One Step Ahead – Playing With The Best And Worst Decks

Gerry Thompson went to the double PTQ weekend in Richmond. His Caw-Blade deck goes in some interesting directions from the rest of the metagame, and he provides a solid Valakut list for SCG Open: Pittsburgh this weekend.

Plane tickets to SCG Open: Seattle were a little too expensive for me to justify going, despite that city being full of awesome people. Instead, I attended a pair of local PTQs, even though I’m qualified for Pro Tour Philadelphia. I wanted to game, and this was the best outlet for that. Having some experiences to write about would be more widely accepted than an MD5 draft primer, which is what I’ve been spending my time doing on Magic Online.

While some would certainly disagree with the decision, I wouldn’t mind being in a spot to concede to a friend who needed the slot. If I happened to win a ticket to Philly myself, I wouldn’t be complaining either.

Matt Scott and I had been working on some new technology and shared it with Jarvis Yu. We were all excited about the prospect of dominating a couple PTQs with it, but then Matt couldn’t attend. He asked me to keep it under wraps for SCG Open: Pittsburg next week, and I obliged him.

Jarvis and I ended up sleeving up boring, old Caw-Blade. For the record, this would be the “best” that I’m referencing in my article title.

Here is what I played in the first PTQ:

I don’t typically give a card-by-card breakdown, but I feel like it’s necessary here. My “Caw-Blade” deck is somewhat different from most players’, and I feel like going card-by-card will help give you a general idea of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Hero of Bladehold is exactly what you want in Tim Pskowski Caw-Blade deck. He’s powerful, demands an answer, and is pure aggression.

I hate Hero of Bladehold.

Don’t get me wrong; the card is great, but it’s not the way I want to play Magic. I feel like the Caw and Blade aspects both lend themselves better to a control shell than an aggressive one. If you want to play Heroes and Swords, tell me why you aren’t playing Birds and Llanowar Elves. For Spell Pierce? If you really wanted to, you could play that as well.

It seems like there are controlling aspects in the Hero-Blade deck, but I don’t want a mishmash. At the very least, I want my cards to be versatile. Hero just isn’t versatile. It blocks okay and attacks really well, but that’s about all it does. What happens when you need an answer, and all you draw are Heroes? What if you need blockers but have to suicide your Hero (and probably your tokens as well) in order to get them?

In my eyes, Emeria Angel is a much superior Hero, especially in a format with a lot of Caw-Blade. Hero might beat Emeria Angel in a one-on-one fight, but Emeria Angel beats the rest of their deck almost singlehandedly.

The reason I don’t fear opposing Heroes is because I’m willing to play a lot of removal, especially Day of Judgment. They might be able to kill my Emeria with Dismember, but at least she’ll leave a token or two behind, whereas Hero gives you no value.

Instead of functioning like a fish deck, I’d like to be a control deck that has the option of functioning like a fish deck, similarly to Faeries. Having options has always benefited me as a player, and I’m just not comfortable turning my guys sideways every turn. It feels like my fate is in my opponent’s hands and not my own. At least when I’m making a bunch of complicated decisions, if I lose it’s my fault.

Squadron Hawk/Emeria Angel:

They are both aggro and control, depending on where the game state is. By far the most efficient Sword carriers because if they kill your first guy, you still have more to hook up next turn.

Blade Splicer:

I liked Blade Splicer or at least the idea of it. It seemed like a slightly more aggressive Squadron Hawk, but again, it was less versatile. Splicer (or rather, its Golem) attacked well and blocked fine vs. most things, but it didn’t fly. There were also several creatures that outclassed it quickly, namely Hero of Bladehold and Emeria Angel.

I sided them out in the majority of matchups and decided I wouldn’t play them on Sunday. I didn’t need another random beater. If I wanted a three-drop that carried a Sword and provided some value, I’d probably play Sea Gate Oracle.

