Eternal on the Other Side of the Ocean: CAB Jace™

Friday, January 14th – Carsten Kotter was participating in the SCG Talent Search, but guess what? He’s not competing today… this article about CAB Jace in Legacy marks his first, official article on this here site here.

Surprise! I’m back!

Hopefully, at least a few of you are happy to see me still around after being voted off the Talent Search — because I definitely am! Everybody seems to be talking about Time Spiral and how to best use it following the December Banned/Restricted announcement. I’ve obviously been investigating the card myself, but I’m far from anything revolutionary, so I won’t bore you by rehashing what others have already said. The banning of Survival on the other hand has me excited for the prospect of what’s likely my favorite creation in Legacy so far, CAB Jace ┢.

Allow me a short digression — While I’m quite happy Survival-Vengevine is gone, I’d much rather have seen Vengevine banned. Survival has a history of enabling strong, complex, and therefore fun decks and was only part of a few Tier 2 decks before Vengevine hit the scene. The problem with Survival recently wasn’t that Survival in itself was unbeatable; what made the deck obnoxious was that, once Survival hit play, no “regular” interactive cards mattered any more, making Survival somewhat akin to Flash in how it felt (I’m not saying Survival was as powerful as Flash, only that playing against it felt similar. They resolve a two-cost spell, and the game is a foregone conclusion most of the time).

This wasn’t because of Survival itself, though, but because you didn’t need to resolve anything else to win. Iona-Retainers has been around forever and didn’t cause any problems, and I don’t see the Ooze combo being far more problematic, as it isn’t much more powerful — what keeps these combos in check is the fact that resolving Survival isn’t enough, you still have to play the game afterwards. Before Vengevine, I regularly managed to beat active Survival by sticking a Jace and overwhelming them with repeated Brainstorming (which usually led to me taking out the Survival at some point, admittedly). With Vines, overwhelming Survival short of outright killing its wielder was quasi-impossible, which led to the problems we had.

Well, enough complaining, at least the stupid deck is gone, and having to deal with a bunch of angry Plants on turn 3 or 4 will be rarer now. Time to wait and see how the metagame shakes out.

What I expect to happen for the moment is people going back to their old favorites until we know how good exactly Time Spiral is and what the metagame develops into — in short, I expect most decks to be creature-based, be it Tribal, Zoo, or Counterbalance. Looking at the Kansas City SCG Open results, this seems to definitely be the case. In a metagame like that, CAB Jace ┢ is an insane deck because you’re between slightly and massively favored against pretty much anything that tries to win by beating with men.

Wait, what? You have no idea what I’m even talking about? How about a decklist?

I recommend you cut the second Wasteland if you insist on playing 60 cards, but I’ve personally found I run best with a 25/61 set up in my control decks. I know it means I dilute the strength of my cards slightly, but I usually end up flooding too much on 25/60 and get screwed with 24/60. It might be irrational, but after years of playing these kinds of decks, 25/61 just feels optimal.

The sideboard is obviously still a work in progress (as the metagame isn’t clear yet), but I’m hopeful that this will work out now that Vengevine doesn’t make Extirpate an absolute necessity any more.

General Strategy

This is basically a classic control deck reminiscent of Weissman’s “The Deck.” What you want to do is lock up the board and drop a Jace, who will either help keep the board clear by Brainstorming if necessary or just kill them by ramping. To do this, the deck uses a massive fifteen pieces of removal (not counting Cunning Wish or the recursion effects) supported by a small counterspell suite to solve non-permanent threats. The rest of the deck is card draw and mana to keep the actual defensive spells flowing.

When playing the deck, the first thing you need to realize is that this deck is slow. No, slower than that. You win pretty much every game by ultimating Jace, which means you first have to completely stabilize the board, then ramp them out, and wait until their new library is gone. Sometimes this can happen surprisingly early, but you’ll have to play fast and call out slow play immediately if you want to be able to finish three games every round. Knowing when to concede is also a vital skill.

