Black Magic – Regionals and Cascade Assault

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Tuesday, May 19th – The Regionals results continue to roll in, and Sam Black is ready with some innovation. While he never played Regionals himself, he did witness an interesting combo deck pick up a qualification in Chicago. Today, he presents the idea for those of us with Standard tournaments on the horizon, while also suggesting that the demise of the Fae is not as foregone as we may assume…

This weekend I went to Regionals, but I didn’t play in the main event. Instead I played in a Cruise Qualifier, which I won with Faeries. I played against Faeries in the finals. The metagame in the side event was pretty bizarre, as it was basically just decks that scrubbed out of the main event. There were a lot of Turbo Fog/Sanity Grinding decks, and a lot of Bant/Doran style aggro decks. There were also some Jund/Five-Color Control decks. The field was very low on tokens, and generally very friendly to Faeries. I don’t think it was particularly representative of fields that can be expected throughout this season.

Feeling unsatisfied with the information gained from that tournament as it related to the continued viability of Faeries in Standard, I joined an 8-man Standard queue on MTGO this morning, and won that beating RB Aggro with Figure, Hellspark Elemental, Anathemancer, Volcanic Fallout, etc in the first round (the deck that’s supposed to always beat Faeries but for some odd reason never does in my experience), BW Tokens in the second round (thanks in part to a very bad Head Games play on his part in which he gave me 3 lands and 4 spells), and Five-Color Control in the finals.

I still don’t have anywhere near enough data to conclusively say that Faeries is still the deck to play, but I do know that I love being able to play a deck that has proven itself so many times and still play against opponents who are surprised to see it. Throughout the weekend I definitely heard players explaining to each other that Faeries is dead, or that Faeries can’t beat [insert random deck that I’ve usually beaten].

In my deck tech for Wizards in Kyoto, I explained that the printing of Volcanic Fallout was almost good for Faeries because it meant that everyone just assumed that would take care of the problem and they were free to ignore it, so peoples stopped building decks to beat Faeries. Now I feel like Zealous Persecution has done the same thing again. BW has become the deck to beat, and people are going so far as to play terrible decks like Turbo Fog and Sanity Grinding that can’t beat a diverse field (which is all I mean when I say that they’re terrible) just to be able to beat tokens. The Token decks are pushing each other up the curve. People are even playing Lavalanche because it’s awesome against token decks. Could people really have gotten away with playing Lavalanche 6 months ago? Yes, there are new cards that pose problems for Faeries, but from what I’ve seen the format has come up with new answers to those problems that create an environment that is extremely vulnerable to Faeries.

Yes, you need to adapt to use a different strategy to beat decks that are using new cards that are problematic for Faeries, but the cards to do so already exist, it’s just a matter of finding the correct plans. In other words, I don’t really know what Patrick Chapin was talking about when he said “‘Hostile’ doesn’t even begin to describe the format [for Faeries].”

I seem to be the lone voice in favor of Faeries at the moment, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to devote another entire article to them right now, as I don’t expect many people to trust me without more results on my side. Three GPs are coming up in the next month, in which I’m very likely to play Faeries, so time will tell on that issue.

After the Cruise Qualifier I had time to watch some of the Top 8 in which a Lavalanche deck was playing against a Seismic Assault combo deck. I want to focus on discussing this Seismic Assault combo deck, as it actually looks very powerful to me, but first I feel that I should spend some time on a tangent, as I was watching this match with Bob Maher and I think it will be helpful to share a comment he made.

The Top 8 was played at a table in the front of the room. The section between that table and the table behind it was blocked off by rows of chairs so that judges could have space to move between matches on that side of the table without needing to wade through the crowd watching. The crowd was allowed to stand right behind people playing on the outside.

Bob commented that this situation looked extremely unfair, and that if he was playing in that Top 8 there is no chance that he would have ended up on the outside. They would have had to rearrange this situation, move him to the inside, or DQ him. I said I didn’t think it mattered that much – that I wouldn’t really be bothered by the crowd behind me, but he said it was important regardless. Spectators give away so much information. If you draw a card and they look away, it’s probably a land and they’re not too interested. If it’s a spell, they might lean in to try to see what it was or figure out how it impacts the game. Even if they didn’t do that, Bob added, at some point in his game he would try to get a read on which his opponent had drawn and tell his opponent, claiming that someone behind him had given it away to make his opponent distracted and uncomfortable with the situation.

