Decks ‘n Things

Grand Prix Louisville winner Brian Braun-Duin highlights a few Standard decks he thinks are well positioned and then shares his thoughts about Magic Online.

The shop Linens ‘n Things is one of my all-time favorite stores. I’ve actually never been inside one, and I don’t even know what they sell besides linens presumably. But that’s the beauty of the store. The "Things" part at the end could literally be anything. The only reason a probably boring linen store is even memorable at all to me is because their name offers a rare mystique. My curiosity is sufficiently piqued.

What if I need a new toolset to fix up my big-ass truck? There’s certainly a non-trivial chance that I can go to Linens ‘n Things and find a power-tool section. What if I get the toolset and realize that I don’t actually own a big-ass truck? I can probably find one there. It’s likely right next to the bread aisle, which is behind their premier selection of quality linens. At least that’s how I would lay out the store.

"Hello and welcome to Linens ‘n Things. How can I help you?"

"Yes, well, I’m looking for some new sheets for my bed."

"Oh, right this way. I’m sure we can find what exactly you’re looking for!"

"Really? Because I’m also in dire need of a blowtorch and three pounds of the purest heroin you got."

"Oh wow, well, that may be a bit tougher to accommodate. We are a linen shop after all."

"But your sign says "’n Things" on it. I thought you might also have other things."

"Alright, you got me. The heroin is in the back. We sold out of blow . . . and torches last week. The shipment comes in on Monday. Thank you for shopping at Linens ‘n Things, and we hope you have a fantastic evening sir."

It’s also possible that they only sell linens and the "’n Things" part is just there to throw people like me off the trail. It’s certainly possible. I can’t rule it out. I can’t rule anything out with a name like that. Just by the simple fact of adding a little ambiguity to their name they’ve created a lifetime worth of questions with no real answers. The world may never know just what you can buy at a Linens ‘n Things.*

This article is written with the same premise. I’m promising that I’m going to talk about some decks. I might also talk about some things, but it’s also possible that I won’t. It could easily just be a boring old deck store. The only way to find out is to take a step in and find out for yourself.


Standard is a fickle god. Week to week we are seeing different decks rise and fall in power and prominence. It feels like each week a new deck takes the throne, or at the very least an old deck resurrects or comes back in a new way to claim victory.

Thassa, on the other hand, seems to be a much less fickle God. All she seems to care about is Revenge (and then subsequently scrying once). I admire her dedication to ruining people’s board states. See, Thassa has the right mentality. The idea is that you completely blow out your opponent so that they can’t ever come back with a timely Sea God’s Revenge, and then you look at the top card of your library so you can follow it up with a "would have had all these." Too many people still live in the past where it’s not enough to just beat your opponent; you should also rub it in by showing them your hand and how much more you could have beaten them. That’s called the "still had all these," and it is plaguing Magic.

It’s appalling to me that people are still using the "still had all these" mentality. I think we’re better than that. I know we’re better than that. We’ve come too far as a community to not be better than that. I truly believe we can take it a step further with "would have had all these." The key play there is to look at the top few cards of your deck and then show your opponent how you would have beaten them even worse than you already did once you also drew those awesome cards in your deck in the turns to come. This is the 21st Century, and we’re still living in the dark ages when it comes to proper rub-ins. I, for one, won’t stand for it.

While Standard may have gone through a huge number of swings back and forth, I’ve pretty much stuck to my guns. I played Mono-Black Devotion to victory at Grand Prix Louisville, and then I ran it back to a successful finish the following weekend at the SCG Invitational. I followed it up by playing it in Columbus at a 50K, where I scrubbed out pretty badly. Since that obviously wasn’t enough, I’ve been playing a lot with the deck in various forms on Magic Online.

I’ve found that I have the most fun and experience the most success in Magic when I stick to playing decks I enjoy playing and just work on making them the best they can be. Mono-Black is the kind of deck I enjoy playing. It offers card advantage, grindy fights for resource advantage, and a number of win conditions that aren’t easy to combat. It may look different, but it really isn’t that different than Junk Reanimator was.

Therefore, it may come as no surprise when I tell you that I think the best deck in the format is Mono-Blue Devotion.

Well, actually, that might come as a surprise considering I just talked about Mono-Black a lot. Yeah, I said Blue. Mono-Blue, to be precise. Nasty Thassy and her horde of Birds, Merfolk, Mutants, and Specters looking to get that Sea God her deserved bounty. Deal or no Ordeal. Things might get Weird.

