Magical Hack: States Jam Session

This upcoming weekend is the last weekend before the most of the major State Championships, and I have heard of several places that will be running unsanctioned post-Time Spiral Standard tournaments as a State Championships “warm-up”… So talking about what I have seen developing in recent weeks seems like an interesting way to have a good jam session talking about Standard and riffing on what overarching trends are developing. That said, let’s introduce you to an unlikely candidate for “The most influential land in Standard…”

Last week, I had hoped to follow up this week with a look at Grand Prix: Athens, to continue following trends as they develop in Sealed Deck and Booster Draft play. Unfortunately, we’re left without a Day 1 Undefeated Decklists post in the Athens coverage, and while I am hoping to still obtain copies of those results they certainly have not appeared in time to actually discuss ongoing trends… making any attempt to look at the results of Athens and compare them to Sydney a bit of a sham. By the time this article goes live, we’ll be done with the first draft in Kobe, Japan anyway, and looking at just one draft we actually have results for from Athens seems like a waste.

(…well, at least to everyone who isn’t my illustrious editor, who is both going to the Pro Tour and able to read this days in advance of it going live. Craig will just have to live without, or pick my brain more directly if it’s my thoughts he wants.) [Damn! I was hoping for top Limited tech… – Craig, reading this on Tuesday.]

That said, continuing to look at the developing Standard shows us some rather interesting results. This upcoming weekend is the last weekend before the State Championships, and I have heard of several places that will be running unsanctioned post-Time Spiral Standard tournaments as a State Championships “warm-up”… so talking about what I have seen developing in recent weeks seems like an interesting way to go with this article, to have a good jam session talking about Standard and riffing on what overarching trends are developing. That said, let’s introduce you to an unlikely candidate for “most influential land in Standard.”

Hi, Desert!

My amusing anecdote for this week (unlike last week’s blatantly wrong “water spirals the wrong way in the Southern Hemisphere” blunder) is about the laughable Desert. For some time now, I’ve had a trade binder with a first page entirely intended to make me smile… with bad cards, with pretty cards, and with pretty bad cards. On this page intended to make me smile, you’ll find a foil Sailmonger (reminiscent of one Karen Roman, and an encounter several years ago that still brings a smile), and the “pretty bad” Mana Vortex. You’ll also find Freyalise’s Supplicant, juggling kittens with wings. And you’ll find a Camel next to a Desert, and for some reason or another I have had to continually fend off people who wanted to trade for my Camel, because it is bad but amusing. In all the years of fending off potential trades for my Camel, no one has asked to trade for its companion, Desert.

Until Time Spiral, that is.

Desert is one of the incoming trifecta that make one-toughness creatures painfully bad as a game-plan, those being the holy trinity of Desert / Serrated Arrows / Shadow Guildmage. Serrated Arrows is obvious… it’s expensive, but it’s repeating removal from a colorless source, and at its worst it will slowly but surely kill a three-toughness creature… while at its best, it completely demolishes three separate attackers. Shadow Guildmage is likewise obvious, to the point where people are starting to choose their entire deck based around activating the Guildmage’s ability, now that they see that there are plenty of opponents playing with Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves next to Looters Il-Kor each as a four-of. Even White decks have a Guildmage-like ability, with the single-use Icatian Javelineers steadily appearing as the second one-drop of choice in most White aggro decks.

Desert, though… Desert is just special. Any deck can play it, and any deck can play it as early as turn 1, invalidating one-toughness creatures as an early-game attack strategy, outside of possibly a deck centered on the Philosophy of Fire that doesn’t mind its creature dying so long as it got to attack for two first. Desert is even a good enough reason to seriously consider cutting down on the number of colors in your deck; considering how much good mana-fixing there is, even “just” using lands, you can have a manabase starting like this if you want it:

4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Gemstone Mine
4 Azorius Chancery
4 Azorius Signet

Is it so hard to understand that the colorless mana of a Desert means absolutely nothing in modern Standard, compared to its spell-like qualities? Especially in multiples, Desert has a huge impact upon the board, and can completely re-define what counts as a playable creature in Standard. Previously, I had set the high-water mark for creatures at “above four,” thanks to the presence of Char, Psionic Blast, Wildfire, and Sudden Death. Now I am coming to learn that there is a second “high-water mark”, and one that is much more meaningful: the high-water mark is actually above one!

