One Step Ahead – Dreading the SCG Invitational

Thursday, December 2nd – Gerry’s been banging his head against the wall, looking for a suitable Standard deck for the StarCityGames.com Invitational at Richmond this weekend. Will he resort to Valakut or is there something else?

I’m lookin’ at every decklist
I’m missin’ those key landfalls
I’m stayin’ up all night brewing
Hittin’ my head against the wall

Has it really come to this?

(Note: This list isn’t entirely perfect but is merely a list I was testing to figure out what was good and what wasn’t.)

I have nothing against Valakut. It’s a very powerful deck and currently one of the two kings on Magic Online (the other being Vampires), but there’s just something wrong with playing a deck for high stakes when you can’t really interact with your opponent. Am I really putting my faith in the roll of some dice? Am I a western outlaw who can only get a thrill from the turn of a card?

For this weekend, Primeval Titan, your love will be my drug.

The sick thing is, if by some God-given miracle, I do manage to place well in the Richmond SCG Invitational, and someone didn’t talk me out of playing Valakut in the meantime, do I go on to play it at Worlds as well? If I finish well in the Invitational, does that mean that Valakut is truly absurd, and I should play it if I plan on doing well at Worlds, or does it further enforce the fact that Valakut is a luck-based deck? If I do poorly, does it mean that I ran below expectation and should then play it at Worlds to try to mise again?

I, for one, am interested in the ending of my story.

So, where was I? Ah, yes, banging my head against the wall trying to find an acceptable Standard deck.

I started with Koros, which I believe was the best deck for the Kentucky Open. I’m not sure what happened, but I quickly succumbed to U/B and U/W Control decks after starting a healthy 4-0. U/B is definitely a positive matchup, but U/W is a different story if they’re packing Days of Judgment, which unfortunately seems to be the case nowadays.

Goblin Guide and similar, mindlessly aggressive cards didn’t fit my ideal game plan, which was that of controlling the board. Steppe Lynx appears to be a mutated Goblin Guide with no drawback, and that’s sort of the case, but I’d typically use it for aggression early and then an Abyss late. If Abyssing them doesn’t lead to a victory, it’s probably because they died instead. As much as I like a good, long, drawn-out game of Magic, killing my opponent on turn 4 seems acceptable as well. I still get the W, but it’s just not as satisfying.

Dispel happens to counter Consume the Meek, and Jace is cute with Squadron Hawk. Blue cards tend to prolong the game (or I suppose, lock it up when you counter their turn 4 Day of Judgment), and the only red card I liked was Cunning Sparkmage anyway, which was an easy splash. Remembering Jeremy Neeman made Top 8 of Pro Tour San Juan with a similar strategy provided the inspiration necessary to continue brewing.

Eventually I just cut the Sparkmages, and this is where I ended up:

As it turned out, Jace didn’t need help from Squadron Hawk to be effective. Even when I had that interaction, I would typically be Jace-ing into better spells anyway. U/W Aggro wasn’t even close to the worst ever (that honor would go to Vampires), but it felt incredibly weak. I slowly moved away from Steppe Lynx and more towards Gideon Jura.

Two weeks ago seems like such a long time now, and I can’t really remember what happened after I started playing U/W Control. There are plenty of lists out there to try, including ones that abuse Contagion Clasp like Kurt Spiess’s, or Venser like everybody else. Tumble Magnet was awesome in both versions.

Ratchet Bomb was similarly surprising. I liked Powder Keg back in the day, but the pseudo-reprint didn’t look up to snuff in our new Magicverse. Everyone’s casting costs seem to be spread out, and the current removal is typically better against creatures. There are some Quests out there, and Ratchet Bomb does kill planeswalkers but only after they get value from them.

Like Tumble Magnet, Ratchet Bomb’s real strength lies in the fact that you can use your early turns setting up a solid line of defense for Jace, Gideon, Elspeth, or Venser. Once I curved out in that type of fashion, I realized that there was no longer any need for me to be casting Journey to Nowhere on turn 5 out of necessity. Journeying then disrupted my curve heavily, whereas Ratchet Bomb or Tumble Magnet made any draw involving a planeswalker look like I was living the dream.

Despite all that, and how good the new U/W decks probably are, they weren’t focused enough for me. Elves is focused, as are Valakut and Eldrazi Green. Those decks have a game plan and execute them quickly, but modern control decks function like so:

Turn one: Maybe play a card.

Turn two: Hopefully play a card.