I have this sinking feeling that Ms. Thassa doesn’t give a Pack Rat’s ass about the "fine" art of pun making, but I consider that viewpoint to be one of shear luna-sea. Regardless, my original point stands. Pun hating or no, I think Thassa is exactly where you want to be in Standard right now.

So what caused the change in heart? Why did I drop my beloved Mono-Black Devotion to pick up a blue tempo shell? I went from playing a deck I enjoy playing and have had a lot of success with to an archetype that I have traditionally loathed playing with. Why?

I stopped winning with Mono-Black. Mono B, yo? More like Mono B, no. And on a somewhat related note, I also stopped having fun with the deck.

For one, losing simply isn’t fun. Secondly, the Mono-Black mirror match began to become a match I dreaded above all others. I felt that no matter what I did I couldn’t gain any appreciable edges. If I had a hand full of Dark Betrayals and Pack Rats, I would just lose to Thoughtseize into Ultimate Price into Underworld Connections. If I had a hand of Thoughtseize and Underworld Connections, I would just lose to Pack Rat killing me before the card advantage could matter.

Sometimes I would have two Underworld Connections to their none and would just savagely flood out and die to a couple of rogue Mutavaults before I could draw anything relevant. Sometimes I would stall on two lands while my opponent curved out perfectly and crushed me. I was already playing 26 lands, one more than the industry standard of 25, but I felt like I was still struggling to hit land drops consistently enough.

Granted, I also won plenty of games like that. Sometimes my opponents would pass the turn on turn 3 without hitting their third land, I would untap and cast Underworld Connections, and the rest of the game was just a mere formality.

The point I am driving at is that I felt like the mirror match was just a coin flip. You needed removal, threats, and ways to generate card advantage. If you didn’t draw the right mix or if the mix you drew didn’t line up to your opponent’s draw, you would lose. Sometimes you did draw the right mix, but back-to-back Thoughtseizes would ravage you before you had a chance to use any of it.

Thems the breaks, and frankly I needed a break.

I wasn’t really beating other decks as consistently as I used to either. Esper Control decks were starting to figure out how to beat Mono-Black. Decks like eighteen-land Mono-Red Aggro and hyperaggressive W/R Aggro decks were starting to become popular, and they preyed on how slow Mono-Black Devotion could be to get the cogs of destruction churning in some games.

Ultimately, I settled on Mono-Blue as my next choice to try out. There were a few reasons for this. For one, Sam Pardee and Josh McClain both completely tore up the 50K with the deck. Secondly, it was still putting up good results in Magic Online in Daily Events. Lastly, I kept seeing the deck in the finals of eight-man events I was playing on Magic Online, which meant that the deck was consistent.

Once I started playing with the deck, I grew to really enjoy it. In some part that was due to me winning a lot with it. I won three of the last five eight-man events I entered with the deck and lost another in the finals. I also really enjoyed how a lot of the games played out.

It seemed like a lot of games really had this interesting subgame element. Much how some games of Magic devolve into "kill the opposing planeswalker or planeswalkers and then focus on killing the opponent," games with Mono-Blue would often devolve into this battle to achieve enough loyalty to turn Thassa into a creature. Once you start attacking with an unblockable Thassa, it’s usually pretty difficult to lose. It was interesting to try to sequence spells optimally to both turn on Thassa and get the most mileage out of synergy-laden cards like Bident of Thassa and Cloudfin Raptor. Generally speaking, you are rewarded for doing it right.

I really like the maindeck a lot. The only changes I would consider making are cutting the Nykthos for another Island to improve consistency at the cost of power and cutting down to one Rapid Hybridization and adding a second Cyclonic Rift.

When I started playing with the deck, I had two Cyclonic Rifts, but I was frequently unhappy with the card. It was occasionally game breaking, but more frequently it was just mediocre. I think it’s an effect you definitely want in your deck, but I’m not sure you can really afford to play more than one. It’s also possible that by reducing the number of Cyclonic Rifts to one I should also cut the Nykthos since the combination of those two cards is what makes Nykthos the most broken. Granted, you can still do things like pumping mana into Thassa to make stuff unblockable or unloading your hand after drawing a bunch of card from Bident of Thassa, but typically you are doing pretty well in those scenarios anyway.

One thing I really like about Mono-Blue Devotion is how you can change pace in matchups after sideboarding. Against a deck like Esper Control, for example, you can side into three Bident of Thassas; four Jace, Architect of Thoughts; and two Aetherlings and actually win by grinding them out of resources. You can also use those cards to make Thassa active regardless of how many Supreme Verdicts they are packing.

