Magical Hack – Pondering Faeries

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Friday, May 23rd – There’s one more night before Hollywood… and one last chance to get a message out there before the rounds and rounds of Hollywood set the stage for Regionals. I have been on many sides of the argument about “the best version of Faeries”, arguing some of the points just to play Devil’s Advocate. You have a lot of options… I mean, already we’ve seen several dissenting opinions with varied results.

There’s one more night before Hollywood… and one last chance to get a message out there before the rounds and rounds of Hollywood set the stage for Regionals. I have been on many sides of the argument about “the best version of Faeries”, arguing some of the points just to play Devil’s Advocate. You have a lot of options… I mean, already we’ve seen several dissenting opinions with varied results. Sower of Temptation, Pestermite, Vendilion Clique, and ‘extra’ Terrors in the form of Nameless Inversion have all graced some reasonably-reputable lists, and there is some strange amalgamation of these cards from list to list as thoughts on the metagame change and overall positioning for tournaments varies over time.

I have since learned that there are many arguments over these slots… and apparently I get to be the one who tells you about the last, most important, and (until now) stealthiest one. I imagine its existence must otherwise be known… it is, after all, such a simple concept that it must have come up in multiple playtest groups… but the simple fact remains that the payout of the SCG $5k and $2k events was not high enough to warrant ‘leaking tech’ before a Pro Tour with a $230k payout all told. I imagine its worth is also well-known… it doesn’t take a lot of playing with this sort of configuration to point out its strengths.

The new answer to the “last few slots” question in Faeries?


As one of the Bluest cards in Standard right now, you’d think it would be obvious to put the Bluest card in the Bluest deck and thus make it more Blue by comparison. Now, ‘being more Blue’ is clearly not the only option — being more Black and having extra kill spells is quite a reasonable thing to consider. But ‘being less Blue’ and not ‘being more Black’ is probably just not as good… and thus I imagine some of the silence is generated by the fact that one key advantage for the Faerie mirror is knowing this ‘secret’ instead of playing ‘stock’ lists. Ponder doesn’t obliterate all other options… after all, you still have room for customizability beyond just four cards… but it does tend to be the awesome option regardless of what the rest of your customized choices are. One of the biggest problems playing Faerie mirror matches is the fact that you can’t really control the game in the first or second turns, and so one player sticking a Bitterblossom at that point has a massive advantage over the other player that is easy to leverage for the rest of the game. Ponder increases the percentage of that happening on your side of the board in a meaningful way, in addition to the rest of its impact on the game… and isn’t a “metagame risk” to fill those slots with, like perhaps Thoughtseize would be in those same slots, because it is basically invisible in all matchups: it’s never bad, its effect isn’t large, and it has no realistic drawbacks like “take two damage against a Red deck.”

It’s a small thing. But its effect doesn’t feel small… Ponder is, after all, awesome. Let us look at the positives and the negatives of running Ponder:


1. Staggers the deck more heavily towards being able to pay one Blue mana on turn 1.

2. Cannot be cast on turn 2 without getting in the way of Bitterblossom, Rune Snag, Terror, and Spellstutter Sprite.

3. Interrupts the ability to play a three-mana spell, if used on turn 3.

4. Decreases the overall land count, increasing the number of hands you have to mulligan because you draw Pendelhavens and Mutavaults but no Blue lands.

5. Forces you to play sorcery-speed Magic in some of your decision-making process in an Instant-speed deck.

There may be more corner-cases, like its vulnerability to Spellstutter Sprite, but I think in most cases you are going to run into the ‘issues’ with the card fit one of the five above comments.

The positives are considerable, however:


1. Increases your card selectivity over the course of a game — you get to look at more cards, and thus make more decisions, and have a greater impact on the outcome of the game. Ponder lets you gain an advantage in the mid- and late-game by looking at more cards and deciding if you want to keep them or not — it’s no Ancestral Recall, but it can feel like it when you look at three lands and get rid of them in the late-game.

2. Increases the potential for playing Bitterblossom in the early game, as Bitterblossom is at its most awesome when played on turn 2 and allowed to do its thing.

3. Increases the value of your main-deck cards by causing you to draw them more often than you would with non-draw-spell cards in those slots.

4. Increases the value of your sideboard cards and possibly allows you to reduce some of their numbers, fitting in more sideboard cards, by causing you to draw them more often than you would with non-draw-spell cards in those slots.

5. Can increase your virtual land count, as your 24-lands, 4-Ponder deck should draw lands like a 26-land deck on demand.

