Deep Analysis – Faeries versus Five Color Ultimatum in Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Returns to Richmond!
Thursday, October 16th – With the Standard metagame taking shape, the smart money is on the format being dominated by perennial contenders Faeries and Five-Color Control. Today’s Deep Analysis sees Richard Feldman thrash the two gladiators together in order to gain valuable insight into how this important matchup plays out. The StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open is approaching fast… Be Prepared!

I think it’s safe to say that Faeries and Five-Color Control are the two favorites in contention for the crown of Best Deck in Standard. So far this season, I’ve been brainstorming new decks to accomplish various goals in the post-Shards metagame, but we all know that metagame has yet to be truly defined. Make no mistake, next weekend’s StarCityGames.com $5K Open will define this format.

So how does one prepare for such an event? In a PTQ season, you can prepare for a PTQ or Grand Prix by looking at the decklists from PTQ Top 8s around the countries. There really isn’t an equivalent for non-PTQ Standard season; for tournament-winning decks, we can look only to our local FNMs, online tournament sites, the results from the recent Cruise Qualifier, Nationals lists, and the like. Unfortunately, the attendees of this tournament will have likely gotten their information from one or two of those sources along with what they read online; that’s hardly a consistent barometer for what will be there.

However, we do know that there will be some carryovers from the previous Standard season, and that there will be some carryovers from Block – which brings me back to Faeries and Five-Color Control. The two most widely-respected voices on the subject of modern Five-Color Control are Patrick Chapin and Gerry Thompson, both of whom write for this site. I think it’s safe to expect Five-Color Control players to have lists that either look very similar to the way they did in Block Season, or lists that look very much like what Patrick or Gerry recommend, or possibly an amalgam of the two lists. By that measure, the current state of the art of Five-Color Control (discounting Gerry’s new list presented yesterday) is Patrick’s Cruel Ultimatum list from last week:

As evidence of just how much influence writers can have on a tournament, consider the fact that not a single one of the Five-Color Control decks at the Qualifier packed 4 Esper Charm after Patrick presented a list prior to that tournament featuring 2 Cruel Ultimatum and 3 Esper Charm (which is what most of them ran). If you have ever resolved an Esper Charm, it is very difficult to do anything other than what Patrick did last week and make damn sure you are packing the full four copies. If I could only fit seven Counsel of the Soratami effects, I would play three Mulldrifter in a heartbeat to make sure I had all the Esper Charms I could.

Sure, maybe everyone just came to the opposite conclusion in their testing, maybe there were card availability issues (everyone could only find exactly three copies! How unlucky!), or, most likely, they went with Patrick’s list and did not have time to test it to the point of feeling comfortable making a tweak like that.

As for Faeries, we know that Faeries will look a lot like it did in Block, but there is no generally-accepted gauntlet build for the new Standard. I’ve seen lots of different ideas; some are running straight U/B, some are splashing White, some are splashing Red, some like Thoughtseize main, some like Agony Warp over Terror and Nameless Inversion… there’s just no kind of consensus going on here. As such, I’ll put together as reasonable a gauntlet list as I can muster for testing purposes.

Building a Gauntlet Faeries list

First, the mana. 25 lands seems to be the consensus, and while River of Tears is gone, Underground River is still at large. 2 Faerie Conclave seemed to be a successful number towards the end of the season, so I’ll go with a simple 2 Conclave, 4 each of Mutavault, Underground River, Sunken Ruins, and Secluded Glen. Replace the typical 2 Pendelhaven with 2 Swamp, and the usual five Islands round out the manabase.

Next up are the spells. Four apiece of Scion, Spellstutter, Mistbind, Bitterblossom, and Cryptic Command were standard in Standard, and four copies of Terror were widely accepted. That leaves eleven slots up in the air. Both Cheon’s third-place Faeries list at US Nationals and Jonathan Randle first-place build at UK Nats had 2 Remove Soul and 2 Slaughter Pact. The Pact is far less critical now that Magus of the Moon is gone and Swans combo is on the decline, but Remove Soul still seems to have plenty of applications. Now I have nine slots left to play with.