Another thing to be aware of is that while its plan is straightforward, the deck is actually very complicated to play. Doing everything at exactly the right moment is crucial. Similar to classic Keeper in Vintage, you can win almost every game; finding the way to do it is what makes it a challenge. In addition, the correct plan to follow changes a lot, even in overtly similar matchups; many of the correct decision are unintuitive even for experienced control players, and minor misplays can have disastrous consequences, meaning this isn’t a deck to just pick up and bring to an event. If you master it, on the other hand, this deck can be incredibly dominating.

Engine History

I’ve written a quite detailed presentation of the original deck and how we developed it, and the thread remains a worthwhile read to grasp the basic principles behind the deck. As it has been flying largely under the radar worldwide and has changed since I’ve discovered the Punishing Fire engine for Legacy, I still want to present this deck extensively today and follow up with a matchup and sideboarding guide next time.

This deck in its original form evolved from me observing Legacy for some time coupled with the release of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The moment I saw him, I was sure he would be insane, and when I realized in testing (shortly after he was spoiled) that the +2 ability could often be backbreaking instead of merely annoying, I was sold. This was the guy I wanted to play with. What I needed was a shell that would allow me to maximize him.

How do you maximize Jace? By keeping him around, obviously. To achieve this, the deck needed a lot of removal and the capacity to lock up the board while drawing extra cards to make land drops. I started with a regular Landstill shell, but I hate Standstill in Legacy (outside of Fish). So many decks can just blank it, and, even worse, it usually doesn’t work when you need cheap card draw most, i.e. when you’re under pressure.

The solution started to surface when I saw coverage of Lands.dec playing without its accelerators. Maze of Ith is a beating against most Legacy decks as long as you can prevent the opponent from out-swarming it. Lands usually does that through mana denial and Tabernacle, but simply being able to use mass removal to thin out the board does the trick perfectly well. With the amount of removal this deck wanted, it should have room for Maze.

Once I knew I wanted to play with Maze, Treasure Hunt in Chapin’s U/W deck from PT San Diego provided the last piece of the puzzle. Maze is a land but has to count as a spell because it doesn’t produce mana, as such, a control deck running it would easily get to the 26+ threshold needed to make blind Treasure Hunts good enough, and as I ended up with 29 lands out of 61 cards, chances were very good that I’d at least 2-for-1. With a little setup courtesy of Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top, it’s pretty easy to turn into a full Ancestral Recall, too. The people I usually play against have learned to respect this little common quite a bit.

The deck remained the same, barring minor experimentation, for some time and only changed markedly once I started playing around with Punishing Fire in Legacy (in a Pyromancer Ascension deck, for those interested). I soon realized that the Fire-Grove engine was both extremely powerful and fit what this deck wanted to do perfectly, so I integrated it instead of more classic forms of mass removal (Firespout) and Mishra’s Factory.

Strategic Superiority — Interlocking Synergies

Most control decks have the problem that just stalling the opponent doesn’t win you the game, which means you have to play dedicated finishers. The problem with finishers, especially in Eternal formats, is that they’re dead draws until you’ve stabilized, and once you’ve stabilized, it usually doesn’t matter all that much what you win with. If all you do is answer their threats one-for-one, you’re going to lose if they manage to handle or outlast your card drawing. But if you need to run actual finishers, you’re more likely to not be able to answer a threat in time (because you’re holding a finisher instead of an answer), and you have to care about things that usually don’t matter to your game plan (if your finisher is a creature, for example, you might need to counter removal that should rot in their hand). The original control dilemma but amplified through the opposition’s power in Legacy.

The way this deck gets around this problem is the number of overlapping synergies it has. Even if Jace hides somewhere on the bottom of your library, you’ll find something that combines with what you already have to put the game into a stranglehold the opponent can’t escape from. At that point, you just have to wait for a Jace to end it or start Firing them. Let’s explore these synergies.

Starting with the latest addition, Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows mean that almost any creature is going to die at some point. These were Firespouts before I started fiddling with Fire/Grove in Legacy because mass removal is so good with Mazes, but once I tested the combo in other decks, I had to try it here. Fire/Grove provides a similar effect to Firespout’s when supporting Maze but is far more backbreaking on its own. In addition, Fire recursion actually provides you with inevitability against other control decks instead of being dead against them. They can’t stick a planeswalker ever, and Mishras die to Fire, so they’re usually just cold.

