SCG Invitational Blues

Anthony Lowry writes about how his preparation is going for Standard and Legacy at the SCG Invitational in Charlotte. What will you play this weekend?


I don’t feel completely ready for the upcoming SCG Invitational in Charlotte.

What? Do you really expect every player to "feel really good" about every event?

When it comes to SCG Opens, I experience a much larger sense of freedom. I know that I can bring a deck that feels good for me and do well with it even if I don’t spend a bunch of time preparing. You’ll run into a whole lot of random, interesting, and downright crazy decks, cards, and strategies during an Open, and you’ll even lose matches to them a lot of the time. I’m totally fine with that because I’m sometimes the one bringing the crazy things!

Invitationals are drastically different.

You’re going to play against players who earned their bid in every single round. No punches will be pulled, and you’d best assume that every card in their deck has been thought out through and through right down to the 75th card. You need to figure out what spot you want to be in and stay there. There’s a good chance that you could wind up in the wrong spot, but that’s better than trying to be in a bunch of spots at once and getting crushed by someone who worked on that one spot and stuck with it.

That’s what worries me.

I’m notoriously bad at trying to do way too much with decks and strategies. I’m also prone to overcompensating for this weakness, and this Standard format is very good at punishing both of those weaknesses.

So what’s a Lowry to do? There are many conflicting opinions on how to go about tackling a tournament.

  • Do you just play the best deck? Well, ask ten different people what the best deck is and you’ll get different answers.
  • Should you play what you’re familiar with? Finding advice for that is so difficult if you aren’t asking people who are familiar with you and what you’re proficient with.

While I love creature-based midrange decks and decks that have a very potent snowball effect (think Merfolk or Mono-Blue Devotion), I’m notoriously bad at developing a plan against hard control decks. While I’m no stranger to Sphinx’s Revelation decks, the Revelation decks of this year are different animals than last year’s enemy.

Back then smaller Revelations were way more common because the velocity was so much higher and you didn’t need to spend so much time developing your mana, sifting through cards, and looking for the specific card you leaned on for the matchup since so many of your cards worked well offensively and defensively. The shape of the format made those cards work that way. Azorius Charm is almost never more than a card that says "Cycling: UW" now, and we don’t have a multi-level threat like Restoration Angel. Thoughtseize makes innovation and trying new things extremely risky and punishing. Things can spiral out of control so quickly that it’s very hard to spend any turn past turn 3 doing nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Standard right now—I very rarely dislike a Standard format. It’s incredibly skill intensive, and anyone that tells you otherwise is wrong. While cards like Mutavault, Thoughtseize, and Sphinx’s Revelation (to a much lesser extent) contribute to a degree of oppression, there are plenty of offsets available. I’ve never played in a Standard format where the frequency of subtle sequences defining a game is so high, and even though I’m struggling big time right now and haven’t found anything to give myself an edge, I’m not someone who dislikes a format because I’m not winning all the time. I love the sheer power and potential of all the decks.

I love the swings. I love the undercosted bombs like Thassa, God of the Sea; Brimaz, King of Oreskos; Polukranos, World Eater; Pack Rat; Desecration Demon; and Domri Rade, and how cards like Thoughtseize, Supreme Verdict, Hero’s Downfall, Mizzium Mortars, and strategies that go under them can keep them all in check. I guess I’m not really complaining about Standard as much as I’m having difficulty figuring out how to maximize my strengths within the format.

I can’t play a midrange Sphinx’s Revelation deck because of Thoughtseize and Domri Rade. Brian Braun Duin’s Esper Control build, while obviously very good and more of a midrange approach than most, just isn’t enough for me. I really want to make Bant work, but again Thoughtseize is an issue. Plus I don’t want to go in cold with a deck I’ve worked very little on.

I’m not opposed to playing Monsters, but I don’t think the Jund build is the way to go. Yes, you get better removal in Dreadbore and a bit more sturdiness in Reaper of the Wilds along with some pretty high-impact sideboard cards. Playing twelve shock lands in a two-and-a-half-color deck is not something I want to be doing with Burn on the rise however. That deck will light you up literally and figuratively. The best way to combat this is to simply stop hitting yourself. You want to lean heavily on Courser of Kruphix and a fast clock they can’t kill with a single card, like Polukranos, World Eater. That said, I don’t even think Courser of Kruphix is especially well positioned leading into this Invitational.

If you read Chris VanMeter’s article last week, you’ve already seen him express his discontent for Courser, stating that he wants to be more aggressive than a 2/4 for three. Boon Satyr fits this bill perfectly and is probably the best option available for that slot.

The synergy between Courser, scry lands, and Domri Rade is deceptively powerful for all the reasons we’ve exhausted since it was introduced and also because it lets you get away with playing slightly less creatures. You sift through many more cards than before, so when you have two of the three pieces, your chances of hitting a creature doesn’t really go down. Even with that this synergy is unbelievably overrated. In fact, any synergistic strategy outside of devotion is probably overrated.

It’s hard enough playing a 0/3 defender in an aggressive midrange deck—a deck whose goal is to get ’em dead with undercosted large creatures and powerful planeswalkers. If I’m going to use that kind of card, it needs to lead me into something huge, and Courser of Kruphix is not that. I’d much rather have an instant offensive threat that punches through the likes of Jace, Architect of Thought and gives you a great rebound option for Supreme Verdict while also providing Flesh // Blood some newfound bolstering.

"Wait, how do you deal with Burn if you want Boon Satyr over Courser of Kruphix then?"

Well, that’s the delicate balance we need to figure out. I’m enjoying three copies of Boon Satyr and two copies of Courser of Kruphix, but those numbers will probably move around some. Playing fewer shock lands alleviates the pressure of sticking a Courser anyway, and if we’re going to try to defeat all of the control decks running around, then I’m fine giving up some percentage points against Burn anyway.

This doesn’t really help with the bigger problem—I’m not comfortable playing Monsters. The deck has been ultra clunky for me, even when I was maxed out on Courser of Kruphix. When you curve out, it feels damn near unstoppable, but this deck stumbles harder than most Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx draws in devotion decks, which I thought was very hard to do. The deck is obviously great, but I can’t stand how long it takes it to recover from stumbling.

I feel similarly about Mono-Blue Devotion, which I’ve played for almost the entirety of Theros Standard. I know my way around the deck much better than I used to now that Sam Black talked some sense into me and improved my sideboarding strategies; I used to cut one-drops against Mono-Black Devotion, which is certainly wrong.

I don’t think the white splash is worth it unless you’re fine with maxing out on Godless Shrine and playing something like two Temples, which is still kind of sketchy. Detention Sphere is great and all, but there isn’t that much we can legally target that we absolutely need to hit with it. I don’t think Ephara, God of the Polis is necessary. I’ve even seen some builds using Sphinx’s Revelation. Why do we need that kind of card when we already have Thassa, God of the Sea? If anything, a much better sideboard is why I’d play white. It’s a different kind of discomfort with this deck though. I know I’d be super comfortable actually playing it, but I can’t convince myself to actually bring it to Charlotte, mostly because I just can’t beat Esper Control.

And I really want to beat Esper Control.

I will do whatever I have to do to defeat that deck. I’m sick and tired of getting crushed by Sphinx’s Revelation when I think I have a handle on a game. I don’t care what everyone else is doing; I want to beat Esper Control, even if it (figuratively) kills me. I want to run it into the ground.

But once again, the big question is how. How can I do this comfortably? It’s not about what deck I can play; it’s about how I can get these decks to work for me. I know there are a lot of ways to Esper Control, but I have to get myself to actually settle on a deck.

Which brings me to Legacy, where the total opposite is happening.

I’ve been playing Mono-Blue Omni-Tell for what feels like forever now, and I don’t plan on changing that. I’ve never been more comfortable playing a Legacy deck, which is a phenomenon coming from me because I don’t think that Legacy is nearly as skill intensive as everyone makes it out to be (though it’s still very difficult). But that’s another thought for another time.

Omni-Tell’s core is pretty much the same as it has been for a long time now:

I think we’re at the point with Omni-Tell where you’re forced to choose between Leyline of Sanctity and Defense Grid. The cards are fairly obvious in function:

  • Leyline of Sanctity is very good against decks that are trying to interact with you directly via discard, Tendrils of Agony, and the like.
  • Defense Grid covers the countermagic end of the spectrum and essentially gives you free rein over your own turn.

There are two problems with this theory:

  • You will have a mismatch against opponents with both discard and instant disruption.
  • Permanent-based disruption will trump your defense.

BUG Delver is a shining example of the first point, and that matchup is definitely the worst one out of all Delver decks. Heck, I think it’s the worst matchup out of all the popular archetypes in Legacy. It’s very easy to cover only countermagic or only discard, but you never ever want to try to cover both. You simply cannot afford to devote that many maindeck slots to nonblue cards that don’t completely seal your defense.

Permanent-based disruption also bypasses both of these defenses. Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top, Spirit of the Labyrinth, Gaddock Teeg, and Ethersworn Canonist are the big offenders, but there is no bigger offender than Liliana of the Veil.

I firmly believe that Liliana is the single most frustrating card to play against in the format. The Dream Halls plan is almost completely shut down if she resolves, and dealing with any amount of pressure on top of that is unbelievably difficult. She just does an incredible job at exploiting Omni-Tell’s reliance on needing a critical mass of cards in hand. This is part of the reason why I decided to play two copies of Spell Pierce in the maindeck over something like Flusterstorm, which I firmly believe is the better card right now. She’s that much of a problem, and I simply refuse to lose to her and other permanent-based disruption in general. Defense Grid does not fill that role, and I don’t see myself playing it in Charlotte for the Invitational.

Remember, preparing for an Invitational is much different than preparing for an Open or Grand Prix, where you know you’ll play against anything and everything. Defense Grid would be fine for me in an Open, where I’d be playing eight, nine, or ten rounds, but the value of the card goes way down when you’re gunning for specific decks, honed players, and different number of rounds. Playing four rounds twice is very different from playing eight rounds straight, especially when it’s the first format you wind up playing each day and the Top 8 will be packed with players who are ready for anything.

If you aren’t someone who can play any deck optimally, then leaning on comfort and familiarity is important. While I can surely claim said comfort for Legacy, Standard is proving to be a massive challenge. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Joshua Cho and AJ Kerrigan this time around, and they’ve gotten me much further than I was just a few days ago. This week is definitely going to be one of the most difficult and stressful weeks I’ve ever had going into an event, but I’m going to make sure I’m as ready as can be. I want to make the best decisions I can make before and during the tournament, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get to that point.

I want this one, and I’ll figure out how to get it.