Finkel/Kai, With Bant Hexproof And U/W Control In Standard!

Patrick Chapin discusses the two hottest decks from PT Avacyn Restored, Bant Hexproof and U/W Control with miracles, and how they could be adapted in Standard for this weekend’s SCG Open Series in Orlando.

I still remember when the question was, “When is it ok to start calling Kai the best?”

The best player in the world? The best player of all-time?

Being the consensus best player in the world is a pretty elite distinction, first held by Mark Justice before there was a Pro Tour and in its early days. Justice was the original Magic superstar, and though his legacy was somewhat tarnished by some poor mistakes near the end of his career, he really was that good back in the day. 

By year two of the PT, Olle Rade had taken the title away on account of an unreasonably good record of finishes at Constructed events (including, at one point, Top 8ing five of his ten lifetime Constructed Pro Tours).

Jon Finkel had always been a very strong player, but the invention of Magic sets designed to be drafted radically changed his standing in the game. While early Pro Tours included sets like Homelands, Fifth Edition, and the like, the move towards a more evolved Limited format unquestionably favored the man fairly universally regarded as the greatest Limited player the game has ever seen (Jon).

Winning the National Championship, World Championship, Invitational, and setting records for Pro Tour Top 8s and PT points, there seemed little left for Jon to do. He began spending more time away from the game, though still showing up to PTs and putting up good finishes.

Meanwhile, a former World Champion, Kai Budde, became the talk of the town. He had become only the third player to win a second Pro Tour (after Tomi Hovi and Jon Finkel). Later in the same season, Kai won Pro Tour Barcelona, becoming the first player to win a third time and thrusting him center stage.

When Kai won his fourth Pro Tour the following year, the question was famously posed to Randy Buehler: “When can we say that Kai is the best?” Finkel’s accomplishments went so far beyond what anyone had thought was possible, but now so had Kai’s.

Randy, intending to make a joke, replied, “Ok, if he wins the next one, he is the greatest player of all-time.”

He won the next one.

Then he went on to win a couple more.

When Kai stepped away from the game in 2004, there was absolutely no questioning his accomplishments. The question of who was the best player in the world would be a very different thing in the post-Jon, post-Kai world. A new distinction was created, “The best current player in the world.”

The best players in the world since then have been much less “undisputed,” though certainly a very powerful list of players:

Gabriel Nassif 2004

Kenji Tsumura 2005-2007

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa 2008-2009

Luis Scott-Vargas 2010-2012 (With very reasonably arguments for Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and Brad Nelson instead during some of that time period).

As we conclude the 2011-2012 season, with Jon Finkel putting up his 13th and 14th career Pro Tour Top 8s, the unspoken question resonating in the PT Hall is, “When is it safe to say Jon is the best again?”

Best currently? It is so hard to say what currently even means. Jon was actively involved in testing for the entire process before the event starting with the last two Pro Tours. He Top 8ed both. His natural ability never went away; natural ability that is generally regarded as the greatest the game has seen.

Best all-time? Matching up against Kai’s accomplishments is a very tall order indeed. With ten Top 8s and seven wins, how can you even compare anything to that? What is the ratio of relevance between Grand Prix vs. Pro Tours, Top 8s vs. wins, longevity vs. dominance in an era? Well, winning a Pro Tour is worth 150% as many Pro Points as a Top 8. Some people consider a win to be worth as much as two Top 8s. This gives us a pretty solid range to start with. At a 150%, Kai ends up with 13.5 to FInkel’s 15.5. If we were to give Kai a point for every Top 8 and two points for every win, he would come out to 17 points. With fourteen Top 8s and three wins, Finkel would be in a dead heat with 17 himself. 

No one has ever come close to Jon’s performances long-term. No one has ever come close to Kai’s dominance in his era. The debate between those two will surely rage on for years to come, but it is amusing to note that Jon winning PT Kuala Lumpur was a non-zero factor in Kai taking PT Amsterdam a little more seriously (which he Top 8ed). Jon making a comeback this past year, including Top 8ing Dark Ascension definitely lit a fire under Kai (who was actually only one win away from drawing into the Top 8 of Barcelona!). Watching the two of them test and battle against each other was inspiring. Both of them look like they have something to prove. As a lover of the game and its history, I think we are in for a very exciting year.

What does Jon’s next Top 8 mean? What about Kai’s?

Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, in Barcelona this past weekend, was Block Constructed. Block is often a somewhat dubious format, as the cards are primarily designed with Standard in mind. This block was particularly troublesome, as it featured allied color gold cards and utility lands (like Sigarda and Kessig Wolf Run), but enemy color dual lands (and not a lot of them). This combined to make some of the worst mana in recent years, paired with extremely powerful cards that are so strong it is fairly crazy not to roll the dice on an ambitious mana base.

Innistrad Block Constructed is not totally done with, however, with GP Anaheim coming up in a couple weeks. I don’t know what that field will look like, but I am guessing it won’t just be U/W Control with miracles vs. Bant Hexproof (the two hottest decks in Barcelona), nor will it be just an endless sea of Boros and Naya (the two most popular decks in Barcelona).

In addition to considering the future of Innistrad Block Constructed, an examination of the Block format can be very helpful for advancing Standard play. Third sets are notorious for being adopted slowly, with the first several weeks of events often featuring a suspiciously low number of new cards. Some of the new decks from Barcelona are very exciting, making great use of new Avacyn Restored cards. This might be our first spot to explore on how to use some of the new cards.

First, here is the deck that Reid Duke, Gabriel Nassif, Tom Martell, Alex West, and I played in the Pro Tour:

It was not particularly good, with its mana base being just slightly too unreliable. Obviously we would all have liked to have played the Bant Hexproof deck that Jon, Kai, Jelger, Sam, and Gau played, but we just ran out of time and did not have evidence it would work (as it is very soft to Boros and other fast aggro strategies). I am particularly excited that the PT in Seattle, later this year, will give everyone an extra week to figure out what they want to do with the new cards. Return to Ravnica is going to be a very exciting set to work with (as it has the word “Ravnica” in it).

This list was fine, but the widespread adoption of maindeck Zealous Conscripts was unfortunate for those of us counting on Gisela. Additionally, we added two Think Twice at the last minute, cutting an Amass the Components and a land. In retrospect, cutting the land was quite foolish.

I did learn quite a bit that I think will carry over into Standard. First of all, Tamiyo is the real deal. She can help take over a board thanks to her plus ability. She can help get you out of bad spots by drawing cards. She puts a lot of pressure on opponents, as her ultimate is very lethal. Opponents that have to attack her end up particularly vulnerable to her other two abilities. It is not that she will replace Jace, Memory Adept, it is that she is good in almost the opposite ways that Jace is.

Burning Oil was also quite good, and I can definitely see it crossing over to Standard. It is a bit situational, but it is relatively low cost and a built in two-for-one. Fettergeist was another nice one, as he has a great body that isn’t always easy for people to get rid of despite how cheap he is. When did it become ok for blue to get such good creatures? Finally, Gisela is a total beast. Yes, she dies to your Doom Blade, guy, but look: she is one of the most powerful creatures on the table in the game’s history, particularly among creatures that you can actually realistically cast.

Out of the sideboard, Helvault was particularly impressive. Granted, in Innistrad Block Constructed, few people used much artifact removal, whereas Standard has a bit more. That said, if you put Helvault in a deck that has no other artifacts, your opponent can’t really put dedicated artifact removal in against you. Then, going long, you will have a permanent source of removal. Sure, Oblivion Ring can get rid of it, but the ability to kill a creature every turn is just going to lock some people out of the game. This one is going to surprise some people.

Sometimes Block decks lead to the creation of brand new Standard decks (surprise, surprise), so let’s look at the two most talked about decks of this past weekend. Up first, the champion Alexander Hayne with U/W Control centered on miracles:

Outside of how impressive it is to take the miracle mechanic to the extreme, it is also quite impressive to see an Innistrad Block deck with this many fours. Even the aggro decks often had to resort to a greater variety of cards due to the diminishing returns they provided. This list is extremely consistent and streamlined. Of course, it is not so important to test with streamlined builds, as you can often gain more new information by playing with a larger variety of cards; however, we do want to keep an eye out for how to streamline the deck once we get it operational and figure out how the different possible cards work with it.

Here is a first draft of Standard U/W Control with miracles:

There are a few big differences between Block and Standard. To begin with, in Standard we have more cantrips than we could possibly play, as well as access to far superior mana. This means we can add a third color, such as red for Bonfire and Desolate Lighthouse, if we really want to. Additionally, this many cantrips means we are going to have a lot of velocity and the ability to find what we need faster (though we will end up with more air in our deck due to the sheer number of cards that don’t “do” anything).

