State Championships hit the U.S. in a little less than one month. Very surprisingly, Time Spiral has re-ignited some dormant flame inside me, and inspired me to do some small amount of Constructed testing since the prerelease. I know, I know: you are surprised, too.
Beckett Magazine columnist Mark Young (a.k.a. mmyoung) came up to visit New York this past week to play in the endless Neutral Ground prerelease events, and stay for the week’s nigh daily Top8Magic.com Podcast* recording sessions. He would be an example of someone who was surprised, later telling me that he didn’t understand why I thought team drafting was some kind of minor annoyance at a prerelease, which was simply disturbing the playtest session** I was just getting comfortable in.
Newsflash: Some of the initial decks I was working on, such as Smallpox / Rack, suck. Try Osyp’s (I hadn’t tried Snow)… Not posting mine. Other ideas were solid, but I got the "Nobody will play G/R Snow but you, Mike!" from mmyoung. What is important at the early stages is fleshing out a reasonable set of playtest decks. The good decks all come out of playing against stock decks, and either figuring out a way to make the best stock deck win the mirror (and thereby steal value); or by conjuring a rogue deck that somehow beats all the stock decks (last year both the Critical Mass Update and Jushi Blue beat Boros, White Weenie, Gifts, and Heartbeat, which was why I recommended them, with Jushi Blue beating Critical Mass, which was why I switched out of my favorite Block deck); or, when you don’t really know what’s what, playing the tightest and most powerful deck available (which is what we did for Honolulu).
Usually I try to wait until other people have posted their stock lists so as to minimize the number of variables that I am personally rubbing my filthy hands and greasy fingernails on, but this year I looked at some of the articles so far and decided that I would start building my own gauntlet for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there are a lot of decks these days, and the decks don’t get tested unless you start early. On balance, I tested against three decks (seriously tested, that is) for States last year. Three. Second, most of the lists I’ve been able to cobble seem unfocused and generally horrendous, so when whatever wonky deck I built beat one up, I would end up working from horrendous data. Third, this time I have Billy Moreno one seat over.
Last night I wanted to run an exercise, so I gave Billy and Sean McKeown pen and paper. Sean declined for I don’t know why (eating Chicken McNuggets maybe?), but Billy was game. We each started to write out a Netherlands-style stock U/G beatdown list for playtesting, after discussing a minimum of shared ideas (I did not want to pollute Billy with my efficient ideas or unduly influence myself with Billy’s savant-like proclamations). Predictably, I cheated and looked at Billy’s paper about six spells in and decided we were going to make the same deck anyway, so we might as well make it correctly.
I am not sure if this is going to be the final product, or the best version of U/G beatdown, but it is a reasonable start for the gauntlet period:
At various stages I had Dryad Sophisticate, Silhana Ledgewalker, and other evasive two-drops. However it seemed clear very quickly that Looter Il-Kor is the proper first string offensive two-drop for this archetype. He is more evasive than either of the aforementioned evaders, and has an actual effect when he connects. While he lacks the Dryad’s second point of power or the Ledgewalker’s unique inducement, Looter Il-Kor can lean on the next card while selecting or setting up subtle card advantage at one or four points per turn.
The surprise of Netherlands Nationals seems like a fine drop in this deck. I was a bit concerned about the overall lack of power, but with Plaxmanta, the deck should be able to hold any lead it can generate.
I actually spent quite some time thinking about the proper secondary counter, and decided on Spell Snare. Billy had the very good suggestion of Voidslime; Voidslime is strong in the format because it can stop the better part of a Dragonstorm and surprise! break up combination decks (I told you he was a savant). However, based on the mana, I think Voidslime is a four-of sideboard card rather than a two-of maindeck card. You see, this deck is keyed on Mowshowitz mana, meaning that its natural tendency is to open on Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves, then immediately go for Call of the Herd, Ohran Viper, or Trygon Predator as an accelerated two-drop. Because the deck has real two-drops like Looter Il-Kor and Plaxmanta, it will sometimes have stray mana that is not good for anything: Spell Snare fills the mana hole on turn 2 and is convenient later (as well as on the draw). When it came to cuts, I was fine with Spell Snare because the former best card in Standard was frankly under-performing in our Whisper Control versus Zoo testing.