Punishing Fire also means you now get to “cantrip” off of your Swords to Plowshares, something that can be highly beneficial against any kind of tribal or weenie deck (nabbing a free Hierarch, Pridemage, or Clique once in a while isn’t the worst, either).

Then there’s Maze of Ith. This is pretty much an uncounterable removal spell that costs a land drop instead of mana and can be retroactively countered by Wasteland, which sounds okay but not impressive. Still, much of the deck’s dominance against creature-based opponents is due to Maze. In a deck that has a comparatively low curve (for a control deck), recursive removal spells, and mass removal, Maze suddenly becomes incredible. It drops early and prevents damage (working like a removal spell would), but once you start cleaning the board, it adapts to take care of new threats, especially those you can’t yet Fire or EE away. The fact that it can’t be countered is also relevant, especially against decks like Counterbalance that often try to go to town with a single, protected Goyf.

The other thing most control decks are missing is a way to completely lock up the late game (which is why Counterbalance is so successful — it does), while this deck can do so in two ways. The first is Academy Ruins and Engineered Explosives. In the deck’s original incarnation, this was the only source of recurring removal, and it’s very good once you get it online. It usually takes a while, though, because you have to draw into the singleton Ruins and is therefore more of a convenient GG button you draw into once in a while rather than a coherent strategy. It also doesn’t help against anything spell-based, be it burn, Ringleader, or some kind of combo finish.

The real answer to this problem is Forbid. With a Jace out, you can support Forbid practically forever, and now that Fire/Grove is in the deck, getting a full lock is even easier (also note that the Cunning Wishes mean that you have four ways to go buyback). Forbid is unwieldy compared to Counterspell, I agree, but because so much of this deck is cheap removal, and you can mostly ignore Counterbalance, the additional mana is less relevant now that Survival is banned. I’ve been playing with the idea of running Counterspell main instead many times, and now that Fire/Grove gives you a nigh unbeatable late game against a lot of decks anyway, having access to the lock through Wish only might be enough. The amount of value you gain from being able to buyback late game, especially against decks where your removal is dead, is so huge that I’m inclined to stick with Forbid.

Finally, there’s another minor synergy I first missed, and that cost me at least one match when I ran an earlier version without access to it: Grove of the Burnwillows lets you put your opponent to 30+ life quite easily. Once you do that, Pulse of the Fields becomes utterly ridiculous and can be used to negate most forms of reach. Once you hit 30 to 40 life, even Price of Progress won’t kill you anymore.

Odd Bits and Pieces

I know the deck looks weird on first sight, and the two things people remark on the most are the seemingly random Cunning Wishes and only having Jace to win with (in older versions, there also were Mishras, and now you can kill through repeated Fire, but both are far from effective win conditions).

Concerning Jace as the only finisher, I already mentioned above that I believe that dedicating as few cards as possible to actually ending the game is a great boon for any control deck. When nothing you can draw is anything but mana, tools to control the game, and ways to draw more cards, clunky draws where you sit around with a bunch of cards meant to end the game while the opponent is beating you down simply can’t happen because there’s nothing but business in the deck (the metric ton of removal is admittedly dead in some matchups, but those are luckily a minority). The synergies outlined above make it possible to actually run the deck without dedicated win cons other than Jace, so why bother?

The Cunning Wishes are often criticized because they supposedly take up room in the board that could be filled with actual sideboard cards. The thing is that isn’t what they do. Instead, they allow me to avoid doubling up on specific sideboard cards while providing maindeck flexibility.

Because the deck is so slow, you really want to have answers to almost anything starting game 1. This is especially important against a deck like Loam that also takes a lot of time to win because if you lose a long game, getting more than a draw out of the round will be hard. Wishes allow you to access pretty much anything you need and are valuable for that alone. While that usually comes at the cost of effective sideboard cards, the amount of sideboard space they fill up here is deceptive.

