Chatter of the Squirrel – The Trouble with Faeries

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Wednesday, April 16th – Lately, control decks have been subscribing to a tried-and-true Flores theory of “only really control the game until I can tap out for a Dragon and then kill you.” This has proven extremely effective, as per the success of Osyp’s Honolulu Top 8 deck, Wafo-Tapa’s Guile deck, and others. The beauty of Faeries is that you can circumvent even that crucial one-turn window of threat deployment.

So I guess this week I’ll have to do something crazy and actually talk about the card game Magic: The Gathering. This week, I present… The Trouble with Faeries*.

My subject – lucky, spot-lit subject – will be a certain U/b aggro control – yes, Adrian, aggro-control – list that’s shredding Standard’s landscape like Beaver’s dad shred incriminating financial statements in the Veronica Mars episode “Cheatty Cheatty Bang Bang**”. Yes, kids, the Faeries have busted out of community-theatre prop rooms and Tegan and Sara concerts to claim their place at the head of the Standard Pantheon one scathing plink of damage at a time. Boasting an amazingly consistent manabase, seven deadly man-lands, a potent suite of countermagic, and The Best Two Drop In Standard***, it’s hard to get a strategic edge in anywhere. If Pro Tour: Hollywood were tomorrow, I’d sleeve up the following generic 75 and pray people were crazy enough to play anything else:

Little in the way of innovation, I understand, other than the full 4 Peppersmokes for the mirror. Gotta kill that Scion. 4 Cryptic Command seems to be a bit heavy, but it’s amazing how far cantrip Fogging can get you when you’re in the home stretch of a race. The Terror might be random, but I didn’t want another Pestermite or another maindeck Sower, and I wanted a way to kill things dead. That’s also why there’s no Sower in my sideboard. The problem is that most of the decks against which Sower is a beating are also the decks that are going to try and hose you with forty thousand insta-Hurricanes post-board. Tapping 2UU on your main phase is therefore rarely an inviting proposition. You keep your two in, sure, but I don’t want another one.

So why am I so high on this deck?

As anyone who’s ever heard me open my mouth knows, I love some Magic theory. One of the reasons I was so excited to run Johnny Walker Red at Worlds last year was that you could play twenty six lands and have twelve of them do something other than generate mana. You also had inevitability against everything, because those Beacons never go away and those Siege-Gangs could kill you quickly. From a theoretical perspective, Faeries has it all.

Lately, control decks have been subscribing to a tried-and-true Flores theory of “only really control the game until I can tap out for a Dragon and then kill you.” This has proven extremely effective, as per the success of Osyp’s Honolulu Top 8 deck, Wafo-Tapa’s Guile deck, and others. The beauty of Faeries is that you can circumvent even that crucial one-turn window of threat deployment. You get to play a deck with twelve counterspells that never does anything on its main phase ever. Sure, the clock’s slower, but it’s also evasive and untargetable. In the case of Vendilion This Card Does Everything You Could Ever Want And Then Washes Clothes And Fixes Chicken Dinner Clique, it even gets an answer out of the way for you first. The most you’ll ever have to spend on your main phase is two, and that’s for Ultra Forcefield Kill You Clock.

The other great thing about Faeries is that you’re playing superior Power Nine cards****. Time Walk’s amazing, right? What about with a 4/4 body attached? Even this is actually misleading because I am one of those people who (right or wrong) hardly ever upkeeps a Clique. This is because everybody expects it coming on the ‘keep, and so will swing their guy into your 4/4 during their combat step when it doesn’t happen – because, after all, you’re just representing Cryptic Command. Even better, because we’re all Good Players, we wait until after combat to play our spells, and so the guy Time Walks half the time anyway.