Call of the Herd
The topic for discussion last night was "Which has won more money, Call of the Herd or Ninja of the Deep Hours?" I was shocked to realize that the premiere Call of the Herd deck was not some great G/R deck but the Walamies Dumbo Drop from Kai’s Donate Extended! Oddly, Call of the Herd just seems like it was in My Fires, ABU G/R, and those great decks and it was actually released a year later, largely overshadowed by Wild Mongrel and Roar of the Wurm. Call still won more money, we assume, but the method by which it won was still a splash of cold water. What this means to say is that Call of the Herd takes the Ninja of the Deep Hours spot; that is, it is the drop that immediately follows Birds of Paradise on turn 1, whose job it is to net card advantage. This card is probably only slightly worse than Ninja of the Deep Hours against control, but it is vastly superior against beatdown.
I decided to play four because of Looter Il-Kor and Ohran Viper. Who blocks?
Cards that we are considering include Might of Old Krosa (one mana for four damage!), Stonewood Invocation (which might in fact be the centerpiece of the first viable Standard mono-Green beatdown deck in some years, a different and differently-abled beatdown deck), and Thelonite Hermit as a Meloku proxy.
Likely sideboard cards:
2 Spell Snare
4 Trygon Predator
1 Gather Courage
Past all the theory that went into this playtest deck, neither Billy nor I was particularly enthused by the prospect of actually playing the / a U/G beatdown deck (and this is coming from the creators of MadTog2020 and Critical Mass). U/G seems like a deck that SHOULD be tested because it seems pretty popular, had a great weekend in the second most difficult Nationals, and can probably beat anything between the Vipers, Cloaks, and counters. That said, U/G doesn’t seem like it has a decided advantage against anything at this stage. I’d be worried about the big creatures in some versions of Zoo and Gruul, not to mention the elimination spells… And with Elephants instead of Deep Hours, I’d rather play against one of those decks than Control.
Assault / Battery
Billy recently called this "the perfect Flores card," and its inclusion may be an ultimately unacceptable eccentricity on my part for a playtest deck. I realize the Red side is worse than Seal of Fire and worse than Shock, and the other side is significantly worse than Call of the Herd… But that is almost why Assault / Battery makes for a solid Zoo card. I like how when you’re in topdeck mode, this can give you a 3/3 or it can kill some blocker.
Might of Old Krosa
This is a new addition that I want to try. It seems like this is another awesome card in the flavor of Assault / Battery. On offense, this is 80% of a Stonewood Invocation; and on defense, it’s basically a Counterspell, both for one mana. I have a feeling this card could be Staple in Zoo.
Magus of the Scroll
This fellow seems like a solid addition. We haven’t tested any Zoo-on-men, only Zoo-on-control. He is not very big but has still contributed to some wins.
Tin Street Hooligan
The previous test version had four Scab-Clan Maulers and two Tin Street Hooligans, but decks with The Rack are showing up in our playtest, so I figured I’d mix up the numbers. Billy hates Scab-Clan Mauler, and between his finish in Honolulu (screwed out of Top 8) and Craig Jones (topdeck the Lightning Helix), he is the authority on Zoo as far as I’m concerned.
We started with two, but multiples were awful. With one you’re just a miser, provided you mise. I’d guess this card disappears altogether at some point because the Zoo has almost no colorless costs, making the Unluckyman’s Paradise blank much of the time… but also broken much of the time. You can make a case for the two-for-one Strip Mine with tempo, obviously.
Right now this only pumps up Magus of the Scroll or a poorly executed Kird Ape, but it still seems like a solid, especially when you can manascrew someone with a 2/3 and a 3/3 in play. I’ve first picked Pendelhaven in draft and not regretted it.
One card I would like to fit is Flagstones of Trokair, but it seems like I could only cut Gemstone Caverns for it. This card is not that great on the mana, but it doubles as a terrible Windswept Heath against Smallpox and is randomly useful against other aggressive White decks. If Pox is big, this might just be a straight up swap for Unluckyman’s.
One thing to note is that I deliberately made this deck to dodge Spell Snare. I usually play a lot of Volcanic Hammers and more two-drops like Ronom Unicorn, but avoiding the two mana cards has won this version of Zoo some games against control. It’s not that Spell Snare is bad… it just ceases to be the best card in any given beatdown matchup by a long shot, and you get stuck with these Spell Snares in your hand… Meanwhile you’re getting killed by Magus of the Scroll showing Char and can’t so much as answer a pathetic Seal of Fire.