Against the hyperaggressive decks, you can cut cards like Bident of Thassa and replace them with Jace, Architect of Thought, who is extremely powerful against them. For example, Jace completely neutralizes a large amount of the creatures a deck like Tom Ross‘ one-drop Mono-Red Aggro deck puts out. If they try to combat Jace with something like Pithing Needle, you can use that time to get ahead on board and just beat their 2/2s and 2/1s with a bunch of 2/3s and 1/4s.

Against the midrange devotion decks like Mono-Black, their game plan is to kill every creature you play to cut off your devotion and keep Thassa in enchantment form. I’ve found the most successful strategy against that is to overload their removal with cheap threats like Cloudfin Raptor and Judge’s Familiar and supplement that with cards like Claustrophobia, Domestication, and Bident of Thassa to provide what I like to call Doom Blade proof devotion while also stifling their pressure.

Overall, I think this deck is the real deal. It might not be the most powerful option, but it’s definitely one of the most consistent and I think that makes it the best deck in the format. It has constantly put up good finishes since winning the Pro Tour, both in paper Magic and on Magic Online, yet there hasn’t been a lot of buzz about it. If I were playing in an event tomorrow, this is what I would play, and this is what I would recommend others play.

Of course, that means that the next deck I’m going to talk about is a deck that I wouldn’t play. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it, though, because frankly this deck is a lot of fun. I also think the deck is quite good. It’s just not very consistent. I spent a lot of time trying to make this deck work on Magic Online. It’s powerful when it all comes together.

You might remember this deck because it is very similar to one that Gerry Thompson wrote about months ago. That list never really took off and eventually became forgotten. Honestly, I probably would have never come back to this deck again if it wasn’t for the fact that Heliod is my favorite of the Gods and I desperately wanted to find a shell to make him good.

Nylea, Thassa, Purphoros, and Erebos have all seen play. They have all seen success. Heliod is the lone outsider. Personally, I think Heliod is quite good. I think the vigilance ability is underrated and his ability to churn out Clerics can completely take over a game. The biggest issue surrounding Heliod isn’t whether he himself is playable; it’s the playable support cards he has.

Outside of Boros Reckoner, there isn’t much. Spear of Heliod is solid, but beyond that you really need to branch out into other colors. Chained to the Rocks requires Mountains, and Detention Sphere requires Islands. It’s easy to see how things can start to break down. You’re trying to play a three-color deck that relies on Nykthos as its primary engine. The mana is pretty horrendous.

I’ve made a number of changes to Gerry’s list. I cut a Nykthos for a colored mana source and added another one as a 28th land. The most common way I would lose was too not being able to curve out properly. Either I would have too many Nykthos to properly cast my spells early in the game or I would stall on land and not be able to get the critical mass needed to start firing off giant Revelations. Dropping down on the Nykthos count and adding another land helps to solve that problem.

I also cut Angel of Serenity since the card was fairly unimpressive against most of the field. In its place I now have Assemble the Legion, which is really powerful against decks like Mono-Black Devotion and any of the control decks. Between Assemble the Legion, Precinct Captain, and Heliod, it’s easy to have enough tokens to keep something like Desecration Demon from ever hitting you.

One neat interaction that came up fairly frequently was Spear of Heliod against opposing Nightveil Specters. When Nightveil Specter hits you, you can respond to the Specter trigger by killing it with Spear. They can still choose to blindly exile the top card of your library if they want to, but they won’t ever have an opportunity to play it.

This deck is really awesome against all of the aggressive decks. When you can sideboard into Last Breath, Banisher Priest, and Archangel of Thune to go along with your bevy of cheap removal options in Chained to the Rocks, Mizzium Mortars, and Detention Sphere, it’s pretty easy to just completely overpower them. I also found it to be fairly successful against Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion by keeping them off of their devotion while building to a better devotion-fueled endgame in Sphinx’s Revelation and Heliod. Chained to the Rocks and Detention Sphere cut from their devotion and add to yours.

Game 1 you pretty much don’t stand a chance against any control decks, but in games 2 and 3 I actually found the matchups to be somewhat favorable. You have so many dead cards to cut that you have to keep in mediocre cards like Precinct Captain and Boros Reckoner, yet you just have so many more real threats in Heliod, Assemble the Legion, and Elspeth than they do that eventually they tend to succumb to one of them.

