Constructed Criticism – Illusions III

The Worlds landscape has changed Standard drastically yet again. To fight the newest enemies, Todd Anderson has some updates for St. Louis in a week, as well as tips for making the right play with the deck.

So… Worlds happened this past weekend. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there, but I did get to watch some awesome Top 8 coverage while playing some Daily Events. Conley Woods had an amazing performance in the Swiss, picking up his only “losses” to two of his fellow teammates, which were concessions. Tempered Steel made quite a splash in the opening of the tournament, but Conley was the lone pilot to get to 6-0. While Tempered Steel was clearly a good call for that tournament in particular, I’m not sure it is a great decision moving forward. Once a deck like Tempered Steel is a known quantity, it is much easier for people to pack all kinds of hate. Unfortunately, even cards like Arc Trail and Slagstorm are splash damage for Tempered Steel, both of which will almost assuredly see more play after this weekend.  

Phillip Lorren, a friend of mine from Atlanta, started Day 1 at 5-1 with Illusions, with his only loss coming in the last round to a Wolf Run deck packing the full set of Arc Trail maindeck along with a pair of Slagstorms. While this matchup isn’t unbeatable by any means, the addition of Arc Trail to the maindeck was sure to give Illusions some problems. There were probably some blowout turns when Phillip wasn’t really expecting it, but that is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that Illusions was one of the most popular decks at Worlds, and for good reason. It has recently started to dominate the Magic Online metagame, but people are beginning to adapt.

With that said, I still think Illusions is one of the best decks in the format. It had a solid winning percentage over the rest of the field at Worlds, with Tempered Steel being the only deck with over 50 matches played with a higher winning percentage. My biggest problem with this statistic is that most of the people playing with Tempered Steel were people who you expect to win with any deck put in their hands. LSV, Conley Woods, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Paulo Vitor all played Tempered Steel, and all eventually made Top 8. This is just the short list of who played the deck, but every person on their team is a quality competitor. If Illusions had this kind of support from this caliber of player, I’m sure it would have done much better. With Conley being the only one to start off with a perfect 6-0 record, you can see that the rest had to make up for that in the Draft and Modern portions of the tournament. They didn’t disappoint.

But I digress, as they chose a different route for logical reasons and attacked the format from an angle that people weren’t expecting. This is nothing new, since that is what teams are designed to do, and they did it well. With that said, I still think Illusions is a fine choice for Standard, but there probably need to be a few tweaks to the deck in order to make it compete with decks like Mono Red and Wolf Run, which are packing so much removal.

The other option is to switch to an archetype that punishes people for playing Slagstorm and Arc Trail in their maindeck. People have forgotten that Solar Flare exists, and I’m sure that the metagame will balance out, eventually putting those people who are playing so much removal maindeck in a tough spot. This will create a delicate balance between aggro, control, and ramp, but I’m sure of what spot I want to be in the metagame right now. Hint: it rhymes with “staggro.”

The World Champion played four Galvanic Blast and a Shock in his Wolf Run maindeck, which is almost unheard of. He came prepared to put a beating on the aggro decks, and it worked wonders. He didn’t drop a match in Standard all weekend, and his well-tuned list helped him punish the aggro-filled Top 8. Going forward, I expect most Wolf Run players to adopt this particular line of thought, but you need to remember that removal is weak in the mirror. As people jump on the Wolf Run bandwagon, your Galvanic Blasts and Slagstorms become much worse. 

Galvanic Blast is a card that Illusions can deal with. It’s cards like Arc Trail that really start to give me problems. While Galvanic Blast slows you down tremendously in the early game and you can’t really rely on riding Delver of Secrets to victory, you can attrition them out with Moorland Haunt and a solid number of creatures. Older versions of Wolf Run really stood out as problematic for me, since Dungrove Elder was a gigantic wall that my little creatures couldn’t get through. Now, they just have Solemn Simulacrum and removal spells. I can Vapor Snag a Solemn Simulacrum and crash in for a lot of damage. What I can’t do is Vapor Snag a Dungrove Elder.

