Ever since the Team Standard PTQs, there’s been a boatload of B/W aggro variants running around. Some go the discard route with Ravenous Rats and Shrieking Grotesque; others feature Hands (mostly of Cruelty but sometimes of Honor) and Paladins en-Vec; others play Nantuko Husk and Promise of Bunrei; and still others play Tallowisp and first-picks like Pillory of the Sleepless and Pacifism.
I believe I took the best variant of these to Regionals. I didn’t do well enough to make it to Nationals, but the three others who told me they played the deck – Clement Warr, Tim Galbiati, and Jason Shumacher – all did.
Changes to the Deck
Between Regionals and Atlanta, I continued to tune the deck, and collaborated with Tim Galbiati, Clement Warr, and Zac Hill to arrive at the version we all brought to Atlanta. (Zac, with 9 Pro Points, was just shy of a qualification via Level 2, and would be hitting the grinders along with yours truly.)
- 4 Tallowisp
- 3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 3 Kami of Ancient Law
- 4 Paladin en-Vec
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
The build changed noticeably since Regionals, and as I think it’s useful for deck designers to reveal the process through which they create (and modify) their lists, I’m going to spend some time here going over each and every change from the previous version.
1) Ghost Quarters!
With the rising popularity of Tron, these are a good way to split up Urza’s Landscaping Project without, say, spending mana (or maindeck slots) on some platinum hit like Caustic Rain. The simple idea was that in the late-ish game against Tron, I’d be sitting on extra mana unless they’d Wildfired me – since the deck’s curve tops out at four for Ghost Council of Orzhova – and could afford to sacrifice a land to make Tron pay retail price for its goods rather than the Three-Finger Discount it would get normally.
Tron wins many of its games simply by “going off” with draw spells and Dragons once it has assembled its mana engine, and turning the key component into an Island (or sometimes nothing, if they’re a three-color list that does not play basics) was sometimes just enough of an edge to tip the scales in OM’s favor.
As for the issue of Ghost Quarters producing no colored mana, remember that this is only a two-color deck with the full complement of Ravnica’s dual- and bounce-lands, and Ninth Edition’s painlands holding it up. Even with the two Quarters, I still had sixteen apiece of White and Black producers – plenty to meet even the color requirements of a deck featuring both Paladin En-Vec and Persecute. Most of the deck would have been fine with a third and fourth Quarter, and I might very well have played them if not for the Big Daddy himself, the Ghost Council of Orzhova.
See, GCO doesn’t just cost four mana – he costs two White and two Black. As you may have noticed, Ghost Quarter produces neither of these, so playing four copies would leave only eighteen lands that actually tap for Ghost Council mana… and even with the four Basilicas, making a four-drop in a timely manner with only “eighteen” lands is no mean feat. Hitting GCO on time is a pretty big deal for this deck, and Ghost Quarter does not contribute to that, so I kept it down to two copies to avoid stranding my biggest hitter in my hand.
2) Paladin En-Vec over Descendant of Kiyomaro
This one’s pretty simple. I expected a lot more “new” decks in the freshly Dissension-injected Regionals metagame, including aggro decks like Sea Stompy, U/W aggro-control, and U/W “Skies”. Descendant of Kiyomaro was veryveryvery good against these decks, while Paladin was not, so I elected to run the Mini-Me Exalted Angel at that tournament. As I felt the metagame had settled down and the Paladin-vulnerable decks (particularly Tron) had asserted their dominance over their Descendant-hating brethren now that Nationals was approaching, I switched out the uncommon for the pricey rare.
These were both metagame choices that primarily involved Heartbeat and Vore. Riot Spikes is just a bad Unholy Strength against those decks, and I had expected them both to see heavy play at Regionals. Since almost none was predicted to show up at Atlanta, while B/W decks with Confidants that needed killing were expected to be out in droves, I cashed in the Pyroclasm– and Caryatid-protective Unholy Strength for the more versatile Riot Spikes.
