It was the U/W Equipster deck that Caleb Durward recently took to a PTQ second-place finish. I had been wanting to try my own hand at Puresteel Paladin’s particular brand of enthusiastic shenanigans since seeing Mark Herberholz’s block decks; Caleb’s seemed a fine place to start.
I played a bit; won, mostly. I didn’t have a sideboarding guide; anyway I have never super loved a Negate. What are we getting out of blue? I asked myself. Celestial Colonnade was good, but the deck didn’t really have a million lands. I recalled being out-Colonnaded more than Colonnading if you grok… so really it was Preordain and Trinket Mage that we were splashing up.
You’ll get no argument from me about either of these magical spells / fantastic creatures (respectively). Trinket Mage does some work in this deck, setting up even humble Equipment like the solo Accorder’s Shield to get the wheels of the Equipster moving. Paladin into Mage, Mage into Shield; draw up and slap that zero onto some hero… It’s a veritable Blue Divination! Big Trinks also set up more than one Sylvok Lifestaff for me, and I was reminded of the early build of the ‘Blade. Mortarpod + Lifestaff… Yes, it was a filthy combination of Mogg Fanatic and Healing Salve when applied all at once; like having your Goblin Legionnaire and eating it too. Trinket Mage is our Stoneforge Mystic. Got it. Good. Good-good.
Preordain by comparison seemed… odd. Me of all mages? Preordain is probably the best remaining card in the Standard format! I am all for summoning the best of the best. But what are we really doing here? A first-turn Preordain that set up a second-turn Stoneforge Mystic was often… A stretch. A “probably should have been six” of a hand. A midgame Preordain… Often was game, but we are getting what? There is no Jace, the Mind Sculptor here; no tempo-reversing Day of Judgment; no Gideon Jura even. As “Preordain” as Preordain might remain, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go blue just to splash for it.
What about Trinket Mage? What is our replacement there?
Never mind. I’ll just cut to the chase:
Batterskull is our Baneslayer Angel. I had never tried it in a non-Stoneforge Mystic deck before, but it had what seemed at the initial brewing stages a nice synergy with Puresteel Paladin while also being able to stand on its own more than the other living weapons; ultimately, Batterskull has been good. I kind of want more copies, but it is expensive, and I already have Sun Titan. The other two come in against any beatdown, and I will chop two Sun Titans against RDW when I make that swap.
Sadly, this is the card that glues it all together. Flayer Husk is your only one-mana beatdown (as I cut the Duelists from Caleb’s list), and it is the fastest card you can use to set up big Paladin card advantage. As we will see later, Flayer Husk is a highly skill-intensive card in this deck, in terms of when to play it, and when to equip with it (I was pretty surprised at the second, especially).
I loved it alongside Pilgrim’s Eye before; I love it differently now. Short story: not enough Magicians are gaming with Spellskite. In the absence of an opposing Spellskite, Mortarpod is obviously super-duper with Paladin: a draw, a guy, a wellspring of shenanigans for the future (though sorely missing good buddy Sylvok Lifestaff there).
These are both more and less than lands 24-25 in this deck. Important tools to get the jump on some enemies, you can also get stuck, either with both or with a no-longer-active Opal (typically thanks to a removal spell). Mox Opal is also less synergistic than it was in the U/W Equipster with no Trinket Mage setup. What its presence does, though, is force us to once again play with…
The mana jump from three to the rest of the deck just wouldn’t work without this workhorse. Hate it all you might; we need it to get to Sun Titan land or even operating mana for our Swords.
This 0/4 has gone on quite a trip over the last month. Ignored. Wildly successful. Overrated and over-priced… And that was just over two weeks!
Then awesome with TwinBlade.
Then the lone messiah after the forced retirement of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Can it be that Spellskite is the best creature in Standard?
I mean: probably not. But its level of under-played-ness is “quite a bit” under.
I just never changed the Sword configuration. There are actually times you want Body and Mind, but you can’t do anything to lace those times up with reality. It’s probable that should just be another Feast and Famine, therefore, which would also free up a sideboard slot, Body and Mind being the most commonly sided-our slot.
I am fine with two. I seem to mise it when it would be good but never really miss it. These are just a less swingy Dismember in a sense; you would be surprised how often it is a stretch to turn one on.
Puresteel Paladin, Sun Titan
Neither of these guys is going anywhere. Puresteel Paladin is the reason we made this deck, the Ace. Sun Titan is the hammer blow that breaks the last link, the Closer. Active Sun Titan outclasses anyone short of Karnataka Liberated, and Sun Titan keeping Spellskite in play just makes for a happier, long-lived Sun Titan.
