Chatter of the Squirrel – They Were Right And I Was Wrong: An Exploration of Five-Color Control

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Wednesday, December 24th – The Patrick Chapin/Manuel Bucher Standard list that several people ran to several solid finishes at Worlds is one of the most perfectly-tuned decks in history, one of the single most unfair-feeling and is-everyone-else-really-playing-the-same-format-as-me-seeming machines I have ever touched…

The Patrick Chapin/Manuel Bucher Standard list that several people ran to several solid finishes at Worlds is one of the most perfectly-tuned decks in history, one of the single most unfair-feeling and is-everyone-else-really-playing-the-same-format-as-me-seeming machines I have ever touched. But my job in this article is not to convince you why that is; indeed, I hope as few people as possible play this deck, because it makes my edge that much more pronounced. What I want to talk about is how I came to arrive at that conclusion, what it says about the Standard format right now, and hopefully — eventually – get to why understanding the reasons for this deck’s dominance is crucially important if you ever want to design the best deck in a given format.

If I sound alternatively excited, confused, and perturbed, it’s because I am all of those things right now. I am fully aware I might not be able to articulate everything I’ve come to learn from this deck on a fundamental level, given that it’s all hit me within the week. But I’m definitely going to try.

First, the Facebook exchange that led to me deciding to write this article in the first place. I want to post it here just so you can get a sense of what was going through my mind the very instant I first realized that this deck may be something seminal rather than just something very good.


So my team in Malaysia just took the top four slots in this RM2400 massive cash tourney they held here, and I wound up running what in essence was your deck from Worlds, modified slightly by the conversations I had with ManuelB a couple of days ago. My only loss was to the teammate who won the whole thing, with B/W, in a match that came down to his having enough discard to prevent me from drawing 2 enough to overwhelm him.

But I have historically hated Standard, yet with this deck I literally feel like when I am sitting down across from any opponent in the room, something has to go tremendously wrong for them to beat me. This is by far the most unfair-feeling Standard deck I’ve played in a long time.

First of all, it’s impressive as hell for your team to have innovated a list that is so good at doing everything this deck does, given how different it is from ‘normal’ Five-Color models. Frequently you can turn Bitterblossom into a liability, and realizing how to make that happen is a testament to your skill as deck designers. It’s not just that you don’t kill the card so that you can avoid fighting a fight you’re not equipped to win; it’s setting the deck up so that you basically have a continuous stream of cards at all times. That’s what’s impressive; as long as you’re playing lands, you’re winning, and as long as you’re drawing cards, you’re playing lands. And you rarely get screwed because you have 26 lands, and you rarely get flooded because you’re always drawing cards. You don’t piss about with cards like Kitchen Finks and Rhox War Monk, because that’s not what you’re trying to do.

But I’m even more impressed that y’all – and Patrick, you’ve understood this since the whole ‘Cruel Ultimatum debate’ started – gathered intuitively what Adrian Sullivan had to spell out explicitly for me to understand: yes, doing things like Broodmate and Cruel Ultimatum, tapping out and letting your balls (on some level) be exposed, may in the abstract make you a worse ‘control deck,’ or whatever, but it doesn’t make you a worse deck.

I had been misunderstanding the entire purpose of both these cards for as long as this debate his been around. First of all, the very fact that Cruel Ultimatum gives you a must-counter against Faeries is basically enough to validate its inclusion already, because you can already out-land them without much effort and what’s important is to make that matter. But neither of these cards is a ‘victory condition’ at all – they are initiative-gaining mechanisms that also serve to enable very specific Strategic Moments that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You’re playing against R/W, for example. You could spend a turn killing all of his guys, but he’ll cast some more, so you just cast a Dragon. Now, you’re not in control; he can play some more guys, but if he battles it’s going to cost him. Or, alternatively, he kills both your dragons but you know he’s more or less out of gas. Either way, it forces him to do something to press his advantage, meaning that when you untap and Pyroclasm or untap and draw 2 and hit a Cryptic Command, it means you can swing, tap his guys, and all of a sudden he’s on the defensive and can’t max-value his Larks or Anthems or even Siege-Gangs because very soon he’s dead. Similarly, getting hit with Cruel means he can’t all of a sudden sit there and run you out of resources (and by resources I generally mean mana, as the problem is not a lack of options but a lack of the ability to deploy them). When you get hit with a Cruel it basically means you’ve gone from being able to dictate the pace of the game and require your opponent to show a very set of specific answers, to all of a sudden having the burden on you to put the game away within a very short window of a turn or so. It, very importantly, also allows you to dodge cards that were deliberately constructed as trumps to any kind of purely-reactive grinding-out-numbers-very-deliberately control plan – cards such as Elspeth, whose ultimate ability makes total control by definition impossible, or Guttural Response, which is such an efficient solution to the traditional mechanisms of gaining control (Cryptic Command, Broken Ambitions, even a Draw-Step-Charm-You) that it’s almost always going to turn a game around.