Some people might be thinking that casting Vapor Snag on a Solemn Simulacrum is a bad idea because they can just replay it to get another land. Well, you’re just wrong, and I’m going to explain to you why. Vapor Snag is basically a Time Walk against them if they decide to recast the Solemn. If they are hitting their fifth and sixth land drops and recasting Solemn instead of another threat, then I am as happy as I’m ever going to be with their draw. You don’t mind bouncing their guy so much when it is the worst possible replay for them in the entire deck. Solemn Simulacrum is really great against you when they cast it on the third or fourth turn but absolutely abysmal any time after that. 

The fact that this version of Wolf Run won the title makes me pretty happy about where Standard is at the moment. Illusions has a lot of trouble against Mono Red, but everything else is very beatable. I’m under the impression that a few changes to the deck will do a lot of good, but I’m just not positive what those changes should be. Countless iterations of my decklist from two weeks ago keep putting up 3-1 and 4-0 results on Magic Online Daily Events, but that just isn’t enough. I don’t feel like I’m dominating my opponents as much as I used to, and that is a problem for me.

So what’s the solution?

This might be a start. Most of you are aware that splashing white cards is dangerous business, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Oblivion Ring was a card that I really missed having in my older version of Illusions. It did a lot of work against planeswalker control decks, as well as Mono Red. Their creatures are incredibly difficult to beat sometimes, but Shrine of Burning Rage was also a kick in the teeth. Oblivion Ring helped out in both situations, since it is at its nature a very versatile card.

Oblivion Ring is also great against the white-based aggro decks playing things like Honor of the Pure, Mirran Crusader, and Hero of Bladehold. These decks gain their most significant advantages through having a larger board presence than you. Oblivion Ring allows you to negate any factor that is contributing to this. Honor of the Pure mixed with Moorland Haunt is just absurdly tough to beat, but having something like Revoke Existence would just be terrible. Oblivion Ring gives you answers to Honor of the Pure while still acting as a potential removal spell for Hero of Bladehold, which is exactly what you want.

While Oblivion Ring is a white card, I think you have enough sources to cast it reliably and especially so after boarding. With the Glacial Fortress in the board, you are able to move up to another source of white without hurting your blue sources, and you are also able to just increase your land count, since you will likely be adding other three-drops to your arsenal in the process. Stitched Drake has performed incredibly well for me against a variety of matchups, but there are times where you have to keep one-land opening hands and just never draw enough land to keep up. While this doesn’t happen all that often, having the extra land could help prevent it. With Ponder and Snapcaster Mage to flash it back, you shouldn’t flood out too often. Having access to Snapcaster Mage and Moorland Haunt will usually give you something to do with excess mana.

With Moorland Haunt in the deck, I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that Stitched Drake isn’t very good because it doesn’t have synergy with the rest of the deck. This is partially true, but I think people are thinking about it the wrong way. Stitched Drake and Moorland Haunt both eat up the same resource, but I think they should be played more carefully rather than not be played at all. Your creatures are fragile and will often die in combat or to spot removal. Having multiple ways to capitalize on this mitigates the fact that you will occasionally draw one without being able to use it.

Stitched Drake is one of the biggest reasons why you have any shot in hell against a deck playing 20 Mountains. He flies, blocks pretty much any creature, and has four toughness. This means that he will almost always be a 2-for-1 against a red deck and potentially more if you happen to blow them out with a Mental Misstep. Stitched Drake also works well in battles of attrition, since he outclasses most creatures upon arrival. Flying is also another huge draw to this guy, since a lot of decks like to gum up the board. This is one of the biggest reasons why all the CFB guys played Tempered Steel. Most of their creatures had evasion, which is just huge when the format is full of Mirran Crusader and Solemn Simulacrum. I don’t think any other deck in the format could boast being completely unafraid of a resolved Grave Titan, but Tempered Steel is one of them.

One thing that people really need to learn about this deck is this: you are always the aggressor, no matter what matchup you are playing against. You don’t have the luxury of siding into a control deck to help combat their deck. You should always be the one applying pressure and disrupting their plays with whatever tools are at your disposal. When you start to get on the defensive, that is when you start to lose. Other decks are built for the mid-game, but this one is built to take control of the early game and keep it. If your opponent draws multiple Arc Trails and blows you out, then so be it. But I refuse to sit back and play cards like Timely Reinforcements when my opponent can just negate the entirety of its effect with a single Shrine of Burning Rage. If you are on the defensive, then you are losing, plain and simple. When you cast Vapor Snag to just prevent some damage, you’ve basically lost. Every card you play should help gain you an advantage on board. When you are using your spells to create parity, all they have to do is play another threat to break parity.

The deck is solid for a lot of reasons. It can race from a lot of situations with a variety of cards. Snapcaster Mage is one of the best cards in the deck, but it is only as good as its surrounding cast. Without Gut Shot or Vapor Snag, I don’t think Snapcaster Mage would be nearly as good in this deck as he is. The spells surrounding Snapcaster Mage are what turn him into a virtual Cryptic Command, but sometimes he’s just Coral Merfolk, and that’s okay too. People should not always just sit back on Snapcaster Mage to try and get value out of him. You are an aggro deck after all, and how much is 4-6 points of life worth in terms of card advantage?

This weekend, I watched Kali lose to a Mono Red player in the finals of an SCG Invitational Qualifier, but a particular situation has stood out in my mind for the last few days. There was a turn where she had a Phantasmal Image and Stitched Drake in hand against an opponent with just a Shrine of Burning Rage in play on zero counters. She had no creatures in the graveyard; there were no creatures on the board; and the first play that stood out in my head was to cast the Image to let it die, then play the Stitched Drake. If she didn’t take that line, there was no way she would ever beat that Shrine. A few turns later, she had still not cast a relevant creature, and her opponent burned her out with Incinerate and the Shrine.

One lesson to learn from this is that plays that seem awful in a vacuum can sometimes be the correct play for a line that can potentially win you the game. By not casting anything in that spot, she is basically conceding. I didn’t expect her to make that play because it is not a play that anyone in their right mind would make—in the history of Magic-related strategy, things like Card Advantage have been drilled into our heads.

I continually make plays that baffle her, like casting Vapor Snag on a Solemn Simulacrum, because those plays are the only plays that can win me the game. If you let traditional logic and theory dictate your plays, you will win far less than if you would just take the time and figure things out for yourself. I constantly try to force my opponents into situations where they are the most likely to make a mistake because logical reasoning doesn’t really have an answer for many of the situations that Illusions can present. The deck is an aggressive powerhouse, but having access to Mana Leak on top of that puts people into some very odd spots. Just the fact that they know that you could have Mana Leak forces them into plays that are usually very good for you. That is one of the psychological advantages that the deck gives you. Most people aren’t used to playing games of Standard that revolve around powerful early threats backed by counterspells.

When you push people out of their comfort zone, that is when they really start to panic. Sometimes, it is correct for them to cast Day of Judgment on turn four because they have no other avenue to victory. Other times, they have the leisure to wait until turn 7 to play around Mana Leak, but they will rarely do that because they are afraid of dying. When you apply early pressure with Phantasmal Bear or Delver of Secrets, people automatically go into survival mode and do everything in their power to protect their life total. This can cause some very good situations for you, where people don’t make the best play for themselves because they don’t have perfect information.

Enter Gitaxian Probe. This card is incredibly powerful for an archetype like Illusions for multiple reasons. One thing I’ve noticed while playing live is that you can easily walk your opponent into doing what you want them to do or keep them from doing what you don’t want them to do. Just by writing down their hand and saying the names of the cards aloud, you are telling them that you know everything they are going to do before they do it. Nothing is unexpected. So, when you play your hand out, even though they have a Day of Judgment in hand, that is signaling to them that you have Mana Leak, whether or not you actually do. While this could be advantageous, it can also be incredibly dangerous. Make sure you use information to your advantage.

