Innovations – Pre Pro Tour Ponderings

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Monday, February 23rd – It’s the week before Pro Tour: Kyoto, and the pro community is understandably being tight-lipped about their breakout technology. In today’s Innovations, Patrick Chapin outlines his own view on the likely makeup of the Pro Tour metagame, and shares a few strategies and lists he believes will be front-runners come Sunday…

It is always a tricky time a few days before a Pro Tour, both for playing Magic and for writing Magic strategy articles. I cannot say too much about our Kyoto deck, but rest assured, everything I include in this article is what I honestly believe.

First of all, the way I see it, Standard revolves around Cryptic Command. Not only is it the best card, but every strategy can either be classified as Cryptic Command or Not Cryptic Command. This is a useful distinction because trends develop, such as how Non-Cryptic Command decks cannot beat Broodmate Dragon.

The other key distinction is Spectral Procession versus Bitterblossom. For the most part, creature decks are divided between Spectral Procession and Bitterblossom, with White/Red Vengeant Lark and Kithkin on one side, and Faeries and Red/Black on the other. Black/White tokens is, of course, firmly in the middle.

Five-Color Control, Noble Hierarch, and Blue Lark decks are obviously the exceptions, but they try to be the most extreme decks in the format to compensate. Noble Hierarch tries to be the nut aggro deck, hitting the hardest. Five-Color Control and Lark try to have the best Phase 3, or end game.

Lately, R/W has made huge gains in popularity. Various incarnations of R/W Aggro-Lark have been performing well, including a recent win by Saito in Japan (defeating the mirror in the finals).

R/W Vengeant Lark
Tomohiro Saito

4 Figure of Destiny
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Knight of the White Orchid
3 Ranger of Eos
3 Reveillark
4 Siege-Gang Commander

4 Path to Exile
4 Spectral Procession
4 Ajani Vengeant
4 Mind Stone

3 Mountain
3 Plains
4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Rugged Prairie
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Windbrisk Heights

This strategy may be the current fad, much like B/W Tokens was the “in thing” at Worlds. It offers pilots an opportunity to escape the Cryptic Command grind. So many people feel that they don’t want to play Faeries, partially because of some of its White and Red matchups. By the same token, they don’t want to play decks like B/W, as they all inevitably struggle with Faeries.

R/W offers a way to escape this. Your Faeries matchup is reasonable on the surface (although with tight play and diligent study of the archetype, the Faeries player regains the advantage), and you crush the Red decks that prey on Faeries (and some White decks). I think that champions of R/W Aggro Lark probably count on the advantage they gain from opponents that are unfamiliar with their strategy, but it is an advantage against some.

The only Conflux card exploited here is the Path to Exile, which has already received nearly universal inclusion by beatdown players. Sure, you don’t want to give your opponent an extra land, but the enormous tempo boost of a one-mana spell that can remove blockers at instant speed is potentially game winning. The added versatility of fixing your own mana is just gravy.

I do not have Saito’s sideboard available, but I do know that he ran three Banefires. I have seen some people talk about running that card in R/W, creating fierce debate. I do not know for sure how good it is, but for what it is worth, Tomohiro Saito ran three.

I think he also had Celestial Purge in there, which is a dream sideboard card. Dealing with Ajani Vengeant, Figure of Destiny, Demigod of Revenge, Boggart Ram-Gang, Bitterblossom (out of R/B or B/W), Tidehollow Sculler, etc… the list just goes on and on.

I personally think this deck is a little light on land, and would start by cutting at least one Mind Stone for a Plains. Still, it is dangerous to play too much land in a deck like this, as you can get flooded easily.

Personally, I think that careful study of the R/W Lark decks reveal weaknesses that can be exploited, as they are not nearly as robust and durable as other Lark decks, although I do not think other Lark decks have a real game against Faeries… pick your poison.

I do not recommend R/W for Kyoto, although it will be very popular. It will perform reasonably, but I predict that it will not finish disproportionately well compared to how many people will play it. It has been called the aggro deck of choice by some, but I think that may only be because those players do not consider Faeries an aggro deck. It is also a commentary on aggro in this format.

It’s funny to see a format that is so thoroughly filled with aggro decks. Everyone knows that the Cryptic Command decks actually beat everything, but nevertheless, over half the people in any given tournament show up without them.