Without Ancestral Visions around to save the day in the midgame, I’m not sure Standard Faeries can afford to exclude Sower of Temptation from the main. Against non-control decks, a resolved Sower generally begs the question “removal or I win?”, which is a nice question to ask when you just cast Scion of Oona on the opponent’s end step. This was a staple three-of in Block largely for this reason, and I think it will be an important carry-over to Ancestral-free Standard. Six slots left.

Now things can get a bit sticky. In last season’s Standard, the remaining slots would have probably gone to Rune Snag or Vendilion Clique. In Block, to Thoughtseize, Peppersmoke, or Broken Ambitions. (I’ll hold off on Oona, Queen of the Fae for now; Standard has always been a faster format than Block.) The Smoke was a reaction to the heavy Faerie population, and Rune Snag is illegal, so I think we can safely rule those two out. Among Thoughtseize, Vendilion Clique, and Broken Ambitions, how can I fill out the remaining six slots?

A simple solution is to recognize this is a gauntlet deck, and run two of each so as to get used to playing against each card. Naturally, that skews the results of the testing – I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually decide to sleeve up two apiece of each card – but then again, I really do not have any good arguments that 3-3 splits of any two of those cards would be more likely than a 4-2 of any of them, let alone which of the three cards would be excluded. Bizarrely, the merits of testing against a gauntlet deck with a 2-2-2 setup (so I can get used to playing against each card) seem to outweigh the drawback of testing against a list I expect literally no one to have.

On similar grounds, I’ll make one last-minute addition of swapping in 2 Agony Warp for 2 Terror, just to get used to playing against it.

Testing The Matchup

If I want to get a feel for how these new Five-Color Control and Faeries lists play out, the quickest way to do so is to bash them against each other! For these games I used Patrick’s aforementioned Cruel Ultimatum list and the above Faeries build. I’ll give a play-by-play of the first game and do summaries of the rest; if you’re trying to gauge how much better or worse you’ll do with either deck, take a look at which of my decisions you would have done differently. You probably would not have made some of the misplays I did, but might have made others that I did not, depending on your level of skill with the decks, so take the results of the set with that grain of salt.

Round 1

Faeries wins the die roll.

Opening hand for Faeries is double Swamp, Mutavault, Faerie Conclave, Terror, Broken Ambitions, Spellstutter Sprite. To my eye, this is a classic example of when personal “mulligan rules” can get you in trouble; clearly there is a nice mix of lands and spells here, but will this hand actually beat anything? It can counter one or two spells, Terror something, and then hope manlands get there.

If you keep this hand, and you do not topdeck Mistbind Clique, Bitterblossom, or Cryptic Command very soon, what do you do? Nothing scary, that’s what. This is a hand in which you need to topdeck for it to be any good, so I’d rather send it back for a better chance at seeing some power cards.

The next six are Secluded Glen, Mutavault, double Bitterblossom, Remove Soul, Vendilion Clique. Vindication!

Five-Color Control has Vivid Meadow, Reflecting Pool, Island, Esper Charm, Bant Charm, Mulldrifter, Wrath. Very nice! Keep.

Faeries leads with Glen and passes.

Five-Color Control draws Cloudthresher and plays Vivid Meadow.

Fae draws another Remove Soul, and plays Mutavault and Bitterblossom.

Five-Color Control draws Cryptic Command and plays Reflecting Pool.

Fae makes a token, draws Underground River, and plays it. The choice here is between beating with Mutavault, resolving a second Bitterblossom, playing Vendilion Clique on the opponent’s draw step, or holding up mana for Remove Soul. Bitterblossom number two is the clear winner here.

Five-Color Control draws Condemn, plays Island, and uses Esper Charm to remove a Bitterblossom before Scion can come protect it.

Fae draws Sunken Ruins and plays it. Now the choice is Vendilion Clique, pass with Remove Soul mana up, or beat with Mutavault and leave Remove Soul mana up. Putting pressure on him definitely seems best here. If he tries to play a Finks or something to block Mutavault, I’ll Remove Soul it, and if he casts a sweeper to remove my two Blossom tokens, I’m not really broken up about it. Beat for three, taking the life totals to 17-18 in favor of Faeries.

