Duel With Ruel – Faeries Versus Zoo: The Faeries Perspective

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, January 28th – In the first article in an exciting column series, Hall of Famer Antoine Ruel plans to aide our playtesting process by running fifty games of a key matchup in the current Extended format: Faeries versus Zoo. He analyses the matchup and the testing results from the Fae perspective, and suggests key strategies and card choices to try. Welcome aboard, Antoine!

I’ve wished to write for StarCityGames.com for quite a while now, but Olivier and Manuel Bucher have already written so much about our Magic vision that I decided I needed to write something different. After 10 years on the Gravy Train, and the two years it took to reach it, I wanted to share my thoughts on this game I love so much.

What does it take to be a winning player? You need to playtest a lot. To improve your skills, obviously, but also to have the “little something” that makes you better. The knowledge of a format is very important if you want to be competitive. Of course, anyone can borrow a burn deck and win a PTQ without a minute of testing. Some people have great skills and need less involvement to win. I, like most players, need to spend a lot of time testing to reach my goals.

The Internet and the deck databases are great, as you need less time to get successful lists. But while a student can afford the time it takes to test a lot of decks, most people simply cannot spend many hours a day doing so. Even when I test a lot for a Pro Tour, there are marginal matchups I have never played against, matchups about which I am not confident.

My goal in this column will be to help the readers playtest. Every week, a fellow StarCityGames.com writer and I will playtest a matchup, each of us on a different side. Most weeks, my partner will be either Oli or Manu, for obvious practical reasons, but I hope that sometimes I’ll be facing other folks…

For every matchup, across two articles on two different days, we will explain the game process, the winning configurations you will have to try to set up, the mistakes you should avoid, and how to use your key cards. I will explain things from one side of the matchup, suggesting key plays and strategies, while my playtest partner will bring similar information from the other side of the table.

I think that knowing the results of matchups you don’t test (if you plan on playing none of the decks involved, for instance) is necessary for you to understand the metagame. Even if the format evolves -Worldwake is coming out soon – the database we will create will still be very useful. I hope that our advice will help anyone trying to be a better player.

While many of the StarCityGames.com writers post amazing new decklists, it would make no sense to do so in this column. What would be the point in playtesting marginal decks that you will never have to face in tournaments? We’ll play with the best versions of the decks, which should be the most popular versions in your tournaments. Of course, we will still consider cards that could make the matchup better at either end.

Every week, I will submit a poll. The readers will have about a week to choose one out of four matchups that we will test and explain the week after. The first of such polls is at the foot of this article. Feel free to talk about my column in the forums, as any comment that can help me make it as strong as possible will be very welcome.

This week I’ll be playtesting with Manuel Bucher, my flatmate and a great Magic player. With the Extended season running, we figured out that the format would fit perfectly for the first articles.

Faeries is the hot deck nowadays on Magic Online. Very popular in the previous seasons, it had almost vanished from Extended with the rotation (as there’s no more Riptide Laboratory) in the last few months. Its success was confirmed in the fifth Online PTQ, as it won the slot against FFfreak’s Orzhov/Life deck. The main difference with the previous versions is main deck Bitterblossom, which used to be mostly a sideboard card.

Manu, on his side, will play the best Zoo deck possible (not the best specifically against Faeries, but the one he would play in a tournament). I don’t know what list he picked up, nor what his sideboard looks like, because it obviously would change the whole game process if I did. There are many different Zoo decks, which will all post slightly different results against Faeries.

As a reminder, my goal in this column is not to post killer lists of the decks I test, but to explain the important matchups that you will play in your tournaments, analyze those, and propose cards to make the matchup better.

Pregame Thoughts About The Matchup

This deck seems really good against the Kibler Zoo deck. As they can’t play two spells a turn, I think it is possible to get control of the whole game very early. If I don’t, the Bitterblossoms can give me lots of chump blockers, which is time to make card advantage.

Most of the decks nowadays play Bant Charm, which – I think – will be off-tempo most of the time, unless they show up unexpected (through a fetchland when you don’t know if your opponent is running it, for example). A Domain Zoo deck, more aggressive, will be more troublesome, as I will be out of the game on turn 2 most of the time, as the deck doesn’t have mass removal.

Umezawas’s Jitte is probably the key card, along with Bitterblossom, against the cheap removal spells that will easily handle Faeries and their friends.

Presideboarded Games

(Game results: 11 wins, 13 losses. 45.83% wins)

I was happy to see that Manu opted for a slow version of Zoo without Punishing Fire, because it seemed a good matchup. I mean, how could someone win a difficult PTQ with a deck that loses to Zoo? As this was going to be my first article for StarCityGames.com, I’d have been very happy to post a winning result.

The first games were a blowout, with Manu charging into a 10-to02 lead.

