Of Ice And Men

William Jensen made his second Grand Prix Top 8 in a row this past weekend in Dallas-Fort Worth. See if you should try U/W Control deck he played at #SCGINVI this weekend!

Coming home from Grand Prix Toronto, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what deck I wanted to play the following weekend in Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth. I was mainly choosing between the Mono-Black Devotion deck I had played in Albuquerque a few weeks earlier and the U/W Control list Andrew Cuneo had played in that event. While I think Mono-Black Devotion is a very good deck, I did expect it to be very heavily metagamed against. In addition, a U/W Control deck with virtually only one win condition sounds about as fun as possible to me. I think Andrew Cuneo is one of the best deckbuilders of all time, specifically with control decks. I watched a few of his matches in Albuquerque and played a few games against him myself, and I was very impressed with his list.

I practiced a little bit during the week on Magic Online with both U/W and Mono-Black, and around Thursday I was still deciding which deck to play. Thursday night I decided I thought that the decks were relatively close in power level but that I’d have a much more enjoyable tournament going with the control deck. I’ve certainly played a lot of Esper Control in current Standard, which plays somewhat similarly, and I’m very comfortable with control decks in general.

Here’s the deck:

As my flight was taking off for Atlanta, where I’d connect to Dallas-Fort Worth, I got a notification that my flight to DFW had been canceled. I tried to use the Delta App once I got in the air in order to see what else was available later in the day, and it didn’t look promising. Also, I was unable to change my ticket online, so I tweeted @DeltaAssist asking them what I could do while I was in the air. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of customer service I received. Delta was prompt and helped me via Twitter direct message.

It looked like I could either wait until morning and risk my Grand Prix on that flight making it on time or I could figure out a more complicated way to get to Dallas. I really didn’t want to leave my Grand Prix up to Mother Nature, so I decided I’d try to fly as close as I could and drive the rest of the way. My options were Oklahoma City or Houston. Oklahoma City was slightly closer, but since the bad weather seemed to be coming from the north, it seemed like Houston was the much safer choice.

I arrived in Atlanta, already booked on the Houston flight, and headed toward my gate. On Facebook, I saw that Head Judge Jason Lemahieu was in Atlanta and also had a canceled flight. I let him know of my plan, and he decided to try to join me. He was able to get on the Houston flight, so we headed to Houston, rented a car, and were off to Dallas.

The first three hours or so of the drive was absolutely fine with virtually no sign of weather. Something like 25 or 30 miles away, the roads began to get somewhat bad. Especially on bridges and overpasses, there were large amounts of ice. The upside was that there were very few cars on the road, and it was easy to take it slow. After about four and a half hours, we made it safely to the hotel around 11:15 PM, which was good since we’d have plenty of time to get a good night of sleep for the tournament the next day.

I played against Mono-Blue Devotion five times over the course of the tournament. No matter which deck I decided to play in various tournaments throughout the current Standard format, I’ve always found this matchup to be difficult. I think that is a testament to the strength of the blue deck more than anything else. I ended up 4-1 against it with U/W Control, including some very close matches.

Game 1 of this matchup tends to be simpler to play from the control side. Since most of the versions of the deck have few ways (some have one or two) to interact with a game 1 Sphinx’s Revelation, you can usually just trade cards one for one and use Supreme Verdict to get value in order to get the blue player’s hand empty and then refill yours with Sphinx’s Revelation.

The hardest single card to beat when you’re unable to remove or counter it is certainly Bident of Thassa. Because the game plan of the U/W deck is conducive to allowing the opponent to get multiple creatures into play and gaining value from Supreme Verdict, it makes things considerably more difficult. Just Bident of Thassa and Mutavault can be extremely difficult to deal with. Thassa, Jace, and Bident all warrant a Detention Sphere, so you often have to be very careful about how you spend them.

Game 2 is a lot more difficult. Now the blue deck has access to counterspells as well, most notably Gainsay or Negate. While Supreme Verdict is uncounterable and counterspells are sometimes not too effective against Detention Sphere, because Sphere is played after the blue player taps out to resolve a threat like Bident or Thassa early in the game they are very effective against Sphinx’s Revelation.

The post-sideboard games are much grindier; be aware that when the blue player is committing few threats to the board it’s not always because they are playing around Supreme Verdict but sometimes because they have a hand that is heavily occupied by counterspells. Last Breath and Gainsay are both extremely good cards in this matchup. Gainsay counters literally every spell in the blue deck, and Last Breath removes every creature (except a Frostburn Weird with mana up or Aetherling if that is boarded in).