Five-Color Control draws Vivid Grove and plays it. My options here are to run Mulldrifter in my main phase, or to pass and go for Bant Charm on Mutavault. If I try to Mulldrifter here, it has a good chance of being countered – either by Broken Ambitions for one or Remove Soul. However, if getting it countered draws out a Broken Ambitions, I’m pretty thrilled; I really want to cast Wrath or Cloudthresher next turn. Then again, if I go for Bant Charm on Mutavault, that may well draw out the counter instead and leave me with my card-drawer. Sadly, a hardcast Mulldrifter here is looking like one of my best chances at stemming the Blossom bleeding. Pass with Bant Charm mana up.

Faeries makes a third token, draws Sunken Ruins, and plays it. This is pretty obvious: attack with Mutavault and two tokens. Mutavault is hit by Bant Charm, which is no biggie. Here I’ll keep open Vendilion Clique mana, but I won’t play it until the opponent goes for a sweeper.

Five-Color Control draws Mulldrifter. I have four mana up; if I cast Wrath, something bad will probably happen to me because the opponent has three mana open. If I wait for his turn, I can go for Cloudthresher, expecting it to get countered, and then untap and play Wrath. However, if he has Cryptic Command, he can bounce one of my Vivids and destroy that sequence unless I topdeck a land. At this point, I think that’s a risk I have to take; if I don’t, I’m going to be overwhelmed by Bitterblossom soon. Pass the turn.

Fae makes a fourth token, counters Cloudthresher with Remove Soul, and draws Scion of Oona. Three attacking tokens knock the life totals to 16-12 in favor of Faeries.

Five-Color Control draws Pyroclasm, which presents an interesting choice. If I Evoke a Mulldrifter, I could potentially draw into the fifth land I need, play it, and Pyroclasm away the board. If I don’t hit that fifth land, however, I’m in some deep trouble. Alternately, I can just Wrath here, but if the opponent has Broken Ambitions, I’m also in big trouble. The most conservative play is to just Pyro here. I know that will resolve, and it will definitely buy me time to find my fifth land. I’ll Pyro the four tokens away.

Fae makes a token and draws Mistbind Clique. Pass.

Five-Color Control counters the upkeep Mistbind Clique with Cryptic Command (using a counter from Vivid Meadow), bouncing Bitterblossom in the process. Draws Mystic Gate and plays it.

Fae draws Underground River, plays it, plays Bitterblossom, and attacks with the token. I pass the turn with three mana available for Scion, Vendilion, or Remove Soul.

Five-Color Control draws Vivid Creek. Now it’s time to start hardcasting Mulldrifters and stabilizing; cast the first one. It is hit by a second Remove Soul. Play Vivid Creek and pass.

Fae makes a token and draws Cryptic Command. Beat for one and pass.

Five-Color Control draws Sunken Ruins. Play it and cast Mulldrifter; it is Dismissed. Pass.

Fae draws Swamp and plays it. I can play Scion of Oona here to squeeze an additional two damage out of this attack, but why risk it? Bitterblossom is in the process of winning this game on its own, and I see no reason to discard an answer to Esper Charm targeting Blossom. I’ll just attack him to eight and pass instead.

Five-Color Control draws Caves of Koilos. The hand is just Condemn and Wrath of God. With three Faerie tokens on the board, now seems like the time to Wrath. It resolves. On my end step, Vendilion Clique comes in and chooses to leave Condemn in my hand.

Fae makes a token and draws Terror. Clique comes in, and Five-Color Control has to choose between Condemning it or holding it out of fear for Scion (at this point, so low on life, I think you have to go for the Condemn; he knows you have it, so if you don’t play it this turn, he’ll know you’re saving it and will just play Scion on end step to make his next attack lethal). Five-Color Control casts Condemn, watches it go down to Scion, and drops to 4 life.

Five-Color Control draws Kitchen Finks. Two life is not enough to stave off the incoming attack. Game.

Already we can start to observe the characteristics of the new Five-Color Control and this gauntlet Faeries list. First, Esper Charm makes a huge difference when it comes to Bitterblossom. This game would have been a landslide victory for Five-Color Control if not for the fact that the draws ended up being two Blossoms for Faeries and one Esper Charm for Five-Color Control.

