Going into the double StarCityGames.com Opens in Kansas City and San Jose, I knew that U/B was going to be the deck to beat. Everywhere I looked,
someone was trying to borrow Grave Titans. While U/B is probably the “best” deck, it has a lot of problems.
Several of the cards in the deck are great early but terrible late, like Mana Leak or Inquisition of Kozilek. You want to play a bunch of those cards
so you don’t get run over early, but they have diminishing returns as the game progresses. Without a Jace active, U/B doesn’t do well in
the mid-game, topdeck wars.
Most copies of cards in Standard decks are either 5s or 10s. A deck like Valakut has average ramp spells and then insane cards that close the games.
U/B has average discard and removal, Jace, which is typically awesome but sometimes only a Fog, and then Grave Titan. A deck like Boros or Vampires is
mostly all 5s but is aggressive and consistent. U/B and Valakut are consistent but not in the same way.
The U/B mirror was a nightmare, and the Valakut matchup would often come down to them having to peel a specific card on a certain turn. If they missed,
you were golden but had no outs if they hit. Overall, not a fun experience. One might say, “No gamble, no future” – but not in my
control decks please.
U/B was out. In addition to the inconsistency issues, not winning topdeck wars, and having matchups that weren’t fun, I hadn’t played with
Jace decks much of late. I was too busy Boros-ing and Valakut-ing people, so I was out of practice. I didn’t feel that I’d be playing quickly and
optimally or have the knowledge to make correct deckbuilding and sideboarding decisions.
I must have run through twenty different Standard decks before I settled on Vampires. Among the most promising was a U/G land destruction deck similar
to the one that Conley Woods got second with. I’m incredibly glad I didn’t play it; if you independently come up with the same deck as
Conley, it’s probably not a good sign.
An inspirational turning point was a message from Pat Sullivan on Facebook, detailing his updated RDW list. I considered it but then decided to go back
and reread EFro’s article on B/R Vampires. He
described his deck as a Sligh deck of old, and that mostly sold me.
Time to light ’em up!
Burst Lightning was unimpressive, so I cut those for Staggershocks, which, combined with Gatekeeper of Malakir, can actually kill Grave Titan. My list
remained mostly the same, except I had some Tectonic Edge action as well. Fun Fact: Most of my decks in this format have had a Tectonic Edge in the
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 2 Vampire Hexmage
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 3 Viscera Seer
Vampires is supposedly “bad” against U/B and Valakut, but I had faith in my ability to win close matchups. When selecting a deck,
it’s important to pick something you know you’ll play well. From experience, I know that aggro-control decks, while not the most fun to
play, are decks I tend to do well with.
I started my Magic career by mostly playing control decks but was miserable at anything resembling a ground stall. After I played a large amount of
Limited matches, navigating combat steps wasn’t nearly as difficult as it used to be. If you’re having problems playing aggro decks well,
you should probably play more Limited.
In my last article, I described Tim Bulger and how he uses aggression as a means of controlling his opponents. Last week in Kansas City, I was able to pull off a similar
feat, with Drew Levin watching the entire time.
It was round four, and because of how my opponent was shuffling, I could see that he was mono-white Quest. He won the die roll and instantly kept his
opening seven. My hand, meanwhile, was sketchy at best:
My matchup is terrible, and I figured that with a Bloodghast, I might be able to win assuming he didn’t have a Quest for the Holy Relic, although
it’s likely that he did. If I were to mulligan, I wasn’t sure what I would be looking for, so I kept.
Naturally, he led with Quest, Ornithopter and passed. I drew another land, played Viscera Seer, and passed. He cracked a fetchland and played out two
Glint Hawks, fully charging his Quest. To say I was in rough shape would be an understatement. I considered conceding but decided that I wanted to try
to win that game.
I spent a few seconds pretending to think about my turn 2 play, but there was only one that would give me a chance: Swamp, pass the turn.
He started his turn by sacrificing his Quest. As my opponent picked up his deck, I pulled a card from the back and snapped it to the front of my hand.
He paused slightly, so I decided to play it up, continually snapping that card to the front of my hand.
Step one: Blatantly bluff a Doom Blade.
I wasn’t dead for sure, as he could have both his Argentum Armors in his hand, even though it was highly unlikely. I could also trick him into
not fetching Armor. Even if that happened, I was nowhere near a favorite to win the game. Eventually, he found a Sword of Body and Mind, attached it to
his Glint Hawk, and sent with his team.
Step two: Mill a lot of Bloodghasts.
I missed on the first ten cards but hit one on the second. My opponent also had a Basilisk Collar but was still convinced I had Doom Blade, so he put
it on his other Glint Hawk, only gaining two life instead of four. Meanwhile, I was scrying spells to the bottom in his attack phase, hoping to hit
more Ghasts. On my turn, I was trying to draw more one-drops in order to chump his Wolves and drain him.
I was attacked down to one but drained myself back up to nine. On the last turn, he decided not to attack with his Wolves, as I had enough blockers to
live, and he feared dying on the counterattack. However, an all-out attack from him would force me to block with Kalastria or Seer, disabling my
engine. He didn’t see it, milled my other Bloodghasts, and I drained him out on my turn for exactly enough damage, using all of my mana.
That Viscera Seer point mattered.
Yes, you could say I got incredibly lucky to win that game, but I did everything in my power to make it so. As my opponent was picking up his cards, I
turned to Drew Levin, who had witnessed the entire spectacle, and he was speechless.
“I just learned more about playing beatdown decks in ten minutes than I have my entire life.”
I crushed him in game two.
Round Five (Aggressive Tendencies, Part Three)
Similarly, in round five, I found myself up against a mirror match. On turn 4, he attacked his Viscera Seer into my tapped Gatekeeper of Malakir and
untapped Kalastria Highborn. I knew that he could have Arc Trail, as I was playing around it already by holding my Vampire Hexmage, but I also knew
that he knew that he had Arc Trail and could easily make that attack.
It infuriated me. I wanted to hero call so badly, just to teach him a lesson.
I know what level you’re on, buddy, and I can just feel that you don’t have Arc Trail. You would be much happier with
The fact that he didn’t have it was radiating throughout his entire being.
I stopped myself, calmed down, and approached the situation rationally. Even if he didn’t have it, there was no reason to call. I was winning
assuming I didn’t give him a chance to two-for-one me. My read could also be wrong, even though I was slowly learning to trust my gut.
I took it with a pain in my gut and the sting of regret. As much as Cedric likes to attack for two with blanks in his hand to assert his mental
superiority, I get off on calling their terrible bluffs. There’s only one card in the Vampire deck that would make that attack good, and I could sense
it with every fiber in my being that he didn’t have it.
Post-combat, he played a Cunning Sparkmage.
A wave of relief washed over me. I could tell he didn’t have Arc Trail but didn’t stop to think of the possibility that there could be
something else he was representing. Thankfully, I was saved by the fact that I was winning already. Blocking in that spot was terrible.
On the car ride down, I tried to brew various Lux Cannon decks, including one that was mono-blue. Pat McGregor, whom I was sharing a ride with, had
worked on the deck previously, as did Scott Lipp, a player from Kansas City. Pat and I were both excited about the deck but decided that we’d probably
be better off playing good aggro decks instead.
At one point, I offered to play the deck if he would, and he agreed if I could get him the physical cards. While it would’ve been amusing to play a
deck that crushed U/B and Valakut, while not being able to beat any sort of creature, I chickened out. I suppose it worked out for the best considering
Pat ended up winning the whole thing.
In round seven, I was playing against my first U/B opponent of the day. It made me pretty happy that I didn’t play the Mono-Blue Control deck. I
mulliganed in the first game but managed to resolve a Dark Tutelage. That served up nothing more than another Tutelage, which I decided to cast.
While I could likely end up dying, I figured that I’d be able to assemble the Highborn combo in time, seeing as how U/B can’t deal with
much. My singleton Tectonic Edge kept him off six mana, and I did, in fact, assemble the Drain Life combo before I died.
Round Eight and Beyond
After the seventh round, I was 7-0 and hadn’t lost any games. While clearly a good feeling, it was something I couldn’t dwell on,
especially after my Mental Status article. I took a breather and tried to refocus.
Sadly, I suddenly started losing a lot of games. Christian Valenti dispatched me in two quick games. We were discussing our lists and strategies and
how the red splash influenced our roles in certain matchups. I gave what I felt was helpful advice should he play against the mirror with red. I
stopped myself mid-sentence when I realized that we might play, but it was kind of too late. I had told him to do things that I definitely didn’t
want him to do against me.
Typically, I’d side out Pulse Tracker in the mirror, as it’s small and dies to Arc Trail. However, I felt like Christian, with his
sideboard, couldn’t take the control role. By the process of elimination, he was therefore the beatdown deck. That should influence whether he
takes out any one-drops or Dark Tutelages.
Rather than give me time to get back in the game, he attacked me mercilessly each game, and there was nothing I could do. In game one, we each kept
one-landers, although his was on five cards, and mine was with six, on the draw. He hit his immediately while I never did.
Second game would have been a blowout if he didn’t have turn 2 Bloodghast, as I was holding two Gatekeepers. A few turns later, it was clear he
had Captivating Vampire when he played out some little dudes.
I could have Skinrendered one and hoped he didn’t draw another Vampire for a while, kick Gatekeeper, forcing him to sacrifice Bloodghast and hope
he didn’t draw a land, or simply overload the board with Gatekeeper and two Lacerators. Next turn, I could Skinrender his Captivating Vampire,
which he would steal and then attack for six potentially.
The latter seemed best, as blowing my Skinrender or using my Gatekeeper poorly didn’t seem like options. It played out exactly like I thought,
where he stole my Skinrender, and then I had four two-power dudes to his mostly tapped squad. He had scryed with Bloodghast and Viscera Seer the turn
previous and kept it on top. He didn’t even bother scrying when I killed his Captivating Vampire.
If he had another Vampire lord on top, I’d be dead if I attacked with everyone. However, not attacking wouldn’t allow me to beat a lord
regardless. I decided that maybe it was just a removal spell or something less threatening, as that was the only way I could win.
Round nine I faced off against Conley. He never blocked with his Plant tokens or Overgrown Battlement, which put him in more danger than I think he
needed to be. Overall, it didn’t end up mattering, as my draw fizzled out game one. Second game, I assembled the Drain Life combo, which his deck
was basically drawing dead against. He had some cute cards like Wall of Tanglecord, Obstinate Baloth, and Ratchet Bomb, but those didn’t address
his main problems.
While sitting next to Conley earlier, I got to thinking about how I would sideboard against him should we play and decided that the matchup was
probably bad enough that I needed to get lucky with Demon of Death’s Gate to beat him. Duress and Vampire Hexmage were good against Jace and
Tumble Magnet, while Memoricide could stop Frost Titans.
It wasn’t the best plan, but it was all I had, since most of my cards in the matchup didn’t matter, and he was presumably siding out most
of his Treespeakers and Cobras. When going to game three, I decided to touch up my sideboard a bit, but he took that to mean that I was bringing in
Demons, which, for some reason, he thought I wouldn’t do in the first place.
In game three, he had turn 3 Baloth, which shut down my squad, so I had to move in on the Demon plan with no protection. Before even untapping, he
announced, “I have the Jace.” If I drew a land, I could Hexmage it, bring back two Bloodghasts, cast a one-drop, and cast the Demon again,
but I bricked twice and died.
There was a brief glimmer of hope, as Christian could have dream crushed his last round opponent to help get me in, but I would’ve ended up in ninth.
Pat McG or Orrin Beasley could have dream crushed, and if they lost, putting me in eighth and them in ninth, I would have dropped to let them in.
However, their breakers weren’t high enough, and neither felt like risking their tournament life for me, which I don’t blame them for.
