Constructed Criticism – A Song Of Steel And Fire

Todd Anderson discusses Ponder’s return to Standard and the premier aggro deck of the format, Tempered Steel. Don’t miss SCG Open: Cincinnati for the first major M12 tournament post-banning.

With SCG Open: Cincinnati this weekend being the spotlight for Standard after the release of Magic’s newest core set: M12, all eyes will be on the Top 8 decks and their pilots. This weekend will mark the first major tournament with the three new planeswalkers, as well as a slew of other new cards and reprints. There are a lot of cards from M12 vying for slots in already established decks, and there are others still that might redefine certain archetypes. While I’m not particularly excited about jamming Incinerate and Shock into my Mono Red deck, I am excited about the prospects of playing with Ponder and Preordain in the same Standard format.

Last week we went through three blue-based decks all sporting four Preordain, which is the norm, but where exactly does Ponder fit in? Should it just be an auto-include as a four-of in every blue deck too? Do we play just a few, or do we ignore it completely? Ponder was in Standard for quite some time, and very few decks played it then, but now we have something we didn’t have before: fetchlands. Fetchlands give Ponder a whole new dynamic for Standard that has been mostly saved for Extended and Eternal formats. With two blue fetchlands, you can expect Ponder to begin to run rampant in Standard until the rotation of Zendikar and M11 in a few months.

If you can recall Standard from last year and M10, you remember how good Pyromancer Ascension was at one point. With Preordain, Ponder, and Time Warp all legal in Standard, Pyromancer Ascension was heralded as the “best deck” by many of the game’s constructed gurus. While it didn’t quite dominate as much as people had hoped, it did have a short time in the spotlight that people may have forgotten. Though you’ve lost Time Warp, you’ve gained so much more. Gitaxian Probe alone is a breath of fresh air for the archetype, allowing you to see if the coast is clear on turn 2 before you drop your namesake spell. You can also set up your Pyromancer Ascension to become active at a rapid pace with additions like Tezzeret’s Gambit. While the card can sometimes be a worse Divination, the ability to “turn on” your Pyromancer Ascension is just bonkers, since that’s all the deck is designed to do.

Visions of Beyond is an entirely different story. I’m not certain the card is good, since it takes a lot of work to get going. The upside here is that it just cycles in the early game, but in matchups against control that grind forever, you get to play with Ancestral Recall. Not too shabby in a world where Mana Leak is the counterspell of choice. In Pyromancer Ascension specifically, I think you might need to reserve those last few slots for utility cards like Into the Roil. I’m not going to be able to make it to Cincinnati, but I would not be unhappy piloting this list:

When we paired the Splinter Twin combo with Pyromancer Ascension after the release of New Phyrexia, it took only a few matches to determine that both combos can’t realistically coexist and expect to function properly. Having Deceiver Exarch, Splinter Twin, and random counterspells to protect the combo only made Pyromancer Ascension worse, when it was already a bit too slow to begin with. What we know now is that the metagame is incredibly hostile towards Deceiver Exarch, making the shell pretty bad in the maindeck. However, once you win the first game and show your opponent thirty or so cards in your deck, he will definitely not put you on Splinter Twin. When you see him reach for his sideboard cards, the removal spells will likely come out, and you’ll be one step ahead in the sideboarding mind games.

As far as the maindeck is concerned, the only card you can even remotely argue should be there is Foresee. However, I’m not entirely certain it belongs anymore. While the card is great at digging when you’re low on cards, it’s just glacially slow. The format’s aggressive decks are becoming more and more threatening with their early rush potential. If you have time to tap out on the fourth turn to dig for combo pieces, then you have already won. Foresee is great against control matchups, but even there you are brought down by a lowly Spell Pierce.

As you can see, the deck is full of four-ofs. This is to help maximize your ability to trigger Pyromancer Ascension. I have rarely seen someone lose with an active Pyromancer Ascension, so having one out and active as quickly as possible is definitely what you should focus on. The two Call to Mind are the deck’s best option for “going infinite,” giving you a bit of recursion in the late game that is just unbeatable with an active Pyromancer Ascension. Since you don’t want to play more than 22 lands with so many dig spells, you have a two-of slot that Call to Mind fills nicely.

