My First Constructed Deck: Designing Shoal Infect For PT Philly

John Stolzmann created the Poison Shoal deck that propelled him to 50th at the Pro Tour and Sam Black to 3rd! How does it feel to break the format after your very first attempt?

“What does the green Shoal do?”

If you’re familiar with the card Nourishing Shoal, you probably wouldn’t expect this question to spark the design of the fastest combo deck in the Modern format. Before Matt Planton, a lifelong friend (and casual Magic player), could answer my text, I looked up the answer and quickly gave up on my idea.

I was entrenched in a fairly high-stakes poker game, while Matt, whom I was bouncing ideas off of, was 2000 miles away. It was 11 pm on a Saturday night in Wisconsin, and he was out drinking with friends. Naturally, Magic: The Gathering was at the forefront of our minds.

When I moved to the Los Angeles area from Wisconsin a little over two years ago, I basically stopped playing Magic, focusing most of my energy on poker. Somehow, though, the Magic bug always comes back. On a last minute whim, I decided to attend Grand Prix: Kansas City, where my good friend Jason LeMahieu was head judging. I had low expectations, with very limited preparation, but ended up taking 31st. The solid finish was enough to qualify me on rating for what would be my third Pro Tour. I was determined to put all my efforts into achieving success at this upcoming event. I wouldn’t be going back on the PTQ circuit anytime soon, so this would be my one opportunity to live the dream and get on “the gravy train.” A repeat of Pro Tour Austin (where I went in completely unprepared, was handed an average Zoo list, and bombed out with a 1-4 record) would not be acceptable.

So there I was, trying to come up with an original idea for a deck, despite knowing that I had little chance of success in the realm of innovation—I am inexperienced in Constructed Magic (I’ve played a lifetime total 13 events) and have never even attempted to design a deck from scratch. Nonetheless, the chances of success were better than if I didn’t even try. I was fully expecting to play a (hopefully well-tuned, well-positioned) known deck, but to give myself the best chances, I had to put forth some effort to discover untapped potential in this new format.

I had just read a Standard article by Mike Flores, here on StarCityGames.com, about a deck that aimed to poison opponents as fast as possible with Glistener Elf, Inkmoth Nexus, other cheap infect creatures, and a barrage of pump spells. I was wondering if there was a more efficient way to accomplish this goal in Modern.

“Damn. It’s gain X life. Was hoping for +X/+X and a turn-two win with Inkmoth Nexus.”

Ten minutes passed, and I was actually starting to pay attention to the poker game again, when Matt responded. “Blazing Shoal. +X/+0.” Thank you, Matt, for being a living Magic card encyclopedia! I’d just assumed that the red shoal dealt X damage to a creature, forgetting that Enrage was a red ability as well.

Immediately, Greater Gargadon came to mind as an ideal pitch spell. The gears were turning, and I was excited about the possibility that I could construct a deck that Gargadon is incidentally good in, which could also randomly combo the opponent out with an infect or double strike creature, plus Blazing Shoal.

A text from Matt: “So drunk. So pumped. Telling laypeople about Shoal/Gargadon.” I was pumped, too. I had to make this work…

Sam Black “win a car” Standard Goblin deck from a few years back was my starting point.

Sam Black, 1st Place
Win a Car Tournament, Worlds 2007, Standard

This deck is an all-time favorite of mine. I almost never played Constructed Magic at that time, but I heard about Sam playing a similar Goblins build at States that year, and it sounded really fun to play. I was in a slump in the 8-4 Magic Online drafts that were my bread-and-butter, so I got his list and gave it a try as a brief respite from my Limited woes.

Originally, he had Facevaulter in Gargadon’s slot. I tried out the 9/7 Beast, and the deck went from being “cute” (though still much better than it looks) to being a real powerhouse. Sam was receptive to the change and promptly won a car! I won a lot of 8-man Constructed events on Magic Online and had a blast with it. It would be great if I could play something this fun in Modern at the Pro Tour.

My idea was to add Inkmoth Nexus, Blazing Shoal, and Warren Instigators to a similar shell. The Warren Instigators had double strike, threatening a kill with Blazing Shoal, while also threatening to simply plop a Siege-Gang Commander (or two) onto the table early. Greater Gargadon could be suspended early, or held back if you held a Blazing Shoal or had multiples.