I have played every card in the sideboard and found them all to be productive and / or useful. Max Batterskulls lower our curve and clog up the Red Zone against Red; just watch out for Flame Slash. You want all your Titans in against a slower, grindier beats opponent like Black, though.
Divine Offering is a card I had more of.
Because they are reasonably expensive for Equipment, plus aren’t living weapons, the Swords typically only come in when you take out different Swords (out Body and Mind + Feast and Famine, in War and Peace versus Red for example). We can get one slot out of shaving the Body and Mind from the main, but there is an overall miss on this sideboard, specifically the area of U/W.
Other cards I have warmed to but didn’t try myself initially:
Initial results have been very good. Of the decks you see on MTGO during this Pre-M12 Limbo, it seems to match up well.
The most common enemy is B/U Control in its various variations. I was surprised at how reliable the deck has been there (especially given “the bad matchup,” which we’ll get to in a bit). I think it is because B/U Control is typically a one-for-one answer deck, and this deck is absurdly difficult to beat on an attrition basis. Not only do you have the pure card advantage creatures and living weapon bonuses, the ability to play and stickâ€”and then stick them withâ€”a Sword of Feast and Famine just lets you Trish out an extra card here and again, even in the face of Black Sun’s Zenith.
Inkmoth Nexus is really shiny there. B/U Control seems to be defaulting to Go for the Throat, meaning if they don’t have an untapped Tectonic Edge, even in this era of rampant Dismembers, your Nexus (often equipped) will get in.
Beyond B/U Control, the next most common opponents were Mono-Red and/or Mono-Black beatdown decks. These could range from Vampires to Swamps-intensive decks paying off with Lashwrithe or Phyrexian Obliterator.
Even when it required some kind of crazy “hang on at one life while staring down an Obliterator” fingernail-tearing-to-hold-on-for-dear-gravity-defiance… The deck has performed so far. For the most part, these kinds of decks operate on a very simple axis of one-for-one removal and an unambiguous way to damage you to death. The Mono-White deck has been superb when faced with the challenge of any kind of attrition. There are ten living weapons in this deck willing to give up their 0/0 lives while leaving behind some productive remnant for the future. As has been said already, everybody elseâ€”Pilgrim’s Eye to Sun Titanâ€”is mostly on the same progressive card advantage train, with the exception of Puresteel Paladin himself (who transcends progressive card advantage and is in fact a one-Paladin card-drawing engine).
So basically, they grind and grind and still you have something left in the tank.
Often, that something is Spellskite!
Spellskite being of course a superb blocker and Swordsman, as well as a two-life insurance policy against the worst thing that can possibly happenâ€”being of course a messily littered copy of Shrine of Burning Rage.
So what happens in these matchups is that if you live, if you can execute with one dude (often hopefully a flier, whether Poisonous or Pilgrim-ous), you can break the opponent’s economics on some vector. So if it’s cards, as Mono-Black often tries to grind with its Gatekeeper of Malakir and Sign in Blood, you can win back with Sword of Feast and Famine and equalize the battlefield while figuring out the next thing to do. Redâ€”bursting and overflowing with removal appropriate for small dudes and living weaponsâ€”can be tricky, but not once you have Sword of War and Peace on one of your misers with a card or two in grip. Again, you just pick the vector the opponent is following (probably life total) and ruin what they’ve done with one or two swings. In the world of no-Trinket Mage-for-Sylvok Lifestaff, you often have to lean a bit on Sword of War and Peace even against the Black decks, at least in Game One, to stay alive before you can take over with your Sun Titans or other lockdown defenders.
Another deck that people love to play is U/G Poison. I would say that Poison is this deck’s bestest matchup. I don’t know if they can beat a Spellskite in play (you can redirect any and all Distortion Strikes and Mutagenic Growths while blocking their otherwise modest 1/1 creatures all day), and they are actually horrendous against a Mortarpod. This is a matchup where you are actually happy to play an attrition / elimination / trading game against them… Because unless they can cross-strata your over the top with a hella fast offensive game, their deck is basically creatures that even a living weapon can trade with, with no clear path to winning a card advantage-based game. I love Love LOVE battling Poison, as should probably be obvious.
Here is the worst matchup: U/W Control.
