Keys to the Kingdom: Twenty Questions, Scour Power, and a New Deck for Team Standard!

Even though Mike has qualified for PT Charleston on ranking, his Team Standard testing and strategy continues unabated. So far, he’d brought us the apparent optimal builds for a number of powerful decks, and an innovative Green/White deck that abuses Chord of Calling. Today, he offers up fresh meat. Are you a fan of attacking? Do you enjoy the phrase “to the dome?” If so, Mike’s new offering is the deck for you…

Q1) All I care about is the deck list. Will there be a deck list?

Yes. Here you go:

Q2) Isn’t this deck just worse than Zoo or Heezy Street?

That’s actually two questions, but whatever.

The short answer is “no.”

The long answer is that as good as Zoo (Craig Jones deck in particular) and Heezy Street were at Pro Tour Honolulu, they are having a real problem in post-Pro Tour Standard — and in particular in Team Trios — because of the popularity of B/W beatdown decks. No matter which version of B/W beatdown you pick, you are probably ahead of most R/x beatdown decks.

The difference between this deck and the Honolulu finalists is that while its creatures are slightly less offensively potent in the abstract, they are a good deal better in context. In particular, the R/W deck has eight creatures with Protection from Black. In most Game 1 situations, an opposing B/W deck will have nothing to say about those, and you can beat the tar out of the opponent and put him into Flames of the Blood Hand range while he is still trying to figure out how to get past the Paladin en-Vec you left back.

In fact, I’ve played this deck extensively in MTGO 8-man queues, and would be comfortable playing against any of those creature decks (B/W, Heezy Street, or Zoo).

Q3) Are you saying you never lose to B/W or that Ghost Dad is unplayable? Which one is it?

On the contrary, there is a reason that people still play Ghost Dad. In a recent 8-man queue, I was riding a 4-0 streak against B/W decks going into the finals and saw that my opponent was none other than Cymborgi class president JoINrbs. “At least I know what I’m playing against,” I thought, ready for yet another B/W bloodbath.

JoINrbs beat me 0-2.

In the first game, I made a subtle error; he clearly didn’t have the Shining Shoal the first seven or so turns of the game (or, presumably, he wouldn’t have let me demolish his board position), but I gave him the one draw step he needed to win the game. Basically I should have sent a non-lethal Char to his face on upkeep… Instead, I waited until I could actually win, and just died to a topdecked Shoal (my fault; sorry deck).

In the second, he had the Shoal on turn 2 when I aimed at his Tallowisp… And you probably know where this is going. He drew three Descendants of Kiyomaro, and… Did I mention you know where this is going?

Generally speaking, Game 1 against B/W decks — and Hand in Hand and Ghost Husk have become more common than Ghost Dad in my experience — is very favorable. You have Red cards for his Hands and he can’t touch yours… In sideboarded games, it can be touchy as Ghost Husk draws into Shining Shoals of its own; in these games you have Bathe in Light (tech borrowed from the Jones Zoo) to protect your Protection from Black creatures. In general, B/W players aren’t going to have a lot of ways to kill, or even block, your Hands and Paladins, whereas they are great defenders against, say, Ghost Council of Orzhova and usually dangerous creatures like Nantuko Husk.

Ghost Dad is the hardest of the three to beat, but it is still much more in your favor than if you were playing one of the more traditional Stomping Ground beatdown decks.

Q4) Okay… But what about the competing Red Deck matchups? If you’re favored, how do the games play out?

Believe it or not, your creatures match up fairly well with those out of Heezy Street and Zoo. Few of the opponent’s creatures are going to win a fight with Paladin en-Vec, and he holds the ground well against high end threats like Giant Solifuge and Rumbling Slum; unlike the rest of the squad, Paladin en-Vec doesn’t get smoked out of the way.

Against Heezy Street (and some versions of Zoo), the main creature you want to kill is Dryad Sophisticate. You don’t want to tap in a situation where the opponent can Armor her up (even if you don’t have the burn card), because you can stall the board pretty well against the balance of a typical player’s lineup. Hand of Honor pairs up nicely against Watchwolf, and covers Kird Ape. Most players will be loath to use a precious Char to kill one.

Various builds of this deck ran different support cards — we had four Shocks for most of the testing, and had really odd cards in the last slot. Originally we had two Sunforgers and various specialty cards from Bathe in Light to main deck Scour. Ultimately they became Manriki-Gusaris thanks to Josh Ravitz. Manriki-Gusari is your Moldervine Cloak (and according to Josh “It’s better in a Jitte fight than Jitte is.”)