Bob went on to take a stance that seemed to indicate that mind games and generally messing with your opponent was more valuable than others have been claiming recently, (particularly extremely straightforward players like Paulo). In general, Bob seems to attribute a lot of his wins to playing his opponents, and he seems to be amazing at reading people and finding ways to take advantage of any situation outside of the game to throw his opponents off.

Anyway, Cascade Assault:

4 Swans of Bryn Argoll
4 Seismic Assault
4 Bituminous Blast
4 Bloodbraid Elf
2 Ad Nauseam
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Graven Cairns
4 Cascade Bluffs
4 Rugged Prairie
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Treetop Village
4 Spinerock Knoll
4 Vivid Crag
4 Vivid Marsh
1 Mutavault
4 Fire-Lit Thicket
1 Mountain

1 Ad Nauseam
4 Qasali Pridemage
3 Vexing Shusher
2 Volcanic Fallout
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Aura of Silence
2 Ajani Vengeant

This is the list that Parth Modi qualified for Nationals with, as given to me by Adrian Sullivan who was given the decklists to do a writeup of the tournament. It is not exactly the list I’m recommending. It is my starting point.

The idea is very straightforward. Bloodbraid Elf always hits Seismic Assault, Bituminous Blast either hits Seismic Assault, Swans of Bryn Argoll, or Bloodbraid Elf into Seismic Assault, which means each Bituminous Blast results in a Seismic Assault 2/3rds of the time. This deck is essentially playing ten and two thirds Seismic Assaults. Once Assault is in play, a Swan will almost always win the game and Ad Nauseam is extremely likely to win if your life total is at all reasonable, since it can hit many lands in a row and you just go until you have enough that they are dead, stopping before you risk death if you can afford to.

Manlands help give your deck game without disrupting your combo, and Spinerock Knoll can complete a combo from a Seismic Assault and a few lands. The deck looks very consistent and capable of killing as early as turn 4, and turn 5 should be pretty regular.

The deck has very little wiggle room on the spells. Almost every spell you could add throws off the cascade and/or the Ad Nauseam. Numbers can be tweaked some (I could consider cutting a Swans or a Bituminous Blast and I could consider adding an Ad Nauseam), and other cascade cards could be considered (specifically Captured Sunlight), but most of the deckbuilding questions are in the lands and the sideboard.

I understand that the mana requirements for this deck are really intense, but it seems to me that it should be possible to fit more basic lands into the deck to help give it resistance to Anathemancer. Each land helps substantially even though there will still be so many non-basics, because you can just play the basic lands first and hold the non basics to discard to Seismic once your mana requirements are met.

Before addressing the mana, I think it’s important to talk about the sideboard so that we know what we need from our mana in games 2 and 3.

Building a sideboard for this deck is difficult because you really don’t want to add spells to the deck, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, there are cards in this format that the maindeck has an extremely hard time beating, namely Pithing Needle and Runed Halo. To make matters worse, Pithing Needle could be in anyone’s sideboard, so you may always want to be ready for it. (Fortunately, few people are actually playing it, so a lot of the time you won’t need to actually do anything about it, but it’s best to have the ability to). At one point while we were watching the Top 8 Parth cascaded into Maelstrom Pulse. He really wanted to hit a Seismic Assault at the time, and Bob couldn’t believe Maelstrom Pulse was in his deck. After thinking about it, it’s unfortunate, but I think unavoidable that you have to decrease the consistency of your combo to prepare for hate. This means you want access to Maelstrom Pulse, Aura of Silence, and/or Qasali Pridemage.

Beyond that, expensive spells get in the way of Ad Nauseam and cheap spells get in the way of cascade. I think the solution may be to treat your deck as two different combo decks with overlapping components (Seismic Assault and ridiculous numbers of lands) that play well together, but to be able to focus on only half of the combo after sideboarding.

I expect there to be decks that Ad Nauseam is very bad against. Against those decks, you can side them out, and then any expensive spell can come in without disrupting the combo. Cards I would consider include Shriekmaw, Captured Sunlight, and Enlisted Wurm.

