Magical Hack – The Road To States, Part I

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Friday, October 17th – The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but the road to States is littered with decklists. Some are good, some are bad, and I’m sure that things will begin to change as more strategies are tried out and things begin to hone in towards the razor-sharp edge of good technology.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but the road to States is littered with decklists. Some are good, some are bad, and I’m sure that things will begin to change as more strategies are tried out and things begin to hone in towards the razor-sharp edge of good technology… for example, Star City Games tournament champion-for-eternity Chris Woltereck was casting Cruel Ultimatum backed by Patrick Chapin say-so, but just recently Gerry Thompson said don’t bother, play more early-game cards instead of seven-mana win-more blowouts. Dissenting opinions abound in an early-forming metagame such as we see each year before States, and metagame development goes from the supposed “small metagame” we see at first blush to include a wide variety of decks; around this time last year, we wouldn’t even have expected the deck that performed well at States based off this awful “Makeshift Mannequin” card, never mind Chapin’s Dragonstorm deck that nearly won the World Championships playing in the same format. The road to States here on Magical Hack, then, will try to focus on new innovations as the metagame develops, so this week we’re going to look at the first results with decklists published anywhere, and sift through the Star City Games tournament results for this past weekend’s Cruise Qualifier.

In last week’s article, I discussed the changes we saw at the Shards of Alara prerelease, and where I think we should go from here to effect positive changes from here on out to address the negativity many people feel while still keeping the positive improvements this wider approach gives us. Oh, right, that got cancelled last-minute because mine was about the third or fourth article that week on the subject. D’oh. It stinks batting clean-up some weeks, and I’ve submitted such an article twice now after learning from my first submission that the “facts” I had were either lies, damned lies, or statistics, your choice. So rather than attempt the three-peat, submitting it again and have another unpublished Magical Hack*, we’re knuckling down to business: it’s time to sort through some decklists.

It’s always troubling when Faeries wins the first event of a protracted season. But thanks to some of the highly sought-after Gold cards in Shards of Alara, we have a competitive “linear” that challenges the “tribal” linear’s dominance over Standard, because while Faeries can have Bitterblossom working to its maximum potential, some other decks I’ve seen are casting Cruel Ultimatum, Esper Charm, and Rhox War Monk and trying to restrain themselves from the subsequent giggle fits. One of the most defining cards of the last Block Constructed season, Mutavault, saw twelve copies played among the Top 16 decks at this past weekend’s Star City Games event, less than one per player where before it had been downright ubiquitous.

Let’s look at these gosh-darn Faeries, and see what’s going on. You betcha!

Winner — Tim Furrow
11th Place — Christopher Barfield
14th Place — Troy Doyle

The Ubiquitous:
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Bitterblossom
4 Cryptic Command
2 Vendilion Clique

Two Out Of Three:
4 Thoughtseize
4 Broken Ambitions
3 Esper Charm

Just One Deck Only:
1 Loxodon Warhammer
4 Scion of Oona
4 Agony Warp
+1 Esper Charm
3 Stillmoon Cavalier
4 Condemn
1 Sower of Temptation
+2 Vendilion Clique
4 Remove Soul
4 Terror
2 Negate

The land bases you can see follow the individual choices and varied greatly. Decks with Esper Charm played three-color manabases, one with Mutavaults and one with Faerie Conclave instead, and the one deck that stuck to two colors played Mutavaults and three Faerie Conclaves besides. One played 26 lands, another 25, another 24, with little variation (such as, say, Ponder) to justify the low land count or the high one for that matter. I’d have expected the seven-manland deck to be the one with the most lands, but it was the winner with 26 lands but only four man-lands that topped that figure.

The interesting question, I guess, is what does Esper Charm add to the Faerie deck. For three mana at instant speed, it’s two-thirds of the rush that Ancestral Vision brought to the Faeries deck, and let me tell you as a diehard fanatic of Mulldrifter in Faeries this past PTQ season, I am all the more excited by the prospect of playing something a lot like it at instant speed in the deck. Esper Charm also has two other abilities, “kill Bitterblossom” and “Mind Rot you,” and three awesome choices at instant speed instead of a draw-two spell that trips over the rest of your deck by being a Sorcery just has to be amazing. While I expect a lot of people are saying Faeries is dead because it doesn’t have Ancestral Vision, I’d note that it might just have enough of an Ancestral Vision to still be well worth looking into, and if you don’t dip any deeper into the Esper shard then you’re still doing just fine.

Looking into what was doing well between these three decks, we see 8 Thoughtseizes, 8 Vendilion Cliques, and 7 Esper Charms. I suspect this is somewhere along the right approach, providing a potentially crippling amount if discard as disruption… every deck had at least two Vendilion Cliques, and I start to get excited when I get to thinking about Cliques and Thoughtseizes and Esper Charm to kill the rest of their hand instead of ‘just’ drawing two cards. While no deck peaked higher than nine such effects in the same deck, I start tuning the deck again and write “4 Esper Charm, 4 Thoughtseize, 3 Vendilion Clique” and get really, really excited. Maybe Faeries isn’t the most imaginative deck out there, but with access to Infest now after sideboarding I think it can possibly put up a credible threat to the aggro decks of the format and trounce all the control decks in the room.

