Magical Hack: Between A Rack And A Hard Place

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Last week, we had a look at a lot of different viable options for the upcoming State Championships. One of the key contenders for “deck I would play at States” was discussed there in its non-final form; one of the key contenders for “best deck to play for States” was discussed there (I just don’t want to play it); and the second deck I would consider playing at States hadn’t even been born yet…

Last week, we had a look at a lot of different viable options for the upcoming State Championships, which is now “tomorrow” for most of you. That article was written much earlier in the week than usual, meaning that the decks I was actually interested in didn’t get advanced as fully as I might like… a few more days of playtesting can go a long way towards finalizing a decklist. One of the key contenders for “deck I would play at States” was discussed there in its non-final form; one of the key contenders for “best deck to play for States” was discussed there (I just don’t want to play it); and the second deck I would consider playing at States hadn’t even been born yet.

The first of those three decks is FloresBot PodcastKiller (as named by testing-partner Jim Halter, who suggested the name out of a well-honed sense of vendetta, paying MichaelJ back in kind for the travesty that is “KarstenBot BabyKiller”), or simply “Black-White Rack” if you want to keep to simple, descriptive terms. (FloresBot PodcastKiller it is, then! Hooray!) This is a deck I’ve been riffing with one way or the other for weeks now, and I’ve noticed I’m one of the few people talking on the ‘Net about the possibility of this being an actual deck. Referring to last week’s decklist*, you’ll see a deck with an amazingly disruptive early-game discard suite that excels at clearing the opponent’s hand, and follows up with some incidental creature damage as Rats and Grotesques attack, and put the opponent into a no-win situation facing down The Rack just like we used to have to do back in the good old bad old days.

Of course, to get last week’s accurate decklist you’ll have to check the Forums, where you see Condemn make the deck and Sudden Death go away due to being slower and less relevant. A basic Plains also made the list, over a Swamp, to allow for the potential to search up a basic land that will help you to evade Blood Moon… just note that searching it up with Flagstones of Trokair only works before Blood Moon is in play, as the legendary Mountains will explode to their mutually assured destruction… but not replace themselves with other lands.

Testing so far tells us that this deck excels at a few interesting matchups: it destroys any truly dedicated control deck, as they find it impossible to play threats and actually back them up, though card drawing versus discard is an interesting dance of back-and-forth. Another dedicated resource control deck, like Magnivore or other flavors of land destruction, will find that they are fighting a losing battle of resource attrition, because your cards cost less, play out faster and do more… like stopping them from stopping you.

If you get paired against Dragonstorm, you’d have to be a drooling idiot to lose the match, or perhaps just so desperately unlucky that your opponent drew Misterorange’s wet dream hand and killed you on turn 1 on the play in both games 1 and 3. The notion of needing to sideboard against them is laughable, and I keep having to point that out every time someone looks and sees Circle of Protection: Red in the board and wants to bring it in against Dragonstorm. Solar Flare is a reasonably solid matchup, as when you look at the deck that won the StarCityGames tournament this past weekend, you have to squint to find a card you’re actually afraid of now that you’re armed with Smallpox + Condemn for Akroma, Angel of Boobies (of Wrath). (The only one that might prove “game-losing” problematic, after all, is Haakon, Stromgald Scourge, who enables repetitive card-drawing and can only be permanently removed from play by the deck if he attacks. And they’ve got him as a two-of.)

Unfortunately, the matchup against Zoo decks is less-than-stellar, though other creature decks with less burn are quite easily handled: Glare decks roll over and die miserably, and Blue-Green with just its four Chars has a hard time closing the game after getting disrupted to hell and back. Zoo can be handled if you can shut off their burn spells, trading off Dark Confidants that are just going to die anyway for Circle of Protection: Red or something else to make sure that burn spells can’t target your noggin. Fortunately, if you have to trade removal with a Zoo deck on a one-for-one basis, killing one-mana creatures with one-mana answers is at least a reasonably good theory for starters.

