Designing Decks For States

It all started with Sean telling Mike Flores to play Druidic Satchel, and now the new “Jace Beleren” substitute is providing incremental value in control decks everywhere. See what Sean’s got up his sleeve for Baltimore this weekend.

The State Championships were destined to be weird for me this year. The week Innistrad spoilers came out happened to be the week I was running around madly like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to figure out moving on very short notice and then disappearing to Cambodia for a week, so I knew there were all these new cards I wanted to start thinking about, and I knew that I wasn’t really going to be able to for several days.

One missed flight later and I was catching the midnight Prerelease at Comic Book Depot in Long Island, trying to convince my body that today was the day that the sun didn’t rise. Staying up till four in the morning playing in the Prerelease seemed like the exact kind of normal experience that would help trick my body into getting on Cambodia time a little bit earlier, so that at least the day lost in Cambodia wouldn’t be lost as far as trying to get over jetlag was concerned. I got to play with some cards, mostly Werewolves, and it was impressed upon me just how hard figuring out some cards from this set was going to be.

While wandering around Cambodia, walking in and around the markets of Phnom Penh as I tried to explore the city and just soak up the feel of the place, I set my brain to working on weird intersections. What was possible in new Standard? What could the format bear? What new synergies were there to be exploited, and what overlaps from Scars of Mirrodin block and M12 were waiting to be explored more fully as well? The answer in my mind started with the lands—you can figure out just how much you can get away with in a format based on what you can trick the mana into doing. With both allied and enemy-colored dual lands, it was exciting to think that there was such space to work in, and my brain started working on what we have been playing with that might not have been put together yet.

With Hinterland Harbor and Wooded Cemetery making a black/blue/green wedge deck possible, the odd and peculiar realization that Birthing Pod is an artifact impressed itself upon my consciousness, suggesting that perhaps somehow a Tezzeret/Birthing Pod shell might be something functional and that had a synergistic overlap between both of those powerful advantage engines. I didn’t have a decklist, but I did have a shell:

Hinterland Harbor
Wooded Cemetery
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
Birthing Pod
Perilous Myr

Searching for the overlap between ‘artifact creature’ and ‘Birthing Pod target’ was interesting, since the idea I had was to be a straight U/B deck that incidentally had Birthing Pod going for it and the dual lands to pay for it, which is to say the deck could take advantage of the Phyrexian mana mechanic for a few activations if needed but would expect to pay a green mana each turn to work itself from there on out. Density of artifacts and density of useful Pod targets would hopefully intersect in the end with lots of artifact creatures, and so I came up with the following list of possible creatures to include:


Perilous Myr

Phyrexian Metamorph

Solemn Simulacrum

Hex Parasite (possibly via Trinket Mage?)

Wurmcoil Engine (possibly via Treasure Mage?)

Sylvok Replica (presumably singleton)

Phyrexian Revoker

Peace Strider (sideboard?)

Precursor Golem

Molten-Tail Masticore

Myr Battlesphere

Steel Hellkite

Platinum Emperion

This would presumably be in addition to a high-value suite of non-artifact creatures, like Grave Titan and Frost Titan, Aether Adept, Entomber Exarch, Massacre Wurm, whatever seemed like it would leaven the deck’s capabilities up and down the mana curve. There was a kernel of an idea to work with, especially with the realization that Mimic Vat could likewise supplement both the artifact-count side and the ‘fun with Birthing Pod’ side of the deck. But the more I worked on it, the more I wanted to build around Tezzeret and not Birthing Pod; suddenly Mycosynth Wellspring was finding its way into a few slots just to make the mana work better, and I had to ask myself whether I wanted to be a creature deck or a control deck. I didn’t like the looks of Perilous Myr at the cold hard gaze of two in the morning, and focused more on Tezzeret without ever even building a decklist no matter how fertile the idea seemed to me at first.