I’m sure we all look forward to the wildly interesting all-Faeries metagame that this one small win threatens to tip over uncontrollably as would-be winners follow in Mr. Furrow’s footsteps. I for one welcome our pint-sized overlords.

Meanwhile, much ado has been made about not just a Faeries win kicking off the States speculation season but also about Reflecting Pool Control decks. Whether it is Richard Feldman looking at “Reflecting Cruel Control” or Mike FloresTop Decks: Cruising For A Blue Again (on the Mothership, where he is no-longer-swimming-with-sharks-but-not-quite-swimming-with-minnows-yet-either, if you can navigate the new website well enough to find the craftily-hidden buttons that let you actually find web content), there’s quite a buzz about Vivid Lands and the wild abandonment of color discipline right on time for a new expansion with cards that cost UUBBBRR.

Four of the five copies of Reflecting Pool Control to make the “cut to significance” played Cruel Revival, with the fifth dissenting to try and keep more closely to GerryT’s Grand Prix-winning Justice Toast list in a world with new dual lands and Wrath of God suddenly at our disposal. Rather than straighten them up and compare all the details, because there are more moving parts than with the more ‘linear’ Faeries deck, the lists can be found here:

2nd Place — Chris Woltereck
3rd Place — Joseph Keaveny
7th Place — Ali Aintrazi
9th Place — Josh Cope
15th Place — Chris Wallace

About the only thing locked into place in these decks is 4 Kitchen Finks, 4 Mulldrifter, 4 Cryptic Command and 4 (okay, I lied, minimum three) Wrath of God. Charms saw heavy use (Bant and Esper), Ajani Vengeant seemed to make an appearance in a few lists that raises eyebrows but makes sense if you know your old-school Prison history: Icy Manipulator is good with Wrath of God. Cruel Ultimatum is a two-of in these lists, save for the one dissenter who hewed to the Block GP list as his starting point and didn’t get cute casting things for UUBBBRR… but evidence is not yet in to suggest it really makes or breaks the deck, since GerryT would rather cast threes that are always good than sevens that win the game when you cast them. Getting to seven and being able to still cast spells is kind of like winning the game for Five-Color Control decks anyway, so current thought is that maybe, just maybe, this is a “win-more” sort of card.

We’ve seen a lot of Five-Color Control the past few months, and if this is a recurring trend then you can expect it to be quite popular as the format develops in a variety of iterations in upcoming weeks. My curious thought is whether the deck will adapt to add Rhox War Monk to its starting lineup alongside Kitchen Finks, as I found that quite a potent tag-team in my “Bant Shardly Wait” experimenting and would figure that five-color decks could easily afford UGW on turn 3 just by their inherent nature. Reflecting Pool Control decks are already poised to crush beatdown decks, sure, but swapping one anti-beatdown card for the anti-beatdown pancake-flipper du jour would also help maximize the draws that actually beat Faeries and other control decks, the ones where you plant boots on the ground on turn 3 and start attacking for three.

Looking at “anything but,” it’s hard to escape Cryptic Command decks. They’re everywhere, after all, and while Mutavaults have dropped astoundingly in their presence nowadays, the lack of color discipline has made the triple-Blue Command even more common if that’s at all possible. We see there are some non-Cryptic Command decks, but they are almost an oddity: a Rock deck with Quillspike combo thrown in for good measure, a Red-Black Aggro deck playing Blightning for its mix of damage and disruption, the Red Deck Wins version perhaps foretold in my official preview for Shards of Alara a few weeks back., the quirky White Weenie deck packing Painter’s Servant and Chaotic Backlash as a rude surprise to end the game with, and something quite interesting: a four-color Mono-White Control deck that, well let’s be honest, could probably have stretched just a little bit more and fit in Cryptic Command too.

For those who don’t want to invest what is rapidly nearing $100 on a playset of Cryptic Commands, there are at least some options open… but with color discipline right out the window nowadays and the absurdly high power level of the card that has been proven in tournament play, I’d suggest that “building a good deck without Cryptic Command” is going to be an even tighter restriction than “building a good deck on a budget,” so it might be time to look into acquiring the ‘Blue Wrath of God,’ as Evan Erwin amusingly calls it. At least now there is a new way to get Cryptics besides donating organs or kissing loved ones goodbye: play twenty tournaments and you’ll get one thanks to Wizards! More interestingly, note the $30 price tag on this bad-boy foil promo and you have to look again at playing small free sanctioned tournaments: at $30 for each 20 played, it’s like Wizards is paying you $1.50 every time you sit down and play a tournament, even before accounting for the other textless promos you’d pick up!

