Chatter of the Squirrel – Spotlight on States: U/B Non-Teachings Control

Are YOU ready for States?
In a States field, I want to be doing abjectly powerful things. My deck contains Mind Stone, Shriekmaw, Cryptic Command, Damnation, and Scrying Sheets – all cards that I consider to be among the most powerful in the format right now. Moreover, not only do I want to be doing powerful things, I want to be doing powerful things against the broad spectrum of decks that you can expect to see at a tournament like States.

Everybody knows I don’t do Standard. This might become a problem, as I’m qualified for Worlds on rating (yay!) and might need to actually win matches. Something about the format just rubs me the wrong way, though. Ever since Urza’s/Masques, Standard has never piqued my interest. I like doing powerful things, unfair things, and a lot of the time Standard involves casting big dumb animals and hoping things work out for the best. There usually aren’t that many viable archetypes, and even if there is diversity in number, often many of the archetypes operate along similar strategic lines. In Mirrodin/Kamigawa, for example, you could do a whole lot of things with the UrzaTron but all of them involved surviving until your sixty million mana could win you the game.

As a deckbuilder, my one of my chief talents lies in finding technology – digging up cards that people don’t usually think of in order to accomplish specific goals. It’s easy to do this in Extended, where the card pool is so large that there’s always some card that does what you want it to. In Block, somewhat counter-intuitively, this is also often possible because the power level is comparatively low. Cute combos like Kavu Predator and Fiery Justice actually have time to work well together because the other options aren’t as obscene – and this is in Time Spiral Block, where the power level was actually quite high. Just think of Kamigawa Block where a straight-up Grey Ogre made Top 8 at a Constructed tournament (Kitsune Blademaster), or Ravnica Block where a Hill Giant was a house (Rakdos Pit Dragon).

By contrast, I’ve often found in Standard that you get the most mileage out of doing something that’s simply straight-up powerful. It’s hard to be cute; you’re in this awkward middle ground where everyone is doing something solid but it’s not so broken that you can neuter several different strategies at once with one particular card (Chalice of the Void in GP: Columbus Legacy). This usually means that I find the most abjectly powerful deck in the format and rely on playskill to do the rest. When I diverge from this pattern – think Nationals this year – the results are less than spectacular. So I tend not to write about Standard, which affects my readership significantly, but I’d rather dispense no advice than actively poor advice.

It’s States week, though, and in the spirit of camaraderie Craig has asked me to brew something up for all the aspiring Champs out there furiously combing through the StarCityGames.com archives in an effort to gain an edge. Personally, I don’t understand States. The prize support is awful and the drives are long. At the same time, there’s plenty of value to being called champion, and you can have a lot of fun without having to endure the strictly cutthroat environment of a PTQ. So while I hardly ever attend, I find myself concocting lists for other Memphians year in and year out, and in two cases they’ve won the entire event. That’s enough, I hope, to hear me out.

Without further ado:

Alright, so: why this deck?

Like I said earlier, in a States field I want to be doing abjectly powerful things. This deck contains Mind Stone, Shriekmaw, Cryptic Command, Damnation, and Scrying Sheets – all cards that I consider to be among the most powerful in the format right now. Moreover, not only do I want to be doing powerful things, I want to be doing powerful things against the broad spectrum of decks that you can expect to see at a tournament like States. To put it more specifically, I don’t ever want my plan to be contingent upon what my opponents bring to the table. It’s for this reason that, were I to attend States, I wouldn’t be playing Teachings even though that deck is one of my all-time favorites.

It’s not that Teachings somehow isn’t good; the deck is clearly nuts. But you only have to read Patrick’s article from this week to understand why it’s problematic: one of the best deck designers on the planet seriously considered playing a 65-card deck at a high-level tournament. The issue is not the number of cards he wanted to play; the issue is that the deck really wants about nine different silver bullet answers to properly cover all of its bases, and it’s very difficult to pick and choose the proper ones. At a tournament like States, I don’t want to stone cold lose the game because right before the tournament I cut my maindeck Psionic Blast (or whatever) and suddenly can’t kill the Jace that’s sitting there confidently at four counters ready to wreck my face.

If we can hearken back to PT: Yokohama, it was the decks that started eschewing flexibility in favor of more Careful Considerations that rose to the top after Day 1. I’m not saying that parallelism necessarily holds true today, but I am using it to illustrate my thought process here. Absent any real indication of what the environment is actually going to look like, I’ll move forward with the plan of drawing tons of cards and killing everything in sight. If somebody’s “got me” with something cute, I’ll take my chances.

So what’s going on with this deck?

