Flores Friday – Surprise! The Masterpiece And Breaking All The Rules

Solar Flare has diminished in popularity since the beginning of the format, but perhaps all it needs is a bump from Mike Flores. He takes Solar Flare to an entirely new plane with green mana, acceleration, and Garruks.

One of the things I wanted to do from the first whispers of Innistrad Standard was revisit The Masterpiece.

For Reference: The Masterpiece

Earliest on in this format I—like many players—decided that Solar Flare was going to be one of the pillars of the metagame (for good or ill). Solar Flare was an early super favorite (as we all know), but has received mixed reviews (at best) from the various critics of the game.

My assumption based on the presence of a couple of different three-mana control plays—Forbidden Alchemy and Liliana of the Veil—was that the ability to “get the jump” on “other” “Solar Flare” decks might be advantageous in the metagame; and the mightiest, most time-tried way of doing so, control-on-control, has been mana acceleration.

Back when the original Ravnica Block was available to play in Standard, The Icy Grip columnist Shaheen Soorani did some metagame damage with the original The Masterpiece, which was basically Beach House married to Solar Flare. I decided to revive the idea as Solar Flare plus Birds of Paradise.

Here is my current build:

From a deck design standpoint, The Masterpiece 2011 breaks all kinds of “my” rules for Standard design:

  • It’s green. I have no real beef with green, but my paradigm of usefulness has me avoiding green, in general (you can read more about that here and here.)
  • It doesn’t play “the best spells” … In fact, it is a blue deck without Snapcaster Mage. Not only do I think that Snapcaster Mage is the number one card in Standard (and this deck, again, doesn’t play it), but many other people, viz. my Innovator Patrick Chapin, think that Primeval Titan may be the best card in Standard… This is a base-green control six deck that also doesn’t play Primeval Titan! Holy stabbing Andre Coimbra memory in the back, Batman!
  • It doesn’t play Druidic Satchel, main or side. In theory a control deck that starts on Birds of Paradise can make good use of that card, but… not in this build. (This is neither here nor there, but I separately tried RUG control with Druidic Satchel in place of Liliana, Desperate Ravings in place of Forbidden Alchemy, and Slagstorm; grafting Primeval Titan for a small Wolf Run package on… That deck couldn’t win a match, though.)

The baseline strategy of this deck is kind of at the halfway point between 2011’s version of Solar Flare and 2009 Superfriends Planeswalker Control. Like Solar Flare you can play lots of different games, tuning your experience by crafting your hand with Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy. You can get by with Mana Leak and just three Doom Blades because even against another powerful control deck, the fact that you have [typically] more mana in play than they do and so many more planeswalkers than most decks means that when the game goes long, you will probably be able to overpower the opponent.

Card Rundown:

Birds of Paradise

Kind of the point of the deck. This card stays in the deck in most matchups, though the recent addition of Ratchet Bomb asks Birds to blow (and / or flap) out in sideboarded matches with G/W Tokens, U/W Humans, etc.

Doom Blade

Because you have to have some kind of card like this. When I first sketched the deck together with three Doom Blades and one sweeper, I assumed the deck would not be able to contend with fast beatdown decks. I like being pleasantly surprised :)

Rampant Growth

I have sided as many as one copy of this card out. It is kind of the redundant redheaded cousin to Birds of Paradise. One of the things that is strategically interesting about this deck is that you can often bait another control with this card, and he will let it resolve under the assumption that he should save his Flashfreeze or whatever for your Primeval Titan or whatever; when really what you are doing is just getting into a position where you can flashback Forbidden Alchemy way earlier than he can, and by the time he is in six range you are demolishing him with Mana Leak and planeswalkers.

Mana Leak

Obv four. Super good in this deck. Generally you want to spend them early because they probably aren’t doing anything late, and this deck tends to go pretty late.

Think Twice

I love it in this deck… This kind of reminds me of when Satoshi Nakamura played the Fires mana setup in U/G instead of G/R for Gush and Fact or Fiction, and it was awesome. Satoshi’s transplant of traditionally “Gruul” technologies to blue decks with card drawing was ultimately highly influential to Top 10 deck designers including YT, Brian Kibler, and others.

Forbidden Alchemy

Ditto on Think Twice, above; with the additional sauce of the turn two alongside Birds of Paradise (i.e. redundant to accelerated Liliana). I would conservatively estimate that 80% of my opponents on MTGO play some kind of version of the card Island on the first turn; sure, there is the odd game where you will lose to a random Nephalia Drownyard after working an opponent with Consecrated Sphinx all game, but if there is one incentive to this deck, it is that it is super good against the cards Island, Darkslick Shores, Glacial Fortress, etc.

