Constructed Criticism – Dissecting Fish (And Insectile Aberrations)

Illusions is the sickest Standard deck I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite a while. Read Todd’s full primer on Illusions, and try it at the next Open in St. Louis.

Illusions is the sickest Standard deck I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite a while.

I hate most decks. I hate most Standard decks because the restriction of sets keeps you from innovating as much as you could be. Just look at Legacy and how much of a change it’s been going through since the banning of Mental Misstep. Who would have expected Stifle to come back in such a big way? Who would have though Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows was something we should consider in such a wide-open format!?

With Standard, things can get stale in a hurry. Whenever a new block hits, the card pool gets trimmed down significantly, and the format isn’t that fun to begin with. As people develop new ideas and strategies, it becomes clearer what you’re fighting against. Today’s Standard feels like a mash-up of Standard from last year. Valakut is back, and Caw-Blade didn’t even go anywhere. So what’s new?

No, you aren’t having a flashback from last week. Yes, we will be talking about Illusions one more time. If anything, you should continue reading to see how people are going to be attacking you with the deck. It is powerful, and you should at least know just how strong it really is.

For just a moment, let’s set aside any preconceived notions you have about the deck. Let me start by telling you that I’ve won over $400 worth of product on Magic Online (pure profit) in the last week. Let me also say that my average win percentage with the deck is somewhere around 85%. For a while, I haven’t been able to find a deck that I really loved playing in Standard, but that’s all changed. Illusions is the real deal, and today we’re going for broke.

Last week I talked all about Illusions and why it is a good deck. The mana is amazing, the spells are efficient, and you have the tools necessary to fight pretty much any deck in the format. Long story short, the deck is pretty sweet. This week, I’m going to do you a solid and take it one step further. I’m going to give you the insider’s guide on how to play the deck, how to sideboard in the most important matchups, and we’re going to pick apart minute details until you understand what you’re going to be up against. *Snaps on rubber gloves*

Now, let’s dissect this Fish.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, you should see some obvious changes from last week. I suppose I’ll start with those.

Can anyone tell me why this guy is a common? Serendib Efreet was never anything to scoff at, and this guy is almost better. Red decks have an incredibly hard time dealing with this guy, and I rarely draw them without a creature in the bin. I know that he is a little conflicting with Moorland Haunt, but you can’t have everything you want. The singleton in the maindeck gives you an extra flier, and you’ll never get multiples in your opening hand. It has been awesome almost every time I’ve drawn it in game one, but the beating it puts on Red decks is just absurd.

Stitched Drake was the missing piece to the puzzle. With this guy alone, you now have a fighting chance against any red deck. Bring the Arc Trails and Gut Shots. Let’s see how easy it is to kill this guy. What Stitched Drake presents to the Red mage is unlike anything that Blue decks have had in Standard in a long time. He’s an evasive threat that takes multiple spells to deal with and usually hits the table when they are already running out of gas. Add to this the fact that Mental Misstep will often cause them to 2-for-1 themselves, and you’ve got the makings of a winnable matchup.

Next up, we have the Michael Jacob suggestion of the week:

Gut Shot was originally in my sideboard, but the card has phenomenal applications in so many matchups! While I was originally set on playing Mental Misstep in order to help counteract cards like Despise on top of Birds of Paradise, I feel like the format is leaning heavily towards the latter. Oftentimes, Mental Misstep wouldn’t be in my opening hand to counter their early mana producer, and I would draw it later in the game where it was effectively a dead card. Gut Shot is virtually the same card, except you have the ability to draw it off Ponder or Gitaxian Probe and still get the job done. Sure, there are a decent number of spots where you will want Mental Misstep instead, but Gut Shot is the clear winner for the maindeck.

Gut Shot also gives your deck a little bit of reach. When combined with Vapor Snag, Snapcaster Mage, and Phantasmal Image copying the Snapcaster Mage, it is not inconceivable to “burn” people out of the game. In fact, I would say that I’ve won a staggeringly high number of games based on bad blocks from my opponent where they fall to one life, only to be undone by the timely Gut Shot sitting in hand. It has also teamed up with Dismember to kill Consecrated Sphinx on numerous occasions.

Gut Shot gives the blue deck a flexible, efficient removal spell, and I would definitely recommend playing it in the maindeck over Mental Misstep. Misstep has been moved to the sideboard but is still a very useful card in a number of matchups. I would highly recommend keeping at least two, as I’ve been very happy with them in a variety of matchups, including the mirror.

Next up is another sideboard change. As you can probably see by now, I’ve cut Surgical Extraction. It was an experiment to begin with and one that failed miserably. After the third time using Surgical Extraction as a Gitaxian Probe that didn’t draw a card, I knew I had to make a change.