As much as I had hoped that Gemstone Caverns would revolutionize how Standard works, I am learning more and more that it is actually Desert that has the greatest initial influence on the format, as it completely changes what is usually considered to be the definition of a playable creature. Soltari Priest is sweet… after all, Shadow, protection from Red, what’s not to love?

Desert. Deserts are not to love.

It is because of this that one should give actual serious consideration to how many colors they are playing in their control decks, and exactly which creatures they are playing in their beatdown decks… that, or be willing to use Ghost Quarter to clear out opposing Deserts first. With a colorless land that one would genuinely like as a four-of, the simple decision to play three colors because you can is no longer both simple and automatic if you can get a reasonable facsimile of that three-color deck using only two colors of mana. Not everyone can… but at least some decks can, and that is what can be so interesting.

Deck du jour number one: Solar Flare revisited.

Akroma, Angel of Wrath: accept no substitutes. Solar Flare without access to Persecute is not quite as dangerous against opposing control decks, as it then tries to be a proactive board control deck, repeatedly asking the question “Akroma or no?” and using the efficient removal of White with the powerful card-drawing of Blue to set up powerful board control and swing with 6/6 monsters with ridiculous abilities. Literally the only thing that doesn’t have a direct analogue from the B/U/W version is Persecute, as you can emulate all the parts you actually care about: Mortify can easily become Condemn, which is even actually better against opposing Akromas, and Zombify laughingly returns to its roots and becomes Resurrection, partying like it’s 1995. Plenty of people are afraid of playing a Blue/White deck with a proactive bent, used to hiding behind a wall of counterspells instead of just soaring over the top with said legendary Angel.

This version, however, gets something that the three-color deck doesn’t… specifically, Desert as a four-of. Maybe, maybe you can squeeze two into a three-color deck – after all it played Miren and Mikokoro previously and didn’t die to its colorless mana sources, and that was before it had access to Gemstone Mine. But the full four copies of the aggro-hating land? Unlikely.

This is just the sort of change that any two-color deck can support, aggro or control, to the point where I now consider any Blue/Green list without any copies to be horribly outdated. Clearly, as a solid two-color deck, you should at least be willing to consider the opportunity cost: one colored mana from your manabase, versus one spell-like repeating effect against one-toughness creatures. It’s easy to make up the colored mana, though, with Karoos and Gemstone Mine. Compare, for amusement’s sake, the Blue/Green list we see by Josh Claytor from this past Monday’s update:

Sure, there’s nothing specifically wrong with it. (Actually, I am lying and there absolutely is something wrong with it, because Psionic Blast is an automatic main-deck four-of. But I’m trying to be polite here, because there is a lot more right about it than wrong, and I’m trying to teach an object lesson here. It’s really not very far, theoretically, from the same deck presented by Mike Flores last week… but Josh writes for the free side, and Mike for Premium, so you get to see his deck and not Mike’s. I don’t know if I’m allowed to post a Premium decklist or not, and thus choose a non-Premium example if it is suitable.) But twist it around a little and things become more right

Subtle shift number one: Josh wasn’t playing enough lands. Twenty is a bad number to have when one has to actually worry about their Birds and Elves being burned out, or completely demolished by Shadow Guildmage as the opponent’s first-turn play. Flores’ list has 21, and that doesn’t quite seem to be enough to me either, after watching his playtest games with testing partner Josh Ravitz in which, game after game, all Josh wanted to draw with his Looters and Vipers was another land, dammit! I suspect Flores is also used to his Birds and Elves not dying, in which case I can see why he’s shaved a land… but I’m thinking consistency in the early game beats having that slightly lower mana count as you draw through more of your deck. To get to 22 lands with Josh’s deck, well… Mystic Snake is good, but it’s really just gravy for this deck, and as the most expensive card it is the first one to cut for more lands. Flores had two Voidslimes he wasn’t in love with, and I’d argue they should be Mystic Snakes instead; by the time he’ll want to be holding mana up for them, he’ll have the option of holding up four mana just as well as he’d have been able to hold up three.