The fourth GCO needs a little more explanation. Most of the time, you’re happy to see exactly one Ghost Council against any given opponent; for this reason, I ran three at Regionals. I omitted the fourth copy because I had predicted a lot of Vore, and more importantly, because I had predicted a lot of Heartbeat. Drawing a second Ghost Council is largely awful against both of these decks, as the first one almost never gets removed or hard-countered; the second one only becomes useful in conjunction with a Shining Shoal. Against non-Heartbeat, non-Vore decks, though, I reasoned that drawing a second GCO would usually be fine.
Council Number Two against Tron or some other control deck lets you use the first one to soak up a Mana Leak so that the second can resolve (whereas an Ancient Law in that situation might not have merited a Mana Leak at all, since it can be cleared away trivially by a Wildfire or Pyroclasm later on). A spare GCO is also handy against other B/W decks, which will be playing three or four copies of the Legend themselves. You tend to be happy to draw two against Char decks, as you can tap out for one at four mana; it will either eat a Char right away, or, if you’re lucky, the opponent will ram his team into it and use a lesser burn spell to finish it off, netting you a neat two-for-one. Then you untap and play your backup copy, and watch the opponent’s face fall. An especially fun play is to grimace when you tap out for the first one and say something like “Hate playing this guy unprotected, but I’ve got no choice here.” Finally, a spare GCO is obviously the best card in your list with which to fuel a Shining Shoal.
Like I said, since I didn’t expect nearly as much Heartbeat and Vore at Nationals, the fourth copy went back in for the Ancient Law that was mainly in there because he was an especially strong Spirit against those two decks.
4) Isamaru over Eight-and-a-Half Tails
This swap made all my aggro matchups worse, but my Tron matchup much better, which I felt was an acceptable trade-off. The aggro matchups all remained favorable anyway, and besides, I had added the fourth GCO, the tutorable Riot Spikes, and the sideboarded Wraths to bolster those matchups.
These were two innovations that came from recent Grand Prix Finalist and all-around sex machine Zac Hill, who was also testing the deck for grinders. These were two more “let’s hurt our aggro matchup, which is sweet, in order to improve our Tron matchup, which needs work” calls.
Wildfire is a much less appealing prospect when the opponent needs to have both the Wildfire and a Repeal for the 5/5 legendary Face Puncher token you create in response. Cage of Hands is also an improvement over Pillory against Keiga, as one of Tron’s most common strategies after you lock down the Tide Star is to use Compulsive Research and Tidings to find a second copy for a Forked Control Magic. When you have Cage out instead of Pillory, you can bounce it in response to the second Keiga and neutralize the blocking capabilities of one of your stolen troops.
Eventually, through all these nickel-and-dime improvements (Ghost Quarter, Tomb, Cage, Isamaru), Tron became a (slightly) favorable matchup for Orzhova Maxima.
By the way, I lumped these two changes together because they mark a first for me: I played these cards on Zac’s good authority without actually trying them out myself first. I’ve never done that before, but I agreed with his reasoning for the changes and was out of time to give them a trial run before the tournament. (As it happened, neither card actually changed the outcome of any of my games on the weekend.)
Simply put, without Descendant of Kiyomaro around to regain my life, I did not feel there were any matchups where I would feel safe putting two Arenas on the table (meaning three might be a better call than four for the list), and besides, none of the U/W control decks I had predicted would show up at Regionals proved popular in the aftermath of that tournament. (That was the matchup where Arena was best, after all.) Persecute, on the other hand, was extremely good against Tron (name “Blue” and they’re left with Wildfires, Demonfires, and Signets), and the Hierarch/Dragon decks, and I felt the fourth copy would be justified on its value against Tron alone.