Consecrated Sphinx:

Typically, I’m not a fan of random beaters. Sometimes it’s necessary, like with my U/R Frost Titan deck from States this past year, but most of the time I’d rather be beating down with Squadron Hawk or something. I don’t like it when my win conditions, while powerful and certainly win their fair share of games, rot in my hand until I’m able to cast them.

However, something changed. With Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor gone, the U/W Control (or Caw-Blade, or whatever you want to call it) matchup now revolves around each player trading bombs. A Gideon here, an Oblivion Ring there, and after a few turns of that, it becomes apparent that a trump is necessary.

Both Sun Titan and Consecrated Sphinx are great at what they do, but Sun Titan is on the weaker end this time. If they were blowing up our Oblivion Rings then maybe Sun Titan would be a tad better, but that typically isn’t the case.

When you cast Sun Titan, often nothing relevant happens. When you cast Consecrated Sphinx, they groan, and you start peeling extras. There is a clear winner in the six-drop category.

The mana base, cantrips, and Everflowing Chalice:

Emeria Angel, Gideon Jura, Consecrated Sphinx, and the necessity of casting Day of Judgment turn three against Tempered Steel led me to believe that some number of Everflowing Chalices would be a good addition. I didn’t want to draw multiples, so I played enough that I would see it often enough while making it nearly impossible for me to draw multiples.

With two Chalices, I felt like I could go down to 26 land, but I also added a cantrip to compensate. Ponder got the nod, although See Beyond and Jace Beleren both seemed like fine candidates. After playing with it in combination with Squadron Hawk and fetchlands necessary to power Emeria Angel, I have to say that Ponder might actually be better than Preordain in Caw-Blade.

You dig a little deeper to find that Hawk, and once you do, you get to Impulse whenever you want. It was very good for me, and I recommended playing two Ponders and two Preordains to my buddy Josh Cho in the Sunday PTQ. I thought that it was closer to right, but I also wanted him to try it out.

I definitely don’t mind one Chalice, as drawing one is almost always good. I cast it for two several times to blank my opponents’ Pierces and Leaks. It is just colorless mana though, which I’m not a fan of. I’m not playing Inkmoth Nexus because it messes with my mana base, so I definitely don’t want to go overboard on Chalices either.

Inkmoth is a card that I tried a long time ago and was never impressed with. It seemed so good in theory, but if I was ahead, I didn’t need it, and if I was behind, it wasn’t going to save me. There are those situations where the game is close, and having an extra body and some more options would be nice.

However, what about the games where a Nexus screws you because it only makes colorless? Those games have happened to me, and the upside doesn’t make up for the downside in my opinion. That’s not even to mention that post-board, your opponents will be aggressively attacking your Swords. Most players fear those the most, and when your Swords are all dead, your Nexi aren’t very impressive.

The counter suite:

Edgar likes to play a very aggressive, Day of Judgment—free list with plenty of counterspells. Being able to untap with Sword of Feast and Famine and still have shields up for next turn is very powerful. It almost assuredly means you’ll be able to connect with the Sword again. His counterspells also make any tempo advantage he gets more dangerous.

With this slower, more controlling version of U/W, the counterspells are just as good here, but for different reasons. I need a way to survive the early game, and once I get to a point where I can switch roles into an Edgar-style aggression mode, they are great there as well.

Perhaps I should have played a fourth Mana Leak because of that, but I’m not a big fan of Leak on the draw, or in multiples against some decks. It’s typically better to have an opening hand with Leak than without though, so going forward I may make that change.

Spell Pierce is a card that I either love or hate. Right now, I hate it. Everyone is playing it, and therefore everyone is playing around it. By not including it in my list when everyone “knows” that U/W plays Spell Pierce means that they are going to play around it. I don’t even have to have it in my deck in order for that to happen.

Instead of Spell Pierce, I turned to Mental Misstep. While not nearly as impressive as it is in Legacy, Misstep is still good enough for Standard. Your opponent has to have a very odd draw in order for it to be a dead card, or they are playing Valakut. Still, post-board against Valakut, they are going to have some amount of Nature’s Claims, so Misstep goes from being useless to one of your best cards.