Here’s how I sideboarded against Mono-Blue Devotion:

-1 Ratchet Bomb

Ratchet Bomb is certainly "okay," but it’s very slow. Especially on the draw, you often want to leave up Last Breath, Syncopate, or Gainsay mana on turn 2.

-2 Dissolve

Dissolve is also a fine card, but it costs three mana, which is a little slow. I’m boarding in three Gainsays, and I don’t want my opening hands to have too many counterspells.

-2 Quicken

The ability to Verdict at instant speed is really cool, and Quicken + Verdict helps deal with Mutavault. Since we’re getting three Last Breaths, this is not as necessary, and these are fine to cut.

-1 Divination

I don’t love to cut card draw, but because you often need to leave your mana up in the early turns to try to counter the haymakers from the blue deck, I am fine cutting one Divination in this matchup.

+3 Last Breath

+3 Gainsay

The only other deck that I played against multiple times during the tournament was Mono-Black Devotion. This didn’t really come as a surprise to me since these have easily been the two most popular decks in Standard over the past month. I went 2-0 against true Mono-Black throughout the tournament.

The U/W versus Mono-Black matchup is a good one for U/W in my opinion. Usually the black deck is forced to play reasonably long games, trading one-for-one early in the game and trying to grind out card advantage with Underworld Connections, Erebos, or to a lesser degree Nightveil Specter. The problem for the black deck is that the blue deck is very well equipped to deal with its threats. Sure, it has Thoughtseize, but oftentimes the games still go very long. And in those games, it’s extremely difficult for the black deck to beat a Sphinx’s Revelation that was either held on to or drawn in the midgame.

In my experience, the games that are most often won by the black deck are ones where Underworld Connection resolves and the black player is able to brute force the U/W player. Even these games are sometimes close though thanks to Sphinx’s Revelation.

The black deck can rarely steal a game with a turn 2 Pack Rat, but a turn 2 Pack Rat can also be difficult as a control player since it forces you to react. If the black player can use Pack Rat and a copy or two in the early turns to put a lot of pressure on you, you will be forced to tap out (or tap low) to play a Detention Sphere or Supreme Verdict. Being forced to tap out might allow the black player a window to resolve the Detention Sphere or Supreme Verdict that otherwise would have been countered. In game 1, the black player also has cards that are dead against you, such as Doom Blade or Devour Flesh, and therefore can essentially make Rat tokens using those at "no risk."

Here’s how I sideboarded against Mono-Black Devotion:

-1 Ratchet Bomb

Really only effective against Underworld Connections. Also, because the cards you most want to Bomb are Connections and Nightveil Specter and the games go long, you end up not being able to use the Bombs late game because you don’t want to destroy your own Detention Spheres.

-2 Quicken

Quicken is low impact enough that it’s often going to be easy to cut if it doesn’t have tremendous upside to make room for higher-impact cards.

-1 Azorius Charm

I like Azorius Charm in this matchup, but I think it’s simply the worst card left in the deck.

+2 Negate

This counters Underworld Connections for two mana, which alone makes it close to an auto-include. But it can also counter discard spells in the midgame to protect Sphinx’s Revelation or your more powerful counterspells and can occasionally get a card like Whip of Erebos.

+1 Jace, Memory Adept

Jace is good here not as a win condition but as another way to try to get some card advantage. I have yet to use the 0 ability in this matchup. Usually Jace just draws you a card or two before getting destroyed by Hero’s Downfall, but if they don’t have it, the extra card every turn is usually enough to win you the game.

+1 Pithing Needle

Can help against Underworld Connections and occasionally turn off Erebos’ card draw ability or his Whip.

In the quarterfinals, I was paired against Darin Minard playing a R/W Burn deck. In game 1, I was able to survive long enough to cast Sphinx’s Revelation and win on the back of Azorius Charm to gain eight life with Elspeth tokens and a Mutavault. The game was well in hand at that point, but the eight life was enough to put the nail in the coffin and send us to game 2.

In the second game, I took a lot of damage early. I played a turn 2 Blind Obedience, which proved to be particularly useful since every time I cast a spell I had the option to spend a white mana to gain a life. This made things much more difficult for Darin because over the course of the game I probably gained something like eight life. Also, it rendered the haste of his Chandra’s Phoenixes useless, and I could use Detention Sphere or Supreme Verdict to eliminate them before even taking a hit. Darin wasn’t able to overcome the two-mana enchantment, and I won my way into the Top 4.

