Magical Hack – The Road To States, Part Three

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, November 7th – We currently face an unusual paradox, one that we reach every so often: with the mana of the Gods at our disposal if we want it, we can cast anything in the format at all… and when we are given the ability to cast anything at all in the format, we always end up wanting to cast the same damned cards over and over again.

Ah, Indecision ’08. From where I am writing, it is an interesting time to be looking out at the world, a Tuesday afternoon much like any other for this time of year, and some would say that the fate of the Free World hangs in the balance… some, that is, who have a very narrow worldview that somehow confuses them into believing that America is the entire Free World, as if in England we keep editors chained to the desk. (Oh wait, Craig, that part’s true, isn’t it?) Regardless of one’s personal politics, or who you’re rooting for in the election, we’re in a peculiar universe where we know the world will be much the same tomorrow, but the future will walk down one of two different paths, and we won’t know which until the end of the night.

This Schrodinger’s Universe is much like Magic right now; on the march to States, we see many paths before us. Not as many as some might like – Bennie Smith has stated that he’d prefer a wide-open format that didn’t require four copies of Cryptic Command in your deck, while Adrian Sullivan attests that regardless of your deck choice you need a good excuse not to be playing Cryptic Command. We have an unusual paradox, one that we reach every so often: with the mana of the Gods at our disposal if we want it, we can cast anything in the format at all… and when we are given the ability to cast anything at all in the format, we always end up wanting to cast the same damned cards over and over again. The cream rises to the top, and this provides some clear restraint on what is or is not “playable” or “competitive” in the format. Many options lie before us, depending on which results you wish to believe. Kithkin is the best deck, if you trust the New Jersey Open results from this past weekend… Faeries is the best deck, if you trust the SCG Cruise Qualifier results or the Neutral Ground 1st Anniversary $1k tournament… and Five-Color Control is the best deck, if you trust the Star City Games $5k results.

Outside of the Big Three, all now successfully ported over from Block Constructed and being played in reasonable numbers as their quality has been proven by blood and under fire, there are other reasonable options as well. Red Deck Wins, Demigod Red… whatever the name, the concept is something we know, and it is a lean, mean Faerie-slaughtering machine, if we are to believe what we are told. Bant Control is something that has a reasonable following, and has been known to have caught my interest as well; U/W or U/G/W Merfolk exists as well, as does U/W Reveillark. Stepping a little further off the radar, into decks that can’t play Cryptic Command (… or would have to bend their mana really hard to do so), we see the Jund-aligned colors of Red, Green and Black with a token-themed deck showing up in all sorts of places, and the Treefolk trio of Green, Black and White occasionally capture the imagination and cast Doran, the Siege Tower in a mid-range-ish aggro-control strategy.

Indecision ’08. The only thing I know for sure, after this weekend’s results, is that we are going to see one of the following two changes in Extended on December 1st, effective January 1st: either Sensei’s Divining Top is going to be unbanned, Glimpse of Nature (?) is going to be banned to try and kneecap the Elf deck back into a merely ‘fair’ concoction, or possibly both of these things. I feel “both” is very unlikely, but remotely possible… especially because I see Glimpse of Nature being removed as a natural response to Elf-Ball dominance at the most recent Extended Pro Tour, to try and handicap the clear best deck of the format and make for a fun format instead of a stupid turn-three-kill combo format, but don’t necessarily see that as a solid argument for letting Sensei’s Divining Top back into the format to work with Counterbalance at containing the deck they are trying to kill.

Looking in on a variety of things, I set myself to ask a few questions, like “if all we’re getting out of Richard Feldman‘s alliance to Merfolk is a free card off Silvergill Adept, why are we still playing Merfolk in our deck” and “if I were going to play Faeries, what would my deck look like”? Richard Feldman has been working on U/W Merfolk for some time now, making good progress forward with the deck’s design to carve out an archetypal niche for himself in this seemingly imbalanced metagame. He’s shucked off the need to play basic lands in his Merfolk deck to support Windbrisk Heights in an aggro-control strategy; the next question is, what happens if he goes further and shucks off the Tribal focus?

