We finally have our first taste of New Phyrexia Standard. As is always the case with brand new sets that have only been legal for hours, card
availability is a huge constraint. Additionally, players have not always had a chance to work out new strategies, or prepare for them for that matter.
This weekend’s event in Orlando produced results that one could interpret a few different ways. Initially, one sees a somewhat diverse Top 8 with two
types of new Splinter Twin decks (one Grixis and one RUG), a B/r Vampires, a Valakut, and (only) four Caw-Blade decks (one of which was straight U/W
with the rest Darkblade). That’s still an awful lot of Caw-Blade, including the winning list, but a pretty diverse mix all things considered.
Looking deeper, we see a top 16 with seven(!) Darkblade decks (admittedly one with the “caw”) and just the one U/W. We also see four Splinter Twin
decks, making a total of three Grixis and one RUG. Rounding out the top 16, we have a B/R Vampires, two Valakuts, and a U/B Control. For a brand new
archetype, it sure does look like the Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin combo discussedhere, here, and here is thus far
living up to hype. Â
Some might say that the Stoneforge Menace is as deadly as ever, but in all fairness, this is literal day one of the format. Caw-Blade players already
have most of their cards, whereas not everyone has the Karns, Obliterators, or whatever, yet. I think one of the most important factors to consider is
that this is a tournament where there are players (but only a few) who get multiple byes. This makes those players quite a bit more likely to top 16.
In fact, only six people in the world are eligible for two byes at SCG Opens, and four of them made top 16 of this event (all with Caw-Blade of some
sort). That makes it very hard to evaluate Caw-Blade on its own power versus on the strength of the players playing it and on the effect of byes. Every
Caw-Blade player with two byes effectively quadrupled the deck’s representation, increasing Caw-Blade’s chances to win the event. Each player with one
bye effectively doubled representation (and there was at least one player in the top 16 with a single bye). Finally, it should be remembered that Edgar
Flores is a telepathic cyborg killing-machine.
I say all this to say that we must take the quantity of Caw-Blade results with a grain of salt here. If they continue for a couple weeks, okay, that’s
one thing. However, I would’ve been frankly shocked if Caw-Blade didn’t do well out the gate. It’s one of the best decks in many years, and it gained a
bunch of great new weapons. Players are going to have to get serious if they want to beat it. After day one, it looks like progress is being made.
Let’s start with the champ and the rest of The Bad Guys (Caw-Blade players). As tempting as it is use the classic Paul Cheon line (“Edgar Flores would
top 4 a StarCityGames.com Open armed only with a ham sandwich”), the truth is that Edgar consistently has among the best versions of one of (if not the) best deck in whatever format he plays, every time he plays. He is the perfect villain, extremely deadly, always showing up with Faeries
or Jund or Caw-Blade or whatever. Here is the straight U/W Caw-Blade list he ran:
Edgar Flores was a bit of an outlier, among Caw-Blade players, as he was the only among the eight in the top 16 who stuck to U/W. To begin with, he
added the obligatory Batterskull and Sword of War and Peace that all Caw-Blade players added; however he did not sideboard more Batterskulls (unlike
the majority of the other pilots). There has been some debate over whether Sword of War and Peace belongs in the maindeck. It would seem that issue is
not particularly unclear at this point, and the crowd has spoken. Times could change, but this is a fair bit of evidence. Â
While Edgar did not gain as many NPH cards as the others, he did bring some pretty bold changes to the strategy. While all the Darkblade players were
busy filling their decks with Inquisitions and Despises, he filled those same slots with maxed-out Spell Pierces and Mana Leaks. Combine this with a
boatload of Into the Roils (helping combat Splinter Twin, among other things), and you have the makings of a legit anti-combo plan. It’s a minor point,
but the prophecy of Into the Roil and Divine Offering gaining popularity is already coming to fruition.
A very important trend we should reflect on is the move away from Day of Judgments and Gideons. Caw-Blade players have been moving their Days to their
board more and more, as they tech out their decks to fight countless mirror matches. Now that cutting Gideon entirely is basically universal, we’re
looking at an awful lot of Caw-Blade decks with 2-3 Days in the board, just a couple spot removal spells, and no Gideons anywhere. This is really
interesting for people who play Fauna Shaman, Kuldotha Rebirth, Tempered Steel, or Vampire Lacerator. The Twin decks and Valakut decks have a boatload
of Pyroclasms and Slagstorms, but it is food for thought, especially if you have an aggro deck resilient against red removal. I’m not actually sure an
aggro deck can’t play a couple Twisted Images, either. Just clearing Battlements, Wall of Omens, and Spellskite out of the way is huge, and when you
have cheap guys, it’s really easy to cycle them when you don’t want them.