Let us look at those negatives again through a different perspective. Negative fact #1? “Staggers the deck more heavily towards being able to pay one Blue mana on turn 1″…? This is not necessarily a bad thing! More lands in your deck that tap for Blue on turn 1 means more lands in your deck that turn on Ancestral Visions on turn 1, and thus a greater potential for having a turn 1 Visions rather than an ‘interrupted’ Visions on turn 3 because your first land tapped for Black or came into play tapped. If you can mitigate the downsides of cutting Faerie Conclaves from the maximum (4) to a lesser number, when everyone else is looking at playing eight man-lands nowadays, this is not an automatic disadvantage.

Point two isn’t really valid. You still have a brain, after all, and unless the card we are talking about filling these slots with actually is a two-drop (and thus improves the likelihood of having a good turn-two spell, which means it is constructive rather than destructive interference), the idea that drawing it means you have to suddenly play like an idiot doesn’t make sense. Point three can be mitigated by the process of cutting three-mana Faeries from the deck… exactly the solution I was looking at in the first place. Not playing an unprotected Scion if you don’t have to counter anything on turn 3 isn’t usually what you want to do anyway, so the option of third land, Ponder plus keep two mana untapped for Spellstutter/Rune Snag/Terror as your third-turn play is fine. Ponder helps you look at three cards and perhaps gives you that clutch two-mana spell, when otherwise you would have a less-good option. (It does, however, get in the way of a third-turn Spellstutter with Mutavault as your second Faerie, to counter a two-drop. Such things cannot be helped. Again, don’t play like an idiot just because you have this card in your deck and the ‘negative’ drops away.)

Points four and five, however, are very reasonable. Whether those downsides outweigh the benefits is really the question… and in my experience, the addition of Ponder is all upsides. Let us attempt to manufacture a decklist, then, shall we? Surely you recognize this deck already:

Let us perform a little surgery on this list. It did, after all, strongly prove itself across two days of reasonably-competitive play. The assumption that it is doing an awful lot more things right than it is doing wrong is not just a reasonable assumption, but is basically a fact backed up by results. But the notion that there is a new ‘argument’ in town looking down at those Pestermites and saying “Really? In Standard?” is one that demands some respect as well, because it may just be the one big difference that ends up defining the winning Faeries lists at the Pro Tour this weekend. The reasonable assumption is that we can shave a land, going down to 24, to fit one of those four Ponders… so long as we do get all four, we’ll have a ‘virtual’ 26 lands using the old rule-of-thumb of adding a ‘virtual’ land for each two cheap cantrips you put in the deck. Those two pesky Pestermites can go without much care; we’re cutting them to basically draw more of the great cards instead of the hole-filling role-players, and they are by no means sacrosanct in anyone’s list. The last card is the hard one… but I nominated the third Sower as the main-deck card I would be most willing to cut from Alex’s list for the fourth Ponder, under the reasonable assumption that I would be able to have a virtual “2.2 Sowers” instead of ‘just’ 2 and the fact that I didn’t want to cut anything else any lower.

Conceptually, this is a sound list. There may be some hemming and hawing about what, exactly, got cut… but we are looking to find the difference between a list with four Ponders and a list without, so this is sound enough instead of a combat-tested list to vet 100% for the Pro Tour. Battling this list against the progenitor deck, Alex Bertoncini double-winner from two weeks ago, had some interesting results. I was able to get in six games against upcoming Pro Tour attendee and frequent NY-area PTQ winner Rob Seder (he was basically convinced on Ponder after just two!) and finished the rest of the “ten game set” myself in a lengthy and tedious process… if you think the Faerie mirror is bad now, try playing both sides of it. You’d rather die. I promise.

Here is how the games broke down:

Game 1: Ponder deck starts on the draw in odd games, and is on the play in even games. Ponder deck is on the draw and has turn 1 Ancestral Visions, while non-Ponder deck sticks a turn 2 Bitterblossom on the play. Ponder Deck decides to go aggressive with those Ponders and burns two Ponders on turn 2 fixing its hand to beat the turn 2 Bitterblossom, a fact the non-Ponder deck cannot easily capitalize upon due to it being so very early in the game. The Ponder deck streamlines its hand perfectly to pick a fight at end of turn before its Ancestral Visions would resolve, resolves its Ancestral, and proceeds to overpower the non-Ponder deck (which is stuck on five lands and thus can never protect its Cryptic Command) with the classic end-of-turn fight over Mistbind Clique followed by a lethal attack thanks to Cryptic Command.

Ponder deck wins Game 1.

Game 2: Ponder deck is on the play. Turn 1 Ponder does not succeed at enabling a turn 2 Bitterblossom the deck didn’t start with, shuffles three crap cards away and ends up in a long attrition war. Again the Ponder deck draws its lands better, this time perhaps because it Pondered again on turn 5, and sticks its sixth land drop while the non-Ponder deck is stuck on five again. Being able to use a second counter alongside Cryptic Command gives a small advantage that is then capitalized upon, and the continuing card selection of the third Ponder again provides gas instead of crap by shuffling away three lands and drawing spell, spell in the late game to end the attrition war.

