Removed From Game – More Fun in Standard

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, January 19th – Thinking about taking Cruel Control, Spread ‘Em, or Open The Vaults out for a spin in the Tournament Practice room? Let Rich save you some precious moments with this stirring tale of many divorce-chances-increasing hours testing them out.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been hitting the Tournament Practice room rather a lot lately. It hasn’t quite reached the point that my wife gets herself a Magic Online account just so that she can communicate with me, but we’re heading that way. In order to cram in as much information as possible therefore, I’m going to cut to the chase and bring you as many summaries, tips, and tricks, as my bleeding hands can muster, starting with:

I’ll say straight off that this is my kind of deck, and I opened up with a classic Mirror match. My opponent developed an early edge with three Courier’s Capsule to my one. I landed Sorin Markov, but the Legend/Planeswalker rule took care of that when I couldn’t defend against his own copy. It was quickly clear why he was happy to trade, since he plopped another onto the board next turn, which took two Lightning Bolts to clear away.

I felt morally obliged to Flashfreeze his Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, despite having a horrible feeling I was looking at bait. His follow-up Cruel Ultimatum led to a counter war, which his Double Negative won. That still left me a chance, when Courier’s Capsule brought me a Cruel Ultimatum, but Flashfreeze dealt with that, leaving me open to a game-clinching second Ultimatum from him. Sadly, it was now bedtime for my opponent, who therefore went to snoozeland with a 1-0 victory.

Match 2 — Cruel Control versus Bant

Already 1-0 up following lots of no land for my opponent, I gave him a sporting chance by mulliganing to five. He landed a pair of Meddling Mages, set to Courier’s Capsule and Divination, which I found interesting choices, as my Earthquake for two gained me a little of the card disadvantage back. Two Spreading Seas did their thing, and I couldn’t stop a Djinn of Wishes fetching Emeria Angel.

In game 3, I discovered that casting Cruel Ultimatum doesn’t automatically equate to victory. Having fought hard to stabilize against a start of Knight Of The Reliquary and two Rhox War Monk, I found myself facing Baneslayer Angel. With nine mana available, him aiming Flashfreeze at my Cruel Ultimatum wasn’t a problem, since I had Swerve at the ready (and what an awesome card that little instant is.) Off the top comes another Baneslayer for him, and he resumes the clock, which is perilously short. Suddenly I’m down to four life again, but Ultimatum number two deals with the Baneslayer.

Stop. It.

He draws another Baneslayer from the top, and I’m down to four for the third time in the game. This time it takes a combination of Sorin Markov and a Lightning Bolt to send it packing. Enough, just die already. With the score at 37 to 10, I finally land Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, and move on to victory, confirmed when he does one of the ritual acts of Magic Online suicide, namely casting Meddling Mage and selecting Sarpadian Empires Vol. VII, a card I do not genuinely believe he expected to be inconvenienced by any time soon.

Match 3 — Cruel Control versus Bant

A very different GWU opponent, who cranked up to Captain Of The Watch plus chums in game 1, and promptly put them all in the bin following Earthquake. Wall Of Reverence proved highly irritating, and it required two Cruel Ultimatums to clear the way for my Sphinx Of Jwar Isle.

Mark Of Asylum came down early in the second, and although I had Doom Blade for the horribly good World Queller (wearing its customary ‘kill me, kill me now’ T-shirt), Great Sable Stag and Terra Stomper (eek) sent us to a decider. That decider wasn’t remotely fair, as his double Great Sable Stag plus support was trumped by triple Terminate (though not for the Stags, clearly) and triple Ultimatum. I said earlier that one Cruel Ultimatum isn’t always enough. Three? I think three probably is.

Match 4 — Cruel Control versus Boros Bushwhacker

I think of the Boros deck as super-efficient, so it was a surprise how readily the Control deck handled the onslaught. I basically put everything meaningful in the bin, either before it hit play, or soon thereafter. I can’t be sure, but I don’t believe this is meant to be so straightforward. Hmm. Oh right, that’s better (though worse, obviously) as game 2 is a blowout the other way. First, I can’t stop him landing Antoine Ruel (Ranger Of Eos) on turn four, and although I have a shot at wiping the board, Harm’s Way on my Earthquake is enough to put me to zero.