Voidslime “countering” the Storm count of Grapeshot or Dragonstorm doesn’t seem like a big deal. Neither of those combo decks are going to be especially well-represented; Voidslime isn’t a guaranteed plan even if it’s a better one than Mystic Snake, especially as a two-of; and for those few times when Voidslime might have been better than Mystic Snake, that’s what sideboards are for. Shadow of Doubt is probably making its way into any Blue/Green sideboard, and considering how many of Flores’s games against Zoo with his U/G deck came down to Magus of the Scroll winning the day I’d go so far as to say Serrated Arrows is a necessity as well.

Subtle shift number two: Unstable Mutation becomes Psionic Blast, because Blue-Green is much more dangerous when it can burn you out from eight than it is when it, well, can’t. Both of these are stylistic changes that Josh could have made, or could have not made, no big deal… with the lands, maybe he’s lucky, or doesn’t live someplace where Shadow Guildmage is earning any respect, and his early Birds and Elves and Looters never die. Unstable Mutation and Psi Blast are both dangerous and up the clock considerably, it just happens to be that one is the better card even though both are excellent and very dangerous… and unsurprisingly, the better card is the one that doesn’t have the words “Enchant Creature” anywhere on it. Josh chose the faster card, instead of the better card, and that’s something I can respect… and disagree with.

Subtle shift number three is in keeping with Flores’s findings from last week, which is that a deck of this sort needs harder countermagic, and thus Mana Leak over Remand. The clock on this deck is not so high that buying another turn is patently absurd, even if it is very good, and there are likely to be enough Wraths of God going around that you will want to force them to have a second copy, not just delay the inevitable by a turn.

And subtle shift number four is the inclusion of the Desert. Maybe it’s just something I can try to get away with because I’ve snuck in more lands than Flores or Claytor, but from what I have seen there are more than enough reasons to want to have Desert as a tool against aggressive decks, shutting down Savannah Lions and Soltari Priests and a cast of thousands. While I’ve chosen to play with colorless lands, which don’t contribute terribly well to, say, getting to GUU for Mystic Snake, I’ve also chosen to play with more dual-colored lands, with extra Karoos and even a pair of Gemstone Mines to smooth the early-game mana issues at the expense of long-game mana production… a sacrifice I would assume a deck like this can make, thanks to its plentiful accelerants and creature-based card drawing, both of which help ensure that the deck gets as much mana as it needs when it wants it… and to help with that, you’ll note, I added lands to the deck. They just happen to also feel like spells.

Another point of contention for the upcoming Standard is that the initial beatdown lists are failing as the controlling decks develop more fully. I had stated two weeks ago that I felt White Weenie was the first deck developed and would be the starting-point as the metagame built itself in parallel across the world. I am no longer convinced of this notion, because of that marvelous little land called Desert, and have instead come to think that it is the Blue/Green lists that are actually the first building-block of the metagame… and one of the better ones. In many ways, it dodges the Desert problem while also putting Blue countermagic plus Psionic Blast to the best use, because it plays less fair than the White-based beatdown deck… it makes more mana faster, and draws more cards, while also getting better benefits for its countermagic and better aggressive tools.

However, this deck is not truly an aggro deck, as it’s pretty clearly an aggro-control deck, or as Josh called it, a tempo deck. To get to the neighborhood of true aggro, we need to look at what can be done with Zoo.