Because I have Wishes, I can run cards I’d need as two- or three-ofs only once. Pulse of the Fields, Wing Shards, and some kind of artifact/enchantment removal would make the sideboard anyway (you need the last so that you can kill Needle on EE, otherwise you’re cold to the second Needle and lose your ability to deal with noncreature permanents after the first), but in higher numbers so as to ensure I actually draw them post-sideboard. Considering the Wish targets are outs to situations that are likely to matter a little later in the game (meaning adding another 2U to the cost of your answer is largely irrelevant), the deck actually doesn’t lose space from having Wishes; it gains flexibility at practically no cost.

Finally, there’s the issue of only having three Punishing Fires maindeck and one sideboard. Sure looks like it’s meant to allow me to Wish for Fire. While this works, Punishing Fire is mainly included as an actual sideboard card and not as a Wish target. Against some decks (anything Tribal, pretty much), you want to draw Fire as early and often as possible and therefore side it in, but in general the other removal has a larger range of targets, either in creature size or in type, and is therefore better suited for the main deck. Also, while the Fire engine is powerful against many decks, you usually don’t need it early against anything that isn’t a weenie deck, so three is plenty. As such, the fourth Fire got moved to the board, incidentally providing some extra value for the Wishes.

Selling Point

To end today’s article, I’d like to give you a reason to play this deck (and look forward to next week) in the easiest way possible: by giving you a fast overview of how it fares against the major archetypes. I’ll go into much more detail next time, promise!

The Good

Death and Taxes, Eva Green, and other slightly disruptive aggro decks: They’re trying to win with creatures, so the games usually follow a simple pattern of killing everything followed by Jace, who cleans up. You should only rarely lose simply because the deck is so good at killing creatures and using card draw to compensate for the disruption.

Anything tribal: You crush them. Between the removal, the recursion, and the effect Mazes have on creature strategies, you can usually negate whatever particular synergies the tribe can present and then kill them at your leisure.

Counterbalance: If they run neither Natural Order nor Jace, this is pretty much a bye. Explosives and Mazes mean that Counterbalance is largely irrelevant, and their creature assault is quite feeble. As a result, normal Counterbalance decks really can’t beat you, and if they have Jace or Natural Order, the whole matchup revolves around those cards. Jace needs Counterbalance protection to be really dangerous (otherwise he gets Fired), but Natural Order is game over if you don’t have a Cunning Wish. Still, the matchup remains very good because, while you don’t have much countermagic, they usually have less that can protect Order, and you don’t really need to stop anything else.

Landstill: Another very good matchup. The Mazes make sure that you don’t lose under Standstill, meaning you can usually break it at your leisure. Fire-Grove ensures that they can’t get anything relevant to stick, and having more Jaces than they do is icing on the cake. Crucible-Waste is close to the only way for them to win a game.

Zoo: This is closer, especially if they have maindeck Price of Progress but still favorable (the maximum speed build with tons of burn and Sylvan Library can actually be unfavorable). They rarely get you with the creatures, and if you can preempt their burn with Pulse plus Grove or simply by ramping Jace, they usually die quite easily.

The Bad

(These matchups range from slightly favorable to unfavorable, depending on builds and matchups, but by classing them this way, I could keep the sweet reference.)

Stax: While they can blow you out sometimes, your high number of lands and comparative immunity to Chalice at one mean that they have a really hard time locking you as long as you can keep a Force of Will back for Armageddon / Crucible / Smokestack. The full set of Explosives shines here because it means you get to clean out large parts of their board in one fell swoop, and they’ll never be able to Chalice you out of the game completely. They also never beat a Jace.

Tempo decks: These range from good to pretty bad. Sometimes they get you with StifleWasteland, but you usually have enough mana to keep going. The real breaker is the presence of Nimble Mongoose, Burn, and Knight of the Reliquary. If they have neither, you’re in for a great matchup. If they have Knight, she becomes the focal point of the match because she fetches any number of Wastelands to get rid of your Mazes, but if she doesn’t get online, it’s smooth sailing. Mongooses are annoying because you have so few ways to get rid of them, but they’re only really dangerous if backed up by burn a la Canadian Thresh (the worst matchup among the tempo decks). You usually stabilize against Mongoose on five to eight life, at which point burn can easily finish it. If they don’t have burn, they’re probably cold once you get rid of Mongoose.

