Seven Rounds Of This Or That

Mike Flores, author of The Official Miser’s Guide, writes about deciding on the finer points of a Standard decklist for the SCG Invitational in New Jersey this weekend.


Combo or Control? ::Divination or Think Twice? :: Supreme Verdict or Terminus?
Planar Cleansing or Supreme Verdict? :: Threat or Answer?
Tap Out or Flash? ::Thought Scour or Quicken?
This or That?

This Flores Friday is actually the first day of the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Somerset, New Jersey, so there is a good chance that by the time you are reading this, Restoration Angel will have already taken a handful of poor, unfortunate souls. Our Hero will be battling with Snapcaster Mages in every format! In Legacy I will be playing U/R Delver; the only question is whether Young Pyromancer will join the All-Star lineup of Grim Lavamancer, Delver of Secrets, the aforementioned Tiago, and Goblin Guide.* I haven’t had a chance to actually test Delver with Young Pyromancer on Magic Online, but it seems to me that the little four-eyed nerd will quickly replicate and even outstrip the impressive Martell-making debut of Lingering Souls—and Lingering Souls immediately broke Legacy when it first hit the scene!

For Standard I originally wanted to play Naya. Naya is just full of every card I want to play. I bought Boros Reckoners the first weekend I saw them. I paid the Voice of Resurgence tax. I wanted nothing more than to rekindle the blazing flame of that long-loved Lightsaber. Naya NAYA NAYA! Gimme Naya! Gimme gimme gimme!

Gimme . . . a win?

Naya was miserable, at least for me. Okay, maybe not “miserable,” but at least “disappointing” and well beneath my usual bar for a deck choice. I tried techy Naya with Aurelia, the Warleader; I tried the Saito 9×4, the unsexiest build filled with more-or-less the best card at every curve point. While it would be an exaggeration to say that I couldn’t buy a win, I certainly didn’t win as much as I wanted and couldn’t possibly go with it as Weapon of Choice for my biggest tournament of the summer. Naya was actually miserable every time I was in topdeck mode. Its routes to fixing its draw are erratic, and even its big and hasty threats are easily contained with too many common two mana instants to list. I figured that the good players I’d be up against in the Invitational might be able to put me into topdeck mode. Which put me off of Naya mode.

Solution: brew.

I did some work on the deck that I hinted at last week: a Lavinia of the Tenth + Conjurer’s Closet midrange combo deck. The idea there is that Lavinia of the Tenth is a soft lock against some decks, at least for a turn, and that combining it with Restoration Angel or Conjurer’s Closet could be super effective.

The Lavinia of the Tenth deck was actually pretty good; it had a good win percentage, certainly sizably up from Naya. If I could get to Closet zone against Jund (especially if they blew Putrefy on an early fat man), that was usually enough and usually enough to even pull you out of a seemingly disastrous Rakdos’s Return. I didn’t have a lot of problems with control. It’s the same way any midrange ramp deck beats control; you just have lots of threats and synergies and card advantage combinations (not to mention a couple of Cavern of Souls). You can enter an Angel loop and out threat any control deck that isn’t explicitly trying to race you with Aetherling.

Beatdown could be stressful (as it can be with any ramp-style deck). You have the tools, but you have to draw them in the right order. If you hit your drops, you can contain them; if you get stuck on lands, you’re probably stuck. On balance Maze Runner has a lot of blowouts against aggressive decks. Really not much they can do once you Voltron together two five-drops in particular.

The deck was fun (at least when it got its game on), and I could vividly imagine myself doing cool things on camera with it (which might be a red flag actually). But it lost to itself. And Olivia Voldaren. Man! Jund decks that drew two early Olivias were real problems.

The deck has a cool name and everything. I think it might be a reasonable future FNM candidate; it certainly plays a lot of favorite creature cards!

Though Maze Runner plays some odd cards (or at least off-label combinations of otherwise played cards), its structure is not that different from other midrange ramp decks. Yes, it has a glut of fives and a couple of sixes and sevens. But you can just imagine Lavinia of the Tenth is Thundermaw Hellkite and see much of the Dark Naya shell; Conjurer’s Closet is your five mana advantage engine in the way that Jund uses Garruk, Primal Hunter. The cards are certainly not interchangeable, but the curves and the concepts should actually be less foreign than they first look.

Combo or Control?

In terms of [other] combo decks, I didn’t really love the possible choices. I super respect Hexproof and played Hexproof variants in the last two Standard Opens (one to an excellent-if-disappointing result, one to a damnable dimensional door to Bizarro World); on balance I don’t really want to play a Fog deck. I understand you can spike a tournament with Fog (especially after a dozen fortunate pairings), but Fog is the kind of deck that is very easy to get wrong. While I don’t think “playing a lot of creature removal” can possibly be “wrong” at this stage of Standard, playing for particular answer angles with particular specialized cards (but also very obvious Achilles Heels) doesn’t seem like a great idea to me.