Edgar’s Leylines of Sanctity are also very interesting. It’s possible they’re just an anti-Valakut/anti-Red Deck plan; however, now that there is so
much amazing discard, it’s possible they’re being used to lock out Inquisitions, Duresses, and Despises. The fact that a single Leyline beats every
future discard spell can actually be pretty huge, as the game goes on. If you draw it in your opener, awesome, but even if you don’t, it’s not the
worst to cast (or shuffle back with Jace). If Leyline is actually good against discard, that would make it good against 13/15 of the other players in
the top sixteen (eleven discard, two Valakut)! I don’t actually know that this is Edgar’s plan, but I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye out for
what he has to say on the topic.
The other seven Caw-Blade players went the Darkblade route, led by Kitt Holland. It should be noted that ninth-place Lewis Laskin did not actually
include the “Caw” element of the deck, a trend we already see in Extended and will see more of in Legacy. This is sadly the fundamental problem with
the name Caw-Blade. Yes, the Caw came before the Blade, but these days, it’s not really as much a Squadron Hawk deck as it used to be. Obviously, we’re
kind of locked in to Caw-Blade in formats where Squadron Hawk still sees a lot of play (like Standard); however we generally refer to a U/W or U/W/x
Stoneforge Mystic deck without Squadron Hawk as Stone-Blade. Laskin’s replacement for Squadron Hawks was Vampire Nighthawk, interestingly, which
combined very elegantly with his Spellskites. Let’s take a look at the top Darkblade pilot, Kitt Holland’s build:
Kitt’s build is extremely representative of what the top players at the event were playing, and I would not be surprised if a number of them actually
stayed with Kitt during the weekend of the event, brewing their exact list together. The fact that five of the players had nearly identical new lists,
know each other, and played a list that reeks of GerryT all but locks up this deck as the “best” deck of the tournament. This list should be deck
number one in your gauntlet, no question. We see the Standard Batterskull and Sword of War and Peace, as well as the popular sideboard plan of a couple
more Batterskulls, making life very difficult for aggro players. If you’re playing aggro, you better be damn sure you can kill some artifacts. You have
to be able to kill Stoneforge Mystic as well, though, or else they’ll just Forge the Batterskull in on turn 5 with three mana up to protect it.
Kitt also makes good use of Despise, which seems to be pretty universally adopted as the number two discard spell in non-combo decks, behind
Inquisition of Kozilek. How many Despises or Duresses one plays seems a matter of space, whereas Inquisition seems only a matter of writing four on
your decklist. I’m not certain that would be the case if a deck actually wanted a mix of all three main, but it’s unclear if such a deck exists. Even
if Mono-B is this deck, it’s hard to imagine playing more than 7-9 of these types main, as you start really running into dead draws later in the game.
Emeria Angel is actually remarkably well-positioned. She is very much a Baneslayer, in that if you don’t kill her, she will totally take over a game;
however if you play her as a five-drop, she can do a little Mulldrifter duty. Just play her turn 5, then immediately drop a fetchland. Even if they
kill her in response, you at least get one Bird. This is especially important for fighting Jace, since you can just start right out with five land for
five points of flier power, but they can’t effectively bounce her.
One other interesting sideboard card is Spellskite. Spellskite’s anti-Twin powers are well known at this point (as long as you have it in play, they
can’t play Splinter Twin or you redirect the Twin to the Spellskite), but it’s also important to remember that it can block a Stoneforge carrying any
kind of Sword, redirects Divine Offerings to itself instead of your Swords, and can even occasionally protect a Sword of War and Peace—carrying
Mystic from a Dismember. How this plays out in the future once everyone gets the memo about Twisted Image remains to be seen, but for now, it’s the
hottest card in the set.
Moving on to the finalist, we have Michael Strunk’s Grixis Twin:
Nearly this exact list was also run by twelfth-place finisher, John Cuvelier (with John replacing two Combusts and a Calcite Snapper with three
Surgical Extractions). The third Grixis list featured more Belerens and a couple See Beyonds (cutting some Mind Sculptors), Grave Titan over
Consecrated Sphinx, and Gitaxian Probes (trimming a little of everything).