Already, Richard’s creature base has expanded to include non-Merfolk such as Sower of Temptation and (more recently) Knight of Meadowgrain. Having Merfolk (well, Merfolk Wizards) in his deck gives him the following benefits:

1. The ability to play Wanderwine Hub consistently as a dual land.
2. A free card off of every Sage’s Dousing.
3. A free card off of Silvergill Adept.
4. A high power-level on his copies of Sygg, River Guide.

Some of these effects might remain – for example, Sygg might still be good with ‘just’ himself, Mutavault, and Wake Thrasher to work with, and Sage’s Dousing might still draw a card often enough without Silvergill Adept or Stonybrook Banneret in his deck. But building the deck with creatures to fit a mana curve, rather than to fill a tribal requirement, we can see some pretty different things:

Conceptually, we trade some creatures that could never win a fight against a Bitterblossom for some creatures that are not only great against Faeries but also rock-solid against Kitchen Finks, meaning the weakest creature we now have against a Kitchen Finks is our own Kitchen Finks. Besides our own Kitchen Finks we have a bunch of first-striking two-drops, Sygg (who protects himself AND Islandwalks), Sowers that fly over him, and Wake Thrashers who force him to chump-block. I guess Mutavault’s not too happy about an opposing Finks, but the point remains that we swap easily-contained Merfolk for 2/1 Shrouded First Strikers, and the main arguments against this switch are the loss of Wanderwine Hub and that we draw cards a little less frequently. The added “oomph” of that card-draw may very well come packed in with the creature we’re replacing Silvergill Adept with, because unlike the Adept it doesn’t die to everything.

Likewise, I’ve been finding Ben Peebles-Mundy has a reasonable argument for at least considering Reveillark in the current format, even though I think my results so far have borne the idea that if I want to beat Kithkin, lose to Faeries, and fight for position against Five-Color Control I should just be playing Five-Color Control myself. Conceptually I like the decklist he offered here, which I will now re-post for you here with the shameless reminder that if you want to see these things perhaps prior to the day before the big tournament you’ve been gearing up for, a subscription to Star City Premium will let you see these things when the Premium authors publish their articles, not merely when I see fit to notify you that potential metagame shifts are in the air and you should be aware of them.

I think this decklist has one key issue I disagree with: the missing fourth Kitchen Finks. It has a position I am not sure I am comfortable with, being a largely-creature-based deck with very little ability to interact with its opponents’ spells or even to mitigate the impact of them besides recovering from them with Reveillark, so I find I would take a different tack on the deck entirely: adding Negate to the starting roster, to combat Cryptic Commands and the expensive-but-powerful cards that resolve unhindered in the Five-Color Control matchup like Cruel Revival or Mind Shatter, and adjusting the creature base slightly because Kitchen Finks should be a four-of, and I find Knight-Captain of Eos to be too valuable to not play four of him as well. Mistmeadow Witch can bite me for all I care; I’ve heard it said that friends don’t let friends play Mistmeadow Witch in Constructed, and this is something that sounds innately right to me.

4 Mind Stone
4 Wrath of God
4 Negate
3 Tidings

4 Reveillark
4 Sower of Temptation
4 Mulldrifter
4 Kitchen Finks
3 Knight-Captain of Eos
2 Mirror Entity

I fear the deck is still a bit more vulnerable to Mistbind Cliques than I would like, but at least it’s better geared to answering the Bitterblossom question that was not even being addressed beforehand, because now you at least have the option between a creature, Mind Stone, and keeping up for Negate on turn two, where before it would just be to say “aw, shucks” and hope it didn’t bite you in the ass. Mistbind Clique is great, sure, but a single copy won’t kill you, while the same is not true of Cryptic Command (that’s what it DOES!) or Bitterblossom (Ditto). While Peebles espouses the belief that countermagic is bad in Reveillark, I remain certain that cheap countermagic that defends your board and your spells is worthy of consideration… just don’t over-consider and somehow trick yourself into suddenly thinking this is a permission deck, and keep up mana every turn when you’re supposed to be playing a tap-out control deck.