The unfortunate thing about deckbuilding is that most ideas are terrible. When I got home, I drew up a Goblins list on Magic Online (I didn’t keep the list, but I assure you, you aren’t missing much). I didn’t need to play a single game to realize that the deck wasn’t going to work. I only had to look at the other decks in the format that would obviously crush it. Sure, a turn 2 kill was possible if all the right pieces were drawn, but it was clear the deck was very underpowered when the combo didn’t happen. Mogg War Marshal vs. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is not a fair battle.

After the rush of excitement had worn off, and reality was settling in, I almost abandoned the idea again. Still, something told me the potential for a turn 2 kill wasn’t to be taken lightly. I had to make the combo the main focus of the deck, rather than just an alternative kill.

I started brewing, throwing in anything that seemed reasonable to get the combo as fast as possible, or protect it. I tinkered with U/B builds including Dimir Infiltrators, Thoughtseizes, and Slaughter Pacts. At one point I was BUG and even had a Putrefax to fetch with Summoner’s Pact. After about an hour, though, my pre-test-drive list was mono blue, and I was pretty excited about it (even though, realistically, I knew it probably wasn’t very good).

The next morning, the Poison Shoal deck would have its first chance to prove itself. I was headed to Santa Monica to test with Matt Sperling and Paul Rietzl. I knew Matt from the Hawaiian Gardens poker room, and since I didn’t have a group that I play with in LA, it was great that he offered to let me be part of his. I arrived to witness the tail end of an epic 10-game set of Mono-Green Cloudpost vs. Zoo. It was a real nail biter, as the 12-Post deck Scapeshifted to gain about a billion life, and then cast Emrakul a turn later for its ninth straight win.

I proxied up my deck as I watched the tenth lopsided bloodbath. Matt and Paul seemed a little skeptical that my deck would work as planned, but I think they were ready for a change of pace, even if my deck wasn’t very polished. Paul went over to brew a bit, while Sperling chose to continue playing the Post deck (winning ten straight probably made it pretty fun to play).

The first game, I was on the play. “Nexus, go.” He played a Cloudpost. “You’re dead, I have it.”

It was pretty sweet to live the turn 2 dream in the very first game, and Matt’s interest was piqued a bit. I followed up my turn 2 kill with a turn 4 kill in the next game, and we decided that Zoo would be a lot more interactive and challenging. After all, combo decks ought to smash 12Post in pre-boarded games.

The Zoo matchup turned out to be a nightmare. I was having trouble finding an Inkmoth Nexus in time. Zoo doesn’t give you the time to transmute a Tolaria West for Nexus, play it the next turn, and then win without resistance. When I did draw the combo, I had to play around his removal. A Qasali Pridemage could only be fought with Gigadrowse, tapping him out, or a timely Repeal. In the fifth game, when he played Gaddock Teeg, I realized I was actually drawing stone dead. His list had Molten Rains, which further made life awkward for a deck with four win conditions that were all lands. Still, I was able to sneak in a few wins here and there, ending at 4-7 before we moved on to test other decks.

Sperling and Rietzl told me to keep working on the deck—it clearly had potential; I just needed to find some ways to deal with the issues that had come up. The deck needed more threats and more resilience to cards like Gaddock Teeg and Qasali Pridemage. Driving home, I had a face-palm moment, as I realized that I had completely forgotten about Blighted Agent. The previous night I had considered Glistener Elf, but decided it was too easy to just block (maybe I didn’t give that idea quite enough credit). That wouldn’t be a problem, however, for the Agent. Muddle the Mixture could even transmute for him. It was an auto-four-of. I also thought Disrupting Shoal might have potential in the deck. How sweet would it be to run even more Kamigawa pitch spells?

I made room for four Blighted Agents and two Disrupting Shoal, cutting two Tolaria Wests (22 lands was clearly too much in testing, and transmuting is generally slow), a Gigadrowse, a Progenitus, a Repeal, and a Remand.

