Flow Of Ideas – Evil Never Dies: The Return Of Caw-Blade!

Think Caw-Blade is dead? Think again! It managed to pull off a win this past weekend at the SCG Open in Cincinnati. Gavin Verhey takes a look at how the former Standard powerhouse can evolve after the bannings of Jace and Stoneforge Mystic.

It’s the picturesque scene from any horror movie.

The villain is struck down. There’s a gash in his back, a bullet in his chest, and a wrench lodged in his forehead. The celebration music comes on. The characters hug and exchange smiles. You lean back in your chair, satisfied. Then your eyes jolt as bloodcurdling screams cause the camera to pan—a grotesque, mangled body is rising up, shaking off the blow like a bumblebee sting. 

“Is that the best you can do?”

Wizards of the Coast decided to ban Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor for good reason. Both cards loomed over the format with their price and widespread play, causing a drop off in tournament attendance. They were put into every deck they could, and were the backbone of many of those decks. But above all, at the core, the bans were caused by the prevalence of the Caw-Blade archetype.

Well, you can’t keep a good deck down.

First, I have to give credit where credit is due. I first heard about this earlier in the week when Chris Mascioli tweeted about going 4-0 in a Magic Online Daily Event with Caw-Blade. Amused and slightly frightened, I built up my own list before eventually discovering a version Pascal Maynard had used to success.

Since I had some games of my own under my belt and a different launching point, there were some things I liked and disliked about his list. I played some more games tweaked both to end up with what you see above.

Now, don’t go screaming in horror and selling off all of your freshly bought Standard cards just yet. This isn’t old Caw-Blade. It’s not going to oppress the format into a dystopia and render every new deck you build laughable.

At the same time, don’t dismiss it as simply a husk of a former deck. Instead, I like to think of it as the power level Caw-Blade should have been at all along: very good.

Really, this deck is more in the vein of the Caw-Go strategy we saw players like Brian Kibler and Brad Nelson use at Worlds last year. However, it does have some more modern additions—most notably, Sword of Feast and Famine.

It turns out, you can still just cast a Sword naturally without Stoneforge Mystic and go in hacking with it. I won plenty of Caw-Blade games without ever drawing Stoneforge Mystic, and often a hardcast Sword was the real key to success in winning those. When you cast Stoneforge Mystic, your opponent could set up to protect themselves from the Sword blow. However, if you’re not prepared to be hit by a Sword of Feast and Famine, it can completely demolish you both on tempo and on cards.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go through the deck piece by piece.

The Mana Base

This mana base takes a significant turn from traditional Caw-Blade mana bases. Sure, the heralds of the U/W archetype are there—Seachrome Coast, Glacial Fortress, and Celestial Colonnade—but to those familiar with the archetype there’s a notably different piece: Tectonic Edge.

Tectonic Edge used to be one of the most fundamentally important cards in the deck. You would cut opposing decks off of their mana while conveniently needing very little to operate yourself. However, two fundamental aspects of the deck have changed.

First of all, you no longer have Stoneforge Mystic. Mystic is one of the ways you managed to squeak advantage out of Tectonic Edge. If you played a turn two Mystic and it survived, you really only needed two mana to operate. You could afford to Tectonic Edge down your opponents and trade off lands because you were getting ahead.

Now that’s no longer the case. This deck is even mana hungrier than before, and often the only times you have to throw lands away are when you’re already winning.  

Second, Tectonic Edge’s stock in the format decreased. Instead of numerous Caw-Blade mirrors, where the card was crucial, you have decks like Mono Red, Tempered Steel, Vampires, Splinter Twin, U/B Control, and Valakut to concern yourself with. Out of all those matchups, in only two—Valakut and U/B Control—does Tectonic Edge really shine. While that may be good enough on the surface, it’s competing with another very good colorless land: Inkmoth Nexus.

While Tectonic Edge’s stock dropped, Inkmoth Nexus’s stock rose. Caw-Blade has fewer creatures now and yet is forced to play more Swords, meaning that you need all of the extra bodies you can find. The other big factor stopping you from playing a lot of colorless lands is that you desperately need as many fetchlands as you can fit for Emeria Angel.

I ended up with a single Tectonic Edge because I wanted a 27th land and felt okay on my colors. It could easily just be a Terramorphic Expanse or even another Zendikar fetchland if you don’t feel the fear of running out of basic lands to fetch in the long game. Triggering Emeria Angel twice off one land is very important in this deck, and I would recommend playing as many fetchlands as you feel comfortable with relative to basic land count.

The Creatures

The creatures in this deck are fairly straightforward. I’m sure you realize the upside of Squadron Hawk and Emeria Angel, but perhaps more importantly I should explain why these are the cards for this deck.

