Living in Interesting Times – Examining Time Spiral Standard

Get ready for Magic the Gathering Champs!

Despite a number of high-profile events attempting to define the ongoing Standard metagame, the field is officially wide open. Josh takes a look at some of the myths and fallacies that are present in the respective tournament results. He looks at some of the stronger decks fielded thus far, and draws some interesting conclusions…

This is an interesting time. I mean, right now. This very instant. After tomorrow, things will be significantly less interesting. Tomorrow, of course, is States, or Champs if you must — and you should. There is nothing like a tournament to define an undefined format. That much, however, I should not have to say.

You see, before last weekend there was even less definition. Since then, I’m sure, many tournaments have elapsed, but for the purposes of gathering information, only two have coverage.

The first and least-covered of the two was a tournament that took place in Japan. This tournament held 99 players, as a side event at Pro Tour: Kobe. Granted, it was just a side event. However, its sheer size (roughly the size — or bigger — of one U.S. States Champs tournament) and Japan’s penchant for innovation, and it’s definitely worth looking at. The coverage for the tournament can be found in the blog (Day 2) at Pro Tour: Kobe.

With expectations raging pretty high, I was a bit disappointed. Ordinary decks, it seems. The breakdown of these decks is: Glare; Mid-range Red/Green/White creatures; Boros; Gruul; and in the control category you have Blue-Snow touch red; Red/White/Blue control; and Black/White Discard.

Honestly, this is not terribly special. Don’t get me wrong… adding new cards to old decks is a classic, natural practice. It just isn’t terribly interesting. Everyone can tell you Call of the Herd, Thornscape Battlemage, Avalanche Riders, and Akroma are good cards. Everyone can tell you that Teferi is good enough to be the base of a Blue deck. Everyone can tell you that Stonewood Invocation should be in Green decks because it lets you kill Akroma in combat and also kills your opponent when necessary (pretty good.)

I suppose if we are going to look at a deck it might as well be this one. It won the tournament, so right off the bat it is instantly more worthy of our attention. That and the fact that being called the winning deck means that you have people copying this deck (and/or planning to play against it in the tournament) means that it is worth learning about.

This deck, at first glance and probably second glance looks like a standard (no pun) Glare of Subdual deck. And indeed, in many ways, it is.

With the standard four Vitu-Ghazi, four Selesnya Guildmage, and four Glare of Subduals you’d have to look twice to spot what makes this deck really unique. At least, I did. Yes, that’s right – it plays four copies of Thelonite Hermit. Now at first glance you can’t be too sure just how good this guy is, but if you consider that without him your tokens cost an average of four-and-a-half mana, and that they are merely 1/1s, while, with him in play all Saprolings are bigger… that means your Saprolings from your City-Trees and Selesnya Guildmages grow too. This is important because it means you can get more value out of your creatures. In a format full of Wrath of Gods (see below), if each of your creatures can force a Wrath of God your opponent is going to be backpedaling for quite a while. Of course, it doesn’t always work like that, and on the other hand you can just unmorph or cast him for the Glorious Anthem effect and kill your opponent. All-in-all, he is a natural fit to the deck, and he pumps the deck up to the next level.

The sideboard has cards that might have you asking questions, and in particular one card might seem a little suspect. Thrill of the Hunt, at first, probably doesn’t seem too good — or good at all. But then, remember that it makes your Call of the Herd token survive their Char, and it makes combat practically unwinnable for your opponent… and now think about it. Sure, combined it doesn’t grant the three power that one Giant Growth does, but the toughness bonus and re-usability more than makes up for that. Also, you might be saying to yourself that they can see it coming the second time. This is true. However, your opponent seeing it coming doesn’t necessarily hurt you. They are still bound by mana, which means they will either have to kill your guy at the end of turn, only to have you save it and then untap and kill it again, or save up more mana and more cards to kill your guy — despite knowing about it. Against Rakdos, and, other creature decks I can think of really no better card.

Next, I’d draw your attention to the $1500 SCG Tour® nament. Results can be found here.

The StarCityGames.com $1500 tournament was a big event. Carrying a prize purse that big in an undefined metagame is obviously going to attract a fair share of people. Unfortunately, it fell during a Pro Tour, so most of the attendees were amateurs. However, most of the players who went to the Pro Tour probably aren’t hiding any secret Standard technology; rather, they probably focused their efforts on the Pro Tour instead.

Anyway, on with it:

Solar Pox won the tournament. This is interesting. It’s basically an old deck with new cards, but the interaction of the new cards fit the deck so well:

Now, don’t get me wrong. If I play this deck at States Champs, and I might, I will probably clean up the numbers and add the 4th Compulsive Research. Because, in a word, duh.

On turn 3, if you cast Smallpox and sacrifice Flagstones you are doing pretty well. Flagstones, by the way, could easily be the topic of articles for weeks and weeks, or at least one day — it is very good. Zvi did quite a good job on that card.

The deck itself is the old flame Solar Flare with a new kick added to the mix. The “Knight engine,” that I saw first in a Frank Karsten article near the release of Coldsnap.

The engine, if you don’t know, is Haakon, Stromgald Scourge and Court Hussar. The way Court Hussar is designed, you can choose to let it die, which means you can play it over and over again thanks to Haakon. This means you can find any card in your deck, given enough time. And should you have enough time to do that, drawing that many extra cards will probably win you the game automatically. Having extra bodies in play isn’t so bad when you are running Dread Return, which conveniently flashes back at the cost of three of those Knights (your choice).

