Magical Hack – Eventide’s Grand (Prix) Entrance

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Friday, August 8th – We could have hoped for a bigger impact… but we have to deal with what we’ve got. Grand Prix: Kobe has come and gone, and once again the Fae hoist the trophy… but one cannot forget that it was one mistake away from being knocked down in the finals 2-0.

We could have hoped for a bigger impact… but we have to deal with what we’ve got. Grand Prix: Kobe has come and gone, and once again the Fae hoist the trophy… but one cannot forget that it was one mistake away from being knocked down in the finals 2-0. There is hope, and there is some change… after all, things don’t look exactly the same as they did before, even if we aren’t overrun with a swarm of Eventide cards. In fact we see only the following cards:

Takayuki Takagi: 1 Twilight Mire, SB 1 Wickerbough Elder. 2/75.

Katsuya Ueda: SB 2 Snakeform. 2/75.

Hiroshi Yoshida: 4 Figure of Destiny, 4 Stigma Lasher, 4 Puncture Blast, 3 Soul Snuffers. 15/75.

Tsuyoshi Ikeda: 3 Thunderblust, SB 3 Flame Jab. 6/75.

Kotaro Ootsuka: SB 3 Snakeform, 3 Soul Snuffers. 6/75.

Shou Yoshimori: 1 Twilight Mire, SB 1 Recumbent Bliss. 2/75.

Masayasu Tanahashi: 4 Figure of Destiny, 4 Unmake, SB 3 Hallowed Burial. 11/75.

Yuuta Takahashi: SB 4 Stillmoon Cavaliers. 4/75.

Altogether that makes up 48 of 600, or 8%. Sure, we expected a much bigger impact… we expected to see more of the new cards, or at least we had hoped that this would be true after playing what felt like a stagnant little format prior to Eventide rotating in. We would have hoped that it would be all unicorns and rainbows… but the reality is, there’s some mighty good cards across all four sets, and the new kid on the block isn’t going to suddenly inspire people to stop playing Bitterblossom… if anything, now they’re playing it in more decks, like Bitterblossom Elves (Feldman’s experiment) and Bitterblossom Merfolk (just ask Shuuhei Nakamura, playing Yuuya Watanabe’s “Greedy Man Special,” with Bitterblossom and Mirror Entity working together again for the first time).

So… was Eventide a failure? I think not. Even if we want to say that Faeries won and nothing has changed, which list of Faeries it is that won is very relevant indeed. Looking at the Top 8, we see an awful lot more diversity than we saw in most PTQ Top 8s recently… four-color Doran, three-color Doran, three Faeries decks, R/B pressure, Mono-Red Aggro, and the obligatory Kithkin appearance. The deck that won it all was a very unusual version, cutting countermagic left and right… even shaving one of the Holy Grails of the Fae, Cryptic Command, a move that gets me yelled at every time I even discuss it. But this odd list with the sudden reappearance of Pestermites (because it is a more aggressive format, so Pestermite has a larger effect now) and stuff like main-deck Oonas, plural, is exactly the kind of list that requires the “kids, don’t try this at home” label: it’s carefully honed to exactly one player’s playing style, and thus should not be picked up cold and taken as your “stock” PTQ list for this weekend.

… Instead, look at the following. At least in recent weeks, the growing trend for acceptance has been to play maindeck Thoughtseizes and Peppersmokes in your Faeries list, started here in the Northeast on Week 1 with Melissa DeTora’s win in Boston.

Gone are the main-deck Thoughtseizes, because the field has opened up more to allow for other decks as well. This isn’t just wishful thinking… good decks in the field are warping to pay attention to new additions from Eventide, most notably Figure of Destiny… who now requires the full four main-deck Peppersmokes, now that Kithkin can be Figure-powered and Red decks exist based on the strength of this one-drop. Instead of the slower format dominated by Faerie-on-Faerie mirrors, one has to expect that they will play other decks, and that these decks will largely include Figure of Destiny. Covering the color spread, you have Blue and Black which play Faeries (… and Peppersmoke is good here…) or Green (whatever) or Red or White (… both of which play Figure of Destiny, and thus Peppersmoke is good here…). A subtle format change, perhaps, but one that informs us of a critical change with Eventide. [Surely Peppersmoke is terrible against the mighty Figure? — Craig.]

