Grand Prix Albuquerque

Sam Black continued his amazing streak of Top 8s at premier events in Albuquerque with Mono-Blue Devotion. Today he tells you how he handles the most important matchups.

I booked my flight to Albuquerque during my last trip while I really wanted to have time at home, so I decided to fly out of Madison Saturday morning, which would allow me to spend as much time at home as possible. My flight was scheduled to arrive at 12:15, roughly two hours before I expected to start playing, so I felt pretty comfortable with the decision.

On Friday, I started reading tweets from people from all over about delays to ABQ, and I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem for me.

I was running a little late Saturday morning and got to the airport just in time to make my flight but had no problems and made it smoothly to Denver, where I checked the monitors and saw that my flight was on time. Great. I’d avoided any disruptions. Guess I chose the right day to fly.

After boarding my plane, I started to get a little worried when we hadn’t moved for twenty minutes. Eventually there was an announcement that the motor that runs the lavatory was broken and they needed to investigate whether they could fix it or whether we’d just fly without it. After we’d been waiting in the plane roughly as long as our entire flight was supposed to take, they announced that they’d decided to put us on a different plane, and we should go back inside while they tried to find a plane to put us on. They’d announce which gate we’d be at once they figured that out. At this point, I was starting to think I might not make it to the GP on time.

And I didn’t. My flight landed exactly as round 4 was starting, but of course it didn’t land in the convention center, so I knew I’d have to start the event 4-1 despite David Butzin’s generous offer to pick me up from the airport.

Now, let me back up a bit.

I basically knew since Louisville that I wanted to play Mono-Blue Devotion again. I didn’t really play any Standard after that though. After Grand Prix Washington DC, my preparation for Standard consisted of recording four matches with Mono-Blue Devotion for my video last week, which I won all of, so I decided the deck was still perfect and spent the rest of the week catching up with friends I’d been away from. On Friday, I decided to try a few eight-player Magic Online queues, and I lost three of them in a row in the first round. After that, I didn’t want to play anymore. I wondered whether it was a bad idea to play in a GP with a deck I didn’t even feel like I could win with on Magic Online, but what else was I going to play?

I opened my deck box, which had my deck from when I played it at the SCG Open in Los Angeles, went through to make sure it was the way I wanted it, and switched a Bident of Thassa and a Jace, Architect of Thought between the maindeck and the sideboard. Then I found the twelve beta Islands I own and added them to the deck, leaving one of each picture of lands from the land station that were already in the deck.

Incidentally, the major changes I’ve made between all the events I’ve played in the past and my recent streak are that I’ve stopped testing and started bringing snacks—crackers and nuts—with me to events. Aside from snacks, I’ve also been careful to get meals whenever possible. Usually this means searching Google Maps for the nearest Subway because it’s fast, I can reliably get a vegetarian meal, and there seems to be one within two blocks of every hotel or convention center.

As for the rest of the tournament, when I arrived Glenn Godard told me he’d upgraded me to VIP and thanked me for promoting his event on Twitter. I found the water extremely helpful because I still hadn’t learned to start making sure I had water (I’m not actually good at taking care of my body yet), and I think this was probably a huge help.

I believe my first opponent in round 5 was playing Mono-Blue Devotion. I won, but I don’t remember any details. Between my bad run on Magic Online and my missed round, I really didn’t have any expectations for this tournament, and I was just waiting for it to end.

This was extremely evident in my round 6 games against James Searles. In the second game, I didn’t notice that he’d played a Mutavault, so I attacked the Jace, Architect of Thought that he’d used the +1 on with two of my own Mutavaults and promptly put one in the graveyard. Despite this and not having drawn a lot of spells, the game was still reasonably close until I tapped out one turn because I felt threatened by the possibility of a Jace ultimate, which allowed him to resolve an Aetherling I couldn’t beat.

