Magical Hack – Good Intentions, Bad Technology

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Friday, May 8th – The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The road to Regionals, however, is paved with good intentions and bad technology. With the release of Alara Reborn just last week and firmly shaking up the Standard metagame, you’ll see a lot of good decks mixed in with the bad…

The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The road to Regionals, however, is paved with good intentions and bad technology. With the release of Alara Reborn just last week and firmly shaking up the Standard metagame, you’ll see a lot of good decks mixed in with the bad. For example, a deck that has been gaining popularity or at least showing a lot of resonance in the collective deck-building hive-mind is R/B/W Reveillark, using Reveillark to re-buy Anathemancer. And while I am certain that Anathemancer is the real deal even if the cake is a lie, its application is in a beatdown deck, not a mid-range incremental-advantage control deck such as Reveillark.

I’ve found a fair number of Standard tournaments with results reported already, mostly some Nationals qualifier events from across the world but including one Austin PTQ played out in Dallas, Texas. These decks can give us a first look at the metagame as we are likely to see it starting to play out over the next few weeks, but what it can’t necessarily do is paint an accurate picture of technological advancements as we learn what is good and what is not from the new set, and start to play around it. At the PTQ level, for example, you’ll note the deck is more developed than those seen at the Nationals Qualifiers, because there were considerably more players in the PTQ than at any of the Nationals Qualifiers, adding rounds and thus raising the technology bar of how far ahead of the curve you have to be to advance. The PTQ was won by B/W Tokens, as were several qualifiers… but only the PTQ-winning deck had Zealous Persecution in its main-deck. Another example is the fact that you’ll see there are not very many decks that have really adjusted to the existence of Anathemancer yet, such as a Five-Color Control deck with no Runed Halos and a chunk of 24 nonbasic lands to hit with Anathemancer… over time, we’ll undoubtedly see that Five-Color Control needs at least some reaction to this card’s existence if it wants to compete, as the R/B decks have gotten a firm shot in the arm with this set and need to be respected far more than they were before.

Let’s see what the starting point for our Standard metagame looks like:


Dallas PTQ — B/W Tokens
Brazil — B/W Tokens
Chile 1 — Five-Color Control
Chile 2 — B/W Tokens
Germany — Dark Bant
Poland — Bant Aggro
Slovakia — B/W Tokens
Spain GPTBlightning Aggro

B/W Tokens — WWWW 1111
Five-Color Control — W 11111 11
Dark Bant — W 11
Bant Aggro — W 1
Blightning Aggro — W 1

Faeries — 11111 11111
Boat Brew — 11111 1
R/W Kithkin — 111
B/G Elves — 111
Jund Ramp — 11
UW Kithkin — 1
U/W Reveillark — 1
U/W/R Reveillark — 1
5c Reveillark – 1
5c Planeswalkers Control – 1
Monored LightningBolt.dec — 1
Monored Aggro — 1
Bloodbraid Blightning — 1
Doran — 1
Quillspike Combo — 1

As of Week One, the best performing archetype by far is B/W Tokens, and the most technologically-developed decklists we have to look at come from the PTQ in Dallas rather than the smaller European or South American tournaments… there just seem to be more new cards appearing in the PTQ decks than there were at the Nationals Qualifiers decks, as the latter had similar successes for B/W Tokens but often failed to include Zealous Persecution in their decklist at all, never mind in their main-deck. The PTQ in question saw three B/W Tokens decks in the Top 8, and one each of Jund Ramp, U/W Reveillark, B/G Elves, R/W Kithkin and Five-Color Control. We also have the starting metagame breakdown if we want to look at trends and developments, what succeeded and what failed:

