Magical Hack: The Road to States

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Having looked almost exclusively at Limited for the past month, Sean turns his analytical eye towards the Standard metagame. He posits an excellent, logical process for determining what cards will be strong in the new format, and presents a number of interesting decklists to test and tweak.

Having looked almost exclusively at Limited for the past month, many of the very basic lessons for Sealed Deck play have been thoroughly validated: keep your eye on your mana curve and build your best deck instead of just use your best cards, and keep your eye constantly on the speed at which your deck will develop and the cards or synergies you can best use to gain the necessary tempo required. A lot of authors, on this site and others, have been going into greater detail as to how to build a Sealed Deck, and we’ll be touching up on that again in a week when we’ve gotten the concrete information that can be gleaned from this weekend’s Grand Prix in Sydney, Australia. In the meantime, with nothing concrete to work with as far as actual results and information are concerned, this week’s article is going to focus on how to go about building a deck (and figuring out the metagame) for the upcoming State and Provincial Championships.

Time Spiral is an amazingly large set; perhaps you have noticed. It is also one that is chock-full of color-pie-blurring cards, as we now have good White, Blue, and Green cards that can deal damage directly to a player while circumventing the attack phase (Icatian Javelineers, Psionic Blast, and Squall Line, respectively), Red card drawing (Browbeat and Wheel of Fate), all sorts of unusual things. And many of these cards may interact in interesting ways, ways we have not yet even begun to imagine. But at the start of a season that is begun by a massive rotation, it is the prior sets that give us the bedrock upon which everything else is built, and so it is Ravnica Block and its little friend Coldsnap that will inevitably give us a starting-point for drawing up new deck ideas. In some ways, we could start strictly with the old, using pre-rotation Standard decks and Ravnica Block Constructed decks as our skeleton, and then pigeon-holing new cards into these old builds as appropriate. The puzzle seems too big for that, however… knowledge of the old will be useful, but not necessarily telling, and reading Joshua X. Claytor’s The Great Champs Experiment articles so far have threatened to give me an aneurysm.

Instead of latching onto that starting-point, logical as it may be, I instead think that starting with the themes overarching all Ravnica Block decks will be the right place to start. Instead of trying to start with different guild builds to get ten distinct two-color decks and different tri-colored builds to see what ten three-color-combination decks we can build… we can instead start with the innocuous fact that each of the ten Ravnica Block dual lands, each so good that they are an automatic four-of in any deck of just their two colors, have the sub-types of the lands that they are the combined versions of. Building upon the themes and best options of that set of cards, then, will be a good way to look at Time Spiral’s cards… and the multi-colored preponderance of Ravnica Block puts the most weight on all of this, as it should be.

In Time Spiral, we see that there are four cards capable of searching up cards with a basic land’s subtype that don’t require searching for the Basic Land supertype. All are cards that are likely to have more powerful interactions when placed in the context of the City of Guilds, and all four such cards we see in Time Spiral are likely to be considered playables in the impending format. Those four cards, separated from the pool of 402 cards entering Standard via Time Spiral, really get the creative juices flowing:

Flagstones of Trokair
Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
Twisted Abomination
Yavimaya Dryad

Mwonvuli Acid-Moss is an over-costed Stone Rain, it’s true, but it would have to be an excellent card in a war of resource attrition: it puts the opponent back one turn in their resource development, and puts you forward one turn in your resource development, a net swing of two turns of mana advantage. This doesn’t sound like so much of a much, when your fourth turn has to be spent for that advantage, and it’s true in a vacuum… in Limited, this card is merely “good” if cast on your fourth turn, and not even very good then unless you are a) not under early pressure from the opponent, or b) actively taking advantage of the acceleration bumping you directly from four to six. Taken in context, however, it’s a resource-building Stone Rain supplement that can fit in alongside Stone Rain, Cryoclasm, Avalanche Riders, and most importantly Wildfire… the “six-drop” that this can accelerate you to for the most dramatic effect.

Similarly, Yavimaya Dryad is also rock-solid, gaining a point of power and the evasion of Forestwalking in exchange for the land you are fetching with your Wood Elf coming into play tapped. Pure card advantage is solid, and this will be playable in Standard where Civic Wayfinder is not, as it accelerates as it fetches… and both the Dryad and Acid Moss can fetch non-basic Forests, getting your choice of Overgrown Tomb, Temple Garden, Stomping Grounds or Breeding Pool… perhaps all four, in the right deck.