Liliana of the Veil

This card is the other half of the point of this deck. You play four because you want to slam one down on the second turn. Now with four Liliana of the Veil and four Forbidden Alchemy, I originally had a fairly deep Unburial Rites package going, but I have since shifted to just value. Liliana of the Veil is still pretty good in this deck, setting up to discard Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy for eventual card advantage. Or some games you just spend tons of mana acceleration and just have no cards in hand when you are working Liliana mid-game. That is somewhat scary, but usually you are peppering the opponent with body blows so it’s, again, still fine without Unburial Rites.

Garruk Relentless

I wanted to play more than four copies of Garruk… Obviously Garruk, Primal Hunter is the more powerful Garruk, but this one isn’t too bad. You have two routes to hitting it on the third turn, and it is a great defensive option against a fair number of decks and absolutely rocks Illusions, small creatures decks, etc.

Garruk, Primal Hunter

So powerful! If I didn’t have Jace (see below) for other control decks, I’d play the fourth copy in my sideboard.

Might be interesting to note that I have never used the Fierce / Roundhouse abilities on either Garruk; jabs and strongs have been *ahem* strong enough.

Consecrated Sphinx

This card seems like the appropriate big guy for this deck. When I had an earlier version with Unburial Rites, I wanted Primeval Titan, but Consecrated Sphinx is such a soul-crusher. If you are ahead, you typically stay ahead. If you are behind, and the Sphinx lives, you can come back.

Black Sun’s Zenith

The main thing you lose by moving from white to green is in the removal category. Black Sun’s Zenith is a reasonable replacement for Day of Judgment, but it is also something a little different and special because of its Zenith-ness, even as a one-of.

Maybe you have had this experience before, but for me—this week—this was a first time. I went to the wire against a similar deck, where we both drew our entire decks. I very nearly conceded with just a few cards in my deck, but instead I played Think Twice as a gamble, got my Zenith, and killed all his Grave Titans and tokens and such and such. I got to the point where all I had was my Black Sun’s Zenith whereas he had nothing but a Green Sun’s Zenith; difference being I had big Garruk in play at the time :)

The Sideboard:

Some of the cards are pretty straightforward; the interesting cards are anti-blue for the most part. Thrun is… Thrun. The difference between Thrun in this kind of a deck versus G/R decks or whatnot is that you can Mana Leak their Titan or Doom Blade their Consecrated Sphinx.

Jace is a sideboard card I got from Reid Duke. Reid pointed out playing against one of my other control decks that you want a way—especially in sideboarded games—to punish the opponent for tapping out. You catch them with a Mana Leak… and then what? Jace is just a good way to do that, and he doesn’t take too long to win.

My favorite part about this deck is the mana. You can only play so many basic Forests, and you certainly can’t guarantee having a Forest in your opening hand every game, or every time you draw Birds of Paradise. That said, the structure of the mana—all the Hinterland Harbors and Woodland Cemeteries that a girl could want—combines very nicely with the Forests. Now even if you have to start on a Hinterland Harbor, you can often play a second comes-into-play-tapped land with a Birds of Paradise and still hit Thrun or Garruk on the third turn; or, you have quite a number of sexy second-turn Rampant Growth hands that accelerate you to either the same effect or Think Twice + Doom Blade or Mana Leak lands the next turn. Just make sure that you don’t screw yourself around Darkslick Shores. I have played that land in the wrong order with Rampant Growth at least 2-3 times this week :)

One Island and one Swamp are obviously for Rampant Growth access and work well with Drowned Catacomb.

Again, you have to be very precise about how you use your Rampant Growths and set up with Birds of Paradise, particularly in sideboarded games… Sorin’s Thirst has been a great card not just against super aggro decks like U/R Tempo or Red Decks, but it is a cheap BB, meaning it will usually demand a little deck massage on your part to perform at 100%.

Surprisingly, You’re the Beatdown

Because you start on Birds of Paradise, you are generally the beatdown against even other active control decks.

You can get the jump on the opponent with Birds of Paradise, and to a lesser extent Rampant Growth, and then start “doing stuff” every turn. You can play a small Garruk the turn before the opponent can make a relevant play (often) and defend it with Mana Leak.

Obviously in the control pseudo-mirrors, you can also just play a third-turn Thrun and try to ride that, or play “protect the Queen” (ride the threat you have in play, Doom Blade and / or Mana Leak only the things that can stop you from clocking the opponent).

