Innovations – The First Taste Of M12 In Tournament Play

Patrick Chapin has decklists for you. Lots of them. Today, he takes a look at a variety of decks that have emerged out of the post-banning post-M12 Standard format from Japanese Nationals to Cincinnati this past weekend.

We finally have our first look at M12 in tournament play, and there is no shortage of new cards making the grade. Not many tournaments have happened since Jace and Mystic were banned, so the format is fresh and exciting. Both Japanese Nationals and SCG Open: Cincinnati were this past weekend, and the metagames were strikingly different. This just goes to show that before technology spreads on the internet, localized metagames are often very different from global ones. It is very much the same experience as when one goes to a Pro Tour of a new format and compares the metagame among the Japanese players to that of the Americans, or the Europeans.

Today, I’d like to take a broad overview of the results from this past weekend and use them to start to piece together what the metagame is starting to look like. What trends do we see? What is working? What is not? To begin with, here is some information on the tournaments, to give you a feel for the differences between the events:

SCG Open: Cincinnati Top 16

4 Caw-Blade
3 Twin (Pyro, Grixis, RUG)
2 Valakut
2 Tempered Steel
2 U/W Control
1 U/W Puresteel
1 Vampires
1 Jund

Japanese Nationals Top 8:

3 Valakut
2 Tempered Steel
2 U/B Control (1 Traditional, 1 Tez)
1 G/W Mid-Range

Breakdown of all 358 decks from day one of Japanese Nationals:

Valakut 22.3%
Mono-Red 12.0%
U/B Control (Split between Traditional and Tez, with slightly more Traditional)
U/W Control 9.2%
Twin/Ascension 8.1% (About 3/4ths U/R, with a little Grixis and a couple RUG)
Tempered Steel 7.5%
U/B Control 6.1%
Caw-Blade 5.9%
U/B Tez 5.0%
Vampires 3.4%
Esper Control 2.8%
W/G Mid-Range 2.0%
Boros 2.0%
Puresteel 0.6%
Misc. Ramp/Control/Combo 7.3%
Misc. Aggro 4.7%

And finally, here is a semi-arbitrary performance breakdown that attempts to aggregate the results from both events. Here, we are trying to get a feel for how important each of these decks is. This can give us an idea of where to spend our playtest time initially. The formula I used was:

25%(A) + 25%(B) + 50%(C)

A = Percentage appearance in Top 8 of Japanese Nationals

B = Percentage appearance on Day One of Japanese Nationals

C = Percentage appearance in top 16 of SCG Open: Cincinnati

The idea was to weigh the US data equal to the Grand Prix, since locally it is more relevant, but the GP is a higher profile event. The only data available to me at the moment are the top 16 results for the US, hence it being worth 50%, whereas we can split the Top 8 finishers and day one results from Japan.

The results:

Valakut 22.1%
Tempered Steel 14.4%
Caw-Blade 14.0%
Twin/Ascension 11.4% (Counts all three-four types)
U/B Control 9.0% (Counts both Tez and Non-Tez)
U/W Control 8.6%
Vampires 4.0%
G/W Mid-Range 3.6%
Puresteel 3.3%
Jund 3.1%
Mono-Red 3.0%

It would appear that Valakut is living up to its reputation and is the starting point for the format. Interestingly, Valakut was actually more successful in Japan percentage-wise, than the US, despite being the most popular strategy in Japan. Are the Americans too stubborn to play Valakut as much as the Japanese, or are the Americans better prepared to combat it as a result of the Open Series advancing the local metagame? Last season, Europe did not have quite the level of Caw-Blade dominance that America did, and the same question was asked there. Was the European metagame advanced past Caw-Blade, or did they not get to that point yet? As it turned out, they were weeks behind in the metagame, but that does not mean that the US is definitely ahead of Japan, this time.

Here is an example of a Valakut list from each side of the ocean:

Two big trends jump out at us from looking at all five Valakut lists. To begin with, all five successful lists maxed out on Rampant Growths, newly available as a result of M12. This may not surprise many readers, but as discussed last week, this was far from a foregone conclusion. Even more interesting is that, of the Valakut lists, four used Solemn Simulacrum (and three of those four players used the full four copies). While not everyone in Swiss maxed out on Jens, it does seem that initial results would strongly suggest that he is one of the ramp spells Valakut should start with.

