The last few months were a whirlwind of Open Series grind, a slog of a job during the week, and connecting flights between those two compartments of my
life. Everything changed for the better this week. For those of you who are just here to find whether you should play Standstills in Providence, sit
tight. Nothing about Magic is ever only about the cards. This weekend, the cards may have mattered least of all.
This story begins at the SCG DC Open. I hosted a bunch of grinders for the weekend, among them Ben Hayes. A few weeks before the tournament, he asked
if it was okay for Gerry to stay with me as well. I had room and didn’t really know Gerry beyond a few passing conversations, so I okayed it.
Upon arriving that Friday evening, Gerry then convinced me to take in Megan Holland of MTGMom.com fame, as her logistics had gotten mixed up, and she
was without a place to stay. What could I say but yes?
I woke up that Saturday morning around 3:30 am. It wasn’t the sort of waking up where you roll over and go back to sleep, either. I got up, threw
on a shirt, tiptoed around AJ, and grabbed my iPod to go for a run. I mean, if I’m not going to sleep, I might as well get the blood flowing. I
opened the door into the predawn glow of suburban Virginia to find Gerry sitting on my front steps, smoking a cigarette. I ditched my electronic
running partner, and we ended up walking around Arlington talking for the next four hours.
That night, Gerry introduced me to Matt Lackey, an old Magic-playing friend of his from Indiana who does political data management. We ended up
exchanging emails over the next few days, but my mind quickly pivoted back to the Open Series grind.
A little over a month later, I was in Atlanta. I had just dropped three straight matches after starting off 6-0; I was questioning whether I belonged
on the Open Series circuit at all, and I felt like I needed a break. I sought Gerry out for a bit of perspective, and he didn’t disappoint.
“You need to decide if you’re going to treat this like a job or not. If you are, take it more seriously than you are. If you aren’t
going to view it as a job, then have a little more fun with it. You’re just in a very bad in-between space right now.” I knew he was right,
but I didn’t know whether I was willing to make that shift in either direction.
Part of the appeal of the Open Series right up until this past weekend was that it provided me with just enough money to let me continue treating both
my Magic life and my actual career as fairly unserious entities. I took neither one seriously enough to really make progress, and so while I stayed
busy, I stagnated. Of course, inertia is easy—you don’t have to fight it at all. I kept flying on weekends, working during the week, and
watching my grasp on each part of my life slip, finger by finger.
In the weeks between Atlanta and Boston, I got back in touch with Matt Lackey. Call it luck, serendipity, or my realization that I needed to start
taking one part of my life more seriously than the other, but I convinced him to come jam Caw-Blade at Regionals. Of course, we both bricked off, but
that wasn’t the most important part of that day. We ended up hanging out until 2 am that morning with his roommates, playing ping-pong and
figuring out why I was beating the best player in his house and losing to the worst one.
The Thursday night before Charlotte, Matt called me up and offered me a position working for him. I instantly accepted.
I don’t live in a world where I believe that I’ll someday “go pro” and play Magic as a job. I don’t know that I’d
accept such a lifestyle even with a guarantee that I’d make enough money to get by. I love Magic for the escapism, for the hobby, for the fun and
the game and the friends and the travel. Treating it as a job would destroy it for me. Once I knew that to be true, I realized that I needed to take a
career that much more seriously. As soon as I began seriously looking for another job, I found exactly what I was looking for.
I flew out of Washington, DC on Thursday with a silly grin on my face. I was two days deep on what I was fairly certain was my dream job, my boss is a
Magic player, and I could finally treat Magic as a vacation. How could this get better?
I flew into Tampa on Thursday to meet Gerry and the Hollands, who hosted me for the weekend. After losing the credit card game for
dinner—“Welcome to Florida,” gibed Kitt—we returned to the Hollands’ for the evening. The following day was fairly
uneventful: wake up, go to an amusement park in Orlando, swim in the hotel pool, go shopping, pizza for dinner, hang out with friends until the early
morning. Just another day on the grind, you know?
I came into the tournament on Saturday with an utterly carefree mindset. I could 0-6 both days and get on my flight home with a smile. I was on
vacation with my friends, after all. My Saturday ended somewhat anticlimactically—I X-1ed into the final round, had bad breakers, and bricked on
multiple land drops to get crushed out of Top 8. Oh well, guess I get to sleep in.
I spent Saturday night figuring out the sideboard of my U/B/R Legacy deck. I had Gerry’s Legacy list, and I knew the deck would be awesome, but
somehow I had managed to marry myself to my inferior idea. I never ended up figuring out the sideboard, but the final maindeck list is below.
The idea was to combine the successful aspects of AJ’s U/R deck and Gerry’s BUG deck from Charlotte, discard the Stifles, cut green, and
try to beat up on Merfolk and all the attrition decks.
