Tomorrow I fly to windy Chicago, Illinois, to compete in the TCGPlayer Championship. I qualifiedâ€”and even got a bye!â€”via my performance a few months back around the debut of U/R Splinter Twin, detailed here and elsewhere.
My success in that tournament was closely linked to my advantage in deck choice. In Magic, the better, better prepared, player wins the vast majority of the time, even outside the age of Caw-Blade and its much-discussed bias towards skill. There are, generally speaking, two ways to upset the inherent advantage of better skill and preparation: one of them is to try to force your opponent to make mistakes (generally exploiting weak play or setting up traps / general deception). The other is to overwhelm him with superior deck technology. The first part of this article outlines my struggles around the latter.
I. All The News That’s Fit To Print, All The Decks I Will Not Play
Who can cotton playing a Caw-Blade?
The six copies in the Top 8 of the US National Championships make this an even worse choice than usual. LSV played it. LSV made Top 8 with it. It was already popular. Now it is popular popular. People were already joking about how great the bannings of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were in terms of curbing the Caw… Now?
Perception is reality.
Really the main strike against Caw-Blade is also the sharpest, most peacock-feathered arrow in its venerable quiver: The reason some very respectable players chose Caw-Blade over Splinter Twin at the height of Caw-Blade (even knowing that Splinter Twin had the leg up on Caw-Blade)… Caw-Blade is both Caw-Blade’s best and worst matchup.
If you are the master, Caw-Blade rewards you.
If you’re not: You will be out-played.
I haven’t put in the time for the skill.
Sure, I have played these long months of Caw-Blade dominance in Standard, but always angle-shooting, always trying to find a different path, sometimes successfully… Most of the time, “I fought the Caw / and the Caw won”.
In the context of an Invitational-type tournament, I can reasonably expect to be out-played in the Caw-Blade mirror. It’s that simple. In order to win this tournament I will probably have to beat Nick Spagnolo or Edgar Flores, and to do that, the last place I want to put myself is the matchup where they are most comfortable.
Can’t Caw. Not this weekend. Next.
I was actually quite gung-ho for B/U Control right before the Indianapolis Invitational. I was impressed by the performances by Gerard Fabiano and Reid Duke, piloting their B/U deck into the elimination rounds of the New York $5K through a sea of Stoneforges and many flapping feathers. For this deck, I have respect.
Moreover, my friend GRat put up his first PTQ Top 8 (Top 4 actually!) with B/U Control just this past weekend in Edison, NJ. GRat cut through Caw-Blade decks like a hot knife through butter. So close to the Blue Envelope.
What’s wrong with it this time?
What do I live for if not tapping out for blue six-drop fliers?
Doesn’t B/U Control have all kinds of cards I actually like?
This deck tooâ€”for me and my choice, that isâ€”makes for an extinction via its own success. I am notâ€”have never beenâ€”the sort to whine over the randomness of mirror matches; for the most part, with the exception of G5C at Regionals 1997, I think mirrors are highly skill-intensive. Note Patrick Sullivan’s lifetime in RDW / Boros / related mirrors throughout the formats various. I still look back fondly on the summer of 1999 and the fights between Carnophage and Sarcomancy and knowing which one was the nut high and which one was the nut low heads up.
It is out of respect that I can’t choose this one. Any and all saints equipped with a Liliana Vess, for this tournament at least, have probably got one up on YT.
And the last time I tried itâ€”I looked up in my highly valuable MTGO recordsâ€”I put up approximately 3-6, losing to Sacred Wolves and Vampires (repeatedly)… as well as the mirror. Not the right recipe for this weekend.
See also â† :(
Hawkward / Tempered Steel
I mean if I were the kind of guy who would take off a weekend for a rare opportunity to play Magic: The Gathering “that matters” in a faraway city, and do so with a deck that basically just turns fellas sideways… This would be that deck. However…
I’m just not that guy.
Puresteel Paladin (various)
Again, I like it in theory. Lots of stuff going on, and one of the strongest cards in the format overall at this point is Puresteel Paladin itself. I like extra cards, and I love free mana (not to mention attacking for two), and Puresteel Paladin is all those things in one, while wearing a Frankie Says Relax tee shirt.
Problem is, the deck overall just isn’t good enough at any one thing.
Generally, I hate generalists.
I probably make two mistakes in life for every correct decision (and count myself lucky with that ratio), but there is one thing I won’t do (or at least will try to avoid doing), and that is play The Rock. The Rock is sneaky. He doesn’t come out in $1,000 sunglasses or even tooth fairy wings and track pants to explosive entrance music, clad all in Forests and Swamps, any more; not all the time, anyway. I try not to do anything “out of principle,” but man has to have standards, and this is where I have drawn my line.
