Innovations – Things Can Be Different This Time…

Caw-Blade seems to be picking up more steam as the season picks up, but is that the end of the story? Patrick Chapin doesn’t think so. Read this article for ways to change the narrative.

The more things change…

US Nationals is just two weeks away, and M12 is in full effect. Already, we are seeing a dangerous and disturbing trend emerge, but this time things can be different. We have an opportunity to do what we could not last time. We have an opportunity to make sure that Evil doesn’t win. When I see the results from French Nationals, Australian Nationals, and SCG Open: Seattle, it does raise the alert level, but more than anything, all it really means is that we have a villain worthy of our time. That is a challenge, and a challenge is good.

In an effort to help ensure that the metagame doesn’t get to the way it was last month, I have decided to pay extra focus to Standard discussion, despite US Nationals being just two weeks away. Today, I’d like to pick up where we left off last week and improve our picture of the new metagame. With a better look at the metagame this week, compared to last week, as well as information from Glenn Jonesarticle on SCG Open: Cincinnati’s metagame , we can try to figure out what questions the format is really asking. Brewing with purpose is a very different animal from brewing just to brew.

The formula we used last week gave an excellent look at what would be popular this week, so like last week, we are going to measure the performance of each of the major archetypes using a similar one.

20% French Nationals Top 8 + 20% French Nationals Day 1 + 20% Australian Nationals Top 8 + 40% SCG Open: Seattle Top 16

I chose these ratios because French Nationals and SCG Open: Seattle should be about equal in weight, since French Nationals is higher profile, and we have the day 1 breakdown instead of 9-16 decks, but the US event is more indicative of the metagame in the US (and over the past year has generally been a couple weeks ahead of the non-US metagame). Australian Nationals gives us only eight decks worth of data, plus the Australian metagame is a bit more removed, hence it being worth only half compared to the other two.

Here is the raw data from those events:

French Nationals Top 8:

2x Caw-Blade
2x Mono-Red
U/W Control
B/r Vampires

French Nationals Day 1 Metagame (190 decks):

Valakut       15%
Tempered Steel 15%
Caw-Blade     12%
U/W Control    10%
Eldrazi Green*   8%
U/B + Tez**     7%
Twin***       6%
Mono-R****     6%
Pyromancer     4%
B/r Vampires    4%
Elves          2%
Pod (Non-Combo) 2%
Puresteel       1%
Misc.          7%

*6% Traditional Eldrazi Green, 2% Quicksilver Amulet
**4% Traditional U/B Control, 3% Tezzeret
***All varieties of Twin, though mostly U/R
****4% RDW, 1% Goblins, 1% Kuldotha Red

Special thanks to Emilien Wild for raw French Day 1 data.

Australian Nationals Top 8:

2x RUG TwinPod
2x Tempered Steel
2x Mono-R (1 RDW, 1Goblins)
B/r Vampires
U/W Control

SCG Open: Seattle Top 16:

6x Caw-Blade
4x Twin (3 U/R, 1 RUG)
2x Tempered Steel
1x Puresteel
1x Mono-Red
1x Pyromancer Ascension
1x B/r Vampires

Performance Breakdown

Caw-Blade     22%
Twin         16%
Mono-R       14%
Tempered Steel  13%
B/r Vampires    11%
U/W Control     7%
Valakut        3%
Pyromancer     3%
Elves         3%
Pod (No Twin)   3%
Puresteel       2%
Eldrazi Green     2%
U/B Control + Tez  1%

“It always ends the same.”

It only ends once; everything else is just progress….

Was Caw-Blade the clear winner from this past weekend? Yes. After a startling performance last week, Caw-Blade has increased in popularity with success to match. Is the sky falling, so to speak? Not likely. Caw-Blade may have lost its eight best cards, but it is not suffering in the card quality department and is well equipped for preying on amateurs (like Faeries before it). This is surely a contributing factor to why we are seeing Caw-Blade put up numbers in the US that greatly exceed the foreign Nationals events. That said, another factor is that the US metagame is likely a bit ahead, meaning the full impact of Caw-Blade’s resurgence has not been felt elsewhere.

While Caw-Blade was the most successful this past weekend, it can be targeted (to a degree), and without the sheer raw power of Jace and Mystic to brute-force wins, we can tune our decks to beat this more modest Caw-Blade threat. The important thing is to actually give it the credit it deserves. Just look at how completely Valakut got smashed everywhere! It was one of the two most popular decks at all three events, yet it failed to place a pilot in a top slot in any of them. Players finally set about beating Valakut and succeeded in spades.