Deprive is another solid option and one that could easily take the place of the fourth Mana Leak. However, if you insist on playing with Inkmoth Nexus, then Deprive probably has no place in your deck. If you want to have a fist full of counterspells, having a Deprive that you can cast on turn five with little drawback is much better than that fourth Leak that they’ll be able to play around.

Sure, sometimes you have Deprive on turn two and want to counter their Squadron Hawk, but there are also the times when you get to counter that turn ten Primeval Titan. With all of the counterspells being so conditional these days, you have to take gambles.

The removal suite:

Dismember, while previously a free roll thanks to Batterskull, is now quite costly. It’s one of the best answers to Hero of Bladehold and Deceiver Exarch, so I wanted access to some, but the life loss was too relevant.

I sold my sets of M12 and gave away my deck from the Draft Open that I played, so I didn’t have any Timely Reinforcements. No one in the room seemed to have any either, as they were all playing with them. If I had access to those, Dismember would have been a little better, but I’m still not sure I could justify playing more than two.

Oblivion Ring was amazing for me all day. The mirrors I played often came down to Into the Roil and Oblivion Rings tricks. Revoke Existence would have been awesome in those matchups.

I found it odd that Edgar didn’t play any Oblivion Rings considering how good it was for me. Outside of the U/W mirror, it does seem a little slow against RDW, Vampires, Valakut, Splinter Twin, and Tempered Steel.1

Think about it though. What other card kills Koth, Bloodghast, Primeval Titan, and Tempered Steel? Sure, it’s basically dead against Splinter Twin unless you can trick them into mainphasing a Deceiver Exarch, but that’s a lot of versatility from a white card. Into the Roil is cool and everything, but Oblivion Ring is better.

Gideon Jura:

The format hasn’t exactly slowed down, but without Stoneforge Mystic around, you should be able to slow them down yourself, at least long enough to be able to cast Gideon. While three may have been a bit overboard, I’m more than fine with playing two Gideons. He’s solid in the mirror matchup, demands an answer against Splinter Twin, and is obviously great against aggro decks.

His place against Valakut has been long debated, but I’ve been more than happy with Gideon there. He’s nearly unkillable and puts them on a quick clock when he’s holding a Sword.

Additionally, my sideboard plan of Torpor Orb plus Leyline of Sanctity against Valakut made Gideon an all-star. With Leyline in play, Gideon is virtually immortal.


As I said, the Leylines and Orbs were for Valakut, among other things. Those are two of the most powerful hate cards you can play in the format. Yes, there is a negative interaction between Torpor Orb and Squadron Hawk, and no, I don’t really mind.

If Torpor Orb is shutting down nearly their entire deck on its own, do you really care if you draw a Hawk midgame and can’t get value? Ideally you play the Hawk first, then the Orb, and then your deck has nothing left that is affected by it (after I side out my useless Blade Splicers of course).

Torpor Orb’s other major use is against Splinter Twin. Leyline, however, is good against a multitude of decks. Vampires and RDW both want to whittle down your life total with creatures before finishing you off with burn spells, so Leyline is basically game over against those decks.

You still need plenty of spot removal to make sure you don’t die to their random beaters, especially difficult-to-kill ones like Bloodghast and Chandra’s Phoenix. Thankfully, the Phoenix is nullified by your Leylines, but Oblivion Ring really shines against the red decks. There are still players that insist on siding them out though.

Hopefully you get the gist by now. I want a control deck that can shift roles, not an aggro deck with some controlling elements.

The tournament was about what I expected it to be. Lots of U/W, some Twin, Valakut, RDW, and Tempered Steel. I was 2-0 before I got paired against someone I knew. After that concession, I rattled off two more wins before losing to a Valakut deck who I think eventually won the tournament. That loss was almost certainly my fault though. At least I learned a lot about the matchup should I play this U/W deck in the future.

