Deep Analysis – Tuning The Siege

Read Richard Feldman every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, May 15th – Last week, Richard ended his article with a midrange beatdown deck for Standard, called The Siege. It stirred up discussion in the forums, and so today Richard takes a closer look at the design and tunes up the list based on advice and ideas accumulated over the past seven days…

Last week I ended with a midrange beatdown deck called The Siege (Adrian Sullivan swears it is PT Junk). Based on the kinds of questions I received in the forums, I’d like to take a closer look at the deck, clear a few things up, and tune up the list based on some advice and ideas I’ve been bouncing around in the past week.

First, a look at the deck’s general archetype.

Midrange Beatdown

To me, midrange beatdown can be summed up in two sentences. “Against combo and control, you attack. Against aggro, you block.” That’s the overarching philosophy.

To get more specific, you attack combo with slower-than-average creatures backed up by disruption. While a Red deck attacks combo with blistering speed and burn, midrange beatdown attacks it with medium speed and relevant disruption instead of burn. Although the combo deck might be able to outrace the Red deck’s fast men and burn by going off on turn 4 (when the Red deck would kill on turn 5, say), it might not be able to outrace a team of slower creatures while it’s being hammered by a relevant disruption suite and suddenly can’t go off until turn 9.

You attack control with threats that they cannot adequately handle. This comes from a combination of disrupting them so that they don’t have the answers they need and hitting them with threats that they are ill-equipped to answer; say they present a hand loaded up with Terror for Boggart Ram-Gang and Mistbind Clique, and you present them with Doran. You also use some of the general-purpose disruption spells that worked against combo to prevent the control decks from dealing with your threats and stabilizing.

You block against beatdown until you can stabilize and turn the tide with superior creatures. You intercept an attacker with Kitchen Finks, gain more life, fire off some removal spells at their other attackers, then once you’ve run them out of gas, you start swinging in with your Treetops while Doran or Bitterblossom stays back on defense to stop them from counterattacking productively.

Why Ronom Unicorn?

This guy got a lot of mixed responses in the forums. Some people thought it was a good idea, others thought it was total garbage.

In this deck, Ronom Unicorn is the quintessential Feldman Card. Far be it for me to claim I’m the only one who plays these kinds of cards, but I’ve made a decent amount of midrange beatdown decks over the years, and there’s always at least one card in them that meets the following criteria:

1) It has an ability that is very useful in some matchups and close to (or entirely) useless in others
2) It has a casting cost of three or less
3) It has a body

(I could add a fourth bullet point, “It inevitably sets off certain closed-minded forum posters,” but I’ll choose not to.)

This type of card could be anything from Tallowisp in Orzhova Maxima (one of the few cards you couldn’t call “good stuff” in that deck) to Necrotic Sliver in Walking Anthems to Ronom Unicorn in The Siege. A reasonable question to ask at this point is, what’s so important about the above three characteristics?

Frankly, the great-sometimes, useless-other-times abilities are the real reason to play these cards. If there is a matchup – like, say, Faeries, the best deck in the format by a large margin – in which there is a particular strategy or card – like, say, Bitterblossom, probably the best card in the format – that presents a serious threat to most decks, you are left with three broad options as to how to react to it:

1) Lose to it. This option is clearly right out when we’re talking about the best deck or a popular card like Bitterblossom.
2) Ignore it. This is a great approach when you can actually pull it off – theoretically if you can successfully combo out or burn the face fast enough, it won’t matter if they have a Bitterblossom out – but in practice, who can really do that against Faeries and remain competitive against Kitchen Finks?
3) Answer it.

The tricky part about the “answer it” approach is that this type of major threat is generally either difficult or very inconvenient to answer; otherwise everyone would just answer it with no problem, and it wouldn’t really be a major threat.

In the case of Bitterblossom, the reason it’s difficult to answer is that it is an Enchantment. If Mortify were legal (and, even better, if it were a W/B hybrid card instead of W/B gold), it wouldn’t be such a challenge to get rid of Bitterblossom. The problem is that Mortify is not legal, and it is inconvenient to run enchantment removal. Oblivion Ring is a fine answer to turn 2 Bitterblossom when you are on the play, but on the draw it can be stopped by Spellstutter Sprite (they definitely have three Faeries if they had turn 2 Bitterblossom and untapped), Rune Snag, or Pestermite into Cryptic Command. The latter can also return the Blossom by bouncing the Ring after the fact, leaving you to try a second time to resolve the sorcery-speed answer.

When it comes to removing creatures instead of enchantments, you can run Nameless Inversion, Shriekmaw, or Terror because nearly every deck in the format has good targets…but unfortunately, actual enchantment removal spells like Krosan Grip and Disenchant will be mulligans in an awful lot of situations.

Fortunately, midrange beatdown is often in a unique position to compromise.