Let’s start by examining the enemy. First, here are three Caw-Blade lists that show the variety of ways people are filling the Jace/Mystic/Batterskull slots.

Caw-Blade by Edgar Flores and Nicholas Spagnolo
Top 2 at StarCityGames.com Standard Open: Seattle

We have discussed these new breeds of Caw-Blade most recently, here . To begin with, the primary directions thus far seem to be lots of creatures or few creatures. Of those with creatures, there is still much debate over Blade Splicer vs. Mirran Crusader. Personally, I prefer Blade Splicer in decks with Sword of Feast and Famine and Mirran Crusader in decks with any other Sword.

The other strategy is the evolution of Edgar Flores’s creature-lite version, utilizing Timely Reinforcements and Spellskite as the only targets for Swords besides Hawks and manlands. It is interesting to note that both Edgar Flores and Nicholas Spagnolo top 4ed the SCG Open in Seattle (Nick going 16-0 in games in the Swiss) using identical lists.

A common trend we are seeing among all these builds is the move away from defense. With only a single copy of Day of Judgment between all four lists main, there is a weakness to exploit. Obviously Days and Ratchet Bombs out of the sideboard are going to be a factor, but it is interesting to consider. Can these lists really keep up with Tempered Steel, reliably? These lists really are slanted against combo decks, which makes sense considering how popular and successful combo was last week.

Caw-Blade can put down a Hawk on two, a Sword (possibly off a Nexus) on three, and put pretty serious pressure on a combo deck while staying untapped. This aggro-control plan is not prone to being beaten by silver bullets, but rather by getting attacked from angles that it is not prepared for.

For instance, we saw a massive surge in the success of Mono-Red. Why? Mono-Red actually did a halfway decent job keeping up with Caw-Blade back when it had Batterskulls, Sword of War and Peace, Mystic, and Jace. You think it is concerned with this new, powered down version? Mono-Red even has Grim Lavamancer, which is a giant problem for Caw-Blade, not to mention Incinerate, Chandra’s Phoenix, Goblin Grenade, and more to choose from!

U/W Caw-Blade has always been notoriously vulnerable to cheap, must-kill creatures, and these new breeds are no different. Lotus Cobra, Grim Lavamancer, Fauna Shaman, Puresteel Paladin, Emeria Angel, and Cunning Sparkmage are all extremely powerful against Caw-Blade. (And Jace’s Archivist would be too, if someone found a good home for it. Just imagine Jace’s Archivist against the Squadron Hawk/Spell Pierce deck!) If you want cards that are good against Caw-Blade, these are some fine ones to think about, as well as any other relatively cheap creature that must be dealt with immediately.

Additionally, it seems like people have forgotten about Tumble Magnet, but it is still one of the best ways to defend yourself from a Sword-based attack and has a wide range of applications. It is not great against Twin (since they usually just tap it on your turn), nor Puresteel or Mono-Red, to say nothing of blue control, but it could be a hot sideboard card (or maindeck card if you are playing Tezzeret or Venser). If people were only on Blade Splicer, it would be worth considering more Torpor Orb action, but if they have Mirran Crusader or Timely Reinforcements, that plan falls apart.

Discussing ways to combat Caw-Blade is the top priority, as I am sure there will be no shortage of articles talking about how to win with Caw-Blade in the days to come. To begin, let’s take a look at the other big winner from this weekend, Twin decks.

Remember that U/R Twin is still more popular than RUG Twin; however RUG gained a ton of momentum this past weekend, posting a better conversion rate than U/R. With the amount of focus on Caw-Blade that we will surely see this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if RUG Twin continues to gain in popularity.

Here is a typical U/R Twin deck, which will continue to be quite common, as well as two RUG Twin decks (one with Birthing Pod, one without).

As you can see, the RUG deck without Birthing Pod is basically just the RUG deck from last season, using Deceiver + Twin instead of Jace + Precursor Golem (and shaving some numbers). Both builds have opted for six cantrips, which I could totally buy is the correct number. I am not sold on the split, though I suspect if we are using Birthing Pods, we may want 4-2 in favor of Ponder, but 2-4 the other way if we do not. The number of shufflers we use changes the value of Ponder dramatically (whereas Preordain is always good). It may be that we want to bias it even more towards Preordain however, as it is just a stronger card in general.

It should go without saying, at this point, but Shrine of Piercing Visions should be completely standard in U/R Twin. Additionally, Mutagenic Growth is the perfect foil against someone that is primarily on Dismember to stop you. As for new technology in the RUG decks, there is a bit more spice to cover.

