“Wait, she does what?!”
It still makes me smile the sheer number of people who read Olivia when you play her against them in Constructed. These are people who know darn well how she works as the best card in the draft format, but the very notion of Olivia in a 60-card deck is so far out of the realm of possibility that they are compelled to reread her and figure out what they missed.
Why is she so good? Well, as detailed in Part 1 of my Innistrad Set Review, as well as Part 3 and this article before States, she completely takes over the game by herself. She shoots down the plethora of one-toughness creatures in the format (If Gut Shot is good, why wouldn’t activating Olivia’s ability be also?) but also threatens to steal the big ones. She grows quite quickly, ensuring opponents have less time to try to draw an answer (and with Doom Blade not hitting her, as well as her growing out of control quickly, this is actually not as easy a proposition as some would assume).
Going into the 2011 World Championships, I had Olivia at the top of the list of cards I wanted to play with. I anticipated a field of half white and/or blue aggro decks, which was almost exactly spot on. Whether G/W Tokens, U/w Illusions, or W/u Humans, we are talking a lot of creatures that are very vulnerable to getting pinged. Other than small creatures, I expected various sixes to be very popular (Consecrated Sphinx, Primeval Titan, Grave Titan, Wurmcoil Engine, Sun Titan), making her stealing ability very worthwhile.
Additionally, her “weakness” is supposed to be her relatively “fragile” body. The “it dies to removal” argument was the exact one used against Baneslayer back a couple years. Is Baneslayer always good? No, of course not, but when the field contains a lot of decks that lose to it, she is often excellent. Besides, they don’t always have the removal spell, to say nothing of playing more than just a couple bombs in our deck.
What’s interesting is that G/W Tokens, U/w Illusions, and W/u Humans each feature very few answers to Olivia. Sure, Garruk Relentless can trade with her (unless you have six mana), but beyond that, what? Maybe Oblivion Rings or Dismembers? What are the odds that a deck with three Oblivion Rings has one by turn 4? Less than 50%. She is so devastating that if they don’t have the answer immediately, the game can spiral completely out of control. What happens in the half of the games where they draw the Oblivion Ring and you don’t play Olivia turn four? The Oblivion Ring just sits in their hand, rotting! Their Oblivion Rings are eventually going to be great, sure, but they aren’t punishing you in the meantime, and every Ring on Olivia is one fewer Ring for an Inferno Titan or Wurmcoil Engine.
I did not only work on Olivia decks, however. Innistrad has so many sweet cards, I experimented with a variety of concepts and strategies, just trying to learn what there was to learn. Each of these lessons was compiled and studied. Then, when Alex West asked what cards I most wanted to play with, a couple weeks before Worlds and before he and I had built the Grixis deck we piloted, I was prepared to answer:
Day of Judgment? Yeah, believe it or not, the Grixis list we played had very conservative mana compared to some of the brews! We actually built decks that used every possible combination of those four cards before eventually conceding to a Slagstorm downgrade for Day of Judgment. At least we got three out of four. Why did we want to play Desperate Ravings, Precursor Golem, and Day of Judgment? Each has a very distinct reason. First, for reference, here is the list we settled on:
First, Desperate Ravings is just very aggressively costed and the best card draw in Standard. Drawing two cards and discarding one at random is so far beyond drawing a card, it is mind-blowing. Comparing this card to Think Twice is like comparing Careful Consideration to Inspiration. Yes, it is so easy to imagine circumstances where you discard the game-winning card and go on medium life-tilt, but this is not even as risky as Demonic Consultation, another card well worth the risk.
With Desperate Raving, you have the option to do it or not. When you need something, whether it’s a third land or sweeper or victory condition, Ravings gives you significantly more looks to find it. If you have a five-card hand when you cast it, it is like you are looking at 1.67 new cards to find whatever it is you are looking for. When things are going well and you have everything you need in hand, why do you need the extra card?
As a game of Magic progresses, we have a tendency to play the spells that are good, with bad ones accumulating in our hand. Desperate Ravings gives us a chance to upgrade them (some percentage of the time), including helping fix mana flood. If we are short on mana, Ravings finds it quite well. If our first play is a turn-two Ravings on the play in a deck with 26 land and we need to find a third land, we get to look at 2.72 cards to find this third land instead of just two with Think Twice. Then, we have another 2.75 cards to hit our fourth land drop.
In addition to upgrading the quality of our hand, Ravings has obvious synergy with just about every graveyard card. Strong tournament players realize that milling yourself is generally a net positive, so it shouldn’t be that big a leap to understand why drawing a card and discarding a card at random is generally net positive (when you are the one pulling the trigger). Some amount of the time you will have to discard a card you hadn’t yet got the chance to play yet (it was one of the top two). It is tempting to tilt from this, but how different is this than if that card was just on the bottom of your library? Sure, you don’t have it available later, but you have it available right now if you can use the graveyard. Every time you discard a Forbidden Alchemy, a Devil’s Play, a Geistflame, or another Ravings (or a Punishing Fire…), it is like you are drawing half a card. Additionally, each spell you discard makes your Snapcaster Mages that much better.