But if you’re not stubbornly refusing to get Cryptic Commands, you can look at the other 11 of the Top 16 decks. Two stand out as very interesting to me and worthy of further consideration, enough so to discuss them from here on out rather than snarkily include links like I did for the Reflecting Cruel decks and those wacky people who try to live in a world where Cryptic Command is not King. Those two are as follows:

Reveillark is a concept we’ve seen in two very different forms the past few months, so seeing this twist is worthy of attention. One is the old Standard deck that we knew was great but didn’t really beat Faeries, which could sometimes just sometimes go infinite and return all your permanents to your hand while gaining infinite life and drawing infinite cards, and the other is the Block Constructed deck that actually used Reveillark to its maximum in that limited format (buying back Mulldrifters and Rage Forger) instead of utilizing it incidentally (buying back Knights of Meadowgrain because Reveillark just happens to be powerful and White). This deck looks a good deal more like Chapin’s “Solar Flare” Block Constructed deck, which appeared for a moment on the Block radar only to be eclipsed soon thereafter by Reflecting Pool Control decks, and follows perhaps in the footsteps of where Reveillark decks were going circa the end of the Nationals season: no combo, just good cards that gain powerful advantages when working together.

Reveillark and Sower of Temptation is a beating, and there should be no surprise seeing Fulminator Mage and Mulldrifter in a dedicated Reveillark deck. But seeing Nekrataal and Tidehollow Sculler working alongside Reveillark is interesting, the former because I had believed that no one in the world even remembered that Nekrataal was in Tenth Edition when they could play Shriekmaw instead, and the latter because it adds a cheap disruptive element to the deck. Again we see “creature that steals a card from the opponent” and “Esper Charm” in the same deck, so again I have to assume that maximizing some of these elements will have to make it better, because more discard working together makes each discard effect more effective (and thus less random, it’s working as part of the plan).

I believe very strongly that within this list there is the core of a good Standard deck waiting to get out, a statement which amusingly reminds me of a T-shirt (but I’m just distracting myself and dragging you along for the ride). I find I look and disagree mostly about numbers and positioning rather than individual card choices, like wanting to fix the manabase and wanting the fourth copies of Wrath and Reveillark, not saying “No, really, do I have to play Nekrataal?” With further development (and at least one major event that will be publicly seen before States, the Star City Games $5k Standard Open in just over one week’s time) I’d expect to see a solid showing from decks of this sort, because they really tend to beat up on more dedicated control decks while holding their own against aggro decks, so much like Five-Color Control decks they may be looking around to check the density of Faeries in the room before sleeving up for the day.

It’s kind of sad that once again we have to consider the Fae first and foremost, but something has to be the best deck that drives the rest of the metagame.

And then there was just one last thing to look at…

Again, there’s a kernel of a good deck in here waiting to be further honed, and we can’t just shut it up with cookies. One thing, and one thing only, does this deck do wrong: it breaks the cardinal sin of how to build a winning Merfolk deck, since it can’t even guarantee that it beats up on the control decks.

When properly positioning a Merfolk deck, you have to start your curve early, not hang around waiting to deploy four-drops like (admittedly, singleton) Glen Elendra Archmage or sixes like Oona. Worse yet, this deck is so heavily staggered at four that it suffers the same sort of randomness-of-draws that plagues Faeries, as your awesome draws are going to come when you get a Stonybrook Banneret, and your mediocre draws when you do not. But we can rebuild it… we have the technology.

Dipping into the wealth of previous experience with Merfolk strategies, I don’t even mind not having Merrow Reejerey in there… but get me some Cursecatchers in here, stat!

4 Cursecatcher
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Chameleon Colossus
2 Sygg, River Guide
2 Sower of Temptation

4 Bant Charm
4 Cryptic Command
4 Sage’s Dousing
4 Ponder

4 Island
4 Seaside Citadel
4 Wanderwine Hub
4 Flooded Grove
3 Adarkar Wastes
3 Yavimaya Coast
2 Mystic Gate

It’s a first draft, as you can clearly see by its first-approximation manabase and numbers that haven’t yet been tweaked and tuned to play right with each other… and it doesn’t try to cast five colors of spells, limiting itself to a ‘mere’ three, and swaps Nameless Inversion for Bant Charm as experience says it’s one of the best pinpoint creature removal spells in the format. As a concept it accepts that it will do something productive on turn 1 (Ponder, Cursecatcher) and 2 (Banneret, Adept, Sygg) and thus its spells don’t come online until turn 3, at which point you can be all reactive with Dousings, Charms, or skip the tricksy plans and go right for the jugular with Chameleon Colossus if you’ve drawn the Banneret. Which, you know, you’ll do more often on turn 2 if you have Ponder in your deck.

I think the idea that you need Firespout in what is basically a small creature deck is the danger of cool things, and in my playing around so far I’ve found that three colors of Merfolk was excellent… so why play Vivid lands and go crazy when you can just play cheap guys and start casting Dismisses? Is Nameless Inversion really worth having Black mana for? Do you even want Firespout in your deck, never mind Red mana, when you could choose Wrath of God instead? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

These and many more questions, perhaps answered next week. Neutral Ground in New York City is hosting a $1k Standard tournament to celebrate their one-year anniversary at their new location on 37th Street in Manhattan, and my plan of action is to return to you next week with an analysis, possibly decklists, and perhaps a play-by-play of seeing “Bant Shardly Wait” in action.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

* Sure, it didn’t get published last week in my usual weekly time-slot, but I suspect if you look around the Internet you can find it somewhere. It’ll be a yawn after the excitement of Banned Book Week, though!