’t say strongly enough how important it is to get input from the people around you; it’s surprising what you might learn.

Here is the build of the deck which I played at the PTQ on Sunday:

I won’t go over all of the cards as I’ll assume you’re up on the last two articles (if not, I suggest reading them) so I’ll just talk about what’s changed and why.

+4 Awakening Zone: I compared this card to Forcefield, which someone objected to because you don’t end up taking any damage at all when you chump block with it. It’s true, against ground creatures, no matter what their size, Awakening Zone will block one reliably every turn. This is a large boon against decks like Jund, Mythic, White Weenie, and some versions of Red Deck Wins. In my mind this card has taken the slot that Garruk used to occupy. The beasts had the advantage of being able to attack an opponent, but at this point a 3/3 is so small versus most of the things in the format that a 0/1 pretty much does the same job. The only place we have really lost out is against Bloodbraid Elf, where we could trade. However, it seemed that even there a Bloodbraid and any removal spell usually resulted in an Elf Berserker on the table and a dead Garruk, where Awakening Zone only folds to Maelstrom Pulse. This card also does some amazing things in the long game against U/W, like protect your Jace permanently from Giddeon Jura and let you hardcast (!) Emrakul in a timely fashion.

-4 Growth Spasm, +4 Rampant Growth: Once we were getting tokens into play from Awakening Zone, we no longer needed to lean on Growth Spasm to get the job done. Though I like the Spasm a lot, I felt like some matches were losing percentage as we’d lost the speed of 8 acceleration spells on turn 2. There was something to always being able to threaten a Jace first, always getting to Jace with backup first, or just powering out our plan against other fast decks. Rampant Growth has also gotten much better as a deck shuffler since with Deprive returning Halimar Depths we have greatly increased (up to 33% more!) our ability to look at the top of the deck. Not that this makes it better than Growth Spasm, since they both get the job done, but it is an unforeseen benefit of playing with Deprive.

-4 See Beyond: The space for the Awakening Zones had to come from somewhere and it was pretty much either these or the Explores. I played a few sets either way with Brian Kowal, and we both thought that Explore just lead to much more explosive game starts. See Beyond digs one card deeper, but it’s not quite as strong in its ability to cycle a card we don’t want since our deck manipulation tends to ensure higher card quality than most other decks to begin with. The ability to power out our plan quickly, or to catch up from the land returned to hand by Deprive both are extremely good for us. I would love to have space for this card in our deck, but it just doesn’t feel good enough. Compared to all of the two-drops in the deck it’s never what I want to spend my time doing on turn 2. I could see an argument for maybe including up to 2 copies in exchange for 2 accelerators, but none of my testing seems to support that working better.

-2 Iona, Shield of Emeria; +2 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn: I never had any doubt that Emrakul was better than Iona in all the matches that weren’t against W/U control (where Wrath and Oblivion Ring could get him) or Mono-Red where you could just die to burn even after resolving him. After testing a few matches against U/W it became quite clear that Emrakul could actually outperform Iona. The key is that Emrakul can be hard cast as the game goes long with the help of an Awakening Zone or two, and the situation can develop where Jace can bounce him and you can take several turns in a row which will destroy every permanent on their side and probably their life total to boot. Since they are planning to fight against Polymorph, this gives you a certain sort of inevitability that can be hard for them to manage against.

So, as far as the main deck goes we’ve kind of gone back to the Pre-Eldrazi list with just Awakening Zone as an upgrade over Garruk Wildspeaker, Deprive as a big upgrade over Negate, and Emrakul as a different plan than Iona.


-4 Ice Cage, +4 Narcolepsy: Though Ice Cage had the advantage of turning off mana producers like Noble Hierarch or Harabaz Druid, and disabling Siege-Gang Commander or Knight of the Reliquary, Narcolepsy provided reliable removal against fast White Weenie, Koros, and red creature based strategies. (I was fairly worried about a Kargan Dragonlord levelling up and then getting busted out of an Ice Cage with a Burst Lighting or Teetering Peaks). Since most of the matches where I thought Ice Cage was better I probably was just going to bring in Mind Control instead, Narcolepsy seemed like the better option. Looking at Tanner Lange’s Polymorph decklist that hit the Top 8 at the StarCityGames.com Atlanta Standard Open, I would say that Domestication might be a better option than Narcolepsy. Since we are almost always going to accelerate to 4 mana on turn 3, it might just be best to steal their first guy rather than just put him to Sleep forever. I also think that 8 Control Magics might be just the ticket to beating Mythic. If I spend more time on this deck, that will definitely be the next direction I explore.