I knew for sure I didn’t want to play beatdown this time. I want margin, smooth draws, and lots of creature kill. Hexproof can’t regulate its draw and has to play the opponent’s battlefield whenever it doesn’t natural into the nuts. Ergo for this one: control.

Divination or Think Twice?

A lot of control decks in Standard just snap assume Think Twice. Think Twice is good people! But Divination actually has some surprising upside. Two cards for three mana is a lot more attractive than two cards for five mana if you want to do a lot of exchanges. Divination is a great Mulldrifter making combination with Snapcaster Mage. If you play other cool cards like Quicken, Divination has additional spice. It is that hard-to-place crunch in a well-made peanut butter cup; you know you like everything in your mouth but might struggle to give all the ingredients names.

Personally, I have had excellent historical results playing Divination and can’t make the same claim on Think Twice. The cards are comparable, but Divination is just more powerful if you are willing to accept its limitations and offers some really substantial opportunities to bowl opponents over. Say you’re playing a control mirror or Jund and are on the play. Your opponent doesn’t play a turn 2 Farseek. What’s to stop you from just spiking a Divination right there? Exactly.

There are two areas where Think Twice shines over Divination in terms of real and substantial functionality: in concert with miracles and as a mana smoother on turn 2 specifically (Divination can rescue you from mulligans but supposes you will hit your first three drops). These are not inconsequential.

I am not 100% decided on this one (because of especially the next this or that), but I am likely going Divination.

Supreme Verdict or Terminus?

I talked my deck with a couple of chaps today, including former #1 Apprentice (and Invitational Top 8 competitor) Joshua P. Ravitz and Mr. Scotty Mac from The Eh Team podcast. What’s the deal with Terminus over Supreme Verdict main?

I really want to play a bunch of creature removal, but it is important to get the creature removal not wrong. There are basically five kinds of decks in Standard:

Control (where the distinction is largely irrelevant but Supreme Verdict is begrudgingly better); midrange (where the decks are generally slow enough that the two cards are relatively indistinguishable in the long run but Terminus gives you weird off-label interactions against, say, a Sire of Insanity); combo (specifically Hexproof, where both have value but Supreme Verdict can invite blowouts via Rootborn Defenses or Boros Charm [they are irrelevant and bad both against non-aggro combo]); other non-reach beatdown that can be super-fast (where both are good, pending time); and beatdown with reach (where the only thing that matters is the speed with which you get your sweeper because the opponent’s Stage Three doesn’t respect any kind of creature kill).

Given this pentacle of problems, the additional upside of “getting lucky” with Terminus is currently more attractive. I can ride the positive side of variance and blowout beatdown decks. In addition Terminus is much stronger against decks with Xathrid Necromancer (important given AJ Sacher performance last week), Strangleroot Geist, Voice of Resurgence (Hexproof and Naya), even Unburial Rites. Also, you can just get lucky with it on turn 2-4 against Blitz decks, and they can’t recover. Bonzer.

I have some Supreme Verdicts lined up for the sideboard, but we are for sure going Terminus main this weekend.


Planar Cleansing or Supreme Verdict?

Now in the sweepers category, do I really favor Planar Cleansing > Supreme Verdict?

This was a decision that drove much discussion. What’s up with Planar Cleansing?

Simply, there are matchups where you need some way to catch up against noncreature permanents (specifically Garruk, Primal Hunter, but there are lots of examples). Cyclonic Rift is actually an excellent card that accomplishes the same thing; I frown on balance on cards like Oblivion Ring and Detention Sphere in particular because of their interaction with cards like the Planar Cleansing at hand and the all-too-common Renounce the Guilds. I won a lot of matches in games 2 and 3 only, leaning heavily on the back of Planar Cleansing.

I liked Planar Cleansing so much I even moved one main! You end up being grateful for Planar Cleansing in matchups like Esper and Jund where the opponent can play a ton of noncreature permanents (Sorin, Lord of Innistrad; Garruk, Primal Hunter; Rakdos Keyrune).

Interestingly, here the two different kinds of sweepers come in at different times. I will not generally side Planar Cleansing in against aggro or Hexproof (in fact I will side the one main deck one out), and it would take a fairly strange set of circumstances for me to bring in Supreme Verdict versus, say, Jund. I’m favoring Supreme Verdict > Planar Cleansing at least in part due to already having plenty of anti-beatdown cards in my sideboard.

Planar Cleansing

Tapout or Flash?

Lots of folks have commented nicely about “my” U/W/R Aetherling deck. It is at least mostly Joey Pasco U/W/R Aetherling deck. But thanks!

Aetherling was on my short list (in particular because it’s Plan A is a near lock against other control decks), but we are likely going straight U/W Flash this time.

