Magical Hack – On A Pale Horse

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Friday, July 25th – With just one last Pro Tour Qualifier to go before Eventide rotated into the Block Constructed format, my mission (should I choose to accept it) was to drive myself and four compatriots to Boston for the weekend and play a deck with Bitterblossom for eight hours…

It was the End of Days…

With just one last Pro Tour Qualifier to go before Eventide rotated into the Block Constructed format, my mission (should I choose to accept it) was to drive myself and four compatriots to Boston for the weekend and play a deck with Bitterblossom for eight hours. There have been a lot of impediments to these sorts of plans, and this past weekend had its fair share as well: while a big issue in previous weeks has been my ‘not sleeping before tournaments and still expecting to do well’ fallacy, this weekend threw me new and more interesting problems like the ‘1am Flat Tire Change’ and ‘Between-Rounds Run to the Repair Shop’ predicaments. Somewhere in there I also had to play Magic, and that was preceded by about three weeks of ‘having to build and playtest a good deck.’

I say it was the End of Days… and for me and my Faerie-ing ways, it was. I am in fact quite excited by an aggressive Elf build I’ve been working on, but don’t get to play with it for a while yet, and set myself in to get some time in making Bitterblossom tokens and casting Cryptic Commands. Looking to hedge my bets against “other” decks, however, I started working on something a little bit strange… as my experiences playing various flavors of Mannequin decks so far this season had led me to exploring a Mannequin engine stapled into a Faeries build, to see if you could do it, and if so at what cost.

I worked on the idea for just over a week before I saw a hint that I might be on to something:

… Sure, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. There were no Scions of Oona, which I assume has to be a liability when you want to slink down low to the ground and pretend to be a ‘regular’ Faeries deck… but it had most of the moving parts I wanted to explore and poke around, and I had some time to do it in. The Scions were in the sideboard, but that wasn’t where I wanted them… and you’d sooner catch me dead than playing only 24 lands in Faeries without a full set of four Ponders, and not having room for Ponder that just wasn’t happening. One thing I felt deserved further exploration was the use of Vivid lands in the deck… after all, the deck can be very Black-intensive but is operating at a liability when it can’t get UUU for Cryptic Command, and after Secluded Glen and Sunken Ruins I found I still wanted more dual lands than are typically thought to be in print, which meant dipping into Vivid lands to get a Blue land that can tap for Black on demand for some of these Black spells I want to rely on.

Starting with four, I found that I had too many comes-into-play-tapped lands, as it was difficult to deal with sometimes. Three was a number I settled on liking, though I did find once in a very great while you might regret that Vivid land not being a Swamp for a first-turn Thoughtseize, especially if there is mulliganing involved. The assumption was that while there would be some light twinges of regret for that, they would not nearly be as plentiful as when you wanted to get heavy on the Blue mana, and didn’t draw too many Swamps as the lists with 4-5 Swamps can do sometimes. Sure, you’d really like to have more Secluded Glens, but that not being legal this seemed the next-best substitute, and one that was not being explored.

I really like poking my nose into things that aren’t being explored and asking why, and so I was happy to try some Vivid Creeks and see how they felt. Considering that I had Bitterblossom, Shriekmaw, and Makeshift Mannequin main-deck, and fifteen Black cards in my sideboard for most of the time I was thinking about the deck, I was quite happy to have them in my deck as the test games played out.

But mostly my test games told me one thing: this deck is much smarter than I am. It is very powerful indeed, and played skillfully would not disappoint. Considering I may or may not live up to that ability for skillful play, a fact I would be reminded of in the Forums if I didn’t say it myself, that was a difficult point for the deck. It took me over a week of testing to feel I even knew how to approach making the right decision, because up until then I mostly spent my matches screwing up, badly, and dying because of it. Learning how to play the deck correctly was a vital first step in understanding it well enough to go back under the hood, and figuring out what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right in my exploration into a novel concept. To do it scientifically, I would have wanted to change one variable at a time and see how that toggles the feel of the deck, see how it changes the deck’s ability to win and all that jazz. Unscientific approaches like “change it all and let God sort it out” were unfortunately what I went with instead, going to the opposite extreme and seeing what I wanted back.

