One Step Ahead – Know Your Enemy

Gerry Thompson puts his brewing hat on, given the banned announcement coming up. What decks can we play that don’t include Jace, the Mind Sculptor?

I’m not sure everyone understands how little playtesting I actually do. Before a new format, like say, the last SCG Open in DC, I’ll play
MTGO and live for about a week and half. Since DC, I’ve rarely logged onto MTGO, as I understand the decks in the format and the matchups.
There’s not much point in playing games anymore because I can analyze lists and see exactly the range of win percentages I’m going to have,
depending on how good my opponent is.

Instead, I spend most of my time with a notebook in hand. I like to keep updated lists on all of the biggest decks. After all, you need to know your
enemy. I also spend a fair amount of time coming up with new takes on current decks or coming up with new decks entirely.

Staying up to date on your opponents is probably the most necessary thing that I do. Far too many players are concerned only with keeping their deck
tech up to date, but you need to build your deck with the opposition in mind. Predicting how your enemies will adapt each week is key to success.

When I posted my Caw-Blade list from the Invitational, there were many cries of, “You can’t play that deck! You’ll get crushed by Valakut.” Well
friends, I was planning for a tournament in real life, where Valakut is non-existent. This is what I’ve played recently on MTGO, and yes, I’ve had to
fight Valakut a number of times.

If you’re going to play the Edgar Flores style Caw-Blade, which means the streamlined, no nonsense, heavy counterspell version of the deck, I would
recommend Gitaxian Probes. Bing Luke wrote a wonderful article detailing
his success with
Probes here.

Probe ends up being awesome when you have a ton of reactive cards like Spell Pierce. However, if you are without Spell Pierces, the extra information
of when to hold open counter mana is kind of useless. You get to see what they have, but it’s unlikely that it changes the way you play the game.

Not much else is different. I wanted more counterspells for random decks like Valakut and RUG, which made Probe an attractive option. I expected to
face fewer Caw-Blade mirrors, which meant I could cut a Divine Offering. If I wasn’t going to be killing their Equipment reliably in game one, Emeria
Angel didn’t seem very good, so I moved them to the sideboard.

Cutting all the Spellskites is an experiment, but so far I’ve been very happy with the change. Dispel is a card that I’m very excited to play with
whenever the metagame calls for it. I used to side in some Spellskites against Divine Offerings, but Dispel does it much better.

Onto the enemies!


I’m not saying these decks are going to crush Caw-Blade. You need to play tight and probably draw the right cards. If you accomplish that, you
could be just like Matt Landstrom. That guy—and most of his testing partners—are stone-kold killers with Vampires.

It used to be that you just needed to untap with Stoneforge Mystic to kill them, but that isn’t the case anymore. Vampires is fully loaded with
Dismembers, Go for the Throats, Manic Vandals, and Crushes to the point where just because you land a Batterskull doesn’t mean that you’re

My new plan against them is to kill or trade with all of their threats, eventually sticking an Emeria Angel, Jace, or some Squadron Hawks. If they have
no pressure, you don’t mind trading one-for-one with them over and over again. The problem is when you keep trading your turns while they are
hitting you for two or four damage.

Clearly the problem with this plan is Bloodghast. For that reason, I like my removal to be of the Celestial Purge variety (which also doubles against
Splinter Twin), but you can’t have your deck be all two-drops. You’ll really start hurting on turn 3 and 5 when you’re playing fewer spells
per turn than your opponent is. If you’re on the draw, catching up on turn 3 is very possible if you have two-drop plus removal spell.

Condemn and Oust are the other options, but I suppose Dismember #4 could be as well. I would want these removal spells for RDW, Vampires, and some of
the G/x decks. If it were an instant spot removal spell, I would bring it in against Splinter Twin, but then you run the risk of being buried by Jace
when you’re holding a ton of reactive cards. Three Dismembers is fine, but playing the full four could get risky against the burn-based aggro
decks, so sideboarding the fourth doesn’t seem like a viable option.

I feel like Oust is better, since it hits utility creatures and six-drops, but it isn’t a permanent solution to Bloodghast, nor is it better
against the haste creatures from RDW. It’s a case of pick your poison, I suppose, and I’d rather hedge against the field by playing Oust.
It’s probably never going to be great, but it will get the job done against almost everything.

Back to the Vampires side of things, sideboarding is something you’ll need to learn how to do. I’m sure there is a correct sideboarding
strategy, but I’m not sure what it is. Some people have said that “obviously” you side out Pulse Tracker vs. the Squadron
Hawk/Stoneforge Mystic deck, but I don’t feel like that’s 100% correct.

Their plan is to literally kill everything while simultaneously clocking you, so I don’t think they can afford to cut one-drops. Arc Trails and
Gatekeepers go a long way to keeping the board clear. Who wants to Celestial Purge a Pulse Tracker anyway?


Plenty of my friends have had problems with this one lately, which isn’t too surprising. Having Dismember as the maindeck removal spell of choice
definitely hurts, but not having 4-6 spot removal in the sideboard is where Caw-Blade is really losing its edges. Spellskites are solid against RDW and
Vamps, but oftentimes Condemn will be exactly what you need. Most of the time, Spellskite is just going to turn on one of their removal spells.

Patrick Sullivan, while a genius at designing and playing red decks, perhaps sticks to the 4/4/4 style of building decks a tad too much. For example, I
could easily see a 21st land, as Shrine of Burning Rage, Staggershock, and Spikeshot Elder aren’t cheap. Arc Trail and Spikeshot Elder are
probably cards that you don’t want to draw multiples of, so I could see shaving one of each of them.

