Feature Article – Ascension Control in Standard

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Monday, October 19th – One of the cards that jumped out at me in the Zendikar spoiler, along with everyone else, was Bloodchief Ascension; however, unlike everyone else, I felt like Pyromancer Ascension was a perhaps even more powerful enchantment. Just like at a sandwich shop, two-for-one deals make anyone stop and take notice.

Writing about Magic has always been something that I’ve told myself sooner or later that I would attempt. I suppose that after my mom — a woman that, while not openly vehement about the subject, has always been subtly averse to my playing of the aforementioned card game —interjected into a recent conversation the fact that one of her friend’s sons is a blogger for various computer- and card-based games and that “maybe [I] should try something like that with Magic.” The question was finally out in the open and it was time for me to fish or cut bait. Coupled with the fact that I have uprooted my life in many ways over the past week, I felt like it was time to give writing the old college try.

This is the first time in my life where my FNM has consisted of Standard as opposed to draft. While drafting is nice, I love me some Standard! I’m known in my circles as a guy who builds bizarre decks that tend to showcase (what I feel to be) underused or underappreciated cards and synergies. That is a nicer way of saying, “I play weird decks”. That is not to say that my decks are bad; laughable might be more appropriate. I have always, prior to my tournament appearing days, been what Mark Rosewater would describe as a “Johnny” type player. A player who loves the unloved cards. I tend to not endorse this label myself as there is a tinge of amateurishness I associate with the word. I do suppose that I tend to, more than most, play cards that I find fun or unusual.

But enough about me! On to the actually relevant part of this article.

One of the cards that jumped out at me in the Zendikar spoiler, along with everyone else, was Bloodchief Ascension; however, unlike everyone else, I felt like Pyromancer Ascension was a perhaps even more powerful enchantment. Just like at a sandwich shop, two-for-one deals make anyone stop and take notice. While Pyromancer Ascension seems as if it might take a little more effort to reap the benefits of than, say, Mirari or Mind’s Desire, you would be surprised at how easy it is to actually turn on. And once activated… oh boy! While it is indeed a tad fragile — it can die to Maelstrom Pulse or Oblivion Ring, for instance — I think it is fair to say that playing against decks that are unable to deal with it feels almost like I’m taking advantage of them. For reference, this is the deck that I played at a recent FNM:

I should begin by saying that I realize that I am not the only person to create a Pyromancer Ascension deck. I had whipped one up on paper soon after the release of Zendikar, but soon abandoned it to pursue other decks that I felt had a little more promise; purely UR (my first incarnation) seemed like it lacked neither the resiliency to survive in a field long enough to really capitalize on any spells that would turn the game around, nor did it have any spells that I really felt would be utterly “game over” should I cast them in batches. It was then that I came across a list that essentially “splashed” for Cruel Ultimatum. That list can be found in the forum discussion section of Gavin Verhey Sphinx Control article here.

I didn’t really like some of the choices; Grixis Charm seems almost strictly worse than Terminate considering the vast majority of the times it was going to be cast on creatures, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t even necessarily kill them. Worldly Council too seemed somewhat out of place. While it certainly helps you ascend faster via finding cards similar to the ones already in your graveyard, it doesn’t really interact with the board in any way. It also seems quite awkward with an array of nonbasic lands. I originally had Twincast in this spot, as I’m sure most are familiar with the on-two punch it has with Time Walk, but I felt that it might be a tad too slow. I would not only need a relevant spell I wanted to copy, but also two Blue mana open in addition to that spell’s cost. As has been said ad nauseam in the past 3 weeks, this is not your grandfather’s Standard: Reflecting Pools and Vivid lands and Filter lands jam-packed into every deck. Twincasting a Terminate on turn 4, while quite excellent against two creatures, is somewhat of a demand on one’s manabase. Into the Roil was quickly introduced, and did exactly everything I needed by providing a huge boost of tempo what with the card drawing and the bounce. Cryptic Command it is not, but sometimes it sure feels like I’m getting a reprieve on the triple-Blue casting cost. The biggest lament that I have about Into the Roil is its inability to bounce lands. Occasionally you will want to bounce a land for strategy’s sake, but what often ends up being the “problem” with the card is that I’m copying it via Pyromancer Ascension and my opponent only has a single permanent on the board. That’s what I like to classify as a good problem to have.

There’s something to be said about Double Negative being absent. I felt (correctly) as if my area was going to be rife with aggressive decks (as is often the case once a set first comes out), and Bituminous Blast just felt like such a good fit. Not only does it nearly always kill something, but 75% of the time you are going to be killing something else as well which is just delicious vanilla-flavored icing on our already delicious cake. It also happens to introduce another card into the graveyard AND triggers Ascension if that happens to be the case, which in the end gave it the nod over the counterspell. The two I felt were mutually exclusive, as cascading into a Double Negative is basically giving away an otherwise free spell.