Semifinals vs. Carlos Reyes with G/R Devotion

Game 1

I was the higher seed, so I’d be on the play. My opening hand was pretty good, containing Divination, a good assortment of lands, and two copies of Supreme Verdict. Carlos got off to a good start and played turn 2 Ash Zealot followed by turn 3 Domri Rade after I had tapped out to draw two cards with my Divination. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet found a Detention Sphere, so the Domri clock was ticking. I did have a Mutavault, so I knew that if I got to six mana I could at least use Supreme Verdict and a Mutavault attack to set Domri back by two loyalty counters if I absolutely needed to before Carlos was able to ultimate it.

I was able to slow down Carlos a little bit with a turn 4 Jace. After he added a Boros Reckoner to the board, I was able to dig a little deeper into my deck by using Jace’s minus ability. I also chose to spend one of my copies of Supreme Verdict to remove his two creatures. I still had one left to buy me two turns against Domri, and I had another Jace in my hand so I’d be able to dig a little deeper to find a Detention Sphere. Also, I’d drawn a Sphinx’s Revelation, so if I was able to keep things at bay for a few more turns I thought I might be able to draw a bunch of cards and maybe pull away a little bit.

Carlos was able to add a Burning-Tree Emissary and an Ash Zealot to finish off Jace. Also, the BTE served as a blocker so I couldn’t hit his Domri, which was now on six loyalty counters, with my Mutavault. I still had one Supreme Verdict and one more turn before Domri would be able to ultimate, so if I wasn’t able to find anything I was almost committed to that line of play.

On turn 6, I had a few lines of play. I could pass and leave up Revelation for three. I could play a Jace and plus it or minus it, or I could Divination and leave Dissolve up. I chose to play Divination with Dissolve mana up because I thought that I’d be very likely to want to counter something. Also, if I left six mana up and I needed to Dissolve, I wouldn’t see as many cards, making it harder to find a Detention Sphere. Ultimately, I did cast Dissolve on his Fanatic of Mogis. Domri was now at seven. I think Carlos made a mistake here by attacking with both of his creatures. This allowed me to attack Domri without using my Supreme Verdict and keep that in the tank for a subsequent turn. I put Domri to five with Mutavault, played Jace, and ticked him up.

Carlos played another Fanatic of Mogis, killing Jace, and attacked me for four, putting me to ten life. On my turn, I had no choice other than to play Supreme Verdict and attack Domri with Mutavault. If I could manage to get through one turn at this point in the game without too much pressure, I knew I’d be able to cast Sphinx’s Revelation and put the game out of reach. Unfortunately, Carlos played and attacked me with a Stormbreath Dragon, putting me to six life.

When I went to my draw phase, I had three copies of Sphinx’s Revelation and a land in my hand. I needed some help to be able to beat the Dragon. If I drew a blank, Carlos could simply attack me and never tap a land so that monstrosity would always be lethal at instant speed. I’d be forced to Revelation for a small amount and try to hit a third Supreme Verdict most likely. Luckily for me, I drew for my turn, and the card was Elspeth, Sun’s Champion! I was able to play Elspeth and destroy the Stormbreath Dragon. Domri was still ticking up but not in danger of going ultimate anytime soon because Mutavault had been attacking it so much.

Finally, thanks to Elspeth being able to make Soldiers on my turn and Carlos only being able to add a Frostburn Weird and a Boros Reckoner to the board, I was able to pass with all my mana untapped. Even after using an Azorius Charm to protect Elspeth after Domri made Boros Reckoner fight one Soldier and kill another, I was able to cast a Sphinx’s Revelation for four. After I was able to follow that up with a Sphinx’s Revelation for seven on the following turn, the game was effectively over.

Game 2

Unfortunately for Carlos, game 2 really wasn’t much of a game. Carlos kept a two-land hand and came out of the gates with Ash Zealot. I had a Ratchet Bomb, so Carlos was unable to commit more two-drops to the board since he didn’t want to lose multiple creatures to a single Ratchet Bomb. In addition to that, he didn’t play a third land for a few turns. By the time Carlos played his third land, I had been able to cast two Divinations and made my land drops every turn. The turn Carlos played his fourth land, I cast a Sphinx’s Revelation for five. He was just too far behind because of his unlucky start, and the rest was academic.