The creatures of this deck need to serve two fundamental functions. The first is to make sure you don’t die. There are a lot of good aggressive creatures in this format, and early protection is important. Squadron Hawk and Emeria Angel accomplish these goals fairly well, albeit not perfectly. Overall though, they certainly help you buy time until you can begin to control the board.

The second function is that you need to have multiple creatures around to make your equipment good. It’s no use if you trade off all of your creatures and are left with equipment as dead draws. Squadron Hawk and Emeria Angel accomplish this admirably by giving you plenty of extra bodies. Some decks just cannot effectively race an Emeria Angel.

On that note, it’s worth pointing out that what pushes Emeria Angel ahead of cards like Hero of Bladehold is that, besides evasion, you get value out of her even if they have the removal spell. I highly recommend playing Emeria Angel like a five drop, laying her on the fifth turn and then immediately laying your land to ensure you pick up a token out of the deal.

Also noteworthy is what’s absent. A single big creature like Sun Titan or Consecrated Sphinx were both options I considered, and are definitely cards to keep in mind. Out of the two, I would likely steer toward the Sphinx due to its evasion and because the main card I want to return with Sun Titan is Jace Beleren, which Sphinx outperforms. I haven’t felt the need for a large creature so far—Hawk, Angel, and Nexus have done a good job closing games—but I certainly couldn’t fault you for wanting to have a fat creature to end the game with.

The Spells 

The core of this deck is its spells. An important distinction to make before going over these is that this deck isn’t just old Caw-Blade. You can’t just throw in some Jace Belerens and up the Feast and Famine count and call it a day. The deck plays out a little differently, so keep that in mind.

One of the big areas where this applies is the countermagic suite. It used to be that you wanted games to go turn two Stoneforge Mystic, turn three play Mystic and hold Spell Pierce mana up. That’s no longer the case.

The situation is also different from the old Brian Kibler Caw-Go deck because of metagame considerations. While Kibler opted for the full four Spell Pierce at Worlds, keep in mind that some of the big decks players expected were Valakut, U/B Control, U/W Control. Yes, decks like Vampires did exist, but the beatdown decks were outnumbered by the number of control decks.

Another big change is that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is no longer legal. Having Pierce to ensure you win the Big Jace war isn’t a concern anymore. While Pierce does help you protect your planeswalkers by getting to planeswalker plus one mana and then casting it with Pierce up, the early post-M12 field is looking to be so aggressive that I don’t want to draw a bunch of Spell Pierces and roll over.

As a result, note the full set of Mana Leaks with only a single Pierce. The Pierce could be a Deprive instead, especially if you expect a lot of Primeval Titans in your local metagame. On the other hand, if you expect to play against mostly Splinter Twin and U/B, you may want to find room for more Pierces.

As far as the planeswalkers go, let’s first talk about Jace Beleren. It’s very, very important to note that he’s not just a Mind Sculptor swap. Beleren serves a different role than his Mind Sculpting alter ego.

With the Mind Sculptor’s popularity, I have a feeling that properly using Jace Beleren is a lost art many will have to relearn. While the intricacies of Jace Beleren are very dependant on the board state, but there are a couple of details I can provide that should help him to be played optimally.

First of all, on an empty board, and especially against control decks, protect Jace as much as you reasonably can. In any kind of control mirror, he will win you the game if left unchecked. Against beatdown, he will both become a focus of the opponent, causing them to expend resources, and pull you ahead into a winning position. Don’t just throw your Jace away.

That brings me to my second point. Don’t be afraid to immediately +2 Jace! A lot of people just try and use Jace in the way that makes most sense: -1, -1, +2, repeat. This way, you’re getting three cards to their one. Against control, this is often the best way to use it—but surprisingly, that’s not true against beatdown.

Even though I am technically down on cards in the short term, playing Jace and going +2 can be a strong long-term play. Either my beatdown opponent has to expend a turn and/or resources dealing with Jace, or I can proceed with drawing several cards a turn. A three mana Renewed Faith can be okay, but played optimally Jace can do so much better.

Finally, there is a time to be aggressive with Jace Beleren and a time to hold him. You have to assess the board state and your long-term plan. If you need to dig and buy time, playing him against beatdown is reasonable. If you are going to have some blockers in just a few turns, then try and hold off your opponent and cast Jace afterward where the stream of cards will lock up the game.

Against control, I usually try to slip Jace through whenever possible and then ride the cards to victory. Sometimes, you can just go for it turn three. It all depends on how the game has progressed so far.