For reference, here is a breakdown of the ramp spells used by all five Valakut players, besides Rampant Growth, Solemn Simulacrum, Overgrown Battlement, and Explore:

3 Harrow + 4 Green Sun’s Zenith (only 3 Solemn Simulacrum)

4 Khalni Heart + 2 Harrow + 2 Cultivate

1 Harrow + 4 Green Sun’s Zenith

4 Cultivate + 4 Green Sun’s Zenith + 1 Birds (only 2 Explore, 0 Solemn Simulacrum)

3 Khalni Heart Expedition + 3 Harrow

The great Green Sun’s Zenith vs. Summoning Trap debate continues, with two of the lists being dedicated Summoning Trap builds, two of the lists being Green Sun’s Zenith builds, and one being a Green Sun’s Zenith build with a miser’s Trap main. Also of note, Wurmcoil Engine was much more popular than before, presumably a response to Go for the Throat and Dismember’s surge in popularity, as well as the aggression of Mono-Red and Vampires.

As for the complimentary removal, the lists were all over the place, with Beast Within, Dismember, Tumble Magnet, Lightning Bolt, and Burst Lightning all making an appearance. Burst Lightning was particularly clever, I think, as it really does function as a Lightning Bolt the vast majority of the time, plus you get the added value of hitting Deceiver Exarch some amount of the time. Additionally, if you are playing against a non-aggro player, it is almost always better, as the cost doesn’t matter by the time you actually play it. Without Jace around demanding three damage, the biggest drawback is that you can’t use two to kill a Titan as easily.

The next strategy to cover, moving down our list, is the latest in a long line of Block decks moving up to the big leagues, Tempered Steel.

While Tempered Steel is not new, the change in the format has done wonders for the archetype. To begin with, it no longer gets beat up by Caw-Blade, obviously. Beyond that, though, it also greatly benefits from no longer having to face nearly as much maindeck artifact hate. These lists gain almost nothing from M12 (only Shiels uses a new M12 card, the lone sideboard copy of Timely Reinforcements); however aggro is always popular at the onset of a new format.

It would seem that the primary question facing Tempered Steel deckbuilders is whether to include blue. I have included one list from each side, but the others are nearly the same. The other unlisted Japanese deck is W/u (with maindeck Preordain and sideboard permission), and the other unlisted American list is that of Kyle Dembinski (basically the same mono-white, with no Contested War Zones). Tempered Steel seems likely to be the sort of strategy that will wane a bit in popularity once people prepare for it, but it is strong and consistent, with enough “nut-draws” leading to free wins that it is probably going to be somewhat of a permanent fixture (perhaps akin to Vampires).

If you are going to go this route, I recommend the blue versions. They give you better game against combo and at little cost. Additionally, if you are so foolish as to buy snakeskin oil from mages in denial about Preordain, consider that the successful W/u Tempered Steel decks splashed Preordain as their only maindeck blue card, despite only 11 sources of blue mana and being “aggressive.” Obviously Tempered Steel is more important to this deck than most individual cards are to a U/W deck (now that it doesn’t have its two best cards), but the fact remains: you can find time to play this card, even if you are tapping out every turn. It is that good.

Up next, we have what many Americans seem to be suggesting is the “next big thing,” and not just from these results, but from the buzz all over the place, Caw-Blade:

Of the four lists available (all American), I selected the two that were the farthest apart for greatest contrast. Ben Friedman (7th) and Michael Belfatto (10th) also finished well with Caw-Blade lists somewhere in between these two.

As you can see, these lists are very much actual Caw-Blade lists, and not just because they feature both the “Caw” and the “Blade.” They are fundamentally the same strategy as Caw-Blade (or at least some small parts of that same strategy), using the ten new slots (4 Jace, 4 Mystic, 2 Batterskull), as well as no longer needing half a dozen sideboard cards maindeck, to play an honest game. Affinity was still Affinity, even after Disciple of the Vault and Skullclamp were banned. Caw-Blade is still Caw-Blade, despite losing its two best cards.

Pskowski took the trophy in Cincinnati and is playing what appears to be a more common style of nu-Caw-Blade, as discussed here . He utilizes M12’s Oblivion Ring (to the surprise of no one), but also features a miser’s Stave Off in the sideboard. As we discussed recently, this is a surprising sideboard card against Twin, but here it has greatly added utility, also protecting a key Hero of Bladehold from Into the Roil, or any other removal. Some players prefer Mirran Crusader in the three spot, instead of Blade Splicer, but thus far the combos with Venser and the resiliency against burn have won out. Consecrated Sphinx does look like a better finisher on its own, but Sun Titan gains utility with its Venser and Blade Splicer synergies.