In the third game, in a single turn I failed to scry with Thassa, God of the Sea and was punished by drawing a second one, and then I attacked with Thassa and passed without remembering to use my Jace, Architect of Thought. This was particularly problematic because my Jace was at five loyalty and he had an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, three tokens, and a Mutavault. My Jace had been holding off his Elspeth while I killed him with Thassa, but now he could kill my Jace and the race would be extremely close. Luckily for me, I was still one turn ahead, and he failed to draw anything to change that.

After thoroughly embarrassing myself in that match, I realized that my record really wasn’t that bad, and I needed to focus. I managed to get back into a reasonable mindset and proceeded to win a number of extremely close games.

Sometimes when doing well in a tournament, I feel untouchable. My deck feels great, and I’m winning all of my matches handily. This was not such a tournament. All of my matches were very close, and my opponents’ draws were often great. There were several games that I felt like I’d already lost that I somehow managed to turn around and narrowly win. It felt like I was just barely scraping by, dodging bullets, and I had no idea how I was doing well. My deck felt like it gave me a chance against everyone, but I never felt like I was playing a matchup that was great for me.

You’ll notice I’m discussing the tournament in broad strokes. This is because I don’t remember all the details. Rather than try to talk through a series of rounds, I think it will be more helpful for me to going into more detail than I have before about each of the matchups I played.

At this point,  I don’t know that Mono-Blue Devotion is the best deck; I just know that I win with it a lot, and I think that most of that is because I know exactly what matters and what my plan is against everyone I play. First, my current decklist:

Now for the matchups.

Mono-Blue Devotion

This is a tricky matchup because everything matters—tempo, board presence, life totals, trumps, answers—so games can play out very differently. In game 1, the most important cards are Nightveil Specter; Cyclonic Rift; Master of Waves; Thassa, God of the Sea; and Jace, Architect of Thought. That’s a lot of very important cards, each of which can feel like it’s winning a game on its own.

An unanswered Nightveil Specter will usually take over a game with card advantage. Cyclonic Rift is a solid but not game-defining tempo play early that will usually win any game when it’s overloaded. Master of Waves will usually win any game it’s unanswered and not matched, though Jace, Architect of Thought can potentially hold it off. Thassa, God of the Sea is the trump in games that get locked up, which tends to happen pretty often with so many 2/3s since that’s the size most Cloudfin Raptors get to. The main reason life totals matter is that once both people have Thassa the game is usually just about unblockable creatures racing. Jace, Architect of Thought buys an incredible amount of time, and if you can use that time to set up a board stall, it can actually start finding cards.

The sideboard changes things, and Master of Waves is much less dominant. It can still win games by itself, so I don’t want to side it out, but I think that if my sideboard was devoted to this match specifically, I would probably want to bring in Domestication and cut Master of Waves since Domestication is a great trump but you really can’t have more than nine four-mana spells in your deck even when they’re all excellent.

The basic question in sideboarding is whether it’s better to try to play more powerful trumps like Domestication and Curse of the Swine or more cheap interaction like Cyclonic Rift, Gainsay, and Rapid Hybridization. I like to go that way since I think the deck already has enough powerful cards that can win the game as I mentioned above and I just want cheap answers that will let me get and stay ahead.

The first cards I board out are Bident of Thassa because it’s more situational and less powerful than the other four-mana plays in the matchup; Judge’s Familiar because it just gets trumped by every other flier; Jace, Architect of Thought; and then Frostburn Weird because I don’t want to get locked by their Tidebinder Mage and it can’t fight a Master of Waves. Beyond that I’m not excited about cutting any of my other cards, but I could see upgrading Mutavault to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx or Master of Waves to Domestication if you had them in your sideboard. I don’t because I consider both to be fairly minor upgrades.

Mono-Black Devotion

Desecration Demon is their most important card by far, and you can also lose to Pack Rat. You generally win by convincing them that they’re a control deck because their answers are clunky and you can get under them and stay ahead. Bident of Thassa is your most important card because it’s the hardest for them to interact with and the string of creatures it gives you allows you to turn off a Desecration Demon the hard way. Outside of Bident of Thassa, they can deal with all of your other cards, so don’t place a super-high value on any of them. You’re just trying to get ahead and hope something sticks. If that’s a Master of Waves or Nightveil Specter, you’ll probably win quickly; if it’s another creature, that will often still be enough if they don’t have Desecration Demon or Pack Rat or you have Bident of Thassa.

I recently realized that I’d been sideboarding in a way that’s not right against the current black decks because I worked out my plan at the Pro Tour when I was playing against a black deck without Nightveil Specter. Against Nightveil Specter and Pack Rat, Tidebinder Mage is almost useless. Theoretically he helps with devotion, but you’re not really trying to do anything with a high devotion count early anyway since that’s not realistic.

You want to side out Tidebinder Mage and Jace, Architect of Thought. At some point, I got confused and started siding out Master of Waves instead of Jace. That’s wrong. You want to kill them if they run out of removal, not try to grind card advantage. Too often they’re threatening to overwhelm you with Pack Rats or Desecration Demon, and drawing some more Judge’s Familiars just doesn’t help.

You want to bring in answers to Desecration Demon like Cyclonic Rift, Rapid Hybridization, Dissolve, or Domestication (it’s awkward but works better than it sounds like since you can take one of their other guys and sacrifice it to their Demon). Dispel is also reasonable to bring in since it’s a good tempo play, and you want all your Bident of Thassas. I also like to cut Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx because I want to keep up my threat density and I don’t expect to have a high devotion count unless I’m winning anyway.

W/R Aggro

Your best cards are Cloudfin Raptor and Jace, Architect of Thought. Master of Waves is also important but can be trumped by Banisher Priest. Frostburn Weird is usually your next best card, and the cards I’d most want that I don’t currently have if I were trying to improve the matchup are Omenspeaker and Domestication.

You’re primarily trying to stay alive, which means keeping your life total high enough that they can’t burn or Brave the Elements you out. This means you want to keep your curve very low. Don’t cut any cheap creatures. Cut Bident of Thassa, and you can even cut one or two Thassa, God of the Seas—they’re bad at blocking anyway so the unblockable aspect doesn’t matter much, they don’t give you time to scry effectively, they often make you trade your early creatures, and even if you turn it on they can Banisher Priest it so it doesn’t really do anything. I’d consider cutting more of them, but I currently think the card is good enough that you want it even when it’s this badly positioned. They do help with things like ending the game before dying to their reach.

Cloudfin Raptor is great because it stops you from falling behind. It can block all of their creatures, unlike any of your other creatures, and if you have time to evolve it, it trumps most of their guys. Jace, Architect of Thought trumps most of their creatures and can win most games when you’re not extremely far behind. You almost never want to use the -2, just tick it up to stop them from killing you. If you go down, they might kill it with Brave the Elements or Boros Charm or throw off your plan to block with Banisher Priest or Azorius Arrester. Master of Waves almost always wins if you untap with it, and Frostburn Weird is your best blocker.

Rapid Hybridization is great here. It answers Banisher Priest, but more often it gives you a surprise blocker than can kill a Soldier of the Pantheon, throw off math on a Brave the Elements alpha strike, or kill a creature that Ajani, Call of the Pride is launching at you.

I sideboard something like -1 Thassa, God of the Sea; -2 Bident of Thassa; -1 Cyclonic Rift; -1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; +2 Rapid Hybridization; +1 Dispel; +2 Jace, Architect of Thought. I’m undecided on how many Cyclonic Rifts and Thassa, God of the Seas I want in my deck.

