Feature Article – Teachings Control for Standard

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Friday, September 5th – Grand Prix: Copenhagen saw a resurgence of the popular Mystical Teaching control decks, with two players placing in the Top 8 (including Guillaume Wafo-Tapa). Today, Luis Scott-Vargas, in tandem with Gerry Thompson, thrashes out a workable Teachings Control Standard framework. Does it have the tools to compete in a modern metagame?

The new, post-Grand Prix: Copenhagen Standard format is pretty interesting. Faeries is no longer the top dog, as that place now firmly occupied by Mono Red. But more importantly, my second favorite instant costing three-and-a-Blue appears to be good again: Mystical Teachings! (Gifts Ungiven is clearly my favorite, having fetched countless numbers of Yawgmoth’s Wills and Black Lotuses over the course of many Vintage tournaments.) In any case, seeing as how two Teaching-based decks made Top 8, that seemed like the best place to start finding a sweet Standard deck. Of course, one could always just copy Wafo-Tapa’s list and run with that, but I wanted to do some exploration of my own. Seeing as how I was about to launch an investigation of a Teachings deck, it seemed only logical to recruit another person who enjoyed flashing back a Teachings as much as I do. That person is none other than StarCityGames.com newest columnist, one Gerry Thompson. He quickly agreed to hop on board, and we were off. What follows is basically a view into how Gerry and I begin the process of deckbuilding.

Luckily, we were not building a deck from scratch. That is always more difficult, but here we have a few good bases to draw from. There are the two Teachings decks that made Top 8 in Copenhagen, as well as some of the featured decks from the coverage.

The first step is determining the cards that you must play. In this case, we quickly narrowed that list to:

4 Wall of Roots
4 Rune Snag
4 Cryptic Command
4 Pyroclasm/Firespout
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
2 Mystical Teachings (a 3rd was a distinct possibility, but two for sure)
3 Careful Consideration
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Pact of Negation
1 Condemn

Those are the cards we would have trouble leaving out of any Teachings deck. Two Teferi in particular is really good right now, really making your Teachings dangerous as well as cutting off opposing Ancestral Visions and ambushing Treetop Village. 24 Land seemed like the consensus, leaving us with 10 slots in which to fit some kill conditions and other Teachings targets. Little did I know, but this proved to be Gerry’s least favorite part of the exercise. Apparently Gerry is allergic to killing the opponent, repeatedly shooting down every suggestion I made that involved a card capable of maybe damaging the other player. A completely accurate depiction of that conversation is as follows:

LSV: Alright, we need a way to win.
GerryT: We have one. Teferi and Urza’s Factory.
LSV: No, I mean a way to win that doesn’t take 35 minutes or is stopped by Wall of Roots. What about an Oona?
GT: Oona is garbage.
LSV: Okay, how about Platinum Angel? We are probably going to play two Pacts, so Angel might be sweet.
GT: Angel is terrible. Why would you need anything but a single Factory?
LSV: I like being able to win games… how about a Hellkite?
GT: Your suggestions are just getting worse. I’m putting a pizza in the oven.

After much convincing, I finally got Gerry to agree to one Cloudthresher and one Nucklavee, both of which do things other than just attack. Nucklavee in particular is pretty nice, bringing back almost every Blue spell in the deck. The random Spout or Clasm coming back is just a nice bonus, and can even fuel Careful Consideration if they aren’t useful in a particular matchup.

Since this deck is an “answer” deck, we now had to figure out the common threats that exist and how we would deal with them. Seeing that RDW is the most popular deck, we have to have a plan for Demigod of Revenge, Ashenmoor Gouger, and Magus of the Moon. Hopefully people will use Larsson’s list and leave Magus out, but having a good amount of answers is still important. Firespout deals with Magus, as well as other common creatures such as Mogg Fanatic, Boggart Ram-Gang, and (most of the time) Figure of Destiny. More on Firespout later, but for now we just noted that it does not deal with Gouger or Demigod in any way. The best answer for Demigod appeared to be Chapin’s technology of Runed Halo. We noted that all of the Teachings decks had 3 Halo in the sideboard, but with the prevalence of Red it made sense to move them main instead.

That left us with five more slots to fill. Gerry loves him a mana ramp, so two Prismatic Lens seemed like a good choice to accelerate into our powerful four-drops.

Next we added a few more copies of cards we were already playing. A second Pact of Negation seemed good, as well as another removal spell. We went back and forth between Slaughter Pact and Condemn, finally settling on a second Slaughter Pact. The last card to make the main ended up being a 3rd Mystical Teachings, since drawing one seemed pretty crucial to the deck’s plan.

The manabase for this deck is a piece of work. We decided not to second-guess the master, and start with Wafo-Tapa’s list before making any changes. That leaves our final list as:

4 Wall of Roots
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1 Nucklavee
1 Cloudthresher

4 Rune Snag
4 Cryptic Command
2 Firespout
2 Pyroclasm
3 Careful Consideration
3 Mystical Teachings
2 Slaughter Pact
2 Pact of Negation
3 Runed Halo
1 Condemn
2 Prismatic Lens

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Creek
4 Vivid Meadow
4 Mystic Gate
3 Yavimaya Coast
2 Dreadship Reef
1 Fungal Reaches
1 Tolaria West
1 Urza’s Factory

For the sideboard, we went back into Time Spiral Block for some old favorites like Haunting Hymn and Detritivore. Detritivore in particular seemed pretty good in the mirror and against random controllish decks. One of the main purposes of the sideboard for this deck is to have a good plan against Faeries, since your maindeck is pretty soft against them. We settled on the classic Crovax plus Pact combination, with some additional Cloudthreshers for good measure. The sideboard we ended up with:

3 Detritivore
3 Crovax, Ascendant Hero
2 Cloudthresher
2 Arbiter of Knollridge
2 Extirpate
1 Haunting Hymn
1 Pact of Negation
1 Condemn

So, that was the first step. We had assembled a working list, and it was time to hit the 8-mans on Magic Online in order to see how the deck fared. Five queues later and we had us some results, and they weren’t promising. Suffering losses to a whole cross-section of Standard decks, including Elves, Kithkin, RDW, the mirror, and Faeries, we analyzed what happened. While the results weren’t all bad, since I did end up beating Merfolk, the mirror, Reveillark, UR Swans, and RDW on the way. Still, a 50-50 record overall isn’t what we were looking for. Some of the main points we got from this initial foray:

Slaughter Pact was clunkier than Condemn, and we would rather have a second Condemn over the second Pact. I don’t think you want both, since that becomes too many removal spells maindeck when combined with the Firespouts.
Firespout was far better than Pyroclasm. Multiple games were lost due to Clasm being unable to deal with Wren’s Run Vanquisher, multiple Lord of Atlantis or Wizened Cenn, and even Boggart Ram-Gang. The only real advantage of Pyroclasm is its ability to hit Figure of Destiny on the draw, but you have other ways of dealing with that dude.

– Three Mystical Teachings is too many. Sadly, we couldn’t justify running the full three due to its clunkiness, despite our love for the card.

Runed Halo is bugged on MTGO. Naming “Assembly Worker” should stop Urza’s Factory tokens but didn’t, unlike how it is supposed to work. That isn’t really a knock on the deck, just a nice little observation that cost me a game.
Detritivore and Nucklavee both earned their keep many times over, which was good news.
– Despite Gerry’s objections, another kill condition wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I didn’t really lose many games to not having one, but the right threat could help stabilize some games.

After making a number of changes, I went back into the fray. Over the next bunch of tournaments, I tried a bunch of different configurations. I tried the Mannequin package of 2 Mulldrifter, 1 Bogardan Hellkite, and 1 Makeshift Mannequin. This plan proved to be a bit inconsistent, as the Mannequin was very situational, the Hellkite was too expensive, and Mulldrifters were just not good enough without more support. Platinum Angel was next, but didn’t do enough for my tastes. On the other hand, I did end up liking one Oona, since it did a pretty good job of making it impossible for the opponent to attack you.

It was pretty difficult arriving on a final build, driving both Gerry and I to frustration at times. I don’t want to share too much about the lists we suggested to each other, since they got pretty ugly at times. Suffice to say that the low point occurred when Gerry began talking about Mono Green deck with Magus of the Vineyard. At that point I knew it was time to take a step back. After a good night’s sleep and some more battling, this is the final list:

The Teferi’s Moat’s were put there on GT’s insistence, as he hates losing to Elves. Krosan Grip has also fallen out of popularity, leading to some nice free wins now and then.

I cannot fully say this is the deck to play, but it definitely is a deck. It can boast solid but not overwhelming numbers against everything in the field, but its inconsistency is its downfall. It is easy to get a really clunky draw, especially when you are playing cards like Condemn, Firespout, Runed Halo, and Pact of Negation. All of those are quite situational, and mostly dead against one deck or another. Still, Teachings does a good job of bringing it all together, and can certainly dominate some games. It is nice to have inevitability, since given enough time you can and will set up a position that your opponent cannot beat. That’s why I didn’t like cards like Hellkite or Mannequin, since they didn’t do a great job of getting you to that winning position. They were pretty fantastic at beating an opponent, but like Gerry says, that part is irrelevant. If you liked the Block version of Teachings from last year, this deck is probably the deck for you. I tend to gravitate towards the most controlling deck possible in the format, and this deck certainly fits the bill. Red has made Faeries a pretty bad proposition, and both this deck and Faeries trump Reveillark, so Teachings isn’t such a bad call. Oh, and before I forget, a quick sideboarding guide:

+2 Detritivore +2 Crovax, Ascendant Hero +2 Cloudthresher +1 Pact of Negation
-4 Firespout —2 Condemn —1 Runed Halo

+2 Arbiter of Knollridge
—2 Pact of Negation
(This may look light, but you are already essentially pre-boarded with the Runed Halos here)

+3 Detritivore +1 Pact of Negation +2 Extirpate +1 Haunting Hymn +2 Cloudthresher
-4 Firespout —3 Runed Halo —2 Condemn

+2 Teferi’s Moat
-1 Cloudthresher —1 Pact of Negation

+2 Crovax, Ascendant Hero +1 Pact of Negation
-3 Runed Halo

+2 Extirpate +1 Pact of Negation +some number of Detritivores, depending on their manabase +1 Haunting Hymn +2 Cloudthresher
-3 Runed Halo —4 Firespout, although you may want 2 in instead of Vore if they have Riftwing Cloudskates and few nonbasics, -2 Condemn

Combo Swans:
+2 Extirpate +1 Haunting Hymn +1 Pact of Negation +2 Detritivore
-2 Condemn —4 Firespout

That about wraps it up on Teachings. There are so many ways to go with the deck that it’s really tough to pin down any good list. There is really no secret to making a list, although familiarity with the type of deck you are making is a big plus. Basically Gerry and I just throw out suggestions, eventually make a rough sketch, and try it out. By playing with it you learn what works and what doesn’t, and eventually you get to a good list. Well, assuming the fundamental of the deck is good, that is… sometimes you find out that the basic premise is just unworkable. I think that Teachings is clearly workable, especially given the two copies in top 8 of the Grand Prix, but again, finding the “right” build is difficult. I hope this helps, both the decklist and the insight into the process we usually use to make decks.

Lsv on MTGO… as miserable as v3 is, it’s still useful from time to time.