The Rock is anything that lives and thrives by progressive card advantage. A nickel here, a dime there. Two words: Not interested. I know it works for some people, but this is my rule; you know, in addition to this one:
Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat, or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.
-The Iron Code of Druss the Legend
Yes, yes, I was one of the first handful of people ever to win a tournament with The Rock. In fact, back in the day, under the tutelage of Malka himself, I won more than one Grand Prix Trial, Blue Envelope, all of it.
However if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward, and one thing that I learned is that progressive card advantage is not where I want to be. It took me some bad Pro Tour deck choices and a lot of lost opportunities to get to this point (even with Mr. #1 Zvi Mowshowitz himself cackling his Zvi-laugh in my ear, telling me that my Grixis deckâ€”sorry Crosis deckâ€”was “The Rock”) to really get a handle on things.
There is powerful, and there is The Rock.
There is getting ahead, and there is going over the top.
There is putting your opponent in topdeck mode, and there is topdecking your opponent out of the tournament.
I am not saying The Rock won’t be the best at some point in the future, but even then, I won’t be on it.
This deck is also The Rock.
This is a deck I would theoretically like to play.
One card in particular I would like to play is Timely Reinforcements.
On more than one occasion in the last week, Andrew Cuneo (one of my favorite Magicians) defeated me with his U/W Control deck in the MTGO queues.
The first time I ever met Andrew, way back in 1997, he beat me with a U/W Control deck. Andrewâ€”an early associate of the Mad Genius of Magic, Erik Lauerâ€”had already invented Brainstorm + Thawing Glaciers; it would not be adopted by the mainstream Magic player for at least half a year later.
I lost the last round, and Andrew won the PTQ (unsurprising).
/ end aside.
My issue around U/W Control is that I don’t really know what I want to be controlling. There is a wide palette of available threats, and I don’t think I can do the best job of assessing which are the right ones to react to with U/W Control. Generally I gravitate towards four-ofs (mitigated, typically, by attention to mana curve and sometimes Legendary status or the equivalent), but I don’t know if you can reasonably construct that way with a reactive deck at present.
I have already said I like Timely Reinforcements… How many Timely Reinforcements am I expected to play? What is the mix of Timely Reinforcements, Day of Judgment, and Gideon Jura? They are all redundant with each other to some degree. The first and third can win the game. Only Gideon is relevant against Splinter Twin. Day of Judgment is best in some cases (and the most potentially powerful overall), but each one of the three has its virtues.
While we are on the topic of this three-defense split, why am I not just playing Caw-Blade?
It is a tricky question, no?
How about Leyline of Sanctity? How many, and where?
Which cantrips do I play?
For that matter, what am I digging into?
Planeswalkers is another large area of discussion. Of course I am going to play at least two copies of Gideon Jura. How about the others? What is the mix of Jace Beleren, Elspeth Tirel, and even Karn Liberated that is most likely to carry me to victory?
U/W Control is much different from other reasonable decks to play.
B/U Control has proactive plays like Inquisition of Kozilek that are great if you are trying to burgle a Goblin Guide or pre-empt a Stoic Rebuttal, or even just make sure the path is clear before you attempt Grave Titan. The U/W (and minority) equivalent is Spell Pierce. Spell Pierce is much better (though not infallible) when facing an opposing Gideon Jura. It is not, however, relevant in the least against a Goblin Guide or well-timed [lots of different stuff]. Do I play this card at all?
Challenging, isn’t it?
Here is another line:
I am a big fan of Solemn Simulacrum.
Trinket Mage offers a low-cost solution to Hedron Crab that Nick Spagnolo would approve of (Elixir of Immortality) while giving me a compelling synergy with Solemn Simulacrum by way of Everflowing Chalice.
All together (and especially with a planned quartet of Spreading Seas) we have a perfect setup for Venser, the Sojourner.
Is this even good?
Let’s decide it is in fact good. How much space did I just use for my Trinket Mage (and Trinket Mage package), mana acceleration, Spreading Seas, and some six to make all those worthwhile (plus Venser, plus additional planeswalkers)? Better question: Do I have room left to react, you know, with my reactive deck?
See how tricky this one is?
Too tricky for YT, at least this time.
RDW / Goblins / Red Whatever
While not as hard-and-fast as my prohibition on The Rock, I do try to avoid auto-losing to commonly played cards.
I think it is bad enough that with Red (regardless of a potential advantage in inherent technological operations) you are typically more limited in resources than most deck types, but Timely Reinforcements? Really?
… But me? I am not interested in trying to overwhelm Timely Reinforcements with such limited tools.