Also important is that both work well together, providing more lands in play and working with your mana curve to develop into each other; Yavimaya Dryad finds the fourth land to cast your Acid-Moss, which finds your fifth land to do who-knows-what from there. Going through the past to look at the context of where Land Destruction decks have come across well before, we’ll see rather a few good decks: Trinity Green, “Stupid Green Deck”, Legion Land Loss… and those are just the mono-Green concoctions, that aren’t dipping into a second color to work with a critical mass of land-denial cards. Going to Green/Red, we then see a lot of decks, casting LD spells from Ice Storm to Plow Under. What intrigues me most, however, in our travels backward through time to old familiar friends is a little-known deck that brought me some success in Urza’s Block Constructed, haven as it was of broken cards and over-powered turns, a deck affectionately called by its creator “Bad.dec”.

4 Exploration
4 Yavimaya Elder
4 Yavimaya Granger
4 Albino Troll
4 Avalanche Riders
4 Crater Hellion
4 Wildfire
2 Fault Line
2 Wake of Destruction
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Treetop Village
13 Forest
7 Mountain

This is of course a fudging of the numbers… I’m not even sure that looking around on the Dojo on the Wayback Machine will find me the tournament report I wrote when I happened to make the Top Eight with a similar deck, my version playing Crop Rotation as a tricksy card when decks of this stripe started to pick up in popularity, and helping to justify it by playing an Island and Phyrexian Tower to Rotate into, letting me sideboard Arcane Laboratory and expect to find it in time to shut down the Bargain combo deck, or just Rotating up the legendary Tower to deny the opponent a sacrifice outlet for his Academy Rector.

The philosophy of that deck was mana-ramping, incremental card advantage, and developing a powerful position while denying the opponent the resources to play the game. And some of those same friends are back now to play again, with a better Yavimaya Granger and no hope of Yavimaya Elder, but Avalanche Riders and Wildfire among its supporting cast.

Yes, throwing away Birds and Elves to your Wildfire seems unwieldy, but mana acceleration is a necessary thing and the point of Wildfire is to leave your opponent with nothing while you yourself have something. In some ways this is related to the Skred-packing KarstenBot BabyKiller that Mike Flores and/or Frank Karsten created, but in the land of resource-denial, it is the resource-denial deck that generates resources of its own that is likeliest to win in a fight. Clearly this would require some tuning… after all, the whole plan likely works much better with a few Moldervine Cloaks attached, and may want some spot removal of its own besides the big and nasty Wildfire. And there are other avenues you can approach in your land-advantage games; adding Stormbind, Life from the Loam, and making use of both Terramorphic Expanse and Ghost Quarter is likely downright amazing… all avenues of approach to look at purposefully for other variations upon the same theme.

With two of the exciting land-searchers looked at, it’s the most innocent of them all that grabs my attention the hardest: Flagstones of Trokair. As discussed in great and somewhat embarrassing detail last week, my first glance at this card left my head spinning, having missed the word “tapped” and gone off on astronomical flights of fancy trying to figure out how to squeeze the most out of my Flagstones, to gain a tempo advantage from my Lands alone in order to generate three mana on turn 2, or four mana on turn 3. Using Vesuva as copies 5-8 to blow up the actual Flagstones was obviously key, if we’re going to do this at all, and a tight curve of aggressive men of Soltari, Rebels, Vedalken Wizards, Lions and Soldiers excited me greatly. Reading the word “tapped” finally got me off the “mana acceleration” angle I was trying to work, and left me with a much subtler, more interesting card to look at. Looking then for cards to build in a deck that could actually benefit from the Flagstones going to the graveyard, both Wildfire and Smallpox came to mind as ways to use the Flagstones to your advantage; B/w Smallpox seemed the more interesting of the two than R/W Wildfire; after all, R/G Wildfire could generate more than just one land’s advantage out of the tricksy spells mentioned above.