Focusing on Tezzeret reminded me of another card I wanted to play, Nephalia Drownyard. I remember back in the day when Millstone won a Pro Tour, and now you could play it as a land and have a kill condition that was both very hard for your average deck to kill and didn’t eat up spell slots. Tapping for colorless is an excellent improvement to the old classic, even if you now require colored mana to activate it. Never having to have my arm twisted very far before I reach for my favorite Metal cards, it was easy enough to decide to test the following out:

It was a proof-of-concept deck in my mind, just looking to see how well all of the cards worked and whether this had working parts I liked. The creatureless idea was to bias Druidic Satchel as well as just turn opposing removal cards dead in the opponent’s hand and really was just an excuse to let me pursue 34 board control cards and no win conditions included on that merit alone, just defensive spells and lands. Tezzeret could ultimate and win the game, but was mostly there to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor: draw something worthwhile every turn, or meaningfully impact the board to your (and his) defense.

I went a quick 3-0 against FNM-level week-one aggro decks, then a quick 3-0 again the next night against the same level of field before picking up my first match loss with the deck against a Bant Birthing Pod deck that was able to wriggle out from Torpor Orb very inconveniently at exactly the wrong moment and sneak out the match. In between, I grabbed some playtest games against Solar Flare (or whatever people want to call it) and didn’t win a single one. Apparently milling them was helping; who’d have guessed?

Against control, I had too many do-nothings. Against aggro, I had a concrete plan and a tight focus: “just don’t die” led to winning the game somehow with a land or planeswalker. Some cards were working very well together: Ponder and Druidic Satchel. The rest of the cards, well, I loved Ratchet Bomb to death, and it was doing a good job, and no matter what else I played, I expect I would end up with two Dismembers, but that meant I liked nine cards out of 60 and wasn’t married to the deck. Tezzeret missed too many times, the lack of Mana Leak counted against me too many times, and Black Sun’s Zenith wasn’t quite enough removal spell to really do its job against cards like Stromkirk Noble.

Calling my own baby ugly, it was time to throw it out with the bathwater, but not before I learned the lessons of the deck and started to build purposefully towards what I knew was the realistic end-point for the things I liked: blue-white control.

First, however, I took the opportunity for some quiet speculation, having learned the lesson Reid Duke first brought up by including Druidic Satchel in his Magic Online PotY tournament-winning U/B deck. A quick look on Magic Online told me that the card was cheap and thus ripe for speculation: I knew with certainty that the card was a sleeper control card that was bound to pick up, since the games I had played already proved one key fact: when the Satchel is running, you just draw more spells than your opponent. Aggro decks try to shave on lands so that they draw fewer of them in the later stages of the game when they need to topdeck action, and control decks need only pack the Manpurse to achieve a very similar effect. In addition to drawing on average a half a card a turn (and helping make sure you draw more spells on average), whenever you flipped a nonland card the Satchel did… well, something, and exactly what depended on whether it was a creature or a spell. Life gain and card advantage that happens to provide mana-ramping is very easy to justify in a control shell, and building the Satchel into a deck that wanted to go long to begin with reaped immediate dividends. And it was so cheap, it was like a Jace Beleren the opponent couldn’t attack!

That it also let me justify playing Ponder, about my favoritest card ever, didn’t hurt either. So I committed.

Thinking more and more about it as I worked on the new design, I doubled down; another 25 tickets got me to 350 Druidic Satchels on MTGO at the average price of ~.11 tickets each. They were going in places as low as .042, but to get them in any meaningful bulk, I was having to pay .1 – .13 to get them, and spending 40 tickets to wait for the Satchel to be a dollar-or-more MTGO rare seemed like just a matter of waiting for awareness of the card in control decks to grow… and a good way to roll in the tickets, presuming I was right.

Having bet on myself, as it were, I analyzed the card choices I wanted to play and honed the decklist for the U/W control deck I knew was yearning to leap free from my fevered imagination.

4 Ponder – Never in question. Ponder is one of my favorite cards, and that Preordain is just a far better Ponder was never in question but also not relevant to the subject of ‘what can I play in Standard?’ these days. Ponder smooths the draws and works literal miracles with Druidic Satchel active, letting you manipulate it to get what you want and reap the free cards that Druidic Satchel offers when it pulls lands off the top of your deck.

4 Mana Leak – Also not in question. The fast decks in the format were very speedy, and being able to respond to their threats was crucial in the early turns.

