The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Last night long-time friend and one-time apprentice Josh Ravitz and Yours Truly got in an extended fight. This fight was long and sometimes brutal, starting on AIM at about 9pm, and it didn’t end until YT shut off Magic Online and huffed to bed at maybe half past midnight. Harsh words were spoken, things like "this deck sucks," the dreaded "you’ve got to play tighter," or more specifically "congratulations, you’ve just given me four outs," angry words that occur only during the heat of battle… or, say, perhaps any IRL playtest session involving Josh Ravitz and Barn Julian the N’Sync Intern a.k.a. Mother Superior IV, Truth Teller.
The topic of our battle was the Japanese Nationals Top 8 decks, specifically the exploration of new Coldsnap cards in viable archetypes. Both of us have been running the new options all week, and Josh had been switching between decks and most recently found some success with the "classic" Solar Flare variant that Shimizu Naoki took to sixth place at the event, so he wanted to start there. For my part I went with the "eight Stone Rain" version of Sea Stompy that Shohei Yamamoto rode to the finals. According to the extended Josh Ravitz network, 8StoneRain.dec is the most recent recommendation of one Kenji Tsumura, reigning Player of the Year and the innovative forerunner of the recently – if briefly – dominant Solar Flare strategy, so we knew this was a deck to watch.
While both decks are reminiscent of known and established Standard options, they differ considerably from the default versions. Solar Flare "Classic" is admittedly a more "classic" look at the B/U/W mid-range control archetype than, say, Katsu’s Japanese Champion Structure & Force, but it deviates in several key areas from the decks that placed highly at U.S. and other National Championships. In the fatty fatty blunt arsenal, we see Adarkar Valkyrie as the key addition from Coldsnap. In addition, Naoki greatly modified the accepted manipulation suite, cutting the beatdown-frustrating Court Hussar for Clutch of the Undercity and Sift. The lone Clutch was a key defensive element in some games, and also served to dig up Sift, Persecute, Wrath of God, or one of the bolstered Zombify count.
Yamamoto’s beatdown deck shares colors – and to some degree an offensive Plan A – with Sea Stompy, but the similarity ends at support spells, disruptive suite, and reach capabilities. This deck has almost no reach – no Electrolyze or Char – and unlike, say, the version that Sea Stompy originator Saito took to the Top 8, plays no Thoughts of Ruin. Instead, Yamamoto plays the eight Stone Rains that we have used to differentiate its name. Stone Rain has been around since Alpha, but the reason this strategy has become viable again in Standard – passing in YT’s opinion no small resemblance to Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Los Angeles Boros strategy – is the introduction of a second three-mana land destruction option. We’ve had all kinds of Demolish variants from Wreck Havoc to Sunder from Within, but until Cryoclasm, the format has been absent the redundancy needed to utilize tempo land destruction in a beatdown deck. I like basically anything that makes me think of Tsuyoshi, whereas I’ve never been impressed with Thoughts of Ruin in the archetype; combined with Kenji’s recommendation, this seemed like a fine place to start.
Matchup #1: Solar Flare “Classic” (Ravitz) versus 8StoneRain.dec (YT)
- 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Rumbling Slum
- 4 Trygon Predator
This matchup was played on a ten game set without sideboards, with 8StoneRain.dec on the play in odd games.
I opened up with some decent tempo and maybe 1-2 land destruction spells. I had Josh down on tempo but was given a choice on four mana: tap out for Rumbling Slum with him tapped for Compulsive Research, or Stone Rain his only Black source. At the time I only had Birds of Paradise for a "clock" but had Josh color-screwed with no White (and therefore no Wrath of God mana) and risked the Slum… Sure enough that Death’s Storehouse produced Angel of Despair via Zombify immediately after Josh re-played a fourth mana, and it was no longer up to me. Adarkar Valkyrie made the game a blowout. Ravitz.