Desperate Ravings is a thinking man’s red card, as it is not best used by just spending all of your mana every turn. Getting used to using it correctly takes some experience, but the power is deceptively large. Besides, in the future, everyone retroactively remembers always thinking Desperate Ravings was in another league beyond Think Twice, so we might as well get used to it.
Precursor Golem was the end of a chain of deckbuilding beginning with Phyrexian Obliterator, of all things. I had been working on Phyrexian Obliterator decks, with Lashwrithe as the other fatty. Eventually, the various Mono-Black Control decks had too much of a fundamental flaw against Mirran Crusader to be where I wanted to be.
Red removal seemed awesome in the format and an excellent solution to the Crusader problem. I knew Olivia would provide an excellent replacement for Lashwrithe. Once we weren’t playing Lashwrithe, the addition of the third color to a Phyrexian Obliterator deck isn’t actually that much more expensive than the second. The Black deck’s biggest wish was for more and better card draw anyway, so blue made a natural fit. Here was an early draft of Grixis control:
Note: Do not use this list as a template for manabases, as it is a fair bit beyond “ambitious.” The use of three non-black lands with Obliterator is forgivable (though Sulfur Falls that are always tapped are not nearly as sexy as Inkmoth Nexuses). The more offensive violation is the use of eleven red sources in a deck that wants to cast turn two Arc Trail or Raving and ten sources for the turn three flashback or Alchemy or Leak. The deck worked great, whenever it got a good mana draw, but the inconsistencies were just too much to live with.
We tried Sphere of the Suns, Manalith, Traveler’s Amulet, and more. In the end, if the decision was between Ravings, Alchemy, Leak, burn, and Olivia or Obliterator, I had to bid adieu to the best Juzam ever. What to replace him with though? Our first attempt was Consecrated Sphinx, but what I was discovering was that we wanted creatures that totally took over the board. Wurmcoil Engine and Grave Titan were the next wave, and it wasn’t until relatively shortly before the PT that we discovered Inferno Titan was slightly better than Grave Titan for our purposes. We actually wanted to use one Grave Titan and one Inferno Titan main, with two Wurmcoils in the sideboard, but cuts needed to be made to get the board down to fifteen.
In a quest for other fives, I asked the guys at the beach house for another threat that cost four or five mana that I could use to help round out the curve a little. They replied, “Like Precursor Golem?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, exactly like Precursor Golem!”
I could tell from their initial suggestion that it was going to be great in the format again. Beast Within? Oblivion Ring? Gut Shot? Galvanic Blast? It even turned on our Galvanic Blasts! We tried to work Twisted Image into the mix, but sadly, it got squeezed out in the numbers crunch. Part of the theory was that people were going to be very slanted towards playing creatures and planeswalkers and not as much removal, so like Olivia, Precursor Golem was another way to punish someone who didn’t use enough removal. As long as Precursor Golem is legal, whenever the format dips to a spot where cheap spot removal is less popular, it is a fantastic card to add to all sorts of strategies. It isn’t great to get Vapor Snagged, but we are certainly free to sideboard him out, and not a lot of people are doing great things on turn five, so it’s nice to get the upper hand on that turn.
Replacing Obliterators with Precursors and “Sixes” let us continue to play a “tap-out” sort of game. We look like we are playing control, but really we are just buying time to drop bombs.
The only other major change (besides the manabase returning to reality) was the swapping of Distresses for Snapcaster Mages. Distress was a major net negative for tempo and would put an uncomfortable strain on the mana. It was nice to be able to snag their removal spell, then drop a game-winning threat, but it seemed like it was creating weakness to control in order to improve the white aggro matchups, where Snapcaster was generally a Nekrataal or better.
Arc Trail became Slagstorm, as Slagstorm is what we actually wanted in the first place; we just could not play it due to the double red requirement and the general awkwardness of casting the spell with an Obliterator in play. Go for the Throat became a Doom Blade last minute after a chat with Flores. Grave Titan was primary target, but I am guessing we’ll see more Olivias now. Of course, we’ll also see more Tempered Steel, so care is suggested.
Finally, the four Liliana made room for a Devil’s Play. Doomed Traveler has been a real pain for Liliana, and you do actually get diminishing returns from extra Lilianas. Without the curve of Distress -> Liliana -> Obliterator, we are much less of a Liliana deck and more of a deck that just uses Liliana because she is a powerful card. She gives us a way to play more removal without having too many dead cards against non-aggro decks (and puts those bad removal spells to use!). We considered bending the manabase the other way and playing a bunch of Dissipates instead of Lilianas, but in the world of all cheap creatures, Dissipate seemed a lot less exciting. Besides, every O-Ring on Liliana is one fewer on Olivia.
“If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” –Beyoncé Knowles
The Devil’s Play functions as additional removal early but is also a victory condition, particularly against control decks with Nephalia Drownyards. Having a kill condition that their kill condition finds for you is a great way to regain some percentage in one of our tougher matchups. Devil’s Play is also a fine answer to planeswalkers and is just generally a strong card that should probably be showing up as a one-of (maybe more?) in a lot more decks than it currently does. With so many one-toughness creatures, it is often “two mana kill a guy, flashback for four to kill a guy,” making it somewhat similar to Firebolt.