While we are on the subject of decks without Cryptic Command, here are the other players.

Black/White Tokens
Patrick Chapin

2 Knight of Meadowgrain
2 Knight of White Orchid
4 Tidehollow Sculler
4 Marsh Flitter
4 Cloudgoat Ranger

3 Thoughtseize
4 Path to Exile
2 Martial Coup
4 Spectral Procession
4 Glorious Anthem
2 Ajani Goldmane

4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Fetid Heath
4 Arcane Sanctum
2 Reflecting Pool
4 Plains
1 Swamp
2 Mutavault

I think this deck may be the best of the decks that do not beat Faeries. If you are okay with being a dog to Faeries, this deck is a solid choice. Path to Exile is an upgrade to Terror, as it is not only cheaper and hits more guys, but can randomly give you a boost in mana to help hit Cloudgoat Ranger, sometimes even Martial Coup.

Martial Coup is much stronger than many people give it credit for. The key is that it doesn’t cost seven. A Martial Coup for five mana generates a stronger effect than Spectral Procession (since flying is a drawback right now). Obviously this is not super exciting, as five mana is a lot, but you just devastate White decks when you play this card for seven… we are talking Game Over.

I still like Cruel Ultimatum better in a Five-Color Control deck, but I think that Martial Coup is one to watch and keep trying to make work.

I see a lot of people cut Marsh Flitter, but I think this is a big mistake. Marsh Flitter might be better than Cloudgoat Ranger, as the ability to generate enough guys to trigger a Windbrisk Heights but still have a guy left over in the event of a Fallout is very nice at four mana.

I also do not recommend this deck, as I cannot in good conscience recommend any deck that loses to Faeries. Still, it is probably the best “Reveillark deck,” in the sense that it occupies that spot in the metagame (the Reveillark deck is the best deck that loses to Faeries but allegedly beats everything else, first introduced at Pro Tour: Hollywood and reoccurring throughout 2008).

That is not to say that this cannot beat Faeries, as it does okay… I just think it is a dog, and showing up with a deck that loses to Faeries is not a good plan in Standard right now.

Let’s look at a deck that actually beats Faeries.

Marijn Lybaert

4 Figure of Destiny
4 Goblin Outlander
4 Boggart Ram-Gang
1 Murderous Redcap
3 Siege-Gang Commander

4 Flame Javelin
4 Magma Spray
4 Incinerate

4 Blightning

3 Bitterblossom

3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Auntie’s Hovel
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Graven Cairns
10 Mountain

This deck is a good reminder of why we can’t all play Faeries. Man, can you imagine playtesting for the Pro Tour, spending weeks and weeks and not being able to figure out how to reliably beat Faeries with your deck of choice? You finally give in and decide to run the Fae.

Game 1, you keep Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Vendilion Clique, Cryptic Command, Underground River, Mutavault, Sunken Ruins. You are so happy.

Your opponent plays a turn 1 Figure of Destiny off an Auntie’s Hovel, revealing Boggart Ram-Gang. Things turn downright embarrassing when he plays a Bitterblossom of his own. Blightning does not help your cause.

There is no question this deck beats up on Faeries pretty badly, but it also has some nice choices made to keep in mind the presence of Spectral Procession. Many Red decks traditionally fold to Spectral Procession decks, but the inclusion of Outlander and Siege-Gang show that Marijn intends to try to beat those decks.

While I think this deck probably puts up a good game against R/W, I think it will struggle with B/W, as the overwhelming number of token generators might be too much. This is not really the sort of deck I want to play, but I am impressed at how well it beats Faeries.

Also, I do not love this version versus Five-Color Control, but I think there is a good chance that few people will be able to make Five-Color Control work in Japan, as it is traditionally a deck that is very unforgiving to designers that do not make optimal versions. That is to say, the third-best Faeries deck is typically much better than the third-best Five-Color Control deck.

I included a Five-Color Control list in my article last week, but I did want to include a few notes…

First, four Esper Charms and two Courier’s Capsule is better than three plus three, as I have found Esper Charming enchantments out of the B/W deck to be very important.

If you expect a lot of B/W in your metagame, Scourglass might be a nice upgrade for your Wraths. The ability to blow up the board (including Planeswalkers and enchantments) while staying untapped is sweet.

