Black Magic – States And A PTQ

Sam learned some important lessons from his Standard States Championship and a recent Limited PTQ. Here, he shares his sealed pool, the U/R deck he played at States, and his thoughts on these formats before Kansas City.

These last weekends, I’ve been playing in local tournaments: first in States, then in a Sealed PTQ in Chicago. I didn’t take either especially seriously, but I did learn something from each of them, so I thought I’d share.

At States I played a deck that was an excellent illustration of what I need to learn most as a deckbuilder.

I often say that my favorite thing in Magic is to spend a lot of resources accomplishing almost nothing. That or winning with bad cards. These might be related. I love decks that let me play a lot of spells for incremental value and interactions that maximize minor advantages. Through all of Scars Block Constructed, I just wanted to play and sacrifice Wellsprings to net card advantage, even though it was way too slow for the format. In Standard, I wanted to do the same thing and did so with a Tezzeret deck I wrote about here.

Decks like this are said to have a lot of “air”: cards that don’t have a serious impact on the board that cycle. Ponder, Preordain, Prophetic Prism, Mishra’s Bauble, and Think Twice would all be examples of air. In general, I like to play a lot of it, not because I think it’s especially good, but generally because it has some way of tricking me into thinking I’m getting something for nothing. At States, I played far too much air. I’ll get to that.

My deck ideas for the current Standard format have mostly been inspired by Innistrad draft decks. I’m not sure if that’s how other people do things, but when you spend all your time drafting, I guess it’s natural. Earlier today I briefly considered Curse of the Bloody Tome in constructed.

Before States, my inspiration came from Raphael Levy Grand Prix Milan Top Eight deck.

In Limited, this archetype is trying to play an early transform card, and then sit back and protect it, or clear a path for it to win. That sounded awesome in Constructed to me. Classic aggro-control. Play a powerful one-mana creature, then sit back with counterspells and removal and clear the way for it to win the game; if they don’t do anything, draw cards at the end of their turn.

Delver of Secrets seemed amazing if it could flip early, but that took some dedication. Fortunately, I’m willing to work to maximize marginal value out of my cards.

Think Twice, Desperate Ravings, and Forbidden Alchemy play very well together. Desperate Ravings and Forbidden Alchemy put these flashback cards in the graveyard, where you can get more value out of them. The more you play, the better each one is, which is perfect for me, since I want to play cheap one-for-ones, which will let me convert the mana-intensive card advantage conveyed by these cards into actual value, and it fills my deck with spells for Delver of Secrets.

Spoiler alert:

When you play all of those, it takes forever to dig through all that air, which can be a problem when you’re looking for tempo-positive answers.

My thinking was that they’d be great with counterspells because I could draw cards at the end of my opponent’s turn if they didn’t do anything. It turns out that if you’re sitting on a powerful, cheap creature, you win anyway if your opponent doesn’t do anything, and if your hand is full of cards that have to be cycled to do anything, you don’t have counterspells when you need them.

The other problem with filling a deck with so much air is that if all of your spells cycle, they just cycle into lands. You have to play very few lands to avoid flooding, but then you don’t have enough mana to cycle your air early.

So that was the main problem, but let’s look at the list before going on:

If I was on the play with a Stromkirk Noble in hand, I usually won, but the same thing can be said for Mono Red. I couldn’t mulligan for a one-drop, but I really needed one, or I’d basically just flood out and lose or not have a counterspell at the right moment, since I really couldn’t beat anything that resolved.

The basic premise was reasonable. The new ramp deck doesn’t have Summoning Trap, so just countering all their threats felt like a very good plan, and getting under control also felt like a reasonable idea. The idea was to one-for-one with aggro and then get ahead with card advantage, but in reality, you just spend forever shifting through cards and then die.

I didn’t want to just play Divination as the way to refuel because I knew I’d have trouble with anything that resolved, so I needed to keep my mana up through my opponent’s turn. The problem is, against an opponent who’s doing anything, I can’t afford to play my card draw until I have enough mana to counter and play a card-draw spell in the same turn anyway.