Black/White Tokens — 20
Boat Brew – 16
Red/Black Aggro – 14
5-Color Control – 14
EsperLark – 10
Bant Aggro – 10
Jund Aggro – 7
Faeries – 6
G/W Aggro – 6
Dark Bant – 5
R/W/U Control – 3
R/W/U Reveillark – 3
Turbo Mill – 3
Swan Flu (Red/Blue Swans) – 3
Rock – 2
Quillspike Combo – 2
Red/Green Aggro – 2
Doran Rock – 2
Turbo Fog U/W Control – 2
Esper Aggro – 1
Reanimator – 1
Tezzerator – 1
R/G/W Creatures – 1
Black/Green Elves – 1
Mono White Aggro – 1
Elf Ball – 1
Jund Ramp – 1
Planeswalkers – 1
15 Planeswalkers – 1

This breaks down pretty simply into the following:

3 in Top 8 – Black/White Tokens — 20 (Winner)
1 in Top 8 – 5-Color Control – 14
1 in Top 8 – EsperLark – 10
1 in Top 8 – Black/Green Elves – 1
1 in Top 8 – Jund Ramp – 1
1 in Top 8 – Boat Brew – 16

(Presumably the R/W Kithkin deck got lumped in among the R/W Boat Brew decks; we cannot reliably sort out how many were R/W Kithkin and how many were truly Boat Brew decks.)

0 in Top 8 – Red/Black Aggro – 14
0 in Top 8 – Bant Aggro – 10
0 in Top 8 – Jund Aggro – 7
0 in Top 8 – Faeries – 6
0 in Top 8 – G/W Aggro – 6
0 in Top 8 – Dark Bant – 5
0 in Top 8 – R/W/U Control – 3
0 in Top 8 – R/W/U Reveilark – 3
0 in Top 8 – Turbo Mill – 3
0 in Top 8 – Swan Flu (Red/Blue Swans) – 3
0 in Top 8 – Rock – 2
0 in Top 8 – Quillspike Combo – 2
0 in Top 8 – Red/Green Aggro – 2
0 in Top 8 – Doran Rock – 2
0 in Top 8 – Turbo Fog U/W Control – 2
0 in Top 8 – Esper Aggro – 1
0 in Top 8 – Reanimator – 1
0 in Top 8 – Tezzerator – 1
0 in Top 8 – R/G/W Creatures – 1
0 in Top 8 – Mono White Aggro – 1
0 in Top 8 – Elf Ball — 1
0 in Top 8 – Planeswalkers – 1
0 in Top 8 – 15 Planeswalkers – 1

In the success column, you see B/W Tokens did very well for itself. It started as just under 15% of the metagame, and pushed on to claim three of the eight elimination slots (37.5%), then win the event. Blue-based Lark strategies started as seven percent of the metagame and maintained about that level, with one of eight Top 8 slots, and similar could be said about Five-Color Control and possibly R/W Kithkin… though if say only a quarter of the R/W decks played were R/W Kithkin instead of Boat Brew, its appearance in the Top 8 is more meaningful.

But then we have the single-digit appearances: Jund Ramp and B/G Elves. Both had one advocate of that strategy in the tournament, and that player made Top 8, suggesting that these two might be especially well-suited to the metagame and worthy of further investigation. As meaningful as the B/W Tokens lists are, we’ve more-or-less seen them before for several months… add three to four copies of Zealous Persecution, add Identity Crisis to your sideboard, and you can imagine what it looks like. Now, the Jund Ramp deck…

Mike Flores has been advocating a similar strategy on his blog and in podcasts; Mike liked this strategy enough to play it at States, and has confessed to an undying love of Broodmate Dragons. Here it is probably the better of the possible decks to play Volcanic Fallout in a controlling shell, since it is less vulnerable to an Anathemancer (it has about a quarter of its lands as basics, and uses Rampant Growth and Fertile Ground to reach the higher costs, both of which are invisible to Anathemancer) and also doesn’t diddle around forever waiting to kill the opponent. It wipes the board once or twice, attacks some with Chameleon Colossus, and maybe as-needed finishes the game with Broodmate Dragon. It’s also more solid against the rest of the Red cards thanks to Primal Command and Kitchen Finks, neither of which the Red deck wants to see cast… so it makes sense that this deck would survive a sea of Blightning-style decks and beatdown strategies pushed by token generators. Thanks to Volcanic Fallout it should even prove resilient against Faeries.