I could not buy a win in any game in which he played first. They all looked the same…

Manu: Turn 1 Wild Nacatl.
Antoine: Turn 1 suspend Ancestral Vision
Manu: Turn 2 Tarmogoyf.
Antoine : No Doom Blade, no Bitterblossom… wondering if I had a game plan, or even if I had a chance to win even if I could choose my next ten draws.

Whenever I had a Spell Snare to possibly cast on turn 2, he would just cast a Noble Hierarch or another Wild Nacatl (or both of them in multiples).

Happily, I turned things around and brought the presideboard result back up to 11/13, simply because the variance caught him up and his aggressive mulligans turned up auto-loss games. During the first 14 games, I started each game as if I did not know which deck he was playing. I sometimes kept hands that had no chance against Zoo, but only if they were hands that would have been good against some other popular matchups.

The matchup is all about tempo, so playing first is really important. The Zoo creatures are simply bigger than Faeries, and with no mass removal you need to deal with every creature as soon as possible. With only 4 Doom Blade to get rid of them, you will need to spend any counterspell you have on any guy he tries to cast.

I almost lost a game in which Manu mulliganed down to four cards because I was too confident and careless. Bear in mind that any Tarmogoyf or Baneslayer Angel coming from the top of the deck can be lethal.

The first thing you need to do is to guess which Zoo version your opponent is playing. Here, Manu played Noble Hierarch and fetched for Blue lands early, so he probably plays Bant Charm. Once I had this information, I had to play my Cryptic Repulse and Doom Blade a different way. If Manu was tapped out, I would play those as sorceries. If his lands were untapped, then I would cast these during his upkeep. Please note that this was only if I had to play them, no matter what, before his creatures dealt combat damage to me.

It is a bit risky to drop down in life, because then his direct damage spells become efficient. The goal is clearly to stop his creatures from hitting you, so that his Lightning Bolts and Helixes would rot in his hand for as long as possible, saving you from dying to burn.

This is a matchup in which you trade a lot of cards without picking up much card advantage. As his creatures are simply enormous, you need to always have an immediate answer to them; you have to always be one step ahead of him. The only card that fuels this plan is an Ancestral Vision on turn 1. If you have to choose between suspending Vision and keeping your Spell Snare up on the draw, always go for the Vision. First, you need to have it suspended as soon as possible. Second, with something like eight targets for the one-mana counterspell, your opponent might just not have any in hand, or they could simply cast a one- or three-drop instead.

If your opponent did not cast anything on turn 1, when he kept his seven-card hand – and when you know that he is a donk playing Zoo – you can sometimes keep the Spell Snare up. But this is such a lot of “ifs” that this situation really should be marginal.

Bear in mind that your best draw is far behind his when he plays first. You cannot rely on your creatures, as he plays a lot of removal. If Doom Blade is the MVP main deck, Mistbind Clique is quite the opposite. In 24 games, I successfully resolved it once (!), and it won the game all by itself. However, bluffing the Clique turned out to be pretty efficient during the attack step, as Manu, with a Hierarch on the table, would do his best not to fall into it, and only attack with one four-power dude. As a result, I would sometimes get one more turn to topdeck my chance to win. On the other hand, when he attacked in the very same situation, I could deduce that he was holding either Path to Exile or Bant Charm.

I thought that Umezawa’s Jitte would be the nuts in the matchup, but Manu had such an easy time killing the equipped creature that they turned out to be better at destroying the Jittes that he cast himself. Nevertheless, the very few games I had the equipment active were all won (but those were really marginal).

Secluded Glen is a very interesting card. It can turn into some bluff sometimes. You can intentionally show an important card from your hand, rather than showing the obvious earlier-played one, to make him deduce you do not have it in your hand. Please keep in mind that poker and Magic have one thing in common: bluffing someone who does not think makes no sense at all.

You also have to be careful to cast your Doom Blades as sorceries when River of Tears is your only Black source, as getting a land through a fetch land won’t combo it into a Swamp during your opponent’s turn.

Remember that if you cast turn 2 Doom Blade, and tap out, on a Wild Nacatl or similar, your opponent will cast his biggest threat; if you cannot deal with it, you will lose. Sometimes, even if you do not have a counterspell up, you still need to bluff it and use the removal at end of turn.

Spellstutter Sprite is quite hard to play. To be honest, it only becomes efficient whenever you have two, a Bitterblossom, or a Jitte and your opponent is tapped out. One situation we had was interesting :

I had four mana available. Manu played Wild Nacatl.
I played the Faerie to counter it.
Manu played Lightning Bolt to kill it.
I chose to play my second Sprite on the Bolt.

If Manu held a second removal spell there, the Cat would still be countered, as one of the Faeries would survive no matter what.

Mutavault is pretty good with Spellstutter Sprite too, but losing a land in the process can settle a game.