Why play a control deck when the card Cruel Ultimatum is control?

Anyway, after playing this deck and thinking I can never lose, and having lost one total match with the deck in playtesting and in sanctioned play, I wanted to admit that I was on the wrong side of the CU debate. I also wanted to commend you as designers for the incredible innovations (9 Draw2 – and yes, I elected to play Counsel – basic Island, max post-board Thresher, double-Double Dragon, Plumeveil, 2/2 split on Pyroclasm/Wrath, Terror (this card specifically is just complete genius) that make this deck such a machine.



Thanks for the kind words. I am glad that the deck is working out for you.

The above message is the essence of an article I would LOVE to read.

Here ya go, buddy.

Some background: This past weekend was a tournament hosted here in Malaysia by degames that featured over RM2400 in cash prizes and was a prime example of the kind of local-TO-centered tournament-circuit initiative I talked about earlier in the year. It was our very own mini-GP, despite its unfortunately low turnout, and my team took the top four slots in what basically amounted to a rout. Now, we were lucky in a sense; although Terry Soh did show up, Malaysian juggernaut Au Yong Wai Kin was conspicuously absent, and given that this guy is one of the best players in the world I was not going to argue with his not being there. It’s not the results of this tournament that impressed me, though, nor necessarily the fact that in my entire playtesting process plus the tournament I only lost a single match. That can be explained by any number of variables including luck, skill, matchups, and a very un-profound and ephemeral edge which doesn’t in and of itself constitute any sort of revolution. Having a deck that’s simply very good is kind of run-of-the-mill, nowadays; read any GerryT article and I guarantee what he’s telling you to play is better than what you’re playing, at least if he’s done any testing. It’s usually better than what I’m playing, anyway. But this deck, and the two other decks I’ve come to realize about which I’ve felt similarly to this one, just feel like you can simply not lose unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong – things that, crucially, are inherent to the game of Magic, regardless of which deck you play. Decks like this, in other words, make me feel like I’ve hit the upper limit.

Also: notice none of these three decks I’m about to show you are decks I’ve played at Pro Tours, even though I felt like the decks I played at PT: Charleston, PT: Valencia, and PT: Berlin were about as good as you could get within the format, and which I’d happy run again 75/75 if the opportunity were to present itself. The difference is at Pro Tours there’s never as much of an established format as there are within PTQ or Standard seasons, because the disparity in available information is so large.

First: My version of Patrick/ManuelB’s list:

And the two other decks about which I’ve felt I’ve reached the upper limit. The first qualified me for the Pro Tour, and the second I handed to a literal Small Child who went on to win Tennessee States way back I think in ’01 or ‘02


4 Prismatic Lens
1 Triskelavus
1 Draining Whelk
2 Shadowmage Infiltrator
1 Temporal Isolation
2 Careful Consideration
1 Extirpate
1 Haunting Hymn
3 Mystical Teachings
1 Pull from Eternity
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Snapback
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Damnation
2 Foresee
2 Island
1 Plains
6 Swamp
1 Calciform Pools
3 River of Tears
4 Terramorphic Expanse
4 Tolaria West
1 Urza’s Factory
1 Academy Ruins
4 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

4 Epochrasite
2 Aven Riftwatcher
1 Shadowmage Infiltrator
3 Take Possession
1 Disenchant
1 Pact of Negation
1 Sudden Death
1 Pull from Eternity
1 Venser, Shaper Savant