Conceptually, there were a lot of things I liked about this proto-decklist. If you look at all of the awesome creatures you have to Mannequin back, you can pull back not just Mulldrifters and Shriekmaws with your Makeshift Mannequins, but also Sowers of Temptation, Mistbind Cliques, and Spellstutter Sprite as a sometimes-counterspell. It was too many changes to get right the first time, though, so I looked at this as more of a proof-of-concept than honed decklist.

I wanted to see a few things I considered to be worth knowing. First, whether there were now too many lands coming into play tapped to work consistently without interrupting the game’s flow. Second, whether I needed more turn-one Black sources, and third, whether I could use fewer actual Black sources (most decks have 12-13, this has 15) and thus could cut Vivid lands. Fourth, I wanted to feel how badly the sorcery-speed early-game of evoking spells for the first few turns disadvantaged me in the Faerie mirror. Fifth, I wanted to see if Negate was any good as a counterspell or whether I wanted to put Broken Ambitions back in. Basically, I needed to learn what the opportunity costs of trying to do what I was doing were, and in each case if I was willing to pay those costs.

I spent a few weeks playtesting this deck, which I have been working on since the start of July as at least a concept somewhere in my head, ever since the “Nearly Mono Black In Standard In Block” fiasco of this article. Why it is I am insisting on playing Mannequin somewhere in my brain, I am not quite sure, but around the start of the month I began asking myself “what if…?” and playtesting this deck. First results taught me that the deck was better at Magic than I was, which was promising: it could win every game it played, even if I couldn’t yet. I was playing too many comes-into-play-tapped lands, and had more Black mana available than I really wanted to pay the opportunity cost on, so the notes said “-1 Vivid Creek, +1 Island” as I was having a little bit of a problem with finding a good time for that second comes-into-play-tapped land, and while Glens are easy to untap even without Nameless Inversion in my deck anymore, the general rule-of-thumb seems to be accepted that four copies is something you always want to draw, while three is a good number for something you want one of in a game. The first Vivid land was easy to play on turn one, unless you wanted to Thoughtseize after sideboarding… the second was basically always a little bit awkward.

As I got better with the deck, I found the Negates weren’t particularly helpful, and likewise had found that I now had a few too many four-mana spells with Cryptic, Mannequin, Sower and Clique fighting for the same space and telling me I’d better not skip a land drop in the early turns. Putting these two facts together meant I had room for another counterspell, and if I made that counter into Broken Ambitions I might be able to clash and smooth my draw. While Clashing is presumably symmetrical, Broken Ambitions naturally breaks the symmetry of the Clash by making it difficult for the opponent to keep a good card on top, and add to that the fact that I have more card advantage to keep drawing into than most other decks and suddenly the symmetry of clashing isn’t so symmetrical. Cutting a four-drop from the deck means that Sower would get shaved to a two-of, which hopefully is fine next to the rest of the boatload of creature control… I feel guilty enough having shaved a Mistbind Clique in the first place, I certainly don’t want to cut another.

Having worked on the deck and worked on learning how to play it better, I felt I was as best prepared for the last pre-Eventide PTQ ever, in Boston. With my notes for required adjustments I registered the following:

I had either the best or the worst possible pairing for Round 1: my opponent was about as tall as the table he was sitting down at. Historically the “small child” matchup is not as free a win as you think it is… after all, plenty of people relax, get cocky, and then get smashed by one bad mulligan or a mistake in their over-confidence. And even if you win… and mind you, that is not a certainty… the likelihood of them not tanking your tiebreakers is not very high. My opponent was about seven, we had an enjoyable three games… and yes, there were three games. Remember that over-confident cocky thing? Given the option in game 2 to protect a Sower of Temptation on a clutch Chameleon Colossus with a Spellstutter Sprite to back up the Scion already in play, I didn’t wait the turn, like I should have… and lost everything to him emptying his hand with a pair of removal spells to take back his Colossus and kill me with it as my Spellstutter Sprite stared mutely in my hand. The third went more like you’d expect, because I plugged my brain back in instead of deciding that a seven-year-old couldn’t beat me, as he had clearly demonstrated that with Chameleon Colossus, he could.