What makes Black-White discard so interesting is that it plays out like no other deck in the format. Its first four or five turns play out beautifully, bending your opponent’s deck over the table and clearing out any ability for long-term planning, then putting the opponent between the proverbial rock and a hard place, stuck between dying to damage from The Rack and dying to 1/1s and 2/1s nibbling away life-points because you can’t afford to kill them without dying to the Rack. Essentially it plays into a board situation where it has a creature removal spell or two sand-bagged in case you draw well, and both players have an empty hand with no reasonable board to speak of… except that you’ve got a one-mana artifact saying you get to cast Lightning Bolt at their noggin every turn. Black-White is a synergy deck, not a power deck, or at least this is true when you start following the discard path.

The second of those three decks I find very interesting is Zoo, because most decks that have been playing out in testing have been learning that it’s awfully hard to beat the “best of…” album of Gruul, Boros, and Selesnya tied together. The creatures are a little too big, and the burn is a little too… burn-y? The industry standard has become the elephant, and most of its creatures stack up well to Elephants while deploying with a quickness. Fast creatures and fast damage are really hard to just shrug off, and it is one of the most competitive decks in the format… and also the one that is hardest to claim you “just beat”. If your deck “just beats” Zoo, you’re probably lying to yourself, or to me… so far, nothing we’ve seen yet totally “man-handles” Zoo, with the possible exception of a Green-White Glare deck… and even then, it’s usually a close thing.

Last week, I showed you what I would play if I were to play Zoo… and this week I’ll just repeat it, because nothing has been required to change, in testing, and the different elements of the plan seem to hang together nicely.

Most Zoo decks that people are designing have 20 lands. This deck has 22… because sometimes you just need to make your first three land drops. We have seen this before, however… in Honolulu, Billy Moreno finished quite highly with Zoo, and he had 22 lands. He also had the same sideboard plan… winning the mirror with Glare and Hierarchs, to better fight the Elephant game. Testing with, and testing against, Zoo has taught me so far that as far as creature decks go, the industry standard really is a 3/3. Scab-Clan Mauler isn’t “bad,” per se, but Call of the Herd is amazing… and with 22 lands, you can better afford to play Call plus its flashback in enough time for it to actually matter, something you couldn’t say with 20 lands. 22 lands also makes the self-detonating color-fixing of Gemstone Mine hurt less… and the three-mana activation cost of Magus of the Scroll hurt less too.

Zoo wins creature fights because its creatures are bigger, and its removal is better. But this wouldn’t be quite as true if you subbed out Call of the Herd… its creatures would still be bigger, but one Scab-Clan Mauler is a lot easier to reason with than two Elephants. It also wouldn’t be true if Magus of the Scroll didn’t provide additional support, taking out lower-end creatures for free or going over the opponent’s head to deal direct damage… or even just allowing a Savannah Lion to trade with a Loxodon Hierarch without losing a card. Zoo wins non-creature fights because it deploys its animals quickly and burns the opponent out fast too, an effort Rift Bolt aids admirably with its effective one-mana cost so long as you don’t mind a turn’s worth of delay. Using the “one mana = one turn” standard set for Suspend, this spell is clearly undercosted… and the best analogue among all the Suspend cards to the previous version, being a Lightning Bolt with Suspend: 1 instead of Ancestral Recall with Suspend: 4. The previous version was excellent, and this one fits in just as nicely, sitting with Seal of Fire, Char, and Lightning Helix in the “best of…” burn suite.

But the deck that has me most enamored of its charms right now fits the mantle of “slow, ponderous control deck” that Billy Moreno claims I love to play, which he hung around my neck in the first week of my playing in the Battle Royale. It is not mind-numbingly slow, but it is clearly a very defensive counterspell deck, templated off Forbidian, Baron Harkonnen, and Operation Dumbo Drop… three decks not exactly known for their blazing quickness. The origin of this deck is a funny one… occasional playtest partner and sometimes-barn Dan Olmo sent me an email asking for cards for States, since I won’t be playing and own plenty of cards. (Waitaminute… if I’m the one loaning him cards… this reverses the role in our barn-hull relationship!) He replied as follows:

I am not 100% sure as to what i am playing yet
I will know in the next day or two

I have been playing with a G/U deck but
I have been playing Vs scrubs and I win lol

can i have you thoughts?

4 Mystic Snake
2 Draining Whelk

2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

4 Spell Snare

4 Rune Snag

4 Remand

4 Voidslime

4 Whispers of the Muse

4 Repeal

2 Gaea’s Blessings

1 Desert

4 Breeding Pool

4 Yavimaya Coast

4 Mouth of Ronin

7 Snow Covered Forest

8 Snow Covered Island

I was thinking of ways to salvage a Blue-Green control deck with no mass removal, and had to think long and hard about it before finding a solution I could even consider equitable: Wall of Roots.

Wall of Roots is this amazing card that no one has been using. Going back centuries in the TARDIS, as Professor Jones put it, you’ll see an amazing array of Green Winter Orb decks running it (like the original G5C, now usually remembered as “5c Green”). You’ll see Survival of the Fittest decks, back from the first printing of Survival (Seth Burn “Stupid Green Deck”) to my deck from last year’s Legacy Grand Prix in Philadelphia. And you’ll find control decks playing Wall of Blossoms to block early… but they didn’t reprint Wall of Blossoms, so it’s “only” the ridiculous mana-pumping wall for us.

How ridiculous is it? So long as we’re in a police box traveling through time and scouring the galaxy for data-points like a well-researched Time Lord, one might return to a single day in France oh, ten years ago or so it feels. A small group of players brought a deck they called “Wall of Boom,” exploiting some noggin-hurtin’ timing loopholes that suggested Wall of Roots could do more than first suspected thanks to the fact that it didn’t actually tap for its mana-generation ability. Here I’m thinking of opening plays in which I use it twice before untapping, once to cast a threat or card-drawing on my turn, and again on the opponent’s turn to pay for countermagic. But those crazy French players didn’t want to settle for just using it twice… so they asked, just how many times can you use a Wall of Roots before untapping?

Follow the logic: Wall of Roots says “Use this ability only once each turn”. What if you use it BETWEEN TURNS!!!!!11!!!!eleven!!!1

Presume you can draw on it for mana “between turns” at all. Presume there is even such a thing as “between turns”, in a crazier and more open-ended “exploit” than even “the Waylay trick” did. If you can use it once “between turns,” you can use it twice. After all, the “use once each turn” clause clearly doesn’t apply when it is no one’s turn. On no one’s turn, you can draw two Green mana from it, if you want to. And if you can use it twice, you can use it infinitely, drawing upon the mana source ability (because back then this was a “mana source” and thus uncounterable and not using the stack) faster than the rules would think to check and see if the Wall of Roots dies from having negative toughness.

Of course, this was back in the old-old days, so even if they had infinite mana, they’d need something to do with it, and some way to prevent them from mana-burning to death for a bajillion during the untap phase. Thus the combo of Wall of Roots (infinite mana source) + Magma Mine (cheap artifact that turns infinite mana into infinite damage) + Stasis (way to skip your untap phase) could quite reasonably kill on the third turn… or, more accurately, on the upkeep of the turn following their third turn. Fortunately, this only worked once, because after that ill-fated day judges everywhere decreed someone had been smoking the good stuff, and since they didn’t share, Wall of Roots + Magma Mine + Stasis = NOT A COMBO.

Now, I’m not greedy, I just want to use Wall of Roots twice. But as a mana accelerant, it’s not as good as a Bird or an Elf, or at least so the theory would go. Maybe, maybe, it’ll be good alongside them… but instead I started with the theory of “what if I wanted it because it was an 0/5 Wall?” Visions of playing Wall of Roots turn 2, blocking a Kird Ape, then following up on my third turn with Ohran Viper while still having Remand mana up on their turn had me pleased immensely, and I began working on a Blue-Green control deck that would somehow, somehow, supplement its card-draw with Wall of Roots and Desert to control the board with, and somehow play like a fully functional Forbidian deck.

Testing and tuning later, and I had the deck I was pleased with. By this time we’d seen the StarCityGames event this past weekend‘s decklists, though by how tuned some of these decks looked one might not be surprised to learn on the Top 8 Magic podcasts I referred to them as a somewhat more colorful name, in my abiding the deep and burning desire to ridicule Peace of Mind in each and every deck in which I have ever found it played. In preparation for States (but for me, in actuality, prepping for a Tuesday-night Mock Tournament at Neutral Ground, as I won’t be playing States… by the time most readers get this, I’ll likely be on a bus to Pittsburgh for a fun Halloween-themed weekend…) I worked on the deck and solidified the theories behind it, which got me thinking a lot about the conclusions I had reached about Standard for this weekend.