Second, the loss of Ancestral makes this Faeries list feel a lot more like playing Block Faeries, yet the ten counterspells make it feel more like playing Standard Faeries. It’s more critical now than ever before that the Fae do what they did in this game: put down some pressure (preferably Bitterblossom) and defend it with counters. There’s no Ancestral to play the role of midgame life-saver, and answers to Mistbind Clique – particularly Terror and Bant Charm – are much more common than they were in Block.

Game 2: Five-Color Control plays first. Both decks mull one-landers. Five-Color Control keeps Vivid Creek, Flooded Grove, Caves of Koilos, Esper Charm, Wrath, Cryptic Command. Fae keeps Island, double Sunken Ruins, Mutavault, Scion of Oona, Mistbind Clique.

For Faeries, this is basically one of those “this is a five-card-hand” keeps. Two slow threats and some lands is about what I’d expect to see from a decent five-card hand; if I mulligan I’ll probably end up with about the same hand (minus a land). Alternately, I might get a better hand (with Bitterblossom), or I might get an un-keepable one that I might have to throw back for four. All those things considered, it seems greedy to throw this back – I expect to do slightly worse, to the tune of one fewer land, I might do even worse than that, and the only upshot is that there’s a slight chance that I might do better.

This game went bizarrely. Five-Color Control was dominating the early game, ramping up to five mana with two Mulldrifters and an Esper Charm in hand, along with various other goodies, and just a Scion and a Mutavault for Faeries on-table. For the remainder of the game, Five-Color Control’s draw spells never found another land, instead drawing into both Cruel Ultimatums, more draw spells, and two Wraths that both ran into Spellstutter Sprites off the top. Sick variance, etc.

Game 3: Faeries plays first and keeps Secluded Glen, Sunken Ruins, Island, Broken Ambitions, Spellstutter Sprite, Terror, Mistbind Clique. Five-Color Control mulls a one-lander into another one-lander into Vivid Grove, Creek, and Meadow, Bant Charm, and Condemn.

This game starts off reasonably for Five-Color Control, stopping a Mistbind Clique and killing off a Bitterblossom with an Esper charm. Sadly, a second Blossom comes off the top, and Five-Color Control has only a Finks with which to try and deal. Nucklavee comes off the top and is Dismissed, and the Blossom tokens get there.

Game 4: Five-Color Control is on the play, and keeps Island, double Flooded Grove, Condemn, Mulldrifter, Cryptic, Wrath. Fae keeps Secluded Glen, Faerie Conclave, Swamp, Sunken Ruins, Remove Soul, Scion of Oona, Cryptic Command.

Remove Soul counters the turn 3 Mulldrifter, and Mutavault joins Faerie Conclave. Five-Color Control is holding all three Wraths and double Cryptic Command, and has to sit and watch the life total go down in four-point chunks. Once it gets far enough into the single digits it literally becomes necessary to use Cryptic Command as a cycled Renewed Faith, bouncing a manland just to buy a turn. Fortunately, that draws into Cloudthresher, which not only stops both manlands in one attack step (Faeries was one short of having Terror mana, or the game would have been over), but puts a big man on the table. Five-Color Control untaps with Cryptic, Negate, and Pyroclasm, and Faeries doesn’t overcome those defenses before Cloudthresher attacks three times. So Five-Color Control wins on two life thanks to drawing the one Cloudthresher.

Game 5: Faeries is on the play, and keeps double Island, Swamp, Spellstutter, Scion, double Mistbind. Five-Color Control keeps double Vivid Creek, Island, Condemn, Negate, Cryptic Command, Cruel Ultimatum.

Faeries draws Bitterblossoms for both its first and second draw steps, and resolves them both. Five-Color Control draws two Esper Charms to get rid of them, but Scion foils the second attempt. A third Bitterblossom is Negated, so it all comes down to a Cryptic Command and a Cruel Ultimatum to stop four tokens and a Scion. Nucklavee buys back a Command, which helps, but the Command is negated and I die to the tokens.