For the sideboard, I did what I tend to do for most maiden voyages of decks I build: rifle through most cards I own, grabbing any and everything that I think could be remotely viable. It is through this process that I find most of the cards that I consider hidden gems. I think I had about 70 cards that I needed to pare down into the required fifteen. Some of the choices should be obvious: Anathemancers go with Five-Color Control; Fallouts go with Weenie decks in all their iterations. Thought Hemorrhages are sort of a catch-all for any bizarre strategy and/or Bloodghasts, which I felt might be a bit of a problem for the deck. The Defiler of Souls is one of those cards that I feel is a little underappreciated at the moment. First, I like the boarding in of creatures into an otherwise creatureless deck. Most good opponents are wise to this strategy; however, it’s still a damned-if-you-do scenario for them if they want to keep creature kill in their deck. More importantly, however, is that dropping this guy on turn 6 versus an opponent who is playing mostly mono-colored threats is just delicious chicken gravy. It’s an Abyss that is able to block or smack for five and also happens to be a very efficient answer to Sphinx of Jwar Isle and Baneslayer Angel. Finally, I was actually torn between running the Goblin or Zombie Outlanders. The former are obviously great against any sort of Mono-White incarnation, be it aggro or control, whereas the latter in comically good against the various Jund builds there are. Buying time while you hold off their array of Bloodbraid Elves, Putrid Leeches, and Sprouting Thrinaxes helps you find your game winning spells (read: Cruel Ultimatum). It’s obvious, of course, that Jund is a huge force in today’s metagame. As fate would have it, I played two Mono-White decks in the five rounds that I was battling, so it looks like I made the right call.

I’m not loath to writing tournament reports, but for 4 out of the 5 matches I played, the games were utterly unfair and wouldn’t be very interesting to read. I played (in order): BU Zombies, Br Zombies, Mono W Soldiers, Mono W Control, and Mono B Zombies. I also feel as if writing a report of each match would be overall boring to read, as almost all of my matches were against aggro decks, and all of the games could be summed up as such: “I Ascended while playing a war of attrition and/or tempo with my opponent, then took two turns in a row, after which I copied my Cruel Ultimatum”. Even in games in which I didn’t cast Cruel, it never felt close. Barbequing my opponent with 6 Lightning Bolts and 3 Burst Lightnings will win the game just as well .

In playtesting the deck against other builds, the results were equally inspiring. Multiple games against both Bant Aggro and further testing against Soldiers yielded extremely positive results. I hesitate to list a hard-and-fast percentage as there are many factors that can contribute to wins on one group’s playtesting session. Different builds and different pilots can potentially have vastly different outcomes. I will, however, summarize with a statement that I feel is applicable to many of matchups: many creature-based matchups are a battle of attrition; this is fair, until you start getting double or triple the value for every single spell you cast. Even a matchup that I feared might be unfavorable, 60 Watts of Ball Lightning deck, was much better than expected. All of your creature kill is still quite relevant and their card advantage from unearthed creatures are trumped by your Into the Roils. Games basically boiled down to a) whether the Ball Lightning Deck was playing first, b) whether he had a turn 1 Goblin Guide and a good curve, and c) whether the Pyromancer had adequate answers.

Unfortunately, the two matchups I am somewhat concerned about — Jund and Five-Color Control — tend to be quite good in the first place, and people are playing them (especially Jund), porting them over from the old Standard. My initial impression is that both matchups revolve around whether the good guys can stick and rack up two counters on that thar Ascension. Both have access to Maelstrom Pulse, and Five-Color Control also has the added impediments of not only various counterspells to stop your ascension from reaching the table but also Esper Charm to remove it at instant speed should the need arise. I was as worried about the Jund matchup, as with the rotation the deck becomes quite a bit slower, the deck doesn’t seem to have taken any hard hits tempo wise. The matchup revolves mainly around Maelstrom Pulse, Blightning, and Public Enemy Number One: Sprouting Thrinax. I miss the days when you could simply Bolt your opponent’s Boggart Ram-Gang and be satisfied. Now you have to worry about 3 little tokens running around afterwards. The innocuous 3/3 is the only reason a Cruel Ultimatum is not automatically almost always a nail in the coffin. I have yet to test the Control matchup, and I will admit I am not looking forward to it.

As for changes to the deck, aside from perhaps excising of the one-of lands in exchange for two more M10 duals, I’m not sure I’d touch the maindeck. If you expect a lot of more controlling metagame, the Into the Roils or Bituminous Blasts could be cut for something along the lines of card draw or disruption like Duress. The sideboard, like always I feel, should be tailored to what you expect. In my testing I never actually used the Anathamancers, but that is not to say they should be cut. The Defilers were great, but feel free to substitute them for something else. The only fat that I strongly recommend one cut out are the Volcanic Fallouts. In the matchups where you would expect them to be good, they are surprisingly barf. They have been so much a part of the metagame for the past year that people playing the offending decks not only expect them, but plan accordingly as well. It’s not uncommon for a White Weenie deck to be playing 4 of both Harm’s Way and Brave the Elements, especially post-board, not to mention the fact that one Honor of the Pure, Heaven forbid two, makes Fallout occasionally unusable. Against something such as Vampires, you have so much creature kill as it is that Fallout is rarely more than a one-for-one. Fallout doesn’t kill Nocturnus, Nighthawk, Bloodwitch, and it merely stalls a Bloodghast. Trust me, there are better options out there. If you would like suggestions, here is a short list of ideas: Banefire, Twincast, Swerve, Negate, Double Negative, Duress, Magma Spray, Wretched Banquet.

Whether you feel like this deck is legitimate or not, you should at least be aware of its existence. It plays very much like a combo deck, and can often win out of nowhere, ascending with a minimal effort. It is, at the very least, an extremely fun deck to play. What could be more fun than taking 6 turns in a row and Cruel Ultimatuming you opponents to death?