To begin with, it seems like players are agreeing with Paulo and me on maindecking Spellskite in Grixis. He provides early defense to give you time to
set up the combo, blocks Stoneforge with a Sword all day, protects your Deceiver from Doom Blade and Dismember, protects your Jaces, and stops other
players from Splinter-Twinning you out. It also looks like players are currently favoring one “backup plan,” which seems perfectly reasonable.
Consecrated Sphinx is particularly sexy, since he lives through Dismember, and people don’t play all that many Days or Stoic Rebuttals; he can
definitely take over a game all by himself. Besides, Spellskite makes him even more likely to live (and that’s about as good of a time as one can
have). Even if all you get out of him is two cards, that’s often much more meaningful than Grave Titan’s two Zombies. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see
more of him (and in more archetypes) as the format plays out. Â
The split between Dismember and GftT/Doom Blade is likely to continue, though it’s interesting to see the battle between GftT and Doom Blade for that
other slot. Go for the Throat helps against Creeping Tar Pit, Phyrexian Obliterator, Vampires, and Germs (particularly Batterskull). Additionally, it
can kill a Deceiver Exarch despite an opponent’s Spellskite. Doom Blade, however, canÂ actually kill that same Spellskite that’s stopping
you from comboing off, as well as Precursor Golem, Inkmoth Nexus, and a variety of unproven creatures (like Immolating Souleater). At the moment, I
would think GftT is superior, but it’s close and likely to switch back and forth. Additionally, depending on how much removal you play, you might even
end up splitting those.
It would seem that Grixis players are sticking to the full 4 + 4 of each combo piece, a trend I expect to continue. The use of Creeping Tar Pit is
looking good, as it helps the Grixis deck play a passable “control” game, when not comboing. It isn’t that you’re always going to do twenty with them
(though you could, since a lot of people play little removal, and it gets past Walls like Spellskite). The more important role is that it lessens your
weakness to planeswalkers (which is admittedly a bit of a problem for this strategy if it doesn’t kill the other player in response). They also help
enable the Calcite Snapper sideboard plan, which is important to remember when facing the deck. Going all in on creature kill and enchantment removal
can get punished by Snappers pretty quickly.
Another crucial sideboard card to understand is Twisted Image. Twisted Image has already been used to combat Overgrown Battlement, Birds of Paradise,
Cunning Sparkmage, Signal Pest, and Ornithopter, but one of New Phyrexia’s biggest additions to the format is the above-mentioned Spellskite.
Spellskite is awesome in Grixis, but it’s also a real problem for it. Twisted Image is the best solution in the format, by a mile. A one-mana,
instant-speed cantrip solution to the problem? Just beautiful. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more Twisted Image in the days
to come, including in maindecks (especially in decks with Precursor Golem).
Last week, I mentioned the inevitable RUG Twin decks that would be formed from jamming the combo into “classic” RUG decks. Tim’s is a pretty
straightforward example of what we can expect to see, though that is a lot of Jaces, and it does seem surprising to see only two Explores.
Michael Jacob suggested using a Dismember (or two) over a Lightning Bolt. The ability to kill larger creatures (particularly Deceiver Exarch) is very
appealing, and in his words, “Using Lotus Cobra to pay the two black is just adorable.”
One of amusing “synergies” here is between Lotus Cobra and Deceiver Exarch. People really don’t play that much removal. If they drew a Go for the
Throat or Dismember, you better believe they’re using it on your Lotus Cobra. This means that the turn 3 Deceiver Exarch is much more likely to live,
letting your nut draws auto-win that much more. RUG doesn’t protect the combo nearly as well as Grixis does, but it also has a far more robust backup
plan (lots of Inferno Titans!).
One card that none of Splinter Twin decks played, but may want to consider, is Turn Aside. It’s very narrow, but it’s especially good if you’re playing
Consecrated Sphinx. Vines of Vastwood is also an option, though doesn’t protect Splinter Twin itself. My main consideration with cards like this and
Dispel is that if you’re actually going to play with counterspells, I sure would like to be able to stop someone from tapping out to cast a
planeswalker on three or four. As such, Negate or Spell Pierce would get my vote. Spell Pierce can work better in the tempo-oriented RUG deck (turn 2
Cobra, turn 3 Jace + Pierce); however, I generally prefer Negates in these sorts of decks, since I’d love to be able to counter a Celestial Purge on my
Splinter Twin, turn 6.
