Sullivan Library – The Sullivan Special for Extended

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Thursday, January 14th – The current Extended format is proving to be full of interesting decks and strategies. Adrian Sullivan decided that the format needed one more, and brewed up an intriguing Black/Red Scepter-Ascension deck, powering through a PTQ field on the way to a Top 4 result. Today, he discusses the genesis of the deck.

This is the story of The Sullivan Special. I don’t know who coined the name, but it has apparently stuck, at least a smidge, and it is certainly a better name for my Bloodchief Ascension/Isochron Scepter deck than any of the names I’d come up with yet. It was a long path to find the deck, and I hope that you enjoy it.

I’ve got a certain kind of crazy love for certain elements of Magic. I’ve written at length of my love of counterspells and burn, and in many ways, as of late, it seems I’ve come to be expected to sling up Lightning Bolts. It’s funny because I’ve usually seen myself as more of a counterspell player, but it seems like most people associate me more with Bolts. Alas.

One of my favorite archetypes was the recursive, quasi-AI driven beast that I called “The Baron” (short for Baron Harkonnen). I’d qualified for the Pro Tour a few times on its back, using Gaea’s Blessing and control elements to slowly stitch up the game.

Here is the most recent iteration, made for Time Spiral Constructed:

The Baron — 1st, PTQ Chicago (for Valencia)

4 Careful Consideration

4 Mystical Teachings

3 Gaea’s Blessing

4 Damnation

1 Sudden Death

2 Tendrils of Corruption

1 Slaughter Pact

1 Draining Whelk

1 Pact of Negation

1 Spell Burst

1 Venser, Shaper Savant

1 Haunting Hymn

1 Brine Elemental

2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

2 Vesuvan Shapeshifter

4 Prismatic Lens

4 Terramorphic Expanse

2 Tolaria West

2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

1 Urza’s Factory

3 Dreadship Reef

3 River of Tears

8 Island

1 Forest

1 Plains

2 Swamp


2 Draining Whelk

1 Krosan Grip

2 Pact of Negation

4 Porphyry Nodes

1 Slaughter Pact

2 Take Possession

1 Tendrils of Corruption

1 Venser, Shaper Savant

1 Vesuvan Shapeshifter

I put up this old list because of the importance that The Baron has with how I would approach some other lists. One of them was a deck called Instant.dec, an Extended deck that I built with Shane Neville for the first Pro Tour: New Orleans. It would run off of Holistic Wisdom, and it was, essentially, a kind of comborific version of The Baron that would have these scary moments. “End of turn: Cast Accumulated Knowledge for three. Then discard Firestorm to return AK. Then cast it again. Then discard Swords to Plowshares for Firestorm. Untap with ten cards in hand. Draw and then Firestorm away the board. Take four.” And just keep doing it endlessly.

The deck was incredibly powerful, but I only managed to get John Shuler to play it at Pro Tour (a fact that still blows me away), and John, despite being the father of the modern Tournament Report, is not the most masterful of players. The rest of the people in our cohort seemed mostly distracted by the last minute BK Brew “Song of Flood” (a Dan Flood/BK mixed venture, built on Threshold and Song of Blood) or my own Fast-O-Draw (a turbo-Ophidian/Finkel deck). Those two decks would each get one person into Day 2, but Instant.dec was the deck to have gone with, at least in my opinion.

I spent a long while trying to come up with some way to take better advantage of the deck, but the format shifted here and there, and ultimately, Instant.dec wasn’t nearly as good if you didn’t get to run Force of Will. The loss of Force of Will was a huge deal, and finding a way to recover from it didn’t actually seem doable.

And then, of course, they printed Isochron Scepter. Spurred on by preliminary thoughts by Sol Malka, I got to work. I pretty much immediately viewed Isochron Scepter as a card that straddled the line between facilitating a Baron deck and an Instant.dec. I ended up taking it down that first weekend of the new format, the crazy explosive Tinker-era of Extended, with the first successful Scepter-Chant deck. Here it is:

Scepter-Chant — 1st, PTQ Minneapolis (for PT: Kobe 2004)

1 Stifle
1 Misdirection
3 Memory Lapse
1 Forbid
4 Counterspell
2 Miscalculation
4 Brainstorm
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Fire / Ice
1 Mystical Tutor
4 Isochron Scepter
4 Cunning Wish
2 Orim’s Chant

2 Chrome Mox
2 Mox Diamond
2 Reflecting Pool
1 Plains
5 Islands
2 Mountain
4 Shivan Reef
3 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Flooded Strand

1 Orim’s Chant
2 Rack and Ruin
2 Shattering Pulse
3 Starstorm
1 Heroes’ Reunion
1 Honor the Fallen
1 Flaming Gambit
1 Flash of Insight
3 Leonin Abunas

Ruud Warmenhoven would adapt my list for Pro Tour: Columbus, placing 12th. While I personally dislike nearly every change he made, that’s okay — it’s always nice having your ideas pass on into the history of the game.