Ponder deck wins Game 2.

Game 3: Ponder deck is on the draw. Ponder deck has turn 1 Ancestral Vision, and a Bitterblossom in hand, but no Black land and no Ponder (to try and find a Black land) it could have cast instead of turn 1 Visions. Despite having three Bitterblossoms in hand on turn 2, Ponder deck still cannot press this advantage; the opponent finds his first Bitterblossom and plays the first Bitterblossom on either side on turn 6, while Ponder deck gets its first Black land on turn 7 and its first Bitterblossom is countered. Ponder deck cannot come back from this disadvantage despite having resolved its Ancestral, because it is always on the back foot.

Ponder deck loses Game 3.

Game 4: Ponder deck is on the play and has the full-on nuts draw versus the full-on non-nuts draw. Turn 1 Visions into turn 2 Bitterblossom on the play, the opponent doesn’t play spells and is not actually “in it” at any point.

Ponder deck wins Game 4.

Game 5: Ponder deck is on the draw and keeps a ‘sketchy’ hand of River of Tears, 2x Ponder, Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, Cryptic Command, Spellstutter Sprite. Ponder deck does not draw a land on its first turn and thus cannot Ponder turn 1, but draws a land for turn 2 (the “I was going to cast Ponder to find me some land” turn, in the worst-case scenario) and matches its opponent’s turn 2 Bitterblossom. Turn 3 Pondering works just fine, keeping up a counter to avoid shenanigans, and the opponent is forced into playing a second Bitterblossom alongside his first to try and gain a meaningful advantage as his other spells are being outclassed thanks to Ponder-powered card selection. The game winds down to “don’t die in the next X turns”, where X is a shrinking number thanks to a Mutavault that sneaks its way through two or three times, and the opponent is forced into a gamble to win the turn before its Bitterblossoms kill it. Cryptic Command to tap Ponder deck’s creatures and draw a card is countered with a Cryptic Command that taps all of his creatures, clearing the way for the men currently in play to end the game that turn instead of two turns hence by his own Bitterblossoms.

Ponder deck wins Game 5.

Game 6: Ponder deck is on the play. Ponder deck elects to play Ponder over Ancestral Visions turn 1, digging for Bitterblossom, because its hand is weak on countermagic and it is sorely lacking on control elements to resolve that Ancestral. Opponent is able to force through 2 Ancestral Visions to Ponder deck’s original 1 Ancestral, and in the mid-game establishes Bitterblossom advantage with those extra cards. Cute tricks with Sower of Temptation and Cryptic Command on both sides of the table unfortunately turn the game into a sorcery-speed battle for several turns, and the one who started the fight is the one who gets to stop playing crap at sorcery speed first and thus is the winner.

Ponder deck loses Game 6. Rob then asks to test other matchups, already sold on the strength of Ponder in Faeries, and begs off to test against Tom LaPille Red deck from this week’s article. Rob is also very happy with the use of Ponder in that matchup, and is sold on the change for his Pro Tour since the logic is sound and the ‘downsides’ of a sorcery-speed Ponder that might eat up parts of his mana-curve are clearly outclassed every time he casts Ponder on turn 1, on turn 3, or turn 5 and after… while also noting that he now draws Bottle Gnomes in the sideboarded games like it’s a five-of.

Sadly I now switch to solo-playtesting the remaining four games of the “ten game set,” an effort I intend to never replicate because it caused me to have a strong and inexplicable affinity for bridges and other high places.

Game 7: Ponder deck is on the draw. Ponder deck finally has a turn 1 Ponder that finds a turn 2 Bitterblossom it wouldn’t have seen otherwise, only to run it into countermagic as opponent has the Rune Snag this time. (They almost never do, and the risk/reward comparison of the gamble is otherwise huge.) Ponder deck sets up another Ponder on turn 3, which uncovers a second Bitterblossom for turn 4 if it wants it… Ponder deck instead plays a Faerie Conclave as its fourth land, end-of-turn picks a fight with a Scion to nab a Rune Snag, then untaps with Bitterblossom and its choice between Rune Snag or Spellstutter + Mutavault activation to resolve it. Ponder deck leverages this advantage into a win five turns later.

Ponder deck wins Game 7.

Game 8: Ponder deck is on the play. Ponder deck has a turn 1 Ponder that reveals a turn 3 Ancestral Vision with Rune Snag available, and neither player has Bitterblossom for once… it feels like it’s been a while since that card didn’t decide the game single-handedly. Ponder deck again is able to resolve its Ancestral Vision by picking a fight beforehand, this time with Mistbind Clique, though it draws three lands off the Vision and another for its draw for the turn. Opponent is able to make its team large and untargetable with Scion x2, but the early life advantage a swinging 4/4 can bring and a second fight picked with a second Mistbind Clique (this one doesn’t resolve, but the damage is done) leads to a Cryptic Command to tap the team and kills the opponent exactly dead.