4 Snapcaster Mage – The card that made the first two decisions make the most sense. Between Ponder’s search-or-shuffle effect, the interaction with Druidic Satchel, and the little bit of card advantage that could come from flashing it back off a Mage, it was easy to fall in love all over again. And say what you will of Mana Leak going dead in the later turns of the game against controlling decks like Solar Flare, you still needed it early against Liliana, and Snapcaster Mage helped it from ever turning really dead.

With these core decisions made, everything else sort of fell into place around them for logical reasons at the numbers they wanted to gravitate towards.

3 Day of Judgment, 3 Ratchet Bomb, 2 Dismember – The creature control suite, with a little added versatility against other permanents like planeswalkers and the ever-troublesome Birthing Pod. Ratchet Bomb would be getting some extra support with other cards, and thus should show up in the maindeck in near to the maximum number, and with it being so good against the various creature-based aggro decks that try to get so far ahead in the early turns of the game all four would be wanted after sideboarding. Dismember always costing four life could be offset by Druidic Satchel gaining life, but even at that I still didn’t want to draw too many, and Ponder made it feel like I had more than two already when I wanted them.

3 Gideon Jura – One of the reasons to play white in your control deck, and a powerful means to keep ahead of creatures on the board and stall aggressive strategies in their tracks. Weak against Solar Flare, I guess, but even there he is a 6/6 for five that evades Day of Judgment, Liliana of the Veil, and survives a single Dismember. Your role in that matchup is that of the aggressor due to the fact that you are competent but not actually favored in the long game, so each of these abilities on your undercosted 6/6 keeps him on the team.

3 Druidic Satchel – The thing that drew me in first to chase U/W control, as I liked Satchel so well in the U/B shell but didn’t like the cards I was using to control creatures. Day of Judgment and Gideon Jura alongside my Ratchet Bombs was an awesome upgrade from Tezzeret and Tumble Magnet, and the Satchel still did what it was included to do: gain life sometimes against aggressive decks, get a few extra cards over the course of a game from flipping lands off the top, and incrementally provide advantage over the course of a long-ish game by simply drawing more spells than the opponent draws.

Druidic Satchel is like a Jace Beleren that the opponent can’t even attack, when you build your deck around it. Not quite a free card every turn, it’s true, but it can also be played onto a board you are not ahead on and help you climb back to parity instead of just die.

3 Think Twice – Included almost as an afterthought, to help work alongside the existing desire to keep mana untapped, to manipulate the top of your deck in the event of multiple Satchels operating at the same time, and to just be a good little bit of card advantage against Liliana decks. The possibility exists that this is a loose inclusion, and will continue to be looked at, but was included for the ability to actually draw more than one card out of it unlike the rest of the deck which can only generate true card advantage over a long game or by destroying multiple creatures in one go.

1 Dissipate – A hard counter was wanted, as was a fifth counter, and Dissipate provided the most upsides at the lowest cost. A sixth counter might be wanted as well, but in the current iteration this was all that there was clearly room for.

2 Sun Titan – Quite probably the best endgame card in the format. Once a Sun Titan advantage starts rolling, it is very hard for the opponent to come back, even though this deck isn’t buying back multiple Phantasmal Images to give you three Titans when you drop him or anything like that. Solar Flare works him harder, but he is still the nail in the coffin when he hits.

3 Blade Splicer – This one was an interesting one to figure out. There were several stresses on the deck, and this slot had to try and balance all of them to appease them. Whatever card I selected in this slot had to be reasonably good against Liliana of the Veil, help out mana-cost-wise with Sun Titan to give me more permanents I can buy back from the graveyard, and work well defensively to protect Gideon Jura. This would need to be picked to be mindful of the fact that I need to play defense and build in synergy against aggressive decks, but be able to switch gears at least somewhat against Solar Flare and not sit around forever hoping to win somehow, and this card hit the conflux of all three of those influences. Splicer is four power for three mana, quite an aggressive package if you need to do that, and is split across two creatures so Liliana of the Veil cannot simply come down and kill it without herself dying. Splicer is two blockers, one of whom has first strike, all at the low price of three mana, which is fast enough to still meaningfully interact with aggressive decks before Stromkirk Noble will outgrow the blocking capabilities of the first-striking Golem token. And as a three-drop, it had better synergy with Sun Titan than a more expensive creature would have, letting you cast Sun Titan and return not one but two blockers to play.