Thankfully, it was back to a game one-style kicking for the rubber match, as a hand of double Flashfreeze and double Essence Scatter variously freezes and scatters his plans.

Match 5 — Cruel Control versus Cruel Control

Ah, symmetry. Mirrors to start and end the set. These three games showcase why I love Control mirrors so much. Game 1 is a regular slugfest of draw-go proportions, meaning that nothing happens for approximately four centuries. I freely admit that one of my weakest play aspects is mana management, but I reach the point that I have fourteen mana on the table, and eight cards in hand. I have eight mana available for four counterspells, and still have the mana to cast Sphinx Of Jwar Isle. I can’t see the downside in randomly taking a counter out of his hand, since my four counters should surely be enough to win any war on his turn.

I mentally shrug, and click on the Sphinx. It resolves. This is the cue for a ‘misclick?’ conversation, which meets with a frowny face. Oh, ok then, guess I’ll use my counterspells to, well, counter your spells, and smash you to death with my Sphinx. 1-0.

Call me perverse, but I felt strangely cheated by game one. Where was my counterspell war? I got plenty of that in game two, and serve me right. This time, he forced through a Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, with three mana open. That was enough to counter my Cruel Ultimatum, and then he had leisure to land a knockout Ultimatum of his own. 1-1.

You’ll remember that game one was won effectively on turn 14. The decider was won effectively on turn 2. We both mulligan to six, and then I fall further behind to five. That’s really not funny in the mirror. We both open on land, and then a second. His turn two leaves him access to two black mana, so he goes for Sign In Blood. I have Flashfreeze mana (pointless) and Essence Scatter mana (ditto), but more importantly I have a red and a blue, and that means Swerve. Rarely has losing two life felt more joyous. ‘Tell you what, how about I’m the one that draws two cards? Thanks.’ I didn’t type that, obviously, but that’s what it amounted to. With that swing I was able to keep parity throughout, and win the match handily. Moral: Turn two, turn twenty-two, you never know when the opportunity to win presents itself.

As you can probably tell, I had an absolute blast with the deck. It felt like there were decisions to make all the way along, and plenty of the games were both intriguing and even exciting. Definitely a deck I’d recommend to get out there and play if you want a real mental workout. That’s not something I really feel about the next deck, Spread ‘Em:

I think the word for which I’m searching for this deck is ‘mean.’ It’s not like old-style Land Destruction decks, where you saw your mana in the bin, and knew there was nothing you could cast, but instead Spread ‘Em taunts you by having your land sitting there, every bit as useless as if they were in the bin, but with added psychological warfare thrown in.

There was no sign of that in the opener, as Planeswalker Control utterly destroyed me, twice. Chandra went ultimate, and I promptly switched to creatures, since turning islands into islands didn’t feel especially clever. Ajani Vengeant came down for him right on schedule, and in the course of beating me like the red-headed stepchild I almost am, he sent Elspeth, Knight-Errant to her Ultimate, cast an Earthquake to destroy my already-redundant board, and won at leisure with Martial Coup.

Match 2 — Spread ‘Em versus Bant

I think what I’m missing with the deck is the fun I could have with it if I was twelve years old. If you’re twelve, and far too mature to derive pleasure from what follows, I apologize to you, and look forward to playing a Control mirror sometime soon. In game 1, I win with my opponent with the following land in play:

Plains, producing Black mana
Plains, producing Blue mana
Forest, producing Black mana
Forest, producing Blue mana
Forest, producing Blue mana
Seaside Citadel, producing Blue mana

Chortle, chortle.

Game 2 was as simple as Ajani going Ultimate, backed up with Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, one of the cards in the deck I can actually get behind.

Match 3 — Spread ‘Em versus Crypt Of Agadeem

For about three seconds, I felt quite smug about using Ajani Vengeant to keep his Crypt Of Agadeem tapped down. Those were the three seconds before he Unearthed his Fatestitcher, untapped his Crypt, put 436 mana into his pool (approx.) and dealt me a similar amount of hasty flying damage. What larks Pip, as someone once said. Truly.

It turned out that a combination of a mulligan to five for him, and triple Rhox War Monk for me gave me at least a shot of equalising at 1-1, and despite spirited resistance I reached Cascade overload, in one of the few interesting games this deck produced. My notes for the decider read ‘him mulligan six, me mulligan five, he went off.’ Yay.

Match 4 — Spread ‘Em versus Jacerator

I truthfully feel that the Runeflare Trap deck has more or less superceded Joel Calafell’s original concoction from Worlds, but a combination of early Hedron Crabs and Archive Traps were more than enough to give him time to put my library in the bin. With a mental sigh, I once again ditched the hideous ‘all your islands are islands, ha ha’ plan, and proceeded to batter him senseless, with the closer featuring turn 3 Rhox War Monk, turn 4 Bloodbraid Elf into Deft Duellist, turn 5 Baneslayer Angel, and turn 6 Sphinx Of Jwar Isle. Did I mention that the Sphinx is a card I can get behind?

Match 5 — Spread ‘Em versus Jund

Well, although I want to throw the laptop out of the window rather than play this again, at least I get to try it against Jund, the deck that it’s supposed to do naughty things against, what with Jund’s unfortunate predisposition towards bi-lands, tri-lands, quad-lands, and, for all I know, quint-lands. When I win game 1, I look back to discover that his first four lands all turned out be islands, strange for a RGB deck really.

In game 2, he sat with six islands in play (careless) before finally managing to get off a Harrow on turn nineteen. This tells you that I provided as much threat as a wet lettuce at a carnivore convention, but did eventually make a (yes) Sphinx Of Jwar Isle.

The deck ended with a 3-2 record, compared to the 3-2 of Jund, 3-2 of Mono-Red, and 4-1 of Cruel Control, but it finished comfortably bottom of the pile in the fun column. If you can promise me a metagame comprised entirely of Jund and idiots, or ideally both, I might consider playing it.

Match 1 — Open the Vaults versus Exalted

Like most of you I imagine, I don’t like to lose, so it takes a pretty unusual demolishing for me to finish a game I’ve lost with a smile on my face. That happened in game one, when the entertaining Aven Mimeomancer became an 8/6 via Exalted and Vines Of Vastwood. Oh, ok then. I was clinging on in game two, just managing to resolve Day Of Judgment before the axe fell. Vines Of Vastwood again put a spanner in the works, as Open The Vaults didn’t allow my Oblivion Rings in the graveyard to take out his Rhox War Monk. That made winning a chore, but not really any less inevitable. I was looking forward to the decider, but he mulliganed horribly, and, as often happens online, once you hit five cards, you just seem to click mulligan repeatedly until you reach zero, and then lose your connection. Pity.

Match 2 — Open the Vaults versus Jund

How did the Vaults fare against the best deck in the Format? This time, badly. The trouble is, Open The Vaults itself can seem extremely funky and cool, and as a mechanic it is, but the actual cards you’re getting back are often not super-exciting. Sure, if you can find a Sphinx Of The Steel Wind in the bin, getting that back is rather fine, but in game two, already one down, I got back two Glassdust Hulk (with their irrelevant huge bonuses as Vaults resolved), two Tidehollow Scullers (stealing the last cards from their hand) and two Architects Of Will.

Unfortunately, he was able to shuffle his library, avoiding my helpfully unhelpful re-ordering of the top of his deck, and then rendered all my plans essentially useless with 4/4 flying Dragons.

Match 3 — Open the Vaults versus Rafiq

In the opener, two Tidehollow Scullers were enough to keep him on the back foot, and Sharuum the Hegemon proved a kicking. After a tedious landlight game two that saw him overrun me easily, we got into by far the best game of the match. If you didn’t know, Finest Hour is a truly irritating card to play against. It’s not so much the additional combat phase, it’s the fact that all those Exalted triggers keep on stacking up. It’s odd, because they all look so innocuous to begin with.

First, there’s some random little Akrasan Squire or some such, and you keep everything else off the board until Battlegrace Angel, followed up with Finest Hour. Then it all goes horribly wrong. The Battlegrace attacks, so that’s three Exalted triggers right there. So, that’s a 7/7 flying Lifelink dude. Ouch. Ah, but then Finest Hour does its thing. Three more Exalted triggers, that’s a 10/10 flying Lifelink dude. I make that a 34 point life swing off a 4/4 creature attacking alone.

As a result of this horrible threat, it becomes paramount to essentially kill everything on sight, as even a poxy little Akrasan Squire ends up dealing you eight damage with Finest Hour in play. Eight damage off a 1/1? Behave. This game took a ton of time to finally pull out, but as a result it was all the more satisfying.

Match 4 — Open the Vaults versus BR Bloodchief Ascension

Sometimes you wish your deck didn’t do what it does quite so well, as what the other guy is trying to do is interesting. He dropped a Bloodchief Ascension very early, and attempted to get counters on it through a variety of instant and sorcery burn spells, and some small beaters. Oblivion Ring dealt with the first, Day Of Judgment the second, and that was pretty much that.

Game 2 was much, much closer. Down to seven, I set off Open The Vaults, and when I look at the top of his deck with Architects Of Will, I discover a Lightning Bolt and two Burst Lightning on the way. Not good. I hold on, trying to pile damage on before he can burn me out, and when I drop another Architects Of Will, discover that, if possible, things are now worse, since his forthcoming draws are Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, and Consume Spirit. Really not good. However, Sphinx Of The Steel Wind IS good, and takes games away from certain decks at, er, lightning speed.

Match 5 — Open the Vaults versus Eldrazi Green

In the first match of this set, we talked about Finest Hour utterly changing the game, because it turned everything into a hideous threat. In this match, that role is filled by Eldrazi Monument. Although Elvish Archdruid can turn a pile of weenies into a serious force, it’s the Monument that does (yes, I can’t resist) monumental things to the clock, and makes almost pointless 1/1s into an airforce of doom.

The thing is, the Monument is almost like a switch. The game starts, and it’s irrelevant. They make guys, which are mildly inconvenient. Then, with a click of the switch, they’re great. You kill the Monument, and they’re back to being rubbish again, but unless you can sweep the board, for as long as they remain there’s the chance of them being switched back on with a topdeck. That’s exactly what happened in game one, as Tidehollow Sculler took away his last card, after I’d already ditched a Monument with Oblivion Ring. Oops, topdeck Monument, beat you to near-death. My topdeck? Day Of Judgment. Yippee. Except not, since Indestructible kind of ignores Day Of Judgment. Pity.

Thankfully, Day Of Judgment arrived in the second game while there was no Monument around, and although Nissa Revane is decent and all, it still takes a while to reload properly, and that was plenty of time to equalize. The decider? Another no-show, as the mulligan to zero and vanishing occurred, leaving me with eyebrows raised once again.

Of the three decks we’ve looked at this week, only Cruel Control feels like a deck you actively have fun with, all other things being equal. It’s rare that you get totally blown out by a deck that renders almost all your deck null and void. You get to make actual choices, especially while you’re learning what each deck does and doesn’t bring to the table.

Spread ‘Em just doesn’t do it for me, although I do appreciate the elegance of the angle of attack of such a deck. As for Open The Vaults, my issue with it is really to do with the overall card quality. Even when you reach six mana and ‘combo’, it doesn’t often feel like you’re cheating, and that’s exactly how you should feel when you’re battering in Standard.

Next week, in the last of the series, we’ll look at a full half dozen decks that can tide you over to the fun and frolics on their way in Worldwake.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.