Sideboarded games can be tricky. Usually you will always win when the opponent “goes large.” For Heezy Street that usually means Rumbling Slums (which are easily held in check by the cheaper Paladin en-Vec) and for Zoo, that means Loxodon Hierarch. Loxodon Hierarch is, of course, one of the scariest creatures an aggressive deck can face, but you usually have the opponent covered with Threaten. When you’ve stolen a Loxodon Hierarch with Tendo Ice Bridge in play, you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve been lucky enough to dodge Billy Moreno-style Zoo that transforms into Ghazi Glare… that is not a good matchup, I think.

Q5) No? Really? Manriki-Gusari?

Yes, really: Manriki-Gusari.

I built this deck specifically for onetime World Championships Top 8 player Jamie Parke to play in Team Trios… specifically alongside my Ghazi-Chord deck and Heartbeat Combo. Therefore it is designed specifically to not conflict in cards with Ghazi-Chord… No Faith’s Fetters, no Shining Shoal, no Umezawa’s Jitte.

That said, I think that Manriki-Gusari may actually be better in this deck than Jitte, hard as that may seem to believe. If you’ve ever gotten into a standoff with Hand of Honor or Paladin en-Vec wearing this piece of equipment, you know that you can buy a lot of time against a creature deck… Manriki-Gusari is obviously less explosive on offense, but the ability to pass the equipment around post attacks for just one mana is more relevant than you might be able to see without actually playing.

Incidentally, it always warms my heart when I am crashing with Manriki-Gusari and my B/W opponent plays a Pithing Needle naming “Umezawa’s Jitte,” ostensibly because no one would play one unless he had already maxed out on the other.

Q6) Okay, okay… I buy the colors (I guess), and I can even accept the wrong equipment (I guess)… But what’s with the Karoos? Is this “Budget Boros” or something?

Osyp actually has a theory that control decks will fall off the map — or at least have to get a lot better — when the majority of players figure out how good Karoos are in aggressive decks. The short of it is that Karoos let me cheat on land. I only have 20 lands: That fact lets me play more burn spells. Boros Garrison doesn’t really slow this deck down, and on balance, allows the deck to hit three land drops without actually drawing three lands (you will never keep a Garrison hand without an “activator” land).

Incidentally, the R/W deck — the mana base specifically — has gone through a lot of work. The first manabase looked like this:

4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Boros Garrison
1 Eiganjo Castle
2 Plains
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep
4 Tendo Ice Bridge

I am very stubborn, but the help of friends like Pat Sullivan, Brian Kowal, and Tim McKenna helped me tune my manabase, with one or two lands shifting every couple of 8-man queues. I have made the finals of at least seven of the last eight such tournaments I’ve played on MTGO with this deck, and many times lost solely because I was Tendo-screwed or Karoo-screwed or even Shinka-screwed (and didn’t mulligan properly, Paul would quickly accuse); the changes in the manabase reflect what I’ve learned from my losses.

Many times the Karoos don’t even slow down your curve. For instance, you can go first turn Hound of Konda, second turn Lions and play Boros Garrison without missing a drop! This sets you up for Char, Flames, or Paladin mana even if you haven’t drawn a third land; resetting a spent Tendo Ice Bridge is also a useful benefit. Whether the manabase is ultimately optimal at present is still up for debate, but I know that Boros Garrison belongs in a beatdown deck with only 20 lands… or this one, at least.

Control players beware!

Q7) Where did this deck come from? It doesn’t really look like any Boros Deck Wins we have seen before…

Most Boros Deck Wins builds from Champs ran eight one-drop 1/1 flyers, Glorious Anthems, maindeck Jittes, and fewer burn spells. As you can see, my list has very little to do with those decks.

What happened was that I was playtesting with Jamie Parke for the Neutral Ground Team Trios PTQ, and decided that Jamie would do really well with a beatdown/burn deck. I thought back to Tsuyoshi Fujita’s version of Zoo from Honolulu, a twenty creature, twenty burn spell, twenty land deck. Formerly an aficionado of Sped Red, Jamie was intrigued by that lineup and expressed interest.

I thought back to Tsuyoshi’s list and ran down the creatures… Watchwolf, Isamaru, Savannah Lions… No conflicts!

Sadly, there wasn’t much that could be done about that whole “Temple Garden” thing… Initially I thought some compromise could be made on Brushland, but that ended up not working. The G/W had great synergy with Temple Garden, especially because of Wood Elves, but Tsuyoshi’s Zoo needed them because Brushland doesn’t help Kird Ape out very much.

At the end of the day, Temple Garden conflict turned Tsuyoshi’s deck into a R/W deck.

Q9) You’ve been hammering home the importance of the Heartbeat matchup for weeks… How is the matchup?