If you are using Rhox War Monk in your Five-Color Control deck, good luck with that. He is a crutch that you do not need with careful play and deck construction. I would rather play Doran than Rhox War Monk (if only the mana would allow it, but Doran suffers the same fate as Jund Charm, as in it does not interact well with Blue filter lands).

I took out the Ajani Vengeants from my deck, as I think the percentage of players playing Five-Color Control may actually go down, despite it being even stronger than it was before. In addition, Ajani Vengeant suffers from the existence of the most obvious sideboard card in the format, Celestial Purge.

I think that Five-Color Control players will sideboard in Celestial Purge in the dark, as it kills Scepter of Fugue, Ajani Vengeant, Liliana Vess, Vexing Shusher and, when times are tough, half a Broodmate Dragon. It also gives insurance against random stuff like Oona or Nicol Bolas. That is not to say that Ajani Vengeant is not still good, as it is a powerful card; I just want to focus on beating Faeries, R/W, B/W, and R/B, and it is not the best card for this task. Besides, you can outplay a lot of players in a Five-Color Control mirror, whereas if you don’t have an answer to a Cloudgoat Ranger it is hard for them to mess it up.

Actually, while we are on the subject of Five-Color Control, I would like to address some of the questions that people have asked me on the subject.

With regards to mulligans, I try not to mulligan with Five-Color Control against Fae unless I can’t cast spells. I will literally keep any three-to-six-land hand, and most two-land hands as long as they have something to do on turn 3 when I get there. If your Five-Color Control deck is built correctly, all of your cards will be reasonable against Fae, so it is not a question of having the right cards.

That is part of the reason I avoid cards like Condemn (at least main), and am hesitant about Wrath of God (Scourglass is better against Fae, I think).

You badly need to get ahead of them on cards. Esper Charm should be primarily used to draw two, though right now if I am on the play, I destroy Bitterblossom with Esper Charm almost 50% of the time I have the option (i.e. if I have more card drawing in my hand).

You only want to make them discard two if you are fighting a battle to strip their hand of the last couple of cards to force through a Dragon, a Cruel Ultimatum, or a Cloudthresher. The problem with doing it in other situations is that too often they just discard a Terror and a Sower or some other such rubbish.

Remember, it is not that you want them to have Bitterblossom. It is their best card. It is just that it is so important to have more cards than them, it is often better to draw two instead. Other times, it can be game-winning to destroy the Bitterblossom, as sometimes they will keep hands that are all-in on the Tribal Enchantment, particularly if they have mulliganed or if they play Bitterblossom on turn 3 (implying they just drew it, so they don’t have another).

What Manuel Bucher and I have been saying is that you have to accept that they will have Bitterblossom in play a lot of the time, and you might as well get used to the idea and figure out a strategy that can beat them even if this is so.

Courier’s Capsule is a great card that is underestimated by many. If you have ever played Shards Limited, than you surely have respect for it in that format. I assure you, it carries over to Constructed in this case. Think of it like a Think Twice.

I have since cut Wispmare from the sideboard, favoring cards like Scourglass and Wrath for fighting B/W. I think it is still reasonable to play Broken Ambitions. The card is great against Fae.

I think Obelisk of Alara is too slow. It is vital to get some value now. To do that with the Obelisk requires a cruel amount of mana.

I am boarding a plane to Japan in a few hours, so I have to wrap up this article. In closing, I would like to say that I anticipate a field heavy with Spectral Procession decks. I also think these decks are not as good as the Cryptic Command decks.

It is strange, in a field dominated by Spectral Procession and Bitterblossom, that the Scattershot Archer hasn’t found a home. I think Broodmate Dragon utterly ruins all non-Cryptic Command decks. I think that Kyoto won’t have that many surprises, but that there is nice new technology that will come to the surface. I think that people will underestimate Faeries and it will perform well. I think that people will think that R/W is good and it will perform poorly.

I think that the most popular decks will be R/W and Faeries, followed by B/W and R/B. Noble Hierarch and Five-Color Control will come next, with random Lark and rogue decks filling the space beneath.

Wish me luck this weekend, and be sure to watch to see how Manuel Bucher, Heezy, Nassif, Wafo, the Ruels, Parke and I do. We have been brewing, and I think we have something to offer in which you might be interested…

See you on the other side!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”