Turn three: Play a card.

Turn four: Play a card.

Turn five: Play a card.

Turn six: Play a card.

Turn seven: Look at all these sweet cards I played! Are you dead yet? Okay fine, play a card.

There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s going on. Either they’re durdling with Venser, or just one-for-one-ing their opponents until a Titan can mop up the rest. There’s no focus, lynchpin, or even a game plan. How can they be called control decks when barely half a turn goes by where they have complete control? Even midrange does better on a good day.

With no counterspells, no card drawers than can’t simply be attacked or Bolted, it’s difficult to stay in control once you’ve got it. The cards are so good now that everyone else is just one topdeck away from getting back in the game. That isn’t a world I wanted to live in.

Destructive Force is the only card in Standard that comes even remotely close to what I want. In a world of Ramp decks and Bloodghast, Destructive Force is embarrassing, and that’s before you consider that nearly every other deck is packing 6/6s.

Still, I tried to make fetch happen.

Another thing I tried was U/G/R Pyromancer Ascension with Andrey Yanyuk’s Bestial Menaces. That card was incredibly sweet against aggro decks but was a bit lacking against control or Ramp.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I stay MTGO-rich after playing with some of these decks for weeks.

If you want a deck that’s flimsy as hell, go ahead and play either of the R/U/G decks. I have no idea how R/U/G D-Force was a deck last season, but I wanted to try it, and I’m glad I did. The lessons learned there told me to return to my roots.

Other than Valakut, U/R is the deck I’ve had by far the best record with. Careful planning, mana management, and overall play are necessary to achieve the type of record that I’ve had, though. This isn’t a deck that you get to blow your opponents out with. Every game is won by inches.

While I gave Nick Spagnolo a ton of flak for running Trinket Mage in his various blue decks, I actually like it in U/R, as long as the plan is to blow them out with Destructive Force. Brittle Effigy kills the bigger creatures, Chimeric Mass is a sick beater that lives through D-Force, and Everflowing Chalice speeds along the entire process. Post-board, Elixir gains a lot of life against things like Vampires and Valakut or recycles your counterspells against Eldrazi Green and blue mirrors.

Against aggro, I’d typically side in Bolt, Clasm, Titan, Elixir, and Destructive Force. Into the Roil is solid depending on the matchup. Typically some of the more expensive counterspells come out.

Against control, I like the Reins, Roil, applicable counterspells, Edge, Jace, and Elixir. The removal sucks most of the time; although keeping in Effigy is fine, and I typically side out the Wurmcoil Engines, since you end up killing with Mass, Volition Reins, or Jace most of the time anyway.

As always, I wasn’t satisfied. I remembered Koros and what I liked about that deck and figured that I could try that shell in a Naya package. This is what I came up with:

I liked the feel of it, but it was horrible in topdeck wars. Without Bloodbraid Elf and Knight of the Reliquary, Naya just doesn’t have the raw power. There are basically zero powerful three-drops besides Leatherback Baloth, and maybe that was good enough.

I felt that the Fauna Shaman into land-destruction creatures would be good enough against Ramp, but it often ended up being too slow. There were no good answers to a quick Primeval Titan, and Goblin Ruinblaster just wasn’t cutting it.

Culling Dais was a cool card, but as I said, the topdecks weren’t very powerful. Even drawing six cards didn’t put me very far ahead.

Vengevines were awesome against control decks, as always. Titans used to brick-wall Vengevines, but with Cunning Sparkmage plus Basilisk Collar or Journey to Nowhere, they were no longer an issue. Aside from Vengevine and Fauna Shaman, not much action was happening.

I still liked the idea but didn’t know how to go about fixing it. In the meantime, I tried various U/G Fauna Shaman decks, with and without splashes. Cunning Sparkmage was still awesome, but splicing in a Grand Architect engine seemed more powerful. Cards like Molten-Tail Masticore and Eldrazi Monument were things I already wanted to play, and Architect made those very close to absurd.

The trick was figuring out what blue creatures to play. One Aether Adept and Clone were likely to be played, but what else? Hedron Crab, Enslave Cryptologist, and Riddlesmith were all solid but not great. I kept coming up with eighty-card maindecks and not wanting to cut anything. More time was necessary.

Most of these decks feel short a playable or two, so I can’t wait to see what the next set brings. Until then, I guess I’ll play the bad-guy role and search up some Valakuts. If any of ya’ll have some Valakut technology, I’d be glad to hear it.