Magical Hack: Ghost Writer

Read Sean McKeown... every Friday at

At the start of the Team Standard season the easy default decks were known, but the format has proceeded past its origin by a few miles, and the best decks from Honolulu have effectively been blown in the dust already. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and as information flows around and around, a strange variety of decks are proving themselves in a format that is destined to depart in but a month’s time…

The Team Standard PTQ season continues, chugging onward past the half-way point and getting ready to take a break after this weekend to make way for the Dissension pre-release. The latest craze to hit Standard is a pair of decks coming out of the Flores/TOGIT playtest cooperative: Green/White GhaziChord and Black/White Husk. At the start of the season the easy default decks were known, but the format has proceeded past its origin by a few miles, and the best decks from Honolulu have effectively been blown in the dust already. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and as information flows around and around, a strange variety of decks are proving themselves in a format that is destined to depart in but a month’s time with the official addition of Dissension to the Standard card-pool.

As interesting as this season has been to date, as far as the sheer number of tournaments, it is, for the most part, completed. With Magical Hack intended each Friday to follow the twists and turns of tournament Magic as it appeals to the general mass of tournament players, this will be the last mention of Team Standard before we move forward to prepare for the coming of Dissension, at which time the focus will expand to include draft (coming into Prague), Standard (team and otherwise, coming into Regionals in late May), and Sealed Deck (coming into Limited State Championships in late June)… a busy schedule that cannot be wasted past today on the ins and outs of Team Standard )and the post-Honolulu but pre-Dissension Standard metagame).

For my own team, the learning and evolution process has been a difficult journey. Other than test a White/Red/Blue control deck intended to show off Quicken (of all the cards in Guildpact to focus on!), my work leading up to Honolulu focused on Black/White Rat decks, but apparently not quite enough to get a sense of how much beatdown might appear in the format that looked like it was going to be wonderful for control decks. The month following Honolulu was well spent, both as a writer and as a player, catching up to where the format was at the end of Sunday in Hawaii and progressing through everything that could have been, like Magnivore and Ghost Dad and Dutch Angel and B/W Husk. When time came for the first PTQ, we had one deck right in our choice and evolution of Ghost Dad, one deck very wrong (the mono-Red ‘Gruul Deck Wins’) that had to fight entirely too hard against every matchup, and one deck solid but unimpressive (Dutch Angel with a poor sideboard). When time came for the second PTQ, we had two decks right and one deck solid, ditching Dutch Angel for Heartbeat and dropping Gruul for Selesnya with some tricks and modifications.

Of all the experiments, I am confident in saying I did evolve one deck properly, to the point where conversations with Ben “Ridiculous Hat” Goodman on MTGO saw the concession that I was right about a few things that he and/or his team-mates had taken for granted, about how Ghost Dad had evolved to suit the changing metagame. Heartbeat is easy to think about, and still no one knows quite what they want to do in the sideboard, and the transition to playing a Green/White deck didn’t quite tell us whether splash Black for Putrefy and sideboarded Cranial Extractions would be able to improve the deck against Heartbeat and Jitte decks, or if the seemingly slow Dragons were worth their weight in the deck at all… everything’s too fast for a six drop, or so went the theories.

One thing I know was done right… my theory all along was that as time progressed these three Black/White decks would morph and trade working parts and learn from each other, as Osyp’s Shining Shoals in the Husk deck’s sideboard could show. A growing number of Ghost Dad players transitioned to Husk and/or Hand in Hand in order to gain explosiveness, to present difficult-to-answer situations or just to use a set of tools that Ghost Dad left neglected. Playing with Ghost Dad myself and choosing not to take the Team Cymbrogi advice without a grain of salt or two, weeks of playtesting, discussion and evolution, led to the following:

Ghost Dad was originally touted as the best draft deck ever (unless you count Bennie Smith NiceDraft.dec) and certainly proved it by finishing 22nd at a Constructed Pro Tour, a higher impact than Bennie’s team sealed deck winning Virginia State Championships. Of course, with four Ghost Councils, you have to wonder who was passing to Ben Goodman… and whether the luck of the Irish will hold up in Prague, where people may or may not choose to pass him Ghost Councils of Orzhova at an actual Draft Pro Tour. It gained that notoriety based on quite a few janky-seeming cards, like Thief of Hope and Strands of Undeath and even – on a certain level – Tallowisp. Eight Shoals was radical technology when it was invented, but starts to make sense now that we’re getting used to the idea, and pondering the notion of following up Ghost Dad with a Blue/White rendition out of Dissension to maybe, just maybe, search out Threads of Disloyalty with Shining Shoals and Disrupting Shoals. [Or maybe not… Threads is an “Enchant Creature with converted mana cost 2 or less,” and not an “Enchant Creature.” – Craig, just as surprised as you]

As competition between Black/White decks grew fierce, and the format continued to evolve and change, some aspects of Ghost Dad needed to evolve with the times to match the changing format around it or die a brutal death. As playtesting continued more and more, the only reasons I actually had any Thieves of Hope in my deck at all was to counteract the incidental life-loss that came from my opponent and his Thieves, because sometimes every once in a while in the mirror match I’d get bled out by their repeating one-life drains. Sure, once in a while they Soulshifted and could get back a Kami, Rusalka, or Tallowisp that had already been used or killed… but they never did anything else, and just like recouping life loss in the mirror it just didn’t seem like these cards were working hard enough, since even when they were doing their job it usually wasn’t very key. If I liked Kami of Ancient Law and Plagued Rusalka so much that I wanted to put more of them back in my hand, perhaps I should play four of them, conventional wisdom hinted in my general direction.

Enter… other cards. It occurred to me that everyone who played Ghost Dad might be better off if they all just consented, as a whole, to remove Thief of Hope from their decks. You could play more explosive cards, or cards with a higher impact, in those slots instead… or even just bump up some very deserving men to the “four-of” bracket, like Plagued Rusalka and Kami of Ancient Law.

The sideboard strategy was likewise radical, at least for Ghost Dad. Hearing about Ghost Dad decks sideboarding both Cranial Extraction and Persecute, and hoping their shot in the dark wouldn’t get Remanded or Muddled on that one crucial turn when trying to beat Heartbeat decks, seemed like a terminal case of “poor strategy.” But hey, I’m no Clan Cymbrogi member, just an independent rogue playtester doing the work and racking his brain.

Let results speak for themselves instead: my teammate Jim Halter of the Team Standard team Gorilla Tactics went a sum total of 11-2-1 in two seven-round PTQs, against a variety of decks, with this version of Ghost Dad (and its predecessor, which had not yet dropped the last two Thieves of Hope from the deck in favor of 8.5, because the final decision to grow a pair of stones when it came to dropping the progenitor’s technology was still a week away). Two other teams were handed the list, one of which foolishly opted out and played White Weenie instead (WTF?) and the other of which handed the last-minute decklist to their last-minute team addition acquired the night before and saw those two last-minute changes prove to be the most successful aspect of their team that tournament, likewise putting up quite a few wins after succumbing to the weight of the 0-4-1 Heartbeat player dragging them down.

Admittedly, play in two tournaments by two players is not exactly statistically valid, and neither team won the PTQ. Neither team even made Top 4, because the other decks on their team did not perform as admirably. However, the reasons for the changes were solid… and you haven’t lived in this format until you’ve played Ghost Dad with Pontiffs main, and realized just what wacky and disgusting stuff you can achieve with just a Pontiff and a Rusalka. The other changes to the deck were simple streamlining, practically just cosmetic in nature, until you change the Persecute into Extraction plan (doomed to failure) into the Castigate into Persecute plan (likely to succeed)… or responded to Wildfire with Bathe in Light, or pulled off such a trick in the mirror to knock off Pillories and alpha strike in sufficiently brutal fashion.