Heartbeat is probably my most played matchup in the MTGO 8-man queues. For the longest time, it seemed like people played only B/W or Heartbeat decks!

I win more than 80% of my Game 1s against Heartbeat… but lose slightly more than half the matches, to be fair. My conclusion is that there is something wrong with my sideboarding strategy (when you read it in a paragraph or two, I’m sure you’ll agree).

In Game 1, the R/W is strong, just as it would be against any other controllish deck. The beats are quick and the answers on the other side of the table are few and slow. The rare games R/W loses tend to be when the opponent naturally draws Savage Twister. The R/W clock is quite respectable (optimal turn 4 kill), and includes the aggressive and disruptive Kami of Ancient Law. Unlike against, say, B/W decks with Kami of Ancient Law, Heartbeat can’t afford to wait around, net mana on the first Kami, and then transmute into a second Heartbeat of Spring. This deck is too quick for Heartbeat to play that kind of footsie, and if double mana comes up (and it will basically every game), that allows R/W to blast Heartbeat to ash with a multiple Char and Flames of the Blood Hand turn.

My swap has been:

-4 Manriki-Gusari
-2 Paladin en-Vec
-4 Savannah Lions

+4 Threaten
+3 Bathe in Light
+3 Scour

Q10) That seems terrible! What have you been smoking?

My theory was that Savannah Lions is terrible against a sideboarded Heartbeat deck… I just never want to see it against Carven Caryatid and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Likewise, Paladin en-Vec is a bit slow.

On the other hand, I want my most extreme cards in after boards. I think that despite a very consistent Game 1, my deck is behind against a Heartbeat player who transforms. However, while the opponent is ramping up to Keiga mana, I can get damage in, and then steal a million damage with a Threaten.

At the same time, Scour is really strong if the opponent doesn’t transform. You only have to leave open two mana for Scour to work. The Heartbeat player’s own signature enchantment allows R/W to power out this White Cranial Extraction.

Q11) That makes some amount of logic (I think). So what’s the problem?

Using my strategy, the R/W is never efficient in Game 2. Scour and Threaten — both in the deck in Game 2o — are never good in the same game. You can lose games by holding Threaten in games where the opponent has no non-Caryatid creatures, or Scour when he plays Meloku. Bathe in Light is actually good all the time, because the opponent’s most dangerous Game 2 card — transformed or not — is Savage Twister.

Even though I’ve been behind against Heartbeat in the queues, the matchup is far from hopeless, even with my strategy (sub-optimal as it seems to be). The majority of losses also involve some kind of Garrison-/Shinka-/Tendo-screw, and the opponent rarely has more than three or so life at the end of a lost game.

What would you do in this spot?

The opponent is on two. He just played a big Savage Twister for Hand of Honor, Isamaru, and Kami of Ancient Law; you left open two for Bathe in Light, but he had the Remand.

You topdeck Isamaru and play it. Your remaining hand is Scour and Bathe in Light (a card he knows) and you have three mana open.

Your opponent taps a zillion mana for Transmute for Savage Twister plus a Savage Twister for 2, leaving up GGGU. He has not played a land and has six remaining cards.

You have three mana open: Do you play the Bathe in Light?

If you play the Bathe in Light — a card the opponent knows you have — you will only have one mana open, not enough to play Scour should he play a land and go for the win. He does not know you are holding Scour, but knows you have it in your deck.

If you don’t play Bathe in Light, you basically put it to the top of your deck to produce one of more than 14 outs to ostensibly win the game immediately.

I elected not to play the Bathe, and lost the Hound.

Turns went by, I successfully played Scour, but he had a million Early Harvests and played non-lethal Maga. I played Hand of Honor with the Bathe left back (thought it was good), but he had two Remands and was able to suck out his last Savage Twister.

Because most games come down to tiny margins with a lot of decisions, despite a sideboard strategy that is not performing as well as the main, I am pretty sure you can figure out how to sideboard better than I have been for this matchup.

Q12) So scrap the board?

My board has floated a lot of different cards, from Bottled Cloister to Orcish Artillery to Volcanic Hammer (I was playing Shocks main back then)… The only card I am “married” to is Bathe in Light (and even then, only three are really vital).

Gift of Estates is just the latest in a number of cards I am trying out against Vore. As the Plains count went up (remember the initial deck had only two), the more Gift of Estates seemed to make sense. I have no idea if it’s actually good, but it seems — especially with Karoos — like this card can be a random Ancestral Recall in whatever matchup.

Luckily for me, Red Deck mastermind Patrick Sullivan is figuring out the right sideboard strategy for this deck. Right now Patrick says that — counterintuitive as it may be — that leaving the Manriki-Gusaris in might be right, because the deck wants resilience against Savage Twister. Josh has weighed in and said that it doesn’t make any sense to side out Lions and side in Bathe in Light… and really, I can’t disagree.