Nevertheless, present statistics have Zoo a bit behind Whispers Control, and solidly ahead of Smallpox.
Rakdos was one of the most successful individual decks of Pro Tour: Charleston, and Satanic Sligh / Sand Burn is one of the most popular decks online today. Key losses include Genju of the Spires, but on the other hand, the deck gets Shadow Guildmage.
You can branch for Blue mana and try to play Guildmage tricks and Rise out of the sideboard, but I decided to focus on a burn-based offense here; maindeck Rise / Fall and Giant Solifuge might be better than the Rakdos Guildmage plus Fiery Temper combo… I just wanted to go for a lot of burn cards and reliably cast them. Don’t forget that, Red activation cost or no, Shadow Guildmage shoots down Soltari Priest!
This sets up Hellbent, generates card advantage, and puts the opponent on the clock, if a slow one. At one point I thought I could loop Giant Solifuge with the Blue side, but… no more Steam Vents in this deck.
Three mana burn spells that deal three are fine. They aren’t overly exciting, but we are happy to run Urza’s Rage and Arc Lightning depending on the metagame. In this deck, you can get off Fiery Temper with Madness (off the Rakdos Guildmage), which might be too expensive… This seems like a worthy card to test out even if it does not make the final cut.
A note on the mana: the deck is overwhelmingly Red but you need to respect the fact that all your early game guys cost Black, which is why the basics are not more widely imbalanced.
The only card my Snow Burn deck loses in the transition to Time Spiral is Sensei’s Divining Top.
I’d probably start by changing the Cryoclasms for Avalanche Riders, play a second Stalking Yeti, a twenty-fifth land, two Volcanic Hammers for the Tops, and go from there (though I don’t know how good B/R Snow can be without Top).
For a more creature-centric look, I’d start with Terry Soh 12-2 list from Charleston and see what was under-performing… It’s possible that the format is going to be kind to Bob flipping Giant Solifuge and Hit / Run, but I don’t know that I’d risk it given some of the alternatives.
- 4 Savannah Lions
- 4 Soltari Priest
- 4 Paladin en-Vec
- 4 Drifter il-Dal
- 4 Knight of the Holy Nimbus
- 3 Serra Avenger
I have heard from multiple sources that this archetype is going to be played. It’s not really my style but I can see – if you buy into the idea that a lot of the other creature decks (Zoo, Rakdos, Skred) are going to be Red, then the concept is reasonable if not overwhelming.
This version, which was designed by New York State Champion Julian Levin, was the first deck that we started testing. Julian had two copies of Unluckyman’s Paradise (Gemstone Caverns) in testing, but he seems to have replaced them with Azorius Chancery. That is odd because Julian was some kind of Gerard Fabiano miser with those Paradises, constantly opening on Knight of the Holy Nimbus. This deck has a surprisingly respectable clock due to evasion and Psionic Blast, or protection plus Unstable Mutation, so I wouldn’t recommend napping or taking it too lightly.
I am not a huge fan of this card because I can imagine many matchups when you are not the beatdown. I also don’t like paying U per turn for some lousy 2/1. I would have to get more recent updates from Julian, but my initial guess is that this will not make the cut, even if the deck does. Might I suggest Azorius Guildmage?
Did I mention mise?
Just to make sure we didn’t forget that Remand is the best two mana Blue spell in Standard, they made sure to print an otherwise broken cycle of Suspend cards.
This card is a beating on the evaders, largely because of the Chars.
Knight of the Holy Nimbus
It is really difficult for any creature deck to beat this version of Char Weenie if it draws multiple copies. It’s not so much that they can’t kill the Knight as much as if you draw multiples, it’s like Time Walk.
Julian toggled between three and four copies. Zvi says this is the strongest Constructed card in the set.
An alternate version of evasion plus Char would be a flying Boros, kind of like a hybrid between last Championship Season’s 20/20/20 Budget Boros and the Leonin Skyhunter decks that were played at Champs:
Rift Bolt is a card I am interested in trying because, hey, it’s one mana for three damage sometimes, and it’s a Yamabushi’s Flame otherwise (not great but certainly playable without Kamigawa Dragons in the format). Shock might be better, as might another creature, but at this point we are trying to figure out what’s what.