Then there’s Ancestral Vision. M-a-a-a-a-a-n*****. What were all of us thinking when we missed this one? To say something substantive for the first time in this article, part of what makes this deck superlatively strong is that it plays the best Ancestral Visions in the format. I’ll qualify that statement later. But because most Standard games progress to the point where Vision can resolve – and aren’t effectively over before then – a zero-mana refueling of the hand at exactly the point when Faeries will need to find a clock or another counterspell pushes the deck over the edge. This deck is also unique in that unlike many Merfolk decks, or Richard’s Spectral Visions, or other lists that try to run Ancestral, it’s not a garbage topdeck on turn 3 (or whenever). Because of its crucial density of man-lands, a ticking-down Vision tells the opposing deck that it really needs to win the game soon. Otherwise, especially given a timely Clique or Command, a single Scion of Oona can turn those dormant Vaults and Conclaves into lethal damage very quickly.

Historically, beatdown decks have been forced to give up early-game card advantage in favor of tempo, gambling on the fact that the deck assuming the control role in a given matchup won’t be able to keep up. But because Standard currently affords players the opportunity to effectively begin their games on turn 2, the fact that Faeries uses a previously under-utilized turn not to play a Mogg Fanatic or a Tideshaper Mystic or whatever, but instead to draw three entire cards, does something rarely seen over the course of Magic history. Usually you have to generate raw card advantage at the expense of tempo, unless you’re doing something like Wrathing the opponent’s board, which is impossible to do proactively (that is, before those creatures hit the table). In this case, an aggressive deck (not necessarily the aggressive deck) is able to reap its card advantage without having to sacrifice its ability to play threats, and is furthermore able to do so while the opponent can’t get up on cards because he’s having to deal with those threats. The difference between the Ancestral Vision in Faeries and the Ancestral Vision in Merfolk is that Faeries can chill with all of its mana untapped on the opponent’s turn while those Suspend counters tick down, and neutralize any offense the opponent threatens to deploy. If it’s something important, it gets counterspelled. If it’s something Faeries can race, Faeries just plays a Clique or a Pestermite or whatever and starts a-swinging in the air. Some builds even have Nameless Inversion to deal with threats that slip through the cracks. Merfolk, meanwhile, must (in the early game) choose between leaving open Rune Snag mana or playing that Lord of Atlantis.

I realize that after about turn 4, Merfolk can counter spells and deploy threats as well. But games of Standard, especially in a format as high-powered and as honest-to-god large as this one, that one-or-two-turn window is all the difference in the world.

How painfully un-fun.

I spent most of Saturday trying to tweak Richard’s list to beat Faeries, and despite his positive results I kept coming up short. Thankfully, though, it did teach me that there are good ways and bad ways to try and beat Faeries. Awkwardly, most people right now are favoring the bad ways.

Everybody who reads me knows that I admire the Innovator with a tenacity that can only be considered unhealthy. I give full credit to him and Brian DeMars for their Pyrohemia technology, which is basically the biggest blowout for Faeries ever if it resolves. That said, a bad way to try and beat this deck is to rely on a single trump card.

The reason this is awkward is that most of the usual hosers (Wrath, Damnation, Pyrohemia, Pyroclasm) require you resolve a spell while tapping mana on your main phase. You’re in this awkward catch-22 where the cheap spells can get countered by Miley Cyrus****** and the expensive ones get Snagged by Runes. Even if your hoser resolves, moreover, there’s always the threat that the Faeries player can shrug, run out a Scion, and then beat for 7 with a pair of man-lands plus the Faerie. I cannot actually overemphasize how tremendous of a beating Mutavault and Conclave are in this deck. Do Not under any circumstances forget how much the opponent can attack for on a given turn. You’re at nine and all the opponent has out is a Conclave. Surely you can take a point of pain from your Horizon Canopy, right? Well, a Vendilion Clique and a Scion of Oona later, you’re dead in the air from almost half your life total. Nice game, boys.

Cloudthresher is a step up because it’s at instant speed, but realize that if you’re in a situation where you can 2GGGG a 7/7 and have it resolve, you didn’t need to Thresh in order to win. Realistically the card is Sulfurous Blast announced sometime other than your main phase. It’s fine under these circumstances, of course, and it’s nice that it’s never getting hit by a Sprite. Still, 2GG is a whole lot, and they’ve got Snags and Commands. Don’t think you’re going to clear the board automatically.