Other U/W decks tend to have Phantasmal Image here, or Timely Reinforcements, or both. Neither is good against the more controlling, creatureless or nearly-so control decks like Solar Flare and Wolf Run Ramp, and thus neither were included.


4 Seachrome Coast, 4 Glacial Fortress, 7 Island, 5 Plains – Basic colored mana requirements met easily and often. A bias towards an eighth Island was considered, but ultimately rejected in favor of keeping the thirteenth white source instead of requiring the sixteenth blue source or cutting into the utility lands.

3 Ghost Quarter – Also solid with Sun Titan against decks with special lands, like the inevitable Inkmoth Nexus or occasional Gavony Township trying to make your life uncomfortable. Occasionally usable as a shuffle effect for Ponder or to clear a card you don’t want off the Satchel, past the point where you need a land still, but for every matchup where these seem like they don’t do anything there is another matchup where they will prove to be lifesavers.

2 Buried Ruin – Holdovers from the U/B build, and able to trade a land drop in to buy back a Ratchet Bomb or even return a broken Satchel to your hand. On average, better in sideboard games against cards like Manic Vandal than it is in Game Ones, but still well worth having in those games.


3 Negate – A hard counter against big spells, good for countering an Unburial Rites late in the game after Solar Flare has prepared for their endgame, and also good for countering an early Liliana of the Veil. A catchall against big spell decks, to bolster or even replace Mana Leak as-needed alongside Snapcaster Mage re-use.

3 Celestial Purge – Answers early threats like Stromkirk Noble while just as readily answering the many problematic four-drops of Red: Manabarbs, Hero of Oxid Ridge, Koth of the Hammer, all are solved by Celestial Purge. Pinpoint removal to replace Dismember in the matchup where Dismember is most clearly a liability.

2 Oblivion Ring – Catch-all answer to opposing planeswalkers like Jace, Memory Adept or Garruk, Primal Hunter, as well as simply having utility as a hard removal spell against almost every class of permanent. Unlike these others, not something you can re-use with Snapcaster Mage, but still filling a very important role.

2 Surgical Extraction – The highly effective countermeasure to Solar Flare’s reanimation efforts and Sun Titan abuse, neatly sewn up with no mana cost and accessible by Snapcaster Mage for a repeat performance should such be necessary.

1 Day of Judgment – Sometimes, you need four.

1 Ratchet Bomb – Ditto.

1 Dissipate – In the control mirror, not only do you want access to Negate, you also want access to harder counterspells that can counter a six- or seven-drop creature from them, which Negate is notoriously bad at. Dissipate, however, not only counters the threat but denies them access to it for Unburial Rites.

1 Sun Titan – In the control mirror, adding another Titan is a vital way to pull ahead and stay ahead, even if two feels like the correct game-one number. The option to increase that number can provide you additional raw power from the sideboard, in the best threat in the deck.

1 Blade Splicer – Largely for control decks, though I have found against creature decks that are weak on removal that Blade Splicer is so effective at blocking that having access to all four would be best. Against control you need to be able to shift in focus to keeping Liliana off of the table, a role at which Blade Splicer outperforms the competition like Mirran Crusader who is frequently reached-for in this slot instead.

For sideboarding, you are largely focusing on objective-oriented planning, properly valuing your cards based on whether you are on the play or the draw and how quickly you are going to be rushed out of the gate. Mana Leak, of course, is a spell whose value fluctuates dramatically based on whether are on the play or the draw, and I tend to find no matter what the matchup I am shaving a Mana Leak on the draw.

Mono Red:

-2 Dismember (yuck!), -1 Dissipate, -3 Think Twice.

(You do not have time to wait around just to draw a few cards; trying to do so gets you killed.)

+3 Celestial Purge, +1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Day of Judgment, +1 Blade Splicer.

I have found Blade Splicer quite solid against Mono Red, and the proper focus to be pointed directly at the creatures in play and exhausting their resources with the Satchel. U/W is clearly advantaged in the long game, so just buying yourself the time to get there at not too high of a cost is the plan of action.