4 Krosan Beast
1 Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
3 Fact or Fiction
4 Peek
4 Opt
3 Sleight of Hand
4 Force Spike
3 Mystic Snake
4 Counterspell
2 Wash Out
4 Repulse
1 Persuasion
2 Memory Lapse
12 Island
3 Forest
4 Yavimaya Coast
2 Cephalid Coliseum

1 Fact or Fiction
1 Wash Out
3 Glacial Wall
1 Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
1 Gainsay
2 Memory Lapse
1 Jungle Barrier
1 Persuasion
1 Mystic Snake
2 Upheaval

The sideboard on that last deck was garbage, but it really doesn’t matter. Chase Childress was, I believe, twelve years old when he won TN States with Kro-Go, because the maindeck was such a machine and the sideboard was close enough to what needed to happen that it didn’t really matter that there were imperfections.

In fact, that’s something important to mention about all three decks: the lists can evolve. The card Korlash eventually became obsolete, and Kro-Go was replaced by Psychatog once people realized that card existed and could form the backbone of a deck. But you have to remember that this deck came around months before Psychatog, and was doing almost the exact same thing: loading the graveyard setting up your midgame turns, and then playing an almost impossibly huge creature that no one else could deal with. It’s the fundamental strategies that make the decks monumental.

What are those strategies? With the five-color ‘control’ deck, it’s drawing two cards over and over again until you reach such a high velocity in terms of deploying either more or more powerful spells every turn that no conceivable deck could hope to catch up. With Kowalash, it’s creating a gap between the stage of development your opponent is at and the stage of development that you’re at such that decks whose plans revolve around being the aggressor are forced to become reactive (that plan eventually just became “lock the game” once other strategies adapted; I’ll talk about this later). With Kro-Go, the plan was very simply “drop an 8/8 creature,” because at the time 8/8 was just impossibly huge, and very few people played cards like Terminate to deal with them. Even if they did, you had Counterspells, Repulse, or more 8/8 creatures.

The absolute most important thing to realize, though: for none of these three decks is the plan to “control the game.”

This is because – and here’s the turn – as good as controlling the game is, it’s even more effective to just win it. That’s not always possible, but man is that sure what you’re going for. Sometimes, of course, it is possible to gain absolute control of the game, and a good portion of the time it’s what you should be doing. Before Shards was released, that’s exactly what I was trying to do with my 3-Gaea’s-Blessing-Kill-With-Nucklavee five-color deck, because you could always cycle a Gaea’s Blessing and you can’t cycle a Broodmate Dragon. Mainly, though, the problem now is that you lack Careful Consideration to ensure that you’re regulating your draw step enough to enable actual Total Control. You can just Draw-2 a bunch. Which is great, but when you’re doing that there’s a lot more variance in what you’re drawing. You could get flooded, you could draw removal when you need Counterspells, you could just draw a lot more card-drawing.

In other words: the closer you can get to being able to Tutor, the closer you can get to establishing True Control.

But, as Adrian pointed out: becoming a better True Control deck doesn’t mean you’re becoming a better deck.

Establishing True Control has a lot of advantages. It means that nothing anybody does can affect you. It means that nothing can go wrong, assuming you’ve done things right on your end. It means, on average, better opening hands, because most of your spells are good at every phase of the game. But there are a number of problems, too.

The biggest problem is that sometimes there are threats that you’re not prepared for, and that you can’t really Truly Control, as it were. This is less of problem when Cryptic Command is legal, but in Time Spiral block, for example, take the Temporal Isolation out of my deck and all of a sudden you’ve got a huge Mystic Enforcer problem. If you haven’t read either Chapin or myself this summer, you may not have known about Runed Halo, and so Demigod may have become a problem, and you may not have anticipated Everlasting Torment out of the board, either.