As mentioned, this is a tap-out deck, so holding Mana Leak to protect your guys is sometimes not going to be an option. Most of the time, Mana Leak is just a tool to buy us time. The way the deck plays out, people have a tendency to assume we have a lot more permission than we really do. The jig might finally be up, as many now realize this is actually a black/red deck that splashes blue for card draw and just a few Leaks. That said, changing control lists from week to week is an important skill to master for true control players. Why would we want to run back this exact 75? Most tournament players will be prepared for it. What about using more permission? Discard? Less permission? More creatures? Less? A change in focus?
The sideboard worked out fantastically and was developed by Alex West and me using the “Elephant” method, as taught by Zvi. We wrote out our semi-realistic dream decklist versus each of the twelve biggest decks, then aggregated that data to move towards a final list that was the most able to deliver the list we wanted against everyone. We even took it a step further and weighed every deck for expected popularity in the metagame.
We wanted Deathmark against G/W and W/u, but we also would have liked to have a 30-card sideboard. We wanted more cheap spot removal against Illusions, so we decided to use a Galvanic Blast and Geistflame instead, due to their versatility. That said, in retrospect, I would have liked the sideboard Galvanic Blast to be an Incinerate. With so much library manipulation and Snapcasters, there is increased value to novel effects. The ability to deal three is awesome against Tempered Steel + Inkmoth or Mirran Crusader + Honor of the Pure or Garruk Relentless.
The Ancient Grudges ended up being exceptional and well worth slightly bending the manabase. First of all, obviously the Channel guys did really well with Tempered Steel, a deck people would love to pick up anyway. Grudge is exactly as good against them as you’d think. As a side note, Tempered Steel is a really good matchup for Grixis. I had an opportunity to battle Brad Nelson in a round-one feature match as detailed here . If Tempered Steel catches on in your area, that is all the more reason to play Slagstorm, Olivia, Inferno Titan, Galvanic Blast, Ratchet Bomb, and Ancient Grudge.
It is a different deck, but I would love to use those cards, along with Daybreak Ranger, to build a Jund deck. I am still just at a loss for how to make the deck consistent enough without great draw like Ravings and Alchemy. That said, Daybreak Ranger is about to make a huge comeback. It isn’t just that he is a 4/4 that can fight people. He taps to deal two to Inkmoth, Vault Skirge, Glint Hawk, Glint Hawk Idol, and Birds of Paradise when not flipped!
Ancient Grudge is also a key part of the sideboard plan against red (against Shrine of Burning Rage), against Tokens (Shrine of Loyal Legions and Blade Splicer), and against various Blade decks (Swords, Blade Splicers, and Inkmoth Nexus).
Curse of Death’s Hold is another powerful way to exploit the overreliance on one-toughness creatures we are seeing in the format. It is at its best against Illusions and Blade decks, but is also a nice weapon against G/W Tokens, Wolf Run, Infect, and W/u Humans.
Surgical Extraction started out as a tool against Solar Flare (where it is at its best) but proved itself to be a useful tool against both control (taking a counterspell before a key battle or “countering” a Snapcaster Mage) and Red (taking Chandra’s Phoenix). It is also a reasonable option against some Wolf Run decks, depending on their build.
Most of the counterspells won’t surprise you, but the Dissipate is a little ambitious with this blue mana count. The only matchups where we bring it in are control, Solar Flare, and Wolf Run, all of which go late enough that we will eventually draw into the double blue.
Mimic Vat was the last second addition, courtesy of Sam Black. We were looking for another trump to play against a control deck that wouldn’t die to their removal. Nephalia Drownyards are usually the way to fight those fights, but they already have Drownyards and Ghost Quarters, so trying to fight on their terms was a losing proposition. Mimic Vat let us sidestep that battle entirely and was a cheap threat that wasn’t hard to resolve and could likely win the game on its own over the long haul. We also considered Grindclock, which might have been the call if we had more room. A turn-two Grindclock is pretty close to unbeatable against most control decks, but drawing it late sucks (in a sort of a Leyline of the Void type of dilemma). Besides, Mimic Vat also came in against Wolf Run, whereas Grindclock wouldn’t. The ability to get Primeval Titan, Solemn Simulacrum, or Acidic Slime’s trigger every turn is sweet!
Is Grixis likely to take over as a major player in the metagame? Probably not in this exact incarnation (though it will undoubtedly be a hot fad). What will persist are the deckbuilding ideas advanced within. Olivia is going to see a lot more play. Inferno Titan is back. Precursor Golem is back. Cheap removal plus card draw plus bombs isn’t a new formula, but we will see even more variations of it. Desperate Ravings will become mainstream.
This Standard format is absolutely awesome, with so many decks possible, so many deckbuilding choices, and so much ability to tune decks to your style. There isn’t one dominant deck, but there is a lot of room to tweak our decks to beat whatever we want. I gotta head back over to the tournament site. See you next week!
Elspeth was in attendance and can be found on Twitter @csprankle , though
she also goes by Christine…