Magical Hack – Hacking Through The Competition

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Friday, May 16th – As the astute reader would know, I did in fact not win either day of the Star City Games mega-weekend Standard events this weekend… after all, the tag-line “By Sean McKeown” will tell you that just by not being “By Alex Bertoncini,” or as the real pessimists in the forums will likely latch onto, just because the tag-line says “By Sean McKeown.”

As the astute reader would know, I did in fact not win either day of the Star City Games mega-weekend Standard events this weekend… after all, the tag-line “By Sean McKeown” will tell you that just by not being “By Alex Bertoncini,” or as the real pessimists in the forums will likely latch onto, just because the tag-line says “By Sean McKeown.” I had gone into the event with a Faeries deck in my pocket and some strong ideas about the matchups, the format, and sideboarding… including some pretty novel concepts about how all of this worked, and why I felt I should on-average be favored in the mirror match game one. Others went into the event with strong feelings that my Vendilion Cliques were terrible, despite them being amazing all day, and overall I would say that after fifteen punishing rounds of competitive play I have accomplished my minimum-returns goal on the weekend: learning what makes Standard ‘tick’.

I won more matches than I lost. I won all but one non-Faeries matchup, where in the second round of Day 1 I was shy on gas against R/G Big Mana and had felt I needed to overextend to ‘win the race,’ and played two Bitterblossoms out to go with the one already in play to face down a Siege-Gang Commander since I was otherwise completely out of gas. Sadly there I died to exactly lethal from Sulfurous Blast the turn before I would have killed him, with four cards drawn naturally since I had committed to the plan and a suspended Ancestral Visions firing off as well, none of which resulted in a spell worth playing. I was something like 3-5 in Faerie mirror matches however, and not due to especially poor choices no matter how derided my eight Cliques were… if anything they were basically awesome, as they let me set up to win the Ancestral Visions war the turn before mine would come off of Suspend. I lost a lot of die rolls and got out-nuts’ed in the mirror repeatedly, because while play skill and tactical decision-making can greatly impact how the mid- to late-game develops there is very little opportunity early on to have any impact on reality whatsoever.

Having pushed through a lot of tournament play in a rather short time, where the metagame became more and more faerie-centric as the weekend progressed, the wheels started turning in a way they hadn’t been recently. I’d been playing around with Shadowmoor cards to see if any new ideas suggested themselves, and was making generally bland decks that just happened to have some reasonable concepting behind them. I haven’t been thoroughly exploring competitive non-Faeries options, largely because I basically dismissed anything besides Faeries as the overall best deck to play. Having now played fifteen matches with the deck, including so many mirror matches that the brain has grown numb just thinking about it, I’d like to think I have a sense of what is important… and thus from which angles you can attack the deck. Considering that my day-two monotony of Faeries mirror-matches was interrupted by a White Weenie matchup that by comparison I described as “comfortable and relaxing,” I’d also like to think I’ve learned a few ways that don’t work, too.

The first of two conceptual ideas that was brewed up was “playtested” on Day 2 by my carmate Axel Jensen, who dropped out at 2-3 I believe but attested much of that to his inexperience with the deck and some shaky play rather than anything truly “wrong” with the deck. It’s also distinctly possible that part of the problem was that the sideboard was cobbled together last-minute and wasn’t part of the “concepting” that I cared about, as I had been aiming to make a good main-deck that was both competitive and interesting in and of itself.

Blue-Green Tempo

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Firespout
4 Rune Snag
3 Cryptic Command

4 Riftwing Cloudskate
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wall of Roots
4 Chameleon Colossus
3 Vendilion Clique
2 Venser, Shaper Savant

4 Vivid Grove
4 Yavimaya Coast
8 Island
3 Treetop Village
3 Grove of the Burnwillows
2 Reflecting Pool

A decent chunk of the idea here has been my continuing fascination with Firespout — and the efforts therein to make use of it in a deck that can cast either side with reasonable aplomb without being required to ‘entwine’ it. Playing it for Red leaves all of the fliers, your Tarmogoyfs, Walls, and Chameleon Colossi intact — which is to say, kills nothing on your side of the board. Playing it for Green kills your Cliques and Cloudskates, but we all know that the decks you play it for Green against happen to have all of their creatures die to it (… basically…) so you can make the sacrifice of an extra card or two to completely Wrath their board. For whichever way you’d want to cast it, you’d have a reasonable expectation of profiting on the exchange… and so I find it an interesting card.

