Magical Hack: Turning Japanese

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Having peeked last week at Coldsnap in Standard, the results of the Japanese National Championships is pretty exciting. After discussing the use of Scrying Sheets, Counterbalance, and Phyrexian Ironfoot in Standard, just a day or two later we see all three in the Top 8 of the Japanese National Championships! In addition to these, we also got to see a few other trends advance themselves… some with Coldsnap cards, some without.

Having peeked last week at Coldsnap in Standard, the results of the Japanese National Championships is pretty exciting. After discussing the use of Scrying Sheets, Counterbalance, and Phyrexian Ironfoot in Standard, just a day or two later we see all three in the Top 8 of the Japanese National Championships! In addition to these, we also got to see a few other trends advance themselves… some with Coldsnap cards, some without.

Going down the list, from reigning champion to the quarterfinalists who did not get the honor to represent Japan at Worlds in a few months’ time, we saw some rather interesting evolutions:

Sure, the numbers are a little ugly, and some of the card choices are unusual… but the balancing act between “the right kind of card” and navigating a mine-field of situational countermagic yields a very interesting deck. The evolution from Counterbalance / Top to include Top-clearing effects (Court Hussar) and Dark Confidant is an interesting one, as the more things you can play with that care about Sensei’s Divining Top (or can make use of extra ones), the better everything hangs together. This is very effectively a “just” U/B control deck, splashing White for some key pinpoint removal (Condemn) and to “enhance” Court Hussar, with a bit more out of the sideboard… like the techy Orzhov Pontiff, usually seen in Ghost Husk for a beatdown role but seen here as board control against Sosuke’s Summons, offending Confidants, and the occasional Giant Solifuge or two. It is the inclusion of these Pontiffs that really make the White shine, as otherwise you can do more with a better manabase if you fast-forward to fifth-place finisher Takahiro Suzuki’s deck. (Suzuki, however, did not play Counterbalance, suggesting a hybrid between the two might have room to play out as ‘the best Top control deck’.)

“You’re going to main-deck what?” would seem to be the question of the day, but the “situational” Stone Rain from Coldsnap seems to have splashed perfectly here, being just flexible enough to guarantee a target out of any deck that doesn’t stick to just Black, Red, and Green… after all, most decks run three colors, and most decks are not specifically Golgari-Gruul-Rakdos affairs. Next in the evolution of Blue-Green decks, the return of Sea Stompy and its assorted brethren seems to have been almost inevitable, and while a peculiar choice this one is still valid. Note that after sideboarding, with Iwamori and Rumbling Slum holding the fort, this deck can do very unpleasant things to beatdown players with its four sideboarded Savage Twisters… and the main-deck configuration, with a special Stone Rain just for people with Islands (or, I guess, Plains), is already intended to be solid against control decks.

Katayama “just” played Satanic Sligh, the Norwegian Nationals-winning deck designed by Øyvind Andersen… re-tooled and remastered to flow better overall, losing some of the incidental creatures for a creature base of “just” four Confidant, four Rakdos Guildmage… plus Genju of the Spires and a massive amount of burn. Gone is Yamabushi’s Flame for the anti-Elephant Flames of the Blood Hand, and the extra damage dealt by Hit/Run has been paid back to Katayama by “just” playing Cruel Edict instead, conveniently also preventing Tron decks from protecting their Simic Sky Swallowers with, say, Simic Signets taking the Hit instead. Hidenori has a much cleaner list, and what seems to be a much more focused one… don’t let the snow-covered lands fool you, they are in fact there to do nothing, which you can expect to see more of in the future as players realize that adding snow lands to their deck makes the opponent wonder which Snow cards they will see to explain them… when the entire benefit to them is wasting your opponent’s precious mental energy when your basic lands are basically, um, just lands.

And here we see what changes when Ohran Viper rotates into the format; Green-Black decks have been around here and there ever since Putrefy was first printed, thanks to the lovely possibility of a turn 1 accelerant into turn 2 Hypnotic Specter. This is made better still by the addition of Ohran Viper, giving the deck a critical mass of both card-drawing creatures (four is not as good as eight!) and three-mana card-advantage creatures to accelerate into with your Birds and Elves (four is, again, not as good as eight!). The numbers could use tuning, perhaps, if part of the benefit is a consistent mana curve and consistently drawing your best cards, like Putrefy or Persecute… but it’s hard to criticize any deck that qualifies a player for Worlds, as the balance seems almost perfect and the light inclusion of Demonfire gives the otherwise attack-centric Green-Black deck a good and flexible removal spell that sometimes removes players. And again we see the Snow Gambit, snow basics with (s)no(w) obvious benefit to their inclusion.

The Rock it may not be, but G/B is always very popular, and the consistency of the deck speaks a great deal for it, along with its key innovations. Expect to see more along this theme in the future, either at the remaining National Championships or at your local Friday Night Magic.

