More Ways To Win – Playing The Best Deck

Ashley Morway gives you more ways to win (get it?). Her experience with Caw-Blade was less than satisfactory, and she learned some valuable lessons about deck choice. And don’t miss her bonus Commander decks at the end!

Hello and welcome to my new biweekly column, “More Ways to Win.” I know this obvious play on my last name might seem a bit cheesy, but I couldn’t help myself, especially since looking for more ways to win is the main reason that people read Magic articles. While I did quite poorly at the StarCityGames.com Boston Open, I hope that I can at least share some valuable insight on what NOT to do—primarily in this case playing a deck that may be the “best” deck in general but was probably not the best deck for me personally.

So first the list I played:

Unfortunately, I partially fell victim to not having enough time to work on a deck or practice with it. I had played Caw-Blade at several local events and felt like I knew the deck well enough, but I was indecisive about certain card choices.

Gerry Thompson had recently talked about whether Sword of Feast and Famine was really necessary, which was something I’d been thinking about myself. I was already considering removing the Swords but didn’t trust myself enough at that point to make the call. However, I figured Gerry really knows Caw-Blade, and if he was wondering the same thing as I was, maybe it wasn’t as crazy at it seemed at first. Most people I talked to about it didn’t agree but, in the end, I decided I needed to take the Swords out. When decks like Valakut and RUG Pod are running maindeck Nature’s Claim, it’s time to consider the shift.

Gerry had cut down to only one Sword of Feast and Famine, but in his sideboarding guide, he took out the Sword in every single matchup. I figured zero Swords would be the next evolution.

Most people are also running Oblivion Ring, a card that I personally haven’t had great success with, though they could know something I don’t. Gerry ran it in the Open and made top 4, and I’m sure he knows Caw-Blade better than I do. One reason I decided to take it out was that, since I was removing the Swords, I didn’t want to have any targets for Nature’s Claim main, especially since I was planning on bringing in Torpor Orb against some decks, and I wanted to encourage them to take out their artifact destruction. Also, I didn’t dare risk Oblivion Ringing a Titan only to have them end of turn bounce or destroy the Ring, which did happen to me fairly often.

Sun Titan over Consecrated Sphinx seemed good because it would actually gain you value in those times where your opponent has Into the Roil or an immediate creature kill like Doom Blade. Also, I figured Valakut would have picked up in popularity, and I wanted to get Tectonic Edges back against them to try to keep up with their Valakut, the Molten Pinnacles.

The Phantasmal Image thing that was getting popular looked good, and I tried it a little before deciding that it might sound better than it actually was. Of course, I wasn’t running Oblivion Ring anymore so “copy a Titan, remove your Titan” was no longer an option. Also, most of the games I played were not against other Caw decks where the card is probably at its best.

I ran an extra Day of Judgment to make up for the loss of some creature removal. I wanted to make sure I could counter or kill a Titan every time and that they wouldn’t be coming back via an enchantment removal spell. Spell Pierce was yet another nod to the assumed rise in Valakut numbers because Mental Misstep doesn’t do anything there.

I did put the Missteps in the board because I really liked them against several decks (Twin, RDW, RUG Pod). Also, I doubted opponents would expect me to have them if they only saw Pierces in Game 1.

Four Flashfreeze was probably a little heavy-handed. Again, you can attribute this to Valakut-phobia, but they are also quite good against RUG Pod. I think the other cards are self-explanatory, but Torpor Orb is very good right now.

Timely Reinforcement, because you have to respect the red decks if you don’t want to lose to them, and Azure Mage because everyone says it’s good. I wasn’t really sure how best to use the Mage so I had a generic plan to bring it in against Valakut, Twin, and maybe U/B Control. Valakut is cutting Overgrown Battlements now, and I wanted to draw cards to keep up without leaving myself vulnerable to them resolving something nasty. I make room for all these cards by cutting Hawks, Dismembers, and Timely Reinforcements.

Round 1

Come tournament time, one problem I had was that I actually forgot my exact deck configuration a few times because I had changed it so much right beforehand. This was pretty embarrassing in Round 1 against RUG Pod when I cracked an Arid Mesa and had no Plains left in my deck. To be fair, I was playing exceptionally fast because we were almost out of time for game 3, but that might not have even happened had I practiced with the deck enough to play it faster. I also gave away subtle advantages because my timing was off, like not bouncing a Lotus Cobra in response to a Preordain (which luckily didn’t end up mattering).

Round 2

Round 2, I played a Caw-Blade mirror and, on the play, kept this hand: Seachrome Coast, Island, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Timely Reinforcements, Jace Beleren. At that time I didn’t know what deck he was playing, and this seemed like a great hand in the dark and one that would probably be decent in a Caw-Blade mirror, except that I could not draw a third land for the life of me and quickly succumbed to his mana advantage.