-2 Negate, +2 Cancel: I found that the U/W decks have enough creatures that I really want more of my counterspells to be able to interact with those. By the same token, being able to cast a spell with backup or double backup means that 3 mana is a hefty price to pay and I don’t want too many of my counterspells to be priced so highly. Splitting them evenly means I have a total of 6 that fulfill each objective, which feels like a reasonably reliable count of each. Against other decks this also let me choose the kind of counterspell that would work best for the circumstances at hand, and having that fluidity seemed useful.

-2 All is Dust, +2 Eldrazi Monument: Though I liked the catchall nature of All is Dust, I find that with both Awakening Zones and Spreading Seas I was losing value where I felt I needed it. Instead I added a card that dealt with a lot of the same problems (planeswalkers, 5/5 fliers, manlands) without harming my other assets on the board. On the upside, this card is proactive rather than reactive, and can win the game rather than just helping not to lose it. Why is it good? In most games against W/U you are going to resolve at least one Awakening Zone (and probably several) and get some Eldrazi Spawn into play. If you cast Eldrazi Monument, suddenly you don’t much care how many 5/5 fliers your opponent casts, all their Wraths become dead cards, and you have a way of destroying their resolved planeswalkers. Not only that, but we sidestep their plans for interacting with our Polymorph plan by attacking them on a completely different axis. Those Path to Exiles look a lot less good against a horde of attacking 1/1s. Why not 3? Well, maybe 3 would be good, and that’s something that I will look at testing too. However, I’m fairly sure the second copy is bad, and without Awakening Zone the card is a blank, so I think we want to err on the side of few.

+1 Recurring Insight: This is a bit of what I understand to be Brad Nelson technology from the Cascade deck he and Chris Lachman were playing last weekend. Many control matches tend to wind up in relatively large hand sizes, especially if they resolve a Mind Spring or have spot removal that they are waiting to hit your Polymorph target with. We also like to draw cards, but want to avoid tapping out. Insight offers the ability to draw a ton of cards for a pretty reasonable price. I used to like a one-of Tidings in most control decks of yesteryear for the same purpose, and I think the extra mana on Insight is more than reasonable for the potentially huge windfall of cards you gain.

I want to take a moment here before moving on to sideboarding plans to say extol the virtues of Deprive. People have complained for a long time about the lack of Counterspell in the format, and this is it. We’ll see what the future brings, but Deprive returning a land looks generally like a value rather than a cost in the current format. Especially in this deck, I would much rather pay UU for counter a spell and stack the top 3 of my library, or UU for counter a spell and gain a 0/1 than just pay UU to counter a spell. What I’m saying is in Polymorph, I think I would run 3 Deprives before I would think about the first Counterspell, which is saying a lot. In the UW mirror it looks similarly good, UU to counter a spell and remove a Spreading Seas from your manland, or UU to reset a Sejiri Refuge seem pretty reasonable, especially when Knight of the White Orchid is around to fix your land loss. There are so many games where I was able to win because I was able to get another blocker or dig that much harder into my deck. If you’re not playing 4 Deprives in this deck, I assure you you’re missing out. Another great advantage of this spell is that it freed up space in the sideboard since Flashfreeze was no longer an upgrade on what we were already packing.

Sideboard Plans:

Jund: -2 Into the Roil, +2 Mind Control. Our main deck still exists to fight Jund, so it makes sense that we don’t really change much to do so. I will say that if we move in on Domesticate over Narcolepsy, it may be the better choice. Games are very tempo oriented, so being able to control their guy one turn earlier is pretty sweet. The down side is our target range is limited, we can get Ranger, Thrinax, Bloodbraid Elf, Master of the Wild Hunt, a beast, or Siege-Gang Commander, but we can’t get Putrid Leech or a dragon token. This matchup has changed a bit with the addition of Sarkhan Vol since Jund now has an out that kills Emrakul. At this point, though, they mostly seem to be trying to use Consuming Vapors to kill our fattie, so make sure you have some tokens in play or some backup if you have that luxury before going off. In general you should Mind Control your first valid target since that will save you the most damage and thus buy you the most time to do what you need to get done. Another card to keep in mind is that the could have Thought Hemorrhage, but you rarely have the luxury of leaving up mana to play around it if you also want to stay alive versus their onslaught.