There’s obviously a pseudo-Solar-Flare-esque mini-reanimation theme with evoke creatures and Mannequin. The thing is, that’s powerful enough to move beyond quirky and into the realm of “actually good” because it allows you to hold open Cryptic Command mana and also do something worthwhile if you don’t need to Command. Double Shriekmaw is crippling, as is double Mulldrifter. As the game progresses, the Mannequins become virtual tutors that allow you to bounce or counter a spell, kill a bearl, or draw some cards – all the while not marrying you to your main phase in the process. I choose Mannequin over something like Grim Harvest because I like the immediacy of the spell. Grim Harvest is a great “long-game” plan, sure, but it’s not like people don’t know about it. I don’t think Harvest is a bad card, and it’s tremendously effective in decks that can Teachings for it, but as I stated earlier I don’t want to participate in the “can-I-tutor-for-the-right-answer” guessing game. At the same time, I don’t want to play three Raise Deads just to give myself an immutable long game. Hopefully, drawing two cards, then drawing another two cards and giving myself a 2/2, then repeating the process if it dies is going to get me there. It’s not infinite, but how much help does a control deck need if it has forty thousand mana to complete that recursion loop in the first place?

I’m hoping Careful Consideration, Shriekmaw, Cryptic Command, and Damnation are self-explanatory. Once you start casting those spells you’re just plain doing better things than whatever it is your opponent is attempting. The seven Signets might seem a little questionable, but it’s difficult to overemphasize how insane Mind Stone is in this type of deck. Hearken back to Time Spiral Block for a minute. When you were playing Teachings, exactly how often did you ever lose if you drew a Prismatic Lens? It didn’t happen very much, right? That’s exactly why I’m now playing seven of them. I chose Coldsteel Heart obviously because it’s snow, and because there are a lot of 2XX spells I want to cast on turn 3 and so probably would require the manafixing. Lens, I think, would be overboard once you’ve taken into account Coldsteel Heart, though, and Mind Stone averts the possibility of mana flood that’s so common in these types of decks. It also doesn’t make you a duck to Ancient Grudge, since you can almost always at least get a card out of the deal.

A couple of people I’ve showed this list to can’t understand why I’m not running Coalition Relic. The thing is, though, that getting you from three to six isn’t all that important. What you really want is to be casting all those four-mana spells on turn 3. If you can start doing that, you’re probably not going to lose all that often. Furthermore, with Relic, you open yourself up to being blown out by Ancient Grudge because it inevitably becomes a part of your plan (as most three mana spells tend to do). That’s a critical turn’s worth of investment that they can simply obliterate with a well-timed instant.

Speaking of three-mana artifacts, my oh my am I ever the fan of a Phyrexian Ironfoot. He stops non-Red aggro decks cold – okay, okay, except for Goyf, but Goyf is going to die to something else – and gives you something relevant to do against a Planeswalker. He comes down early, survives Nameless Inversion and Incinerate, and you can always pop him right back with a Mannequin if you’re not participating in cute comes-into-play tricks. I’m honestly surprised that this guy doesn’t see more play. A 3/4 for three with pseudo-vigilance? Since when has this been bad?

Venser solves the Gaddock Teeg problem in addition to being generally good, as well as another way to deal with Planeswalkers. The Snow theme gives me some extra endgame without sacrificing very much, and again it provides more Teferi and Teeg answers.

I’m experimenting a bit with the sideboard, but I’ve structured it to reflect the randomness that sometimes rears its head at States. Specifically, I know that States players love their Midrange, and there’s nothing I’d rather draw more against that strategy than a Sower of Temptation. Doran, The Siege Tower? Thanks, B! Truly, that guy is going to be a house against any deck with Forests, and any deck that wants to beat you with large finishers. If you Sow a Korlash, for example, they’ve got to take care of our favorite Faerie with his ability on the stack. Even against Red decks, they have to spend a card to kill it and usually he’ll save you seven or eight damage because of summoning sickness. Extirpate is for Haakon or Grim Harvest recursion, and the Inversions are the best way I can think of to take care of Teegs and random dorks. Faerie Trickery also stops Haakon recursion if you can hit Haakon on the front end, and plays the role of the “I don’t really know what my opponent is doing so I’ll bring in Counterspells to try and stop it” slot that’s so vital to have at a random open tournament. Finally, the Planeswalkers are there to punish slower decks that have no means of dealing with them.

Is this the type of deck I’d like to PTQ with? No, it’s not. But in an open environment where it’s dangerous to try and provide answers to all the right questions, this deck gets the job done. You’re killing them with a bunch of 2/2s, sure, but ultimately what matters is that you take care of business. This deck can draw a ton of cards, kill a lot of creatures, and counter a lot of spells. There’s a plan for everything, a weakness to nothing, and the potential to just roll over the opponent by virtue of your card quality. If you’re going for “solid,” I can’t think of a better choice.