Game 2 was somewhat a repeat of the same; only my hand was a much more respectable three-lander, and I just didn’t get a fourth. I still believe I made a mistake here because he fetched up one Hawk, and I should’ve Leaked the second one, since I was possibly going to have to discard the next turn anyway and could possibly keep him off from having all four Hawks.

Mostly, I felt like my heart wasn’t in it, which can be a big problem. I faced two of my toughest matchups (RUG Pod and the mirror), and it felt like luck was not on my side. My confidence faltered because I couldn’t help being aware of how unprepared I was. I had a lot on my mind from dealing with one crisis after another all week, and I also think that I chose a deck that might be the best overall but wasn’t the best choice for me, especially given all the other things going on.

I want to spend a little time talking about that last part because it’s actually a pretty important detail if you’re looking to win at Magic, then I promise I’ll end with some bonus decklists.

I spent a lot of time playing Faeries when it was in Standard, and I won every tournament I played it in: local FNMs, City Championship Qualifiers, and eventually the City Championships itself. Even though I qualified for US Nationals playing Faeries, I ultimately chose a different deck for Nationals itself. The reasoning was that even though I was better than most of the local players, I couldn’t necessarily credit myself with being better than most players on a Nationals level. I figured those players would either be playing Faeries themselves or be playing decks that beat up on Faeries. Playing the “best” deck there when that deck was the elephant in the room with a nice painted target on its forehead did not seem like the smart thing to do.

I had to ask myself if I thought I could outplay someone like LSV or Sam Black in a Faeries mirror match or random players prepared to fling all kinds of red spells at my face. In the end, I didn’t feel comfortable enough about my skill level even though I am a very competent player. So I chose a deck that let me play good games of Magic and felt like it performed pretty fairly against most strategies: B/G Elves. I came in 13th overall, going 5-2 in the Constructed portion. It was pretty rough missing Top 8 in the last round to 5-Color Control, but I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t have even had to worry about this one bad matchup, had I played Faeries. I’d have been pitted against Merfolk, multiple RDWs, Faeries mirrors, and so on. All things considered, B/G Elves felt like a pretty strong choice, even after the fact.

I had a friend who got pretty offended by this line of reasoning, but I think it’s a factor that every player has to consider when they choose a deck: How good are you really in comparison with the other players present at the event? I think the comparison part is really important because, just as a deck isn’t good in a vacuum, players aren’t either. We’ve heard players suggesting that good players play control so they can outplay weaker players. However, we’re not always better or worse than our competition, so we shouldn’t necessarily always play anything because of skill level. It is more correct for me to play control at an FNM than a PTQ because I think the average FNM player is worse than the average PTQ player.

Generally speaking, we will want to play a deck that gives us more options over the course of a longer game if we are better than our opponents, but there are times where we’re going to be worse than our opponents and are going to want the opposite. Now, this feels almost like blasphemy—because you never really hear players suggesting that they are worse than other players, but really, it’s true, and quite obvious if you think about it. Only one player in the world can really be the best, and mathematically speaking, it’s almost certainly not you or I, so it really shouldn’t be so hard on the ego to accept that.

Another perhaps controversial idea is that there are certain decks that are easier to play than other decks. For example: I think Caw-Blade is one of the hardest decks to play, and I think Red Deck Wins is one of the easiest. Now, I suspect that I’ll get responses that Red Deck Wins is harder than I’m giving it credit for, and maybe that’s fair. However, it’s not harder than Caw-Blade, and anyone who wants to make that argument is just being absurd and almost surely has something on the line (probably because they play RDW themselves and feel that it’s shameful to play an easier deck?).

Let me share a secret with you: there is nothing shameful about playing an easy deck. I received some flak for playing Valakut and making top 4 of the last PTQ I played in. Valakut turned out to be more difficult to play than I thought it would be, but it’s still a fairly easy deck (comparatively speaking at least). So my question, since the deck has often been a very potent weapon (Makihito Mihara played Valakut at his Nationals, and he’s a former World Champion!), why are we afraid of getting free, easy wins? It seems crazy, if we’re really trying to win, to balk at a deck because it’s “too easy.”

A player made the statement to me that “there is far more glory winning with Caw-Blade,” but I think that A) I’d rather win period, and as such should play whatever will give me personally the best chance, whether others consider it easy or not and B) Glory is very overrated. I have seen Pro Tour winners paired up against people who have no idea who they are, sometimes even after they just won the Pro Tour. I can only imagine that this glory carries even less weight among people in the non-Magic playing community…

So sorry if you think doing well at Magic is going to make you famous (actually the real fame comes from writing… kidding! Or am I?).

This is all the convincing I’m going to do when it comes to playing a deck that will give you the best percentage (regardless of its perceived complexity). Other factors to consider are:

How well do you know your deck AND its matchups? I make sure I know every single card in my deck by memory before I sit down to play. If you can’t write down your decklist from memory, do you really KNOW your deck? Also, make sure statements like “my deck beats Caw-Blade” have actually been proven against competent Caw-Blade players; otherwise you’re just misinforming yourself.