Basically, there are two ways this deck can go. One way is to cut the stuff that wastes time and focus on being a tempo deck. In the world, I need at least four more creatures, which makes Delver flip less often. To make up for that, I think I can play Ponder.

An updated version might look more like:

This deck will have turns where it can’t do anything with its mana, but in exchange, it should be able to present an early threat and be able to follow up with a curve of relevant reactive spells and ideally finish the opponent off with burn before they catch up.

Another route is to focus further on aggression. Playing more creatures requires giving up Delver of Secrets, but there are a lot of good aggressive creatures in Standard right now. Not playing Stormblood Berserker is a significant cost to keep the creature count that low, which might not be desirable anyway. A more red approach would be something like:

I had Tezzeret’s Gambit in this list, but really, drawing most of these creatures that late in the game seems pointless—I’d probably just be hoping to draw burn, so playing another burn spell just seems better. It’s hard to follow my own advice sometimes.

The other path is the more well-explored R/U/x control deck that uses early counters and removal to buy time to filter through Desperate Ravings to keep hitting land drops so that it can ultimately win with a six, or possibly Karn Liberated.

I haven’t actually played any Standard since States, so I’ll have to leave it at that.

Instead, I’ve been drafting and playing sealed. In theory, this is to prepare for Grand Prix San Diego and the Limited portion at Worlds. Really, it’s just because I love drafting, and I’m particularly enjoying Innistrad. I’d love to write about drafting Innistrad, but I honestly can’t figure out how to properly convey what I’ve learned in this format. There are so many layers to every question; even pick orders within a specific archetype change wildly depending on what you have and what you’ve passed. Getting a feel for the table is extremely important, and, like all the best formats, your deck can really do anything.

Fortunately, playing in a PTQ gives me a single deck I can focus on to talk about sealed.

When I first got my pool, I was a little disappointed. I’d just opened a single pack with Grimgrin, Liliana, and Mayor of Avabruck, and this pool didn’t have anything so flashy. Also, as always, everyone around me had been talking about how awesome the pools they’d opened were, and at first pass, this didn’t stack up. However, once I actually built a deck, it looked awesome.

The pool:

There was no strong incentive (read: rare) to play white or green, so, given the strength of the other colors, I immediately eliminated both of them.

My blue was awesome, deep, and had lots of double-colored cards, so I clearly wanted it to be my primary color. Given that I had Civilized Scholar and Shimmering Grotto, it seemed unlikely that I would cut Blasphemous Act or Sever the Bloodline. Blasphemous Act is the better splash, since Sever works better if I have enough Swamps that I can flash it back, and heavy black also lets me support Victim of Night and Moan of the Unhallowed.

I considered trying to play Rage Thrower, but I couldn’t make my mana work to have as much blue and black as I wanted without absolutely minimizing red, and it just wasn’t worth playing any red card smaller than Blasphemous Act, though I did originally look at Hanweir Watchkeep and Desperate Ravings as well.

I had a lot of options for early game with two each of Stitcher’s Apprentice, Walking Corpse, and Ashmouth Hound. Since I was base blue, I went with the blue card, which also worked well with my Falkenrath Nobles. I also wanted Sensory Deprivation because it was clear that my late game was awesome. With Forbidden Alchemy, Moan of the Unhallowed, Cackling Counterpart, and Sever the Bloodline all coming back for more when I hit seven mana, not to mention Blasphemous Act and Back from the Brink supporting my inevitability, I just needed to stay alive, which Sensory Deprivation is good at. Ultimately though, it just felt weaker than my other cards, so I resolved to bring it in if I played against anyone who was too aggressive, but I figured most people would build sealed decks to maximize power rather than speed.