Speaking of the Faerie Menace… you’ll note it made the most Top 8s overall, but appeared exclusively in the Nationals Qualifiers tournaments. The metagame of those tournaments appears to be very much more like the Standard prior to Alara Reborn than the Standard after, as very few of the decks had any Alara Reborn cards at all. In pre-Alara Reborn Standard, I found Faeries to be well worth considering… I was happy to play it even as I understood the fact that it was a beatdown metagame kept in check by Volcanic Fallout, and made my design choices accordingly. But in post-Alara Reborn Standard, the Red decks that are the Faerie deck’s shakiest matchup are more plentiful and more powerful, or at least they will be when a best version is finally settled upon that focuses its attack power to combine speed and resilience. So far, I’ve been finding that much like Highlander and its only sequel, Highlander 3: The Apology For Highlander 2, Alara Reborn Standard has many of the same actors and much the same theme as its predecessor, but things play out very differently and do not feel the same despite the fact that they try so hard to look the same. Alara Reborn Standard is far more the home of the beatdown deck, and this is not the format for me as far as sitting down to decide to play Faeries. It seems like every opponent is either gaming with Red cards that are not what I want to have to try beating three or four times a tournament, or gaming with Zealous Persecution and making me want to slit my wrists as I fall further and further behind the enemy beatdown deck.

For example:

Elf Blightning, by David Kirchner
Runner-Up, German Nationals Qualifier: Magdeburg on 5/2/09

4 Anathemancer
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Goblin Outlander
2 Shriekmaw
4 Incinerate
2 Terminate
4 Blightning
4 Maelstrom Pulse

4 Auntie’s Hovel
4 Fire-Lit Thicket
3 Graven Cairns
3 Karplusan Forest
2 Mountain
4 Savage Lands
2 Spinerock Knoll
2 Sulfurous Springs

1 Shriekmaw
3 Volcanic Fallout
1 Banefire
2 Deathmark
3 Thought Hemorrhage
3 Thoughtseize
2 Unwilling Recruit

Last week, I tried to tackle a similar problem, figuring out how to harness the attack potential of the Red deck while splitting it between the R/B focus of Blightning and Anathemancer and still being able to play Green for Bloodbraid Elf. Having cast Talruum Minotaur in sixty-card formats and thought it was pretty good at the time, one that comes with a free spell attached has to be downright amazing, and the deck needs to address a few problems in order to develop: how it deals with the token strategies that just want to put a lot of guys in the way, for example, and how to deal with Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders. But also it wants to figure out how to make the mana work without too much pain, too many odd hindrances from its lands, and from opening itself up to death by an opponent’s Anathemancer… in the past week I have been playtesting this deck more than any other, and found I had too many pain-lands, too many filter-lands, not enough Green sources, and not quite enough Goblins to be very happy with four copies of Auntie’s Hovel.

Re-concepting the deck to fit these mana changes, I also realized that for the Red-deck mirror and at certain other times, I wanted to be able to take out the hyper-aggressive creatures that could pose liabilities and take a more controlling role… so the sideboard should change to reflect that desire and this new stance for some games. That said, this is the result of my efforts, taking David’s deck and my own thoughts and going forward:

On the one hand, its hyper-aggressive stance is pleasantly preserved… except for the fact that it now has two Savage Lands in it to possibly serve as speed-bumps for a later drop, it is very much so a deck that can go turn 1 Maniac, turn 2 Hackblade, swing for five… turn 3 Ram-Gang, swing for eight… turn 4 Bloodbraid Elf plus anything, swing for eleven and still have my free spell. Against the goldfish, the aggressive draw kills turn 4, and in Standard that is plenty fast. However, you can’t expect to play against a goldfish, so what this deck really is is a deck that wants to get ahead in the damage race, maybe push some blockers out of the way with Lash Out and Incinerate, gain a little card advantage with Bloodbraid Elf and Blightning, but more importantly just add a little damage here, a little damage there.