For the second round, I would like to think I played an opponent of a higher caliber, a local player named Sam Feeley that I have seen at a few of these Boston events now. I would like to say something good about our match together, since it was overall quite pleasant… but I drew better than he did, planned my final push in the first game in such a manner that he couldn’t survive it, then drew a dumb hand with a turn-two Bitterblossom for a fast second game. The most pertinent fact of the second match was that I had time between rounds to go and pick my car up from the auto mechanic a ten-minute walk away, as they were putting on a new tire for me to replace the late-night blown-out tire, because driving 200 miles home on a ‘doughnut’ was not the plan… but the place closed at 4, and mostly I had worried that I might have to suffer a game-loss or match-loss to get my car back. Having the time to get my car without having to take a match-loss was better than I expected, so I was elated by the quickness of the match, not just the outcome.

Against Sam, as became the ‘standard’ sideboard plan, I cut eight cards and added four each of Thoughtseize and Nameless Inversion. The cards cut so far have been -2 Mulldrifter, -2 Shriekmaw, -3 Broken Ambitions, -1 “whatever feels right”: in this case, as per usual unless I see something funny out of my opponent, -1 Mistbind Clique because in the face of a significant removal draw from my opponent its Champion ability can be a pain.

For the third round, I get the joy of facing down Brian Lynch in the Faerie mirror match. My list is not exactly the ‘stock’ list, and his is a slight bit of a variation away from it… having learned since his girlfriend Melissa’s qualification in Boston the month before that an unanswered Oona, Queen of the Fae can be quite devastating. Game 1 is an interesting fight with a lot of back-and-forth, but inevitability comes down and kills me, and her name is Oona. I had lost a Cryptic Command to Thoughtseize several turns earlier, and was tapped out over a previous battle and thus unable to use my second Command to counter her… which left the bounce plus draw plan, letting me attack a little bit more and leaving him dead to a Sower of Temptation stealing Oona when he re-cast her, or a Cryptic Command to bounce Oona a second time. I drew a land off the draw, and a do-nothing for my turn, and lost to Oona.

Sideboarding was the same as against Sam, though I did have to think about whether I wanted to shave all more cards and bring in the third Sower of Temptation. Ultimately I decided not to, and won the second game off of Bitterblossom advantage and an aggressive push. The third game was the most interesting one by far, with Bitterblossom on his side by the mid-game but not in the early-game; he Thoughtseized mine, and drew his own on turn four but it was vulnerable to my Spellstutter Sprite. I drew another Bitterblossom around turn six or so and had a pair of Scions giving me a decent advantage, but was behind on life and trying to catch up with a Mistbind Clique. Ultimately I decided to trade away my second Scion for one of his tokens to keep the life advantage from going too heavily against me, a decision I now realize was likely a mistake as I thought somehow that I would be getting knocked to five, not seven, and would not be under quite the intense pressure I somehow surmised I was under. The game came down to a final turn after I had bought as much time as I possibly could, going to two life in the incoming attack and ending up with just that one last turn to draw Cryptic Command and kill Brian. He had played Oona and tapped out to do so the turn before, since there was literally no way to play around Command killing him, but doing so at least made it harder for mere mortal spells like Sower of Temptation from doing the job. I failed to draw Command and lost the match after a good tough fight on both sides.

One thing I noted for my ‘possible changes’ here was that Peppersmokes were huge simply because of the tempo of that play, it is very easy to keep one mana open to protect against Scion of Oona and I should probably be sideboarding some of those if I can adjust my sideboarding strategy. While the Nameless Inversions weren’t bad… as instants, they were doing what I wanted them to be doing… but it seems as if it should be reasonable to be sideboarding the right cards for the most important matchup in the format, instead of just a card that was the right speed because it let me ‘double up’ with removal spells I could sideboard in against Kithkin.

Round 4 I got to play against a Red-Green Shaman deck, though it looked like a mono-Green Treefolk Shaman deck for the first game and thus was easy to overwhelm in his color-screw because his removal was all Red and thus didn’t stop my monsters from tap-dancing upon his face. For the second, still not really sure what I was facing, I sideboarded just the one Sower of Temptation (Green does have Chameleon Colossus, if nothing else…) and cut a Mistbind Clique for it, going again for the reasoning that I don’t want to disrupt my curve for no reason. I lose the second to my own mana-screw, enforced even harder by a Fulminator Mage, so we get to play one actual game of Magic for the third game… and I was on the play, and had a turn 2 Bitterblossom. Things developed very well from there and I killed everything he played that mattered, then killed him. Pretty standard Faeries fare.