My suspicion is that, given the theme of this deck, Skyhunter Legionnaire is actually going to be better than Paladin En-Vec. Other possible replacements for the Paladin (or, again, some number of Rift Bolt) are Soltari Priest and Ronom Unicorn. Soltari Priest is probably generally worse than Mistral Charger, both because of Boros Garrison and because sometimes you’ve just got to chump a Dragon; I’d get into all the awesome combats you can win against Moldervine Cloak, but the main reason to run Ronom Unicorn main is going to be Enduring Renewal. If that card is played in a Tier 1 combo deck, then Ronom Unicorn must be played in the main, too.
I conceded the 21st land in this version because, even with Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author], Gemstone Mine is a bit janky, and Gemstone Caverns is just that ugly.
As I usually do – and some say over-do – I am starting on the beatdown decks. For a tournament like States (or international Champs) it seems to me that you don’t want to lose to beatdown, but if beatdown is the best, you want to know why. I’d love to hear what people are thinking of playing at this stage… on boards around the ‘Net I see all kinds of players claiming Zoo and other multicolor aggressive decks… but on the other hand, I have local friends who are all about combo and Whispers of the Muse. What is the target? Who is the enemy?
Probably none of my decks is optimal at present, but they seem like serviceable initial "others" to me. I especially like some of the new early ideas, like Assault / Battery and a de-emphasis on two-mana plays in Zoo, and the Looter Il-Kor plus Spell Snare justification in U/G.
This is generally an "other" decks article, but I thought I’d end on a creature deck that I like quite a bit at this point in testing (it plays my favorite card). For your amusement, and, frankly, awe, here is my LD-free build of KarstenBot BabyKiller:
Osyp gave you an update to the original; For my part, I took my Frank’s land destruction suite out to try some of the new cards, specifically the old cards that I have always liked in G/R decks. This is the quintessential G/R mid-range deck… You might be wondering where Kird Ape is. It’s possible that not playing Kird Ape is wrong, but I don’t think this deck is the beatdown very often. It is all about controlling the board with 187s, drawing up with Scrying Sheets, and winning on a lethal Demonfire. Maybe the reason Jeroen is doing so well with his version online is because KarstenBot BabyKiller, a creature deck with incremental card advantage elements, is in fact The Rock in disguise. The fourth Demonfire, sadly, became the 23d land; with no Sensei’s Divining Top, it was just a reality I had to face. On balance, I think that the lone Arctic Flats is actually pretty sick with Thornscape Battlemage against Signets, The Rack, all of it.
This deck has been all kinds of awesome against decks like Julian’s U/W weenie deck, specifically because Ohran Viper and Call of the Herd are such masters in real-world warfare, while Thornscape Battlemage thinks Soltari Priest is not just cute as a button, but yummy to his tummy. If States were tomorrow, I’d be tempted to play this deck because my limited testing says it’s aces against creatures, consistently hits the Sheets even without Top, and the transformative sideboard should be hell on bad control decks, as with the current Standard.
The one thing that has been annoying thus far has been the inability to get Skred out of my hand for Hellbent Demonfire against Control. You actually have to watch for opportunities to Skred your own creatures, or your endgame may be trumped by a wily foe.
4 Wreak Havoc
2 Avalanche Riders
1 Stalking Yeti
4 Stone Rain
I am presently sick as a dog, but if I don’t cough up a lung or something, I may attend the first of several pre-States mock tournaments, similar to the ones we had last year that solidified Jushi Blue for us at Champs and revealed Chris Pikula‘s Deadguy Ale prior to the Legacy Grand Prix, at Neutral Ground this weekend. If you are interested in trying out the new Standard, rumor has it we start at 1pm on Saturday.
* I never remember to plug this thing. This week we have special guests like Scott McCord and Billy Moreno, and the aforementioned mmyoung; even Jon "I live in Philadelphia" Becker came up to uncoil Time Spiral. Last week was Zvi for all of you Zvi fans who can’t get your fix since he left The Play’s the Thing, along with Teddy Card Game for those of you who haven’t gotten your Teddy Card Game since, um, last week. We run the show every week, and usually have someone fun to talk to, such as Osyp, Steve OMS, or, you know, just BDM and I.
** I passed Firemaw Kavu for Ancestral Visions first pick third pack to BDM but managed the 3-0/6-0 anyway. Chris Pikula would not stop making fun of me. ‘Visions got me some cards all of once, despite being drawn all six games… I had to discard. I would not make this pick again. Who knew 6-12 mana Ancestral Recall was better than 1 mana Ancestral Recall?