R/W/B Burn

I played against this deck for the first time at Grand Prix Albuquerque. The matchup felt pretty good. Obviously you don’t want to let them hit you with creatures if you can avoid it, and you want to try to be aggressive. Other than that try to force them to use burn on your creatures instead of you and kill them before giving them too many draw steps. Thassa, God of the Sea is about as bad here as it is against W/R or possibly worse. I sided one out; it’s possible that it’s correct to cut more. Jace, Architect of Thought isn’t great, and Bident of Thassa is actively bad due to Toil // Trouble. Dispel and Negate are good, and I might even want Dissolve. You can’t possibly side out any creature other than Thassa, God of the Sea. Rapid Hybridization is good enough to side in but not great. It was important for me in answering Spark Trooper.

My sideboard plan is -2 Bident of Thassa; -2 Cyclonic Rift; -1 Thassa, God of the Sea; -1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; +1 Dispel; +1 Negate; +2 Rapid Hybridization; +1 Jace, Architect of Thought; +1 Dissolve.

Green/Red Devotion

Polukranos, World Eater is their most important card, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nix is probably the other primary determining factor in whether they win games. I think it’s usually pretty unlikely for them to win without both, but either can sometimes do it. Master of Waves is outstanding against them as long as they can’t kill it with Polukranos or Time to Feed. You’re basic plan when they have Polukranos is to force them to use it on something or to set up a situation where you can bounce or kill it in response to a monstrosity activation. Thassa, God of the Sea is your other significant trump against them, and they can rarely beat it if you can keep it on.

Sideboard -4 Judge’s Familiar; -1 Jace, Architect of Thought; +2 Rapid Hybridization; +1 Cyclonic Rift; +1 Dissolve; +1 Bident of Thassa. I’d like to cut the last Jace, but my current sideboard doesn’t have another card I want to bring in. This is a fairly compelling argument for having access to the fourth Rapid Hybridization.

Post-sideboard you’re better at interacting with Polukranos, but they’re more likely to attack you with Mistcutter Hydra. Surprisingly, your ability to interact with Polukranos tends to be more significant in my experience. You also have to watch out for Mizzium Mortars.

U/W/x Control

Contrary to Randy and BDM’s speculation in my video match against Shahar Shenhar in round 9, I sideboard very heavily against control decks, and they’re the main reason I have seven counterspells in my sideboard and the only reason for the two Jace, Memory Adepts. Game 1 is very hard for you, and your best chance is if you can find a window to stick Bident of Thassa, at which point things can actually get pretty good. Mutavault is also incredibly important.

I sideboard -4 Cloudfin Raptor; -2 Cyclonic Rift; -1 Rapid Hybridization; -1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; -4 Master of Waves; +4 Gainsay; +1 Dissolve; +1 Dispel; +1 Negate; +2 Jace, Architect of Thought; +1 Bident of Thassa; 2 Jace, Memory Adept.

Your goal here is to use your early creatures to force them to tap out at times that allow you to resolve trumps and try to do that at times that don’t allow them to resolve bigger trumps (Aetherling or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion). Their Detention Spheres are extremely important, so it’s awesome if you can make them use them on creatures. You want to use your Gainsays more aggressively than your Negate because you have more of them and you’ll want to be able to Negate Elspeth.

You’re cutting Cloudfin Raptor because it asks you to overextend and it’s a bad topdeck follow up to a sweeper while you’re trying to Bident them. You don’t want to overextend into a Supreme Verdict ever. You’re not trying to kill them early; you’re trying to use your creatures to control their mana so that you can time your card advantage spells better. You have counterspells for their expensive trumps, so you don’t need to be in a hurry. You should be able to win because you have cheaper spells and better control of the pacing of the game.

I believe that covers the major archetypes I played against. I’m not necessarily recommending this as the best deck since it’s entirely possible that Mono-Black Devotion is actually on another level from most of its opponents while this deck just feels like it’s getting into a bunch of close fights that it’s a little ahead in. I know that my five teammates who played Mono-Black Devotion all ended in the Top 32, which is an outstanding performance that’d I’d take very seriously.

On the other hand, if you’re similarly inclined to play blue cards, I hope I’ve been able to help with some of the matchups. I’m probably playing this deck for the rest of the season, and I don’t think it’ll ever be a bad choice.