Using Flagstones, a legendary Plains, in a strongly Black deck that really just wants to sacrifice the Flagstones and get a Swamp Plains out of the time it spent waiting to have both Flagstones and two Black mana available… well, going back in time to think of things to do didn’t see us having to go back very far, though I tried to marry the old with the new and drag The Rack along for the ride while I was at it. Smallpox is best when you can get some use out of each card type wasted; capitalizing on the discarded card is hard, requiring either Madness or some reusability to that resource… and this was not the time to look for Eidolons, or find a way to resurrect a resource like Nether Traitor when the card lost could easily be ignored so long as your Smallpox was hurting them worse than it hurt you. By its nature, Smallpox is a powerful controlling card and a weak aggressive one, asking you yourself to play few creatures you care about… but you can mind the loss of a creature less when it’s something that has already replaced itself or been a spell, and the main source of damage is likely to be The Rack anyway. And so it is a twist of a Rat deck that got my interest, leading to the following:

… and while I feel this is very nearly a tuned list, it is clearly not completely tuned, as it doesn’t ask the Gemstone Caverns question (and neither did the Land Destruction deck listed above… and rather a pertinent question indeed, for a deck of that style), and doesn’t try to work out how many Karoos it can play without hassling its curve, or whether Gemstone Mine can fit as an additional White source to help fuel the potential for a double-White spell out of the sideboard, specifically Wrath of God. One problem of discard decks is that you draw too many dead cards if the opponent can simply play empty-handed; designing the deck as a control deck with a Rack lock-down makes that a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea for your opponent, the hard choice between trying to hold cards to stem the bleeding or play them out and try to kill you first.

Smallpox is amazingly strong, and this first pass at a Smallpox deck is likely to prove a starting-point many others have noted as well. Having looked just at the very surface of Time Spiral, then, we see that its theme of time-management brings with it a format in which you have to be attentive of your resource-management, to build a deck capable of surviving a variety of stresses placed upon it by decks looking to capitalize on discard or land destruction to gain an advantage on any deck in the field by managing its resources better than you did.

Looking at the intricate balance of resource-management and the advantage to be gained by putting the opponent under stress such that there is no actual “right” answer, we have two things coming up at the same time. The first is the recollection that it was the stress of two bad choices, playing out your hand (to dodge Persecute) versus keeping cards in hand (to dodge Wrath) that made Solar Flare such an interesting and successful choice in the summer Nationals season… and the second is the recollection that I should now speak about Twisted Abomination, the Swamp-cycler that can hunt up four colors of dual land in addition to ‘just’ your friendly neighborhood basic Swamp. These two come up together because the Twisted A-Bomb puts itself nicely in the graveyard to some benefit on turn two, conveniently available for reanimation via Zombify on turn four, already a reasonable plan espoused by Solar Flare via turn-two discard off of a Karoo or turn three as part of the benefit of drawing three cards with Compulsive Research.

Between Twisted Abomination, Terramorphic Expanse, and your Blue-White nonbasics and Signet, you can actually accomplish something interesting and tricksy while you are at it: build your manabase not just to get you all the right colors at all the right times, but dodge Cryoclasm while you are at it. If intelligent design can get the Cryoclasm monkey off your back, Cryoclasm will by its limited nature just go off and choke on itself, denying some critical mass from the Red-based Stone Rain decks that are playing it as a metagame ruse to beat “the good decks”… when even the Blue and White decks don’t have many targets, Cryoclasm can’t be very good. Where before it was somewhat inevitable that you had to have a lot of Plains and Islands in your deck to work right, I don’t think that is necessarily true any longer, having more than enough actual Plains and Islands when you want them, but with excellent mana even when you are trying to duck Cryoclasm.

Cryoclasm is clearly less good when you can choose to hide your Plains and Islands at will, while still functioning thanks to twelve Blue-White producers that conveniently don’t count as either Islands or Plains… and the natural strength of cycle-my-Abomination into Signet plus Remand into Zombify plus Regenerate in addition to the Research into Angels into Zombify route that Solar Flare has already played means that you have two excellent and synergistic routes to using Zombify to cheat on mana and time, both good things as Time Spiral teaches us.

The awareness that Cryoclasm is a reasonable strategic choice will likely have a heavier impact on the metagame than any other single card from Coldsnap, excepting possibly Ohran Viper, whose appearance next to Call of the Herd gives Green two excellent three-drops worth accelerating into with Birds and Elves. Sorry, Skred… it’s not that you’re bad, you just don’t happen to warp the environment around you. It’s not you… it’s us, really!