Of course, critics of this position may point out that “you didn’t do your work enough” is not really a valid excuse for why a certain style of deck is problematic. But the bigger the format is, the more likely that you’ve missed something, and you can’t really be expected to cover all of your bases all of the time. I don’t care how good your Flash list was in Columbus, or your Gifts Rock list was in Valencia, you were going to roll over to our Poacher.dec and Rock and Nail, respectively, even though you can hardly fault people for missing out on Urborg/Coffers/Living Wish/Tooth and Nail. And that is exactly how we beat Gifts Rock players: they were busy trying to control the game, but none of their control mechanisms were prepared for sudden infusion of mana plus Sundering Titan. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we felt we claimed such an advantage in the matchup: we were playing the nut threat, Sundering Titan, and they were trying to win by eking out incremental advantage. Incremental advantage is great as long as those increments can’t be recouped back out of nowhere, e.g. via a Cruel Ultimatum.

I’ve said that the plan for all of these decks isn’t to control the game, but it is simultaneously important to note that controlling the game is certainly within their reach. There were games with Kro-Go that I just countered everything, eventually resolved a Fact or Fiction (there were only three in the deck because with all the cantripping you saw one by turn 5 or so, and you never ever needed more than one, and really the only way you ever lost against anything was keeping a hand with too many four-mana spells and falling way too far behind), and won by beating down with Mystic Snake after Repulsed Mystic Snake. With Korlash you could just kill all of their guys and set up Triskelavus recursion with a Pact, a Snapback, and a Draining Whelk in hand. With this iteration of five-color control, you can Wrath the board, Esper Charm them on the draw step, and untap with two Cryptic Commands.

The difference is that in exchange for being slightly worse at establishing True Control – and I think that’s even debatable – you open yourself up the option of an entirely new gameplan.

First, though, I want to tackle why you may not even be worse, in some cases, at establishing True Control. The thing is, in certain matchups even though you’re ideally not playing any tap-out finishers in a Pure Control deck, there are cards that might as well be just as dead. A lot of decks are not going to care about a Story Circle, for example, and even the Nevinyrral’s Disks in classic Buehler Blue, the Moats in The Deck, the Vedalken Shackles in Next Level Blue are going to be just as dead as a Broodmate Dragon some of the time. Does it happen less of the time? Sure. But the advantages you gain from being able to play the nut threat dwarf the times where a) you draw a Broodmate in your opening hand and b) doing so is actually bad. Sometimes, I draw a Runed Halo in my opening hand, too, and I can even cast it a whole lot easier – but a) I don’t want to cast it, b) there’s not a good window to cast it, or c) it’s just plain bad in a particular matchup. Just because something costs two or three mana as opposed to six doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any easier to actually cast, if the other spells in your hand you need to cast don’t allow for that window of two free White mana.

What you gain is the ability to put decks that would normally be aggressive on the defensive, and you get to do so strategically and decisively, and you get to do it while simultaneously playing better defense than almost any other card would be doing otherwise. Meanwhile, you gain more proactive options in battles between Phase 3 decks, can capitalize more on their tapping out.

Here’s your money’s worth right here: we need to stop using the term finishers for cards like Broodmate Dragon and Cruel Ultimatum (and to a lesser extent Cloudthresher), because it implies that the game is already all but locked up and you’re just playing a card that ‘finishes’ the job, i.e. tidies up the mess that has already been mostly taken care of. Now, that’s not to say cards like this don’t already exist. Oona, for example, is a ‘finisher’ in nonaggressive decks because you either need to be able to protect her or have something like fourteen mana available in order for her to win you the game; the effect is nice, but in situations that you haven’t won already (in essence) she’s not going to do it for you. Even the term ‘win condition,’ though technically correct, seems to imply that the card that wins you a game is somehow a separate entity for the rest of your deck, the like single card you rely upon in order to achieve your ‘win’, when in reality (if you’re using a good win condition) it should simply be another part of the deck, accomplishing the deck’s goals just as any other card would do.

Let’s take our two historical examples before looking at this present list. The card Korlash was phenomenal in ‘Kowalash’ (which, in case I haven’t mentioned it, was mostly a GerryT deck) largely because if you drew two you were just never losing, because Explosive Vegetation was simply that powerful. In that sense it was both a finisher and an enabler. Frequently it was actually even more savage than that, because you’d run him out there on turn 3, the Red or the G/W deck would attack into him, and you’d grow him to a 4/4 or 5/5 and get the instant zero-mana three for one. Other times you’d cast him on turn 4 or so, block, take some damage, but Tendrils their last creature and swing and all of a sudden they were dead in two turns with very few creatures on the table. Even against the other control decks – which weren’t very popular at the beginning of the PTQ season – there weren’t very many ways to deal with a large, Black, regenerating creature. And he got in early enough that once you untapped, they still had to contend with your discard/Teachings suite.