With only 20 lands in the maindeck, you wouldn’t really think that Dissipate would make the cut. You’d be wrong. Dissipate brings you a hard counter with some gumption. Unburial Rites won’t be a problem with this in your holster.

Dissipate is a bit mana intensive, but I have had very little trouble flashing it back with Snapcaster Mage in the matchups against control. Those games go decently long, and you will usually be given enough time to set up a Dissipate that just wrecks them. While this isn’t a huge change to the deck, I do feel that it is noteworthy. Surgical Extraction is just bad in Standard, and I don’t think it really fits in any deck. The card is a trap, and you probably shouldn’t be playing with it.

Next on the agenda:

While this card has a lot of great uses, this is another experimental card for me. I haven’t tested it at all, but I feel like I have a hole in the mirror match and really need another removal spell that doesn’t deal me damage. It answers most of the creatures in the deck and even doubles up against the G/W Tokens, Infect, and Wolf Run Green decks. All of those archetypes have prime targets for Mortarpod, and the Germ token can even soak some damage in the process.

Moorland Haunt does some nice work with Mortarpod, turning your flying dorks into potential removal spells for just two mana. While you can’t equip a Phantasmal Bear or Phantasmal Image, I don’t think that is enough of a drawback to exclude Mortarpod from your deck. Blue doesn’t have a lot of answers for small creatures outside of dipping into Phyrexian mana, and you just can’t afford to take too much damage in these matchups.

So those are the major changes to the deck. There are a few others, like the fourth Moorland Haunt in the sideboard, but I’ll get to the sideboarding plans in just a bit. The singleton Negate is worth mentioning but is still in testing. I had an extra slot and wasn’t sure what to add and felt like I needed another card to bring in against control decks.

Currently, Standard is full to the brim with solid, playable decks. Of those, I feel like Illusions has the best spot in the current metagame. I feel like my only bad matchup with Illusions is Mono Red, and even that has become reasonably manageable. Since adding Stitched Drake, I’ve been about 50% against anyone packing Arc Trail, which is pretty reasonable considering how weak our creatures are to their removal suite.

So, if that is the one bad matchup, what does that mean for the consumer?

Red decks have fallen out of favor on a large scale, which is very good for us. Our creatures are incredibly vulnerable to their onslaught of burn spells, and they are the only deck in the format that really packs more than five or six pieces of removal. With this deck out of the way, there is little standing between us and our goal: complete dominance.

As I said earlier, there are a plethora of different, solid decks you’re going to face off against. We’re going to go over each of the more important matchups today and how you should plan on beating them.

G/W Tokens

This deck is incredibly reliant on their mana producers to keep up with you. Without a Birds or Pilgrim, their draw will usually be far too slow to compete with ours. While they will have the occasional Mortarpod to slow you down, it will usually not be enough. With Vapor Snag and Snapcaster Mage, it is difficult for them to keep threats on the table.

Biggest problem cards: Garruk Relentless and Elspeth Tirel

If either of these cards ever resolve, you will usually be in a world of hurt unless you have the board completely dominated. Neither is a death sentence, but you can’t beat either if you don’t have a creature in play. Often, Garruk Relentless will just brown you by himself if you are just durdling with a Phantasmal Bear.

With Gut Shot, Dismember, and Vapor Snag, you should have plenty of ways to deal with their non-Planeswalker threats.

IN: 2 Dissipate, 1 Gut Shot, 1 Dismember, 1 Mortarpod

OUT: 4 Gitaxian Probe, 1 Stitched Drake

The Dissipates help you contain their later threats, but the card is only good if you have established some pressure. Gitaxian Probe usually comes out against the more aggressive decks, since you will usually be spending most of your life total casting Dismembers and Gut Shots. They have very little in the way of removal, and Stitched Drake can be a liability at times if he gets stuck in your hand.

U/W Humans

This deck plays rather similarly to the G/W Tokens matchup, except it is much easier. Their biggest threat against you is Grand Abolisher, since it makes your tricks much less interesting. It blanks your counterspells, and it also protects their creatures on their turn so they are safe to play Angelic Destiny. Honor of the Pure is a tough card to fight against. If they land it, as well as a Moorland Haunt, it can be very difficult to grind them out of the game.

Humans is not a bad matchup. You must dictate the tempo of the game and make them play to your strengths. Vapor Snag and the rest of your removal should be well-timed to give you the best on-board advantage so that you can deal them the most damage. I often save Phantasmal Image to copy their Hero of Bladehold and then immediately kill or bounce it so that I get the first swing. If you have a Lord of the Unreal in play, then the game is usually over at this point.