Squall Line is far superior, as 1GG is a different animal from 2GG, and you can often bait with a Line only to finish with a Thresher. The fact that it completely turns the tables on the math is obviously a huge plus as well. Just be aware that you might get Thoughtseized coming out of game 2, and even Wrathing them isn’t all she wrote – particularly since you’re Green. Bitterblossom is still working its magic, the man-lands are frequently still around, and you very well might just get your next guy stolen by a Sower.

Still, even with 4 Thresher and 4 Squall Line out of a hypothetical aggressive-to-mid-range Green deck, I’m not entirely sure I’d put my money against Faeries. They can play their guys out one at a time – particularly Vendilion Cliques – and they’re the ones with the Ancestral Visions and Cryptic Commands. The Fae are too fundamentally sound after turn 5 or so. I also wouldn’t try to fight Faeries’ Ancestral Vision with your own, because the Visions from Faeries are strictly better than yours. They come out on turn 1 more often, and they can counter yours with Hannah Montana. Do you really want to Rune Snag their Visions, or sideboard your own Sprites? That’s more than a touch awkward.

To really get an edge, you need to get in the red zone early.

All the games I won against Faeries with Richard’s deck, I did so because of a turn 2 Tarmogoyf. That plus Snags and Remove Souls prevented any shenanigans from ensuing. Common sense tells us that a deck full of 1/1s is going to have a good bit of trouble with a deck that comes out of the gates faster. The trouble is that Cryptic Command and Mistbind Clique often buy back the turn an aggressive deck gains by 1) starting on turn 1 and 2) playing creatures that result in a faster clock. This is particularly compounded if the Faeries list you’re up against has creature removal or the full amount of Sowers. Because of the power of Faeries’ four-mana spells I would therefore place an absolute premium on Mana Tithe. If you’re aggressive enough, Faeries can’t afford to play around one Spike, much less two. This also can solve the absolutely-crippling Bitterblossom problem.

Incidentally, that card is just as nuts when it’s Forcefield. The Bloomin’ Onion******* doesn’t have to pop out an army of Faerie Rogues to beat you. If you’re attacking into it, killing a 1/1, and then getting hit by a Mutavault, you’re not the one winning that race. As good as you think Bitterblossom is, it’s actually better. Prioritize that card when constructing your deck, and think about how you plan to beat it.

Desert I’ve also found to be particularly effective, since it doesn’t really require an investment. I understand that Scion gets around it, but that 1) ensures that their Scion isn’t entering the Red Zone and 2) forces them to cast Scion at an awkward time, if they even have it at all. In multiples they can stop Mutavault, and most importantly it’s not something they can counter. The more time they spend trying to work around your Desert, the more your [insert other hoser here] will cripple them.

Finally, and this applies across the format generally, faeries really does not like to see a Bitterblossom on the other side of the table. Sure, their Scions might make their tokens better than yours, but you’re playing Black. You can kill a 1/1. Meanwhile, if you have Blossom and they don’t, all of the sudden their X/1 fliers look a whole lot less impressive. The lesson to be learned here is that very few Black decks shouldn’t be packing the non-Tauntings Tribal Enchantment-Faerie. It really is that good.

I’ve heard from several people I respect that it’s not Faeries, but rather Reveillark that’s the so-called “best deck.” I have a lot of respect for Reverend Lark, but it’s going to take a lot more than a Squall Line or two to kick the buzzing roguish swarm from their perch atop the hill. Hopefully, I’ve at least helped somebody figure out how to do that.

I can’t decide which is better. The new Moby CD, or the new REM. Discuss********.


* feat. the return of the dreaded Asterisks, and a relentless barrage of obnoxious nicknames.
** I know.
*** It turns out you get paid more if you start enumerating Best-Ofs in your articles.
**** Ditto on hyperbole.
***** This is pronounced like “Fly-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y.”
****** I st-st-stuttered when you asked me if I thought that spell should resolve.
******* Awesome Blossom at Chili’s, and there you go.
******** I hear the LOLs from Memphis.