I’ve been harping on about Black/Green Elves as a deck now for at least a little while, ever since I stopped working on a Feldman-esque polychromatic “Elves with Cryptic Command” build and embraced attacking with one-drops, and let me tell you, the format can be a little bit faster now than people are giving it due credit for. Faeries is good… and still probably the best… but it’s vulnerable to early aggression, and thus needs to have Peppersmokes to deal with early creature drops. In a match earlier this week, my opponent was playing Faeries and was on the draw, and cast a very strong (some might say ideal) opener of Thoughtseize into Bitterblossom.

I, however, had led with Twinblade Slasher, then had Wren’s Run Vanquisher for turn 2 after getting Thoughtseized. On turn 3 I played a Mutavault as my land and attacked, pumping my Twinblade Slasher… and on my opponent’s third turn, he got a crappy 1/1 Faerie in play and was at ten life facing down an attacking Mutavault, pumped Slasher, and Vanquisher next turn. Faerie deck was not happy… Faerie deck did not win.

Maybe my Elf deck is a “pet” deck, and nobody real in the world actually plays it. But I just look at one of the decks that made the Top 8, Shou Yoshimori’s Doran deck, and notice it has the same spell package (“twelve awesome Black spells”), the same number of lands (… but fewer Mutavaults, because he had three colors instead of two), and half the same creatures (Colossus, Shaman, Vanquisher). With 2/3rds of the deck identical, but with high-curve cards like Leaf-Crowned Shaman where it could have an aggressive package and focus on the Elf thing, I just have to wonder whether it was even tested or if the Japanese skipped right to Doran because the mana can be made to work. I like Doran just fine… but had found in testing that when you start including cards like Treefolk Harbinger, he became a “too many eggs in one basket” problem, because without him you had cards that did nothing in your deck. So seeing a deck that is 2/3rds the same cards do well at a Grand Prix, and not on the strengths of some of those different cards… well, perhaps we will see over the remainder of the PTQ season whether aggressive Elves beat out more mid-range Tree-Elves.

The lesson is still true, however: we live in a more aggressive format now, thanks to additions like Figure of Destiny that are actually potent enough to warp the format around their inclusion. The Faeries have to give serious consideration to being able to kill one, either by punishing its use as a one drop (Peppersmoke) or including removal that can kill it as a 4/4 (Shriekmaw), and the three Faeries decks we see in the Top 8 does one of these or the other main-deck. Kithkin obviously change their configuration to use him, and as an early creature that can survive Firespout (… and alongside Firespout’s decline as a common main-deck strategy, now that Faeries has starved out the 5C “Toast” control decks…) he seems to have largely replaced Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender as Kithkin’s other one-drop.

And how has Eventide’s inclusion altered the format, outside of the Grand Prix Top 8? We see Faeries decks and Kithkin decks altered around Figure of Destiny’s inclusion, new sideboard strategies including Soul Snuffers and Snakeform from a variety of decks, taking advantage of the fact that Green deck and Blue deck alike can cast Snakeform to answer problem creatures. At least one player was bringing in Stillmoon Cavaliers, who swings past Bitterblossoms, wins fights with Blue faeries, and blocks Kithkin all day long. A few Kithkin players were packing him too, for likely much the same benefits, as you can see if you explore the Day 1 coverage for the GP Trial winners’ decklists.

Eventide is a weird little set. Everyone keeps poking fun at it, telling us that it’s useless, full of bad cards, the worst since Homelands (a.k.a. Fallen Empires 2: Electric Boogaloo)… and yet there are so many interesting places it could go, because it has plenty of cards that suggest little niches where they might be useful. There’s the obvious: lands and Figure of Destiny. But one by one, new inclusions start to make their way in… and really, the impact of a very small number of playable one-drops has a HUGE impact on what could otherwise have been termed a slower format. Figure of Destiny isn’t alone as the only one-drop in Eventide, though again I just look biased over my continuing love affair for Twinblade Slasher and Nettle Sentinel. It could be alone and still have a large impact, because he’s an awesomely powerful one-drop for two different colors, so it’s like the one card is functionally two different cards: a Savannah Lion AND a Jackal Pup.