I had really felt that this was something interesting and powerful, so I was rather disappointed when its “live playtest” session didn’t reflect the hope I had had for the design. I still feel it is an interesting and powerful framework… but I didn’t consider it a finished design then and I remain unsure about whether it is one now, as I was quite happy with the first 56 cards and the Cloudskates sort of snuck in there as the last card that made sense in the mana-curve but aren’t exactly written in stone. The idea of playing a solid Blue-Green build with powerful creatures like Tarmogoyf and Chameleon Colossus was pretty exciting to me… but it just so happened that as much as I liked the idea, and regardless of the results of a single trial by fire before the deck design was even finished, I had hit upon something that struck me much harder as a good idea.

My main problem with the idea of playing Faeries is that the mirror-match, while intrinsically skill-based, has a very high “luck” element that basically cannot be controlled in the first few turns of the game, which is why we are seeing so many disparate sideboarding strategies and differing designs for the main-deck, and I don’t just mean me and my little Vendilion Cliques. The winning decklist both days played Sower of Temptation when basically no one else in the room was, and I’m sure there will be continuing arguments for and against up until Pro Tour: Hollywood… where this will probably be the most-played Day 1 Faeries list, just due to the fact that it very impressively won both tournaments this past weekend:

For Day 2, the Peppersmokes were gone in favor of two Flashfreezes… so I am sure some fierce debating will be going around to try and figure out why, exactly, Faeries-relevant sideboard cards disappeared when, if anything, you might expect there to be more Faeries decks on the second day. But I had been thinking about playing a different flavor of Bitterblossom deck, and in my pondering (“How can I sneak Bitterblossom into that U/G deck as the last four cards? Can I play enough Faeries and Changelings to swap those eight Islands for four Secluded Glens and four River of Tears?”) I struck upon the idea of just building a different flavor of Bitterblossom deck. Black/Green “Rock”-style decks are currently under consideration as Doran Rock decks like the one that won the World Championships in December, and there’s one thing I don’t like about that idea… with a three-color manabase, you can play Treetop Village but can’t stretch for Mutavault. Doran is good, sure, but is he special? Not in the way that Mutavault is special… so while the Rock decks everyone has been looking at have been B/G/W and included Bitterblossom from Morningtide, their “Morningtide Update” didn’t actually include the full update to include Mutavault and cut the third color. Other B/G decks, like Luis Scott-Vargas‘ B/G/u Mannequin deck, just didn’t fit the overall concept I was working at… aggression, disruption, and power, cranked to the max with a Rock-like frame.

For the very obvious reason you are about to see, I am so far calling this “The Rock And His Million Dollars.” I didn’t exactly make a ‘budget’ solution to Standard, I may have actually made the most expensive deck in Standard by accident. Pick a card that is over $20 right now and it’s got a fair chance of being in this deck…


4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Mutavault
4 Treetop Village
2 Pendelhaven
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Forest
4 Swamp

The advantage to a two-color Rock deck instead of a three-color Rock deck is twofold: first, you get to take less damage from your lands… and second, you get to play eight man-lands in your deck if you want them. I imagine the very simple answer is, “you do”. The other fun thing is that you can play Pendelhaven in a Bitterblossom deck without it having that annoying problem of ‘not tapping for colored mana,’ because it does count as a colored land in a Black-Green Bitterblossom deck.


4 Thoughtseize
4 Bitterblossom
4 Nameless Inversion
3 Primal Command
2 Profane Command

Back to the “this deck is going to be stupidly expensive” commentary, you so far see Mutavault, Bitterblossom, and Thoughtseize in the deck alongside a reasonable group of rare lands and the second and third-best Commands in the format. And you know already that things are just going to get worse from here… after all, you can smell the Tarmogoyfs coming from a mile away.


4 Tarmogoyf
4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Wall of Roots
3 Riftsweeper
2 Masked Admirers
1 Cloudthresher
1 Shriekmaw

So, we have Chameleon Colossus, Tarmogoyf, Bitterblossom, Thoughtseize, and Mutavault in the same deck. And those are just the chase rares… we aren’t mentioning the current desirability of Cloudthreshers or the ease with which one can acquire four each of the two dual-lands to play in the deck.

The sideboard is likewise kind of a nightmare, a “Who’s Who” list of expensive rares that aren’t yet in the main-deck:

4 Kitchen Finks
3 Damnation
3 Slaughter Pact
2 Cloudthresher
2 Krosan Grip
1 Riftsweeper

Yep, Damnation in the sideboard… I went there. Add another $60 in chase rares for those three copies. I also wanted two copies of Garruk Wildspeaker, to face down other mid-range-ish Green decks with… but as there really isn’t much in the way of such things in the format at the moment, I think we can leave off on it right now.