Finals vs Marlon Gutierrez with B/W Devotion

I think Marlon’s deck actually has a better matchup than the traditional Mono-Black Devotion decks. In addition to four maindeck copies of Thoughtseize, Marlon’s deck had two copies of Duress and one copy of Sin Collector. Seven maindeck hand disruption spells is pretty powerful, and Sin Collector is especially good since it also creates some pressure. Admittedly, it’s only a 2/1, but it certainly makes decisions more difficult when you’re taking two damage per turn or if there is a pesky two-power creature around to attack a potential Jace, Architect of Thought.

In the sideboard, Marlon had another copy of Duress and two more copies of Sin Collector. He would be able to board out his dead removal spells for the discard spells mentioned and also Lifebane Zombie. While Lifebane Zombie has no targets to strip from my hand, at least it’s a 3/1 body that can apply some pressure and not a removal spell that will rot in Marlon’s hand.

Game 1

The first game played out pretty standardly for a game in which the control deck wins. The early game was spent mostly with one-for-ones:  Dissolve on Underworld Connections, Thoughtseize on Sphinx’s Revelation, Azorius Charm on Desecration Demon, Detention Sphere on another Desecration Demon, Supreme Verdict on Desecration Demon, and Supreme Verdict on Blood Baron. In this game, I drew a Sphinx’s Revelation in the midgame and was able to cast it for six, and Marlon was never in the game at that point. Eventually, I cast another Sphinx’s Revelation for fourteen with Elixir of Immortality in play, and that was enough for Marlon.

Game 2

In game 2, I mulliganed my opening hand because I only had one land. My six-card hand also only had one land, but I decided to keep it. My six cards were Island, Divination; Detention Sphere; Jace, Architect of Thought; Jace. Memory Adept; and Supreme Verdict. My hand obviously wasn’t great, but I felt like the probability to topdeck some lands made it worth keeping over trying to win a game in which I mulliganed to five against a deck with ten discard spells.

I basically drew perfectly for the first few turns of the game. Marlon played a discard spell on turn 2 to protect a turn 3 Underworld Connections. I had drawn a land on my first turn, and after having my Detention Sphere Thoughtseized, I drew Syncopate, which was able to stop his Underworld Connections from resolving. I then drew another land and cast Divination into two more.

Marlon had another Underworld Connections, and this time I had no immediate answer. I spent my next two turns casting Jace, Architect of Thought and Jace, Memory Adept, which were dealt with by a Pithing Needle and a Hero’s Downfall. I was able to play a Pithing Needle of my own on Swamp to deal with Marlon’s Underworld Connections and then another Hero’s Downfall dealt with my Elspeth. After playing Supreme Verdict to clear the board, the game was pretty close to even.

I made a mistake on one of my next turns by playing a Jace and using the minus ability. It was caught quickly before any cards were revealed, so it didn’t lead to any major problems. However, I could have really been punished since my other card was Divination. I played the Divination anyway and drew into land and Negate. Marlon followed up with a Blood Baron. A couple turns later after taking a hit, Marlon adding a Mutavault to the clock, and having nothing but Negates in hand, I drew into a Detention Sphere. Since Detention Sphere can’t deal with Blood Baron directly, I had no choice but to Sphere the Pithing Needles so I could dig for an answer to Blood Baron with Jace, Architect of Thought.

Just as I had made a Pithing Needle related mistake a few turns earlier, over the next few turns it would be Marlon. Forgetting that Pithing Needle was no longer in play, he didn’t use his Underworld Connections for several turns. However, I couldn’t find a Revelation and ended up succumbing to his Mutavault.

Game 3

The third game was a bit like the first game except unfortunately for me this time it was the B/W deck that operated just how it’s scripted. Marlon was able to use discard spell after discard spell to strip my hand of card draw and answers. He was able to get early pressure with Sin Collector and a Lifebane Zombie. I missed a land drop on my fourth turn, which certainly didn’t help matters. Ultimately, I was able to get Elspeth into play, but after a Hero’s Downfall from Marlon, there was little I could do since I was at the mercy of the top of my deck thanks to all his hand disruption. I had one last draw to hit a Supreme Verdict or Detention Sphere, but it was a Syncopate. Marlon had earned his trophy and the title of Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth Champion.

It was a good tournament, and I’m very happy with the deck. I’m also very happy that I decided to brave the weather and make sure I got to the Grand Prix. Finally, this weekend I don’t have to travel anywhere because the StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Invitational will be in my current hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. I expect this will be a fun tournament, like Invitationals always are, but also probably pretty big. The Invitational is the last tournament I have scheduled for about a month, so I really hope I can make it count!