I was itching to play more and battled random opponents in the Tournament Practice room on MODO. I was playing 2 out of 3 matches with no sideboard, and I never dropped a game. Granted, this was not the hangout of many top players, but it was a good sign, regardless. Now I needed to play against a worthy opponent; I noticed Sam Black was online. I wasn’t sure about the “politics” of team play, and I didn’t want to burn any bridges, since Matt Sperling had allowed me into his group, but if I could put time into this deck, it could potentially help everyone. This was my opportunity to do just that. I told Sam that I had a promising deck, but that he would have to keep it secret if it was any good (I would later get permission from Sperling to let Sam’s team in on it as well). He agreed and challenged me to a match.

Sam was playing the Storm/Pyromancer’s Swath deck, and beat me on turn 2 in our first game. Maybe my deck wasn’t so fast, after all. The next game, he beat me with Empty the Warrens tokens. Luckily, Sam was still interested in what my deck did (I had played a Blighted Agent in the second game). I proceeded to win about 9 straight games. Some games ended on turns 2, 3 or 4. In others, I was able to take a control role, sacrificing speed and using counters on key spells. The matchup seemed really lopsided, and Sam was impressed. We still needed to pass the “Zoo test,” however.

He built a Zoo deck, and we battled some more. This time, the deck fared better than it had previously, but was still clearly an underdog. Disrupting Shoals were great every time I drew them, and it became apparent that we would want more than two. After 18 games, with the score 10-8 in favor of Zoo, Sam asked me for my list.

We had played enough games that Sam and I had a pretty good feel for the deck and quickly started making revisions. Remands weren’t quite doing enough. We could go down to 18 land, and Sam insisted that Gitaxian Probes should be a four-of. It made sense, as it trimmed the deck, while also providing information on whether it was safe to “go off” or not. Echoing Truth could be transmuted for to deal with Gaddock Teeg. The deck was starting to shape up:

Sam and I tested further, and the deck was very good. It was consistently goldfishing by turn 4. It just felt like it needed something to push it over the top. An email from Patrick Chapin (who was part of Sperling’s group) would provide the last bit of fuel to make the deck tier 1.

“Why do we use Reaper King? I get that he may be a slight upgrade over Progenitus number #2 (not having it shuffled back in when discarded, Cranial Extraction), but is there any functional difference between him and Bringer of the Red Dawn? Greater Gargadon? Searing Wind? Myojin of Infinite Rage? Furnace Dragon? Dragonstorm?”

He was onto something. Previously, in the same email, he suggested Peer Through Depths. It was a card that I had thought of, but dismissed, because it could really only find the Blazing Shoal. Upping to four Summoner’s Pacts wasn’t attractive because there were a non-zero number of games where you had to double-combo, and “lose the game” is a big drawback when you “go for it” and fail.

I was blinded to the fact that Blazing Shoal could pitch any red spell. I had just always been using Reaper King and not thinking about it. Dragonstorm would give +9/+0 when pitched, and combined with the one power of the attacker, would be just enough. It could be found with Peer Through Depths. Finally, it would provide some misdirection. It’s possible to lose a game where you reveal Dragonstorm off of a Peer, and they’ll put you on a wildly different deck than the one you are playing.

After this email, I made a build that would be very similar to the one Sam, Zaiem Beg, and I would use at the Pro Tour. We came across one more piece of technology in the form of Snapback, which was much better than Echoing Truth in the main because it could be transmuted for and cast “for free” in the same turn. It could also bounce an opposing Nexus from Affinity. At the last minute, we upped to 19 lands, adding a Watery Grave (to be able to pay for Slaughter Pact out of the board). Here is what I ran at the Pro Tour:

The whole process of designing a deck was more fun and rewarding than I had ever imagined. I could have done better in the tournament (I made the most epic punt of my entire life in Round 13), but I did reach my goal of qualifying for another PT—looking forward to seeing many of you in Honolulu! And of course, Sam played brilliantly the whole weekend and took third with the deck, losing a heartbreaker in the semifinals. I’m sure his article will have more information about various matchups, how the deck plays out, and sideboard strategy. Thanks for reading, and hope you like the deck! Try it out…few things are more satisfying than attacking for 10 poison in one turn.