There are other decks where I think the best thing you can do is play for Ad Nauseam. You can side out Bituminous Blast and maybe even some Swans or Bloodbraid Elves for cheap cards that would disrupt your cascade engine. Here the plan is just to resolve Ad Nauseam and win. This plan is best against decks that don’t put you on much of a clock, like Five-Color Control, Turbo Fog, and Sanity Grinding. With this plan you want to board up to 4 Ad Nauseam and then bring in Vexing Shushers and Guttural Responses to force it through.

Parth’s sideboard included cards like Volcanic Fallout (which I guess he probably had access to while I was watching the Top 8) because it seems like a powerful enough card that it can be worth some inconsistency to have access to, but I’m not actually sure that it’s ever worth it. I guess it depends on how the race goes against token decks and how this card influences that, which I would need to test to find out for sure. I think his sideboard has far too many answers to the problem cards. You can find answers with cascade, so I’m not sure why you’d ever want to bring in so many.

After playing the deck I might discover specific problems the sideboard needs to address and err more toward one plan outlined above or the other. Without knowing what’s needed for sure, I would probably start with something like:

1 Maelstrom Pulse
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Aura of Silence
2 Ad Nauseam
4 Vexing Shusher
2 Guttural Response
3 Captured Sunlight
1 Enlisted Wurm

This is assuming the same spells as Parth’s maindeck. If I cut anything from the main I would definitely add it to the sideboard.

The difficulty of the mana requirements certainly demands a Vivid land/Reflecting Pool manabase if we’re trying to fit more basics into the deck, and Treetop Village seems like it has to be a four-of no matter what.

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Treetop Village
4 Vivid Grove

That much I can be sure of. I’m going to want more Vivids, but I’m not sure which yet. I know I want Grove to help with activating Treetop Village as that should be the color of mana I’ll need to use most. Given the Green slant that those lands give me, I want to focus my filter lands on Green (and I will need filter lands in order to cast Seismic Assaults on turn 3). Given that I want to start most of my games with Treetop Village and then I want RRR, I’m guessing I’ll need 4 Fire-Lit Thickets.

From there I want more manlands. The next best is either Ghitu Encampment or Forbidding Watchtower. I think I like Forbidding Watchtower more as a body, but Ghitu Encampment is a more useful color, which probably gives it the nod. I definitely also like the Spinerock Knoll trick at a glance.

At this point it’s pretty clear that Red is the other color we’re using most often between Ghitu Encampment, Seismic Assault, Fire-lit Thicket, and the cascade spells, so we can definitely add 4 Vivid Crag.

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Treetop Village
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Fire-lit Thicket
4 Vivid Grove
4 Spinerock Knoll
4 Vivid Crag

When I look at that manabase and think about adding basic lands I see plenty of Red and Green sources, but not enough White and Black, which makes me want to add only one Forest and one Mountain. I don’t have enough basics yet and I don’t have enough White and Black mana, so from there I’m tempted to add Plains and Swamps to fix both problems. Somehow filling the deck with Plains and Swamps doesn’t feel right, but it might be right under the theory that the above lands are the ones you want to play first and they’ll give you the Green and Red that you need, and from there you’ll want to play basics and you’ll want to fill out your missing colors and you’ll want to play untapped lands, so Plains and Swamps come in to flesh out your late game land drops or become Shocks. It’s a weird way to build it, but it might be right. Alternatively, you can go for slightly better mana and add Rugged Prairies and/or get more man lands with Forbidding Watchtower or Mutavault. I’d probably suggest something like:

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Treetop Village
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Fire-lit Thicket
4 Vivid Grove
4 Vivid Crag
4 Spinerock Knoll
1 Forest
3 Mountain
3 Plains
4 Swamp
1 Rugged Prairie
2 Mutavault

That leads to decklist of:

This is an untested first draft, but it is based on a deck that Qualified for Nationals at Chicago Regionals and I’m reasonably confident it’s an improvement (Cascade Bluffs don’t make any sense to me for example, even if they do fit the theme).

I’m fairly confident this deck is for real. At the very least it’s a deck the dedicated combo players should love, as that’s been missing from Standard for awhile, and I think people have been eager to see how cascade could be broken as a tutor mechanic.

Thanks for reading and congratulations to everyone who qualified for Nationals this weekend. I look forward to seeing you there.