Stone Rain seems like it might be good; Heartbeat decks tend to telegraph the Mountain on turn 2-3 with Sakura-Tribe Elder or Kodama’s Reach… If you nuke it with Stone Rain, whatever beaters you ran out on turns 1 and 2 should be good.

Q13) End of the day… Is this your recommendation for Standard?

This R/W was built specifically for Team Trios, to be played specifically next to Heartbeat (still the best deck) and G/W Chord. It has some arguably sub-optimal card choices (Manriki-Gusari instead of Jitte, no Faith’s Fetters, no Shining Shoal), but I think that its strength against Heartbeat in Game 1 and greater ability to fight B/W creatures than other Red Deck beatdown builds makes it a strong choice, specifically next to Heartbeat and G/W Chord (the deck I posted last week).

That said, savaj_cheetr from the forums reported a win at the legendary Costa Mesa Women’s Center (onetime stomping ground of Brian Hacker and Team Dickhead), using the G/W in Seat B.

savaj_cheetr’s team took down a pretty amazing squad of multiple Masters Champion Ben Rubin, PT Champ Ken Ho, and Untold Legends of the Million Dollar Magic The Gathering Pro Tour subject ptr, in the round of Four. They made a great conceptual leap of moving all the Shining Shoals to the main, tightening up the deck’s efficiency by shifting the main’s Seed Sparks to the side (sorry Jamie). As I’ve said in the past, Shining Shoal is better in the G/W than in any other deck in Standard right now, due to the ability to protect Kodama of the North Tree and also break Nikko-Onna triggers going long.

Q14) Wait a minute? What about Vore?

Most people are frankly terrible at Vore. Steve Sadin has a primer and strategy article up today. Check it out. If you can get past the part where he says “play a 1/1 Magnivore,” maybe you are a Vore master in training.

If it were me, I would play R/W, G/W, and Heartbeat as my configuration, with the Los Angeles version of G/W (rather than my original) at Seat B. The R/W is a good deck, but probably less powerful than Vore; that said, in the context of Team Trios, it is a great choice because of its resiliency against so many archetypes and ability to actually beat Heartbeat in Game 1 (just play better than I do and you will probably win Game 2).

All that said, I am probably playing R/W at this weekend’s Deckade book signing at Neutral Ground New York.

Q15) Deckade book signing? What are you talking about?

We are running a free event Saturday, April 15 at Neutral Ground New York (122 West 26th Street, 4th fl. NY, NY 10001).

Doors open at 10am.

We are resurrecting the legendary Gauntlet for the first part of the day. Some special guests and I will be playing against current Standard decks with some of my historical Standard decks. You beat us all, you get some great prizes.

We will be rotating different decks to keep from being too monotonous, but you can bet that Josh Ravitz will be there with Kuroda-style Red, Osyp Lebedowicz will appear with URzaTron from this past Pro Tour, Jon Finkel will play Napster, and my old college buddies Charles “Tuna” Hwa and the amazing Al Tran will be brawling with 90s-era Flores decks; BDM and I will be playing as well.

On top of that, there will be a sanctioned Standard tournament for some cool foils and other prizes.

Because the event is free, you are under no obligation to purchase Deckade, but I will be there signing (save on shipping!). You basically get to hang out with top players, play Standard against Jon Finkel, and take foil Sol Rings and Mishra’s Factories out of my pocket and Brian’s. There will be tons of other prizes… it should be a good time.

Q16) Did you say “Jon Finkel”?

Twice, actually.

Q17) What about Osyp? I thought he wasn’t coming…

So did I!

Honestly, though… Would you miss this event? In between playing in the Standard, fielding the Gauntlet (Brian can’t wait to summon Seton’s Scout), Greedy and I will be doing coverage like any other Top8Magic event, so expect a lot of Podcasts, pictures, and Pro Tour-style coverage.

End of the day: Joe Black is back.

Q18) Do you really think that this gauntlet format is fair?

Do you?

It’s not supposed to be fair. It’s supposed to be fun.

Anyway, it’s free!

Q19) Drafto?


Q20) Anything else?

In case you haven’t checked it out yet, make sure you read Steve’s article on Vore and Team Trios today. He has some different configuration ideas than I do — including one that has Ghost Dad in his “anti-aggro” configuration — as well as a much better rundown of his signature deck than I had last Tuesday. If you’re interested in Vore, or another perspective on Team Trios, Steve has some great insights.

Just to reiterate, the R/W is a good Team Trios deck. You should try it.

Hope to see you tomorrow!