But as time goes on, we see more and more of these build-around-me cards getting included, out of this set where everyone said the cards were all awful. There’s the horribly unproven “Kelpie” deck, which some call “Mudkips,” based around Persist, Retrace, and River Kelpie, which frankly is simply a worse Blue-Black deck than Faeries. There’s the implication for format changes that the lands have on Block and Standard, starting with “now everyone can play Cryptic Command,” turning that around a little to instead say “now everyone can play Chameleon Colossus,” and otherwise giving us the mana of the Gods to pull off whatever crazy idea we think up next. Five-Color Merfolk lost in the finals of the Nationals PTQ, overpowered by Kithkin packing Figures of Destiny, and while we are still seeing a lot of the “same old cards” as the standard skeleton of the rest of the format, as time goes on these things find more homes as their particular talents are desired. Eventide has some narrow-but-powerful cards, and it just so happens that a few noteworthy cards like Bitterblossom still overshadow the format… but with more strong competitors, Bitterblossom becomes the best of a larger crowd than it was before, and thus perhaps we will in fact see the crown begin to slip.

Checking in on PTQs since Eventide’s advent, we see rumors from around rather than up on the MTG.com side pages. We can also poke over onto various forums to see advanced notice of what did well where, which is how I found out that Kithkin won the Nationals PTQ… it certainly wasn’t in the Nationals coverage. There are plenty of Kithkin and Faeries around, and the metagame is readjusting itself around Figure of Destiny… but in addition you’ll occasionally see fresh new face Mono-Red Aggro as well, in a variety of flavors:

Mono-Red by Krzysztof Pesla, PTQ Top 8 (Berlin, Germany)

24 Mountain

4 Tarfire
4 Flame Javelin
2 Lash Out
2 Puncture Blast

4 Ashenmoor Gouger
4 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Mudbrawler Cohort
4 Tattermunge Maniac
4 Figure of Destiny

4 Murderous Redcap
3 Incendiary Command
3 Faerie Macabre
2 Unwilling Recruit
2 Lash Out
1 Firespout

This came alongside another version with a much tighter mana-curve, Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Mono-Red Shaman deck from the Kobe Top 8. It’s not just those crazy Japanese players that are thinking of it… all around the world, one little Red one-drop has started carrying a deck on its shoulders, though even some of the players playing that Red deck have moved on past him, like Fujita’s build did.

Fujita adds some tribal synergy to the deck, thanks to the absurd power of Rage Forger when left unchecked, and harnesses both Elementals and Shamans: Shamans with Rage Forger, and Elemental tutoring with Flamekin Harbinger and acceleration with Smokebraider, the latter of which can help to power out a hasty attacking Thunderblust as early as turn 3.

Vexing Shusher seems to be the sore thumb left out; it’s a Shaman, sure, and how bad can an uncounterable Grizzly Bear be…? But his services aren’t necessarily helpful, and his potential too readily goes unfulfilled, which is where others have since talked about the deck, gone back and put Figure of Destiny in his place… or, months before in the “untuned” Mono-Red lists, started with Sunfire Shamans in that slot on the mana-curve, adding another element for the opponent to deal with: kill the rest of my creatures, and he’ll kill you.

In the end, we see some changes to the format. Faeries have managed to ride the wave of changes and still does well at the end of the day… but the competition is fiercer, and things have started to widen up instead of being a crazy insular format of Bitterblossom or go home. Which is good… because like it or not, this is much of the same card-pool as we will have to start with for Standard come early October, and we could use a little bit of hope right about now. With two weeks of sparse PTQs and no reporting really to speak of, we have seen the Fae win a Grand Prix. There have been a considerable number of Kithkin wins in the past two weeks due to Figure of Destiny — a fate some might consider every bit as reprehensible as the Faerie dominance, since there are clearly a very small number of ‘best decks’ instead of a wide-open metagame — but as mentioned above, that may just be a temporary setback as the Fae position themselves more carefully to overcome that opposition.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com