Burning Questions

Pro Tour champion Brian Kibler answers the most common questions he’s been getting about his successful Naya deck. If you want to beat Delver in Standard this weekend, consider playing Naya at SCG Open Series: Phoenix.

The current Standard format is in its waning days. Avacyn Restored is on the horizon, and we all know what that means. The entire metagame will be turned completely on its head. All of the best decks now will fade into obscurity, never to be heard from again. Pretty soon we’re all going to be casting nothing but Angels and Demons and saying, “Delver of what? Never heard of it….” 

Actually no, of course that isn’t what’s going to happen. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? An oppressively good deck packed with cheap creatures and countermagic running roughshod over the Standard scene. Last year about this time, word from on high was that New Phyrexia contained the answers to all of our problems. But what it turned out New Phyrexia really had was Batterskull and its good friend Dismember, and the problems just got worse.

My point here isn’t to take shots at WotC’s development (except about Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull. Seriously? Seriously?), but rather to frame my discussion of the current Standard. Even if you aren’t going to be playing in any major Standard events until Avacyn Restored is released, you could do well to study up on what’s going on right now because a single set—even an awesome one, as this one is shaping up to be—isn’t going to completely change the way things look. Delver of Secrets and company are still going to be a force to be reckoned with come May, and as cool as all of these enormous Angels and Demons that have been previewed look, something tells me that the solution to Delver’s reign isn’t going to come in the form of a six-plus cost creature.

So what do I have to say about the current Standard? Well, I’m glad you asked! And many of you have, in fact, asked me directly, whether over Facebook or Twitter or whatnot. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to respond to the volume of questions I frequently get over these mediums (though I try, and I vastly prefer if people contact me on Twitter rather than Facebook—follow me at @bmkibler if you’re so inclined!), so you’re just going to have to deal with this collective answering of your questions in the form of an article. And I’m here every week, so if you have more questions, you know where to look!

I’ve gotten quite a few questions lately about my Naya deck that I want to address. I very specifically don’t like calling it a Naya Pod deck, because that label makes people assume lots of things about the strategy and the structure of the deck that just aren’t true about this particular build.

For reference: 

The issue of labeling (and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the list above called “Naya Pod” when I read this myself come Friday) leads us to the first and perhaps most common question.

“Why only two Birthing Pods?” 

I understand the motivation behind this question, but it’s a strange one to me. When you look at an Esper Control deck, say, or a Delver equipment deck, do you ask, “Why only two Grave Titans?” or, “Why only two Sword of War and Peace?” Asking, “Why only two Birthing Pods?” with regard to this deck is a lot like asking those questions. This isn’t a “Birthing Pod deck” any more than a Delver deck with Sword is a “Sword of War and Peace deck.” Both of them are decks that have a primary strategy that has synergy with the artifacts, but neither is designed around them specifically.

It’s true that I originally adapted the deck from the Birthing Pod shell that Lukas Blohon used to make Top 8 at Pro Tour Dark Ascension. At first, I actually cut all of the Birthing Pods from his list, along with all of the expensive creatures, because my goal was to make a more consistent, more aggressive deck. I didn’t like the clunky, inconsistent hands that dedicated Birthing Pod decks are prone to, and I wanted to streamline the curve to function better in a world full of Delvers. After playing with the resulting deck a bit, I realized that so many of the creatures I already wanted to play, like Strangleroot Geist, Blade Splicer, and Huntmaster of the Fells, all had natural synergies with Birthing Pod that made the card worth playing to provide me with more flexibility and the ability to break open stalemates.

More than anything, Birthing Pod is a value card in this deck. You use it to turn a Strangleroot Geist into a Blade Splicer into a Huntmaster, and most of the time that’s good enough! Sometimes you need to go big and get Vorapede or Titan and sometimes you need to Tutor up answers like Fiend Hunter or Acidic Slime, but these are all far less common than just beating your opponent with incremental value and board advantage. This is different than most decks containing Birthing Pod, which are more about using Pod to build toward trump cards (most notably Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite). That’s not your plan at all, so you don’t want to end up flooded with Birthing Pods and unable to put pressure on your opponent.