W/U Control: This match is a bit of a guessing game. If they tap out a lot and seem to be fairly careless or low on countermagic, we want to stick with the maindeck Polymorph plan and punish them. In this case I would just board -2 Explore, +2 Negate and try to stick it to them as soon as I had backup. (The reason to cut Explore is that you will eventually play all of your lands over the course of the game, and in a slow match the speed boost is less useful.) On the other hand, if they appear to be playing a tight control game, we can outfox them by boarding -4 Polymorph (!), -3 Explore, and +2 Eldrazi Monument, +2 Cancel, +2 Negate, +1 Recurring Insight, and play a drawn out control game against them. This works particularly well when they keep in their Path to Exiles and Wraths hoping to fizzle our Polymorph or kill Emrakul, when instead we sidestep them by only hardcasting Emrakul or swarming them with our Eldrazi Spawn. I think on the play it can also be right to leave all the Explores in with the hopes of getting a Jace on turn 3 while they’re mostly tapped out and can neither threaten countermagic or their own Jace or other 4-drop to get you back for tapping out. In this case I would board something like -4 Polymorph, +2 Eldrazi Monument, +2 Cancel. Getting a Jace ahead of them can seal up many games before they start. (On the play against a low countermagic opponent, it can also be reasonable just not to board and hope for the quick Jace or the quick Polymorph.) The two most important cards from their side are Jace and Oblivion Ring since they can deal with your Jace and Emrakul. Fight to maintain Jace and Awakening Zone and later Eldrazi Monument and things should come together for you. For the most part I’d rather leverage better tools than bank on speed, so I like the plans that involve switching to Eldrazi monument unless I’m short on time in the round.

Mono-Red: You have to evaluate whether they are playing any guys who can be Narcolepsied. If they have Goblin Guide, Plated Geopede, Kargan Dragonlord, and/or Kiln Fiend, you probably want the option to turn them off. -4 Spreading Seas, +4 Narcolepsy. On the other hand, if they are playing a build that is all hasty guys and burn, Narcolepsy is mostly going to be a dead card. In this case, you want to protect your combo better and staunch the bleeding (the burning?). -4 Spreading Seas, +2 Negate, +2 Cancel. Depending on the mix of their deck, I think any mix of these 8 sideboard cards can be good here.

Mythic: This match is one where you need to buy yourself time, and can never really successfully race. I usually would never cut Ponder, but in this match I think most of what we want is more Control Magic, and fast. Thus, I think I would recommend -4 Ponder, +4 Mind Control. This gives us a lot more Polymorph targets, and also buys us a bunch of time if we can steal a guy with lifelink to do some work for us. Expect them to bring in Negates and perhaps Vines of the Vastwood which will give us a lot of trouble resolving a Polymorph. Mind Control helps us here as it tempts them to use up the same resources as fight against Polymorph. If you end up liking them over Narcolepsy I would also bring in +4 Domestication, probably over -2 Into the Roil and -2 Awakening Zone and just grab the first thing they put out. Mythic’s Achilles Heel is its manabase, so I think if you can Spreading Seas a manland and steal away a Noble Hierarch or Lotus Cobra one could go a long way toward hamstringing them. If it doesn’t put them out, at least it slows them down considerably. Remember that Domesticate checks power on your end step, so if you steal their Knight of the Reliquary as long as you don’t have more than one land in the graveyard it doesn’t matter how large it was on their side.

WW/Koros/Allies: All of these decks have essentially the same plan, to put guys on the ground and start attacking you. In all cases you want to neutralize the early waves to buy time, conserve life, and protect Jace while you find your Eldrazi overlord. -2 Into the Roil, -4 Spreading Seas, -1 Deprive, -1 Rampant Growth, +4 Narcolepsy, +4 Mind Control. In these matches in particular Domestication seems like it would be an upgrade over Narcolepsy since stealing more Stun Snipers, Cunning Sparkmages (or making them suicide), and such makes your world a much better place. You want to make sure they don’t have these guys because Stun Sniper alone, or Sparkmage with collar kills your Polymorph target of choice rather unpleasantly.

Vampires: The card to look out for here most of all is Mind Sludge, which can ruin you if you don’t have counter magic up by the time they could run it. Beyond that you want to manage their aggression while putting your combo together. -4 Spreading Seas, -2 Into the Roil, +2 Negate, +4 Mind Control. This seems like a match where most of the guys are small enough that Domesticate would do the right kind of work. Vampire Nocturnus is a particularly hilarious Domestication target as you never have a Black card on top so he’s always just a 3/3. Be mindful of Consuming Vapors from the board killing a solo Emrakul.

I think that covers most of the format, but in general I think there’s a pattern when you sacrifice speed for countermagic versus slow decks, while removing Spreading Seas for spot removal against fast decks that lack manlands. In the awkward cases where they have both, you just need to figure out which cards are the weakest and cull to make room for whichever tools you need.

In crafting these plans, I can see that it would also be pretty reasonable to cut the Eldrazi monuments and pack a couple Ionas to bring in against W/U (and just stick with the traditional Polymorph plan) and Vampires (WW and Mono-Red to a lesser extent, but they can have threats that are so large we can’t deal with them with Iona thanks to levelers). I think Emrakul works better, but there are a lot of things you have to play around while Iona can make these games simpler even if she doesn’t always maximize your potential value.