The non-Pod build uses Wurmcoil Engine and Inferno Titan as its sixes, which is no surprise. There has been a lot of back and forth between Batterskull and Wurmcoil, but Wurmcoil really is much better against Red, right now. There are just too many Dismembers and Flame Slashes. Besides, even double Bolting a Batterskull is fine, whereas Wurmcoil gives you reinforcements. Oracle of Mul Daya is kind of random, but Ponder does mean there are an increased number of ways to manipulate the top of your library. The Baloths and Pyroclasms in the board are vital, and I suspect this list doesn’t even go far enough, as RUG has often been a bit weak to aggressive red decks.

The Pod list features Phantasmal Image (a card that should be at least a one-of in basically every Pod deck that has one-drops to turn into it). Phantasmal Image lets you trade a Bird or Elf in for whatever the largest creature on the board is. Deceiver Exarch can let you untap your Pod in response to the Pod’s activation, so that when you go get the Image and copy something expensive, you can immediately sacrifice it to get something even bigger (and dodge the Phantasmal drawback). Phantasmal Image is also excellent with enters the battlefield triggers, such as that of Solemn Simulacrum (since it doesn’t matter if a copy of Solemn dies from being targeted). In Titan battles, it can be pretty awesome when: you play a Titan, they play a Titan, you play a Phantasmal Image and copy a Titan, and then you trade Titans with them while holding up Mana Leak. Alternatively, just doing little things like copying a Lotus Cobra on the draw can be huge.

Urabrask the Hidden has a couple different elements to his functionality, in this list. He is an aggressive creature that can set up a totally devastating curve into a Titan, as well as threaten Deceiver Twin in one turn (which is particularly valuable against Grand Abolisher). As long as he is on the table, you can’t get comboed out by opposing Twin decks. Finally, he just exerts a big influence on the board, making blocking more difficult and forcing opponents to play more defensively than they otherwise would.

Tuktuk the Explorer should be universally adopted in RUG Twin decks, but I still see some people overlook the card. Everyone loves sacrificing a Blade Splicer and keeping a 3/3, so they should love getting to keep a 5/5. Besides, this guy is just a total wrecking ball against Vampires. Blade Splicer’s Golem can be Bolted easily, but Tuktuk the Returned is out of Bolt range and has no Throat (as he is an artifact creature).

Molten-Tail Masticore is the final “interesting” selection, maindeck. Birthing Pod does bolster the amount of bodies in the bin, but the biggest bonus belongs to its ability to bring a battle to an end singlehandedly. It locks out Twin, can race Valakut, and can just be a very annoying threat for people relying on Go for the Throat or Lightning Bolt (noticing a trend here?).

Oxidda Scrapmelter gets the nod over Manic Vandal in the sideboard to ensure that you have a good “get” at each spot on the curve. Sylvok Replica is more important than Manic Vandal, as you want to be able to hit Tempered Steel as well as lock out Twin. Scrapmelter is the ideal four-drop against Tempered Steel, which lets you curve into Acidic Slime. Tuktuk Scrapper is also an option, depending on how much Phantasmal Image/Phyrexian Metamorph action you are packing.

Too many people have their sights set on U/R Twin, practicing against it ad nauseam. RUG isn’t as fast, but it has a variety of other angles of attack and, I suspect, is a better strategy for the week to come.

Up next, we have the winner of the most improved award, Mono-Red. Remember all that talk about Mono-Red being a good place to be? Well, it turns out it is; it just took a week for people to actually play enough hate to try to fight the combo decks. The decreased number of Valakut decks and increased number of Caw-Blades is the perfect storm for Red to take on a major role in the format. Here are the different types of aggressive Red decks we can expect to see.

As you can see, I have included Goblins, as it really is functionally very similar to the other Red Deck Wins variants, these days. You just curve out with aggressive guys and clear the path with burn. Pyretic Ritual is an interesting new twist to consider, though. Past Goblin decks have often taken advantage of mediocre red rituals, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Goblin Arsonist getting the nod over Spikeshot Elder says a lot about the tempo-based nature of the format (and Goblin players’ desire to sacrifice Goblins). Neither Ember Hauler nor Warren Instigator making the cut is also very revealing. I am not sure I could get away from a fourth Shrine, but of all the Mono-Red aggro decks, only in Goblins is it a reasonable question.

The French list is a bit all over the place, with untuned numbers, Koth (despite not being well positioned), too much land (so as to support the Koths we don’t want), and an outrageous amount of burn (which I actually like, though using only three Shrines is a crime).