And then there is Five-Color Control. Some might say that it’s the best deck in the room, and recent trends in tournaments have certainly been supporting this belief on the overall populace, as it continues to be the most-represented archetype in the room… bad news for Kithkin, overall, but great news for decks like Faeries and UW Merfolk that want to be able to rely on someone else beating the Kithkin decks so they don’t face them round after round after round. In looking at Five-Color Control I find I am more of the GerryT school of thought, which is to say you’ll only find me casting Cruel Ultimatum on the MTGO Shards of Alara draft queues… and even then, not until they’ve fixed the Skeletonize bug, because I am growing weary of being booted from tournaments and having to wait for refunds because my opponent didn’t read the Adept’s announcements every two minutes or so. I think what Five-Color Control really needs is less expensive cards and more cheap ones to make sure you don’t get out-tempoed in the early game, and so I look for things like Condemn and Broken Ambitions to supplement my deck’s propensity for playing expensive multicolored things.

I would also try to shy away from too many Vivid lands, not going above 12 and looking awfully hard at that twelfth Vivid land as well, with 26 as my minimum number of lands I was willing to play. I don’t consider Five-Color Control to be an option for me, given the high number of players that I know will be focusing on the deck in my area and the fact that it is very difficult to gain a clear advantage just from deck technology thanks to the high learning curve Internet-based decklists have given everyone playing the deck by now; States is traditionally thought of as an aggro-heavy metagame up until Round 1 starts and we all realize we lied to ourselves again this year, and that means that there will be few decks for me to prey upon with Five-Color Control and lots of mirror matches that may be decided more by luck of the draw than by superior playskill… while I’m better than most of the opponents I can expect to face in a mirror match at NY’s State Championships, I’m not “GerryT Better” than them, not even close, so I aim to point my deck at the Five-Color Control matchup rather than win it by sheer mastery.

That said, I think an interesting argument can be made for a Five-Color Doran deck, hearkening back to Richard Feldman “Triple Tribe” deck from Block Constructed; while Flooded Grove doesn’t help cast Doran on turn 3 and Murmuring Bosk can be problematic for casting Cryptic Command when drawn in multiples, I think the “Vivid Lands Plus Reflecting Pool” manabase has to be worth considering as the basis for an aggressive deck as well as a controlling one, and the secret is merely to find what that deck is and to try and play it. Doran + Cryptic Command sounds AWESOME, after all, and perhaps some innovation into such a list might create a new and different Five-Color archetype: one that has solid potential as a disruptive beatdown machine, but can also answer aggressive creature decks with the tempo-stealing Cryptic Command backing up its threats. Looking into this concept we can see a more proactive “control” concept, with Thoughtseize, Tidehollow Sculler, and Vendilion Clique where the more “mainstream” Five-Color Control deck plays countermagic, letting us mesh some of what I like about the current Faeries decks (with Thoughtseize, Esper Charm and Vendilion Clique getting me excited at the prospect of destroying my opponent’s hand) with the aggressive power that Green’s creatures have as a matter of course.