Round 5 I finally got to play against Kithkin for the first time this season, and he flooded out a little bit too much in the early- to mid-game which let me easily keep his Windbrisk Heights from activating, especially since none of the spells he drew were named “Spectral Procession” or “Cloudgoat Ranger.” He knew he was in trouble when I Evoked a Shriekmaw on turn 2 to kill a Wizened Cenn, as that is not a ‘standard’ Faeries game 1 plan… and on turn 4 I had a Mannequin to kill his Mirror Entity and block a Mutavault, the latter part of the plan being foiled by a Reinforce of his Rustic Clachan before blockers were declared. This put the Shriekmaw back into my graveyard either way, and a second Mannequin was destined to kill a second creature, with no real threat to my health thanks to the fact that he continued to flood just enough that I could kill all of his threats before he got a free Cloudgoat Ranger out from under his Windbrisk Heights.

For sideboarding, the plan is to ‘transform’ into the normal post-sideboard Faeries deck, which cuts its Thoughtseizes and Peppersmokes for Shriekmaws and Incremental Blights. For me, that means I am cutting Mulldrifters and Mannequins for Incremental Blights and Nameless Inversion, plus shaving a Clique for that third Sower. The realization now is that this is quite possibly overkill and those Mannequins are still useful even without Mulldrifter in my deck, what with Maws and Sowers going on, so I could probably keep two in without feeling as if I have lost anything, meaning I could find sideboard space for Peppersmokes at the expense of a Nameless Inversion in there somewhere among other things.

I repeated the game 1 effort of keeping him off Windbrisk Heights activation by removing creatures, but in this case it was not land-flood but spell-flood that plagued him… he just never had a third creature to cast, and was using Turn to Mist and Mirrorweave to protect his creatures against my removal spells but was nonetheless unable to get traction against me as his hand dwindled because I was hard-casting Shriekmaws to trade one-for-zero with cards in his hand. I won the match cleanly 2-0, and noted that the Nameless Inversions I wanted in my sideboard for this match were probably overkill: some could be removed to make way for Peppersmokes if I had to do this over again.

And then… round 6, everything started to fall apart. I met my friend and car-mate Dan Olmo at the 4-1 bracket, and having spent several weeks of testing together and put a lot of planning into our both attending the PTQ we agreed that even though it was risky we preferred to take the chance of none of us making Top 8, to give us the chance for both of us to make the cut. We intentionally drew and left the sweatbox that was the tournament hall to get dinner in us in the nice air-conditioned pizzeria next door, and spent the round recuperating and rebuilding mental toughness to face the coming rounds. He was literally the only person in the room I would have made that offer to, potentially hobbling my own potential victory to attempt to get us both there.

For the seventh round, of eight, I got to find out that MiseTings owner and operator (and, um, I guess Former Pro Tour Player) Mike Bregoli is apparently still around and kicking, and was to be my opponent at the 4-1-1 bracket. I had hoped for a nice ‘bad Faeries player’ or ‘Quick-n-Toast player’ in the backs-to-the-wall draw bracket, not someone I know to have at least within recent memory been good at the game, but such was not to be. Game 1 was the ‘we-both-have-Bitterblossom’ game, and thus we actually got to play Magic. My Mulldrifter/Mannequin package kept me well-stocked on cards and made for some awkward end-of-turn Mannequin plays he had to consider countering, which gave me just enough strength to inch over the finish line before he could, despite him being maximally pre-gamed for the Faeries mirror with Thoughtseizes and Peppersmokes main to my, um, Mulldrifters and Mannequins.

So far, I have been reasonably happy with the decision to play the Mulldrifter-Mannequin deck as I’ve won most of my Faeries matches game 1; in fact, only Brian Lynch so far has managed to get a Faeries game 1 off of me since I picked up this configuration. Looking back in retrospect, especially considering how post-sideboard Shriekmaws never quite impressed by killing a Mistbind Clique or really productively being a Mannequin target, I now have to ask myself whether I am sideboarding correctly… maybe I should be taking out all the Shriekmaws instead of two and two Mulldrifters? As I’d said, I am pretty sure the deck is still better than me, and in retrospect I feel it deserves a lot more testing of the Faeries mirror especially to determine the proper sideboard plan… as I’ve lost an awful lot of post-sideboard games, when theoretically I should be able to win as many of them are pre-boarding most of the good cards. Finding room for Peppersmokes is only one part of that; I need to look and see whether part of the mistake wasn’t me taking out Mulldrifters, especially given the occasional need to mulligan harder for game two or three than I do for game one, and Mulldrifter is a great mulligan-fixer.