This is a stark contrast to the B/U Control fights various. I’ve beaten Tezzeret decks by moving Tumble Magnet activations to Spellskite while braining them repeatedly with a Sword of Feast and Famine-decorated Pilgrim’s Eye, holding off Wurmcoil Engine with Mortarpod, or switching entirely to Inkmoth Nexus and crossing my fingers. U/W Control doesn’t play like that.
Instead of giving you clear opportunities to get the better of them on some basis (cards or mana typically), when U/W Control wants to frolic, they are over the top. Part of the problem is that the early offense of this deck is basically a Flayer Husk, so if you are going to go, you have to commit lots of cards… Straight into Day of Judgment. Or, you are trying to kill Jace Beleren with some 1/1 and 0/1 living weapons, and all of a sudden papa Gideon shows up to protect his little bro. Meanwhile there are these stupid 0/4 Walls jumping in front of your even more stupid 1/1 or 2/2 guys.
Really, it’s just humiliating, and I am not sure how to deal with this one.
When it was the truer MWC with lots of big sweep and more mana, I would have relied on Sun Titans long and either Elspeth Tirel or All Is Dust (or an Eldrazi) as the equalizer. The Sun Titan plan is less reliable nowadays because the U/W deck isn’t playing a strategy that (comically or no) can’t get past a Pilgrim’s Eye and a Mortarpod. They have real card advantage in Wall of Omens and Jace Beleren; you have a woeful early offense by comparison, and their finishers are more substantial (Gideon, Venser, fat men).
So yeah, they are also Edging the bejeezus out of your Emeria, the Sky Ruin!
It’s possible we can go with a semi-transformative sideboard, bringing in the elements of MWC, but none of that seems perfect here. The Elspeth plan simply won’t work. You are going to leave behind an awful lot of unhappy living weapons while killing your own Paladins. The All Is Dust / Eldrazi plan is imperfect as well… This version doesn’t have the Eldrazi Temple mana base or early game slowdown defense to get that end game online.
Not really sure how to solve this one; it’s not that a successful transformation can’t be accomplished, but that you actually use a lot of this deck’s sideboard, and the main deck is so entrenched in a theme of living weapons and Paladin enabling that it is a clunky project at best that may end up sacrificing more than it accomplishes. In any case I find it odd that U/W gets so much slower / worse, we actually close the gap on the “I am just a version of the same deck as you but with no Jace” problem plus get a legitimate card drawing machine in Puresteel Paladin… and the colors-clashing goes from very good to very bad.
Just something to think about in an overall environment of friendly fights.
Let’s end on some strategy, tactics, and operations that you might not have seen:
Sad as it might sound, the most difficult decision you will have to make is probably around whether to play or hold a first-turn Flayer Husk. If you are the beatdown, you usually have to drop it. Much of the time it is better off as a third-turn helper for Puresteel Paladin.
Areas of concern:
How many Husks and / or Paladins do I have?
Who went first / what information do I have?
If he is Black, is he going to just Inquisition my Paladin anyway?
Playing the Paladin is much more strategic and less situational. The short answer is “don’t.” Unless I have two Puresteel Paladins or am tight on mana, I will usually hold a Paladin for a turn three combo with Flayer Husk unless my opponent opened on Forest or white mana. If he is U/W, you need to play faster than, or around, Mana Leak; otherwise I won’t tend to expose the Paladin to red or black without either Spellskite mana or an open to eke out a card. Puresteel Paladin is powerful, but exceedingly fragile, and you need to respect that or you will not get the maximum value in cards.
For example, it is often productive to play out some artifacts, activate Inkmoth Nexus, and play Paladin with metalcraft just to equip a bunch of Swords onto the land without any additional mana commitment. You get in a ton of poison and typically some bonus value in cards, even if you didn’t actually draw extra. Even if the opponent deals with the Paladin, he is often way behind after such a swing, or you get a second “turn” of mana for a burst of card draw anyway.
One last play, and it isn’t obvious, but has become my favorite. The most common implementation is turn-three Pilgrim’s Eye into turn-four five mana by using a held Mox Opal. This play usually gets set up by an opponent’s Gatekeeper of Malakir for your living weapon or Jace Beleren tap out. Now you have five metalcraft mana assuming any other artifact… Say the Sword of Feast and Famine you just played. Two left with the Mox. Equip! Ka-pow!
There are dozens of variations on this, but Pilgrim’s Eye + Mox Opal + any Sword requires no additional setup. It is very much reminiscent of the Caw-Blade dream turn four, only we can’t follow up with Jace :)
Honestly, surprisingly, a very good deck; though I am still not sure about that U/W issue. Any ideas?