Scepter Chant decks would continue, usually in the vein of Ruud or Nick West, after that. I generally disliked these builds (Force Spike in a Scepter Deck seems like an utter waste to me), but they continued. States would soon be upon us, and we’d see what Standard would do with Scepter.

The answer was, not much. There was one exciting moment I remember, though. Another Madison player (probably Bryan Ramirez) was doing fairly well with a White Weenie deck that splashed enough into Red that you could probably call it a Jank or Gun deck. He dropped down a Scepter in what seemed like an unwinnable moment, put Raise the Alarm on it, stabilized the game, and then turned it around. This stuck with me for a long time.

I would revisit Scepter time and time again over the years. The thing about deckbuilding is that there really are very few new ideas. Good ideas have a way of being good again, somewhere down the line. If you can keep in touch with the past, it will often give you inspiration. As time passed, I’d put Research/Development on a stick, and really give people the what-for. I’d put Scepter into burn decks. The best that it ever really seemed to get was occasionally sideboarding Scepter in Zoo decks.

Fast forward, then, to recent history. I had Gaudenis Vidugiris over and we were playtesting Extended. He couldn’t find anything that would beat Zoo, and was feeling pretty resigned into playing it. I had brewed a crazy Isochron Scepter/Bloodchief Ascension deck, though, and I thought it had some promise.

I smashed him, again and again. We tried out Affinity and it was the same score (though, we only tried a very few games). He broke out Blue/Green Control, and suddenly it was about the exact opposite results — I was being destroyed. Expecting to see a lot of Blue/Green Control, he shelved the deck from consideration, and we moved onto the question of what should be in his Zoo sideboard — including potentially Isochron Scepter to bust open the mirror.

There had been some problems with how the deck played out; it would occasionally have these draws where it simply had no longevity, and it seemed clear that it was leaning too heavily on Isochron Scepter, setting itself up for a real problem when Ancient Grudge might come in. I had my old-school solution to that in Leonin Abunas, but these days, with Path to Exile, Tarmogoyf, and Knight of Reliquary running around, Abunas isn’t nearly the massive stopper that he used to be…

After Worlds, though, things were entirely different. Rubin’s midrange Naya deck (“Rubin Zoo”) was in the mix, and it brought with it something spectacular: a reusable damage source in the Grove/Fire combo. A quick initial testing showed that it solved the problem of sputtering out and running out of gas.

There were other problems to work out. Chrome Mox, for example, was doing some great work, but it was also creating a situation after board that was just unacceptable: Ancient Grudge was murdering me. Further, game 1, Engineered Explosives was getting far too much mileage as well. Even Repeal was having a maddeningly potent effect. Most importantly, though, some hands would just have these near impossible choices: which bit of gas were you going to get rid of to turbo something out? And when the games went long, it was even worse: late games were full of these pieces of garbage that accomplished near nothing.

I went back and forth before deciding to try out Simian Spirit Guide and Gemstone Caverns in their place. I’d had great results with both cards in the past. Putting Simian Spirit Guide in Chevy Red was a huge moment in that deck’s development. With the proper level of power to turbo into, the Simian Spirit Guide could be an incredible choice. For Chevy Red, it was usually Magus of the Moon (though turn one Keldon Marauders could be ridiculous as well), and with this Scepter deck, dropping a turn 1 Dark Confidant or Isochron Scepter was similarly ridiculous. In both cases, the possibility of just some lame ape was fine too; for Chevy Red it was just another potential creature to kill someone with, for the as-of-yet-unnamed Scepter deck, it was another potential source of two damage with which to trigger the Bloodchief Ascension.

Testing began in earnest. I borrowed the cards I could for MTGO. I’d bought most of the other cards I’d needed in the real world. Initial testing was really exciting. The deck seemed to have big advantages in full matches versus many of the common opponents. The numbers all seemed right. I was ready to go.

Here’s what I sleeved up:

I stilled hadn’t come up with a good name, but by the time that some of the websites picked up the list, “Sullivan Special” was the most common name I’d found, and I liked the sound of it.

All told I had a pretty good day:

Round 1 — W (2-1) versus Rubin Zoo
Round 2 — W (2-0) versus Rock
Round 3 — W (2-0) versus Affinity
Round 4 — W (2-1) versus All-in-Red
Round 5 — W (2-0) versus All-in-Red
Round 6 — W (2-0) versus Affinity
Round 7 — ID
Round 8 — ID
Top 8 — W (2-0) versus Scapeshift
Top 4 — L (1-2) versus B/U Faeries

Half of my losses came to that Faeries matchup, a matchup that I actually think of as incredibly good. My last game came down to a triple mulligan. He beat me, but it was actually far closer than you’d think. I never did manage to draw an Isochron Scepter or a Dark Confidant in any of the games, either of which would have made it all come together, I think. The finals match versus Stefan Hink looked like it would have been in my favor, but that’s neither here nor there.

At this point, the clamoring for the decklist began. It was only a few days before Wizards finally published the list, and then the discussions of what needed to change would begin. (I would play the deck again this last weekend, but got beaten by Death Cloud and by our own Patrick Chapin. Alas, alas.)