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Murmuring Bosk
4 Vivid Grove
4 Vivid Marsh
4 Vivid Creek
4 Flooded Grove
1 Treetop Village

4 Thoughtseize
4 Cryptic Command
4 Nameless Inversion
2 Unmake

4 Tidehollow Sculler
4 Doran, the Siege Tower
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Chameleon Colossus
3 Vendilion Clique
2 Sower of Temptation

While only a rough draft, I think it is conceptually sound; it can sideboard Infest as a well-aimed Wrath effect against either Kith or Fae alike, or just actual Wraths if it prefers, to lose some of the discard element for more board control when that is the proper response. It can face Five-Color Control head-on with some of the things it doesn’t like, namely discard backed up by a significant clock, and points itself squarely at the Fae by attacking their Bitterblossom hands with Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler (though admittedly it does so poorly on the draw) and beating down with ZOMGMONSTERS! like Doran and the seemingly-forgotten Chameleon Colossus, all while playing its own Cryptic Commands so the opponent can’t capitalize too heavily on the power of their own Commands. If this list isn’t tuned enough for States, it’s because the idea is slow to appear (and people have told me I can’t play Flooded Groves in a Doran deck, not even when every other land in the deck actually helps towards casting Doran) and is unusual enough that it only starts to make sense when you have a clear-cut metagame to point it at.

Last but far from least we have the Fae, and people have asked me “if I were to play Faeries, what I would want my deck to look like.” I’m a dissenter on the topic of Jace Beleren, because it’s weak in the mirror and the deck is already chock full of things that are great against Five-Color Control… I mean, you pick the deck BECAUSE it’s good against Five-Color Control, you don’t try to cram in Jace Beleren to MAKE Faeries good against Five-Color Control. Pointing at a heavily control-oriented metagame, I start to want man-lands and Thoughtseizes, so my love for Esper Charm is overcome by the fact that I want to be able to play Mutavault and Faerie Conclave as well, so if I really want to “take advantage of a Five-Color Control metagame” I should be reaching for the Thoughtseizes, not Jace Beleren. But then my perspective in this is, as in many things, a little unusual. While I’ll still gladly play Jace Beleren somewhere… we can’t have all those useless Agony Warps in the deck after sideboarding, after all… it’s not a question I look at for the main-deck, as I’d prefer to look at the Five-Color/Faeries portion of the metagame and focus only on what matters. Jace doesn’t matter in the mirror because it is easily answered by Bitterblossom and flying Faeries, and so it is only good if you already have the advantage in these things. Thoughtseize gains you the advantage in these things, and thus is more critical. Jace doesn’t matter against Five-Color Control because that matchup is lopsided in your favor anyway, so you shouldn’t be stacking your deck full of cards that are “just” good against Five-Color Control, seeking to win the mirror and stand up against beatdown decks while you’re at it. Thankfully, Faeries likes it when you do these things and dislikes when you play sorcery-speed stuff like Jace Beleren, so the deck gets to be designed to be the most like itself as you can make it be, even if in a vacuum Jace is pretty awesome.

How Jace breathes in a vacuum mystifies me, but I don’t criticize Planeswalkers where they can hear me, so.

4 Faerie Conclave
4 Mutavault
4 Secluded Glen
4 Underground River
4 Sunken Ruins
4 Island
2 Swamp

4 Thoughtseize
4 Agony Warp
4 Bitterblossom
4 Cryptic Command
3 Broken Ambitions

4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Scion of Oona
4 Mistbind Clique
3 Vendilion Clique

4 Infest
4 Negate
4 Sower of Temptation
3 Jace Beleren

This list is probably over-simplified, because I haven’t given honest consideration to playing Faeries and thus have not been mashing my Faeries deck up against the format to figure out if it’s the right deck to play for Saturday. While a lot of things can go right playing Faeries in this metagame, it’s just as likely that a lot of things can go wrong, like playing the Red deck in the early rounds of the tournament and going home early. While it’s my feeling that Faeries is an excellent choice for the weekend, I can’t help but notice that a goodly number of very clever people are lining up in support of the Five-Color Control archetype, and it’s possible that they know something more than I do about the format. If the format is as narrow as it appears to be with the Top 8 lists that have been made available this past week, the most recent of which is the NJ Open Results, then by all means Faeries is a good choice… but if the metagame is wider than it appears to be, Five-Color Control wins out on the merit that it is the best deck to play against any deck in the format, just not against Faeries.