Pithing Needle was an anti-Meloku (and Windreaver, which these hypothetical U/W control decks might have been playing) and anti-Heartbeat card at Regionals, and, once again, these decks were off my radar for Atlanta. The Manriki-Gusaris were an answer to Jitte, yes, but they didn’t do anything to stop the Trygon Predators of the new Sea Stompy decks, so at the advice of Gerry Thompson, I boarded Wraths for the aggro matchups instead. They might not explicitly win the Jitte war by themselves, but they’d give me exactly the type of blowout card- and board-advantage that Jitte advantage provides so well, even when I wasn’t the one with the surplus Pointy Stick.
The Wraths were savage. No one plays around Wrath of God from an aggro deck, so when your opponent has four men on the table to your one, he thinks he’s got you on the ropes. Then you wipe his best men off the board, start playing the ones you’ve been holding back, and ride that advantage to victory. This was pretty much how it worked out every time I played the card at the tournament.
Zac also boarded the Wraths in against Tron decks playing either Simic Sky Swallower or Meloku, as Tron has a very difficult time beating you if you successfully remove these game-breakers, even if you do have to sacrifice one or two of your own men in the process. I wouldn’t recommend this plan without testing it more thoroughly first, though, as Zac came up with it on the spot during one of the grinders – and while he did win a game and match because of it, I’d suggest trying it out in a few test games before going ahead with it in a tournament. (I will, however, say that pitching Wrath of God to Shining Shoal will both confuse and irritate a Tron opponent to no end when he gets blown out by it.)
The Ghost Quarter and Eradicate were both for the Tron matchup. The Quarter was in there both to disrupt the Urzatron itself and to provide an additional mana source, as OM brings in four Persecutes in that matchup and takes out none of its Ghost Councils in a deck playing only 22 mana sources maindeck.
The Eradicate was, quite simply, the last slot in the sideboard. It would have been nice to have a second or third copy of it, but to cut any of the other fourteen cards to make room would have been to the overall detriment of the sideboard; those other cards were simply more important. Yes, one copy looks pretty janky on the ol’ decklist, but as I’ve said before and now reiterate, better right than pretty.
Tim lost his first round at U.S. Nationals under the following circumstances.
It is game 3 against, well… Fungus Fires, apparently. (I forget how Tim managed to drop a game to that deck, but I think a mulligan to five may have been involved.) Tim plays a bounceland on turn 2, and then Castigates away a non-White card, leaving the opponent with two Hierarchs, a Wrath of God, and another White card I can’t remember. In short, on Tim’s next turn, he is going to play his fourth land and elbow-drop his opponent with a backbreaking Persecute for White.
Tim is happy, because he thinks he’s got this game won. However, his opponent untaps, draws a card, announces “that was lucky,” and devastates Tim with the most… I’ll say surprising blowout topdeck I have ever heard of in sanctioned Constructed Magic.
Tim missed the Persecute, remained stuck on his two remaining lands, and lost the game and the match.
The only explanation I can offer in defense of this sideboarding strategy – that is, to bring in land destruction against an aggro deck whose curve tops at four – is that maybe, just maybe, Tim’s opponent was so very terrified of Persecute from B/W aggro (an uncommon sideboard choice at the time, to my knowledge) that he brought them in either to stave off losing his White cards for one more turn or in hopes of manascrewing his opponent out of being able to play the Persecute at all.
An alternate explanation would be that the opponent genuinely thought that bringing in LD against an aggro deck would be a good idea, and this ostensibly misguided strategy worked out in rare form. Because this article says Richard Feldman and not Gadiel Szleifer across the top, I’ll refrain from stating which explanation I think was the more likely… though the angry deck designer in me who saw his project banished to the 0-1 bracket by a Stone Rain from left field would like to point out that this was the only Constructed match Tim’s opponent was to win at the tournament.
But we’re over it. We’re moving on…
Tim played against a continual stream of strange, off-the-radar decks in the losers’ bracket and ended up 0-3 in the Constructed portion, while Clement started off a respectable 2-1, losing only to that lovely innovation that has entered the game alongside the already-fun staples of “manascrew” and “double-mulliganing” – “Jitte disadvantage!” Back when Guildpact was released, my friends and I all breathed a sigh of relief when it did not follow in the footsteps of middle sets Darksteel and Betrayers of Kamigawa before it, which each contained a blatantly overpowered and unfun piece of equipment that nearly every aggro deck in Standard was forced to play. I can’t express to you how exciting it will be to work on aggro decks after the rotation, when I will no longer have to sweat bullets over what to do if the opponent plays an Umezawa’s Jitte and I haven’t got one.
As for me, I started off the first grinder by losing a game almost as ridiculous as the one Tim lost to the Stone Rain. My opponent was with Ghost Husk. I had him at three life with two Paladins En-Vec on the table. He had no blockers when I passed the turn, but he topdecked and played Promise of Bunrei to keep the Paladins at bay.
I was then surprised to see him attack with his entire team, when I was at a healthy twelve life and had numerous blockers. It seemed he was just guaranteeing that I could come across for a lethal counterattack, as he only pushed in two damage to take me to ten…
… Until he played Devouring Greed, sacrificing his four Spirit tokens, to kill me exactly.
I guess you got me. [Beautiful! – Craig, loving left field tech.]
Fortunately, I got the next two games and advanced to 1-0 anyway. I beat another Ghost Husk player in the next round, and was playing some side games against Derrick Sheets’s Zoo deck, when, somewhere in the distance, the pairings for round 3 were announced. While this was happening, I was gleefully casting sideboarded Wraths all over his hapless Red men, until I turned around to check the clock for the grinder and realized I had already earned a game loss for the round.
I hauled ass over to the table before it was upgraded to a match loss, and saw an opening hand that featured no Isamaru and no turn 2 play except for “Orzhov Basilica, go.” This is a hand that I have considered a lot during playtesting, and have concluded that my normal course of action is to mulligan it in a game 1 situation.
It’s a fine hand to keep against other aggro decks (assuming the rest of the hand is gas, which it was in this case), but it is far too slow to keep against Vore, Heartbeat, and Tron. Since I knew I had to win two games in a row, a mulligan to six that might lead to a match-ending (and thus tournament-ending, in the single-elim grinders) mull to five – and since if I had pulled the Tron matchup (which was much more likely than Heartbeat or Vore in this Tron-favored metagame) I was unlikely to win two consecutive games anyway, as Tron was not that favorable of a matchup – I decided to keep it.
Long story short, it was Heartbeat, so I lost the game and the match and the tournament. Guess listening closely for pairings might be a better idea next time, yeah?
I started out the second grinder with a bye and a close win over Solar Flare, then fell to “The Masterpiece,” a deck Mike Flores saw played at Regionals this year. Now Loxodon Hierarch decks tend to be trouble for OM (but we hadn’t expected many to show), as they play 4/4s and Dragons while we’re busy playing 2/2s for three and the like, but the Masterpiece plays not only Elephants and Dragons, it also plays Phyrexian Arena and Meloku for good measure. Yeah, I’m really just not winning that one; I’d say The Masterpiece is OM’s only “nightmare” matchup.
In the final grinder, I again started out with a bye (how lucky!), then took out two Heartbeat players (2-0 each; it’s a great matchup as long as I don’t inadvertently keep bad hands in game 1 because of a game loss), a U/R Tron player who played Meloku (and who powered out a third-turn Keiga in game 3!), and another B/W mirror. At 5-0, I was already in the Top Eight and needed only one more win to play at Nationals…but alas, I pulled the one Ghazi-Glare player remaining in the tournament and fell in two games (of a matchup that is, admittedly, already unfavorable) to back-to-back Jitte disadvantage.
Tim 4-0’d his draft pod and was poised to mount a comeback money finish alongside Clement, who entered Day Two at 5-2, but the Coldsnap draft took a devastating toll on both their records. Clement stayed in to try and squeeze some money out of his solid Day 1 performance, but sadly he went on to play against more strange, off-the-radar decks that we had not planned for, and lost to them.