For the second game I tragically have a turn11 Thoughtseize for his turn 2 Bitterblossom, but my only Black source is a Vivid Creek… and I quite possibly lose because I didn’t have that Thoughtseize turn 1. We both play turn 2 Bitterblossoms, and thanks to Peppersmokes and such he is able to win the game since my first two tokens die while his get to usefully attack, and I am on the back foot for the duration of the game as life totals dwindle. For the third game, I mulligan into a weak hand but keep it because it has lands and Mulldrifter, while he has Thoughtseize for my Mulldrifter and a turn 2 Bitterblossom for the third game as well. To be fair he was mulliganing aggressively to get them, but to be unfair… I really wish he’d do that with the frequency of a normal human being this match, instead of having it every time. Even I was a bit above the curve, having done so two out of the three games, while he did it all three games against me… and then did it again next round to beat my friend Dan with whom I drew with in the last round.

Bregoli destroyed not just me, but my car-mate as well. Who knew that by drawing into the x-1-1 bracket we’d actually just be setting ourselves up for a single shark to eat us both? At least by both missing the Top 8 we got to go home and leave the sweaty Brighton Knights of Columbus far behind us, and get home at a sane and reasonable hour (midnight) instead of what it would have been if we won the tournament (3am, if we were lucky).

Looking past the End of Days to the Eventide rotation, mostly what the deck needs is refinement, not repair. Further tweaking and testing has taught me that I do not want to cut that third Vivid Creek for a Swamp, despite the ‘bad beat’ against Bregoli in game 2… Cryptic Commands become much harder to cast with four Swamps and four Mutavaults in the deck, and in retrospect three Vivid Lands is just about perfect for being able to afford a comes-into-play-tapped land once per game. It outright won me two games earlier in the tournament, just being another UB dual land instead of a mere Island or Swamp, and only cost me one game out of several weeks of testing by coming into play tapped when I really wished it could cast turn 1 Thoughtseize. When it works, it’s a subtle thing, since you largely remember the fact that you never took a single counter off so why do you even play the damn things, not the fact that on the games you do take a counter off, that this ability was vital. Humans remember frustration a good deal longer than they remember small but positive outcomes, and this frustration is not actually a valid reason to alter a card in the main deck.

For the sideboard, however, I have since come to the realization that my plan against the Faeries mirror is fundamentally flawed by my respecting other matchups too much, especially since this deck is basically the version of Faeries that doesn’t lose any other matchups. I would now adjust the sideboard to the following:

4 Thoughtseize
3 Incremental Blight
3 Peppersmoke
2 Puppeteer Clique
2 Nameless Inversion
1 Sower of Temptation

Against Faeries, you want -3 Broken Ambitions in most games, and -4 Shriekmaw, for +3 Peppersmoke, +4 Thoughtseize. -1 Mistbind Clique, +1 Sower of Temptation can be used to flavor for taste, and should be considered if your opponent is doing anything ‘strange’ like running a main-deck Oona, Queen of the Fae, or happens to just run his Scions out there for no reason on the third turn. Against Kithkin and similar-style aggro decks (such as BG Elves or Shamans) you want -4 Mulldrifter, -1 Makeshift Mannequin, -1 Scion of Oona for +3 Incremental Blight, +2 Nameless Inversion, +1 Sower of Temptation… again, you can season to taste, as keeping in the third Mannequin and cutting a Mistbind Clique can be a better decision if they have a considerable amount of creature removal that might make Mistbind Clique into a risky proposition… you might not want to see one of those earlier than the mid-to-late game. And against Quick-n-Toast, -1 Scion of Oona, -2 Sower of Temptation, -3 Broken Ambitions turns into +4 Thoughtseize, +2 Puppeteer Clique to very good effect.

Further exploration into this deck should likely prove profitable; it is very, very good indeed, and always feels like it has the tools to win any game it is playing thanks to the card advantage and the power of cards like Bitterblossom and Cryptic Command, not usually applied in the same deck as the Mannequin / Mulldrifter / Shriekmaw package. Now, to just practice some more and correct my mistakes before a tournament rather than after… well, these things can be difficult, and revelations about what you should be doing in a matchup all too often come at whatever pace they desire, rather than the pace you would like them to.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com