Against aggressive decks I was noting I just was taking too much damage with my prior configuration of eight pain-lands and eight Hybrid lands, sometimes just drawing hands that couldn’t cast anything without taking at least one damage. However, with the realization that Llanowar Wastes was better for me than either Sulfurous Springs or Karplusan Forest, and that they could still be completely functional alongside Figure of Destiny thanks to the fact that one Wastes can filter through either Fire-Lit Thicket or Graven Cairns to provide Red mana, and I very quickly reached the solution to my color needs while also balancing land drawbacks and overall color requirements.

But most importantly, I needed a way to fix the Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender problem, and let me tell you, attacking into it with Tattermunge Maniac is not the answer. Likewise for the mirror, Jund Hackblade and Tattermunge Maniac were weak cards that didn’t really work the way I wanted them to, forcing me to find a new plan or approach and use it to win the mirror… note if you will that 14 people played R/B Aggro in the Dallas PTQ, and another 7 played Jund Aggro. None of them succeeded at making the Top 8, but this may just as simply be due to an underdeveloped decklist than any inherent weaknesses in the strategy, because when properly harnessed this is a powerful archetype indeed.

The strong biasing to include plenty of Black sources comes from the fact that I want to have access to Infest after sideboarding, and thus we have all four Graven Cairns rather than a three-three split when I wanted to have six but no more than six filter-lands in my manabase. Infest is excellent against many of the sorts of decks that would bring in Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender (or worse yet, main-deck him alongside a Ranger of Eos package!), killing their creatures as well as the Forge-Tenders, and thus gains the nod over Volcanic Fallout, which clearly never solves the Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender problem, when at best you can hope it would be a Diabolic Edict for one Forge-Tender. Magma Spray in the sideboard pays lip-service to the fact that Kitchen Finks is very good against this deck, but also has some corner-case utility as I have seen Hellspark Elemental out of more than one Red deck lately and this particular kill spell will save six damage, not just three. Everlasting Torment is for decks that want to use Wall of Reverence or Story Circle or Runed Halo to halt this strategy in its tracks, and rounds out the rest of the ‘normal’ sideboard of cards you might expect to see.

And then there is the rest: a third Savage Lands, for the games where you want to play Double Dragon and thus want a 25th land in the deck, and four big copies of Double Dragon. Red on Red mirrors are frequently determined by who is able to plant the one meaningful threat that is resistant to easy murder, and Double Dragon is exactly that, requiring multiple kill spells to face the threat even if those kill spells don’t care about toughness. After sideboarding for the Red mirror, I found I wanted -4 Tattermunge Maniac, -4 Jund Hackblade, -1 Blightning (as the second copy in a game has far less utility than the first, even if it never ‘goes dead’), +1 Savage Lands, +4 Magma Spray, +4 Broodmate Dragon. Against B/W Tokens and most Kithkin strategies, as well, you’ll see something similar… though it was frequently -1 Anathemancer rather than -1 Blightning, thanks to the fact that Blightning’s card advantage stays live for longer into the game and thus drawing two might very well be awesome, and +4 Infest instead of +4 Magma Spray.

By this sideboard switcharoo, it allows the Red deck to claim the controlling role instead of the hyper-aggressive role, thus making it a deck that can beat not just Faeries and Five-Color Control but also B/W Tokens and R/W decks of various stripes, be they Kithkin or Boat Brews. And there is something eerily satisfying about killing someone with Tattermunge Maniac in one game, then bloating up the curve and killing with Broodmate Dragon the next.