Having better mana doesn’t just mean getting mana screwed less; it also means getting to play with more colorless lands if we want. For instance, Seraph Sanctuary is a very modest way to gain life but can combine with Entreat to give us some much-appreciated breathing room against red decks.

Ponder is much less effective than the other cantrips since it can’t actually draw you a miracle, but it can help set up the top of your library on your turn so that your cantrip on your opponent’s gets the job done.

In Standard, we have access to better reactive cards, like Leak, Day, O-Ring, and so on, but we also have a far bigger range of threats to deal with. For instance, do we need Ratchet Bombs or Oblivion Rings to deal with non-creature permanents or is Devastation Tide enough? It is definitely the weakest of our four miracles.

What about alternative victory conditions? Consecrated Sphinx, Wurmcoil, Jace, Karn, Sun Titan, Batterskull, Tamiyo, Blue Sun; we are definitely looking at a lot of possible complements to Entreat the Angels.

Timely Reinforcements works particularly well with the miracle shell, because the deck often starts off doing nothing on turns 1 and 2 despite having cantrips in hand. Generally, with miracles you are going to look to save your cantrips for chances to play them with at least two lands untapped, including a white and a blue. The entire point is to give yourself as many chances at miracles as you can. Once we go down the road of not interacting much on turns 1 or 2, we are going to really appreciate the extra life and blockers that Timely Reinforcements gives us.

Remember, U/W Control with miracles doesn’t have to be a dedicated combo deck by any means. In time, I imagine we are going to see more and more U/W/x Control decks that employ miracle technology to get the most out of their mana. We may also finally see the deck where Think Twice is better than Ravings (but uses both…).

When experimenting with new concepts like this, make sure to ask yourself the right questions during testing. Does this have potential? What does this need to be competitive? Is it fast enough? Is it big enough? What does the game look like when you win? What about just before that? How should the first four turns play out? What do we gain from Standard that Block didn’t have? What new problems do we have to overcome?

Moving to the other big deckbuilding story of the weekend, we have the Bant Hexproof deck that half the Team SCG Black guys used to great effect (best Constructed record by far among archetypes):

This deck is all about making a giant threat that is difficult to deal with. It actually has a relative from Standard, the old Mirran Crusader + Angelic Destiny school of decks. Unfortunately, Mirran Crusader and Increasing Savagery are a nombo. However, we do have plenty of other ways to do it. Here is a try:

The addition of Birds of Paradise and Scars lands are absolutely huge. This is going to make this deck come out faster and capable of more ambitious spells (such as Angelic Destiny). In addition to Angelic Destiny, Standard also gives us access to Sword of War and Peace, which works fantastic with our random dudes and helps us combat opponents with answers to our difficult threats. Angelic Destiny’s ability to return to hand is also going to come up a fair bit, such as when opponents Day away our Stalker, followed by us playing another and putting Destiny on that one as well.

I am trying a lower count of Silverhearts because, while they are quite good, they are a bit expensive and we have so many other good options. It might just be that we need as much of that as possible.

Vapor Snag is a huge upgrade from Silent Departure. Being an instant gives us a lot more play, plus we can use it to save our own guys. The extra life loss is generally worth more to us than the ability to flash back going long. I like the Snag so much, I actually would like to try Snapcaster Mage in here. Strangleroot Geist was definitely the worst creature in the Barcelona deck, so despite not having a ton of targets, I can see them being high enough impact at the right times to give him a shot. Besides, cycling Gitaxian Probe is still quite decent and replaying Vapor Snag can be a game-winning tempo boost early (or can save our Geist of Saint Traft that was blocked). Finally, Snapcasting Increasing Savagery gives our guy +10/+10 for only six mana!

Turn 1: Bird/Pilgrim

Turn 2: Geist of Saint Traft or Stalker

Turn 3: Increasing Savagery

If they deal with that, just play another creature and then flash back the Savagery the turn before they expect it!

Avacyn Restored has so many powerful new cards to explore. From the looks of the recent SCG Open Series events, it appears that most of the field is still stuck on G/R Aggro, Delver, Pod, and Wolf Run Ramp. What cards would you like to see built around next week? GP Minneapolis and SCG Open Series: Orlando are this weekend. What should I play? I ship you guys lists all the time. How about you ship me one this time? ;-)

See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”