Since we’re on the subject…

“Why no Elesh Norn / Wurmcoil Engine / InsertOtherLargeMonsterHere?”

The second most common question I’ve gotten about the deck has to be this one. Really, the answer is very much related to the previous one. This isn’t a Birthing Pod deck, and your plan isn’t to chain up to a single huge threat and win with it. Yes, I’m sure there are situations in which Elesh Norn would win you a game if it were in the deck, but the same is true of any number of powerful, expensive creatures—we’re certainly not going to just add everything that we might want in some situation just in case it comes up.

One thing people seem to have a poor grasp of in Magic deckbuilding is that every card in your deck comes at a cost. I don’t mean a mana cost or a cost in dollars, but at the opportunity cost of having some other card there instead. Yes, you could add an Elesh Norn, but you’re either going to have to cut something (or play 61 cards, which has its own associated costs in consistency). And while having the Elesh Norn in your deck may win you a game that you might not otherwise have won if it were the card you replaced, you are certainly going to lose games because you’re playing with an Elesh Norn instead of whatever card you cut for it.

And remember—it’s important to recognize that for Elesh Norn to be a positive inclusion in your deck, it has to be winning you games that you wouldn’t otherwise be winning with the other card. How often do you really have Inferno Titan and it’s not enough to win? Sure, the one time it comes up you may think, “Man, if I only had an Elesh Norn,” and decide to jam one in there (probably alongside a second six-drop because you don’t want to draw your six and not be able to go all the way up). Maybe you cut a Garruk, and then maybe a few games down the road you draw the Elesh Norn in your opening hand along with a good mix of other spells, but instead of being able to play a quick Garruk and start generating advantages right away you die a horrible death with an uncastable card in your hand when a single one of your mana creatures dies before turn six.

I see similar things going on with the discussion of Temporal Mastery right now. People are so fixated on the potential upside of Brainstorm / Jace, the Mind Sculptor / Ponder setting up Time Walk that they’re not even asking themselves if this is a card that most Legacy decks would want at all. Which would you rather have in, say, RUG Delver: Temporal Mastery or Lightning Bolt? How about Force of Will? Because any time you add a card that is situationally excellent to a deck, you have to cut something, and that something is often a card that is generally more useful if less spectacular when it does its job.

“How do you sideboard against Delver/Humans/Control/etc./etc./etc.?”

I’m generally not a fan of handing out pre-fabricated sideboard plans because people get too attached to them. Knowing how to sideboard a deck is incredibly intertwined with understanding how to play that deck. A single plan isn’t going to cover all of the variations of a different archetype you might run into—which is especially true with Delver decks these days—and going in with a rigid strategy leaves you open to exploitation by players who can anticipate what you’re doing and take advantage of it.

If you’re blindly sideboarding in your Ancient Grudges against every Delver opponent you run into, you’re going to feel really silly when you die with them in your hand and they tell you they sideboarded out all of their equipment. Understanding sideboarding is about understanding what matters in a matchup, and understanding what matters in a matchup is the absolute most important step you can take toward winning it.   

So rather than provide you with a handy-dandy cheat sheet that you can tuck into your pocket and follow at your next tournament , I’m going to go into detail on how the major matchup (Delver) plays out and why. From that, you can draw your own conclusions about how you ought to be sideboarding (or watch my videos for examples of how I sideboard along with my reasoning).

Against Delver, it’s important to try to gather as much information about their deck as you can in game 1. The presence of some cards tends to imply others, like Thought Scour and Runechanter’s Pike, while others tend to be negatively correlated—if you see a Drogskol Captain, you probably won’t see a Geist of Saint Traft. This is important for informing both your play in game 1 as well as your sideboarding strategy.

Your goal against Delver is to be the one putting the pressure on them. Between Gitaxian Probe and Gut Shot, they get a lot of free mana but also deal a lot of damage to themselves. You want to put them on the back foot so they’re forced to use their Vapor Snags defensively and have to use Mana Leak to stop your threats rather than protect their own.