I played Tallowisp in Orzhova Maxima because all I needed against control combo was a decent clock to go with my disruption; when I could tutor up Riot Spikes on turn 3 to allow Tallowisp to come across for three damage on turn 3, just like a Watchwolf, he was a perfectly solid clock. Against beatdown, where he was really valuable, he blocked and tutored up an arsenal of removal Auras to deal with many threats at once. Was he an optimal threat against control and combo? Not really, but that wasn’t the big deal; the critical element in those matchups was how effectively my disruption messed them up, not how efficient my creatures were at attacking. If my disruption was doing a good enough job, the clock could have been Grizzly Bears for all I cared.

Back to Ronom Unicorn. The role of the Unicorn in this deck is to disrupt dangerous cards like Bitterblossom from Faeries and G/B, Oblivion Ring and Shield of the Oversoul from G/W, Seismic Assault from Swans, Pyromancer’s Swath from Dragonstorm (assuming those combo decks prove serious contenders), and Everlasting Torment from Red decks. I could play Krosan Grip, Disenchant, Seal of Primordium, and so on, to deal with these threats, or I could rely on Oblivion Ring as my sole answer to them, but Ronom Unicorn’s body is particularly cost-effective right now for two purposes that are critical to a midrange beatdown deck’s core strategy: attacking against combo and control, and blocking against beatdown.

Let’s look at the blocking aspect. One of the easiest ways to interact with an aggressive deck is to throw creatures in the path of its attackers. Consider these two different openings from a Red deck:

Turn 1 Tattermunge Maniac
Turn 2 Tarmogoyf, beat with Maniac

Turn 1 Tattermunge Maniac
Turn 2 Incinerate your Ronom Unicorn, beat with Maniac

In the former case, I failed to present an immediately-relevant threat; let’s say I went with Bitterblossom or Thoughtseize, for example, or simply had no turn 2 play because I was holding only three-plus mana spells, or was playing Disenchant instead of Ronom Unicorn. Forcing the opponent to spend time burning away my guy instead of deploying another threat (Tarmogoyf, in this case), or causing him to lose his original threat because it crashed into my Grizzly Bear, is a very simple way to slow down a deck whose plan for beating me hinges entirely around speed.

Is it the most efficient way to slow down his offense? No. Probably in the above case I’d prefer to go Peppersmoke, Terror, or something along those lines. Throwing down Ronom Unicorn as a defiant blocker is certainly not the optimal defense against a Red deck. But is it enough to slow him down? Sure.

Faeries, being aggro-control, is a deck where I can go after either its aggro aspect with blocking or its control aspect with disruption and threats too meaty for them to handle. Since my threats tend to give Faeries headaches, and since I can’t block things with Flying, I’m going to go on the offensive against them. Against Faeries, I’ll usually be attacking with this guy unless they have managed to stick multiple Scions or a Mistbind Clique. As an attacker, Ronom Unicorn is quite solid; he starts hitting as early as turn 3, and there’s very little Faeries can block with that won’t die in the exchange. In a matchup where one of their most effective ways to successfully beat me is to build up a big force with multiple Scions, the more creatures that die to random Ronom Unicorn trades along the way, the fewer chances they have to achieve that path to victory.

Again, is it the most efficient way to help race Faeries or to answer Bitterblossom? No. I’d probably rather have Hungry Spriggan on offense, and I’d probably rather have the counter-proof Krosan Grip or the cheaper, Instant-speed Demystify for taking out Bitterblossom. Ronom Unicorn is not optimal at either role.

But when it comes to taking out Bitterblossoms, Peppersmoke and Terror are not only suboptimal, they are not enough. They don’t solve the problem at all, and they put you significantly behind because they do not. When it comes to slowing down Red decks or putting pressure on a Faeries player who has no Bitterblossom yet, Krosan Grip and Demystify are not just suboptimal, they are not enough.

Ronom Unicorn doesn’t have to be optimal in any of these situations. It just has to be enough.

The Mana

Awhile back, I wrote a four-part article series on manabases in Constructed. Since then, I’m surprised to realize I can’t recall a time I did a really in-depth look at a modern manabase. As The Siege features a… rather painful manabase, I think this would be a good time to go over that manabase in a little more depth, using some of the principles I outlined in that series.

First, a recap of the existing manabase.

3 Plains
3 Swamp
4 Treetop Village
1 Pendelhaven
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Llanowar Wastes

4 Llanowar Elves

That’s a total of 23 lands and 4 Elves. The first question to ask is, do I have enough lands? Well, given that my curve tops out at three mana with Doran, Kitchen Finks, and Oblivion Ring, I’d say that, if anything, I might have too many lands.