Surprisingly, You’re the Lockdown

I don’t usually like playing decks that do lots of different things. I threw in about three Doom Blades and one Black Sun’s Zenith, figuring that they probably wouldn’t be enough and I would have to either rely on my sideboard or go back to the drawing board completely.

It turns out that the low-end planeswalkers are actually an insane lockdown against some styles of creature decks. Liliana and small Garruk slow down especially non-red decks quite a bit, and a flipped Garruk’s production of deathtouch 1/1s can make for good defenders even against superficially impressive stuff like Dungrove Elder.

The deck can ultimately create a very oppressive battlefield situation, especially on a turn two Liliana, turn three Garruk sequence.

Surprise! The Nuts Are Nuts

You ever hit Liliana on the second turn, in the mirror match (mirror being them = Solar Flare)?


It’s pretty cool.

If you have a Mana Leak (or if the opponent just doesn’t play Liliana… many decks like this have recently eschewed the expensive new three), you pretty much just win. You can level Liliana to 6-7 (often discarding Think Twice and so on along the way), and then just crush with a super Plow Under-like effect [though often your opponent will just scoop].

As indicated earlier, Birds of Paradise into Liliana of the Veil into Garruk Relentless is pretty filthy against creature decks (non-Red Deck beatdown, at least)… You can even get the jump on decks like U/R Tempo, which in theory have both Mana Leak and Incinerate, which are both good against this kind of plan just because the Ponders and offensive mana commitment out of that deck works well with your strategy of “resolving stuff.”

Not Surprisingly… There Are Problems

Despite being pleasantly surprised by the deck’s viability and even performance capabilities against G/W Tokens, U/W Humans, et al (I would consider both favorable matchups), it has two creature soft spots, one of which is the ubiquitous Mirran Crusader.

On the one hand, the tapout control innovator in me loves defending myself by tapping out for permanents and putting stuff in play, but when the actual defenders are 1/1, 2/2, or 3/3 black or green tokens… They don’t do much defending against a Mirran Crusader. While I have certainly been on the wrong end of a Mirran Crusader + Angelic Destiny before, I have somehow managed to avoid that with this deck [though I presume it wouldn’t be pretty].

Mirran Crusader is dealt with in three ways: 1) You clear everything else and then hit it with Liliana [inconvenient especially when they have two, or an active Moorland Haunt], 2) you play Consecrated Sphinx and cross your fingers, or 3) Black Sun’s Zenith. The most common is #2, which usually also gets value and can be set up with a black Garruk’s Strong ability. Black Sun’s Zenith obviously gets done the job that needs to be done… But you only have the one.

The other potential strategic hole is Grave Titan. Typically Grave Titan is dealt with via Mana Leak (remember, you typically have a massive mana advantage over your opponent and can be in the position to actually re-buy Forbidden Alchemy on the turns that the opponent is just thinking about trying his offensive six).

If it is just Grave Titan, that usually isn’t too hairy of a deal. Grave Titan can be slowed down by Mana Leak and held at bay with Garruk jab production (any of the three types of tokens). The problem is that you can quickly fall behind the tokens, and if the opponent is rich with point removal and can get in with Grave Titan even once, you are probably going to lose a planeswalker and might fall so far behind his tokens that you need the Zenith.

This is further complicated by a naturally drawn Unburial Rites. Just one Unburial Rites is usually beatable via Mana Leak, and you can be far enough ahead that you can reasonably have a Leak for the Titan and a Leak for the Rites, but a front-side Unburial Rites can mean triple Titans, and even if you draw triple Leaks (which you might and you probably won’t), he can probably just pay for the last one if it comes to that. 

Grave Titan is beatable—especially if the opponent just walks it into a Mana Leak and doesn’t have Unburial Rites—but its natural defense to Liliana makes it very annoying. Generally I would rather play against Mirran Crusader than Grave Titan, as much as I respect the Crusader.

Potential Future / Musings:

I have been thinking about this quite a bit, and I think the best option might just be to go triple Black Sun’s Zenith or maybe some kind of Life’s Finale in the sideboard. (Black Sun’s Zenith being better against Mirran Crusader at four mana). Though any deck can beat any deck, The Masterpiece 2011 doesn’t super fear very many cards, and it might just be better to play in a way to minimize the likelihood of losing to the ones that it is most likely to lose to. Another thought is to go Vapor Snare, which is a good short-term answer to Mirran Crusader that can also deal with Angelic Destiny for free.

I do like having some Ratchet Bombs, though, as the same decks that threaten Our Hero with Mirran Crusader foolishly try to defend themselves from planeswalkers and Consecrated Sphinx with Oblivion Ring.