I have a strong respect for Valakut’s power level. The card Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is extremely powerful (and you probably know my opinion of the card Primeval Titan). However this deck just isn’t for me; there are two things that block Valakut as a possibility for me: 1) I have problems wrapping my head around playing Terramorphic Expanse in a G/R deck and always have, and more importantly 2) the Splinter Twin matchup.
Last but not least, my old favorite.
Long story short, I dislike Splinter Twin as it exists in the post-Jace, the Mind Sculptor era. When I won with Splinter Twin, I was happily bouncing Spellskites with Jace and going about my business. However with no Jace, the deck becomes very vulnerable to a super good, super cheap card that basically every deck can play. This is similar to the Timely Reinforcements kryptonite around Red Decks. Could I beat Timely Reinforcements with Goblins? Could I beat Spellskite with Splinter Twin? Probably and probably. But Splinter Twin has more enemies than just Spellskite. It is vulnerable to Dismember out of every kind of deck, can get Dispatched by Hawkward, bounced by Into the Roil, even locked out by Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Now none of that is new, but having no Jace to get back ahead is again the barrier. I have lost a Deceiver Exarch mid-combo and dug right back up again with the better than all planeswalker. I just don’t like the spot that Splinter Twin is in.
Is that most of them? That’s where I am.
II. The Trouble With Banning Stoneforge Mystic And Jace, The Mind Sculptor
How many decks did I just go through?
A lot of people were supportive of banning Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor because they wanted to see a “more diverse” metagame (relative to the success of Caw-Blade variants). I didn’t want to see them banned because I didn’t think that they were actually abusive cards; I thought they were tools that were promoting skill and consistency.
If the goal was to make Caw-Blade less prevalent in North American event Top 8s… Well that apparently hasn’t happened. But what did happen is that now, instead of preparing for 3-5 good and focused decks, we have to prepare for what? Twenty?
It is extremely difficult to prepare for any amount of decks greater than five, especially in a format with Tier One cards.
One of my most productive periods as a deck designer (and player) was when Ravnica Block was legal. During Ravnica Standard you could potentially play against a different deck every round and beat nine or so different decks on the day. No problem. But Ravnica Block was all Tier Two cards. Lightning Helix was about as good as the cards were! Everything good was about that good!
But preparing for Primeval Titan; Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; Deceiver Exarch; Squadron Hawk; Sword of Feast and Famine; Puresteel Paladin; Tempered Steel; Birthing Pod; Day of Judgment; Splinter Twin, Goblin Guide… Big creatures, little creatures, fast creatures, equipment, enchantments, defense, burn, combo decks… Oh yeah, the non-flagships include Gideon Jura, and ~20 dudes just like him. You only have fifteen sideboard cards.
From my decision-making purposes, that means I will only be willing to play an active deck. I just can’t see being able to react to so many different directions. When I won with Splinter Twin, it was by jamming the most powerful thing I could do down my opponents’ throats, especially when they were unaware or disrespectful of my combo. I don’t want to just be the dude turning dudes sideways but…
III. A Brew
I made this deck last week:
Structurally, this deck is basically the same as a “modern” Exarch Twin deck, minus Shrine of Piercing Vision (the worst topdeck) and one Splinter Twin. The bonus is that you get more-or-less the full-on life combo.
I was really happy with this deck when I first wrote it down, but I didn’t like it as much after playing for a while.
Is it awesome?
There are some decks that can’t get out from under the life combo, and as long as you can protect your Soul’s Attendant or Sutured Priest, you are even proof against Exarch Twin.
That said, there are lots of decks that life isn’t effective against. Like Hawkward. You can have infinite life… and still lose to a flying 3/3 poisoner. What the!?!
Also there is that deck Kyle was playing. It is so stressful managing your lands against even just a Hedron Crab. You need to get both your Mountains to beat them; I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t gonna beat them, but you can lose to a random mill for three and be put in a position where you have to go beatdown, as ludicrous as that sounds.
The one thing I am pretty proud of is the choice of Stave Off as my “Dispel” slot. Stave Off does most of the things that Dispel can do, but better. For one, it’s white so you can “mis-tap” leaving up a Plains (and play it up) to Counterspell a Dismemberâ€”or even a Combust!â€”for one! Stave Off is also the Dispel that can stop somebody else’s Splinter Twin.
The main motivation I had making this deck was to try to produce an Exarch Twin that could better withstand Tempered Steel, but the poison potential (you have no Tectonic Edge and essentially no long term answers to a 3/3 or even 5/5 Inkmoth Nexus) makes that matchup a lot worse than it initially seems.
IV. That Time Chapin Said Those Mean Things About PV And Conley
If you’re not at least 25% brews, you’ve got no heart. If you’re not at least 25% netdeck, you’ve got no brain.
At this point, we have rejected both netdecks and brews. What does tomorrow hold?
V. Up Next, And A Quote From Sunspear
“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”