Is There A World Of Tomorrow For Sky Captain?

Valeriy talks about the issues facing him and his fellow Russian players now that Worlds is gone, and moreover, he introduces several neat Standard decklists that you should give a try.

I have two pieces of news. The good one is that StarCityGames.com now officially hosts the best MTG tournament series ever. The bad one is that the sky fell… and that the Magic World Championship, as we knew it for sixteen years, is dead. I’m not going to weep and wail through my entire article—I’m expected to write about strategy after all—but this topic will be somehow covered alongside different decklists, tech, and stories that I have today.

The Diary of Moaning Myrtle, Part Two

The fourth of November is a day off in Russia (I don’t want to say why because the most understandable one starts with “In Soviet Russia…”), so I was finally able to attend FNM at our local store (normally my work doesn’t allow me to do so). I tweeted my friends asking if someone could lend me a deck. Unfortunately, I was short some important cards for my G/W concoction, which I talked about last article, and didn’t really want to play Limited. Finally, I was given a very unconventional and funny U/R deck to crush with. I came to the store and found myself playing in a forty-person Standard FNM with a draft event of the same size staring simultaneously. Does it look like the end of competitive Magic?

My tourney was not so spectacular, as my red deck happened to run into some evil guys playing maindeck Timely Reinforcements both rounds one and two. During the event, I took some time to chitchat with some players and found them a little bit discouraged. Personally, I’ve never been able to attend a Pro Tour, making do with GPs instead, but some of the people I’ve talked to were top figures of the Russian scene, having some Nationals Top 8 and Worlds attendances under their belts. To say the least, they were disappointed—really disappointed.

The thing is that Russia is not the USA. We don’t have many chances to qualify for a Pro Tour here. And Nationals accounted for roughly 25% of all Pro Tour Invitations granted to Russia. We have only three PTQs in the whole country during each qualifying season because our community is relatively small, but there is nothing unusual in seeing two National Champions playing for the Top 8 of PTQ.

By the way, we’re rather lucky to even HAVE a PTQ now—compared to the Slovaks, who are reigning team World Champions and yet have literally no way to qualify for the Pro Tour as of now. Due to the small size of their country, they had all their PTQs cut, and GPs and Nationals don’t qualify them anywhere. Don’t you think that something is wrong with this situation?

Coming to terms with the fact that the concept of a Russian national team has just ceased to exist is very disheartening. It’s even harder to understand the concept of it being “for our good.” Our team never posted outstanding records, but, come on; it was really the peak moment of the Magic year for all us here. Cheering! Crossing your fingers? Gluing ourselves to the screen with the index finger going numb from constantly pressing F5. I still owe Dan Barrett a bottle of beer after the Russian team lost their match to Britain last Worlds. Dan, I will cast Curse of Missed Optional Triggers targeting you if you do not come to GP Turin to drink with me, so feel the rightful fear!

Ahh, all the happy memories! But, what’s more important, losing the National team is not about memories; it’s all about losing The Dream. The Ultimate Reason to waste your time on these cardboard pieces—The Dream.

Here are two sample quotes from my friend’s Twitter, to feel the drama of it:

“This year a guy from a town of Barnaul (Google it up) DROVE 2500 miles to Moscow for Nats, and he made the team. Such legends are gone forever.”

“My fondest Magic memory is standing under my National flag in NYC in 2007. All these years till today I have played the game to just relive this moment”

I feel the same way: I feel myself robbed and left without a dream. I’ve been playing Magic for almost four years now, and all this time I had a dream of becoming a Pro Tour regular, if not a Gravy Train rider. Sure, I’m a reasonable human being enjoying a full-time job, but you know, Paul Rietzl has a demanding full-time job too. I love this game, but today, when honestly considering my chances of attending a Pro Tour even once, it becomes so much harder to justify playing and spending a significant amount of time and money on this game. 

Well, I’m addicted to playing Magic; it’s stupid not to face the facts. I will probably play all PTQs until they cease to exist. But something has changed. Like Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons say in the recent Margin Call movie: This morning, it seems like the music is about to stop. I will attend the Grand Prix circuit: winning one of those is still the goal in itself, the great goal (as there are only two Russians who have ever won a GP). Yet I’m accustomed to the fact that my demands grow as my possibilities do; the possibility of me becoming a Pro Tour player shrinks, and so does my demand and my motivation to player further. It is very frustrating and feels truly wrong. I love this game, and I really want official Organized Play to be an important part of Magic: The Gathering.

Okay, I’ll stop whining, since it’s time to continue doing my best in keeping this game interesting and healthy: if all of us will do it, chances of salvation will grow (yes, I believe in miracles). My best is writing strategy articles, so here it is.

Actual Article

Standard is still pretty interesting, and my biweekly schedule is outclassed by the speed of metagame changes. Two weeks ago I wrote that I expected the rise of U/B Control, and now I expect the rise of U/B Control; not “still expect,” but “expect again”—a full cycle took just two weeks, and Jonathan Kornacki led his U/B to the win in the white-filled metagame of SCG Open: Las Vegas.

His deck contained two bags of Sphinxes among his seventy-five sleeved cards, five sheets of high-powered point removal, a saltshaker half-full of Liliana, a whole galaxy of different draw spells, counterspells, graveyard hate… Also, a quart of Grave Titan, a quart of Karn Liberated, a case of Snapcaster Mages, a pint of raw Black Sun’s Zenith, and two dozen lands. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious control card collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was Black Sun’s Zenith. There is nothing in the world more helpless and depraved than a G/W pilot in the depths of Zenith with X=6, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

Curse of Death’s Hold, additional Black Sun’s Zenith (even the third one after sideboarding), and Batterskull (immune to our own BSZ) ensured that Jonathan’s way to the victory was clear of the popular G/W and U/W decks. I usually dislike control decks as my own choice, but if you have no problems with control, I definitely recommend a similar deck. Or not similar: my opinion is that a successful control list should begin with 2-3 Day of Judgment (despite the obvious problems with the manabase in a three-colored deck)—it is significantly faster and, so, better than Zenith.