I had no early clock but kept on the basis of several time control cards (three Remands and some land destruction). A few good tempo trades put me way ahead, but a Ravitz Remand forced me to tap out, meaning that I would immediately eat Persecute and Wrath of God. No problem, I had Kird Ape and Jitte immediately after, but Josh got some kind of Angels, with Mikokoro supplying his endgame (of more and more Angels). Ravitz.
Not surprisingly, Josh said he could see where this matchup was going and suggested a change, but I wanted to play it out.
I had Llanowar Elves on the play, and rapid-fired Stone Rain on Josh’s only land, Rumbling Slum, then Trygon Predator (with 1U and an actual Remand back) when he tapped to make Signet: a blowout. YT.
I mulled… but what a trip to Paris! Birds of Paradise opened into Ninja of the Deep Hours into Cryoclasm. Once again I dropped multiple creatures and left up Remand mana with a clear advantage on the board, winning via the concession. YT.
I had the turn 2 Predator on the draw, which ate a Signet before I hung back for triple Remand Time Walk action. Josh also hung back and tried to figure out his mana situation, so once there were no more Signets, I swapped for Deep Hours, which drew a Wrath of God tap. No problem. Predator came back, this time accompanied by the Shambling City. Mortify halted the 5/5 and Zombify produced Kokusho, but with Ravitz on one card left (I was pretty sure I knew what it was), I just played some ones to set up the Skarrg kill for one turn later. Josh made the right block and Mortified one of the unblocked scalliwags when I tapped Skarrg for exactly lethal. Of course I had the fourth Remand! Was there any doubt? YT.
The Stone Rain win steak was over at five… I had a slow but active draw, but elected not to start the land destruction sequence, instead hanging back on Remands, because I was pretty sure Josh had a Remand hand himself and that I was going to bite a bad sequence if I let him dictate. Joshua, however, played like the gravy trainer he is, and just didn’t do anything, essentially forcing my hand. I hit drops right back and decided that turn 4 Kird Ape was the right move, again not using my spare three mana on mana denial. In came the Ape, and I swapped it for Deep Hours. Predictably, Josh had the Mortify, and maybe not predictably, I had the second Deep Hours. This is exactly how I wanted the "trades" to play out… Up until he untapped and Persecuted me for all my good action. One or two Stone Rains wasn’t going to beat Compulsive plus Angel plus Zombify with the Remands gone. Ravitz.
I had Elf into Predator on the draw. Josh moved Karoo into Compulsive, but I had the Remand Time Walk. He went for Signet into Mortify, but I had the Remand again, smashed his two-mana artifact, simultaneously showing him a slightly more hated two-mana artifact of my own. YT.
Final: 8StoneRain.dec over Solar Flare "Classic" (or, more accurately, Flores over Ravitz) 7-3
I was pretty sure that this matchup wasn’t the blowout in favor of ‘Flare that Josh predicted at 0-2. In fact, I think I could potentially have won all ten games if I had been more familiar with the deck at the outset (Game 1 was the first game I had ever touched Yamamoto’s fine fine weapon). For example, how different would it have been if I had Stone Rained the Black source instead of biting an Angel? In Game 2, which was much closer, I actually screwed up on a mana tap so that I had a Breeding Pool up after a long sequence, and couldn’t re-play my Kird Ape… Two points might have been relevant. Maybe if I had been more active in Game 8 I could have staved the wrong outcome.
To YT, the keys to this matchup were the lack of Hussars and the absence of Condemn in Naoki’s main. Sift was cool and all, but the Clutch-into-Sift engine wasn’t really digging Josh out of his bad spots when I had board position and could just Remand either a Dragon or a color-intensive solution like Mortify (remember, I was controlling his White mana flow with Cryoclasm the whole game). All in all, 7-3 actually seems like a conservative count to me… I think 8StoneRain.dec could easily boast 8-2 or even better against B/U/W mid-range control variants, a claim which was tested in our very next matchup:
Matchup #2: Structure & Force (Ravitz) versus 8StoneRain.dec (YT)
The World Champion kicked all kinds of Constructed ass at Japanese Nats, posting an unequalled 10-0 in the 60 aggregate card portions. I can’t think of a more dominating record at a premiere event, especially one where the competition was so stiff (for example, he had to beat a Pro Tour Champion and the originator of Sea Stompy in the quarterfinals). As such, and especially as Katsu has paired World and Japanese Championships as a sort of reverse-Finkel, his Structure & Force deck demands attention.