Ponder deck wins Game 8.

Game 9: Ponder deck is on the draw. Opponent has the full-on nuts, with turn 1 Visions and turn 2 Bitterblossom; Ponder on turn 1 finds a Bitterblossom to match it on turn 2 and is able to play keep-up for a while but opponent is able to pick a fight with Mistbind Clique on turn 4 that taps enough mana on Ponder deck’s side to force through its Ancestral, and the damage is long since done from there. Ponder deck cannot keep up when the opponent’s Bitterblossom tokens are backed by an unanswered Scion, despite having a Pendelhaven; the opponent waits until he has multiple tokens built up to send in the team, losing one of its guys ‘for free’ but mashing Ponder deck and its men mercilessly.

Ponder deck loses Game 9.

Game 10: Ponder deck is on the play. Ponder deck chooses to play Ancestral Vision over Ponder on turn 1, going for the sure thing this time instead of trying to dig up an unanswerable Bitterblossom since it actually has countermagic-type cards to resolve it with. Ponder deck draws Bitterblossom on turn 3, i.e. “would have got there”, and plays its Ponder keeping up Rune Snag mana. Ponder deck resolves its Bitterblossom on turn 4 thanks to a Rune Snag, and stacks things properly in its upkeep to be able to counter Spellstutter Sprite x2 with its own Spellstutter Sprite and a Rune Snag. Opponent uses the window of opportunity to resolve his own Bitterblossom but is behind in every other metric, with fewer lands overall, fewer man-lands, behind on life and on tokens in the Bitterblossom race, and fewer cards in hand. Ponder deck closes out the game without any flash, though seeing the opponent play Pendelhaven to try and gain an edge to get back into the game with is laughably resolved by a topdecked Ponder, shuffle, Pendelhaven exchange.

Ponder deck wins Game 10. Final count: Ponder Deck 7, Opponent 3.

Whether this is a representative show of how big of an advantage the addition of Ponder to the deck in place of the customizable or so-called “filler” cards that otherwise are frequently seen here is not my purpose to prove or disprove… but I imagine the potential ‘edge’ of deck advantage is clearly greater than zero, as the deck with Ponder frequently took advantage of the fact that it gained card selectivity in the middle of the game and used that extra small advantage in the game to close out the game. That it did so far more often than it played a turn 1 Ponder that was earth-shattering by finding the turn 2 Bitterblossom is worth noting: I’d looked at it for one palpable advantage, and found the benefits were sizable, clear, and not exactly where I expected them to be. But the same deck with a better card-selection engine should more or less be advantaged… and here, with this version of Faeries, I think it clearly is.

Now just find the best sideboard and combine it with the best version of the best deck and go win yourself a Pro Tour. I can’t say I know what that ‘best sideboard’ is, but I do know that the Faerie deck is so awesome that over-sideboarding with the Faerie deck feels like a clear mistake. Every card you take out is good, and while the cards you are putting in certainly fill a role, a sideboard full of Fledgling Mawcors, Thoughtseizes, and Peppersmokes for the matchup are going to find that they actually start to lose utility by cramming all of these things in, because they have to start taking out really great cards that are a significant part of what makes the deck work. I know I would start with the following:

1 Terror
1 Sower of Temptation
4 Bottle Gnomes
4 Thoughtseize

These are the cards that are easy to agree on, and serve a clear purpose. Bottle Gnomes was instrumental in SCG $5k + $2k winner Alex Bertoncini win against Evan Erwin (though Evan would attest his mistakes were likely more crucial than those Battle Gnomes). The fourth Terror is very valuable, as there are just matchups you want to have Terrors in your deck. The fourth Sower is likewise valuable; Alex played three main, while I sided in three… three seems to be the number people want when they want them, so you get a third Sower to bring in for those matchups where Sowers are really, really good. And Thoughtseize is an absolutely vital mirror-match tool, that also happens to have some utility against unfair decks like the Dragonstorm deck that may or may not be floating around.

But the other five cards? I’d like to say I have my thumb completely on the metagame, and have figured out just which sideboard magic bullets slay the Faeries matchup. That remains unknown to me right at this very instant, and if I had to do something I would probably add the three Damnations that seem to be so good against Green decks that try to overwhelm the board, and maybe throw two Teferis in and try to mise with Teferi in the mirror match. But then I’d also want to test those matchups some more to know if these were even the right tools, what they intend to do back to you, all that crazy stuff. I imagine I will know by Regionals — but in the meantime, here’s to an excellent main-deck with an innovation that until now seems to have been running in stealth mode.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com