Since I was dead in the tournament, I decided to take Calosso up on his offer to draft against some, in his words, “random idiots.” Well, my first match of our 3v3 draft was against a Pro Tour and Nationals champion. By the time I had won my match against said champion, Calosso and Kurt Spiess, the recipient of my concession who was currently IDing into Top 8, had managed to rack up five losses between them.

Both of them had R/B decks with ten playables each, whereas I had a respectable U/B control deck. Fifth-pick Call to the Grave pack one? What the hell?

For the second day, I wanted to switch it up. Playing U/W both days when I’m just trying to concede to people is pretty pointless. Eventually, I was going to run into one of the ten or so people that I liked in the room and pack ’em up.

I decided that it would make for a far better article if I were going to sleeve up Valakut as well. That one doesn’t get enough attention and is definitely solid enough to warrant it. Once Josh Cho gave me a call and asked if I could get him a deck, it was settled. I was going to make the Vampire master level up and yield my U/W deck, while I was going to regress back to my Primeval Titan days.

Kenny Mayer expressed some interest in playing Valakut, so I texted him the list with the intention of him building it for me and potentially discussing ideas. Once I got back to our hotel and saw French Nationals coverage, I immediately changed my mind. I wanted to play Olivier Ruel’s deck!

Check this thing out:

The Razorfoot Griffin should probably be a Razor Hippogriff, and the sideboard was short two cards, but man was I excited! Sadly, Kenny Mayer had been overworked building decks for his friends, seeing as how he’s such a nice guy. He didn’t feel like building me yet another deck, which I definitely understood.

Here is the Valakut deck I played:

Obviously, I was very worried about combo, and with zero sweeper effects, I wasn’t that concerned with aggro decks. I still had some removal for Tempered Steel and Baloths for red decks, so it felt fine.

However, I feel like I got (at least) two things wrong. The first one is that you need a sweeper. The second is that Solemn Simulacrum is incredibly overrated. EdB, aka Shooter, has been berating me for not playing Oracle of Mul Daya, and that’s probably fair. However, since he hasn’t taken the time to dispense this knowledge to others with an article, I’m going to blame him.

I used to like Oracle a lot, but it only seems good against U/W. As is, U/W is all over the place, so maybe it’s Oracle’s time. Solemn just seemed so new and flashy that I had to play with it. If I could do it over again, I’d probably play two Solemns and three Oracles.

My maindeck Nature’s Claims seemed clever given that my main enemies would be Splinter Twin, Tempered Steel, and Sword of Feast and Famine. As it turns out, they are not so good against Goblin Arsonist and Elite Vanguard.

I didn’t win a game en route to my 0-2 drop. My draws weren’t the best, but then again, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. The Memoricide plan is viable, but I doubt it’s necessary. It takes up many slots, isn’t all that necessary to begin with, and honestly isn’t even that good.

Granted, most Twin decks won’t mind tapping out to play some card drawing when you only have three mana available. What’s the worst that could happen, a Solemn?

The mirror is a race to Primeval Titan, but if you’re spending all your time and resources trying to resolve a Memoricide quickly, it’s not very likely that you have gas left over to cast your own Titan on time. At that point, you run the risk of losing to their backup threats, or simply getting Act of Aggression-ed out of the game.

One thing I was scared about was getting my Overgrown Battlement Twisted Imaged. It made me wonder if Lotus Cobra wasn’t better, and maybe it is. The Twisted Image fear is just that, though.

Overall, the above Valakut list is solid. I like the maindeck with the changes proposed, and if the sideboard had some sweepers, probably Slagstorms as they are best vs. Tempered Steel, then it could be a contender.

If I wanted to win, I’d stick with U/W though. You can’t really argue with Edgar and Nick’s performance at SCG Open: Seattle. Another thing you should take notice of is Hive Mind’s domination of the Legacy portion. I think we may be seeing a return of Daze, Stifle, and Spellstutter Sprite in the future…

See you in Pittsburgh!