The big incentive to this deck is the Muddle the Mixture / Counterbalance / Sensei’s Divining Top element. Muddle the Mixture let Katsu play more copies of Counterbalance without actually playing more copies, and the Counterbalance / Top combination is something that seems pretty obviously abusable. In this deck, Top is joined by Bobby, the realization of the Dark Confidant engine that everyone was talking about at the onset, before Maher was co-opted by the various Orzhov decks.
The downside of the deck – which was dramatically showcased in our brief encounter last eve – is the glaring lack of Wrath of God. Katsu’s deck has some counters – two copies of Remove Soul, three Spell Snares (best card in Standard), two Muddles, four Remands (second best counter in Standard), and four Hinders on top of the essentially infinite Counterbalance combination – however, if you’ve been paying attention over the bulk of the last year, you should understand that the goal of counters in Standard permission decks is not to stop threats in the abstract but to buy time until the control player hits the monolith… That Meloku or Keiga or Rimefeather Owl, worth three or more cards itself, then goes on to win the game using those extra turns the counters bought. As such, against a dedicated aggressive strategy, counters without a reliable monolith are not the preferred method of deterring bears. Obviously Katsu has three copies of the Clouded Mirror of Victory, but on balance, his deck, now known, showcases any number of shortcomings that can be exploited thanks to revealed information.
1) No Wrath of God: There is no disincentive to committing to the board.
2) Only three Condemns… Last Gasp is in the sideboard with no Mortifies in sight.
3) Narrow avenues to card advantage (relatively fragile Maher, no Compulsive Research, etc.)
Structure & Force is the fox. It is all kinds of clever. It can eat many things using its many tools. In another era we might have called it The Rock. 8StoneRain.dec is the Hedgehog. It can’t do so many things, but it can surely turtle up and show some spines such that the fox cannot eat it.
As such, our "set" – if you can call it that – was a short one.
Josh gets second turn Confidant on the play. I have first turn Llanowar Elves but stall on mana. I develop a wittle bid. Maher deals Josh ten over the course of the next couple of turns (thanks Bobby!) to the point that he has to Condemn it while I sit back on Remand and a Rumbling Slum. Josh may have made a minor error on Jitte (killed a Birds instead of a Llanowar Elves when I was setting up for Alpha Strike), but I had the Remand and it wouldn’t have mattered. YT.
On the play I hit a quick Ninja and Jitte. On consecutive turns I just Cryoclasm his White when he taps. He Hinders the first so I don’t attack with the powered-up Ninja. I do it a second time and keep coming. Josh is on his heels with Court Hussar to my Jitte, so it is academic to get out Trygon and Rumbling Slum. He decides this is going to be an impossible matchup, given that I know his list and now know how to properly play the 8StoneRain.dec, and calls the set on 0-2. YT.
Not surprisingly, Ravitz insists on switching. For the last set of the evening I go to Asahara, and Josh finally gets a chance at 8StoneRain.dec.
I figured Akira’s deck would be relatively good versus beatdown because of Wrath and Faith’s Fetters (remember it was Richard Feldman Ideal deck that initially inspired our group to develop Aggro-Ideal due to its incredible percentage versus beatdown decks). The key issues with Akira’s deck are that he basically has to win with Ideal, and that his Fetters defense is only two cards deep. Having to win with Ideal is an issue because, well, it costs seven, and the matchup we are testing involves eight Stone Rains and four Trygon Predators (Asahara plays seven "Signets" for ramp). The Top engine is strong in this deck, with Scrying Sheets as an additional incentive and, uniquely, a dedicated Counterbalance combination that can operate even post-Epic. In ten games I don’t think I successfully used Scrying Sheets even one time, but perhaps Josh will correct me.
As with the first set, I played on odd games.