Game 6: Five-Color Control plays first and mulls Kitchen Finks, Remove Soul, Cloudthresher, and lands. The next six are a keeper: Flooded Grove, Cascade Bluffs, Sunken Ruins, Remove Soul, Mulldrifter. (All it needs is any non-filter land draw and it becomes instantly competitive; that’s probably better than I’m going to get with five). Faeries mulls a similar hand of double Mutavault, Sunken Ruins hand (I like my odds better on six, though if that were my six-card hand I would have preferred it to five), and keeps Island, Mutavault, Bitterblossom, double Remove Soul, Sower.

Faeries draws its Black source for Bitterblossom, but Esper Charm stops it. However, then Faeries draws two more Blossoms, and Five-Color Control only draws one more Esper Charm. In conjunction with Mistbind Clique, the tokens get there before Cruel Ultimatum (I drew both again) comes online.

Game 7: Faeries plays and keeps Swamp, Underground River, Bitterblossom, Scion, Sower, and two Cryptic Command. Five-Color Control keeps Vivid Meadow, Reflecting Pool, double Condemn, Bant Charm, Mulldrifter, Cloudthresher.

Faeries gets stuck on three lands, and builds up a handful of four-drops while Five-Color Control goes to town. By the time the Fae find a fourth land, Mulldrifter and two Finks are on the table and beating down.

Game 8: Five-Color Control plays first and mulls a one-lander into a keeper of Vivid Creek, Vivid Meadow, Reflecting Pool, Negate, Bant Charm, Esper Charm. Faeries keeps a close call of Island, 2x Mutavault, Remove Soul, Mistbind Clique, Cryptic Command.

Turn 2 Bitterblossom is Negated, and it’s all downhill from there for Faeries. After a Mutavault is hit by Bant Charm, Faeries is stuck with a single manland and a spate of reactive spells, while Five-Color Control goes on the offensive with Kitchen Finks backed up by countermagic.

Game 9: Faeries plays and mulligans Faerie Conclave, Island, Broken Ambitions, Vendilion, triple Mistbind into a one-lander into Underground River, Mutavault, Broken Ambitions, Spellstutter Sprite, Scion of Oona. Against a five-card mulligan, Five-Color Control keeps Vivid Creek, Cascade Bluffs, Reflecting Pool, Island, Pyroclasm, double Mulldrifter.

Five-Color Control has answers for the few threats the opponent can muster, and easily beats down with a pair of Kitchen Finks.

Game 10: Five-Color Control is on the play and has a hand of Island, Vivid Grove, Bant Charm, Esper Charm, Mulldrifter, Kitchen Finks, Wrath. Is that a keeper? On the play, Five-Color Control would need to draw a comes-in-untapped land (of which it has 15) in two draw steps, or one of the deck’s two-drops (all of which are situational except for the lone Pyroclasm) or else make zero plays until turn 4. I don’t like those odds; ship it back for Vivid Creek, Vivid Grove, Vivid Meadow, Flooded Grove, Negate, Kitchen Finks. Fae ships a one-lander and keeps Secluded Glen, double Bitterblossom, Remove Soul, Vendilion Clique, Mistbind Clique. (I like the odds of drawing a land in two draw steps and enabling the two Blossoms and the Remove Soul a lot better than I like going to five.)

Faeries draws the second land, and the other two Bitterblossoms in the deck. It’s not even close.

So that’s 4-6 for Five-Color Control. I can tell you right now that if those Cruel Ultimatums had been Cloudthreshers, this result would have been very different – but then again, had Patrick Chapin been piloting his baby, I suspect he would have done better as well. At least based on my Block experience, I would have preferred to have a Cloudthresher and an Oona’s Grace instead of the 2 Ultimatums. Five-Color Control never lost after stabilizing and casting Oona’s Grace; if Cruel Ultimatum improves upon that late-game track record by adding a midgame auto-win, that’s great, but so far it seems like a real liability when drawn early. Yeah, I’ve only seen it in ten games, and yeah, I am biased towards a preference to minimize my dead draws when I build control decks, but so far I am skeptical that the card will live up to its hype.

Does that mean people won’t play it at the $5K? Not at all! As I said, it’s the state of the art for now, and I would entirely expect Five-Color Control players to pack it.

Either way, I hope this has given you some more detailed insight into these two heavy-hitter decks. Be prepared for them, or be prepared to suffer the consequences!

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]