I thought you wanted to kill creatures!

It is known, Khaleesi. No one is contesting that U/W/R with its Pillar of Flame and Searing Spear is likely better at just killing creatures (at least one at a time), but U/W actually gets some decent proxies in Renounce the Guilds and Augur of Bolas. My main consideration here is largely actually dodging Burning Earth.

To me running two colors is just some extra margin against decks that might try to beat you with Burning Earth. One way to avoid having the wrong answers is to never get into the wrong position in the first place, and the cost here is low. There is actually a lot of buried margin here; playing a lot of basics might save you—well, me actually—not just some damage but the necessity of playing dedicated one-for-one answers like Oblivion Ring. And I hate those cards.


Threat or Answer?

If there is one thing my testing this week taught me, it is that I really want to hit my fourth land drop. If there is another thing, it’s that as a control player you need an out to a slower control deck.

I liked Encroaching Wastes (and even tested Ghost Quarter, an old U/W favorite from when I managed to win five qualifiers in a row) as an answer to some number of Nephalia Drownyard activations, but there are a few problems with this. For one, if the opponent mills you a small handful of times, you are going to lose anyway. Doesn’t matter if you Wastes / Quarter them even just two or three turns later.

Secondly, it’s not realistic to match them nonbasic-for-nonbasic. These decks have three or four Drownyards, and you aren’t going to play the maximum number of Encroaching Wastes / Ghost Quarters just to fight Drownyard. Not if your plan is to play around Burning Earth. You just aren’t going to do that! And last but not least, what if they just mill your anti-nonbasic nonbasic? You’re boned. Your whole strategy collapses. “Answer” is no answer if the threat can exhaust the answer ahead of time.

Ergo . . . threat!

I’ve thought about this a lot and concluded that resolving Aetherling really is the best thing you can do to race another control deck. So I’m just going to go with the Cavern of Souls strategy outlined previously to resolve Aetherling in control matchups. On the downside, I don’t have any Aetherlings in my main. But then again, Cavern of Souls –> Aetherling doesn’t take too long to win sideboard games.

Without further ado, here is my likely deck for this weekend’s Invitational:

Obviously there are a fair number of unusual cards in this deck, including not just the aforementioned Divination and Planar Cleansing but Quicken.

The short story is that Quicken has a lot of upside you probably haven’t considered yet. If I had figured it out earlier in the process, I probably would have been trying to figure out Grixis with Quicken powering out Rakdos’s Return on the opponent’s turn. The ability to clear the opponent’s board on their turn with Planar Cleansing (or whatever) is very attractive. You can leave mana open to Dissipate and just Divination on their end step. It combines nicely with Terminus as both a setup catalyst and a one-mana miracle finder. And not one soul plays around Quicken.

Thought Scour or Quicken?

The tension is obviously Quicken taking Thought Scour’s spot in the Flash lineup. Quicken has a lot more upside than Thought Scour in my mind. This might not mean anything to you, but I care about the decision tension of me versus them. Do I Scour myself or point it at the other player’s library? If I lose, I go through my deck and see if I could have or should have aimed a Thought Scour differently to hit the miracle.

I know you usually point it at yourself in Tiago decks, but the main reason I am still considering Thought Scour at all is that I raced a resolved Aetherling with it and Jace earlier this week (wasn’t easy) by decking my opponent of course. You only do that by going off label. I know Thought Scour sets up Snapcaster Mage richly, but I am honestly not that greedy—getting the two for one is often enough to gain or maintain a lead. In the same spot, I am happy just burning one mana to draw a freebie. Who knows? Maybe I will luck sack into a miracle or relevant sorcery!

Very, very likely Quicken!

For those keeping score at home…

Combo or Control? Control!

Divination or Think Twice? Divination! (probably)

Supreme Verdict or Terminus? Terminus!

Planar Cleansing or Supreme Verdict? Planar Cleansing (and still some Supreme Verdict)

Threat or Answer? Threat!

Tap Out or Flash? Flash!

Thought Scour or Quicken? Quicken! (probably)

Josh has me thinking about Think Twice over Divination specifically for Terminus triggers. He “gets” that I just want to get lucky with the deck and thinks I have more likelihood of getting lucky with Think Twice over Divination. If I went that route, I would have three fewer sorceries for Quicken (but three or four more flashbacks for Thought Scour). Ergo it is well within the range of possible futures that I look more like conventional U/W Flash. You know, something like:

Cutting the fourth Restoration Angel is painful, but you have to cut something. I do think that if you are going to go the Think Twice route playing Thought Scour becomes academic; not only does the latter feed the former, but there are no longer Divinations to set up via Quicken.

As of Wednesday in the AM, this is the Weapon of Choice with which our hero plans to Enter the Battlefield.

Wish me luck!

(I’ll probably need it.)


*cf. “All-Star”

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