How comfortable are you playing the deck? Do you enjoy it? Does it suit your style? These are things, which can subtly influence how well you’re able to play the deck.

How do you feel playing long matches? Do you feel strapped for time? Are you even able to go to the bathroom in between rounds? What about having a chance to grab something to eat or drink at a long event? What about mental fatigue by the end of the day? People generally don’t talk about these things, but, I assure you they do matter. My partner Jamie is diabetic, and if she didn’t have time in between rounds to check her blood sugar levels, or take her medicine, or get food, she could be in much worse trouble than just losing a match. Consequently, she tends to avoid drawn-out control decks when we travel somewhere. I think this is relevant for anyone though. We perform better if we’re able to properly take care of ourselves.

How comfortable is the venue? At the last PTQ, it was around 100 degrees. I can only imagine how much worse I would’ve felt by the end of the day if I didn’t have time in between rounds to get a breath of air outside.

Will you have an opportunity to scout your opponents? If you play in really long matches, there is a better chance that your opponents will know what you’re playing, but you won’t know what they’re playing. At big events, this is less of a concern because you won’t be able to know what every player is playing anyway, and if someone is watching your game, it’s unlikely you’ll even be paired against them. Since I could draw into Top 8 last time, I was able to learn what all my opponents were playing before the quarterfinals began. I’ve had friends share with me what other people were playing, and I’ve done likewise, so you can work around this.

In summary, every player should look at deck selection as a personal choice. What may be perceived as the best by the masses may not be what is best for you personally. This week I was reminded of that by doing poorly in the Standard Open because I piloted a deck merely because the conventional wisdom seemed to suggest that it was the best. My mantra for this Standard format is “beat blade or go home,” and I mistakenly felt that the best way to beat ‘em was to join ‘em.

I want to say congratulations to my friend Anders Simpson-Wolf for winning the whole event though! He just started playing at our local store, and so we only recently met, but he’s a nice guy and really deserved this. I admit I expressed concern that he was set on the U/R Twin plan since that deck seemed to be constantly falling short, but I think the timing was right, and I was glad to see some different archetypes shaking things up. I hope that’s at least encouraging to people who are worried that Caw-Blade is as menacing as it was before the bannings. Sure, it’s a good deck, but you can’t just pick it up and win with it, and that should keep it somewhat in check.


Now, as promised, here are some decks that I’ve been having fun with. They’re Commander decks, but they’re truly a blast. The first one is admittedly not really in the spirit of Commander, but it’s crazy good, and the second one is something much more fair that I cooked up, partly to accept the challenge of those who think I have to play blue! Keep in mind I don’t use proxies in Commander so that should explain some weird card choices (only one dual land for example). Still, the decks work just fine.

I would suggest only playing this deck with other Spikey players, since it can be pretty brutal.

Plan A) Get Kiki-Jiki and Deceiver Exarch and win.

Plan B) Keep casting land destruction spells to set opponents way back (Wildfire/Destructive Force + Nucklavee/Eternal Witness/Regrowth etc.)

Plan C) Take a bunch of turns in a row.

Plan D) Play a “fair” game where you use all kinds of mana acceleration along with card draw engines to stay ahead.

As an additional note: Teferi is awesome with Riku. I played a game where I cast Teferi end of turn, then Riku, then Glen Elendra in response to someone playing a spell in order to counter it, then Eternal Witness to get Glen Elendra back, etc. The deck is a lot of fun but often just for the person playing it. I know it’s only Commander, but, hey, sometimes you have to push the boundaries!

The challenge with a non-blue multiplayer deck is to find ways to ensure you are drawing cards or otherwise doing something to stay part of the action. There are a lot of ways of doing this. I’ve chosen to utilize a kind of tokens strategy to keep Ghost Council in play for as long as I can. Cards like Grave Pact, Martyr’s Bond, Attrition, etc. work well to get nice advantages from your extra tokens, and Skullclamp is just absurd. There’s some decent card advantage available from reanimating creatures with coming into play abilities for example, but the deck is not really reliant on them.

You have some powerful card drawing enchantments: Necropotence and Phyrexian Arena, both of which you can find with tutoring effects or get back with Auramancer or Sun Titan abilities. There’s a nice little lifelink subtheme, which can help recoup life lost from your opponents and often your own cards: Bitterblossom, Necropotence, Phyrexian Arena, Promise of Power, and so on.

Overall, there are a lot of good synergies which should give you a lot of play even well into a game, and the deck is a lot of fun. In fact, it is the most fun “fair” Commander deck that I’ve built. My only hope is that players won’t hold too much of a grudge against me for the Riku deck!

Thanks for reading. I hope you all enjoyed this week’s article. Please let me know in the comments what you’d like to see me write about next time. Keep in mind that my areas of expertise are pretty much Standard, Limited, and Commander. I’ll be getting into Modern and Legacy soon, but I know next to nothing about them at this point, so doubt I can be too helpful about those yet.