I have Coldsteel Heart and Azorius Signet on the draw and play them out. Josh has a quick Kird Ape-into-Deep Hours but I elect to Confiscate his Steam Vents rather than Ninja, opting for the fastest possible Enduring Ideal the next turn. Rabbit will have none of it and has Cryoclasm to steal the turn and to slow me down. One topdeck later, Ideal resolves for Meishin into Form of the Dragon. YT.
Josh has Elf into Stone Rain on the play, and I basically never catch up. The Ideal deck is almost playing Magic: The Gathering, but never really in it if you know what I mean, with 8StoneRain.dec kind of chopping along a point or a card at a time until the inevitable is made empyrical. Ravitz.
This game is a complete blowout. Josh’s Predator eats two Signets despite my quick Counterbalance (no Top), and he follows with two Cryoclasms and a Stone Rain… I’m really never in it, let alone in a position to summon Enduring Ideal. My only hope was to keep playing artifact mana despite his having Predator online in the sad hope that I could untap with WW in play (never happened). Ravitz.
Manascrewed. 8StoneRain.dec is the wrong matchup – in particular – to get manascrewed. Ravitz.
Josh got two Ninjas online but just one Remand to defend them. I got Fetters into Enduring Ideal thanks to no Stone Rain and moved to the endgame, electing to go Form after some deliberation. This time we learned why you might not necessarily do that against 8StoneRain.dec even though it has no Chars. Josh untapped showed me two Cryoclasms he had been sandbagging for just such an occasion… Should I have won? Ravitz.
I mulled to four. It was a valiant effort and on many occasions thanks to a lucky Wrath or so, it looked like the heroes were going to pull it out, but… I mulled to four. Ravitz.
Josh’s opening was solid on beaters but I finally withstood one. This time I got Ideal and managed to avoid the double Cryoclasm thanks to Zur’s Weirding (which poses dangers of its own with Cryoclasm and Form of the Dragon, don’t forget). YT.
Josh mulled to four. Heroes! YT.
Josh kept one land! Heroes! YT.
The matchup finished 6-4 in favor of Ravitz – 8StoneRain.dec, really – with me likely punting a game, so it probably seems about even from your spot in the gallery. However, keep in mind that half of Ideal’s wins were on the back of massive mana problems by 8StoneRain.dec, two out of four measly wins. From my perspective, this is not that close a matchup and I would actually give to 8StoneRain.dec at a greater than 6-4 edge, due to mana denial being such a key element of that deck versus getting to seven such a necessary part of the Ideal game plan. Sorry if the game reports were much briefer on this matchup… It really seemed like if Josh got the tempo he’d crush, and if I were able to weather I’d hit the endgame. Only in the long Ideal / Epic scenarios did strategic mistakes really come into play. For example, I once swung with Trygon Predator with two copies of Form of the Dragon in play to kill Jitte, not realizing I had given Josh the Deep Hours out on Birds of Paradise until he pointed it out (he was holding Cryoclasm). I won that Game 6 anyway. I can’t imagine wanting to play this version of Enduring Ideal if 8StoneRain.dec picks up any kind of traction, because while you can throw games away, it is very difficult to control winning in Game 1 situations.
After this three matchup set with Coldsnap, Ravitz and I had the same conclusion: We are both switching to 8StoneRain.dec for MTGO 8-Man Queues in the immediate future. This deck is all kinds of awesome, Cryoclasm is flat-out unbelievable, and the fact that I was able to toss the first two games to subtly imperfect understanding of how the deck works – followed by winner winner chasing chicken dinner over the next 20+ games – shows how much it rewards tight play versus small mistakes. Josh declined to run queues last night because YT said I was going to (he fears me, obv), but I actually went to bed. However, at the time of this writing, Josh on 8StoneRain.dec is on a tear, wiping up the last six sanctioned matches… I only hope I have time to get in some wins before everyone realizes that they should be playing it, too.
Good times, good friends, and some good decks to think about… What else can you ask for in a playtest session (or MTGO in general)?