I wouldn’t be opposed to adding some Burst Lightnings into the mix. Flame Slash is a clever solution to the Spellskite “problem,” but
Dismember has to be better. If I cared about the red matchup, I could board Kor Firewalkers, but that doesn’t even seem worth it considering they
should have Dismember. Leyline of Sanctity is likely the better choice.


Chikara Nakajima, a very underrated player, nearly clinched his first title in Singapore wielding Boros. Despite his 9-0 record against Caw-Blade to
that point, he faltered against likely the best player we will see in our generation, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. He is a true end boss. The only other
person with more end boss qualities is probably Martin Juza. LSV would make a fitting end boss as well, but come on, he’s just so non-threatening
that you can’t take him seriously.

Anyway, Boros is one of those decks that people always thought had a good matchup against Caw-Blade but never did because of how quickly information
spreads these days. Caw-Blade players would often have updated decklists while the Boros players were sleeving up the same toys.

For those wondering how my last week’s article
(and subsequent forum posts) relates to Boros, I’d say that Mirran Crusader passes the test in this deck. When you have Goblin Guide and Steppe
Lynx to threaten Jace as well, suddenly Crusader becomes a lot better.

At its core, Boros is a mono-white deck splashing Goblin Guide, Lightning Bolt, and Koth of the Hammer. That doesn’t sound very good to me.
Goblin Guide is such a dangerous card in this format unless you truly don’t care about giving your opponents extra cards. Boros is mostly
shooting for the same strategy as Caw-Blade, which is a midrange, grind-em-out strat.

The current Caw-Blade vs. Boros matchup will likely look similar on both sides. Each player has the same removal spells for Equipment and Stoneforge
Mystics that the opponent has, but one happens to have some early beaters instead of Jaces. Boros is hoping to capitalize on an early tempo advantage;
that isn’t very likely to happen.

Surely we can do better with the mono-white cards we want to play in our Caw-Blade strategy. What about playing another color that isn’t red?
Yes, blue would be the obvious suggestion, but let’s try something different for a change.


A few things:

1) Players seem to think that Lotus Cobra, Fauna Shaman, and Vengevine are integral to the success of these green midrange decks.

2) I’m very scared of turn 2 Mirran Crusader or turn 2 Sword of War and Peace.

3) Nature’s Claim and Dismember might be the best maindeckable utility spells at the moment.

I remember when Valakut was legal and players like Matt Sperling were championing decks like G/W Fauna Shaman, but always bemoaned their Valakut
matchup. I always wondered why they didn’t just max on Swords and Llanowar Elves and have always kept that in mind. While Valakut is mostly dead,
it still exists online, and there are similar decks in real life that a turn 2 Sword can dismantle.

Similarly Mirran Crusader, while powerful, fails the Jace test. As I mentioned in the Boros section, when he’s backed up by some other little
beaters, failing the Jace test no longer matters. Being castable a turn sooner also helps.

No Batterskull? Hell yeah! This is just theory talking, and the idea came from Drew Levin, but it seems like playing Swords is just better in this
deck. As long as you have Feast and Famine, you can negate their Batterskull, and you rarely want to fetch your own.


I played a train wreck of a Darkblade deck at SCG Louisville, but the high point was definitely a pair of maindeck Dark Tutelages. Tutelage led me to
believe that I could play straight W/B, foregoing Jace entirely, which might not be the worst thing to start testing considering the banned/restricted
update is coming soon.

The Surgical Extraction sideboard plan is something that seems awesome against Titan decks and Splinter Twin decks, but something that I haven’t
actually gotten to put into practice. Despise seems necessary to facilitate that plan, but I don’t really like Despise maindeck. It seems like it
will miss too often for my liking.

My Darkblade lists were mostly W/B splashing Preordain, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and occasionally Mana Leak. My mana base was:

4 Creeping Tar Pit
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Darkslick Shores
4 Marsh Flats
3 Glacial Fortress
2 Arid Mesa
2 Swamp
4 Plains

The main concern was having UU untapped on turn 4. That typically meant drawing two Scars duals early or having Glacial Fortress plus Plains. Overall,
it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Once you remove Jace from the equation, the mana base becomes fine again, and you can play some Tectonic

However, there is another option. Splashing blue in the W/B deck for Creeping Tar Pit and Phyrexian mana spells might not be the worst idea. When I was
considering this option, Mental Misstep seemed like a great sideboard card against Grixis Splinter Twin or Darkblade, mostly for their Duresses. With
those decks falling off the map, Misstep doesn’t sound as great, but a nearly free Tar Pit splash is nothing to scoff at.

If I wanted to do that, it would probably look like:

3 Creeping Tar Pit
3 Seachrome Coast
1 Darkslick Shores
4 Marsh Flats
1 Verdant Catacombs
2 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Arid Mesa
3 Swamp
5 Plains
2 Tectonic Edge

You might notice the slight difference between the numbers of Swords and Batterskulls between all of these lists, and don’t assume that I make
those kinds of decisions lightly. G/W has the accelerators and can ignore Batterskull; W/B has removal and discard for Batterskull. There’s
little need for Feast and Famine, and the life gain helps offset Dark Tutelage.

Honestly, I’m strongly considering playing some of these decks in the future, especially if something gets banned. I would say that Vampires is
like a weak RDW, and Boros is a weak Caw-Blade of any variety. However, B/W and G/W both intrigue me and are the first decks in a while that make me
want to fire up MTGO. My gut impression says that W/B is likely the better deck, and also more my style.