With the advent of new and powerful Red decks, alongside a very attack-happy format, you may find as time goes on that Blue decks are not quite so viable as they had been in months previous. While Faeries was competitive this past weekend, it appears as if this was largely due to an incomplete metagame shift across different areas as Alara Reborn slowly filters in… and the same is true of Five-Color Control, which has to react to the new speed and resilience of B/W Tokens thanks to Zealous Persecution as well as the very existence of Anathemancer. I for one am a die-hard Blue mage, and I expect I will be playing with Zealous Persecution or Anathemancer this weekend, after just over a year of playing Faeries and nothing but the Faeries in Standard tournaments.

But it is possible that there may yet be a Blue deck of consequence, just not one that played the same way that Faeries and Five-Color Control does. If you’ll recall, last week one of the strategies I said I found very interesting was U/W Reveillark… and one of only two Blue decks to make the cut to elimination rounds this past weekend on the PTQ scene was that same archetype.

Some of my thoughts on the deck since last week follow Ben’s, and in other places we diverge wildly. In fact, where I had Negates last week I found I don’t want even the cheapest of counterspells clogging up my hand as I play the game out main-deck, while Ben diverges from that thinking and the advice of Ben Peebles-Mundy in his time writing about U/W Reveillark last year and includes Cryptic Command in his starting 60. As Negates left my list, Glen Elendra Archmage made it back into the main… and I found I wanted a big card-draw spell to supplement my Mulldrifters and the card advantage a Reveillark will give me, though specifically which one I chose again diverges from Jackson’s choice.

The biggest differences, however, simplified to this: Ben wanted 4 Kitchen Finks and 4 Cryptic Command, while I wanted 4 Mind Stone and 4 Meddling Mage. Ben’s list to me looks and feels like more of a “Best Of U/W” decklist than a honed Reveillark list; Cryptic Command makes it in because it is the goddamn Cryptic Command, and even when it might be right to game without it, it just feels wrong somehow… and Kitchen Finks is awesome, to the point where the lack of it is my one big regret so far. But… I live. (Ben also has another land, where I fit another spell, but since I have 4 copies of Mind Stone that sort of makes sense.)

I’m very well pleased to see a success with this archetype, as it is in my mind the #1 Blue deck for fighting against the beatdown-and-Red-deck metagame we see right now, if built properly. My land base includes all of six nonbasic lands, four Mystic Gates and a mere two Adarkar Wastes, making the deck about as pain-free as you can get against Anathemancer but also enjoying all of the colored mana it wants and needs right on time, possibly because I’ve accepted the fact that this is a heavy White deck and not added triple-blue cards to my arsenal. Seeing 48/60 cards matching main-deck against this week’s tuning of that list, I’m happy to say I think I have a realistic option against the field without having to game with 0x basic Island this weekend, and save for those Cryptic Commands I feel that Ben and I are moving in the same direction, a blend of board control, mana acceleration, card advantage and bombs. Here’s my take on it:

This seems to me as if it expects a slightly different metagame, and focuses more on beating Red in addition to the various flavors of token decks, but uses most of the same tools and reaches many of the same conclusions… just taking a different approach to some of them. I’ve found after sideboarding that the deck just wants to draw cards, trade one-for-one if possible and drop a boatload of Wraths on the opponent, and likewise have learned in my testing so far that Austere Command naming “three or less” and “Enchantments” is pretty devastating in this format, as the beatdown decks try to supplement their hordes of tokens with Glorious Anthems or are just making them with Bitterblossom… and if traditionally this six-mana Wrath is too slow to be of relevance, well, with eight accelerators in the deck it tends to come online a fair bit quicker.

For those who love the Blue spell, this would be my #1 suggestion for this weekend’s PTQ, and it is on the short-list of things to consider as I myself plan to drive to Richmond and hit the double-PTQ weekend that StarCityGames has been kind enough to put together for us. But as much as I love me a Blue spell, I’m not sure I can make myself game with them nowadays… Zealous Persecution and Anathemancer are calling me to the way of the beatdown deck, though thankfully not together.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com