Information manipulation is one of my favorite aspects of Magic because people tend to make the plays that are the most logical for the time being, rather than the plays that are most likely to win them the game. A lot of the time, these plays are very close to one another, but there are plenty of occasions where making the play that seems good now will just lose you the game in a few turns. Cards like Gitaxian Probe really give you a mental edge in the matchups where it counts because you can almost always predict the line that your opponent will take, and you can take the line that trumps that one.

There are a lot of factors to consider when doing this, including the potential for them to draw specific cards that make your line of play incorrect. If you can mitigate this chance in your line of play, or the chance they draw that particular card is unlikely, then you should just make the best play based on your knowledge of their hand and probability. Always play to win. If you play it safe all the time, you will lose games that you have no business losing.

A good example of this came just last night in a match against Wolf Run. Kali was watching me play, and I just overextended onto the board, completely unafraid of Slagstorm. She asked me why I would do that, and my answer was simple: he used Green Sun’s Zenith to get a Birds of Paradise. If he had Slagstorm, he would have likely waited to cast Green Sun’s Zenith for Viridian Emissary (which I had seen in an earlier game). By waiting to cast my creatures for fear of a sweeper effect, I would have been conceding to a Garruk, Primal Hunter or potentially even a Primeval Titan on the fifth turn. My line of play applied the most pressure for what I thought he had in hand or at least what he probably didn’t have in hand. Rarely will people Green Sun’s Zenith for a Birds of Paradise against an aggressive deck when they plan on casting Slagstorm on the following turn.

The hardest fact in this situation is that I was going to lose to Slagstorm regardless of whether or not I cast my entire hand or waited it out. I didn’t have a counterspell, and he was going to resolve a large creature in the very near future. Whether or not I had put enough pressure onto the field to overwhelm him was the real question that I had to ask myself. Without casting the last two creatures from my hand, the answer would have been a resounding no. Without a net to catch whatever he threw at me, whether it be Flashfreeze, Dissipate, or just Mana Leak, I would have been dead to pretty much any combination of plays he threw at me, so long as one of them contained Slagstorm. This made my line of play correct in most situations, since the likelihood of me topdecking a counterspell in the next two draws was not very high.

What I really want to stress to you is this: the situations you put yourself in should be the ones that give yourself the best chance to win based on known information or information garnered through instinct or logic. This type of play can be incredibly risky for a lot of reasons, but you should always trust your gut. If you feel like your opponent is attacking you with his creatures under very odd circumstances, and you feel like you’re the beatdown, then maybe they have a plan that turns them into the aggressor and your best bet is to try to thwart that plan. Maybe they’re just really bad and shouldn’t have been attacking in the first place. It is up to you to figure out which side of the coin they are on, and when you do, that should give you enough information to make your decision.

Magic is a complicated game full of intricate theory, strategy, and probability. It is easily the best game I have ever played, and it has stuck around for this long because of it. We are truly blessed to have a hobby as complex as this one because it can test the boundaries that our mind creates for us. Outside-the-box thinking can benefit us greatly at times outside of gaming, but Magic is a medium that rewards that kind of behavior more than any other that I’ve encountered.

There are countless articles written every day about different aspects of the game, and we almost always come away from those articles with a bit more respect for how important this game is to us. I’ve pored over articles for countless hours trying to improve how I play a game based on Dragons and Elves. But it goes deeper than that. Maybe, deep down, I have the desire to better my mind, and this is the best outlet I’ve found. Maybe I just love the competition. Maybe I just really love the game. Magic provides me with a competitive outlet that gives me satisfaction on so many levels when I am successful, and sometimes even when I’m not. Seeing Illusions explode in popularity has given me a lot of pride in my work, and for that I am truly thankful.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Thanksgiving!


strong sad on MOL