Unlike Jace Beleren, I think many of you are still familiar with Gideon Jura. The freshly reprinted planeswalker is still incredibly powerful, and can dominate entire matchups. He’s a planeswalker you can ride to victory and is insanely good against anything aggressive. While there are matchups where he’s not great (Splinter Twin, for example) he’s so good in the matchups I want him in that I have no reservations about playing three.

Sword of Feast and Famine was usually seen as a card you would search up with Stoneforge Mystic. With the banning of Mystic, you’re going to have to naturally draw your Sword. Fortunately, with three that should happen often enough.

While you do want to see one in pretty much every game, you can’t afford to play four copies or you risk too many opening hands that contain two or even three Swords in them. The deck is certainly set up to win without Sword, so they aren’t integral, but with three you will find one often enough that you can put it to good use.

Oblivion Ring is a wonderful all-purpose card to have access to. While I briefly tried a split with Journey to Nowhere just for mana cost considerations, I ended up back at all Oblivion Rings despite the fact that it’s worse against beatdown. Being able to deal with planeswalkers, Tempered Steel, Manabarbs, proliferating Everflowing Chalices, and even opposing Oblivion Rings is just too much flexibility to pass up.  

Into the Roil is similarly a flexible card that is never the best card in any deck, but is reasonable against most decks. I wanted some bounce and an instant speed trick, and Into the Roil was just what I was looking for. These are certainly slots you can play with, but they can help you win planeswalker wars, reset either player’s Oblivion Rings, buy you some time in combat, and so on. These could maybe be Journey to Nowhere instead, but I really want to be able to fight a broad permanent range in this new format.

Dismember is a card I put into practically every deck, and it’s no different here. Only two copies maindeck because you can’t afford to draw two in some matchups.

Finally, I want to talk about the Day of Judgment. Really, the maindeck Day of Judgment came from playing around with Gravitational Shift. The odd Rise of the Eldrazi enchantment was in Maynard’s list, and I was initially excited by it. I wanted them to be good. 

However, after playing with Shift, I found it fairly underwhelming. It was clever, but not necessarily good. First of all, it was an additional dead card in several matchups that was just worse on pure power than something like, say, Gideon Jura.

While it does theoretically shut off the Deceiver Exarch combo, I’m pretty sure that if you resolve a five mana sorcery and they don’t have an Into the Roil or the time to find one that you’re likely to win regardless. You can only play so many slow cards like this, and I would much rather have more Swords.

The one thing I did like about Shift was how it helped against beatdown. It wasn’t perfect, and occasionally they would have fliers of their own, but it was pretty good. Eventually, I realized that I just wanted Day of Judgment to wipe the board. Having access to a full set after sideboarding really helps against decks like Tempered Steel, for example. Just be careful to not accidently throw away any creatures you don’t have to and you’ll be fine.

The Sideboard

Most of the cards in this sideboard are tried and true, so I won’t rehash them too much. Flashfreeze is clearly good against Valakut, Day of Judgment is an excellent sweeper against decks like Tempered Steel and assorted other decks like Elves, the fourth Jace Beleren is for control and combo matchups, and Spellskite is good against Splinter Twin while simultaneously solid against beatdown decks.

Two cards which may need a little more explanation are the Spell Pierce and Timely Reinforcements.

First, there’s a second Pierce simply because it’s an effective counterspell in the slower matchups where I do want one. If there are a lot of those decks in your metagame, you could consider maindecking more or sideboarding another. More interesting, though, is the full set of Timely Reinforcements.

So far, I have been extraordinarily impressed by the fresh M12 uncommon. 6 life is a reasonable amount. Three guys can do a lot of blocking. All in all, the card is likely worth 12-14 life against beatdown.

But it’s far more than pure life gain. Creating guys that can trade with an attacker is a huge deal. Instead of merely gaining you life and chump blockers, it will often trade for at least one of their creatures plus give you all of that life as a bonus. To top it all off, it generates guys that can even pick up equipment in the matchups you leave your Equipment in. Timely Reinforcements is insane against decks like Red and Vampires, and I expect it to quickly find its way into sideboards everywhere.

It is worth clarifying that Timely Reinforcements is significantly less impressive against decks like Tempered Steel. Against Red and Vampires you can profitably block their guys and the life boost sets them back quite a bit. Against Tempered Steel, it’s much harder to set up a good block and their deck is designed to push through a lot of damage quickly.  You can’t just bring it in against every beatdown deck, but it’s insane against the decks it’s good against.

Finally, I just want to note that if you’re looking for other sideboard options, Condemn, Celestial Purge, Oust, Divine Offering, Kor Sanctifiers, Journey to Nowhere, Tectonic Edge, Into the Roil, Mental Misstep, Gravitational Shift, Jace, Memory Adept, and Spreading Seas are all cards worth considering.