Up next, an old favorite without a single New Phyrexia card:
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 2 Vampire Hexmage
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 2 Viscera Seer
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
Qadir’s B/R Vampires list is very stock, with the most interesting element being the addition of Hero of Oxid Ridge, which gains extra value in the
world of Spellskites everywhere. While B/R Vampires is sure to at least stay a part of the metagame, I’m skeptical that it ever elevates above Tier 2
(at best). This is not because it’s an aggro deck, as aggro could be very well-positioned if built right. This is just hesitance over a deck that
wasn’t even top five before and gained nothing. It’s possible that the new world is just perfect for all of B/R Vampires’ old tools. Possible.
Unlikely. More likely, B/R Vampires will just prey on the meta at key moments or find new ways to evolve.
Where are the Fauna Shaman decks!?
Moving on to the boogieman before Caw-Blade:
Valakut put up modest numbers and will probably continue to do so. There are a number of really effective cards against it in the new set, most notably
Deceiver Twin and Despise; however it’s a fundamentally strong deck that really puts a hurt on the aggro decks. Rondon’s build doesn’t feature any New
Phyrexia, but it does feature the relatively radical change of four(!) maindeck Nature’s Claims. Naturalize is appealing, but the threat of having your
Naturalize Spell Pierced is reasonably high.
Nature’s Claim is a very potent defense against both Splinter Twin and Stoneforge Mystic but is just randomly great against an awful lot of players.
Yes, it’s going to be dead sometimes, but so were those Pyroclasms Valakut used to play. Of note, we see Rondon maindecking all four Summoning Traps
and playing Growth Spasm instead of Khalni Heart Expedition or Lotus Cobra. Additionally, he doesn’t have room for any maindeck burn, on account of the
Erik Muench finished eleventh with Valakut, using Lightning Bolt instead of Nature’s Claim, Lotus Cobra instead of Growth Spasm, Khalni Heart
Expedition instead of Cultivate, an Oracle instead of an Avenger, and two Beast Within/two Green Sun’s Zeniths instead of four Summoning Traps. These
are pretty contrasting styles of Valakut, but one of tactics that Valakut is going to have to adopt to survive is to morph continually so that people
are not always prepared to beat it as they would be if you always just played stock.
As we mentioned, the top 16 featured eight Caw-Blades, four Twins, two Valakuts, a B/R Vampire, and a U/B Control. Here is that U/B Control sneaking in
An extremely disruptive strategy, this has got to just be a nightmare for Splinter Twin. A month ago, I would have said U/B Control was not good, but
the meta sure has gotten more friendly. Generally this sort of U/B deck has a ton of trouble with aggro, but the metagame seems to be missing that
element at the moment. The Caw-Blade vs. U/B mirror has been a controversial one, as many U/B players feel they have a small edge (or feel even),
whereas many Caw-Blade players feel like they have a small but clear advantage.
Regardless of what position you held about drawing or playing first in the original Caw-Blade versus U/B matchup, things have changed. First of all,
playing first against Darkblade was always better because of both of you having discard spells. You’d rather Inquisition their Inquisition than the
other way around. Another big factor was that if your black mana entered the battlefield tapped, you wouldn’t be able to Despise until turn 2. If they
had a Stoneforge Mystic, and you were on the play, this worked. If you were on the draw, you were in rough shape, since you wouldn’t be able to get
their Equipment (as you used to be able to with Duress). Point is, I strongly advise playing first in all matchups with Caw-Blade (at least at this
point). It may seem obvious, but I think it’s a possibility that not enough people consider.
Consecrated Sphinx isn’t new, but this is another example of its rise to glory. Using discard spells to clear the path means Consecrated Sphinx will be
a wrap. The mix of Grave Titans is to actually at least try and
present a “plan” against aggro. While this style isn’t flashy, it’s solid and has grown better positioned than it was. Besides, how quickly we forget
that it was U/B Control and not Valakut that dominated the World Championships. As always, it’s so crucial to not stay locked into the same build of
U/B Control all the time. If the U/B players can stay a step ahead of the game and aggro doesn’t get too popular, they have all the right
tools to be Tier 1 again.
Top 10 Most Popular NPH Cards in the Top 16.
Wow, this is pretty darn close to what I would consider to be the top 10 cards of the set. Personally, I have Lashwrithe top 10 once people learn to
use it, and Surgical Extraction is top 10 much the same way Tormod’s Crypt often is, but for the most part, this is pretty darn good look at some of
the best of what New Phyrexia has to offer. See you next week!