Now of course, as good as Solar Flare is, Black-White-Blue Solar Flare doesn’t have the monopoly on the Solar Flare brand of tricks; the Black for Zombify can now be replaced with White’s Resurrection, an old friend never played seriously in the past that has apparently found a home in modern Standard thanks to Akroma and the slowing of the environment surrounding Resurrection to a speed where it has to be taken seriously for once. The White removal can likewise be substituted, though admittedly at greater difficulty… Wrath of God is a pretty convincing argument. Blue seems quite important for Compulsive Research and Remand, but aside from Court Hussar and perhaps sideboard tools, that is all the Blue is really doing for you. Certainly some of these colors sticking together is necessary, but all three? Hardly. Case in point:

Note that this is a direct descendant of Solar Flare, one that pushes the discard stress on the opponent’s game harder, with Void and Nicol Bolas in addition to the “standard fare” Persecutes, giving up the ease of Wrathing without fear of missing a spot. If Void and Wildfire can substitute for Wrath of God, the deck plays out much the same thanks to being heavily templated off the original… and only has two lands that are a valid target for Cryoclasm, to boot.

Standard is a wide-open field, with plenty of room for creativity and imagination: Wizards of the Coast has given us the toolbox, and amped up the power level so that with a sound strategy and careful choice of tools anything can potentially be a viable strategy. But, as is inevitable, start with White Weenie when building for States and build the rest of the format around it: early talk about States is seeing a lot of decks that look like this:

Everything else proceeds apace from there, with one common enemy pointed out as an obvious target and everything else beginning to form structure out of the nothingness of an open metagame from there. Looking at the StarCityGames Standard (Type Two) Forums, there are threads working on U/G Aggro, U/G/R Aggro, U/G/W Control, B/w Discard, White Weenie, U/B Control, R/B Aggro, mono-Blue Snow Control, Dragonstorm Combo, G/W Threshold, KarstenBot BabyKiller, B/G/r Rock (based on Ken Ishimaru’s Top 8 deck at Japanese Nationals), Enduring Renewal storm combo, U/G/W Solar Flare, 4c Aggro, Zoo, R/G Wildfire, U/W Control, Ghazi-Glare, TamanoaSearing Meditation, U/G Snow Control, Fish, U/B Reanimator, infinite-life Saffi combo, U/W/r Urzatron, U/R Wafo-Tapa… the entire kitchen sink seems not just like an option but all seem as if they could be reasonably viable deck kernels if played out to their natural conclusion.

In a world of seemingly infinite options, it’s the ones that clump together the best that are going to see good use, and this is why the first decks people seem to be working on are LotsOfWhiteCritters.dec, StoneRain.dec, and Discard.dec. Out of that morass we are seeing a lot of counter-strategies appear, but to me it is looking like the best tweaks on the strategy are the decks that are most likely to succeed, especially if those tweaks keep an eye on the resource-denial theme that is starting to brew in the upcoming Standard environment. If Red/Green LD is good, perhaps Red/Green LD with Life from the Loam will be even better, because it is best equipped to win the resource-denial war? And make good use of Terramorphic Expanse or Quicksands or Mouth of Ronom or Ghost Quarter in the meantime, or perhaps overload on Stormbind activations.

So get cracking… and remember, with Time Spiral officially hitting the streets today we now live in a world of perfect mana and amazing options. Time Spiral is the land of head-explodey… but in a wonderful way. I suspect this means we will find ourselves in a powerful world… if we can just keep the Storm combo decks in check.

You had heard about those, right?

Of all the returning mechanics, it is Storm that is potentially the most abusive, especially thanks to the unique ability to time Suspend spells in such a fashion as to get higher Storm counts without any mana investment, and see games that start with turn 1 suspend my Ancestral Visions, turn 2 suspend Lotus Bloom, turn 5 go crazy. Aggro, combo, and control are all viable and all chock-full of options plus full of a rich past waiting to be explored anew as things from the past are dredged up into our modern Standard for us to play for years to come. O brave new world, that has such cards in’t…

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com