Sullivan Library – Online PTQs, The Best Deck in Standard, and Regionals

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Tuesday, April 27th – In today’s edition of Sullivan Library, Adrian Sullivan has Standard on his mind. He looks at the latest slew of results from the Magic Online PTQs, examines the online dominance of U/W Control, and suggests a new configuration for Jund…

I forget which local player made the claim that online PTQs were the hardest PTQs to win on the planet. I remember retorting that I thought that Pro Tour PTQs were likely harder, because you’d have some of the best players on the planet who might have just fallen off the train, or those already Q’ed hoping to win a plane ticket there. Perhaps even more competitive were the Mega-GP PTQs, where you have a thirty-thousand player GP and people are looking for something to do on the next day. The GP PTQ was conceded to me, if only for sheer exhaustion mixed with the potential for strong competitiveness, but they kept up their claim for the online PTQ as being ridiculously hard.

There is something to this claim. Even if we ignore the problem of “ringers” playing on other peoples’ accounts (a thing we all know happens, even if it isn’t “supposed” to), you are still talking about a population of players, many of whom take the game very seriously. The interface adds on an additional level of mental taxation to a player, which regardless of how small, can add up. To put a deck together online essentially requires that you’ve put the economic effort into acquiring fully digital cards that you’re never likely to turn into actual physical ones (assuming that the redemption policy gets legs). This investment is often the sign of someone who is really taking the game quite seriously in a way that paper cards don’t necessarily equate to. These days, nearly every player I know who takes the game seriously spend a fair amount of time on MTGO. Now, MTGO isn’t a substitute for having a good, vibrant Magic community that you participate in, but it gives so many opportunities for testing that are really important to take into consideration (perhaps the most important of which is being a great place to make sure your testing isn’t inbreeding). While the online PTQ might not simply be the hardest PTQ in the world, it is certainly among the leaders in the hardness race.

Now, I’ve never played in an online PTQ for a number of reasons. Usually it has been a question of time — I simply can’t commit to the time frame because of other obligations. But beyond that, I simply can’t stomach being on MTGO for that long; MTGO is such an awful program, prone to annoying bugs, being a huge resource hog that all but cripples my computer the longer it runs. The idea of potentially needing to reboot my machine in between rounds and potentially missing the beginning of one strikes me as so awful, I’m just not willing to put up with the possibility of losing a match for terrible reasons like that. I’ve got it on three different computers, and none of them particularly perform well.

All of this just confirms for me that the people who are making the Top 8 of these events must be real die-hards. That’s what makes the news that all of the recent online PTQs were won by Blue/White Control a big deal.

Here is “the enemy” (with the amalgamated decklist in brackets):

Date: April 18 / 20 / 23
User: _ShipItHolla / bolov0 / __SipItHolla

Baneslayer Angel: 4 / 4 / 4 [4]
Knight of the White Orchid: 4 / 4 / 4 [4]
Sphinx of Jwar Isle: 2 / 2 / 2 [2]

Day of Judgment: 4 / 3 / 3 [3]
Elspeth, Knight-Errant: 2 / 2 / 2 [2]
Everflowing Chalice: 1 / 3 / 1 [1]
Fieldmist Borderpost: 4 / 3/ 4 [4]
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: 3 / 3 / 3 [3]
Martial Coup: 1 / 2 / 1 [1]
Mind Spring: 3 / 2 / 3 [3]
Negate: 0 / 2 / 2 [1]
Oblivion Ring: 3 / 2 / 3 [3]
Path to Exile: 2 / 2 / 1 [2]
Spreading Seas: 4 / 4 / 4 [4]

Arid Mesa: 1 / 0 / 1 [1]
Celestial Colonnade: 4 / 4 / 4 [4]
Glacial Fortress: 4 / 4 / 4 [4]
Island: 4 / 6 / 4 [4]
Plains: 7 / 6 / 7 [7]
Tectonic Edge: 3 / 2 / 3 [3]

Cancel: 1 / 1 / 1
Celestial Purge: 0 / 4 / 0
Day of Judgment: 0 / 1 / 1
Devout Lightcaster: 2 / 0 / 2
Everflowing Chalice: 1 / 0 / 1
Flashfreeze: 3 / 3 / 3
Iona, Shield of Emeria: 0 / 1 / 0
Kor Firewalker: 3 / 3 / 3
Kor Sanctifiers: 1 / 0 / 1
Negate: 3 / 2 / 2
Path to Exile: 1 / 0 / 1

Remarkably, for two of the lists (the *Holla lists), they have 74 of the same 75 cards (albeit with a tiny shift of main and board) — one uses a total of 3 Negate and the other 4, and one gives itself access to 3 Path to Exile, while the other just 2. This is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of variants of Blue/White running around out there, but it seems clear that something along this vein has got to be abundantly powerful.

This is it… your new Enemy.