IN: 1 Gut Shot, 1 Dismember, 2 Mental Misstep, 1 Mortarpod

OUT: 4 Gitaxian Probe, 1 Stitched Drake

With their Honor of the Pure, Mortarpod and Gut Shot can become blanks rather quickly. Use them as early as possible, since you won’t have a large window for them to be good. Gitaxian Probe comes out because, once again, you just don’t have the luxury of paying life to cycle a card. The Mental Missteps are particularly good in this matchup because of Gideon’s Lawkeeper, but it is also great for stopping their Champion of the Parish, which can get out of hand very quickly. Doomed Traveler can be a speed bump that you counter every once in a while, but he isn’t a tough threat for you to beat.

Side note: Don’t try to “save” Mental Misstep too much because Grand Abolisher turns it into a blank.

U/B Control/ Solar Flare

These two matchups usually go the same way. You stick an early threat and follow it up with another threat or two and then lock up the game with Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage. Delver of Secrets is your best standalone threat, but having the curve of Phantasmal Bear and Lord of the Unreal is usually good enough.

Be careful not to waste your Mana Leaks. I often see people getting baited into using their Mana Leaks on Doom Blades or whatever, only for their opponent to untap and cast Day of Judgment or Consecrated Sphinx. Don’t let that happen to you! You have plenty of threats in your deck, and Moorland Haunt will usually help you rebuild your army after they’ve thrown everything they’ve got at you.

IN: 2 Dissipate, 1 Negate, 1 Moorland Haunt, 2 Stitched Drake

OUT: 2 Gut Shot, 2 Dismember, 2 Phantasmal Image

Since Phantasmal Image is not good on its own, it often forces you to overextend. Sure, it is awesome when they cast their fatty boom-boom, but if they resolve one, then you’re usually falling behind very quickly. While Image can copy Lord of the Unreal and protect itself, those times are few and far between, given that the control decks have plenty of counters and removal for your team. Moorland Haunt is the most important card in this matchup, since it allows you to fight through all of their removal with ease.

Note that Solar Flare will usually have some number of Timely Reinforcements. This can be incredibly annoying, but there are ways to play around it. It is often correct to counter one early, but don’t get baited into countering one in the mid-late game just so they can stick their Titan. Play smart, and keep an open mind about what they could have in hand at all times.

U/R Tempo

This matchup is very similar to a mirror match, but your mana and creatures are far superior. They have no real way to square off against Moorland Haunt, which should lead you to dominate the late game. Chandra’s Phoenix will rarely be able to come back, since they will often throw burn at your creatures and not your dome. Stitched Drake is absolutely insane in this matchup, since they are much like a red deck, but with a much worse clock.

Your Gut Shots are especially important, because Grim Lavamancer and Delver of Secrets are very strong against you. This means you need to prioritize what you’re doing in the early game and focus on being reactive if they have an aggressive start. Otherwise, just jam some creatures and kill whatever dorks they put in your way.

IN: 1 Mortarpod, 1 Gut Shot, 3 Stitched Drake, 1 Moorland Haunt, 2 Mental Misstep

OUT: 4 Gitaxian Probe, 1 Vapor Snag, 1 Mana Leak, 2 Phantasmal Image

While you can board out additional Mana Leaks on the draw, I don’t think that’s very good. Mana Leak is awesome if only for stopping their Snapcaster Mages, but it is an incredibly reactive card in this matchup and can often be a dead card as early as the third turn. I suggest cutting one on the play and possibly two on the draw, siding in the other Dismember to help out against the more problematic creatures. You don’t want too many Dismembers and Gut Shots though, since they do have cards like Brimstone Volley to burn you out of the game. If you are able to counter their Vapor Snags on your Stitched Drakes, then it should be easy going.

Since they have a lot of removal, Phantasmal Image can often get stuck in your hand. I would cut back on them a bit, but copying a Lord of the Unreal is possibly the best thing you can do against them.

U/W Blade

This matchup can be strange because their draws can range from “U/W Humans” to “Solar Flare” in terms of aggression and removal. I would suggest playing your game around theirs and just figuring out who is the aggressor and who is the control deck. Often, you will take the aggressive role, but don’t be afraid to switch if they start dropping bombs like Hero of Bladehold. Vapor Snag is particularly juicy against them, since they have Blade Splicer’s Golem token, as well as anything suited up with a Sword of Feast and Famine.

Spellskite can be annoying. Make sure you kill it early just to get it out of the way. Your removal spells will be useless as long as it is in play, and it holds your ground guys off quite easily.

Don’t be afraid of Day of Judgment in the first game, but expect it after sideboarding, as they will likely morph into a much more controlling strategy.

IN: 2 Dissipate, 1 Moorland Haunt, 1 Dismember

OUT: 1 Stitched Drake, 2 Gut Shot, 1 Gitaxian Probe

Gitaxian Probe is usually one of the first cards I side out if I can’t figure out what else to take out. While it can be impressive in control matchups, I find it forces you to keep hands that are light or heavy on lands, and sometimes you can get screwed because of it. The information it provides you can be crucial to planning out your plan of attack, but don’t let it dictate whether or not you keep a hand.