Moving on, here are some hints and tips based on some games I’ve played and watched other people play:

1) Without a good reason always play your land last after resolving all of your Brainstorms, Ponders, and other draw effects. You can often find a land that is more useful to you than the one you would have played otherwise.

2) Think about how deeply into your deck you are digging when you choose the order you resolve spells and effects. For example, Explore before Ponder or Brainstorm gets you 4 cards into your deck, where Exploring after Ponder either gets you all 3 of those cards (2 immediately, 1 on the next draw) or 2 random cards if you shuffle. Each order gives you different options, and it’s important to think about which options you are giving yourself when you make these plays.

3) Similarly, when holding Halimar Depths and Explore one must consider whether they urgently need the right card or whether they have time to probe as deeply as they can. When in a hurry Halimar Depths and then Explore to get the top card you stacked can get you what you need in the nick of time. On the other hand, in a slow match it can be better to Explore first so that you get to look 4 cards down your library instead of only 3.

4) Whenever possible hold onto your Rampant Growths and don’t crack your fetchlands. These cards give you the opportunity to choose exactly how many cards you would like to keep off a Halimar Depths or Ponder, as well as allow you to reset the top of your library with Jace. This sort of deck manipulation is invaluable in allowing you to find exactly what you want and avoid drawing cards that are completely dead to you.

5) Generally it is right to Ponder before activating Jace since that will allow you to look at as many as 7 cards (look at 3, shuffle, draw 1, look at 3 more) rather than to Jace then Ponder which only allows you to look at 4. On the other hand, if you already know what is on top, it can be best to fatesteal yourself to get rid of the garbage to then Ponder on what is now a functionally clean top of the deck.

6) Against fast decks, don’t be too greedy with your removal effects. Your life total can spin down very quickly and you don’t have any blockers aside from your Awakening Zones, so if you have to Mind Control a lowly Borderland Ranger, it will probably be worth it. If you can Into the Roil with kicker anything without a 187 ability, do it! Always buy yourself as much time as you can.

7) Against Jund or Grixis, be sure to know which 2 cards you will discard if they cast Blightning at all times. I lost a Top 8 slot at one of the PTQs by forgetting this for just one turn and having to discard 2 really useful cards instead of the 2 Rampant Growths sitting on the top of my deck. Most of the time I would like to let Blightning resolve and just discard trash that I don’t need rather than wasting more valuable cards fighting over it. The only real exception is if they are killing my Jace with it and I need him (as in I don’t have another, and I think I can realistically protect him.)

8) Don’t always reflexively cast your Spreading Seas. Remember that they can be used to take a player off the mana they need to Path to Exile or Lighting Bolt your Saproling, so in some cases they can be every bit as good as a Deprive for protecting your combo.

9) Consider very strongly when casting Deprive whether you have enough blockers to survive upcoming turns. I won one game because I used Deprive instead of Cancel to return a Khalni Garden so that I would have just enough life for Emrakul to be able to make two attacks to finish off my opponent. On the flip side, know when youre life isn’t an issue and what you really need is to dig for a critical combo piece.

10) Most hands that don’t have at least 2 out of the 4 of a) a token generation method, b) a Polymorph, c) an acceleration spell, or d) a Deprive are worth considering for a mulligan. The more ways you have to manipulate the deck the better these hands get, but without half of what you want for a winning game it will be hard to “get there”. In particular mulliganing a hand with an Emrakul that isn’t nearly perfect is always good since not only is he a blank but he puts you at risk for not being able to combo by drawing the second one! (Though, against Jund I don’t mind so much as I expect him to just be Blightning fodder and mulligans to generally be a much worse idea).

11) Most games versus U/W are really control mirrors. Be careful about tapping out into countermagic if they could then untap and play a Jace. Whoever controls Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the heavy favorite for the match, so be mindful of what you’re doing.

12) Always watch which lands your opponent is playing and make special note when they put down a manland. There is little worse than losing your Jace to a Celestial Colonnade or Raging Raving you hadn’t noticed. Sometimes you still just want the deck manipulation and +1 card Jace has to offer, but often it’s worth waiting until Spreading Seas fix the problem.

Those are the things that come more immediately to mind. If you have any specific hands that you wonder about muliganing or play situations you’d wonder what to do it, throw them up on the forums and I’d love to chat about them. I was very glad to see this deck Top 8 the StarCityGames.com Standard Open, and see it on top tables up here in New England. Best of luck to all of you Tearing up the Aeons, and I’ll catch you all next week with something completely different.