I feel like this deck is actually really well positioned right now. It turned out that most of the time I lost it was to the deck simply not working and not to anything in particular that my opponent was doing. The exception was Stormbreath Dragon, where even if I had good draws I was probably still losing.

I am hoping that Born of the Gods provides us with some good white permanents on par with things like Underworld Connections. What kind of unlawful things do I need to do to get something like Scepter of Dominance reprinted? Seriously, just tell me what they are. I’ll do them. I must make Heliod work, no matter the cost.** Even something like Oblivion Ring would cut the dependence on blue from the deck and allow for a much smoother mana base and more consistency all around.

The last deck is one that I personally haven’t played with at all but have certainly lost to a bunch. In fact, I’ve been consistently losing to this deck with basically every deck I am playing. That probably means I should be playing the deck myself. If nothing is really beating it, there must be a good reason not to just play it.

The deck is R/W Devotion, and it has been beating the pulp out of me on Magic Online. I’m not sure I would recommend this exact 75, but the core of the deck is quite strong. Having an opponent curve Burning-Tree Emissary into Hammer of Purphoros on turn 3 is just one of the scariest things you can see. I already know that a certain 4/2 is going to come down the next turn and ravage me for a clean 83.5% of my life total.

Mogis and I are not on speaking terms.

And if you won’t play the deck, you should probably at least figure out how to beat it. I certainly haven’t yet.

Whether you love em, hate em, or are indifferent towards em, those were definitely some decks. I guess that means I have some work to do in order to fill my "things" quota if I’m going to brand myself with the classic Decks ‘n Things title.

I can’t say definitively that I will fill that quota because there is really just one thing.

Magic Online

As I was writing this article, Wizards of the Coast announced upcoming changes for Magic Online. The big change is that they are cutting out the Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS). They are cutting out Magic Online PTQs, and they are cutting out all Daily Events and Premier Events for an undefined amount of time.

In other words, they are cutting out a huge part of Magic Online. They are cutting out what made Magic Online continually sustainable for people to "go infinite" and play indefinitely on. They are cutting out what made Magic Online profitable enough for some people to support themselves with. They are cutting out the Constructed events that "matter." Those were the events that proved whether your deck had what it took to make it. Those were the events that got your decklist published online. They were the events that everyone looked to in order to find decks that were performing well or decks that were unique. That’s where the strongest competition was.

This change was brought on by event crashes in both major events last weekend, the MOCS on Saturday and the PTQ on Sunday. People spend their entire day playing in these events, and that is all wasted when the event crashes. Imagine how it would feel to travel to a PTQ, slog through nine grueling rounds, get that feeling of excitement when you hear your name for the Top 8, and then minutes later have someone come up to you and let you know that the store is shutting down for the night and the PTQ will be rescheduled and restarted next weekend. That’s the equivalent.

It would be acceptable if this were a one-time thing or an infrequent error. The fact is that it simply isn’t. This has been going on for months and years. Events have been crashing on Magic Online for a long time. Their solution has always been to simply brush aside the problem and ignore the criticisms. The fact that the catalyst for change was Brian Kibler, a respected and very popular figure in the community, writing an article calling them out for this is telling in many ways.

It reflects that they don’t actually care about the consumers of Magic Online. They care far more about their self-image than they do about the people who invest a lot of time, effort, and money into Magic Online. If they cared about those people, they would have fixed the problems a long time ago. People have complained loudly for years about these issues. They have brushed them aside and continued to run events that crash regardless of how it affects the people playing in them. Making a hasty and rash decision only after Kibler calls you out just looks like a blatant attempt to save face, not an attempt to fix problems and make things better for the people who pay for it.

Like I mentioned in a prior article, I spent six months grinding Magic Online. I understand the disappointment about getting dropped from an event at X-0 because I got kicked off of Magic Online and couldn’t reconnect. I know about all the issues with how things run. As someone who studied Computer Science, I know about how completely atrocious their user interface is and how confusing and difficult it is for new players to get acclimated to the system. Magic Online looks and feels like it was designed before the year 2000. It should really be a point of shame and embarrassment that a company as successful as WotC doesn’t have a better product than that.

I also know how poor their customer service is. I got banned at one point for splitting in the final round of a Daily Event. My opponent offered me a split. I agreed to it. I was banned for 30 days. He did not receive a ban.