Between this and the winning deck, I expect a hybrid cross-breed will appear with good success, maximizing the sheer number of positive benefits earned by Sensei’s Divining Top while cutting additional colors that are good but perhaps not actually necessary. Condemn has an effective replacement through its Black counterparts, while Court Hussar is nice but not in and of itself “special” … and Orzhov Pontiff is only actually needed against a specific, and narrow, sub-class of decks. Hybridizing the two together, I’d expect to see the following:

“Solar Flare Revisited”… now with extra bonus Compulsive Researches, in case four wasn’t enough… sometimes you need to spend the extra one mana and Sift instead, because you can only play four Researches. A small Transmute engine, Clutch of the Undercity, raises the question of whether we can expect to see more of this in the future… as it can get Zombify, to replace a spent threat; Persecute, to destroy the opponent’s hand; Sift, to draw more cards; and Wrath of God, to clear the board. Despite being the target of everything under the sun, it would seem the growing tendency for controlling decks and U/G aggro-control hurt its enemies (‘Vore and Heartbeat) worse. Adarkar Valkyrie shows up as the token Coldsnap card, as does Jester’s Scepter out of the sideboard… though it is not explicitly clear how that impacted any matches, as it seemed to be about par for the course with any other counter in the matches that covered Naoki’s deck.

… Max Bracht’s Erayo-Ninja deck, complete with Coldsnap’s Mishra’s Bauble in order to increase the consistency of flipping Erayo into his Essence as quickly as possible. Yes, Birds of Paradise is the only Green card in the maindeck, with a sum total of nine between maindeck and sideboard. Fairly standard and well-known, and pleasing to see that just two weeks’ time hasn’t (yet) invalidated the deck.

And here we see Blue-Green deck number three for this Top 8; Sea Stompy as played by its creator, Tomoharu Saito. Ohran Viper and Trygon Predator are added to the Ninja of Deep Hours for card advantage-friendly attackers, in a deck much like Ishimaru’s – taking advantage of early Green accelerants to play a critical mass of turn 2 card advantage creatures, between the Predator, Viper and Ninja of Deep Hours. Unlike Ishimaru, however, Saito’s deck uses cheap countermagic to push the tempo advantage, and follows up with a mana advantage thanks to Thoughts of Ruin: Armageddon enough in the early game, with Birds and Elves for you and nothing for the opponent. If this aggro-control approach isn’t enough, it’s got the full set of Jittes for the creature matchups, and beats down pretty nicely thanks to the possibility of opening with Kird Ape and closing with a Meloku-powered beatdown fleet.

Seven of eight decks in the Top 8 had something cooking because of Coldsnap, and the eighth had both Cryoclasm and Martyr of Ashes in the sideboard. Week 1 of post-Coldsnap Standard seems to be an interesting place indeed… and Coldsnap will likely continue to push an interesting counterpoint to Ravnica’s all-colors all-the-time theme, with Scrying Sheets as a potential benefit for limiting your colors. In with the new…

… And for “out with the old,” a more personal look at the past weekend. This past weekend I had the opportunity to play in the last Kobe PTQ for the season, and after week-in, week-out looking at Ravnica Sealed Decks here on Magical Hack, I received the following deck:

Faced with a lot of difficult decisions and not quite enough mana fixing to make good use of everything, but just enough (thanks to Utopia Sprawl and Silhana Starfletcher) to make a five-color build look like a possibility, splashing Flame Fusillade and Pillory of the Sleepless in an otherwise G/W/u deck… with one on-color Karoo and Signet for the main colors, a free Black off both the Rot Farm and an Elves of Deep Shadow, plus a free Red off Izzet Signet. The mana was ugly, and the card pool was ugly, but it looked like this:

It was ugly, it was slow, it had five Forests and a Utopia Sprawl… it was trying too hard to stretch too thin, and I figure I’d win two rounds, lose two rounds. I’d be wasting the day taking a mediocre card-pool and building an okay but not bomb-laden five-color sprawl, just like I have been saying all throughout the season is the wrong thing to do if the mana isn’t there to support it. I did, however, see a way out of this predicament, and not just by re-balancing the mana or jiggering a few cards around. I could add Black and cut something, or otherwise twist things a bit but only get so far. After all, it could be G/B/w/r/u, or even duck out of a color entirely and cut Compulsive Research and Mark of Eviction if I didn’t think the mana would stretch there. Dodging out of an unimpressive Green-based control-ish deck, I ended up with the following:

1cc: War-Torch Goblin; Seal of Fire
2cc: Lurking Informant; Viashino Slasher; Roofstalker Wight; Dark Confidant
3cc: Sadistic Augermage; Orzhov Euthanist; Goblin Spelunkers; Lyzolda, the Blood Witch; Jagged Poppet; Rakdos Ickspitter; Pillory of the Sleepless
4cc: 2 Dimir House Guard; Entropic Eidolon; Ostiary Thrull; Ogre Gatecrasher; Flame-Kin Zealot; Faith’s Fetters; Flame Fusillade
5cc: Greater Forgeling; Brainspoil

