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How To Win With Tempered Steel

Terry Soh has made multiple GP and Pro Tour Top 8s in his career, and he thinks Tempered Steel is not getting the respect it deserves in the format! See what version of Steel he finds optimal.

I noticed there has been a lot of press lately on the new Caw-Blade and how well it has adapted since the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Stoneforge Mystic. Of course, all the SCG Opens so far have been won by very different versions of Caw-Blade, showing that both the Caw and the Blade are forces to be reckoned with.

While I understand that it’s a great deck and has a fair shot against most decks in the field, I simply cannot understand how it can fight the hyper-aggressive Tempered Steel. I mean, most of these decks don’t even have Day of Judgment in the maindeck (except for GerryT’s latest winning list)!

“Who cares about Tempered Steel anyway? I’ll just sweep away their creatures with my sideboard cards.”

You, my friend, are already giving up one precious game to the brutally fast Tempered Steel.

Just to get you right back on track, this article is not meant to be make a mockery out of Caw-Blade. There is no doubt that Caw-Blade is a great deck and has a lot of great plays that reward skillful players. It’s just that Tempered Steel isn’t gaining enough respect from the field.

Most players quickly dismiss Steel as a deck choice because it is viewed as a roguish deck, and it can fold to Wrath effects. However, there are many more dimensions and angles of attack that the Steel decks bring to the table. In my opinion, Steel is an amazingly resilient, aggressive deck. Given that the pilot can effectively play around Wrath effects, notably Pyroclasm (more on this later), while simultaneously setting up an adequate board position, Steel can easily match the plays from even the best Caw-Blade players out there and force them to Wrath only when you want them to do so.

Tempered Steel is certainly the deck to beat in Block Constructed, and its transition to Standard was indeed inevitable due to its raw power and explosiveness. The key of the transition requires understanding the different types of decks and sweepers that you will be facing. In Block, there are no combo decks; control decks have a ton of removal and have a focused game plan for beating Tempered Steel. In Standard, there are combo decks; control decks have fewer removal spells and do not have a focused game plan against Tempered Steel. These factors require the Steel pilot to take into consideration a lot of different sequencing and plotting in order put together a good list that suits the metagame.

Let’s take a look at both of the Tempered Steel lists that made the Top 8 of Japan Nationals.



Both are Tempered Steel decks, but the difference is obvious. Ishida’s build is a hyper-aggressive build that banks on making as many nut draws as possible and plays only a single color. On the other hand, Ikawa’s build splashes blue for Preordains and has countermagic in the sideboard. In comparison with the mono-white version, the UW version sacrifices speed for further consistency and reach, making its midgame plays stronger than that of mono-white.

So, which is the better version? Hyper-aggressive mono-white Steel or resilient UW Steel?

In a vacuum, there isn’t a simple “A is better than B” answer because both versions have their pros and cons. In my testing, both decks performed really well against the field in game 1. However, the UW is significantly better against the field after sideboarded games because sideboarded games tend to be slower. Opponents have more answers and sweepers for your threats, and you also have to slow down to avoid getting blown out. This is where the UW version shines. The mono-white version is purely lunatic.

Using poker analogy, the UW version is a tight aggressive style while the mono-white one is loose aggressive. The tight aggressive style usually makes the optimal play and carefully waits for the right opportunity to swallow the opponent’s entire stack. This style is considered optimal for most players. Unfortunately, the loose aggressive players often prey on the tightness of the tight aggressive players and slowly grind their chips away with a wide range of 3-betting and shoving. Tight aggressive players often fold in such spots unless they have the absolute nuts.

In Magic, the same situation applies to UW and mono-white Steel. While UW is overall the more consistent build and can have far better sideboard games against the rest of the field, it is a victim to the lunatic mono-white. Often, the mono-white version plays 2-3 creatures on turn 1, and UW plays one creature or, worst still, an Origin Spellbomb or a Preordain. This makes the mono-white’s Steel effects (Steel Overseer and Tempered Steel) a lot deadlier in comparison to the UW’s own Steel effects. Often, UW is always on defense mode and can hardly counterattack due to the mounting pressure from the mono-white. 

The tight aggressive style in poker as well as UW Steel are my preferred style of aggression. I hate the fact that my rational plays get outmatched by lunatic plays that are bad against everything else but me. Finally, I brewed a version that can decently match the lunatic pace of the mono-white version while retaining the reach and consistency of UW. After countless hours of brewing and testing, this is the final list that I arrived on:   


The two most annoying cards to see across the table: Pyroclasm and Ratchet Bomb.

Before I proceed to explain the card choices that I made, let me talk about two of the most efficient cards against us. You must be wondering why it isn’t Creeping Corrosion or even Day of Judgment, since those cards clear everything. You can easily answer a four-mana sweeper right away with a Hero of Bladehold or even counter it, but that is not the case with Pyroclasm and Ratchet Bomb.

The reason why both Ratchet Bomb and Pyroclasm are super annoying is because of their relatively low casting cost. The advantage of playing Tempered Steel is applying maximum pressure to your opponent within the first few turns. If your opponent has access to either one of these cards (or worse still, both), the amount of pressure you can apply is toned down significantly. Fortunately, those cards are beatable if you know what you are doing with your cards.

Pyroclasm

When I play an aggressive strategy, I always look out for cards that will totally wreck me and form a plan against them. Pyroclasm is the card I always play around, which leads me to a lot of favorable situations even when the opponent has it, ensuring that I have significant pressure on the board. Of course, you need to start with an appropriate list if you want to play around Pyroclasm. You must know what your deck is capable of performing what you want.

Pyroclasm is almost an automatic four-of when facing Valakut and various U/R Twin or Pyromancer Ascension decks during games two and three. Hence, it’s very important to mold your game plan around it.

In my decklist, almost everything except for Glint Hawk Idol and Hero of Bladehold dies to a Pyroclasm. However, there is no obligation that you must give up all your cards as early as turn 2! The key is to sandbag your zero-mana creatures and not to overextended until you play a Tempered Steel, thus putting your creatures out of Pyroclasm range. Usually, this is what I do:

Scenario 1:

If I have a Glint Hawk Idol in hand, I play one dork on turn 1 (just one, not two) and play the Idol on turn 2. This way, you still get to apply pressure, and your opponent can’t profitably Pyro you out.

Scenario 2:

If I have a Steel Overseer in hand, I will lead turn 1 with nothing but a land drop and drop the litmus tester on turn 2. Chances are, if your opponent has a Pyroclasm in hand, he will have to use it right away. If he doesn’t, his Pyroclasm will be a dead card if you play a Tempered Steel next turn, and he certainly can’t take that risk since Overseer gets out of hand very quickly. A one-for-one trade with Overseer is also deemed reasonable for both, as he gets to kill a Steel effect; for you, you get to trade one-for-one with his Pyroclasm mana-for-mana, which is perfectly fine for you. If he doesn’t Pyro, you know right away that he doesn’t have it, and you can vomit your entire hand onto the board next turn.

Scenario 3:

If you have a Tempered Steel in hand, play one guy on turn 1 (preferably something that costs one mana) and sandbag the zero-mana dorks until you play a Tempered Steel on turn 3.       

Scenario 4:

If your hand does not contain Idol, Overseer, or Tempered Steel, it better be a hand that can make land drops or a Preordain to sculpt your game plan. Otherwise, get a fresh six.

Ratchet Bomb

The annoying part about Ratchet Bomb is that you never know whether your opponent has it, unless you have seen it previously in game one or you have scouted him in earlier rounds. Some decks have it maindeck; some in the sideboard; and some don’t even have it! Even if they do, they usually play 2-3 copies. The fewer copies they have, the less we want to be playing around it because it shunts our aggression. That being said, having a viable plan against it is vital.

Pyroclasm is a lot easier to play around because it always deals two damage. Bomb, however, is harder to play around because the value changes according to your hand.

The best deal that you hope to get off a Bomb is trading one for one with it. Try diversifying the casting cost of threats. It is a rather low opportunity cost for insurance against Ratchet Bomb. For example, if you led turn 1 with Vault Skirge, casting a Glint Hawk Idol/Steel Overseer next turn is ideal instead of landing double Signal Pest or something similar. Also sandbag your zero-cost spells again because they are very lucrative targets for Bomb, since it can instantly clear them away, including Mox Opal. On the other hand, if they have the Bomb slightly later than turn 2 (turn 3-4), sometimes it is often right to offer them two zero-mana cards in exchange for more damage presence on board or to prevent them from ticking it up to blow your Tempered Steel. It takes some experience to get it right with Ratchet Bomb.

Card Breakdown:      

4 Tempered Steel, 4 Steel Overseer:

Dubbed the “Steel effects,” these eight cards are your best cards in the decks. Drawing any one of them is almost better than drawing two or even three random artifact dorks in your deck. Most of the time, you need one to connect in order to win the game.

3 Preordain:

The blue part of the deck establishes your game plan. Most of the time, Preordain is the last spell that you cast in your hand because you’ll be busy playing creatures on the first few turns. Once you have several dorks in play, you’ll usually just slip any non-Steel effect cards to the bottom and effectively go through the maximum capacity of Preordains to dig three cards deeper into your deck.

Sure, digging three cards deeper doesn’t guarantee you get the Steels, but really what more can you ask for a mere one blue mana and no loss of card economy? Preordain also plays a huge role after sideboarding, especially against control where you need to carefully sculpt your game plan and make land drops.

2 Hero of Bladehold:

She is among one of the best creature in Block, if not the best. She costs four mana, and if she ever lives to attack, you’ll be well ahead, and the second attack is often lethal. However, four mana is considered a lot to achieve in this deck, and proper setup is required to accommodate our Hero. In this case, Preordain shines because it smoothens your land drops whenever necessary and ships them whenever you are seeking Steel effects. Without Preordain, it is a lot harder to consistently cast Hero with only 23 mana sources. Hero is very good against every other deck in the format except the mirror match where cheap redundant artifacts rule. Hence, two is the right number.

4 Dispatch:

The Swords to Plowshares of the deck, except that it really exiles a creature for one mana without giving your opponent anything. Achieving metalcraft is peanuts for the deck. I mean, if you need to remove a creature and you don’t even have three artifacts in play, you are going to lose the game anyway. That being said, sideboarded games do interfere with the effectiveness of Dispatch, and it can be shaved to make space for other cards.

4 Memnite, 4 Signal Pest, 4 Vault Skirge:

These twelve cheap artifacts are almost universally agreed by players as necessary evils for Tempered Steel. They are pretty much self explanatory; cheap, efficient, evasion (well not Memnite, but he is zero casting cost!), and they flood the board right before Tempered Steel.    

4 Glint Hawk Idol:

I wanted to clump Idol along the universal line, but since not everyone runs it as a four-of, I will provide explanation. To me, he is a no-brainer four-of because of how well he dodges mass removal (literally everything except for Creeping Corrosion and Consume the Meek). The Idol is also evasive, which is huge in preserving the aggressive role in creature matchups as well as attacking past Overgrown Battlements and Solemn Simulacrum. That being said, he is awfully bad when you need a blocker, which is a minus point for being half a creature. Fortunately, all of your other creatures can do blocking duty, and he possesses the unique ability of being a threat that dodges mass removal, which most of your artifacts don’t.   

4 Ornithopter:

Ornithopter is a very special card for me. I used to hate it so much in the past that I said I would never play a 0/2 in my deck and it would be better off as a basic land. Well, there is a saying of “never say never,” and that day arrived for me. Ornithopter proved to be very important in the deck because it serves multiple roles at the cost of zero mana. First of all, it fuels metalcraft for turning on Mox Opal and making Dispatch the best removal ever. Second, it is a zero-drop, making it easy to play in a sandbag game against Pyroclasm. And lastly, having flying is huge. I would say the 0/2 flying is actually better than Memnite’s 1/1 vanilla stats.

3 Mox Opal:

Staple, most lists run three. Four copies are too extreme, and we certainly cannot afford to draw two, since our game plan involves casting Hero of Bladehold.

9 Plains, 3 Glacial Fortress, 4 Seachrome Coast, 4 Inkmoth Nexus:

Inkmoth Nexus, Seachrome Coast, and Plains are pretty much self explanatory. I moved the fourth Glacial Fortress to the sideboard because drawing one can be a pain in some situations, and having two in your hand would certainly swing your game negatively. I even wanted to just play two, but it’s a very risky proposition, since we also have counters in the sideboard, and I don’t want to have two Glacial Fortresses in the sideboard (one is more than enough). Basically, I cut the fourth Fortress to reduce annoyance and added a Plains to further reduce annoyance caused by the three other Fortresses whilst ensuring adequate blue sources to cast my blue spells. Small things do adds up.        

Sideboard:

2 Hero of Bladehold:

I can never understand why everyone plays Shrine in their sideboard as opposed to Hero of Bladehold. First of all, Shrine is an artifact itself and makes artifact tokens, which means it can’t even dodge a Creeping Corrosion (but a Hero does) and gives more value to their Pyroclasms if you can’t kill them outright (which is very possible because you start very slowly if you cast a Shrine in the game). Shrine costs two mana to play. If you are casting it, chances are you are forgoing the opportunity to cast a Glint Hawk Idol or a Steel Overseer on the very same turn. A couple of turns later with a few counters on it, you AGAIN need to spend three mana to blow it to make some 1/1s.

Or wait a second.

Why not I just spend four solid mana on a solid card that threatens to win by itself in one or two turns? A card that can’t be killed by Nature’s Claim, Pyroclasm, and even Creeping Corrosion.

The only argument that stands is Shrine is better when you resolve a Tempered Steel. But you are already winning if Tempered Steel resolved and remains untouched. And didn’t I just tell you how to sandbag your dudes so you will have them when Tempered Steel arrives?     

1 Glacial Fortress:

For adding to the mana source count when I bring in the Heroes, and for swapping with a Mox Opal against red decks when their deck’s mission is to crisp everything you have.

1 Timely Reinforcements:

Awesome blowout against Mono Red and Vampires if you get full value out of it. It is slightly situational, since you are a creature deck too, but they usually have more than you since they will be busy killing all of your guys while attacking you with one or two guys.  

2 Mana Leak:

Versatile and very good against various control/combo decks. Unified Will is a lot worse because I tend to hold back against Pyroclasm, and the times where you can’t counter their spell because they have an Overgrown Battlement or a Squadron Hawk are far more likely than the times they can pay three. I was torn between the third Mana Leak and the fourth Hero of Bladehold. In the end, I decided Hero is better because it always demands an answer, whereas Leak is only good when you have established board presence, and it certainly takes some effort to get there.  

3 Spellskite:

Spellskite get sided in against a lot of decks, although it is primarily good against combo. When you become slower after sideboard, cards like Spellskite are better than Memnite because he actually “eats” a card from your opponent, whereas Memnite just waits to be swept along with Pyroclasms.

3 Leonin Relic-Warder:

The only cards that matter in the mirror match are Tempered Steel and Steel Overseer. To be more precise, Steel Overseer matters more than anything else. Hence, you need something that can kill both of these. It comes down to Revoke Existence or Leonin Relic-Warder. Personally, I think Warder is better because of the body and how he changes the pace of the game.

For example, if your opponent leads with Memnite into Steel Overseer and you answer with a Revoke, he is still the aggressor. Instead, if you answer with Warder, you overtake the aggressive role instead because Memnite has to respect Warder’s command, only able to attack if you crack with Warder first.

Of course, the downside is huge, but I like having an extra 2/2 body instead of worrying about Dispatch. Oh, did I forget to mention you have just solved one of his Steel effects and now it is his turn to fear one of yours instead? 

3 Journey to Nowhere:

Initially I had Celestial Purge for this slot. Then I realized the instant speed is not even relevant against Vampires. The upside of Journey is you can even bring it in against the mirror to shut down Overseer, and you get to swap Dispatch for these against control. Journey is not great, but it serves its purpose well of taking down ANY creature for two mana. And unlike control decks where instants are very important, since sorcery speed removal interferes with counters, all your spells are cast in the main phrase anyway. You usually use removal on your own turn to outright remove a blocker. I dislike Dismember here because four life is a lot to pay against decks like Vampires. Against control and Valakut, Dismember also can’t outright kill their Titan and Consecrated Sphinx. 

As for sideboarding strategy, I don’t have a static sideboard guide, but I have an overall plan. I usually remove a full set of Memnite, Vault Skirge, and some singletons against control, combo, and Mono Red. Against the mirror, I usually shave a bit of everything, since you need a little bit of everything to work with, and yet you need to make some room for more removal from the sideboard. Whenever I bring in additional Heroes, I usually bring in the land as the 24th mana source. When I don’t bring in Heroes, the extra land usually gets swapped with a Mox Opal because achieving metalcraft is a lot harder in games 2 and 3.

Try it out and let me know in the forums.

Cheers.

terry on Modo.