Naturally, every deck strives to find that balance of hitting your drops on time and not flooding too often; the Horizon Canopies in this deck, while painful, do help to solve that by cashing in for potential spells in the late game. There’s also the issue of Treetop Village’s activation cost. While I might never have any six-mana spells to cast, I can still use six lands to hit with Treetop Village and play a Kitchen Finks in the same turn, so there’s some value to having “excess” lands when I have a Village to go with them.

Still, based on the test games I’ve been playing, I think I could stand to trim the land count to 22. While I’m at it, I’m also going to try and make the manabase less painful, as it is one of the deck’s biggest shortcomings.

So now I’m trying to trim my land count and make my manabase less painful. Nice!

One obvious place to start would be Wooded Bastion. You’d think that, right? It fits with two of my colors and doesn’t cause pain. What’s not to like?

Let’s cut right to the chase: you can’t use it on turn 1, that’s what’s not to like. My one-drops are Llanowar Elves, Mana Tithe, and two Thoughtseize; Green and White are the two colors I want to see most on turn 1, and Wooded Bastion helps me with neither. (I’m not as concerned about turn 1 black sources; in the matchups where Thoughtseize is good, it’s still quite good beyond turn 1.)

In fact, two of this manabase’s most important metrics are how many turn 1 Green sources it can get and how many turn 1 White sources it can get. The existing manabase scores an eleven on turn 1 White sources and a nine on Green sources, which is decidedly lacking in the Green department. I could cut some Treetop Villages for Forests to increase the turn 1 green count to as many as thirteen, but Treetop Village is one of the top performers in the deck’s late game; those four copies are not going anywhere.

Having thought through that analysis, we now know a few things about the deck. One, we want to maximize turn 1 Green and White sources if possible. Two, we want 4 Treetop Village. Three, we want 22 lands. Thus, we now have eighteen slots to fill, and want to minimize the amount of pain we have to take along the way.

Painful though they are, I want to start with the Horizon Canopies. They provide turn 1 Green and White mana, they have a very useful secondary ability, and they can always be downgraded to Brushland if the constant pain proves too much to handle. I’d also like to add a Pendelhaven because it is not painful, is a source of first-turn Green mana, and has a superb secondary ability. That gives us:

13 Unknown Lands
4 Treetop Village
4 Horizon Canopy
1 Pendelhaven

I want an absolute minimum of 11 apiece of Green, White, and Black sources in this deck. While I already have Nine green sources, I’d like more that functioned on turn 1, and I only have four total White sources and no Black sources yet at all. To get the requisite number of Black sources, I need 11 of my remaining 13 lands to produce Black; by adding in Caves of Koilos, I can up my Black count and White count simultaneously, so I’ll try filling in some more of the unknowns with those.

9 Unknown Lands
4 Treetop Village
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Caves of Koilos
1 Pendelhaven

Now I have 4 Black sources, 8 White, and 9 Green. I still need seven more Black sources, and only 5 of my Green sources work on turn 1; I can help with both of these goals by including 4 Llanowar Wastes, though now my manabase is decidedly painful once again.

5 Unknown Lands
4 Treetop Village
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Caves of Koilos
1 Pendelhaven

Up to 8 Black sources, 8 White, and 13 Green – and eight of the Greens work on turn 1. Now I have the problem of wanting at least 3 more Black sources, at least 3 more White, and having only 5 remaining lands to work with. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had another Caves of Koilos-like mana fixer, but I’ve already used the maximum four copies of those, so I’m almost down to just Plains and Swamps. (I don’t want to play Urborg, as that will act as a mana fixer for Beseech the Queen decks while making myself even more vulnerable to Magus of the Moon.)

One solution is to cut Pendelhaven and add in three Swamps and three Plains, but cutting the Pendelhaven would decrease my first-turn green count to seven. I could also cut the Pendelhaven for three swamps and three Brushlands, which would increase my first-turn green count to eleven, but that would also mean I’d be playing 15 painlands and only seven non-painlands. Ouch.

Another option would be to replace Llanowar Elves with Birds of Paradise as a color fixer, but I have a couple of problems with that. For one, Birds only fight when Doran is in play, and having my utility fight is important in a midrange beatdown deck; see also, Ronom Unicorn. For another, Birds don’t work with Pendelhaven (though that does cease to be a selling point if I cut it). They also tend to do a poor job color fixing in the matchups where my lands will be most under attack – the Red decks, which will quickly burn them away. Most importantly, though, lots of Green decks are maindecking otherwise-dead flyer killers like Firespout and Cloudthresher, and I’d prefer it if my mana acceleration (let alone color fixing) stuck around rather than dying to my opponent’s dead weight. Even worse, I’m one of those Green decks! I plan to bring in flyer hate against Faeries, and I don’t want to have to board out or kill my color fixing Birds to do so. All in all, I just don’t think Birds are right for this deck.