Perhaps the best thing about Korlash, though, was that he solved a couple of your biggest threats: Calciderm and Tarmogoyf. Even as a 1/1, Korlash could sit back and block, begging them to commit more threats to the board. It was always awkward to Damnation away a single Calciderm, because they had as many must-Damnation threats (Derm, Enforcer) as you did Damnations, and although you had a good amount of card-drawing it’s not like the rest of their threats just disappeared, either. But what happened with Lash is that you could all of a sudden deal with their biggest non-evasive guy for two mana a turn, and spend the rest of your time doing your own thing, viz. setting up for backbreaking Teachings turns or casting Triskelavus. Then, more or less at your leisure, you’d all of a sudden Tendrils a man at the end of the turn – maybe even your own Korlash – to gain enough life that you weren’t going to die anytime soon, and all of a sudden it was your man who turned sideways and just like that the game was over.

It’s this abrupt alteration of roles that makes this kind of threat so powerful.

Kro-go was similar. Krosan Beast was even bigger than the Phyrexian Scutas, Flametongue Kavu, Spiritmongers (for at least two turns), Roars of the Wurm, Calls of the Herd, and Rakavolvers (on offense) that ruled that format. It’s not just that he gained initiative the turn you cast him; it was that he gained initiative and then unless they did something radical they were dead in two turns. The five-color deck can do the same thing; you Dragon, they don’t attack, then you swing for eight in the air holding Cryptic Command to tap their creatures and that’s all of a sudden game over.

What took me a long time playing the deck to realize is that it’s not the threat itself, even, that kickstarts several turns of power. It’s the fact that you can sculpt games around that threat, and because you’re running the most powerful conceivable spells, it literally does not matter what your opponent is planning to do to stop you. In one game against R/W, I realized I could tap out turn 5 to play a Mulldrifter, which would benefit me by giving me a creature to block his Ranger of Eos. This would, of course, give him a window to tap-out and play his biggest threat – but I was prepared, because the very next turn I’d be tapping out to play a Broodmate Dragon. This of course gave him a window to play another giant threat, but then the very next turn I’d be tapping out to play Cruel Ultimatum. If I, on the other hand, was having to sit back and Counterspell every single one of his threats, what do I do against both of his Figures of Destiny? It’s hard to fight counter-wars over one-mana spells. Now, it’s possible that my Dragon and Ultimatum might have been more mass-removal spells that would get me out of this spot, but it’s also possible that they may have been Negates or Tidings or Kitchen Finks or whatever which would just not get the job done. But because I was more than prepared to sit there and basically exchange blows, my opponent couldn’t do anything in the same league.

The other time this can be incredibly beneficial is when your opponent starts to run spells to mitigate your control game. It’s easy for a good deckbuilder to fight you on the terms the matchup dictates, but much more difficult to do so when you plan on turning the game around. People say that if you get to seven mana you ought to be winning, but this is not even remotely true against archetypes that don’t try to compete with you in terms of speed but do compete in terms of resilience. An Elves opponent spends his second and third turns against me playing an Eyes of the Wisent and Prowess of the Fair. Now, I’m not saying these are good cards, but they would throw a wrench into any plans I may have of countering and/or Wrathing all of his creatures. Instead, though, I had sided in a third Dragon and took advantage of the fact that he spent his first two turns failing to cast threats to just Counsel myself with the actual card Counsel and a couple of Mulldrifters, then I just started to make it rain with large creatures from the Shards of Alara Expansion. When you are presenting threats on the caliber of Cruel and Broodmate, your opponent can’t afford to hiccup. And I want to emphasize again that you use Broodmates, especially, for something other than winning the game. Twice on Sunday I went Broodmate, next turn swing, Wrath of God, because he demands such a commitment to the board on their side of the table that he actually allows you to slide further into the control role. Once, against B/W, I actually cast two consecutive Broodmates followed by a Wrath, because Wrathing early would have left me dead to the three cards that were in his hand, and a single Broodmate wasn’t enough to stabilize through the Unmake he cast next turn. So you can use it as a utility card just like everything else.