So What Happened?
It definitely did all that, and did it well. As we predicted Atlanta would be heavy on Tron, B/W, and Char, with a smattering of Vore and Heartbeat players hoping to beat up on the Tron decks, we thought we’d all be rolling in prizes by now.
Unfortunately, those weren’t the decks we lost to. Instead, Clement and T-Galbs lost to random control decks that were nowhere close to anything on our radar (Fungus Fires and U/W Tron much?) while I lost to Hierarch/Dragon decks that I, quite simply, had predicted wouldn’t show.
I think the biggest mistake we made was approaching this vastly varying Standard metagame as one of the more traditional Rock-Paper-Scissors-esque environments we’ve all grown up on. We put Tron up on a pedestal as the deck to beat, and put a priority on playing a deck that had a good matchup against Number One, while beating the other major decks on our radar at the same time. Really, the fact that Tron was “the big deck” only meant that it had gone up from 5% of the metagame to maybe 15%.
All the decks we lost to were “off the radar,” because our radar simply wasn’t broad enough. None of us expected Solar Flare or Ghazi-Glare to be at all played, much less any of the several Snake decks we saw at both the grinders and the big event itself. We played to beat Zoo, Gruul, Boros, Hand in Hand, Ghost Husk, Heartbeat, Sea Stompy, Vore, and Tron, and that wasn’t enough.
Basically, we misjudged the field. I don’t think any of us played against a single Char all weekend, and the fact that we obliterated those decks was essentially worthless. Had we instead tuned more heavily to beat slower decks – I mean, can you imagine how much better we all would have done had we been ballsy enough to maindeck those Persecutes? – we would have been infinitely more successful.
So what did we learn?
I, for one, learned two things. The first is that I need to spend more time in the “figuring out the metagame” stage than I do in the “crafting a deck to beat the metagame” part of it. This is the second time (Pro Tour: Honolulu being the first) where I have spent a lot of time tuning a deck that ended up being very, very good at what I wanted it to do… only to arrive at the tournament and to be defeated by decks I hadn’t imagined anyone would have dared to bring.
As a deck designer, this is still somewhat rewarding, to be fair; it’s good to know that I can work my decks into favorable matchups against whatever opposition I expect to face. As a player and a teammate, though, it’s incredibly frustrating to spend all that time coming up with a Porsche and arriving at the race to find everyone else revving their motorboats.
Second, I learned to… well, to listen for my damn pairings. Missing that start-of-round call in the first grinder stung not only because I lost out on a potential shot at qualifying for Nationals, but also because the loss itself dropped my Constructed rating to 1914 at the end of the day, putting me under the 1925 cutoff for second-round byes at Constructed GPs. Considering I didn’t lose another game to Heartbeat all day (it’s a really good matchup, trust me), and only lost that particular one because I kept a risky hand due to the strange circumstances of going into game one of a single-elimination round while being down a game… odds are strong that, even if I had been knocked out in the very next round, I’d still be enjoying my two Constructed byes if I hadn’t made such a bonehead error.
But that’s life. At least now I won’t be caught dead missing any more start-of-round announcements from here on out. Maybe next time we’ll read the metagame correctly, too, and put someone in the Top 8 of one of these things. Who knows? Time will tell, I suppose.
Until next time, don’t miss your pairings, folks.
Bonus Section: Sideboarding with Orzhova Maxima
In case anyone wants to pick up Orzhova Maxima for FNM, MTGO, or any other potentially acronym-related tournament system, I might as well let you know how I was sideboarding with it.
Board versus U/R/g Tron
Board versus U/R Tron with Meloku
Board versus Ghost Husk
Board versus Zoo
Board versus Gruul
Board versus Hand in Hand
Board versus Rakdos
Board versus Heartbeat
Board versus Magnivore
Board versus U/G/R Sea Stompy
Board versus Solar Flare