So we’re back to a land-based solution to this problem. What about Gilt-Leaf Palace? Unfortunately, the only Elf I have is Llanowar Elves; maybe if I had Nameless Inversion over Shriekmaw that would work, but I don’t want to cut down on my answers to Mistbind Clique and Tarmogoyf

… hang on a second. Let’s think about this a little more closely. I’ve already established that what I really care about is turn 1 Green capabilities, and not so much turn 1 Black because Thoughtseize is still effective when tossed in later. Why do I care so much about turn 1 Green? Well, because of Llanowar Elves. In fact, he’s the only Green spell I can cast on turn 1. In fact, if I had a land that said “T: Add G to your mana pool and some other color,” and “This comes into play tapped unless you want to cast Llanowar Elves with it,” I’d probably be okay with that. And in fact, come to think of it, Gilt-Leaf Palace says just about exactly that.

Who cares if it comes into play tapped when I don’t have a turn 1 Elf to play? Besides Thoughtseize, that’s only potentially relevant in the very specific circumstances where I draw other comes-into-play tapped lands or want to represent Mana Tithe on turn 1 – and the upsides seem to seriously outweigh those situational downsides. Man, I might just like that card even better than the fourth Llanowar Wastes in this deck!

2 Unknown Lands
4 Treetop Village
4 Horizon Canopy
3 Llanowar Wastes
4 Caves of Koilos
1 Pendelhaven
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace

Now what do we have? Eleven Black sources, check. A healthy eleven lands that can cast Llanowar Elves on turn 1. Eight White sources, each of which works on the first turn. The only remaining problem left to solve is how to fit three White sources into two slots. The simplest way to do it would be to cut Pendelhaven and just add some combination of Plains and Brushlands. I wouldn’t be thrilled about losing the Haven, but I could do it. Alternately, I could accept just having ten White sources instead of eleven – but that seems unnecessarily risky. A third option would be to replace a Llanowar Wastes with a Murmuring Bosk. That would give me an extra White source without decreasing any of my other overall counts (I would drop to ten first-turn Llanowar Elves lands, though, except in the case where I’m holding Elves and Doran), and although it would reduce my reliable first-turn Black sources to six, that’s still something I am okay with.

Adrian Sullivan pointed out that a Reflecting Pool would really help out this deck’s late-game pain issue, but I’m really not sure how I could work that in at this point.

Thus, the new manabase:

4 Treetop Village
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
2 Llanowar Wastes
2 Plains
1 Murmuring Bosk
1 Pendelhaven

To recap, my original manabase had 23 lands, twelve of which were painlands, eleven overall White and Black sources, thirteen overall Green sources, and nine ways to cast Llanowar Elves on turn 1. My new manabase has only 22 lands, only eleven of which are painlands, still has eleven overall White and Black sources, is up to fifteen overall Green sources, and has eleven lands that enable turn 1 Elves. I didn’t decrease the amount of pain the deck incurs by that much, but it’s still noteworthy that the painland count went down at the same time as the overall land count went down and the overall color consistency went up. Provided the Gilt-Leafs’ comes-in-tapped doesn’t get in the way too often, I’m very pleased with the way this retooling worked out.

Other Tune-Ups

Based on sound advice from Gerry Thompson, Shriekmaw is out for Terror. I practically never found myself hardcasting that guy anyway, and man is he worse against the ubiquitous Mistbind Clique than the sorcery-speed Shriekmaw. I’m also using the extra spot I freed up to add a fourth Terror rather than a third Thoughtseize or one-of Profane or Primal Command; I maintain that more than two maindeck Thoughtseize is going to a be a liability against the format’s aggro decks, and I’m not sure that this deck needs a late-game shot in the arm so much as it does more early-game consistency.

I still like Oblivion Ring a lot in this deck. When it sticks, it provides an additional answer to Bitterblossom, it gives the deck outs to durable threats like Loxodon Warhammer and Oversoul of Dusk, it snags Lotus Blooms for relevant combo disruption, and when worst comes to worst, it remains a solid creature elimination spell against most decks.

Adrian also suggested Hurricane for the board over Firespout, which interests me. I had initially assumed that Hurricane’s face-damage would benefit Faeries more than myself, but the fact that I can cast it productively for only two mana (not to mention the fact that I can actually kill a Clique with it in certain circumstances) is a big selling point, so I’m going to try it out.

Finally, I’m going to man up and put some Slaughter Pacts in the board for Magus of the Moon. It might not be as much of a concern as I’m making it out to be, but I don’t want to just lose the game when my opponent plays that guy and I don’t have a Mana Tithe ready or an Oblivion Ring to go with one of my two basic Plains.

The updated list:

That’s it for this week. I hope this article gave you some valuable insight into my design process and into the deck’s inner workings.

Good luck, and see you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]