Riding The Islands

Ari Lax writes about the two decks he played at SCG Open Series: Providence last weekend: Mono-Blue Devotion in Standard (with which he made Top 8) and U/B Tezzeret in Legacy.

A few months ago I did an analysis of how well I did at events over the course of last season and found that there was a definite correlation between the amount of preparation I did and how well I performed. The numbers were on the order a two-point average Pro Point difference between the events I actively tested for and the ones I didn’t.

Since September the opposite has held true. The events I’ve worked hard on I’ve bricked, and the events I’ve played a deck with zero experience I’ve performed. A small part of this is the competition, but it’s not like Grand Prix day 1s are significantly different in opponent skill from any other random nine-round event.

Most of it is just putting myself into a position where I can win without having to work hard for it. The events I’ve worked for I haven’t been able to do that.


For Saturday I copied Sam Black Mono-Blue Devotion list from his videos last Friday. When in doubt, let the person who clearly has the most experience with the deck do all the work for you.

My reasoning for playing Mono-Blue Devotion was simple—I didn’t want to work for wins. I hadn’t played Standard since the Pro Tour, so anything interactive was off the table. I assumed the Mon- Black Devotion matchup for Mono-Blue wasn’t great, but I also assumed the rise of Esper Control would push a lot of people towards red. At the same time I assumed a lot fewer people would play Esper Control and Mono-Black Devotion because they have miserable mirror matches.

The Mono-Blue Devotion mirror was shockingly interesting. About half the time it just ends when someone plays a Master of Waves or establishes Nightveil Specters, but the other half you have an interactive battle with lots of math and sequencing questions. Post-board is even more so when Gainsay and additional removal come into the picture.

I was also surprised by how hard my green opponents had to work for Mistcutter Hydra to matter. Master of Waves is just bigger. Thassa, God of the Sea hits harder and faster. Rapid Hybridization throws down a chump blocker in a race. Tidebinder Mage just puts them too far behind for the X spell to matter. If anything, I was more afraid of the other Hydra in their deck. Polukranos, World Eater gave them outs to a huge Master of Waves or Tidebinder Mage, which were the two ways I pressed my advantage.

In the devotion mirrors I noticed Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx was drastically overperforming. It was probably the third most powerful card in the mirror behind Gainsay and Master of Waves. All of the devotion decks generate a similar advantage on each of the middle turns, and the ability to just start doing more and more each turn lets you pull away. This is especially pronounced thanks to Thassa; Bident of Thassa; Nightveil Specter; and Jace, Architect of Thought letting you draw enough action to keep up with your growing mana production. If I get a chance to play this deck again, I might swap in an extra copy for a Mutavault. There are costs to the Esper and red matchups if you do so, but my general impression for now is that devotion mirrors are much more important than those.

Against Esper Control I was extremely unimpressed with Jace, Memory Adept. The card has a place in control mirrors, but when you are playing a more aggressive deck, the game doesn’t get to the point where it is a legitimate win condition. Instead of playing a Jace when your opponent dies in three 0s, you are playing it when they have over forty cards in library and you can’t beat their Elspeth, Sun’s Champion that resolves now that you tapped out. Aetherling would have been miles better, and it’s likely that just having more counterspells would be even better than that.

The card I was definitely missing in the mirror was Domestication. You don’t want a lot of them, but as a one- or two-of, it leads to some big blowouts. It swings a Nightveil Specter battle, kills a sea of Elemental tokens, and ends the battle of dueling Thassas via the legend rule. If the Jaces left the sideboard, one of them would become a Domestication.

In general the deck felt good but not amazing. It has a decent amount of raw power, but it’s still basically a White Weenie deck. You have creatures with power and toughness and turn them sideways. I didn’t feel like a huge favorite in any matchup, but few of my opponents did things that were specifically threatening to my deck. I’m sure that another Mono-Black Devotion opponent or two would have changed that.

The one deck I played against where I felt actively unfavored was the R/W Aggro deck, specifically Chris Butcher’s list. The game plan of play a guy, hit you, and kill your guy is hard to beat on the play and nearly impossible to beat on the draw. Note that the first part of this plan is play a guy. The R/W Aggro deck I played in round 9 was short on the one-drops they need to get in under your first threats and start this play.

Note that the second part is killing your guy. The white is a necessary part of this equation since Master of Waves is otherwise unkillable. There are other splash options that answer it, but Chained to the Rocks is both the cheapest option and the only one that kills everything. Black looks like it might, but Ultimate Price and Doom Blade don’t kill Nightveil Specter, which is a problem blocker against the 2/x one-drops and Chandra’s Phoenix.

Moving to other decks, Matt Costa Jund deck that won the event is a solid choice for the current field. It has the right amount of removal to handle the devotion decks and most importantly has the right spread of removal. You have Abrupt Decays to handle Pack Rat and Underworld Connections on time, Hero’s Downfall and Polukranos to handle Master of Waves, and Thoughtseize to wrap it all up.

That said, we basically had this exact deck in Pro Tour testing. We abandoned it since we had a lot of decks that were very good against its clunkier removal suite. Cards like Voice of Resurgence that have been forgotten in the push towards monocolored decks are very good against the Jund shell. While I wouldn’t play a straight-up level 0 G/W Aggro deck, I wouldn’t mind going back to a G/R Monsters deck or a well-built Naya Aggro deck.

Of course, this event was shockingly devoid of Mono-Black Devotion. The Grand Prix results seem to disagree with this being a reasonable thing to expect. My experience with the format may be completely out of sorts with the actual metagame, so take all this talk with a grain of salt.


I stand by the statement I made about the format last week. To recap, if you are playing creatures and planning on winning with them in traditional combat, you better be playing True-Name Nemesis and Stoneforge Mystic. If you are not, you will lose to the people that are. The worst part is that most of the non-Nemesis creature decks don’t even gain against combo compared to the Stoneblade-style decks.

I also personally wanted to stay away from decks that are weak to your opponent resolving Force of Will. That notably meant I wanted to stay away from Storm, but the Show and Tell decks all fell into that category.

Elves was considered, but in the past the U/W/R Delver matchup has been abysmal for that deck. With that deck coming off a Grand Prix win in the hands of Owen Turtenwald, I didn’t want to fight that fight. Elves was probably a very good choice, and I’m likely overestimating a few things here. First, the matchup likely got much better with True-Name Nemesis taking up some of the creature flex slots that would otherwise be Geist of Saint Traft (a quicker finisher) and Grim Lavamancer. Second, I’m also ignoring my lesson from a week ago about the Legacy metagame being glacially slow to change.

Instead, I’ll default to my more reasonable excuses. I wanted to spice it up, and Elves is something I’ve played on and off for a long time. People also are now putting me on Death and Taxes, which has overlap with Elves of removal being good against it.

Going deeper into the format, I found myself wanting to play one of the really weird Legacy non-combo decks. These decks are really hard to describe as a category. The closest thing I can think of in other formats would be a ramp deck, but it’s not like Lands or other Loam decks that make up some of this category are ramp.

The common thread among these decks is some kind of atypical engine that generates large amounts of card advantage or mana without casting a lot of spells.

As mentioned above, the classic examples of this are Lands and other Loam decks. Unfortunately, Deathrite Shaman causes big issues for both of these decks. The Loam decks that play less than 30 lands also tend to be creature heavy and in turn soft to True-Name Nemesis. Their creatures are things like Knight of the Reliquary that aren’t just idiots with power and toughness, but they still have cards trying to interact on the same axis.

Stax performed well at Legacy Champs, but that deck is far too unreliable to play for any number of rounds.

The deck I ended up on was Tezzeret:

I would talk about card decisions, but the deck was just bad.

Straight. Up. Unplayable.

Instead, I’m going to talk about why it was bad.

Tezzeret is not a fluid deck. You can have turn 2 planeswalkers. More often you are trying to play multiple spells after playing a City of Traitors early on.

Tezzeret is not a consistent deck. Your deck is very much on the plan of a small number of game breakers carrying a large number of enablers. This can be fine, but your ability to mulligan is constrained by needing a lot of your enablers to actually survive to a game state where your finishers matter.

Tezzeret is not a very powerful deck. Chalice of the Void can be a hard lock. Ensnaring Bridge can be a hard lock. Most of the time neither is. The only card in the deck that is reliably awesome is Tezzeret since it actually kills them. Jace only draws you into more do-nothings. Thopter Foundry is awesome . . . if you find Sword of the Meek.

Tezzeret is a small-ball deck. Tezzeret is a good card, but it functions on the level of 5/5 creatures. It is not Emrakuls or Griselbrands.

Tezzeret is very bad against in-play permanents. My opponents would play a couple threats and counter a spell, and I would die.

I would gladly play the card Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas again. I would gladly play Chalice of the Void again, just maybe not in the main. I might even play the Thopter/Sword combo in a different shell again. These all might come together in an Affinity deck like the one Drew Levin wrote about a few weeks ago.

I would not play this deck.

The deck I wanted to play was 12 Post. I was lazy and didn’t put in the effort to find Candelabras, so I only have myself to blame for this decision.

This deck falls into the same category as Tezzeret, but it is playable instead of not.

It has Show and Tell to win early and in a decisive fashion.

It can win the heads-up against opposing Show and Tell decks thanks to Primeval Titan finding a Karakas. I also haven’t done the math, but it may be reasonable for a Titan just to chain into an Eye of Ugin and a hard-cast Emrakul given the right board.

It goes big. Probably bigger than any other deck in the format.

It is very consistent. You have a ton of tutors to find your Cloudposts, and all of those tutors find Eye of Ugin once you have more than enough mana.

It has a fairly fluid game plan thanks to Sensei’s Divining Top and Brainstorm.

It has a decent number of answers to in-play permanents. It can play pricey cards like Oblivion Stone that just answer everything, and even if you just play the normal list, you have Repeal and Ulamog. Apparently, now you even have Bonfire of the Damned.

The issue with the deck is Wasteland. The deck is prepared for that. You have Crop Rotation in response as a way to dodge it and Pithing Needle to preempt it.

The Takeaway: When in doubt, Legacy is about doing things. If your deck doesn’t proactively win the game, it’s probably bad. There are rare exceptions for things like Miracles that have very generic locks, but those are few and far between.