Against basically all versions of Delver, Huntmaster is your most important card. He provides you with just about everything you could want. He’s resistant to Vapor Snag thanks to his enters the battlefield trigger, he gains you life to help race, and he forces them to act on their own turn to keep him from turning into a very angry puppy. You want to do everything you can to try to ensure that your Huntmasters resolve, which often means under dropping on turns when your opponent is clearly leaving mana open for Mana Leak (or Snapcaster for Leak).

If your opponent doesn’t have any threats in play, you’re often better served passing the turn than just playing a Huntmaster into open mana. Township is really the breaker in a lot of these situations, since your opponent can’t just sit there and let your team grow huge—he’s forced to tap mana to deal with what you’re doing, and that’s when you can resolve your key threats. Basically, you want to force your opponent to act if you can and make it awkward for him to do so.

Your worst cards are all of the ones that don’t mesh well with this plan, which means everything expensive and everything that doesn’t immediately impact the board. You want cheap threats that matter. One of the reasons I really like playing a light Birthing Pod chain is because I can actually cut all of the Birthing Pods and the fatties against Delver because it’s truly terrible in most situations. Sure, a resolved Birthing Pod with some creatures in play can be excellent, but a single Vapor Snag can ruin all of your hard work. It’s hard to justify paying six mana (or four mana and four life, which is also an important resource against Delver) just to upgrade something and see it bounced.

On the Delver side of the table, the most threatening card is generally Delver itself. Most of my losses tend to be against quick flipped Delvers backed up by Mana Leak. Often it’s worth using an Oblivion Ring on a Delver immediately rather than deploying a threat yourself. Even if you could play a Blade Splicer, you could find yourself facing down a 3/2 flier backed up by Vapor Snag and Mana Leak the following turn.

As long as the Delver player doesn’t have a threat on the board that’s actually putting you on a clock, the game generally favors you the longer it goes because Mana Leak becomes worse and Gavony Township has more time to take over the game. Even Geist of Saint Traft isn’t a major issue since you have a lot of ground creatures that can profitably block or trade with it, but keep in mind that you’ll often want to double block so your opponent can’t just attack with the Geist and use Vapor Snag on your blocker as a five-damage burn spell.

Things are a bit different against Spirits. Spirits is more about assembling a critical mass of powerful threats than putting you on a clock with backup. Against Spirits, your best card is, unsurprisingly, Daybreak Ranger. Ranger is only okay against typical Delver decks (though she can put them in awkward spots where they can’t flip Delver early, which is nice), but against Spirits she’s an absolute monster.

You can’t rely entirely on Daybreak Ranger, however, because there’s always the threat of your opponent bouncing or killing your Ranger and playing a Captain and copying it with Image in the same turn. At that point not even every Daybreak Ranger I pre-ordered could save you—although I suppose you could still attack with all of them for about 500, so maybe they would. If you really want to beat Spirits, though, you can very easily do so just by sideboarding a couple copies of Corrosive Gale—they really can’t handle even a single Gale when it’s backed up by substantial pressure.

So what do you think—was that more useful than a sideboarding guide or what?

In any case, I still highly recommend my Naya deck for anyone with tournaments remaining prior to the rotation, whether they’re PTQs or SCG Standard Opens—like the one coming up this weekend in Phoenix for which I’ll be doing commentary with one Patrick Sullivan. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how that tournament goes in the wake of the Delver dominance we’ve seen over the past month or so. My record against Delver with Naya over the course of the two major tournaments I’ve played it in is 7-1; so if you’re looking for a deck to wade through the sea of blue that’s likely to be out in force, this might just be the one for you.

Until next time,

And one more thing: for any of you who happen to be Ascension fans, or maybe just fans of seeing me look ridiculous on national television, be sure to tune in to Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory on MTV next Monday, the 16th. There’s going to be a particularly awesome episode featuring both Ascension and yours truly, so don’t miss it!