The matchup is not very good for Mutavault, as none of Manu’s creatures trade with it. It provides some aggression when you are winning, and chump blockers otherwise. Imprinting it on Clique seems to be a sweet dream. As I was playing against a good player, it helped me gain some tempo simply by not attacking with it when I obviously should; Manu would fear I was holding something in hand which would need two extra mana.

Vendilion Clique might seem hard to play, but it is really easy. Just play it whenever you have nothing else to do, either at end of turn or during the attack to block a guy. Your opponent cannot cast a spell before combat because of Cryptic Command most of the time, so play it then, target him, and get rid of something annoying. If you KNOW that your opponent does not hold anything, or if you really need to topdeck something, target yourself and get rid of the useless Bitterblossom or Ancestral Vision you hold, to try to turn them into something effective.

Sideboarded Games

(Game Results: 9 wins, 17 losses, 34%wins)

He probably has Negate and Qasali Pridemage in the sideboard, which might be really effective but would add some more targets for Spell Snare. Meddling Mage or Gaddock Teeg seem a bit random, and could destroy the synergy of his deck.

-2 Mistbind Clique
-4 Spellstutter Sprite

+ 2 Deathmark
+ 2 Flashfreeze
+ 2 Threads of Disloyalty

The goal here is to play Blue/Black control. Even if he probably sideboards out some removal spells (Lightning Helix, Path to Exile?), I do not want to have non-efficient cards in the deck, and Mistbind Clique and Spellstutter Sprite don’t always have an impact on the game. I still keep two copies of the 4/4 to get rid of my Bitterblossom, or to win once I have the game under control.

The first four games were a total blowout again. I thought my sideboard plan would be far better than his, but it ended up quite the opposite. Meddling Mage was insane against Ancestral Vision, Negate was great against everything, and Qasali Pridemage made both the Jitte and Bitterblossom game plans obsolete.

Bitterblossom was my main sideboarding mistake. Playing it on turn 2 instead of a counter would just provide chump blockers for the threat he would cast back; however, gaining some time is irrelevant if you don’t properly deal with the threat. Without the enchantment’s help, both Mistbind Clique (MVP of the preboard games) and Spellstutter Sprite lose all synergy, and become situational cards.

Updated sideboard plan:

-3 Mistbind Clique
-3 Spellstutter Sprite
-1 Umezawa’s Jitte
-4 Bitterblossom

+3 Duress
+2 Glen Elendra Archmage
+2 Threads of Disloyalty
+2 Deathmark
+2 Flashfreeze

The matchup was still pretty bad, but these changes mean I have a bigger chance to win. The biggest problem was that his good draws were almost unstoppable. The only games I won were mostly due to weak draws on his side (“the deck is designed to have bad draws,” said Manu).

Engineered Explosives would have been winning almost every game. That’s the problem with testing decks from Magic Online: I have no idea if the soon-to-be-PT player chose not to run the card, or if he just did not own the virtual version of it. Maybe even Damnation; you really have a lack of mass removal here. (But with Damnation, you would need to adjust the manabase.)

The Duresses were amazingly effective. Of course, I got burnt a few times in response, only to find a creature-packed hand, but with eight counterspells in Manu’s deck, they were necessary. A mix of Duress and Thoughtseize (2+1?) could be interesting. Do not forget that, once again, you have to cast your spells whenever your opponent is tapped out if you do not want them to be disrupted.

The games are longer after sideboarding, so make sure you cast your Mana Leak when you do not need two to successfully counter a spell. Spell Snare becomes the MVP. In one game, I had two copies of the one-mana counter in my opening hand, and an Ancestral Vision. Manu started with a Noble Hierarch. My plan became to keep a mana up on the first turn, because he had enough two-drops that he had no choice but to run into the Spell Snare. Then I would keep the second one available alongside the suspended Vision on turn 2. Manu went for turn 2 Knight of the Reliquary, turn 3 Hierarch and Wild Nacatl. Even though my play was probably correct and I still would have lost, it shows that the play is not as obvious as the game 1 “must cast Vision on turn 1” play of the first game. Maybe a fourth Spell Snare in the sideboard would be great, as the card is probably good against a bunch of other decks of the metagame.

Also, I learnt something about the rules: you cannot suspend a card named by Meddling Mage!

In the end, this specific matchup was very bad for Faeries. When you consider that I needed Manu to have bad draws to win, Faeries should win this configuration about one time out of three. Adapting the sideboard to the matchup will change things a lot. The more Zoo decks you expect, the more cards in the sideboard will be necessary if you have to beat it. Engineered Explosives might be the card that you’re looking for.

Next week, I’ll be testing Scapeshift against Olivier’s Dark Depths. And tomorrow, Manuel Bucher shares HIS insight from the matches we played, from the Zoo side of the table. If you’re a fan of attacking with animals, be sure to tune in for his advice!

Until next week…