Gerry, to his credit, never lost faith in my ability to recognize when I’m outclassed. From the moment he handed me the first draft of the U/W
list, he was completely certain I would be playing it. When I walked into the tournament hall on Sunday, I had most of my deck in my backpack, ready to
be joined by six sideboard cards on my deck sheet. As soon as I sat down next to Gerry, though, he said, “Let’s go find a corner and
I knew what was going on. Gerry had brewed an insane Darkblade list for Saturday and was rewarded by being the only person playing the list to not Top
16. I can only imagine that that stung, and so his game plan for Sunday was to limit his deck to three people: him, AJ, and me. We walked to the far
corner of the room, sat down, and began to pull together three copies of our collective weapon:
At its core, this is a control deck built to beat other control decks. How do you win a control mirror, exactly? There are a few ways:
- Play more counters so you can control what hits play and what doesn’t
- Gain mana advantage so you can outmaneuver their counters and threats by playing more spells
per turn than they do
- Gain card advantage so you can hit more land drops and play more spells than they have
- Untap with Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play (see all other answers)
This deck overloads on hard counters (fifteen) and has a ton of built-in inevitability plans. The six basic Islands insulate you against all manner of
the Wasteland recursion strategies while the Crucible of Worlds lets you Wasteland-lock a basic-light opponent going long. The Vedalken Shackles are a
perfect endgame against aggressive strategies and against the BUG control decks that wanted to win with creatures. No one else in the room was playing
the correct number of Jace, the Mind Sculptors—four,
thank you, Patrick Chapin
—while I just always had one whenever I needed it.
In the sideboard, the second Crucible is better than an Academy Ruins because your long game against aggressive decks is Vedalken Shackles plus Jace,
so as long as you don’t mess up and expose Shackles to Pridemage, you should be fine. Ruins is pretty superfluous when you want to just
accumulate a massive resource advantage. Since the first Crucible is miles better than the first Academy Ruins at creating resource advantage, it makes
sense to play a second one just to give you more shots at seeing one in the matchups where it matters.
For the first time in my life, card availability impacted the decklist I registered for an SCG Open. I had three Tundras with me, and although I
could’ve registered four and tried to find one during my two byes, I played it safe with three Tundra and eight fetchlands. An optimal list
definitely plays four Tundra and seven fetches, though—there were two occasions where I was Wastelanded off of all three of my white sources and
didn’t have access to a Crucible of Worlds. Both times, I had dead Swords to Plowshares in a matchup where I wanted to be able to cast all four
in my post-sideboard deck. This is a deck that will go late in almost all of its games, so a Wasteland deck will see multiples. Playing four Tundra is
The reason why this deck is at all playable is Mental Misstep. I know I’ve written more than my fair share about the card, but
it’s the real deal. Having eight cards to interact with Aether Vial on the draw is crucial to playing a deck with fifteen counters, which is part
of why this deck wasn’t particularly strong before New Phyrexia. Once you can somewhat reliably stop an Aether Vial, though, you
definitely want to play the best draw spell in the format, which is Standstill.
I jokingly said to Gerry, “You know, I think Standstill is better than Ancestral Recall in this format.” He got it immediately:
“Yeah, at least Ancestral doesn’t let them staple a bunch of Time Walks on.” It’s closer to true than the joke lets on,
though—I encountered very few people who understood how to play with a Standstill in play.
There are two acceptable lines of play against a resolved Standstill in a situation where the board is at parity: break it immediately or wait it out.
Breaking it immediately isn’t particularly appealing, but it’s not going to get better. If you wait, they get to untap their mana and will
definitely be capable of casting a Counterspell that they draw into or already have in hand. Your best chance of resolving a spell once they’ve
resolved Standstill is on the first turn you get.
If you decide to wait Standstill out, you need to commit to it. It doesn’t matter if they hit every land drop for the first five turns; you
can’t give a blue deck multiple turns as well as three fresh cards. The “wait them out plan” involves denying them any card advantage
from Standstill while also sculpting a seven-card hand that can push through their inevitable wall of counters. If your deck isn’t capable of
assembling such a hand, you should’ve broken Standstill immediately.
Once you’ve got your perfect seven, wait until they have eight cards in hand and are in their end step. Cast an instant to break Standstill, let
them discard three or four cards, then untap and unload your threats. They’re going to have a bunch of mana open and multiple counters in hand,
so don’t expect to win every time you do this. Still, it’s much, much better than randomly breaking their Standstill on your own
main phase when they have five cards in hand and five lands untapped. I can almost guarantee that you will never win a game where you do that.
The reason why Standstill is good even without people stapling Time Walks to your Ancestral Recalls is that the format has warped around Hymn to
Tourach a lot. If you can’t beat a deck built to grind you out with a bunch of 2-for-1s going long, you have no business playing that deck. The
beauty of this deck is that Standstill is very, very strong against all the BUG decks that are built to grind control decks down with Hymns and
Jaces—we play four Standstills and twice as many Jaces as they do. Furthermore, they have literally zero ways of getting ahead under a
Standstill. Whereas playing a Standstill against Merfolk is actually rather risky because they have eight live lands under Standstill, whereas almost
every aggressive or midrange deck has no choice but to let you peel three every single time. If they let you develop your mana and draw back to seven
cards, you’re probably going to resolve a Jace after Standstill breaks and kill them with that.