Zoo is an interesting deck, and previously one that was known to have a love-hate relationship with itself. So extensively known is this love-hate relationship, Evan Erwin remarked upon it as one of the classic battles of modern Standard, Zoo versus Its Manabase… and was only about the brazillianth person to make such a remark. Zoo is a greedy deck, and an inconsistent one, for a simple reason. Take twenty-four lands and apply them thusly:

4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Karplusan Forest

4 Brushland
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Stomping Ground
4 Temple Garden

You get sixteen mana of each color, just enough to easily justify playing cards of that color as your main color… after all, the U/G list I posted above had “only” seventeen Green sources, three of which don’t come into play untapped. You also happen to have three main colors, and no means for smoothing over your mana if you happen to draw all Green-White lands and a bunch of Red cards; the deck comes up short on the right color of mana entirely too often. One reason for that is the desire to sneak in actual Forests, to give you more lands to boost your Kird Ape with, a secret, hidden design restriction. Another is that you’re not willing to play 24 lands, so the whole “sixteen of each color” thing doesn’t actually pan out, you’re usually playing more like 21-22 lands. Sometimes, you’re even playing 20 lands / 20 creatures / 20 spells, far fewer than the 24 lands that got us to 16 mana of each color.

This balancing act just got a whole lot easier.

… Twenty-two lands will seem like rather a bit much to the casual observer, but it is intended to help ensure that Call of the Herd is actually useful, as well as lead directly into the sideboard plan allowing the use of Call of the Herd and Glare of Subdual against opposing creature decks (like, um, Zoo…). Some of these choices seem a little unusual, but are intended as functional work-arounds to Spell Snare in the environment, trying to replace more of the two-drops with three-mana equivalents… so Rift Bolt instead of Volcanic Hammer, which you can often buy for just one mana instead of two, and Call of the Herd instead of Scab-Clan Mauler as it is more consistent and comes with a benefit (a second elephant) for a downside (2 colorless instead of one Red, three mana instead of two) in a deck that should pretty consistently deploy threats… even if it has one less two-mana creature in its lineup. One-drop, one-drop is just as good as a two-drop, after all.

Honorable Passage, for those not yet in the know, is the key means for surviving against Dragonstorm, redirecting five damage to their head instead of yours and perhaps buying another turn to use burn spells. (But probably not, because a Zoo deck is still likely to knock itself below fifteen just from its lands.) Also cute would be the tricksy Luminesce, preventing the twenty dealt by incoming Dragons, and the difference between the two should be worth learning… but in the meantime, Honorable Passage does a lot more against opposing Red decks, especially when used to save yourself or a creature from Char.

You will note most of these creatures do not die to a single Desert, with only Magus of the Scroll and Savannah Lions falling below the two-toughness high-water mark; Serrated Arrows takes too long for this deck to worry about it, and Shadow Guildmage is unlikely to survive long enough to really bother a Zoo deck (read: kill more than one creature) between Rift Bolt, Seal of Fire, and Lightning Helix. So squaring off against Desert-packing control decks doesn’t really scare Zoo, especially since it can afford to apply “the Philosophy of Fire” to its cards, just trying to get to 20 instead of keeping renewable resources in play.

Speaking of renewable resources, that is why you see Magus of the Scroll; Scroll-man seems perfect, and can contribute against long board-controllish games, though he all too often does nothing more than Mons’ Goblin Raiders… just without the tribal-happy creature type. If you want to play Zoo, Magus of the Scroll with twenty lands is very different from Magus of the Scroll with 22 lands, and I’m reasonably well-convinced that the extra two Lands are worth it, letting you make better use of Magus of the Scroll and Call of the Herd, both presumably excellent cards, both providing a form of renewable resources to a deck that is notoriously short of them.

… or, I could have just butchered a Zoo listing in front of you all, but I’m reasonably sure that between all of the reasons for going up to 22 lands at least some of them make sense given the environment seen so far.

Which brings me back to the deck I’ve been working on for States, even though I don’t have the ability to play that weekend: the little baby I keep trying to make hum. Various changes have been made, and more learned while testing… and strangely it’s one of the very rare two-color decks that can’t squeeze in the Desert.

This is an odd deck to play, especially since you would tend towards thinking of Stupor and Persecute as the core components of a discard deck, but instead we’re seemingly trading one card for one card with the opponent over and over again. There are a few elements for trading many-for-one, most notably Smallpox, and Cry of Contrition against an aggro deck is basically a house… especially if that leads you into the turn 1 Cry (haunting your man), turn 2 Smallpox draw. All it wants is the cheapest effects it can buy, and the most synergy it can squeeze out of its cards, like Ravenous Rats into Cry of Contrition followed up by Smallpox… you’ve spent a Rat, Cry, Smallpox, land, and miscellaneous card in your hand… and cost your opponent a land, and four cards in hand… you come out ahead if there is a creature for them to lose but otherwise just trade one-for-one to deny them early resources, lock them under the Rack and continually strip their resources.

It doesn’t look like much, but it does everything it does very cheaply, and it is very hard for the opponent to make plans with cards in their hand when twenty of your cards nibble at their hand continually… most, to some benefit: get a 1/1, get a 2/1 flier, get a second card, the broken symmetry of Smallpox (sacrificing Flagstones) with no creature in play versus an opponent with a critter. If you just keep trading one for one, with each effect, your opponent runs out of things to trade before you run out of resources to make them trade with, at which time they are locked under the Rack. Simple, effective, and geared to have some versatility, being good against even Akroma (Smallpox you) and packing enough creature removal to take out a dedicated aggressive deck.

Note something common across all of these decks so far? Everything seems to have either a Plains or an Island in it. If that’s true, the loss of Eye of Nowhere is not so troublesome as it could have been for the Magnivore deck, as in between the Nationals events in which it proved effective and now, Coldsnap has also appeared in the environment. And Cryoclasm has proven effective even in decks that don’t have Compulsive Research to discard it to usefully, which just begs the question: why haven’t we seen a Magnivore deck rear its head again? All the decks save Zoo and maybe U/G seem to have problems with it, and you can definitely work on those two if that happens to be your problem.

I found this list very aesthetically pleasing (to borrow a term from either Flores or Rosewater, and it’s hard to say which would be more frightening) before I realized there was no Pyroclasm in it. Borrowing the experience with Vore I am clearly lacking, and presuming that it doesn’t play out significantly differently despite the format shift, I looked to Steve Sadin first article here on StarCityGames.com, “Team Strategies and Playing Vore”, for a more finely-tuned list:

1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
7 Island
7 Mountain
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
4 Steam Vents
4 Shivan Reef

3 Magnivore
3 Wildfire
3 Mana Leak
1 Genju of the Spires
4 Sleight of Hand
4 Compulsive Research
4 Stone Rain
3 Tidings
3 Pyroclasm

4 Demolish
4 Eye of Nowhere

Time to make some changes. Oboro and Minamo are gone, and are replaced with Gemstone Caverns in my list; I’d really like to play around and figure out just how many first-turn Blue sources you need for Sleight of Hand to “always” work, and how different 15 and 16 of each color played out versus how crippling the Gemstone Caverns in play when on the draw is. (It would seem to me that this is definitely a deck that would be happy to “steal” the initiative of going first… and can dispose of useless ones via Compulsive Research.)

Mana Leak and the one Genju port over directly to Remand; Steve had to give over Remands for the teammate’s Heartbeat deck, and without Cranial Extraction in the environment the Genju slot is no longer needed. (There will also accidentally end up being a second win condition, attacking for twenty with Darwin, so it’s unnecessary for two reasons, not just one.) Eye of Nowhere becomes Boomerang, and curses its Sorcery status… but lives with it.

So it would seem that the Pyroclasms and one Tidings are how I bought the Cryoclasm / Avalanche Riders slots… and I’m not entirely sold on the idea that this is wrong, that’s what playtesting is for.

Check back next week, and please do comment in the forums to sound off on Vore with or without Pyroclasm. I’ve seen a lot of different strategies, many of which seem not to care about Pyroclasm anyway, and I’d be curious to hear just how critical a failure the lack of Pyroclasm seems in this environment. I see a lot of three-toughness creatures out of a bunch of decks, but I also see a lot of Birds and Elves begging for death, and plenty of decks like Solar Flare where Pyroclasm literally does nothing. Might Pyroclasm out of the sideboard be sufficiently functional as a metagame gamble? These are the thoughts that keep itinerant deckbuilders up at night.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com