Of course, I’ve spent all this time talking about the deck’s finishers and haven’t even gotten around to the other completely genius parts of the deck. This is largely because it’s the ability to quickly end games – to establish control not through your archetype but via the resolution of a single spell – that makes the remainder of the deck’s construction sheer brilliance. So let’s get on that, shall we?

I want to start out with 4 Broken Ambitions, because it’s the exact spell the existence of which makes me fail to understand why certain people play certain kinds of decks. For example, a guy showed up to the tournament with a Jund deck featuring three copies of Broodmate Dragon and three Violent Ultimatums. While Violent Ultimatum I’d judge on average to have a slightly weaker effect than its Cruel cousin, let’s assume for the sake of argument that they’re roughly the same. So he’s running the same big threats as I am, but without any card drawing to help him find them – meaning that he’s more likely to have his big spells in his opening hand as virtual mulligans, more likely to draw them in multiples, and less likely to hit his land drops on the way to casting them. Meanwhile, he can’t do a single thing about my Cruel Ultimatum once I cast it, but I can stop his Violent Ultimatum for 1U, potentially, and never for much more than that.

Similarly, I played against a GWR midrange deck that was so kold to Ambitions that I don’t know where to start. Every single threat he played I could answer for fewer mana than he spent, and it’s not like he didn’t know the cards I was playing were in the format. As an add-on bonus, I could completely obliterate the whole of what he was trying to do with a card like Wrath of God. To me, if you’re going to try to win the game with three and four mana spells, why are those spells random dudes that get killed rather than Charms and Cryptic Commands?

Really, though, Ambitions, as opposed to a Remove Soul/Negate split, are so perfect for this deck. For one, they help you dig for mana sources, which is absolutely vital at every point in the match as you really wouldn’t mind playing a land every single turn of the game. But more importantly, in addition to enabling your goal of playing a land every turn, they also help convert that goal into a match win by providing added value the more you out-mana your opponents. As opposed to, say, getting stuck with a Remove Soul when you want to counter a Cryptic Command or a Negate when you want to counter a Mistbind Clique. The thing is, if you’re playing for the ultra-long game you might need to ensure that your two-mana counters are hard counters on turn eleven or so. In this deck, though, you don’t care about going ultra-long; you just want to cast Cruel Ultimatum. Because of this single-minded goal, you are able to play fewer potentially-dead cards.

Besides the return to four Broken Ambitions, the next-most-innovative feature has got to be the nine draw-2 spells I’ve talked so much about. These are just insane insane insane and are what allows the deck to function as I’ve mentioned. Your two-ofs behave as if they were actually three-or-four-ofs, and you actually have the land to cast everything on time. But this only scratches the surface. Among other things, these cards let you ‘race’ cards like Bitterblossom and Jace Beleren. The reason Bitterblossom is traditionally so insane against you is that it comes in under your countermagic and forces you to act first, allowing them to get maximum value out of their Cryptic Commands. Eventually they land a Scion or something and kill you with Faeries. With this configuration of the deck, though, you actually take advantage of the fact that 1) Bitterblossom doesn’t actually do a very good job of killing you quickly and 2) multiple copies of the spell are redundant, making what limited card advantage their deck possesses actually much worse. Instead you just keep trying to draw two cards and play more land. One of the great things about not having Kitchen Finks is that all of a sudden Sower of Temptation is a card you basically never have to worry about, so you only really have to fight over their Mistbind Cliques, and even those you only care about when they resolve on your turn. What this means is that you just test-spell them with draw-2s. If all of these resolve, you eventually attempt either a Pyroclasm or a Cloudthresher at an opportune time. You wind up having a counter-war over this card, and if you win it all of their sudden their board is clear and they’re clocking themselves with Blossoms. If you lose it you cast Cruel Ultimatum, because without Ancestral Vision they are typically unprepared to fight two counter-wars. They have Thoughtseize now, which occasionally makes up for it, but they have to time it right. Otherwise, you’re Threshing the Clouds in response, and their Thoughtseize doesn’t help fight the counter-war at that point.