Let’s take in all of the Top 8s from those events to get a better sense of it:

UW: 12
Jund: 5
Mythic: 1
Boss Naya: 1
Red: 1
Allies: 1
Vampires: 1
Open the Vaults: 1
Grixis Discard: 1

Okay, so half of the top 8s were taken by Blue/White Control, and all of the slots. If we further break it down into averages, we get the following:

Average Place once in Top 8
UW: 3.7
Jund: 5.3
Other: 5.4

In other words, if you’re winning, the other good decks perform about as well as Jund, all told, but none of them perform as well as UW. One other statistic: of the six decks that made the finals of the three PTQs, only one was not UW. Ladies and gentleman, set your targets…

There was a long while there in which I was a huge proponent of Mono-Red for Standard; given the strength of Jund, it just seemed like it was the right call. People would call out again and again, “What about Kor Firewalker? Don’t you care about that card?” Previously, if you looked at events, you’d see decks with Kor Firewalker in their board near the bottom of the standings. Now, though, it’s the exact opposite. Red, as well as everything else, needs to adapt.

Of course, Red won’t be the only deck to adapt. Blue/White will as well. One of the first questions that has to come to mind is this: what new cards from Rise of the Eldrazi can we find that might have some place in the deck?

The short list looks like this:

Oust — For this deck, Oust might just be a functional upgrade for Path to Exile. Path has the strength of being able to be sneaky and hit man lands, but the cost can be real against decks like Jund which might be able to run away with a Gang or Dragon slightly more quickly than you’re ready to deal with.

Wall of Omens — Does this card do what the deck wants? It makes the Jace look a little better, but other than that, I feel like it might make the deck shift more fundamentally. Certainly worth tinkering with at the very least.

Deprive — A bona fida COUNTERSPELL, Deprive’s cost, once again is fully real. Knight of the White Orchid can help you recover from the lost land-drop, but then we’re still talking about early UUWW. This is a card that seems like it could really find a home here, but doesn’t really fundamentally alter the deck. Instead it increases the deck’s power while also increasing its clunkiness. Might be worth passing on.

See Beyond — Messing around with your library is one of those things that I’ve always been fond of. This might let you reduce some numbers of cards in your library, but it also seems like such a plan could be a little bit risky, as your deck is basically made to grind away with card quality and push over the top with card draw. Selection is nice, but I don’t think this is the deck for a card like this.

Sphinx of the Magosi — This is a card that I could see finding a home in the deck, or potentially the sideboard. While vulnerable to Path and Oblivion Ring and friends, it also represents a trump to the mirror. This might be a great card to use for the board of this deck.

There are other cards that might find their way into this deck, but for the core of this deck, it is pretty set. Certainly, there are ways to mutate the deck to accommodate the new cards that this set provides. Wall of Omens, in particular, seems to encourage a change in how this deck could work. Reworking decks is tricky, though; sometimes things that are fundamental to an older iteration simply can’t make the cut with the changes necessary for a new framework.

But what about everyone else? What are they going to do?

The first thing that you need to understand is what exactly is happening when you’re playing against this deck.

In a sense, this deck is nearly classic Weissman Blue/White: this is a deck that is going to have powerful cards, negate yours, and gain card advantage. The one card that doesn’t fully fit into this framework is Path to Exile, a card that we’ll probably have to agree is a necessary evil in the current metagame, and still accomplishes most of the goals of a pure control deck.

To understand Weissman-style decks, you have to realize that you’re being ground down in an attrition war. The longer games go on, the more you’ll likely be buried, typically under the weight of pure card advantage. Typically, this means hitting card-for-card with answers or with trading, and then using other cards along the way to pull ahead. Unless you can actually stop their Jace or their Mind Spring, their card advantage is going to be a reality. When you throw in small bits of incremental advantage from Knight of the White Orchid, Elspeth, and Martial Coup, as well as the potential granted card advantage of Day of Judgment and Martial Coup, you’re basically left with three options:

a) Decisively kill them quickly, before this can accrue
b) Stop their card advantage cards (with discard or counters)
c) Out card them with your own

Whatever your plans are, the fact of the matter is that you’re going to be heading against an opponent who will over time have quality, powerful cards, and more of them. In many cases, this current style of Weissman-style Blue/White are just doing the same job that Jund has been doing, but with Baneslayer over Broodmate, and Jace over Bloodbraid Elf. They tend to win this “mirror” simply because when they get to the late game, they can overwhelm their opponent. For Jund to beat this, they need to either devastate their opponent’s hand, or kill them before the game gets anywhere. This can be a tall order.

What cards are there in the new set to help various decks of all sorts acclimate to our new Blue/White overlords? Let’s relook at the new set for potential help…

All Is Dust in particular and Eldrazi in general — All Is Dust is pretty spectacular at clearing the table of a bunch of relevant stuff. If Blue/White doesn’t move to counters, All Is Dust is going to be a great way of just tearing up nearly all of their permanents. Further, if you can get to the mana without dying first, the Eldrazi themselves should absolutely tear up a non-counterspell base Blue/White. Unfortunately, though, they do have access to Tectonic Edge, and there is nothing saying that they can’t shift into being a counter-based deck.