It is not very easy for me to build a good control deck, but fortunately, I’ve found exactly what I wanted at FNM (about which I said at the beginning of this article). The pilot was an established designer who proved his talent and influence in the Moscow community by winning a PTQ and being two times in the Nationals Top 8 with his own unorthodox creations, so I just asked him for the decklist and comments, which he kindly provided. Ladies and gentlemen, U/W/B Control by Maxim Zrelov! 

Quick aside: My MS Word is progressing. It agreed to count ladies as ladies this time; but now it wants gentlemen to be just “people.”

The Moscow metagame contains unusually high quantities of Mono Red and Infect, so there are maindeck Timely Reinforcements and Tribute to Hunger (additional way to deal with Mirran Crusader). As I said, there are two Day of Judgments maindeck, and Max proved that three would definitely be the correct number.

The most interesting idea in the whole deck is probably its plan against U/B and the mirror match: the mill! There are two Nephalia Drownyards (which are industry standard in U/B), but also two Jace, Memory Adept and two Surgical Extractions for opponent’s key spells. If you resolve Jace, you will probably win the game—there are still enough removal spells to keep hostile beaters far away from your life total.

I believe that this deck is near the optimal choice for the upcoming weekend, but if you (like me) don’t intend on playing a control deck, I have two more choices for you. Let’s return to FNM: I was granted the interesting U/R deck designed by Ilya Kryuchkov (who used it with significant success at local tournaments). My list, after several changes, looked like this:

This list is not very similar to U/R Delver of Secrets decks (like Lu Cai’s deck from SCG Open: Las Vegas). In fact, it is mostly Mono Red splashing for Snapcaster Mage, Phantasmal Bear, and Mana Leak. The deck was very interesting, and it can be even better in an unprepared metagame (like the meta at SCG Opens or the FNM in your local store).

The playset of Vulshok Refugees is a tribute to our Mono Red-filled metagame and is not necessary in other cases. And having a proper combination of lands and one-drops is what is really necessary, but there are no appropriate lands in Standard right now, so the obvious next step is to make one color significantly deeper than the other. My attempt includes blue creatures as the main early pressure, so it’s easier to actually start aggressively.

There is a reasonable set of one-drops, obvious Snapcaster Mages, and other effective threats. Sideboarded Stromkirk Nobles and Hero of Oxid Ridge (who is equally great against 1/1 tokens and against Day of Judgment) finish the counterburn deck, threatening everybody who is not fast enough to resist.

This deck is also funny and interesting, but I hope that Dark Ascension will give us additional pieces of enemy-colored manabase. I tried to do my best balancing Islands and Mountains, but… okay, it’s time for the deck built in the allied colors with a bunch of sweet dual lands.

Unsurprisingly, the last deck for today is an updated version of G/W Trollface Aggro from my previous article. Martin Juza won GP Hiroshima and so made popular another G/W nontoken deck, heavier and more powerful, but slower. While his deck is generally very good, its control matchup is near 50-50; my attempt crushes U/B very easily (for the reasonable cost of being the underdog vs. Infect and Delver/Illusions). And finally, Martin Juza’s words about G/W vs. G/W: “This matchup is all about going first and having a more aggressive start.” I think that it is entirely what my deck provides.

And, before we go further, I would notice the deck by Daniel Dusang from the top 16 of SCG Open: KC (the day after my previous article was posted):

It is great and very encouraging to see my ideas working! Thanks, Dan!

Daniel’s update of the manabase is great, but his five Garruks are a little bit too much. I like the fact that Dan added Garruk Relentless, but their larger twins should go. Moreover, Dan’s deck has the problem that I tried to avoid: too many four-drops and almost no action on turn two. The idea of maximizing the number of threats is also good, but in this case additional ramping is necessary—at least an eighth mana dork. So, the next version of Trollface aggro, updated accordingly to the expected metagame and with the kind help of my friends, my readers (thanks for your comments!), and Basil Sasorov (who initially proposed this direction of G/W development).

Most important changes from the previous article are mana, different set of two-drop creatures, and other Garruk (with sideboard reworked for more efficient use of his search ability).

Updated manabase (+1 Forest, +1 mana dork, -1 Viridian Emissary) is self-explanatory, while the two-drops are more complicated: I still like poor Jade Mage, but Mayor of Avabruck proved himself to be just better. The main argument against him was a requirement to flip, but in fact, many of our threats are Humans, so Mayor is good enough unflipped and pretty dangerous after transform. I still dislike Skinshifter, but now I can recognize him as a reasonable choice as 1-2 copies.

Quick aside: for the same reason why Mayor of Avabruck is good, Stromkirk Noble is a king of annoying. There are many ways to beat him, but keep this Vampire in mind.

Sideboard now contains the trio of singletons for Garruk, the Veil-Cursed: removal, land destruction, and a total blowout. Suture Priest is not important anymore with a decrease of Shrine of Loyal Legions decks, and the rest of the sideboard almost did not change. Sword of War and Peace is an additional way to beat opposing Mirran Crusaders, while we already have Gideon Jura and Angelic Destiny for these purposes.

I’m sure that this deck is one of the best choices for upcoming events. Non-red Delver and Infect are problems, but I think that they will be eliminated by rising Control; so, now is probably the best moment to sleeve G/W and to make the trollface when beating your opponents. At least, we can meet the end of current era of competitive Magic in a good mood.

Good luck for everyone playing this weekend, and good luck for us all to play Magic for many years!

Valeriy Shunkov