I would happily play this deck in single-player Standard right now, and that’s pretty impressive given that I was my team’s Heartbeat player. I have confidence that this deck will not be forgotten, one way or the other, when the third set is released and Standard is turned on its ear again. Maybe it will become something other than a Black/White deck, but I suspect Tallowisp and Shoals may continue to have some impact even after you swap colors and cards around. In fact I will be playing this deck in single-player Standard right now, if you happen to be attending the Michael J. Flores Deckade book-signing and tournament being held tomorrow afternoon at Neutral Ground New York. I may disagree with Mike and provide a dissenting voice to his opinions every so often, but as a writer this is certainly a case where a nod of esteem certainly seems appropriate… after all, he’s the only person I know of to hold two regular weekly columns for as long as I did, back in my stint for NeutralGround.com and the Mindripper-into-Brainburst transition.

That it is at least a little bit cheeky to “esteem” Mike by playing Ghost Dad in “his” Standard tournament, well… that’s just a fun bonus. Ghost Dad without all the hang-ups chaining it down to the weaker elements of its Spiritcraft and Soulshift origins is surprisingly powerful, and there are elements of the deck that are as they should be: every time you draw Orzhov Pontiff, you feel like you’ve ripped the stone-cold nuts.

Another big issue my team encountered was how to sideboard with the Heartbeat deck. My thinking about it focuses on the mirror match, with the presumption that you could come up with a proper plan for the mirror, and draft cards to fill the sideboard to flesh out that plan, while also working with your needs in other situations. For the record, I began with the following decklist, which Steve Sadin assures me is a sign that I am a wimp because I still feel I need the Recollect crutch to feel comfortable when going off.

Trying to figure out the mirror match, the presumption is that the first person to try to go for it probably loses, because there is just enough countermagic to fight over the one big turn and if you give your opponent the following turn, tapped out and with Heartbeat in play, you die. Sure, sometimes you’ll have a hand that can force the issue past Remand and Muddle the Mixture, or develop a significant enough mana advantage that they just stop mattering. But the plan of forcing your opponent to be the one to try and kill you with the combo suggests an aggro-control approach might be the plan, which means I remain drawn to the sideboards that include Vinelasher Kudzu, and dislike the seven-different-Legend sideboard plan that sees the best of Kamigawa’s forces enlisted to attack. Tapping out for Ryusei is not the idea we had in mind for victory in the mirror match, as good as it may be to provide a lot of fat threats against Black/White decks.

Starting with the Kudzu, the question becomes how to best fight enemy Kudzu, or complement it in the mirror match without necessarily tapping out once you get to six mana. Disrespecting every Dragon and so forth, I figured any additional creature in my sideboard would probably be Meloku, and that I would most likely have a Jitte in the sideboard to prevent ongoing shenanigans and every once in a great while perform them myself. The question was, if they resist your Kudzu with Carven Caryatid, is that good enough? If you resist theirs with yours, is that good enough? In the fight of Kudzu versus Wall, the Kudzu eventually wins, meaning that the wall does not change the inherent use of the Kudzu, which was to require the opponent to be the first to blink. Nor does your own stop the use of theirs, which is to provide a clock that forces you to be the active player, not necessarily giving you all the time in the world to sit waiting for Gigadrowse to break past their Blue and hope they don’t have Early Harvest.

The Wall is clearly good against Zoo and Gruul, but a comparable card could be played in Threads of Disloyalty. Instead of a five-toughness wall that eats a fair chunk of the opponents’ early creatures for breakfast, drawing a card to boot, the “draw a card” bonus could be replaced by “steal your man”, which answers the escalating war to Kudzu advantage nicely. Admittedly, you’re then trading creatures with the opponent instead of blocking indefinitely, but considering that it still sees two of their early men put in the bin (or one and a burn spell) it seems like it might just do enough. Stealing Watchwolf or Kird Ape (yes, Virginia, this deck does have Forests to pump him!) or Scab-Clan Mauler to trade with an opposing creature and blunt the force of early tempo helps to buy the needed time against beatdown to get enough resources before you begin the combo.