If you are siding into the Deceiver ExarchSplinter Twin combo, I recommend siding like this:

-4 Pyromancer Ascension, -2 Call to Mind, -1 Tezzeret’s Gambit, -4 Burst Lightning
+4 Splinter Twin, +4 Deceiver Exarch, +3 Dispel

If your opponent is an aggro deck, you can cut the Into the Roils and keep Burst Lightnings. You can also bring in some Slagstorms in place of the rest of the Tezzeret’s Gambit. Feel free to mix and match as you please, but this is probably the best sideboard configuration.

For those wondering about Slagstorm over Pyroclasm, I want to point out that Slagstorm more effectively kills creatures under Tempered Steel, which is becoming incredibly popular as of late on Magic Online. I don’t expect this trend to translate to real life just yet, but don’t be surprised to lose to Tempered Steel when you decide to sideboard Pyroclasm because it’s a little cheaper. The ability to just annihilate them is much more beneficial in the long run. Your early burn spells should be able to buy you enough time against decks where Slagstorm is a little too slow.

If a transformational sideboard isn’t your style, I also recommend the following, more straightforward sideboard:

4 Neurok Commando
3 Slagstorm
2 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
3 Flashfreeze
2 Combust

Neurok Commander backed by a barrage of targeted removal and countermagic is really difficult for control decks to deal with. Alongside Consecrated Sphinx and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, expect people to be wholly unprepared for what you’re going to throw at them after the first game. Most people don’t consider the fact that you’re probably bringing in some kind of alternate win condition to sidestep Memoricide and the like. Feel free to run some Inferno Titans in the place of Sphinx of Jwar Isle and potentially another sideboard card, since a severe lack of removal should leave him free and clear to run them over.

Slagstorm, as mentioned above, comes in against almost all aggressive decks, but is particularly strong against Tempered Steel. I won’t recommend siding it in against RDW, since it is probably way too slow (and they don’t have that many creatures to begin with).

Flashfreeze is obviously for Valakut, but tends to be rather useful against decks like Elves who sideboard Nature’s Claim and is a decent answer to Acidic Slime. There are plenty of matchups where Flashfreeze shines, making it your go-to counterspell after board.

Combust is Combust. Nothing more and nothing less. It is solid against Deceiver Exarch, as well as any random white or blue aggro decks. I wouldn’t run more than two, since you already have a decent amount of pinpoint removal (you don’t really mind throwing multiple burn spells at a Deceiver Exarch to keep from dying). You also have four Into the Roil against them. The matchup should be fine, but if you feel like you’re losing the majority of the time against them, do not side into the combo yourself! This is a classic mistake I see people make. If you do this, you’ll become a worse version of the mirror match, giving them the upper hand. Stick to your guns and grind them out slowly with your Pyromancer Ascension.

Aside from Pyromancer Ascension, I wanted to talk a bit about Tempered Steel this week. As of late, it has been gaining a lot of popularity on Magic Online, putting up 3-1s and 4-0s in Daily Events regularly. It also took multiple Top 4 spots this past weekend in multiple Premier Events, which are generally considered more difficult tournaments than the average Daily Event. Tempered Steel is starting to rear its head as the most dominant aggro deck, beating out Red Deck Wins, Vampires, and every other chump on the block.

The nut draws from Tempered Steel are very difficult to beat. Combine this with the fact that they run twelve “lord” effects, with Steel Overseer, Signal Pest, and Tempered Steel. You also have an easy time killing people who try to gain a lot of life. Any of your pump effects are just bonkers when combined with Inkmoth Nexus. If you draw multiples, then they will be dead in a hurry.

Most lists are opting to run Spellskite too, since it is a huge artifact creature that protects your Steel Overseer from removal, as well as your Tempered Steel from Nature’s Claim, Revoke Existence, and many others after sideboarding. With Tempered Steel or one of your various other pump effects in play, he even gets to beat down, which is pretty cool considering he is mostly just a utility creature. While Spellskite isn’t the most aggressive of threats, keeping your Steel Overseer alive is definitely worth it. You also get the added benefit of screwing over Splinter Twin combos, as well as red decks trying to kill you with Shrine of Burning Rage.

While some decks opt for Porcelain Legionnaire, I’m not a fan. He beats down quite nicely, but this format is a constant grind, and you need to be able to recover from spot removal and mass removal alike. Cards like Porcelain Legionnaire are actually too slow for what they do and usually just end up as victims of Black Sun’s Zenith. With Memnite, Signal Pest, and Steel Overseer, you don’t need even more creatures that roll over to the (annoying) sorcery. You need more resilient cards like Glint Hawk Idol and Origin Spellbomb.

A card that is not widely adopted, but I feel should be, is Contested War Zone in the sideboard. Against control decks, it provides your weaker creatures with a huge boost, allowing you to hold back cards and keep from overextending into a sweeper. While the format is too aggressive to maindeck a card like Contested War Zone, the card warrants sideboard space for the pressure it can apply with such little effort. It becomes even more of a huge beating when combined with Inkmoth Nexus, putting your opponent on a savage clock.

I’ve seen plenty of mono-white lists of Tempered Steel, but I’ve been particularly fond of the lists splashing blue for everyone’s favorite sorcery: Preordain. While splashing blue forces you to play a suboptimal land in Glacial Fortress, you get access to Mana Leak in the sideboard, which is just an absolute game ender when your opponent is relying on some huge spell to resolve on turns 4-6. While some people have Negate here, I wouldn’t recommend that since you need answers to threats like Consecrated Sphinx, Wurmcoil Engine, Primeval Titan, and Grave Titan. The blue splash is mostly negligible and gives your Mox Opals added value.

If I were to play Tempered Steel this weekend, this is the list I would play:

While you might not think the blue splash is worth it, it makes the deck so smooth. It keeps you from drawing land clumps in the midgame, and you rarely want to cast it at all on the first turn. It is one of the best cards in the deck and does what it is supposed to do very well.

The sideboard might need a slight bit of work, but I definitely want the two Contested War Zones, three Mana Leaks, and three Shrine of Loyal Legions. Everything else is mostly theoretical. Refraction Trap is quite absurd against red decks, throwing their burn right back at their own creatures while keeping your guys so fresh and so clean. I’m not 100% sold on it just yet, but the applications seem pretty spectacular considering you have very few other options. Kor Firewalker is not very synergistic with the rest of your deck, and most lists have Dismember and Shrine of Burning Rage to get rid of him easily.

Revoke Existence is mostly for the mirror match, but there are plenty of people trying to crash the party with Tezzeret-based decks, so they double up against those guys as well. With the mirror becoming so popular on Magic Online, I might end up playing more of these, but right now I think that just having a few is fine. Divine Offering isn’t nearly as good in this slot since Tempered Steel is one of the more important cards in the matchup, and having a reliable answer to it is sweet. Spellskite can still pose problems, but Dispatch and Dismember can take care of him. I wouldn’t recommend Leonin Relic-Warder in this slot since the double-white casting cost can get in your way on occasion, as well as the fact that everyone is running removal to get rid of him. If you let them get back their Tempered Steel, you’re in for a world of hurt.

Dismember is like a fifth Dispatch, acting as a solid removal spell against the mirror and any other aggro decks (red decks excluded). It has its uses, but I don’t think you want to load up on removal and water down your draws. Dismember doesn’t kill Titans, but you always have Mana Leak and Dispatch to take care of those.

The singleton Phyrexian Revoker may seem random, but he has his purposes. He was originally the fourth Spellskite, but I like to be able to beat down a little bit with my hate bears, and he shuts down the Splinter Twin combo quite nicely. He also has various other applications against Jace Beleren, or any other planeswalker-based deck that comes cropping up with the release of the new Chandra, new Garruk, and new Jace.

The deck itself is very focused on nutdrawing the opponent and knocking them out for the count before they’ve taken their fourth turn. While you will have the occasional “do nothing” opener, just mulligan aggressively. Preordain is not a valid reason to keep a five-land hand, so don’t get caught in that trap, but also give Preordain the chance to dig you out of land-light draws. The card is great at almost every point in the game, and I wouldn’t recommend playing this deck without the splash.

Overall I feel like Tempered Steel is your best bet with an aggro deck. You have the tools to fend off removal of all sorts, and you also get the occasional draw that completely overwhelms the unsuspecting opponent. If I’m right, expect decks with red to be sideboarding Slagstorm, so don’t expect your creatures to be safe just because you have a Tempered Steel in play. Most of your creatures will still die to it.

For what it’s worth, M12 should bring about some cool changes to Standard, but making Red Deck Wins is definitely going to be one of them. Expect Grim Lavamancer and Incinerate to team up with the rest of the gang already in place for some crushing beats. RDW was already good enough before M12, but I think it might have just gotten a whole lot better. This weekend in Cincinnati, we’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

strong sad on MOL