That was a lot of talk about Faeries. In general, though, even Counsel of the Soratami straightaway compares favorably to Jace Beleren. It takes Jace four turns to outpace the card advantage provided by Counsel. I’m not at all saying Counsel is better, but what it does do is give you two cards guaranteed every time irrespective of what the opponent is doing on the ground. I do not have to worry about a Cloudthresher ruining my dreams of riding a Jace to victory, either. I get my two right then. If on that fourth turn I then Esper Charm, I’m once again outpacing their Jace. I realize that I’m having to cast spells and my opponent is not, but typically Jace is looked at as the nut trump in the mirror, and if I’m competing with their nut trump by doing what I want to do anyway, I am not really in a particularly bad situation. Especially if I can just Ajani Vengeant their Jace at my leisure, or even better make them fight a counter war over a non-Cruel Ultimatum spell. Meanwhile my Terrors and Plumeveils are ambushing their Rhox War Monks or whatever, while all their removal is doing literally stone nothing.

See, the cheapness of the card draw is what puts it in a different category from something like Tidings, because resolving a spell like that is an event. This type of card advantage is harder to fight over, and is less relevant if you do in any individual circumstance, all the while allowing you to deploy the spells you do draw more effectively because you have access to more mana to do it with. Meanwhile, it’s why I’m sitting here gushing so much about how revolutionary the two Cruels and two Broodmates that everyone else plays are so revolutionary in this build and this build alone: you always have them when you want them and you always have the mana to cast them! And when you cast Cruel, it always wins you the game.

Plumeveil is also insane at this point in time. I like it so much more than Kitchen Finks or Rhox War Monk because it’s not like anyone is unprepared for a token offense. Plumeveil is vulnerable to their creature removal just like the other two – and I include Finks because with the exception of Terror almost everything kills him now, anyway – but with Plumeveil you make them have to use their removal right away, if they have it at all, which means they’re probably not going to cast a particularly relevant threat that turn. Meanwhile, Veil is actually fantastic against Bitterblossom and Mistbind Clique, while Monk and Finks don’t really accomplish very much against either of those cards. Veil doesn’t kill Planeswalkers, which is the only real strike against it, but again if you’re playing exactly 4 creatures designed to attack and block chances are those aren’t living to attack Planeswalkers anyway. I actually feel that if you’re going to be running any animals in those slots, just play three Doran and call it a night. Sort of like Sam Black and my block deck at the beginning of the season this year.

Ajani Vengeant I felt was good enough to go to a second copy. I could almost include him in the ‘finisher’ – quotes duly noted – category just because he solves so many problems. He contributes to your ability to gain mana advantage in the mirror, particularly if you know they’re running Remove Soul and you can consequently just put him out there on turn 4. The Ultimate is probably the most threatening of any of the Planeswalkers, as well, so unlike some of the others which people can ignore you actually gain a lot of virtual life just by leveling this guy up. Much like Plumeveil and Broodmate Dragon, too, the “doesn’t untap” ability allows you to get more value out of your Wrath effects by forcing them to overcommit to the board. Then there comes Lightning Helix, which serves a number of functions: neutering Planeswalkers, allowing you to stabilize at lower life totals, regaining tempo from behind by killing an early bear and drawing an attack, going to the dome to ensure that Broodmate kills in two attacks. Finally, he kills other Ajanis, and often serves as a Seal of Ajani Goldmane proactively so you know exactly how much damage you can expect to take in a given turn.