If the opponent has no Kudzu and I’ve boarded in Threads along with my control plan, well… I’m only removing Heartbeats for them, not exactly a card I would be thrilled to have in hand when I want to force the opponent to try going off before he is ready. If he doesn’t have Kudzu my reasoning puts me on having the superior plan, so long as a Kudzu is cast within the first three or four turns. Swapping the recently-customary three Carven Caryatid for three Threads of Disloyalty worked reasonably well against aggro… but I’d still suggest winning the die roll, as it’s easier by far when you get to go first and don’t have to race to go off before they get to their turn 5, as that’s a nightmare when they curve out perfectly into Giant Solifuge. The difference between borrowing a tapped Watchwolf that just bashed you for three and an untapped Watchwolf who is standing guard against Kird Ape is a large one.

One card is required out of the sideboard, and that card is Viridian Shaman. Its benefit is simple: when facing off against a Pithing Needle on Drift of Phantasms, your transmute for Weird Harvest to continue your combo plan. This finds an answer to that Pithing Needle without hindering the “win the game” plan. A Needle not on Drift, but on another card instead, leaves you a card of both of your Transmute cards to find an answer, with Muddle into Boomerang (or Naturalize out of the sideboard) and Drift into Shaman. I for one sideboarded Viridian Shaman in every single game 2 I played, because you never know who may have Pithing Needles in their sideboard and I certainly didn’t want to find out the hard way. Again, this innovation came originally from Top 8 Heartbeat player Maximillian Bracht in his response to Flores’ numerous articles last week, though I had been pondering it as I was trying to split Naturalizes between Heartbeat and G/W and finding neither really wanted to compromise by being the bigger man and taking the double-green Wear Away instead.

A plan against Black/White decks also can’t hurt, so some arbitrary number of copies of Meloku the Clouded Mirror were going to make it into the sideboard. After determining that this worked as well as I’d hoped, as a transformative switch plan, I was able to include three copies, cutting the remaining Savage Twister, and complementing the plan by gaining access to Shadow of Doubt (to provide extra protection against Cranial Extraction and the mirror match). I for one was more concerned with facing the mirror, Magnivore, and Black/White decks of infinite variety than I was going face-first against Zoo and Heezy Street, and that seemed pretty reasonable to me.

4 Vinelasher Kudzu
3 Threads of Disloyalty
3 Meloku, the Clouded Mirror
2 Shadow of Doubt
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Naturalize
1 Viridian Shaman

In testing I also came up with an amusing plan against the Magnivore deck, which Flores insists is a good matchup but which I still felt could be difficult. They strain your resources prior to going off, and can absolutely destroy you if you try to dodge their land destruction by casting Heartbeat. Sideboarding four one-ofs, finally losing the Recollect and dropping the mana-intensive Train of Thought and so on, I’d just throw in four Vinelasher Kudzu and try to play one turn 2 every game, to give them a different problem to answer than just my mana and perhaps knock their life total down some so I can go off with fewer lands in play. It happened surprisingly often, and seemed to “trump” the switch from their sideboard into Flectomancer, as my Kudzu was chump-blocked by quite a few Goblins.

My most amusing story so far from playing Heartbeat was against a Black/Green/White control deck, in game 3 facing a Cranial Extraction that had just been Transmuted for. My hand has every combo piece I need, Muddle and Heartbeat and Harvest, plus a Remand and other good things going on. My opponent then casts Nightmare Void, to make sure his Extraction is going to go off, and I have to Remand it because he will destroy me if I do not but if I can just keep it off my back a little longer and make some land drops I can win. I draw land number five off the Remand, but still do not have double in the right colors to kill on turn 5 right there so I have to consider some unorthodox plays.