… Don’t worry, I won’t tease you anymore, here’s the decklist before I go into my deep and esoteric musings on what actually matters in Standard:

“Flores Winner Winner Chicken Dinner”, or, in a world where I’m not so easily amused by mocking Mike Flores and deck-names like “Karsten-Bot DI Re-Buy”… “Forbidian.”

Playing with Deserts and trying to use Hail Storm effectively, it occurred to me that I was fighting the wrong fight. (I even went so far as to point out that Hail Storm was terrible in this deck, even though it’s an awesome card, because containing X/1’s and X/2’s is perfectly reasonable with a Desert or two… and also said a colorful word or two about the quality of the decklists seen in the top tables at the StarCityGames Open last weekend, since Week 1 decklists are always untuned, all on the Top 8 Magic Podcasts earlier this week) I wasn’t worried about Savannah Lions and Soltari Priest; it’s for creatures like those that I am playing Desert x4. (Next to snow lands. What can I say, I’ve been hot and cold lately. It’s either screwy weather or menopause, possibly both.)

Thinking about the creature wars I was trying to position myself correctly against, it occurred to me that I needed to pick a fight with an elephant, or at least a monkey, if I’m going to beat an aggressive deck ever. Fortunately, I’ve got four Wall of Roots as part of my early-game plan, destined to provide acceleration in one form or another: speed up my mana on turn 3, or buy me a turn by blocking and getting burned. Walls as Time Walks have been an effective anti-aggro strategy since the days of Jamie Wakefield, and we’re even talking about the same Wall if you go back far enough in time! And while Ohran Viper is good at picking a fight with a monkey and at least trading with an Elephant, the correct positioning is to aim to be the better Green deck against Call / Watchwolf / Kird Ape / Mauler.

The rest of the deck is fairly intuitive: the matchup against Dragonstorm is as solid as you can expect from a control deck, as it has the “right” counters (Voidslime) plus the ability to shut down Lotus Bloom, the best card in the Dragonstorm deck… either Teferi or Repeal will do the trick. Presumably other combo decks respond in a similar fashion but without as much threat, as Dragonstorm + Mana To Cast It is a much easier combo to assemble than the other two “viable” combos, Enduring Renewal / Wild Cantor / Grapeshot or Reiterate / Early Harvest / 7-9 Lands and a Kill Card. Other control decks are interesting beasts… but this has more counters, and harder ones, plus the ability to run wild in the early game off of Wall of Roots mana or an unchecked Ophidian. (Too bad Phid costs double green… but I stretched the manabase to fit it anyway.) Planting Teferi against an opposing control deck can be a near-death experience for them, and sideboarding Life from the Loam for mana advantage in games that go long is excellent… and it’s not bad against LD spells, either.

That leaves the aggro decks as the truly uncharted territory, but we knew that going into this deck… after all, the entire anti-aggro plan for things that slip through are block with a Wall, trade with Mystic Snake / Ohran Viper / Teferi, pick it off with Desert or try and get a second crack at it with Repeal. Going into design I already knew that there would be four Calls in the sideboard, and it is only because I was trying so hard to keep all the cards I wanted in the main that they didn’t make it in as my kill card of choice. (Not everything fits in 60 in every time, but I consider this a defensible decision… in most cases, how you kill the opponent doesn’t matter, you aim to not lose first and having not lost, win somehow second. Counterspells that attack for two may count as “somehow.”) Ophidian deals damage, and Teferi may not attack like a Dragon but he makes life much easier when defending your permanents, as the opponent can no longer use instants to gain a mana advantage over you.

So we’re trying to beat critter decks, and you’re telling me all we have to work with is Repeal, Wall of Roots, trading my man with their man, and Desert? Some would say this is crazy, but it works out reasonably well if you know which fight you are picking. In this case, the moral of the story is: respect the Elephant. Facing off against 2/1’s and 2/2’s is easy, Desert does a lot of work by itself there… with everything else helping of course. Facing off against 3/3’s, though, the best of the lot is clearly Call of the Herd. Mystic Snake trades with a full Call of the Herd, countering one side of the Elephant and (with help from a lone Desert) taking the second half of it down with him. Remand and Repeal are clearly U or U1: Kill your 3/3, draw a card. This still however doesn’t make the Forbidian deck “the better Green deck”, even if its answer cards are more versatile, able to get better deals on card interaction (“… plus I get this 2/2!” or “… plus I draw a card!” being on more than a few cards).