Student of Warfare and friends — White Weenie is looking for more cards that can provide a hit. Of course, to fight a deck like Blue/White, you’re going to need more than just good bodies. Totem Armor almost seems like a reasonable way to fight their Day of Judgment effects, but it is worth remember that their point and click kill spells make Auras seem foolhardy. No, for this to work, you’re probably going to need to add in cards like Elspeth, Knight-Errant, both as a means to outfight their creature kill, and as a potent threat. Remember, they have their own creatures that matter, but if you can continue to lay relevant cards that don’t simply blank, you can make the short-game not the only game you have.

Coralhelm Commander and his school — Merfolk might be just the ticket in the new format. With a pretty solid selection of creatures in the tribe these days, you can have the aggressive hits of fast creatures combined with real countermagic to stop the potent cards that you care about. A Merfolk deck wouldn’t just have access to Deprive and Negate, but also potentially cards like Unified Will. Aggro-control has classically been the perfect foil for true control; if Blue/White continues to excel, finding a good aggro-control deck could be the perfect choice. Of course, this strategic archetype has historically been one of the hardest to build and pilot.

See Beyond — Combo could also be the way to take things, particularly a beatdown-style combo deck that tries to end the game quickly. See Beyond could be a critical piece to fighting this fight for a Polymorph deck, or any other combo-style deck. Importantly, while See Beyond will also be good in control decks, it won’t do nearly the kind of fighting that is needed as compared to its role in a combo deck. For a control deck to grind it out, it is going to need to outdraw and out power Blue/White.

Sphinx of Magosi — All by itself, this is the trump (presuming they aren’t playing it themselves). If you untap with this card, I predict you will win most games against Blue/White — your critter is simply bigger, will continue to get more relevant, and will also provide you cards in the meantime. Whatever kind of Blue deck you’re playing, this could be a huge part in winning the fight against the new enemy.

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief — If you end up moving towards a Black control base, Drana can be the equivalent, in many ways to a Sphinx of Magosi. Ultimately very vulnerable to creature kill, while it is on the table, it is liable to own it. It shares the same weakness as the Sphinx in that it is vulnerable to creature kill, and it lacks the card draw potency, but it does make up for that in being a cannon to take out most things your opponent is liable to drop down. This card would need to be backed up by a fair number of discard spells so it isn’t simply overwhelmed by card draw leading into an answer.

Kargan Dragonlord — Essentially this card is saying, “Hey, I know you’ve got a lot of other little things to deal with, but if you don’t deal with me, I’m going to own you.” It whirrs up a little slowly, but if you’re doing other things, this shouldn’t matter. This card is essentially making the claim that your opponent had better not run out of creature kill.

Kiln Fiend and burn like Staggershock — This card runs down the other side; where the Dragonlord is demanding that you respect it in a late game, the Kiln Fiend is claiming that the game won’t ever get there. Make sure that you pack enough spells to keep triggering the Fiend. Staggershock is particularly important, here, as a means to help take down a Baneslayer when one drops.

Awakening Zone and a Big Spell — Whether that big spell is an Eldrazi, a Polymorph, or some other unforeseen combo card, Awakening Zone is there to bring your mana up so fast that you can overwhelm Blue/White before they can handle what you dish out. For this to work, it’s going to need to be paired with good card selection if you’re looking for a short- to mid-game, card draw for a mid- to late-game, or simply lots of relevant things to cast. Further, since Blue/White might be moving into counters, either a stream of powerful cards is going to be important, or a pairing with solid discard. This card is an enabler — it just needs something to enable. Alternate versions of this card are called “Joraga Treespeaker” (more vulnerable to Day, obviously) and Growth Spasm (less mana, but also less fragile).

Vengevine and aggressive friends — Here, you have to be playing for the aggressive, fast kill. Vengevine is great in that it is, in its own way, resilient against Day of Judgment. It still can’t fight through a Baneslayer Angel, and so it is going to need help, most likely in the form of Black elimination like Doom Blade and the like. Alternately, going with pump can be an option, but this can be tricky, since you can set yourself up for a two-for-one from your opponent.

Sarkhan the Mad — Perhaps the only realistic card choice for Jund, Sarkhan can shortcut for damage to the dome if you’ve cast Broodmate already. Turning now worthless creatures into Dragons seems huge, particularly if you have Maelstrom Pulse and Terminate to deal with their Pro-Dragon lady. Even if you’re “just” using it to draw cards, this can be just the thing to try to keep up with their flow of cards. The real question for this card is how many is too many?

Essentially, the question, for where to go for all of the various decks is simple: how much do you need to stretch yourself to beat a Weissman-style Blue White? Clearly, just running with the status quo is not cutting it, and if Blue-White simply does nothing, it is at the head of the status quo. If it, as we should expect, modifies itself to accommodate Rise of the Eldrazi, it should get all of the stronger. The question isn’t just what will you do to fight Blue/White, but what from Rise can help you fight that fight.

If I were to build Jund, for example, I only see Sarkhan the Mad as a great call for Jund. So what do you build? Perhaps something like this:

The sideboard is very speculative. Overall, I want to have cards that can either keep this deck alive against decks that are going to be going very aggressive, or I want to be able to maintain relevance as a game goes on. It’s just a first step, but all great journeys begin with one.

Until next time, may you smash our Baneslayer Angel overlords…

Adrian Sullivan