2 Plains
6 Mountain
6 Swamp
Golgari Rot Farm
Selesnya Sanctuary
Izzet Signet

There’s something to be said for attacking for two. Hacker taught it, Pikula preached it, and while there isn’t any color-fixing to support R/B/w, the mana is also much less ugly, and the card synergy gets raised through the roof, and we get a second certifiable bomb in Lyzolda, the Blood Witch… pretty awesome when every creature in your deck is either Black or Red. It also gets a much higher list of “incidental” removal spells, with the following cards able to sanction an opposing creature:

War-Torch Goblin; Seal of Fire; Orzhov Euthanist; Lyzolda, the Blood Witch; Rakdos Ickspitter; Pillory of the Sleepless; Faith’s Fetters; Flame Fusillade; Brainspoil; Ostiary Thrull; Ogre Gatecrasher; 2 Dimir House Guard (for Faith’s Fetters or Flame Fusillade). That’s a lot… more than half of my spells can kill a creature, a few can kill more than one, and most of them do it fairly aggressively: Pillory and Ickspitter cost the opponent life, War-Torch, Euthanist, Lyzolda, and Ostiary Thrull all reward aggressive play… and a fair chunk of them attack while they are at it, or kill something and leave a creature in play. Sure, Siege Wurm might be a bit hard to kill, theoretically… but Fetters, Brainspoil, Pillory, and Ostiary Thrull don’t really care, and Euthanist can always get lucky.

It’s true, there were some filler cards in here… I would have loved to trade my Viashino Slasher for a Sell-Sword Brute, or if we want to be miles greedier I’d take a Gruul Guildmage or Rakdos Guildmage instead. Sadistic Augermage is pretty bad… but I did win one game aided by his Painful Memories effect, keeping an opponent one card further from developing the rest of his mana, and even drawing a card with Lyzolda after resolving the Augermage’s effect with an empty hand. Jagged Poppet looks pretty embarrassing… and I lost my first game overall to a G/W/U-based deck dropping Fiery Conclusion on him when I was setting up for Flame Fusillade the following turn. More frequently, though, he forced the opponent to block badly, chumping with a 1/1 or even a 2/2 and taking damage from the rest of my squad, to avoid getting hit about the head and shoulders for three cards… high risk, high reward. And speaking of high risk and high reward: Greatness, at any cost. Dark Confidant is generally unplayable in Sealed Deck… but here in my deck, I sure didn’t miss Compulsive Research as much as I could have, thanks to a free card a turn for as long as I can afford to keep him around, not the worst problem to have with Lyzolda and two Dimir House-Guard (one foil!) as free sacrifice outlets should the risk of losing two or three (or as much as five!) life sound too painful.

The usual five-color approach had nothing on two colors with a light splash, even playing both of my bounce-lands to increase the consistency of my four- and five-drops, plus making it possible to have better Fusillades and turns that start with “Transmute Dimir House Guard…”

In the end, though, two things bit me: playing out Jagged Poppet with Flame Fusillade in hand when I could have cast a different creature to similar results (but got greedy thinking I’d wipe his board and his hand with Flame Fusillade the next turn) only to eat Fiery Conclusion and lose accordingly, and round five at 3-1 in a tight third game of a match against a competent late-teens opponent with a strong five-color deck. Having faced a lot of early damage and an eroding board position in which I was forced to assume the controlling role, I stabilized at five life the turn I cast Flame Fusillade plus Orzhov Euthanist, taking every advantage I could get out of the situation and tapping both Pillory and Fetters to even have a chance of pulling ahead. This five life may or may not have deserved to be less, after the opponent missed a small attack or two and definitely, definitely “forgot” to sacrifice the Golgari Rotwurm that was targeted by my Euthanist to drop me to four instead.

Instead of catching the opponent’s game when he threw it at me, however, it seems I elected to lose. Focused on remembering to buy back my Eidolon if I happened to draw a Gold card, I ripped Flame-Kin Zealot with two creatures in play facing down the opponent’s Stinkweed Imp, cast him, and traded Greater Forgeling for Stinkweed Imp while dropping the opponent down to nine. I’d have even been able to cast the Entropic Eidolon and set up for an attack to drop the opponent to five if he dredges the Stinkweed Imp, three otherwise, and force the opponent to exhaust his resources just spending three turns to try and play catch-up while I draw cards to kill him in those three turns instead, or force him to the point where he can no longer Dredge and risk his life on the top of his deck.

Instead I forgot entirely about my Eidolon in my zeal to attack, and lost with the opponent at three with no board and no cards in hand while I drew blank cards, then died to a trio of fresh threats off the top when I was starting this exchange at just five life. And so the goal of joining Craig and everyone else for the StarCityGames karaoke party in Kobe… went the way of the dodo. One error is enough to cost a match, especially if you choose the wrong mistake to make.

Sean McKeown
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