After boarding, you should figure out whether or not you’re the aggressor rather quickly. Assume that you are because they will likely have things like Timely Reinforcements to stabilize. Stitched Drake becomes much better in this matchup if they are playing a high number of Dismembers and Day of Judgment. Feel free to re-sideboard accordingly. If they sided out a bunch of their threats, like Blade Splicer and/or Mirran Crusader, Vapor Snag becomes mediocre.

Wolf Run

While there are many versions of Wolf Run, most of them play out pretty much the same. The most popular version plays Dungrove Elder along with a slew of mana accelerators in the form of creatures. If this is the version you’re playing against, then you should sideboard similarly to the G/W Tokens matchup. Mortarpod and Gut Shot are great, but Dismember is actually pretty poor here. Phantasmal Image also has very few cool things to copy, since Dungrove Elder is a party pooper.

IN: 1 Mortarpod, 1 Gut Shot, 3 Flashfreeze, 2 Dissipate, 3 Stitched Drake, 1 Moorland Haunt

OUT: 4 Phantasmal Image, 4 Gitaxian Probe, 2 Dismember, 1 Vapor Snag

Vapor Snag is left in as a way to help contain threats like Wurmcoil Engine and Batterskull, but don’t rely on it too much. It can win the game out of nowhere if they go all-in on a Wolf Run activation, but Dungrove Elder and Thrun will ruin that plan in a hurry. Snapcaster Mage is an all-star in this matchup, since you will be able to rebuy counters and removal, both of which are important to slowing down their well-oiled machine. Gitaxian Probe can be left in, and you can cut more Vapor Snags if you feel like they’re dead cards.

Thrun can be a problem, and feel free to side back in the Images to deal with it if you need. I find that most smart players will not bring in Thrun because you have Phantasmal Image in your deck. Other than killing Thrun and occasionally copying another dork, Image isn’t that great in this matchup.

There are versions of Ramp than play Slagstorm and whatnot, similar to Brian Sondag winning SCG list a few weeks ago, but those versions are seeing less and less play. However, they do have the ability to interact with Mirran Crusader, which the Dungrove Elder versions have a very tough time doing. If you see Copperline Gorge or Rootbound Crag, expect Slagstorms and play around them accordingly. Don’t side in the Mortarpod or Gut Shot against this version, and side out the Gut Shots for something else.


This matchup shouldn’t be that difficult. Their creatures are incredibly vulnerable, and the only draws you are afraid of involve the full set of Virulent Wounds. Feel free to pay as much life as you like and garner a huge advantage out of it. This matchup should be quite easy most of the time.

IN: 1 Gut Shot, 1 Dismember, 1 Mortarpod, 3 Stitched Drake

OUT: 4 Gitaxian Probe, 2 Phantasmal Image

Image is not that great against them because their creatures all have infect. Copying their guys is a purely defensive maneuver. Stitched Drake is much stronger, since they will likely have a ton of removal at their disposal, and he is an evasive monster. I’m cutting Probe because I’m unsure about what else to cut. I don’t think you can afford to cut any other creatures or removal, which doesn’t leave you a lot of options. Ponder is superior to Probe in the deck, if only because of Delver of Secrets.

Mono Red

This is your most difficult matchup, but hopefully you won’t have to play against it too much. Their best cards against you are Arc Trail and Gut Shot, since the game is all about tempo in the early game, and then attrition in the mid-game. Use your removal sparsely, since it deals you a lot of damage. If their creature would end up doing more damage to you than the removal spell, then it is most likely worth it to just soak the damage and kill their guy.

IN: 3 Stitched Drake, 2 Mental Misstep, 1 Gut Shot

OUT: 4 Gitaxian Probe, 2 Dismember

Drake helps a ton post-board and gives you some breathing room. They will kill almost every threat you play, but if you follow it up with a Drake, then you are usually in business. If they ever tap out, your best bet is to drop Lord of the Unreal and Phantasmal Image copying the lord. The matchup is difficult, but not unwinnable.


Overall, I feel like you have a very good chance to beat any opponent you face. The deck is incredibly powerful, since it fights people on a level they aren’t used to playing. When was the last time that Unsummon was a Constructed-worthy card? Heck, even Aether Adept is starting to see some play in people’s sideboards. I think that we are beginning to unfold an oft-forgotten archetype. The real question is: are you going to be ahead of the curve, or are you going to be the guy on the receiving end of this guy?

I hope this was helpful to anyone aspiring to play the deck in upcoming events. Just go out and give the deck a try. You just might find that something you’ve been looking for. I know I have.

Thanks for reading.


strong sad on MOL