The final list looks like a Patrick Sullivan creation to the bone, and I suspect he was the architect. I am using this exact 75 as my red test deck, for my gauntlet this week. Here we see Chandra’s Phoenix, rather than Koth (which I totally agree with), as well as only 20 land (which I could get behind). Flame Slash is a nice tempo play, and we really don’t need 20 ways to return the Phoenix to our hand. As you can see, two-drops are just not well suited to the current style of RDW. Twelve one-drops may be enough, but I actually think Skitter of Lizards would make a better one-drop than Spikeshot Elder if we needed a 13th. The format is that tempo-based.

If you are interested in playing red in the weeks to come, expect an increase in all the usual hate (Wurmcoils, Obstinate Baloths, Kor Firewalkers, Baneslayers), but most importantly, an increase in Timely Reinforcements. That card is just incredible and singlehandedly gives Caw-Blade a fighting chance against red decks. Figuring out the right way to play against it is going to be key. Is there some sideboard card or maindeck adoption that will help? Kitchen Finks had such a big impact on red decks that they all evolved to play technology like Ashenmoor Gouger and Blood Knight. What will the anti-Timely Reinforcements technology be? That card already beats Dismember (which Kor Firewalker and Baneslayer fail to do).

While Mono-R actually does have the power to keep up, I expect a small dip next week, as people compensate for red decks much more strongly and rapidly than for many other archetypes.

Up next, we have the other premier aggressive strategy in the format, Tempered Steel. Last week, we saw a split between those with blue and those without. It appears that Mono-White has won out this week. Here are some examples:

Don’t let the Seachrome Coasts fool you; they are just for bluffing! There is nothing particularly new to see here, though six removal spells is certainly more than previous versions generally ran. Tempered Steel is fast enough to race any combo deck, plus has a surprising amount of interaction, like Spellskite, Dispatch, Dismember, Phyrexian Revoker, and Act of Aggression. Of these two lists, Bertoncini’s is my favorite, sacrificing a small amount of speed for improved interaction and staying power.

B/r Vampires has been around and in basically this same form for quite a while now. Interestingly, it is a deck that could potentially be on the rise due to the shift in the metagame. Valakut and U/B Control were two of its biggest weaknesses (U/W Control is the other). Valakut got smashed this past week, which is sure to mean even less Valakut next week. We already saw this happen with U/B Control, which put up a couple finishes on the other side of the ocean, but nothing here, where it got wrecked. This week, significantly fewer players attempted U/B, and those who did had no success. With two major problems for the strategy on the decline, this is a good time to be playing Vampires, especially since Vampires has historically been excellent against Mono-Red and favored against Caw-Blade without Day of Judgment (at least since Mystic has been banned).

As you can see, the Vampire decks that are winning use a lot of removal, almost looking like Red decks at times. Additionally, the heavy use of Manic Vandals has helped quite a bit against Tempered Steel, as well as the use of Arc Trail, Staggershock, and the like. By putting down a reasonable clock and then playing five removal spells in a row, Vampires has a very respectable anti-Tempered Steel plan. It is interesting to see discard starting to make a small comeback. If Vampires continues to grow in popularity, we may see a bit of a return by U/B and Valakut in a couple weeks, as well as more Days, Pyroclasms, and Tuktuks.

Continuing on, we have the U/W Control purists that have not given into the temptation of Sword of Feast and Famine.

While these lists have a lot of differences between them, both are relatively straightforward collections of sweet defensive cards, and both have four Preordains (as these are the lists that succeeded, rather than embarrassed themselves). I will go a week without mentioning that blue control decks should use Preordain when I can go a week without reading some misinformation suggesting the contrary. It is not enough to use four Preordains. Stop enabling people who don’t! If you think you need to save a mana, cut a Celestial Colonnade.

Timely Reinforcements should be no surprise, but Grand Abolisher is kind of sweet. It is not just a sideboard card against control, but it also is totally devastating to Twin decks. Are they really supposed to just play the Deceiver on their turn and hope you don’t do anything about it? U/W Control has traditionally been weaker against spell decks and stronger against creature decks, so it will be interesting to see if this is more of a deck for 2-3 weeks from now, or a deck for next week (if enough people jump to creature decks to try to fight Caw-Blade). It has historically crushed Vampires, Mono-Red, and Tempered Steel, which could make it a very exciting option if enough people go that route. Two of its weaknesses, Valakut and U/B Control, are plummeting, which is also good news.