That was my first offense. I didn’t even know that I was doing anything wrong or that I could get banned for such a thing. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to find where the rule was that I even did anything wrong. It took me a while to find it, but eventually I found a forum post buried deep in their site somewhere from 2010 that explained the scenario. Yep, the only place it was posted anywhere was on a forum post from over two full years prior to the incident. That was the only place I could find it. Interestingly enough, that post was about how splitting is legal. I apparently just didn’t do it right.

Considering that the thing I did is completely legal in paper Magic—splitting the last round of a tournament where both players agree to split only the prizes involved—the whole situation seemed ridiculous to me.

I tried to explain myself to them. I simply wanted to have a reasonable conversation and explain my side of the story. They refused to give me that chance. At first I wanted to see if there was some way I could get the ban reversed or reduced, as I felt it was a very draconian punishment for the "crime." It was quickly clear that there was no way that was going to happen.

After that I simply wanted to talk to someone to suggest some ways that they could improve things to prevent other people from getting punished for the same easy-to-make error. For one, they could inform people that this was actually a punishable offense since the majority of people I spoke to, people that play a lot of Magic Online, didn’t even realize this could happen.

They ignored me the first two or three times I tried to contact them. I would contact them, and they would post a copy/pasted response that wasn’t even remotely related to the questions I was asking and simply ignore those questions. The next response I got was that they don’t do direct correspondence and that no I couldn’t speak to anyone. I was certainly unsatisfied with that, as I believe anyone would be when a customer service entity tells you that they don’t do direct correspondence. I kept pestering them. I made it clear in each message that I was no longer contesting my ban but that I was simply trying to have discourse with them about their policies.

The next response was a brief explanation of why I got banned, which wasn’t at all what I was asking about. When I pointed that out again, the following response I got was nothing more than them telling me the date my ban was up, ignoring every question I asked. Remember, by this point I didn’t care about the details of my ban anymore; I just wanted to discuss the policies, and I made that very abundantly clear in every message. I sent yet another response afterward. They didn’t respond to that, and they marked the ticket as closed afterward, meaning that they weren’t going to respond. It was a dead end.

It was by far the worst customer service experience I have ever had. The feeling I had through the entire process was simply that they didn’t care. They didn’t care about whether the ban was justified or not. They didn’t care about their policies or whether or not they were fair or implemented well. They simply didn’t care about their customers at all. They did care about one thing, though, and that was abundantly clear. They wanted me to stop contacting them.

They did care about that.

I was so infuriated that I wanted to write a scathing article about it, but I held back because I was a fledgling writer at the time and didn’t want to get in over my head in drama. It’s been a year and a half since that point. It’s still the worst customer service experience I’ve ever had.

To sum it all up, there is really nothing about Magic Online that is good outside of the actual ability to play Magic online. A lot of people are unhappy about their current announcement, and things are coming to a boil. There are also other games, like Hearthstone and SolForge, that are starting to infringe on their territory of online trading card games. They can no longer hide behind having a monopoly in the field or they will start to legitimately lose customers to competing companies that would love to do things the right way.

I love Magic, and I love being able to play Magic Online. I like that I can sit at home and test various brews at any hour of the day or night. I think Magic Online is a fantastic resource and a great way to learn about intricacies of Magic gameplay like the phases of the game and stack interactions. It’s a great way to get a strong understanding of the rules and a great place to test decks and get experience playing Magic.

I want Magic Online to be good. This is their chance to actually make some positive changes. People are unhappy—and rightfully so. If they come back in a few months with just a patched-up version of the same Magic Online complete with the same laundry list of problems, the same lack of customer service, and the same approach to handling their customer base as they do now, there will be backlash.

They just need to burn Magic Online to the ground and start new. Make a program that is actually respectable. Show that they actually care about their customer base. Treat their customers with even a base level of respect. This is a perfect opportunity for them to realize that they need to step their game up and then actually do something about it.

If you look at Duels of the Planeswalkers, it’s clear that they are capable of putting enough resources into making a good product. It just comes down to how much they value their customer base. Precedent shows that they don’t, not even in the least bit. I’m interested to find out if that will change. I can only hope it does.

Brian Braun-Duin
BBD on the political hotbed that is Magic Online
@BraunDuinIt on Twitter, the social forum for people to complain about Magic Online

*Theoretically, you could go inside the store and look around, but that’s far more effort than I think any of us are willing to put in.

**On a tangentially related note, I think that if they ever do a Magic-themed movie they should really get the woman from the Orbit gum commercials to play the part of Akroma. "No rest. No mercy. No matter what!" She’s really got that last line locked down.