Finally – I’ll shut up here to avoid just gushing about every single card in the maindeck, though I’ve already come close – the two Terror are just sheer genius. I have no idea why people weren’t playing this card earlier; I suspect it has to do with Demigods of Revenge, which are thankfully much less of a problem with large quantities of Broodmates in the picture. It sets up all these beautiful scenarios: like, on turn 2, when you pass the turn all of a sudden you have four, not six, ways of maintaining tempo on that turn. It’s much better than Condemn in general, and actually ‘cheaper,’ even though it’s a mana more expensive, because you can cast it when you want to cast it and not on their terms. The only time it’s worse is against specifically a) a one-drop and b) a one-drop you want to kill, and even then you have to have the single White mana. But say they cast a Knight of Meadowgrain on turn 2, or played a turn 1 Heights and a turn 2 Figure/level up. Instead of waiting until turn 3 when you’d normally cast Condemn, preventing you from drawing cards basically indefinitely because on turn 4 you’re going to want to Cryptic or Broken Ambitions something, all of a sudden you’re untapping on turn 3 to an empty board. You either have the option of passing the turn and Breaking their Ambitions/Bant Charming their guy, or (even better, in my mind) just telling them to bring it on and tapping out for a card-draw spell, even if you also have an Esper Charm which you could use on their end step. You’re giving them a one-turn window to resolve a threat, and at three mana there are just very few threats you legitimately care about. And they’ve got maybe four turns to kill you before you tell them that it’s all she wrote. They are in such a bad position at this point and you’ve cast exactly two spells. Also, between the Terrors and the Bant Charm, you just care much less about Mistbind Clique than you would otherwise.

… okay, I said I’d stop gushing, but the sideboard is just such a work of art. I love the extra Broodmate – you sit there and just dare them to have a slugfest. The Shusher/Thresher package is complete nuts against Faeries because you’re threatening them with the very real possibility that you’re just going to kill every single one of their guys every couple of turns, all the while attacking their Jaces and/or preventing them from attacking with Mutavault (I will gladly trade Shusher for a land any day of the week, given that I sideboard in a land in this matchup anyway because once you get three or so more lands than them you’re just operating on a completely different level, one in which the reality of Cruel Ultimatum looms on every horizon no matter how tightly they shut their eyes). The one Firespout is all you need, and it was wise not to go overboard. Ditto on Negate; my instinct was to go to three, but there is no reason to do so.

I just re-read this entire thing and don’t believe I’ve communicated the profundity of the shift this deck has given to my thought process re: deck construction, so I am going to make one last attempt. We get so used to thinking of Magic in terms of strategic archetypes, and rightly so; it’s important to realize who is control and who is beatdown and who needs to accomplish what goals and what kinds of tactics are going to lead to strategic failure even if you succeed at them (e.g. my B/W opponents for some reason keeping Unmakes in against me). But we also have to understand that when players sit down at the table, they are really just presenting a collection of cards to the opponent, the composition of which they believe gives them the best odds of winning the game. It’s certain repeatedly-observable traits of the way those cards interact with one another that define them within the particular role of a strategic archetype. But ultimately, it’s these specific interactions between certain cards and not attributes inherent to any deck that define these roles. What this means is that if you can take a card that is always going to demand a certain reaction from an opponent in order to have a chance at winning the game, and that opponent by virtue of the cards contained within his deck is not going to be able to exhibit that response, it’s extremely likely that you ought to be playing that card. It’s one of the reasons I’ve run the card Chalice of the Void in decks ranging from Trinity to Tron; so many times my opponent’s deck is configured in a way that can’t handle it, while my deck on the other hand definitely is. Cruel Ultimatum is one such card, and Broodmate Dragon is to a lesser extent as well. There just aren’t better things to do in the format than either of those spells; the best you can do is neutralize the Broodmate, and because you can do that in two notable ways (Sower and Wrath) for fewer mana, you sideboard out that card in that matchup. Cruel, though, almost always – and I say ‘almost’ only because I acknowledge intellectually that you can lose after you cast it, even though I have yet to do so (though I have come very close, needing to topdeck, but Cruel enabled that topdeck) – wins the game right there, no matter what kind of strategy your opponent is trying to put together.

I wanted to write a paragraph about how insane it is to hard-cast Mulldrifter, too, but I think at fourteen pages I’ve done enough, and it’s basically just re-iterating things I’ve said earlier.

As I said in the Facebook message to Patrick: Why try to establish control with a deck when you can do it with a card?

Actually, there’s an even better way to put it:

There are a lot of cards (Mirari’s Wake, Tidings, Tezzeret the Seeker, Battle of Wits, etc.) that win you the game when you untap. Why not go one better: why not just win the game immediately?

Until next week… and wish me luck at this Korean PTQ!

Zac Hill