You’ll notice that the deck plays zero Sensei’s Divining Top, and it does so for good reasons. AJ tried to sell me on playing one or two
Tops in the list, and I was almost sold on it when I walked away. When I went outside to talk with Gerry about it, though, the conversation went
something like this:
“Hey, I just heard AJ’s rationale on including a solo Top, and it sounds—”
“Uh, I was going to say halfway decent, but I’m probably just wrong here.”
“See, I was hoping you were going to say completely miserable, because it’s completely miserable.”
“Well, you’re theoretically supposed to use it to gain value under Standstill, but that’s pretty unrealistic since you only have one.
Besides, the earliest you’re going to be able to play it is turn three and even then, your mana is super tight. You want to gain utility from
your colorless lands, so it’s not like you have a ton of mana lying around to Top with a bunch. Furthermore, with this style of deck, you
can’t afford to dilute your deck with more non-business spells. If they crack Standstill and you draw Top, Brainstorm, Brainstorm, you’ll
have an awesome hand in a turn or two, but their threat is resolving, and they’re killing you. You’re pretty much always behind on board,
so your mana is always at a premium. Flipping Top seems awful, since now you have to use mana to recast it, and again, this deck needs its mana a lot.
I’d rather just have a business spell. Didn’t he cut a Repeal for it? Yeah, that seems horrible.”
So I played Gerry’s 75 minus the Tundra I had at home.
To get back to Mental Misstep for a second, part of the reason why this deck was so good for Orlando in particular is because of a few lines of
metagaming logic that ended up making the field look very bad for Counterbalance/Top strategies. Here’s the first line of reasoning:
- Merfolk is one of the best decks in Legacy prior to New Phyrexia and definitely wants to play
four Mental Missteps. Counterbalance strategies are already weak to Merfolk, but not being able to reliably Swords to Plowshares a Lord of Atlantis is
very, very bad. Furthermore, it’s a relatively inexpensive deck to put together and has a low learning curve.
- A lot of people will probably play Merfolk into a relatively unknown metagame.
- Merfolk is favored against Counterbalance.
The other line is a little more complex:
- Mental Misstep is a hard counter that will likely see a lot of play in Orlando. Whether it is
good or not, its novelty will inflate its numbers.
- People who play combo fear hard counters.
- People are less likely to play combo as a result.
- Counterbalance/Top preys on combo decks.
- There are fewer good matchups in the field for Counterbalance decks.
There are two reasons why we care about Counterbalance/Top strategies. The first is that it’s very hard to compete with Sensei’s Divining
Top in terms of card selection in a long game—they will almost always be able to outwait you in the hitting-land-drops game. Of course, Mental
Misstep shines here because of its incredible efficiency in stopping Top, but you don’t always have it. Playing a Standstill is a pretty rough
proposition if the enemy has Top in play. If you can’t reliably draw cards or outwait people, the matchup becomes about resolving a Jace to gain
advantage on the board. That, of course, is where Counterbalance becomes a very live card, shutting off a ton of our deck’s ways of interacting
with the board.
The second—and bigger—threat is that of the round clock. The mechanics of Topping, fetching, shuffling, Topping, drawing, thinking,
Brainstorming, and so on all take a lot of time. This deck takes its sweet time winning games as it stands, so fighting a control mirror where they
have Sensei’s Divining Top can very easily go to time. Unfortunately, there isn’t a really good solution for this, as it’s just the
biggest risk of playing U/W decks in Legacy: you accept that you might pick up an unintentional draw in the course of play. If you’re prone to
taking a lot of time on decisions as it is, though, this is probably not the deck for you. In an eight- or nine-round Legacy tournament, it’s a
risk. Having two byes, though, helps ameliorate a lot of that risk. For everyone asking me if this is a strong choice for Providence, I can only
respond by asking you how quickly you can pilot a deck with nine win conditions and where you lose value by getting aggressive with your mana too
In the end, I finished in the Top 4, losing to fellow fish and eventual champion Chris VanMeter. I couldn’t have lost to a nicer guy, really, and
the two of us are the only people realistically chasing Level 8 for M12. My two finishes combined push me into Level 6 territory and put me 47 points
away from Level 8 with seven tournaments left to play before the core set releases in Cincinnati.
My flight left Tampa at 8:30. I had the window seat on the right side of the plane and was far too awake for having woken up at 6 am. We were clearing
the clouds as the overhead announcement came on. “Use of select portable electronics is now permitted…” I popped my headphones
in, tilted my head against the window, and stared out over the clouds. Through the dense cloud cover, an object appeared. It was moving way too quickly
to be an airplane and was going much more up than across. It was leaving a thick vapor trail as it cleared the clouds
and kept climbing. I pulled a headphone out just in time to hear the overhead announcement again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll look out the windows on the right side of the plane, you might be able to see the launch of the Space
I was back in my office by 11. I dropped my bags off, walked over to Matt’s office, and poked my head through the open door. My boss looked up
and said, “Oh, you’re back. Congratulations on your weekend, good work.”