Sideboarding Guide

Mono Red

-4 Mana Leak, -3 Sword of Feast and Famine, -2 Dismember, -1 Spell Pierce
+4 Timely Reinforcements, +3 Spellskite, +2 Day of Judgment, +1 Flashfreeze

This matchup is fairly close. It favors them in the first game if you don’t survive to lay Gideon, but after sideboarding Timely Reinforcements is absolutely insane and buys you tons of time. I recommend drawing as many as possible

Not taking out the third Jace and bringing in the Days depends on what style of red deck they are. If they’re burn heavy, then Day is less good and you may want some more countermagic. If you’re planning to contain their creatures, then Day and Jace are great.

U/B Control

-2 Dismember
+1 Jace Beleren, +1 Spell Pierce

This matchup favors you as long as they don’t draw a ton of discard. If they pick apart your hand and stick a Jace, you’re going to find yourself in rough waters. Otherwise, you’re highly favored. Hawks and Swords are incredible here. Leaving in the one Day is okay because, while you can’t afford to draw two, having one for Grave Titan in the late game is surprisingly relevant.

R/G Valakut

-3 Gideon Jura, -2 Into the Roil, -2 Dismember,
+3 Flashfreeze, +2 Day of Judgment, +1 Jace Beleren, +1 Spell Pierce

This matchup plays out similar to like it always has. It is in your favor, though it can be very scary at times. Counter as many of their spells as possible, and if ever they manage to land a Titan clear the board immediately. If they have creature ramp like Overgrown Battlement, Lotus Cobra, or Joraga Treespeaker, leave Dismember in.

My two largest pieces of advice for this matchup: never give them cards with Jace and connect with a Sword of Feast and Famine whenever possible.

Splinter Twin

-3 Gideon Jura, -3 Oblivion Ring, -1 Day of Judgment
+3 Spellskite, +2 Flashfreeze, +1 Jace Beleren, +1 Spell Pierce

This matchup is fairly draw dependent. You have a ton of live draws and cards that are effective versus Twin. However, they have tons of time to build up and, while connecting with Feast and Famine is very powerful, it’s difficult to do here. They are advantaged over you in general, but part of who wins depends in which cards you each draw and which plan you end up going on, especially after sideboarding. 

Flashfreeze isn’t great in this matchup, but it’s better than what you have to take out. If Twin is popular in your metagame, you may want to sideboard the third Dismember and the fourth Spellskite, in which case you wouldn’t have to board in Freeze.

Tempered Steel

-3 Sword of Feast and Famine, -1 Spell Pierce
+3 Day of Judgment, +1 Spellskite

Tempered Steel has been one of the best, if not the best performing deck for me right now. In my gauntlet, few decks were beating it until they were tuned for it. I imagine once people start playing the tools to play the deck, they will find the matchup a little hard. And indeed, game one of this matchup can be a little rough.

However, the full set of Day of Judgments after sideboarding helps makes the matchup much better. You do have to be concerned about Shrine of Loyal Legions, but between Into the Roil and Oblivion Ring you should be able to manage it okay.   


-4 Mana Leak, -2 Into the Roil, -2 Sword of Feast and Famine, -1 Spell Pierce,
+4 Timely Reinforcements, +3 Day of Judgment, +2 Spellskite

This matchup is very favorable. Between Timely Reinforcements, a full set of sweepers, pinpoint exiling removal, and Gideon, vampires is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time.

A few specific notes for this matchup. If you think they may have Manabarbs, leave in Into the Roil or some countermagic. Sword of Feast and Famine is good, but it’s just a matter of too many great cards to bring in. If you change around the sideboard, I would try to leave at least 2 in if possible.  However, as-is, there’s no real good card to cut unless you don’t want to bring in Spellskites. Jace Beleren is pretty solid on the heavy removal and Timely Reinforcements plan, so that’s not an option to shave any of either. (Though I don’t think you want to board in the fourth.)

The End…?

Caw-Blade may not be the deck it once was, but it certainly still has the tools to fight in this format. It may still even be one of the best decks in the format. Once you guys start working on it—well, who knows what we might come up with.

Hopefully now you have some insight into this revised version of an old villain. If you have tried this or a similar deck out yourself or just have some thoughts, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below, send me a tweet, or e-mail be at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.

Additionally, I’ll also be at my hometown StarCityGames.com Open event this weekend in Seattle. If you’re there and have any last minute questions, feel free to catch up with me then. Either way, I hope to talk with you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Rabon on Magic Online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter