Playing Gullivers And Growing Lilliputians

With the Standard PTQ season in full swing, Valeriy Shunkov has been busy brewing up interesting decks to crush the current metagame. Play something different this weekend at SCG Open Series: Nashville.

Last weekend was great for Magic on both sides of Atlantic. There were two GPs and two large non-WotC events: the SCG Open Series in Orlando and the Legacy/Vintage event named Bazaar of Moxen in the French town of Annecy. The latter gathered 723 players for Legacy and 337 for Vintage, and thus was probably the largest non-GP event ever (overthrowing the SCG Open Series in Washington, DC by a very small margin). I want to congratulate my compatriot, Vladimir Padve, for making Top 8 at such an event. I’m planning to attend a PTQ this weekend, though, so let’s take a look at Standard.

Quick final aside before going to work: GP Moscow is getting closer. So if you’re planning to attend and visit one of the largest cities in the world (with nearly nine centuries of amazing history), it’s the right time to think about your travel. I can promise mild weather and a warm reception. Russians are very hospitable hosts.

The past weeks revealed that Standard is still all about the big trio of G/R Aggro, Delver, and Wolf Run Ramp. I’m so tired of them, so it’s the right time to brew something interesting. Both GP Minneapolis and SCG Open Series: Orlando proved rogue decks to be the real deal, and I see no reason to avoid them.

Nick Spagnolo built a deck that allowed Brad Nelson and Lewis Laskin to crush some heads. Welcome back, Brad; it’s nice to see you in action! Grand Architect is one of my long-time favorites (I even tried to combine Architect and Vedalken Engineer in Modern), so seeing him do well at tournaments was awesome. Brad stated that the format is bad against Wurmcoil Engine and Clones. That’s true, so I was very surprised when I didn’t find any one Treasure Mage in Brad’s list. Four Ponders, four Gitaxian Probes and three Merfolk Looters are probably enough to find Grand Architect or Wurmcoil Engine, but I see no reason to dismiss Mage—especially because he provides a sweet option to have a little toolbox.

So my attempt to make very good Architect deck worse looks like:

The changes I’ve made are Treasure Mage instead of Batterskull, sideboarded Mindslaver to complement Mage, and Flight Spellbomb as additional target for Trinket Mage. The last decision is a little bit clunky at first look, but flying Wurmcoil Engine is a way to win the damage race and we’re keeping some card drawing after exchanging Trinket Mage and Merfolk Looter.

The deck has many cantrips to find necessary pieces of its engine, but I’ve never liked decks relying on a single card (especially if that card is a creature). What if you’re unable to find Grand Architect fast? What if he dies immediately? Searching for answers to these questions led deckbuilders to use some sort of backup. At Pro Tour Nagoya, Kenny Oberg played very interesting Grand Architect / Birthing Pod deck, but it wasn’t good outside of Scars Block Constructed.

The most common addition to Grand Architect is Heartless Summoning. This combination is somehow under the radar, but it has had some success on Magic Online, especially in the last week. Nick Spagnolo was not the only person to realize that the format is weak to Wurmcoil Engine.

This is a very straightforward attempt, not including funky Treasure Mage targets like Geistcatcher’s Rig and Platinum Emperion. The goal is just to land Wurmcoil Engine and to make some copies of it. Note that in a Wurm-heavy metagame Master Thief becomes a true Sower of Temptation, so it’s possible to play more copies. Another interesting card to try is Appetite for Brains, which is a perfect answer for both Primeval Titan and Sun Titan—and for an opposing Wurmcoil Engine, for example, in the next deck that I’m going to consider.

The only way to land Wurmcoil Engine into play as fast as "turn 2 Heartless Summoning, turn 3 Grand Architect, Treasure Mage, Wurmcoil Engine" is Unburial Rites. Nobody plays graveyard hate in this format and countermagic is on the decline thanks to Cavern of Souls, so why just not to smash some faces with fatties? Fatties to Reanimate before Avacyn Restored were Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite (the best one by a wide margin), Inferno Titan, and Wurmcoil Engine. The new set brought us Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, hyped Griselbrand, and almost overlooked Craterhoof Behemoth. The Pro Tour revealed an entirely different approach with Angel of Glory’s Rise, but it didn’t impress me in Standard (that could easily mean "my effort was not enough").

New problems, obviously, have arisen, and two of the most important of them are Zealous Conscripts and Wolfir Silverheart. These weapons allow G/R Aggro to win through any given threat you put on the battlefield. This matchup never was very good, and it should be solved to make the deck legitimate choice.

Silverheart and Conscripts create conflicting requirements for your monsters:

  1. Fatty must be good enough to not be outraced by a swarm of monsters.
  2. Fatty must be bad enough to disallow your opponent to win by just stealing it.
  3. It still must pass the Vapor Snag test.

Wurmcoil Engine is just better than Inferno Titan right now, so this choice is easy. The real question is, "Is Griselbrand just better than Wurmcoil Engine in this deck?"

The mighty Demon is tricky to evaluate. In formats where it’s possible to land him very fast, it’s just unfair. At the Bazaar of Moxen, one of my compatriots kept his starting hand and then witnessed the following: Ancient Tomb, Lotus Petal, Show and Tell into Sneak Attack, Simian Spirit Guide, activate Sneak for Griselbrand, draw fourteen, Lotus Petal, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. I guess when your opponent does this, it’s the right time to drop and go sightseeing.

In Standard, however, Griselbrand is much more situational and context-defined. Drawing seven is fine; I can imagine many situations when you’ll be unable to do so. Outracing the powerful Demon is also very possible (though not significantly harder than Wurmcoil Engine).

The funniest situation I’ve encountered during my testing was when I had Griselbrand in play and two Unburial Rites in my hand, while G/R Aggro had paired Wolfir Silverheart and Ulvenwald Tracker. This is where deathtouch attached to 6/6 body becomes relevant. Zealous Conscripts into Wurmcoil Engine could be survivable; stolen Griselbrand will draw to your opponent everything needed to win safely. It’s exactly what I meant when wrote, "Fatty must be bad." Zealous Conscripts into Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is nine damage into your table wiped of its Spirit tokens and Avacyn’s Pilgrims.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is by a far margin the best creature to Reanimate in Standard, but Wolfir Silverheart and Zealous Conscripts make her significantly worse in the very matchup where she was totally nuts. It’s great that Conscripts can’t be used with Green Sun’s Zenith, but it is hard to deal with.

Enter Craterhoof Behemoth.

This card, recently highlighted by Jacob van Lunen, has two major advantages: invulnerability to sorcery speed answers, the ability to maximize the value of our countless mana dorks, and thus the ability to deal a lot of damage in one turn. This is precisely what is needed to win against G/R Aggro. Moreover, Craterhoof Behemoth passes Vapor Snag test.

Sure, the downside is that Craterhoof Behemoth is not much more than Lightning Elemental on an empty table. In other words, he is bad when everything is bad and good when everything is good—a clear indication of unplayable card. However, this is a tricky gameplan; instead of stabilizing at all costs and trading your Spirit tokens for time, you’re going into the land of risk assessment and precisely evaluating when chump blocking is really necessary. I’m not sure which plan is better; most likely, you can use both according to your own preferences. My recent testing and the increasing amount of Zealous Conscripts in my friends’ decks proved that I prefer going all-in right now.

Timely Reinforcements fits perfectly into the Craterhoof Behemoth game plan; some life gain and dudes for Behemoth are basically all you want. I even tried them maindeck, but speed is the key preboard so game 1 isn’t the right time for Reinforcements. Tree of Redemption is also useful and maybe even better in Behemoth-less builds, but here I’d be better off playing the spell that gives me three small dudes.

Speaking of three small dudes (finally, it’s time for the Lilliputian part of this article), I come to…Infect. Three dudes, twenty lands, thirty-three pump spells, and a playset of a sweet new card. Sounds strange, yes? At least it’s less strange than the big-endian/little-endian controversy.

Vapor Snag isn’t as dominant in Standard right now, and the most common removal deals damage (Slagstorm and Pillar of Flame), so the freshly printed Wild Defiance gives Infect probably its last chance to see Standard play. This enchantment is clearly not the new Blazing Shoal, but making Pillar of Flame and Galvanic Blast useless should not be underestimated.

My testing showed that the most interesting version is a combo-like G/U. We have a very small amount of creatures, so protecting them is extremely important. The increasing use of Pillar of Flame has already made Inkmoth Nexus significantly better, while there are two ways to protect Glistener Elf and Blighted Agent. The first one is pump spells; the second one is protection spells (thanks to Wild Defiance, even Gut Shot can pump your 1/1 creature for the win).

Runechanter’s Pike is nice addition for our lategame, when the deck should naturally run out of a gas. Viral Drake fits the same place while simultaneously being a creature that doesn’t die to Slagstorm (I’ve seen G/W builds with Priests of Norn!). Drake’s proliferate ability is also somewhat useful, although I’d rather win before the late game with this deck.

This deck is fun and tournament playable. To be fair, I’d rather sleeve it up for FNM than for an SCG Open Series—not because it’s not good enough but because it’s (surprise!) unstable, so chances of winning a four-round event are higher than a twelve-round one. You might remember Mono-White Quest. It was a deck from the same group as Infect: fun, cheap and permanently successful in Magic Online Daily Events without any high profile presence (okay, G/W Quest made the Top 8 of PT Paris).

A spoonful of honey: two G/U Infect decks lost their bubble rounds at the last Magic Online PTQ. I hope that you’ll have more honey at your tournaments this weekend! Don’t be afraid to play something new, and good luck!

Valeriy Shunkov