My final build was:

Battleground Geist
Civilized Scholar
Deranged Assistant
2 Falkenrath Noble
Geistcatcher’s Rig
Markov Patrician
Mirror-Mad Phantasm
2 Moon Heron
Stitched Drake
2 Stitcher’s Apprentice

Back from the Brink
Blasphemous Act
Cackling Counterpart
Forbidden Alchemy
Moan of the Unhallowed
Sever the Bloodline
Silent Departure
Think Twice
Victim of Night

7 Swamp
8 Island
1 Mountain
1 Shimmering Grotto

The deck is very traditionally good. It has bombs, evasion, and removal. The details happen to be incredibly synergistic. Moon Heron, Markov Patrician, and even Civilized Scholar are great, except that they’re easily killed, so they usually just trade with something. Fortunately, this deck is really just looking to trade as much as possible to set up Back from the Brink and live to get seven mana for its flashback spells. Also, Falkenrath Noble means that I’ll often profit further from these trades.

About Falkenrath Noble. I can’t speak highly enough about how this card performed for me. Sometimes I’d win by attacking with Moon Heron and Battleground Geist, but most games were won by Falkenrath triggers, including one game that I won entirely by blocking while I had Nobles in play, and another that I won on turn six by playing Nobles on turns four and five, then Moan of the Unhallowed and Blasphemous Act, killing nine creatures, dealing 18 to my opponent on turn six. Most games I would eventually end up with two Nobles in play, and one time three, thanks to Cackling Counterpart and Back from the Brink.

The quality of the removal was also very important, as you’d expect from any late-game deck. The rares, Blasphemous Act and Sever the Bloodline, over-performed as much as it’s possible for already good cards to over-perform. Sever the Bloodline is one of the absolute best cards in the set.

Also, before playing with it, I was actually unsure how good Back from the Brink would be. I’d generally been of the impression that it was a little slow in Draft, but it was incredible in Sealed, and I would advise actively looking to build to it any time you have the option in Sealed.

As for the actual event, I started 6-0, which was very weird emotionally. This was the first PTQ I could play in in several years.

Before you ask, until this season, when PWPs were announced, the rule was that if you were level five or higher—maybe it was six, either way—you were not allowed to play in PTQs. With PWPs, the rule changed so that now anyone who has not already earned a flight is allowed to play, so the only people who can’t are those who have already reached level seven or eight this year or those who have won a PTQ this season. I’m level six from last year; I’ve earned level five this year; and I’ll be guaranteed at least level six if I show up for Worlds.

Whenever I’ve played in a PTQ in the past, being 6-0 in an eight-round PTQ was something to be pretty excited about, but here, I was just playing to have something to do on a Saturday, to grind some PWPs, and maybe to help a friend qualify. I wanted to find something to be excited about, but I just couldn’t really.

In round seven, I got paired against one of my housemates (four of my housemates were playing in the event) and asked if he wanted me to concede. He wasn’t sure if we’d be able to draw in next round if we drew, since they didn’t post pairings, and we were exactly one person short of nine rounds, so I conceded, but luckily, I was able to draw in next round anyway.

In the top eight, I opened and picked Instigator Gang, which the two people to my right both saw as a signal that they should draft red to cut me off. For anyone who doesn’t know: this is completely irrational, and you should not do it if you’re in the position to. If the person you’re passing to first-picks a double-faced card, stay out of that color unless the best card in your pack by a lot is that color. Cooperating gives you the best deck, and pairings are generally ordered such that you play the person across from you first, and you don’t play the person you’re passing to unless you’re both in the finals, which is how this draft was run.

I took a Curse of Death’s Hold second, followed by Victim of Night, but then I didn’t really see any more black or red, so I took Murder of Crows, and then an absurdly late sixth-pick Elder of Laurels solidified me in green, and most of the rest of my picks in pack one were green. Pack two I took several good red cards, and I ended up with a solid red/green Werewolves deck with a lot of rares. I conceded to my housemate again in the top four, and he ended up winning the finals.

This weekend I’ll be playing in another PTQ, this time in Madison. I won’t be too competitive, so if you see me there, feel free to ask for help with your sealed.

Thanks for reading,