Solar Flare:

-2 Dismember, -1 Day of Judgment, -3 Ratchet Bomb, -3 Gideon Jura, -1 Druidic Satchel.

+3 Negate, +2 Surgical Extraction, +2 Oblivion Ring, +1 Sun Titan, +1 Blade Splicer, +1 Dissipate.

Satchel is delightful in control matchups where you become favored in the late game because of it; Solar Flare unfortunately has the bad habit of just killing you if the game goes too very late, so it seems most proper to shave the numbers there from 3 to 2 since the other benefits are so incredibly uninteresting in this matchup compared to what your consolation prize is against a Mono Red deck that attacks the life total.

U/W / U/B Control:

-3 Day of Judgment, -2 Ratchet Bomb, -2 Mana Leak, -1 Gideon Jura.

+3 Negate, +2 Oblivion Ring, +1 Sun Titan, +1 Blade Splicer, +1 Dissipate.

Unlike Solar Flare, against these sorts of control decks your adoption of Druidic Satchel makes you clearly favored for the long game, all other tools being fairly comparable.

Wolf Run Ramp:

-3 Ratchet Bomb.

+1 Dissipate, +2 Surgical Extraction.

Countering a Primeval Titan and hitting it with Surgical Extraction is very key, as is the same trick for Garruk, Primal Hunter, while Ratchet Bomb is lord of the do-nothings in this matchup. The focus should be primarily upon defense against special lands, which Ghost Quarter had been helping with from the get-go, and choking off access to Primeval Titan while you are at it.

W/G Tokens:

-2 Dismember. +

1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Sun Titan.

One-for-one removal is poor, and taking advantage of the fact that Ratchet Bomb is awesome against tokens gives you something powerful to lean on in this matchup. You can lean on your symmetrical Wrath effects less than the one-sided Ratchet Bombs that you can recur so very well with this deck, and Ghost Quarter keeps Gavony Township from being too terribly scary.

Mono-White Humans:

-3 Think Twice, -1 Dissipate.

+1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Day of Judgment, +1 Blade Splicer, +1 Sun Titan.

This is just a less scary Mono Red deck, as far as the removal spells this deck brings to bear is concerned. Aggro decks with no reach do not like Satchel and Gideon backed by wrath effects, and they have no way to meaningfully interact with the game-plan besides ideas like Divine Offering for the Satchel or Oblivion Ring for Gideon that will not suddenly transform things into a favorable matchup.

U/w Illusions:

-3 Think Twice, -1 Dissipate, -1 Gideon Jura, -1 Druidic Satchel.

+3 Negate, +1 Blade Splicer, +1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Day of Judgment.

Sort of the Fish deck and thus presumably not my favorite to sit down across from. Besides having Ghost Quarter for Gavony Township, it is just a straight-up dance of aggression backed by countermagic versus counter-light control, which can go either way and tends to favor the control deck if and only if the control deck can drop its converted mana costs low enough that the countermagic would have to start coming online before the creatures do. Lowering the curve is thus highly relevant, as is shaving the pure do-nothings like Think Twice.

U/W Blade:

-2 Dismember, -3 Think Twice, -1 Dissipate, -1 Blade Splicer.

+3 Negate, +2 Oblivion Ring, +1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Day of Judgment.

This one is more complicated—they are likely to try and turn off your removal spells with hexproof creatures, so Dismember does less than it might otherwise in the face of Geist of Saint Traft. It is still a dance of control spells versus cheap counters, but this time you have to add in Sword of Feast and Famine to the mix, which can be a very unpleasant sensation indeed just like in the good old, bad old days of Caw-Blade. Blade Splicer does not do as much as I might otherwise want, but can block Geist of Saint Traft well even with a Sword on it, so it’s not bad enough to cut, just have to shave a little. My least favorite matchup to play out among the current batch of Standard decks, even if it seems like the Phantasm deck should be worse for me on paper. What can I say, even without Squadron Hawk, I am just sick of Caw-Blade.

Unfortunately, because of how much time I have been spending at Occupy Wall Street lately, this article needed to be written before my State Championships if it was to have any hope of appearing, and I am looking forward to taking it both there and to SCG Open: Baltimore this upcoming weekend to see if I can’t represent the man-purse in a controlling strategy.

Sean McKeown