What it came down to was that no creature was as relevant as Call of the Herd, omnipresent as it well deserves to be. Squaring down Call of the Herd with not only your own Calls, but a full suite of Remand and Repeal, helped a lot. But there was still something missing, something else needed to unbalance the fight of dueling 3/3’s. Nothing took down their man and lived to tell the tale… and so the former Hail Storm spot became Phyrexian Ironfoot, to help gum up the ground quickly (again, with Wall of Roots you can both cast it turn three and protect it) and take on 3/3’s with his butt of four. In most cases in that particular matchup, though, you want to leave your Walls at 0/5 instead of 0/4, and 0/3 is clearly terrible, no longer blocking Call or Watchwolf or Scab-Clan Mauler effectively. 0/5 doesn’t even die to Char before blocking, and so is guaranteed to block and prevent some damage before trading with a burn spell, and trading a card for life, a card, and time as well is the hallmark of a solid plan, even if it doesn’t get you anywhere towards reversing your fortunes…

The plan as a whole, then, was: -1 Teferi, -2 Compulsive Research, -4 Voidslime; +4 Call of the Herd, +3 Phyrexian Ironfoot. Desert can be replaced by Mouth of Ronom but probably should just sit still and remain as it is; Desert negates the usefulness of Savannah Lions, and allows you to trade up Snakes for Elephants and Wolves… while Mouth of Ronom, um, untaps Phyrexian Ironfoot, something that should work well enough already off of nine basics plus four fetchlands. And given how quickly some of the spells work at affecting the board, like “U: Kill your Elephant, draw a card”, there’s enough wiggle room to advance the plan of being the better Green deck… because you have enough lands to enact your plan, can trade smaller resources for bigger threats thanks to Desert or even just ignore small threats like Savannah Lions, and control the board effectively thanks to more card-drawing stapled to your impact spells and more fat.

Which is to say, “win the Call of the Herd fight” in a lot more words, but that’s my propensity for verbosity for you.

Picking a fight over Elephants is key to winning against beatdown, because Double Elephants is the best beatdown card there is. It was true then, it’s true now, and it’ll be true for the next two years unless something ridiculous explodes when we face Planar Chaos or look forward with Future Sight. Of course, Elephants also come in 4/4, and have Glare of Subdual as their friends… but you can’t test every matchup, and I fear not the Yavimaya Dryad when my Snow-Covered Forests are sitting in a time-warp next to my Deserts – too hot to walk over and survive.

The other question that is really raised by this deck is the absence of Spell Snare. This absence seems quite justifiable, though, when the best beatdown decks are focusing on ones and threes; Call of the Herd has made the number “2” just less good than before, everyone wants to skip from turn 1 to turn 3… or just settles for more one-drops. Only White seems to like the number two a lot, and not when it’s hanging with its friends in the Zoo; White naturally fails against this particular strategy, with many of its best beaters either running into Wall of Roots and not killing it, or running into Deserts and dying. (I’m looking at you, Soltari Priest.)

If I were to play States tomorrow, I’d be playing Forbidian. Instead, I’m on the road to Pittsburgh for a Halloween bash, and will just have to catch up with you next week with some decklists in hand… but my wrap-up of States will be but one week, as the week following sees Grand Prix: New Jersey and it’s time to change gears from Standard back to Limited. Next week’s States wrap-up and analysis will also contain the start of a solid look at the Pro Tour in Kobe, then… but I promise we’ll be back to Standard before too long has passed, as the tournament scene gears up for Worlds and after that… the City Championships Series, or as we used to call it in New York and Boston, the Grudge Match.

In which I will most likely be playing Forbidian. But that’s months from now, and things can change.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

Look up to the bright blue sky
Can’t you feel life passing by?
If you could wouldn’t you
Try to soar over everything?
All the pain this world can bring
Once I flew now I’ve lost my wings…
White Town, “Once I Flew”

*: Or, for those who read past in search of Easter eggs, you can use the post-playtesting, better-tuned version of FloresBot PodcastKiller, as seen here: