Preparing For Charlotte

Josh looks at both Standard and Legacy ahead of this weekend’s StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte and at the decks he’d like to play.


Finally, the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte is upon us. As you most likely know by now, the Invitationals represent a great opportunity not only to win money and more invitations but also fame, glory, and even your very own token! Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to Charlotte this time, but I’ve been to something like the last eight Invitationals and I don’t plan on skipping any more in the future. If you’re invited and you can attend, you really should try to make it.

The Invitational is a unique event – it is dual-format but not Limited, like the Pro Tours, and it represents nearly the highest competitive Legacy event available to the average player. Granted, there are Legacy Grand Prixes every so often to the lucky few local gamers and those willing to trek the earth in search of a turn two Stoneforge Mystic or a turn four Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Obviously, though, I cannot blame anyone for flying to Paris for the Grand Prix (sigh) or New Jersey (see you there!). The opportunity to play and compete in the Legacy format alone is a good enough reason for me to fly to an event. The fact that there is a real prize on the line is almost just icing on the cake – almost.

The other half of the event is Standard. I don’t want to complain or belabor the fact that I can’t win in this format, but: I can’t win in this format. I can’t really grasp why I don’t win in this format, and I can’t really grasp why other people do win, but that’s for me to figure out – another time or another article, perhaps. However, I consider myself lucky to call some of the best Magic players in the world my friends, and they aren’t really doing much winning either. This might just mean that UW and Esper Control are not particularly good choices at the moment, as those are the types of decks my friends and I favor, but it might also be a reflection on the format. Maybe there is no “best deck” – maybe any deck can win on any given day or week.

It does feel like a good time to play something that you know or that you like, within reason. But make sure it makes sense first! For example, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Blood Baron of Vizkopa is not exactly the best answer to Mono-Black Devotion. It almost feels like a cruel trick – you draw your card for the turn, on turn 4. You play your land and note that if you draw a fifth land and play the Blood Baron, you’re going to be in quite excellent shape. They could have a Devour Flesh, but they probably only play one or two if they’re playing any at all. Furthermore, you’re playing a Desecration Demon this turn! What can they do?

Of course, you already know the answer. The Demon suffers a hero’s ending, sure, but, you drew a Guildgate and were forced to skip casting your bomb on-curve. They drew a Lifebane Zombie, something they’re playing to kill Polukranos! Ah well. Time and time again this happened to me. Time and time again this has happened on stream live at Opens. I don’t even want to put Blood Baron into my deck anymore. I just don’t think it really makes that much sense right now.

No one can deny that there are a lot of viable decks in Standard, though. For control players there is a veritable rainbow of options: straight U/W Control is nice, but if you’re going to jam the extra Temples anyway, you might want to branch out. Red for Wear//Tear, Counterflux, and maybe Assemble the Legion or even Warleader’s Helix in some cases. Black can be used for the ubiquitous Thoughtseizes and Doom Blades (yawn!), and green brings Kiora and maybe Courser of Kruphix. Alternatively you can push your “Orzhov Midrange” deck as far into the control role as you wish, so don’t rule that out if you are in the anti-island camp. But, much to my chagrin, control is not the only viable option in the format. There are a boatload of Domri Rades running around. Courser of Kruphix, which I originally wrote about quite a while ago, has doubled in value since release and has an endlessly increasing group of followers. The card is just great, although not quite powerful enough for Modern (…two power just doesn’t cut it). Gaining life and getting to win the games you’d otherwise mana flood is something that I’m definitely interested in, though. This iteration of the Domri Rade decks, G/R and Jund Monsters, are really midrange decks. The cards are powerful and ramping into these creatures is not a strategy I could fault you for employing; frankly, if I had to play Standard, I’d start by testing one of these decks out.

I think I’d begin and probably end with a straight G/R deck. Midrange decks are meant to have enough staying power to tangle with the control decks while having a reasonable early game capable of grinding aggro decks to a halt. Both decks have the staying power down pat, but when your deck has 600 shocklands in it, as the Jund variety does, chances are you’re going to have to take 2-4 damage from them, essentially giving your aggressive opponent between 1 or 2 “free cards.” Those aggro decks, for the most part, become very dangerous when given a free 25% boost!

I was talking to Cedric about this a while ago, and specifically the Jund Monsters deck that he was championing and playing on stream. He mentioned to me that his deck was not particularly well-suited to defeat the card Ghor-Clan Rampager, and it was not particularly well-suited to defeat aggressive strategies like the Mono-Black Aggro deck here (but more on that later.) This makes me wonder what the point of playing the Jund deck is in the first place, and it should make you wonder as well.

While we’re on the topic of “Monsters,” I think it’s worth talking about Arbor Colossus briefly. The card is a lot better than it looks, and should be welcome in any green creature strategy, assuming enough colored mana access to cast him. “A 6/6 reach creature for five mana is nothing to scoff at” is something you might read in a limited review article, which this surely is not. However, when it comes down to two “green” decks facing off, being a creature naturally larger than Polakrunos is actually a valuable asset. The fact of the matter is these decks are not especially good at dealing with big creatures. Jund gets Dreadbore, but as we mentioned that access comes at a steep price. Naya might have Chained to the Rocks, but they only have a few for all of your large creatures… and the two-color decks have no real good answer. The upside of Arbor Colossus is quite large- an additional six mana to turn it into a 9/9 (almost certainly larger than their World Eater) who can eat a Stormbreath Dragon if need be, or a Desecration Demon, or even a lowly Cloudfin Raptor. This is a good card that isn’t seeing enough play. Arbor Colossus is also great in conjunction with Xenagos, God of Revels (three green devotion!).

Xenagos, God of Revels is the card equivalent of a Domri emblem and as such is basically unbeatable in conjunction with a big creature. Admittedly Jund Monsters sideboarded one copy of this card, but that deck’s sideboard just doesn’t make sense to me. This seems like a card I’d want against all but maybe the most aggressive decks, so I could see sideboarding it if you were anticipating a very aggro-heavy metagame, but for the most part I think I’d rather just play it maindeck it and bash people to death with it. Finally, Xenagos, the Reveler (or “Small Xenagos” if you will) is quite potent against not only Mono-Black Devotion (controlling Desecration Demon) but also the Temple of Enlightenment decks. I don’t know if there’s room for many small Xenagos, but I’d try to fit one or two in, as it’s also a great way to ramp up to a large Hydra or an overloaded Mortars.

The rest of your potential midrange options are Orzhov Midrange (which I wrote about here) and maybe something like Esper Midrange or “Esper Humans.” Esper Humans was adapted from the Rietzl/Chapin deck from Pro Tour Theros; their deck originally had no third color and the mana wasn’t quite right. Adding a color but essentially slowing yourself down by a turn is a viable solution, just not one I’m super-thrilled about. The upsides of the deck are Ephara, Detention Spheres and your choice of Blood Baron/Obzedat. The downside is you play about 1.5 turns behind. That’s a real cost, and needs addressing. It’s different when you’re the control deck – I know I’ve mentioned that three-color manabases slowing you down may be unacceptable a few times, and I just want to clarify that I think it’s acceptable for a control strategy to play twelve Temples. Supreme Verdict can kill every single creature, and in the mirror your opponent won’t be able to tap out for a Jace for fear of getting Jace countered and then an enemy Jace appearing on the other side. Obviously Mutavault can complicate things in that scenario, but it’s the threat of an enemy planeswalker and a counterspell that makes tapping out for your own planeswalker so unappealing. Simply put, though, if your spells are powerful and your plan isn’t simply creatures, I think it’s acceptable to run a lot of Temples.

The final options are Devotion and aggro strategies. Mono-Black Aggro is great if the GR decks are on the decline, as their guys are bigger and their curve is just as good really. Mono-Red Aggro is great if Boros Reckoner isn’t sitting on the other side of the table. I don’t know how to classify the “burn” decks that are very popular just now – are they a combo deck? An aggro deck? I certainly don’t think they’re a control deck.

Finally, Mono-Blue Devotion is on the decline, though I did think this was a good week to run it given the supposed decline of the control decks. I would have been wrong, as it seems that control decks will always be represented – they just won’t always win. Mono-Blue Devotion and “Ephara Devotion” are two similar decks, the latter of which essentially adds four Detention Sphere and some number of Ephara in place of the random cards in the blue deck. Not much else needs to change, so not much else changes. Personally I think Ephara gets a little weaker after sideboarding given that it’s hard for you to board out anything but creatures, but people still like the deck and I haven’t played it enough to know how good it really is. I think any given week where people are over-prepared for control decks (which might force them off the top tables) is a good week to run a Mono-Blue Devotion strategy, but it isn’t clear to me if people agree.

Despite them being “devotion decks,” these decks don’t really take advantage of Nykthos, which is the final piece of the Standard puzzle. Nykthos is perhaps the most powerful card in Standard, but it comes with its fair share of downsides. For example, the majority of the ways you can get a high devotion count in this format are creatures. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but every deck in the format is built to be prepared for creatures. The decks that can’t remove your creatures will feel like easy matchups since you’ll have a nearly-endless amount of mana, but decks with removal will get to essentially mess up your Nykthos for free which is where the problems start. The best ways to abuse Nykthos are Mono-Red (touching white, green or both) and Mono-Green (touching red or blue), but these decks are very volatile and can easily succeed or fail almost at random – which makes them somewhat unattractive to me as someone who thinks that if I can make decisions and play my spells I should be able to have an edge.

As I’m writing this, we now know that Esper Control beat Esper Control in the finals of the Open Series in Los Angeles, which is unexpected given the results of the Sphinx’s Revelation decks heading into the weekend. But if people give away enough points in any good matchup it can become a bad matchup, so if people got lax about their control matchups citing no one winning with them as a reason, then it would make sense for them to succeed on that weekend. It’s hard to say what will succeed in the Standard portion of the Invitational next weekend, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. If I were going to play I think I’d play an anti-control deck like G/R Monsters – I’d jam whatever extra planeswalkers and gods, basically whatever reasonable non-creature threats I can fit into my deck. The reason for this is that the Invitational is full of players like me. People who favor Sphinx’s Revelation because of their perceived edge if they can play a longer game. This is a phenomenon I’ve touched upon before, but if you play in the invitational be ready to face a sea of blue decks.

Let’s move on to the Legacy portion. I would play my Esper Stoneblade deck:

From week to week and place to place, the Legacy metagame is always changing. That makes me want to play a deck that I know very well and that I think has at least a chance to win every matchup. This is exactly that deck and I’ve selected each card for a reason; I think you have exactly enough ways to deal with True-Name Nemesis and you have exactly enough things to sideboard against combo decks. I’ve written about this deck twice previously and done well with it at two large events (7-1 at the Las Vegas Invitational and 15th place at Grand Prix DC). If you’re interested in playing this deck feel free to leave ask any questions you may have but make them good questions please! I would highly recommend practicing with the deck, and I would also advise against making changes to the deck without trying it 100 or so times. I mean, I certainly haven’t tried to keep my evident interest secret. And quietly lamented.

Let’s talk briefly about the Legacy format. First, it’s huge. There are so many cards and decks that it’s basically impossible to know everything about it. This is in contrast to Standard, which is pretty small, and even Modern where sometimes a fringe deck will appear seemingly from nowhere but (for the most part) your opponent will be playing cards you’ve seen before. I know that it’s possible to play a game against a deck full of unknowns and do well, but I think most people want to ponder what else their opponent has or might be able to do… and if you don’t know what cards your opponent is playing with this can be difficult. Therefore sometimes in Legacy you’ll play a matchup where you don’t quite know what your opponent can or might do, and this is going to slow you down considerably if you’re a thoughtful player or just trying to play as best you can.

If you are also inexperienced with your own deck, you need to just unpack and think about so many more interactions and possibilities that it becomes almost impossible to correctly play a turn, let alone a game. You can speed through it, of course, but you’ll end up with a draw too often or a loss for being less-than-careful when you might have needed to be more thoughtful. Since the format doesn’t rotate you could very easily play the same deck at each event, and before long you’ll know your deck very well and likely know most of your opponent’s decks as well. This is what I’ve been doing with the Esper deck. Knowing how to sideboard is one thing, but knowing how to use your cards in the match is what I’m really talking about. You get a lot of free information when you cast a Thoughtseize or an Inquisition of Kozilek, but if all that information does is confuse you then I recommend looking elsewhere! In the past I have recommended this deck to a handful of friends and not been stringent enough with my plea for them to practice, to their great disservice. Please practice if you play this deck. Please.

The next question I will get asked inevitably about this deck is, “Why aren’t you playing True-Name Nemesis?” Now, if you’re with me so far and you’ve read all my links, then you know how I feel about True-Name Nemesis. It can only block and attack, which means it’s a little one-dimensional for my tastes. Furthermore, while it’s amazing against some decks, it doesn’t help you where you need help. It wears an equipment just as well (if not better) than every other creature in the format, but who cares? The crux of the argument is and has always been that this deck is pretty well matched against “other” creature decks (although I’d argue that this deck has creatures but isn’t really a creature deck; I digress). It needs help in matchups where I would actively want Vendilion Clique instead of True-Name Nemesis! Also, Vendilion Clique is just an excellent card that gleans more information for its controller and doesn’t ask you to tap out main-phase in exchange.

In my opinion Stoneforge Mystic is the best creature in the format that you can cast. Griselbrand gets the nod for best creature, but 4BBBB is not really a casting cost I’m interested in attempting to assemble, and for the sake of this argument, his costing 2U is also not relevant. So if you like Stoneforge but don’t like Snapcaster, you can pair with Delver ala Owen Turtenwald, and that’s the Delver deck I happen to like right now. I think that a consistent (all 4-of) deck with a proactive gameplan (a tempo oriented attacking strategy) backed with a full compliment of Brainstorms and Ponders as well as many cheap and free counterspells as possible. White also gets you the industry’s best sideboard cards, which is why Death and Taxes is such a strong option.

After watching David Bauman lose in the finals of the Legacy Open just last weekend, my love for Death and Taxes was certainly reinvigorated. I played the deck once before, but now you can play Brimaz and it might even be correct, which is great. He lost to Greg Mitchell’s BUG Delver which is basically the only variation of the Delver decks that I don’t like right now. If you want to play Dark Confidant, you should play more than one, and if you want to play Deathrite Shaman you should do something better than removing a fetchland to cast a Delver of Secrets. Deathrite Shaman isn’t the best creature in the format, but it just got banned in Modern and if you play Legacy you’re going to need to be well-versed in the ways of the Shaman. Elves plays it but I hate the Elves deck and I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone. Deathblade plays it and I have been told by multiple people that Deathblade is unfortunately not good enough to play, though I do still like the idea of it.

This, of course, is leading me to recommend that you play Jund.

Jund is as good to play and as frustrating to play against as it ever was. This is fully-powered Jund, no Putrid Leeches here. Wasteland, Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt, Liliana of the Veil, Abrupt Decay, Dark Confidant, Deathrite Shaman and Tarmogoyf make this deck a fearsome opponent. You have an edge against some decks and aren’t that strong game one against combo decks, but that’s what sideboards are for. The only thing I would not do is play Punishing Fire, as it messes up your mana and somehow manages to only help in your good matchups, unless they draw their Wastelands and Stifles and what-have-you.

As you can see, this deck is pretty well-tuned and this isn’t Thea’s first success with the archetype. Worth noting is the fact that adding Sword of Fire and Ice to the sideboard gives you some nice action against True-Name Nemesis and it’s also fun. If you’re expecting more combo, however, I would not hesitate to add something like Phyrexian Revoker (which can stop Griselbrand and Sneak Attack, as well as Lion’s Eye Diamond and just a Jace, the Mind Sculptor if you want) or Pithing Needle if you’re more concerned about Miracles than Lion’s Eye Diamond.

While on the topic of fun, I’d like to mention that I think in addition to writing an article about why I can’t win in Standard right now, I could also manage a pretty good article on why it’s important to try to have fun while you’re playing Magic. While I was watching Thea play, it was pretty apparent that she was having fun… and while her draws were excellent, it actually made me want to play Jund. Thoughtseize into Dark Confidant into Liliana is tough to beat, and just destroying all your opponent’s stuff is great. This is something that people forget, and lately I’ve been a little burnt out, grinding a lot and probably going to too many events. My desire to win is probably getting in the way of my better judgment, and I think I should step back, play some fun decks and try to refocus and just play some good Magic.

So, what’s a person to do who doesn’t like to deal with the “complications” that combat places on a game? Well, they can play a combo deck for starters: Sneak and Show does in fact require attacking but generally with one or two creatures at most, and the “combat math” really doesn’t matter, you generally kill them or attack them for seven and draw seven cards each turn until they simply give up. I like Sneak and Show, but with Death and Taxes succeeding last weekend it’s a dangerous choice because that matchup is hard. If you want to play Show and Tell and not worry about Death and Taxes I recommend Omnitell, a decision-intensive deck that rewards planning and mulliganning skills. Finally there are Storm variants, but I honestly wouldn’t know where to start on a recommendation there. I do know that I don’t like playing a deck that cannot win the match once your singleton Tendrils of Agony is exiled by Deathrite Shaman, as that is something that can happen and it feels horrible.

And finally, if you’re not into combat or combo, that leaves you in a very narrow play space occupied currently by Counterbalance. “Miracles” has been around for a while, and CounterTop was one of the first few Legacy decks I played, though I played with Tarmogoyf back then as the win condition. Here’s the list I’d start with:

It has three copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so I can happily stand behind it, and while I don’t love the entire list I think it’s an excellent starting point. It provides a lot of play (leaves you with a lot of choices, lots of opportunities to outplay your opponent and have fun) and it attacks on many axes. It isn’t just a Counterbalance deck. It’s also a Stoneforge deck and a Jace deck that has a lot going on backed up by Force of Will and enabled by Brainstorm.

Obviously this is not the entirety of the format, as Legacy is huge. It is worth mentioning that I think practicing either side of any matchup is very valuable. I played some other decks at Card Kingdom’s Monday night Legacy tournament just for experience, and I feel like it’s a very valuable exercise. Ideally you practice the deck you’re going to play, but if you end up changing your mind in the eleventh hour it’s important to know as much as possible from all the angles. As for the format, I didn’t touch on Elf combo much, but some people do like it. I didn’t touch on any Tezzeret or Metalworker decks, but they just aren’t really things I’m interested in.

All I can say is that I wish I was going to Charlotte and I will be watching SCGLive from home. Good luck to everyone attending!