Edgar Flores appears to be building on his record for most Top 8s with Caw-Blade, utilizing fewer threats (but more reliable ones, with more Swords and Spellskites to protect them). His use of Timely Reinforcements, here, is fascinating. Many players have been unwilling to maindeck one of the most talked about “sideboard cards” from M12, but it is definitely reasonable to maindeck it if you believe that enough of the blue decks will actually have creatures, so that you can trigger it. Even if you can’t, though, is it really that much worse than a Journey to Nowhere?

What direction to go with Caw-Blade is a question most likely only Gerry Thompson can truly answer. I am betting we’ll see quite a bit of variety in the next couple of weeks leading into Nationals. Most likely the format will be fairly volatile for a few weeks, and a deck like Caw-Blade was made to be tweaked for the specific event, the specific week it is for.

The next macro-archetype to breakdown is actually three fairly different archetypes that all share a kill. While these strategies can be fairly varied in execution, all three fight for a similar combo-niche in the metagame. The Splinter Twin archetype seems to be mostly U/R, with a fair amount of Grixis, and only a smattering of RUG, so far. Here is an example of each, from the top 16 in Cincinnati, though it should be reminded that not all U/R builds play Pyromancer Ascension.

There are not a lot of M12 cards seeing play in the Twin decks, though it is an M12 card that has thrust this archetype into the spotlight (despite the loss of Jace). Ponder has moved straight into dedicated blue combo decks, as expected, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in even Birthing Pod builds that feature significantly less blue mana. With so many shufflers and such a strong incentive to dig to Pod, as well as the combo, Ponder seems great.

While Grixis has been the subject of some harsh words by a variety of critics lately, it does offer an increase in disruption that makes it particularly well equipped to combat other combo decks. It is not yet clear what the best U/R build looks like, now that Jace is gone. Pyromancer Ascension is an attempt to brute force it, so to speak. Perhaps a more controlling build will emerge.

Meanwhile, Michael Jacob darling, RUG Twin, has gained only Solemn Simulacrum from M12; though I agree with Jacob, that Ponder could upgrade this list as well. I am not sure I can get behind Leyline of Sanctity out of the sideboard (“ambitious” comes to mind), but Hero of Oxid Ridge is fairly spicy. It should be noted that it took Frost Titan one day to grab another Top 8. The rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Birthing Pod decks are a tough nut to crack, as even a single card change can have reaching implications. One thing is for sure, though, the engine is a strong one.

Moving on, we come to the U/B Control decks. I have lumped Traditional U/B Control and Tezzeret together, because while they may use a lot of different support cards, they play fairly similarly. Both lists don’t really “take control” of the game, so much as they use cheap removal, discard, and permission to buy themselves time to gain an advantage with blue planeswalkers and close the game out with “sixes.” Here is an example of each:

To begin with, what’s new? Well, the traditional U/B list features three copies of Solemn Simulacrum (continuing to fulfill the prophecy). The robots provide much needed card advantage, helping ease the loss of Jace. Additionally, they ramp into the turn five Grave Titan, Wurmcoil Engine, Consecrated Sphinx, or whatever.

Beyond the adoption of Simulacrum (which I love), I am a fan of Takao’s build, in particular, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, he has moved the Spreading Seas to the sideboard. Even in Japan, where Valakut appears most popular, I think this is where you want to be. Spreading Seas just doesn’t do enough against many opponents to be worth the tempo loss in this exceedingly tempo-oriented format. Additionally, Takao uses five sweepers, which is significantly more than most people have talked about playing lately. Beyond that, he plays a relatively balanced mix of discard (5), permission (6), spot removal (3), and fatties (4). This approach is conservative and a solid way to ensure that you at least have some play versus everyone. I would like to see Mental Misstep make an appearance in the sideboard, but overall, this is one of my favorite lists of the weekend.

Yasooka’s Tezzeret list is in the same vein as the style discussed by Brian Kiblerhere , though Yasooka’s list is a bit more all over the place. I do like the move away from four maindeck Torpor Orbs. Torpor Orb can be great in the right matchups, but it is bad a fair amount of the time. Additionally, it is a victim of diminishing returns. Yasooka’s only M12 card is a comically awesome one, Sorin’s Vengeance. At first glance, one may wonder why? Why use Sorin’s Vengeance here? Well, the simple answer is that a twenty-point swing for seven mana is a pretty good deal.

Ten points of direct damage can be excellent in a deck full of Tar Pits, especially since the life gain gives you time to finish the deal. Tezzeret often lets you get in a free crack for five, followed by an attack with two artifacts (one of which gets blocked). Alternatively, draining someone for ten with Tez is much easier than the full twenty. Just gaining ten life can be huge, in this strategy. It isn’t just how many more burn spells it will take to kill you, it is that the ten damage combined with a couple fetchlands can put an aggressive player in a spot where they are forced to play defensively.

Why does Yasooka only play one? Maybe it really just is the perfect miser’s card, but I suspect it is really more of a Cruel Ultimatum type scenario where people are hesitant to move in on it. It was always so much easier for people in the beginning to justify the miser’s Cruel than two or three. I don’t think Sorin’s Vengeance is as good as Cruel Ultimatum, but there are a lot of similarities, and it is a lot easier to cast.

On to the other obvious direction to go with control, U/W:

These two lists, from SCG Open: Cincinnati, do a pretty good job of painting the picture of what U/W players who don’t play Swords or Tempered Steel are working on. I am a bigger fan of Vaca’s build, as it looks more streamlined and almost reminiscent of U/B Control in its “tap-out” control style of play (rather than true control). Heavy use of planeswalkers is something I’d expect U/W to continue to feature, as they have so many great options in that department. Spreading Seas gains a bit of utility from the Vensers, but even still, their spot maindeck is far from settled.

I love Vaca’s use of Oblivion Ring, and would love to see some of those Tumble Magnets in Woolum’s list get switched over. In a surprise to no one, Preordain was universally adopted by the successful U/W Control lists this weekend. If it seems like I am beating a dead horse, it is only because the dead horse seems to come back over and over again, and like a zombie, it tries to eat the brains of unsuspecting readers. If the horse would just die, we wouldn’t have to keep hitting it with baseball bats.

Consecrated Sphinx is generally favored over other creatures in U/W Control, and I expect this trend to continue. It is not just the interaction with Jace Beleren (which not everyone even uses, as you can see). It is that the Sphinx combines especially well with white removal, since white removal can do a much better job taking over a board than black removal. As a result, while U/B decks more often need Grave Titan and Wurmcoil to simply not die, Day of Judgment, Oblivion Ring, Gideon, Wall of Omens, and sideboard cards ensure that the board is not U/W’s weak spot. U/W is actually much weaker at dealing with spells, as it does not have the discard that black brings to the table. This is where Consecrated Sphinx really shines, since drawing three cards a turn is generally fantastic against non-creature spell decks, whereas extra life or tokens don’t really interact with non-creature spells at all.

Timely Reinforcements is again making an appearance, and I only expect its popularity to grow. The biggest thing holding it back is that it is unreal good against opponents that white decks often beat up on already. You can only play so many Kor Firewalkers, Baneslayers, Timely Reinforcements, and the like before you get greatly diminishing returns. Dismember is the single biggest reason why I think Timely Reinforcements is the best of the bunch, at the moment.

Farney’s list is as no nonsense as they come: a Vampires list that even Patrick Sullivan might be able to get behind. The only new addition from M12 is Sorin’s Thirst, which is still greatly underrated. Too many people compare it to Disfigure and say that the extra life you gain is the life you lost from not playing the spell a turn earlier. This is incredibly flawed, because what if you want to do anything else on turn 1?

Being able to spend a mana to gain two life is like Kabira Crossroads or letting a shockland enter the battlefield tapped. Is Kabira Crossroads worth playing? Well, it doesn’t see a lot of play maindeck, but if you could sideboard it in against Red without losing a sideboard slot, would you? Absolutely. That is a great deal. When you were going to bring in Disfigure anyway, you are getting an entire Kabira Crossroads worth of value without having to use any additional sideboard slots. Besides, when you already have Lightning Bolt and Dismember, it is easy to not need the tempo play of Disfigure (or Burst Lightning). While Disfigure makes a fine first removal spell, Sorin’s Thirst is obviously quite superior as a second or third.

Why is there no discard? Twin is the only combo deck that can just straight-up race you, and your removal offers a line of defense against them. The others, you are often better off racing than trying to disrupt. You are faster than them. Why slow yourself down?

Finally we come to a couple of new decks that have people talking. Will they fade away, flashes in the pan, or are they the beginning of major new archetypes? First, from Japan:

I am not a big fan of this build, as it appears relatively untuned and vulnerable to combo. I would love to beat up on some aggro decks with this beast, and I’m sure it is fine against control, but man. Twin, Pyromancers, and Valakut all look like disasters for it.

Tons of efficient dudes is a fine strategy, but you aren’t really going to race most of the combo decks and there are just too many of them at the moment. Additionally, playing only one Birthing Pod seems like lunacy. Yes, there are diminishing returns, I suppose, but the card is so much better than so many of your other cards. Maybe the Pod just makes you better against the people you already beat, but I suspect if that is the case, we can afford to trim some points in that department elsewhere and put together some kind of realistic anti-combo plan. I wouldn’t be surprised if this strategy sees a small surge in popularity in US metagames where aggro is popular, but I suggest tuning.

To be devil’s advocate, maybe it is worth sacrificing the combo match-ups for how great your edge is elsewhere. After all, how many people are actually combo? Day one of Japanese Nationals was about a third combo, if that is any indicator. Maybe you try to dodge, and if you hit them, just race as fast as you can. Lotus Cobra might steal some wins. Acidic Slime is a plan, I guess. Spellskite or Purge might sneak a couple. Finally, it should be mentioned, this list was allegedly designed by legendary Japanese deckbuilding genius, Tsuyoshi Fujita. That doesn’t mean it will dominate the weeks to come, but we should give it the benefit of the doubt, as his pedigree is top rank.

Keep in mind, it is not the concept I dislike. I like the concept a lot, as readers of my recent articles are sure to realize. I just question some of the choices, like:

— Three Journey to Nowhere? Can we do better? Dismember, Oblivion Ring, Beast Within, splashing black? We already have Marsh Flats, Verdant Catacombs, Birds of Paradise, and Lotus Cobra. It seems like a real easy splash.

— All the other “3’s.” Do we really want 3 Lotus Cobra, 3 Blade Splicer, 3 Acidic Slime, and so on? It might be right, but it smells like a rough draft.

— Only one Birthing Pod. It is possible that this is just miles from a Birthing Pod, in terms of how you want the games to play out, and it is a back-up plan going long, but every which way I look at it, this seems like a deck that could have at least a little more Birthing Pod action.

The final story for our weekend update is the breakthrough success of Jund:

While some pundits have declared this a brand new archetype, the card advantage style of Jund has had a devoted following all year. Solemn Simulacrum, Grim Lavamancer, and Garruk, Primal Hunter give it far more new weapons than almost anyone else, which when combined with Jace, the Mind Sculptor being banned (its biggest problem), we have all the makings of a big new winner.

Grim Lavamancer is often not going to hit the table on turn one, but it doesn’t need to. Even leading with a turn one manland, followed by a turn two Inquisition plus Lavamancer is a fantastic opening. So often, the people that would get wrecked by Lavamancer the most don’t have more than a single answer in their opening hand. He could put a little pressure on opponents (and all those little dudes add up), but he also provides even more card advantage. This deck really is a Jund deck in spirit, not just color combination.

Solemn Simulacrum is a perfect fit for these new Jund decks, as it provides basically a Jace’s Ingenuity worth of card advantage, while continuing the theme of incremental edge dudes to work away at opponents. As always, the prospect on turn 5 Titans is always nice.

Speaking of fast Titans, Lotus Cobra is better than over here. In addition to fixing your mana, he now has a ton of legitimate threats to accelerate into, thanks to my favorite M12 card: Garruk, Primal Hunter. A thorough discussion on why Garruk kicks so much ass can be found here . Long story short, he provides a fantastic board presence, a variety of excellent forms of card advantage, and is generally at a very high power level. This isn’t going to be Garruk’s only home, but he is why I believe this archetype is the real deal. Garruk isn’t as strong as Jace, but he really is more of a Jace than a Gideon in terms of how he plays.

Jund has enough removal (black and red for creatures, green for enchantments and artifacts) and disruption (discard, Memoricide, Phyrexian Revoker) to legitimately fight combo decks. Its huge amount of good card advantage lets you contest Caw-Blade for the role of best mid-range deck. The cheap removal, card advantage creatures, and Titan gives you a legit plan against aggro. A lot of people are excited about this strategy getting enough new weapons to really break through, and frankly, I am one of them.

See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”