Combo that doesn’t usually go off before Forbid comes online: Be it Sneak Attack, Dream Halls, or whatever other version of “slow” combo, this isn’t something you want to face, but you’re far from dead. You do have countermagic, and Forbid gives you a powerful tool to actually lock them out. If you expect a lot of decks like these, adapting your sideboard might be a good idea.

Belcher: Their Empty the Warrens plan is pretty weak against EE, and you have the same amount of Forces of Will other blue decks have. If you survive their first combo attempt, you should be in good shape, and it only gets better after sideboarding. This is still not your best matchup, simply because Belcher has so many random turn 1 wins, and you don’t always find FoW.

Loam: Depending on their build, this ranges from okay to really bad. Generally, the more land destruction they have, the worse the matchup becomes. If you can stop them from Wastelanding you repeatedly, you have a reasonable chance of beating the creature-based Loam decks game one, and post-sideboard Needle and graveyard hate allow you to go about your business until Jace takes them out. Still, the first game is usually unfavorable, and the post-board games aren’t good enough to make Loam something you actively want to play against. If you have a lot of Loam players in your metagame, I suggest replacing a Volcanic Island with a second Underground Sea and going back to running multiple Extirpates in the sideboard as I did before.

The Ugly

Storm combo: Simply put, if they know what they’re doing, you’ll be hard-pressed to win. A counter-heavy draw that leads into a Forbid lock is what you want, but if they find disruption, they’ll usually kill you before that happens. Sensei’s Divining Top is your friend here because the versions without Chant are pretty much cold to a floating counter. Spell Pierces out of the board work well here and are also great against black disruption, but I’m not convinced they’re necessary right now because I don’t expect to see all that much combo.

Dredge: You rarely ever win game one (you have to be really lucky on Cunning Wish), and the second and third games are far from favorable. You’re not a complete bye because the copious removal means you can usually stall even Dredge for a long time, and if you hit graveyard hate in between, that’s often enough to pull it out. While you’re unlikely to win both post-board games, you can often stall into the draw (no, not Saito style; use removal again and again to make the games take time), so don’t ever give up in this matchup. On the contrary, squeeze out every last second. For once, extra time isn’t your friend!

Knowing this, take a look at the SCG Open Kansas City Top 16 — there’s one Dredge deck you’re soft to as well as the High Tide deck that probably isn’t the greatest matchup (though it’s slow enough to get beaten by Forbid a reasonable amount of the time while having only four Forces to break out of the lock). The only other decks I wouldn’t want to play against every round are the Painter deck and AJ Sacher Countertop list. The former is still a combo deck, though luckily its combo is vulnerable to most of your removal, and the deck doesn’t have enough defense you care about (Welder is really bad against a deck with Punishing Fire), so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The latter is a Counterbalance deck and therefore not that bad, but it’s very focused on resolving either Jace or Natural Order, which means you don’t crush it, as is usually the case. I’m still pretty sure the matchup is in CAB Jace’s favor but not to the point regular aggressive decks and more standard Counterbalance decks are.

Time for a Break

As you can see, if the metagame shapes up anything like what I expect (and if Kansas is any indication, it will), you’ll be massively favored in most of your games when running this deck, while you’re really difficult matchups should make up at worst a fifth of the decks in the room. Sounds like a good position to be in, doesn’t it?

That’s it for today; next time I’ll go into detail regarding sideboarding plans and general strategies for the major matchups, talk a little more about possible tweaks, and probably present you with a few scenarios to cut your teeth on the decision-making the deck requires.

If you, like me, enjoy playing slow grind-out control decks, I hope you’ll give this a try; you won’t be disappointed. Let me know your experiences in the forums (and yes, the deck looks like a pile. I’m already aware of that)!

Until then, stay alive, and the winning will come!

Carsten Kötter