To get a pretty representative look of What Is Going On in the most recent sizable tournament before States, I requested a deck breakdown of the NJ Open, a 75-person tournament held this past weekend which was ultimately won by a Kithkin deck… not something I would have predicted, from the initial tournament composition. The decks played broke down as follows:

Five-Color Control – 16 Players
Faeries – 9 Players
Kithkin – 6 Players
Doran – 5 Players
Red Deck Wins – 5 Players

Everything Else – 34 Players

The ‘rogue’ category of Everything Else included: three Bant decks (one aggro, two control), two B/G mid-range decks, three B/W decks (one aggro, one control, and one focusing on Reveillark interactions), one U/W/B Control deck (perhaps like the “Solar Flare” list Chapin advocated in Lorwyn Block Constructed briefly before moving on to Justice Toast), a G/W Aggro deck, two Merfolk decks, a mono-Green Treefolk deck, a mono-White Cradle of Vitality deck, one R/G/B Tokens deck, three R/B decks (one heavily focused on burn, one on Goblins, and one more of a mid-range strategy), and one R/G/B mid-range deck. It also included two Reveillark decks, one Rogues deck, five R/G/W decks (two Aggro, one focusing on Mayael interactions, one mid-range deck and one heavily focusing on casting Planeswalkers – probably similar to the deck seen at the Last Chance Qualifiers, which you can find here as “Fellowship of the Ring”), a Red-White Aggro deck, an U/B/R Mannequin deck, a U/G Aggro deck, two U/W Kithkin decks, an Ajani Vengeant-based control deck, and a U/W Tezzeret-based “Turbo Fog”-ish deck.

That’s a lot of “wide open metagame” represented there, but ultimately how did they fare? The Top 8 results included just one of those 34 “Other” decks, the Rogues deck, and showed that the main decks in the spotlight were the ones that did well. One point you can take home for sure, though, is that 20% of the people in the tournament played Five-Color Control… and I think that number is very small for what you can expect to see at States, as I’d expect no less than 25% of the room to be playing it and as much as 40% of the room to sleeve up Vivid lands and Cruel Ultimatums. “The Rest” didn’t fare very well at all, vanishing from sight over multiple rounds as they bashed up against the “real decks” and disappeared beneath the murky waves, and that sadly suggests that this States metagame is nowhere near wide open, even if it isn’t locked down closed either.

So consider your options carefully if you are going to stray from the norm, and remember one simple fact: if it works, you’ll be hailed as an innovator… but the odds are against you this time, and while States is usually a prime time for key innovations in the Standard metagame, this Standard metagame has a hefty weight of experience behind it as it seems Lorwyn Block cards (and the Lorwyn Block Constructed decks) are currently outweighing the Shards of Alara cards, and while there are key cards of interest in Tenth Edition that make things a little more interesting, Tenth Edition might as well be just painlands and Wrath of God as far as most of the decks you’ll see Saturday are concerned.

Perhaps you are a genius, and your work crafting a new deck for the format will be rewarded. If so, it’ll be a breath of fresh air… but barring genius, the metagame is well-defined and doesn’t reward going against the grain. It is, however, reasonably well-known, and thus subject to attack… so long as that attack can be mounted by a deck that is otherwise internally consistent, i.e. “chosen from among the known portions of the metagame”. It is also subject to local variances, I’d imagine… if New York State is heavy control but Wisconsin is heavy on the beatdown, The Solution is going to be different for each of these areas, and thus it will take local knowledge of the area metagame to make an informed decision. I can’t offer you advice as to which deck to play, because I don’t know your metagame – I can only advise that you pick a good one, if you want to do well, and pick it based on what you know of how your particular State Championships is going to look. No one can offer you any better advice than that, and those who claim they can from a distance are fools, liars, or both.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com