So now, how this all hangs together. Riftsweeper is there as a reasonably efficient beater, who helps to make the Gilt-Leaf Palaces better (since I started with eight Changeling spells and no Elves in the deck, when I was really thinking about it) and who also has a meaningful impact on the Faeries matchup: you have Thoughtseizes for their best cards like Ancestral Vision and Bitterblossom, and you have them game one where they perhaps matter the most if everyone is going to play the turn 2 Bitterblossom game. But if you have this hard-working little Elf stopping Ancestral Visions from being a good card, turning it instead into a mulligan when you cast your bear, a decent chunk of their late-game plans likely disappear since they cannot actually gain significant card advantage over you. Against other matchups he has the potential to do good work as well: shuffling in Rift Bolts against the most ‘fair’ decks to play Suspend spells, or Greater Gargadons and Lotus Blooms against the less fair decks to play with Suspend. Ancestral Vision is the best thing going in Blue decks right now, so I figure he is just an important man to have around and a hard worker besides.

Cloudthresher is in as a silver-bullet target for Primal Command despite his negative interaction with your own Bitterblossom tokens, because you can’t always win the Bitterblossom war, and Silklash Spider isn’t in Tenth Edition apparently. Still, the one of these that works automatically instead of requiring an untap and more mana, plays at instant speed, and attacks for seven is probably the better option. Shriekmaw is likewise a silver-bullet one-of for when getting a Terror is the right play with Primal Command, while Masked Admirers further increase the Elf count for Gilt-Leaf Palace while also giving the deck late-game staying power since you add a persistent threat and some significant card draw to finish grinding the opponent out with if things go that long.

But the main feature of the deck, the reason it is a Green deck, is to harness the powerful and sizable Chameleon Colossus and Tarmogoyf, both dangerous threats that require attention, one of which can keep a Bitterblossom busy by being an aggressive 5/6 for two mana and the other of which can overtax a Bitterblossom by swinging right past it for eight damage. Cheap threats, an aggressive stance in the format, and an effort to focus only on what matters… I am quite happy with the deck, and am working on tweaking and tuning to send it to Hollywood with a local player who is seeking a good deck and for Regionals in a month’s time to boot.

Actually playing it out, I was struck by how well it did exactly what I envisioned: it beat down on Faeries something fierce, matching or otherwise containing some of their most dangerous plays and using man-lands aggressively to its advantage. Against Red decks your Bitterblossoms were quite saucy, because you could back it up with the lifegain side of Primal Command to change the nature of the race… and the sideboard was perfectly honed to function against them, bringing in Kitchen Finks for Thoughtseizes and replacing unnecessary things like Cloudthresher and Shriekmaw for Slaughter Pacts to turn into a Wall of Roots deck with fat monsters, significant lifegain, and the ability to get out from under a Magus of the Moon since that was now basically the only way they could win: to try and trap you with a bunch of Mountains in play and unable to cast your spells. Against a wide variety of decks it just felt like it was correctly positioned and stupidly overwhelming in the power department… which I guess should come pretty naturally from playing all of the most powerful and most expensive cards in Standard in the same deck, save for Cryptic Command.

Test games could be pretty ridiculous… just when Faeries stabilizes, and looks to be threatening to keep up with me point for point long enough for my own Bitterblossom to finish me off, a Primal Command changes the nature of the game entirely or a Profane Command ends it by dealing 6 to the opponent and buying back that Cloudthresher that was countered earlier, clearing the way for a Tarmogoyf that is suddenly lethal. Playing against the R/G Deus LD deck from the Top 8 of Day 1, the complete ineffectiveness of LD against two-mana threats turns the match into a complete and total blowout even if they successfully stop my more expensive spells from having an impact. Playing against Merfolk just points out how completely unprepared they are to face down a Chameleon Colossus, when they can’t play Lord of Atlantis for fear of outright dying.

When good metagame positioning and pure power intersect, you have a deck worth looking at… and that is, in my mind, the real outcome of my experiences playing in the Star City Games Mega-Magic Weekend tournaments. I walked in with some firm beliefs on how Faeries worked and how the metagame as a whole worked, walked out with some more-refined opinions on how all of this plays out and feel as if I know this well enough now to actually put this knowledge into motion. And so we have it as our new hot prospect for Hollywood:

Having a competitive non-Faeries option is actually a sigh of relief for me, not because I don’t enjoy the Faeries deck but instead because I had been worrying that it was the only valid option in the format. Especially given how difficult it can be to control your destiny with the Faeries deck sometimes, since the first two turns of the game are more or less completely beyond your ability to control (save for mulliganing into the nuts and having Thoughtseize in hand to break up their nuts draw) and to some degree there is no ‘technology’ you can play to surprise your opponent and decisively win the matchup… let’s just say I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of flipping coins to determine the matchup in my efforts to qualify for Nationals at our upcoming Regionals events.

Sean McKeown
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