I defeated Valakut in the last round and finished tenth. It was a very strange feeling to miss Top 8 after starting 7-0, as I don’t think I’ve
ever done that before. I’m certainly going to try and let it not happen again.
I sent a list of brews to my friends, telling them to be as harsh as possible and tell me why I shouldn’t play either of them. Sadly, I
didn’t get many responses, so I was left to my own devices. Despite having lists for Time Spiral, Turboland, various Scapeshift decks, updated
Reanimator, and Counterbalance, I decided to try U/B Buried Alive/Necrotic Ooze combo.
While goldfishing the deck (roughly the most I can do for Legacy testing these days), I realized that, much like the U/B deck in Standard, all the
cards in the deck had diminishing returns. Drawing two of any number of Lim-Dul’s Vaults or Personal Tutors sucked. Casting one was a mulligan
already, and drawing two basically meant you were dead.
If I wanted to play a U/B combo deck, I felt like Ad Nauseam would be a better choice. ANT has two types of cards, tutors/cantrips and mana sources.
Drawing multiples of either was never a bad thing and led me to believe that overall, I would be much happier playing that deck than a two-card combo
I sent young Julian Booher to Monster Den, the local store, to fetch me a Legacy deck. I gave him lists for my Counterbalance, Josh
Utter-Leyton’s Elves, and John Cuvelier’s Welder Reanimator deck. What cards I could procure would decide what I played. In return, I told
him about the Mind Rot tech for U/B Control.
He came back with Reanimator stuff, so that’s what I decided to play. On the ride down, I took a good, hard look at Cuvi’s list and decided
there weren’t enough artifacts or blue cards. Instead, I brewed up a list of traditional Reanimator splashing some sweet cards. After talking
with a few people, it was clear that graveyard hate wasn’t prevalent, and I was happy with my choice.
The Legacy event was a bloodbath. Not only was my deck suffering from the same issues as the other U/B combo decks, such as a lack of consistency, but
I was running bad as well. I was up a game against Merfolk, he mulliganed, and I Forced his Aether Vial (off a Mutavault) on turn 1. I Thoughtseized
him, seeing four blue creatures, and went on to lose the game.
Second game, I Thoughtseized him again, took his only threatening card, and had Null Rod to shut down his Vial, Relic, and Tormod’s Crypt.
However, he peeled Wasteland, killed my only land that I was going to use to cast several cantrips, and I lost.
I cast Null Rod against Affinity, which was nice, but lost to New Horizons in a comical match and then also lost to Dark Horizons. Overall, not a great
day. It seemed like all my luck had run out after my round seven match the day before.
JVL asked me if I liked my deck, which was hard to say. I could’ve gotten into all the things that made it good and bad and what I needed to change,
but instead, for brevity’s sake, I said, “Not really.” The vultures in our group pounced and proceeded to tell me how bad my deck was, one
by one, which was amusing.
Without Mystical Tutor, Entombing the silver bullet you want just isn’t going to happen as often as you want it to. Because of that, you need to
rely on the draw and discard effects like Careful Study and Hapless Researcher. Since reanimating Sphinx of the Steel Wind against ANT isn’t
effective, you often need to draw the right fatty in the right matchup. To combat this, I played three Ionas, which are solid against every deck but
great against very few.
Against most decks in the format, reanimating once isn’t good enough. Oftentimes, Iona can lock them out, but you still need to keep her back as
a blocker. Minamo helps in that regard, but you still need to reanimate a second time, which is often difficult. A Painter’s Servant would help,
which, in combination with needing to reanimate twice, makes me think that Goblin Welder is actually the way to go.
Reanimating a second time is fine if you have a Platinum Emperion, but my friends told me to play Blazing Archon instead, and they were very wrong. I
lost several games because Archon wasn’t Emperion.
I kind of decided that instead of playing brews in the SCG Opens, I needed to start playing real decks. The past years have been difficult for me on
Magic Online because I tend to play brews in the queues, since I learn more by doing that than say, jamming Valakut until I have a mountain of tickets.
I’ve come to learn this lesson and will try to apply it in the future Open events.
For now, it seems to have worked in San Jose.