Fortunately, the unorthodox play is sitting right in my hand. In order to dodge Cranial Extraction, I sideboarded not just the Shadows of Doubt but also one copy of Meloku, and I smiled as I pretended I had switched to the Man Plan when my opponent had just revealed that the only reason Ivory Mask was not in his deck to Transmute for is that he sided out every spell that cost 2WW. Play land number five, cast Meloku, ask him whether he’d zigged or zagged to dodge my sideboard plan. Seeing that Meloku, my opponent came to the conclusion that I must have been protecting a man-heavy hand from Nightmare Void… and that I had a wanton disregard for getting Extracted so long as I can cast Meloku, which plays up the perception that I am playing about a million different Kamigawa block legends in my sideboard to dodge Cranial Extractions.

My opponent casts Lodoxon Hierarch to begin the race, and a Pithing Needle on Meloku the Clouded Mirror. So far, so good. I draw land number six, play land number six, and combo kill my opponent into oblivion. It’s a plan that would never work twice, but as far as gambits go against B/G/W decks that just took out their Wrath of Gods, I’d say it was ballsy but very high-reward if it worked, because I was not going to dodge Nightmare Void into Cranial Extraction anyway, as the card I was trying so hard to protect was the Counterspell I needed to transmute in order to find Weird Harvest and combo out.

The awfulness of the play can clearly be debated, but it seemed like the best use of a singleton Meloku I could make at the time, and was based on a discussion had while he was Transmuting for Cranial but looking for Ivory Mask, revealing Wraths in the sideboard only and bringing up the possibility to telegraph blatant lies to my opponent: this is how I plan to win, I care nothing for your Cranial Extraction, deal with Meloku while I am tapped out or die. It was clever but high-risk, though the downside of your “risk” still leaving you with Meloku in play against a deck that sided out its creature sanction is not exactly a worst-case scenario. Of course, if I had gotten Extracted and Pithed for Meloku, that would have been sad times. Thank goodness that didn’t happen!

Continuing to look into Team Standard is certainly worthy of interest for those lucky enough to still have area PTQs they can attend, and the triple-player Constructed format is interesting enough that we will be discussing its ramifications on Block Constructed for Pro Tour Charleston prior to that event. But Standard after Honolulu has been a constant exercise in reducing a large number of playable decks into a much smaller number of “best” decks, and last week Mike Flores slapped it down and said that the number of “good” decks was down to four. As interesting as the promise and potential of this format has been, it reduces down to the fact that there is a good, viable, and redundant combo deck floating around that can kill as early as turn four if it gets “that draw,” and on turn five with surprising regularity. This combo deck is also the deck that is the frequent home of the creatures that are consistently called “the best in the format,” Meloku and Keiga, meaning that even its backup plan is probably better than your main plan. A lot of interesting interplay exists… but in the end, the presence of a combo deck demolishes the presence of every deck that is incapable of beating it face-on. Decks like Ghost Dad have to evolve or be starved out of existence, and even if you do evolve there’s no reason to be sure that the decks Ghost Dad were intended to prey upon will also evolve to survive the combo threat… and so strict limitations develop as time progresses and the metagame is played out more and more.

Without a doubt, the introduction of Dissension to complete the Ravnica block will have far-reaching impact on the Standard metagame, hopefully including the addition of at least one reasonable counterspell-based deck to defeat the combo menace and return Heartbeat to a “reasonable” deck decision instead of one of a very few “best” deck decisions. Next week’s Magical Hack will be a Dissension pre-release primer, based on the known cards presented by a week and a half of Magicthegathering.com previews, the cards that have been confirmed by extensively poking the Orb of Insight, and by keeping an eye out for the wealth of “teaser” material printed across the world. All of these services have been provided to the reader free of charge on MtgSalvation.com, now compiled solely by tracking the global flow of information and using scripted programs to mine the Orb of Insight for the sum total of all the text present in the expansion.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]