The catch? U/W’s worst matchup is Twin. This is kind of a rough time to let Twin be your worst matchup. Still, with such great matchups elsewhere, maybe that’s okay. There is no denying its percentage across the board, but if you want to win an event with U/W Control, the question is how to beat both types of Twin decks. Do that, and you might have the best deck of the week.

Last week, we counted Pyromancer Ascension alongside Twin decks due to the heavy overlap. Now that so many people are playing Twin, most of the Pyromancer players set aside the Twin half of the deck. It is definitely interesting that Twin plus Pyromancer occupies nearly as big a chunk of the successful metagame as Caw-Blade. The other big question mark is how U/W will fare against Caw-Blade. This is really just a question of how the U/W list is built, as U/W is much more of a “you can beat anything, but not everything” kind of a deck (whereas U/B is a “no matter how you build it, you aren’t changing your matchups”).

Jace’s Ingenuity over Foresee/Tezzeret’s Gambit/Divination is interesting. It feels a little slow to me, and a bold choice for a deck with only 22 land, but it is worth considering. Here we see the Deceiver Twin package in the board, which I have not been that big a fan of, but it may just be the best anti-Valakut/aggro plan (I doubt it). Mental Misstep continues to increase in popularity, a trend that will surely continue.

A deck after Craig Wescoe heart!

Most similar to Tempered Steel (though with even less interaction), the Mono-G Elves deck just plays dudes and smashes face. In metagames short on Days and high on small creature decks, Elves can find a home. It is a little too soft to combo, for my tastes, plus I see an increase in the rise of must-kill creatures (which are generally gigantic weaknesses for Mono-G Elves). This is not a bad choice for next week, but I wouldn’t recommend it except for those who are looking for an excuse to play Mono-Green. Tempered Steel offers so much more play.

Puresteel Paladin continues to be quite a ways behind Caw-Blade and Tempered Steel, but continues to show-up, nonetheless.

The only notable change this week was the adoption of Squadron Hawk. Squadron Hawk has obvious synergy with all the Swords and gives the deck a bit more game against the increased amount of removal we are seeing. One card they have not yet adopted, but that Michael Jacob and I like, is Blade of the Bloodchief. Yes, we aren’t a Vampire deck, but the ability to Trinket Mage for such a powerful card, which combos so well with Germs, is deceptively good. While these lists seem to be derivative of the Equipster style, I suspect that top deckbuilder of all time Mark Herberholz Nagoya Block deck may be mined for technology in the weeks to come.

Finally we come to our brew of the week. Last week, it was Jund, which so far appears to have been a flash in the pan (though it is possible that Jund could be adapted to have a better game against Caw-Blade and Tempered Steel). Will this week’s have more staying power?

The very nature of this sort of deck ensures that it is unlikely to ever be particularly “popular,” but I am big fan of a lot of what Olivier is doing here. Olivier is one of the stronger deckbuilders in the game’s history and has been known on many occasions to develop technology that is perfect for a weekend and that no one suspects.

There are a few things to observe here. First of all, Olivier has made room for four Preordains (Bant doesn’t get as many reshuffles as RUG). Most Pod players have not been so disciplined, and I am a fan. Next, he uses Stonehorn Dignitary and tons of Clones to lock people out of the game. Even when he doesn’t have Venser to lock you out completely, he just needs to buy enough time to set up Sun Titan + Phantasmal Image or get an Elesh Norn on the table and seal the deal.

Leading with Bird or Elf into Sea Gate Oracle, followed by a Birthing Pod, lets you turn the Sea Gate Oracle into a Solemn Simulacrum and the Bird into a Phantasmal Image of it. Then you can turn one of those into a Hippogriff (getting back the Solemn Simulacrum or a Metamorph), which helps buy you time to turn that into a Sun Titan. Sun Titan getting back the Phantasmal Image gives you two Titans and gets back a Sea Gate. This relentless stream of card advantage is too much for defensive decks. The Stonehorn lock and tons of 187s gives you a good plan against aggro. The big weakness seems to be combo. Not sure how to solve it yet, but at least you have plenty of guys to provide some clock, as well as a little interaction.

The Bad Guys may have won this round, but the war is far from over. Let’s not wait until Caw-Blade totally takes over to do something about it. Hyper-Aggro, Must-Kill Creatures, Tumble Magnets, and actually putting in the games against Caw-Blade in practice so that we know the pacing and what is important—these are the keys to beating Caw-Blade. Is the format dangerous? Sure, but that just makes it that much more satisfying when we succeed. Is this format broken like the previous one? I think not. This time, Caw-Blade has several chinks in its armor. This time, we can win.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

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