This new feature is coupled with the tremendous ability of the old deck — minus Miren, the Moaning Well. Miren, of course, was an innocent-enough-looking card, yet a single copy in any deck essentially spelled doom (d-o-o-m) for any creature deck. Sacrificing Yosei or Kokusho; gaining five, ten, twenty-plus life. It was all too much. That card is gone, but the deck remains.

Smallpox allows you to discard Haakon, Akroma, Angel of Despair, setting up Dread Return or Haakon, or sometimes — unluckily — nothing. However, the fact that you have four Flagstones and few creatures, coupled with Wrath of God, means that each Smallpox sacrifice should be back-breaking for your opponent, while you merely shrug it off and probably gain from it.

That’s the deck in a nutshell. Powerful, versatile, lethal… vulnerable? Maybe. There are a few strategies out there that will probably dominate this deck outright, strategies such as burning the face and strategies such as casting and activating Tormod’s Crypt. Now, don’t get me wrong… Tormod’s Crypt isn’t the be-all and the end-all. Trickbind is present in the sideboard to counter it, should you have the chance to do that (it seems like stars would have to align and your opponent would have to be desperate), so for that reason I don’t like Trickbind. But I don’t like Tormod’s Crypt because unless you are very far ahead and can force your opponent into a situation where he must act through his graveyard or over-commit to it (yes, over-committing to his graveyard). So my point, longwinded as it may be: should you be in a position where you can benefit from Tormod’s Crypt, you are probably better off with a redundant Burn Spell or something less random. The strongest power of Tormod’s Crypt might be the threat of its existence. That being said, I still hate it.

Also, there’s burning the face.

Normally, a face can only take about 20 points of damage before it expires. I cut my teeth on burn decks. I played Red cards for an entire year. Often when Blue cards were simply better: that being said, they are almost always viable, even when Blue is better.

Before I get started on what will be the last deck I talk about today, let me address Circle of Protection: Red. This card is pretty bad. It would be really good if the burn decks were creature-based, because then the games would play out like this:

You play Circle: Red, they play guys.
They attack, you prevent damage.
They, in turn, burn you a little bit — when they can, and probably also commit more guys to the board. This allows you to Wrath profitably.
They follow up with more guys, or more burn, but probably not much of either and are essentially out of stock.
You then have time to play your cards while they either draw lands, or creatures (essentially useless at this point) or burn spells — which they have to stockpile, in order to get past your mana supply.

However, that doesn’t work against burn decks that are spell-based. You can play the waiting game all you want. You wait, they wait. However, while you are waiting and doing nothing, they are casting Whispers of the Muse and setting up. Not to mention the fact that if they have no cards in their hand, which probably resulted in you dipping to around ten life or so — even with your Circle — they can just kill you with a Hellbent Demonfire, sweet… right?

I don’t really like Circle of Protection: Red.

Here’s the other deck:

Now, I don’t love this decklist, but I do like the deck. This is not terribly surprising, since it’s a Mike and Pat creation, but I digress. If I were to play it, I’d probably not play Urza’s Factory. I’d probably play Compulsive Research instead of Think Twice, and I might play Psionic Blast instead of Disintegrate, though I am not sure about that. I also really like Flagstones of Trokair but see no feasible way of including it, so we’ll have to pass on that. I don’t know what he was expecting with this sideboard and those Sacred Grounds, but those can probably be replaced. Otherwise the idea, at least, is nice.

If you play this deck, there are a few things to keep in mind. Most of the burn spells are not designed to be pointed at creatures. Lightning Helix is good for that, and Electrolyze is too. But primarily, you want Wrath of God to kill their guys. Should you have Giant Solifuge in play or in your hand, clearing the way for him is obviously economical, and should be practiced whenever possible. Other than that, I think it’s pretty straightforward, so for the more math-inclined this is definitely a deck you should look at.

If you’re wondering why it’s good, it’s probably simply not for you. However, you should know that a lot of decks simply have no defense to your plan with this sort of deck. Game 1 against Solar Flare is a walk in the park, as they can do just about nothing as you slowly roast them. Game ‘ against most control decks will go that smoothly, often ending with an open-ended Demonfire that is neither preventable nor counter-able. Demonfire is good. Mise Demonfire.

I imagine the worst matchup for this deck to be Dragonstorm and other combo decks, simply because you are not fast enough — not by a mile — to beat them in time, and can do little to stop/slow them down while they are setting up. You can put them in danger of dying soon but you will be dead before that, so that’s not very good. However, I think that Champs is a primarily beatdown-filled environment – even in light of this StarCityGames tournament where a control deck won. I’d still expect a fair bit of beatdown this weekend. Of course, after that I’d expect control to be right there, putting up almost equally high numbers — ordinarily, this would not be the case. Combo decks are usually the least favored, and running into one or more in a day of play is unlikely and/or unlucky.

Interesting times indeed; of course, with so little tournament data it should be obvious that these decks are in no way correctly tuned. That means you should feel free to change them. In fact, you should change them. I’ve made some small recommendations that I feel apply, but you should go further. Otherwise, we’d never get decks like Solar Pox, which is incredible considering the amount of time elapsed since the set became legal.

Good luck to you all.

See you next week.

Josh Ravitz