First of all, I’ve always found it amusing when people put out there opinions on radically different decklists with certain assumptions. One of the most common threads I would see in various forums were things like, “Oh, it needs tutors to get the Bloodchief” or “It needs lifegain to live long enough to get the Bloodchief online.” This is a deck that employs Bloodchief Ascension because of the crippling effect that a “flipped” Bloodchief has on most opponents. If you are a Zoo player, for example, winning through a Bloodchief is really hard, particularly if your opponent has anything. Thopter/Sword doesn’t care for it. So many things become particularly hard for an opponent once you’re online. I remember getting it flipped incredibly fast versus one opponent (by my turn 2) and just watching their face crumble when they realized just how bad off they were. They dug for an Explosives, but by the time they cracked it, they were at five. The thing about any of this is that you don’t need to have an Ascension online, it is just really good for you when you do. Explosive plays by Scapeshift or Dredge suddenly just don’t do the work that they need to. Forcing your deck into being a deck that needs Ascension to win is just silly; the card is a helper, not the backbone of the deck.

There are some cards that are in the deck, mostly on a contingent basis. Here they are:

3 Countryside Crusher
3 Simian Spirit Guide
3 Burst Lightning
2 Ghitu Encampments

Each of these cards is really playing the “role-player” role, hard. Countryside Crusher is a potent, threatening creature that can keep you from being threat-light. Simian Spirit Guide is an accelerator that could be replaced by slower, more stable mana. Burst Lightning was added in to increase the ability of the deck to turbo-flip a Bloodchief Ascension. Ghitu Encampments are there to increase the means with which you can have your mana do damage (as well as be a Red source… sorry Mutavault).

Tossing in cards like Magma Jet, though, is less effective than you might think. Typically, that extra time that a Magma Jet requires simply means that cards like Arcbound Ravager or Wild Nacatl just have that much more time to become effective. There is room to play with the deck, certainly, but most of the suggestions I’ve seen don’t really seem to work with how the deck clicks. Perhaps when Worldwake is printed, we’ll see the cards that might better fit the deck’s needs.

The sideboard is where we can look for more play. Here is what the sideboard is currently set up to deal with:

4 Thoughtseize

Thoughtseize is just a great card against two major opponents: anything that is going to combo quickly (excepting Dredge) and anything with countermagic. Here, you can just tear them open and keep them from being able to have quite the power that they were expecting to have access to. Forcing through the relevant spell can be huge. Even something as simple as “Turn 1 Thoughtseize, Turn 2 Dark Confidant” can just end many matches.

3 Extirpate

Extirpate is a go-to spell for me, and has been for a long time. In some matchups, their fortunes are so contingent on one card, stripping it away can spell the end. Versus Dredge, Extirpate isn’t the end-all be-all, but it is still a very good way of fighting them. Even against Zoo (particularly Rubin “Zoo”), a couple of well-timed Extirpate can be just devastating. With the way I’m gushing about them, it almost sounds like you should put it in against everyone, but that is far from the case; game 1 you want to be as focused on your own plan as possible.

1 Relic of Progenitus

I’ve always been a fan of diversifying graveyard hate, at least since Dredge came out. With that in mind, making a split between Extirpate and Relic is a great call. Relic also has the benefit of being great against Academy Ruins and Tarmogoyf. If I could find room for another copy of a card, it would probably be +1 Relic of Progenitus.

3 Dead/Gone

Dead/Gone is one of those amazing cards that I’ve loved for forever. Early, it can kill a fast creature. Late, it can bounce something too big to otherwise be killed. Against a deck like All-In-Red, Dead/Gone is often devastating. It also serves as a three casting-cost answer to 20/20 creatures, so that is good, as well.

3 Engineered Explosives

Sometimes you have no idea what someone might do to you. Bringing in Engineered Explosives is a good answer to “anything.” It also serves as a solution to problematic cards like Chalice of the Void.

1 Hide/Seek

Having an extra answer to artifacts or enchantments is good. Further, sometimes you can just drop a Hide/Seek onto a stick and really tear a player up with the “Seek” side of the card. I’d love to have another copy of this card.

As far as boarding, if Brian Kowal has taught me anything, it is that I really view Extended as a format in which you need to recognize that the way a person plays greatly impacts the how of how you board. There are Zoo opponents against whom I’d board in Extirpate every time, and board out Dark Confidant every time (among other things), and there are opponents against whom I would do no such thing. It very much depends on how your opponent’s play style and siding choices mesh. Understanding why the tools are there is a better way to go about siding in formats that give so much play to the deck pilot.

I’m pleased with the deck, but now that it is out of the bag, I really do feel that a lot of the potency of the deck has been lost. So many matches just fell over to me that first weekend simply because my opponent had no idea what on earth to do. Even a week later, I could feel the ways in which my opponents were all the more prepared. My two losses this most recent weekend had to do with being surprised by a Death Cloud that I should have seen coming, and losing an epic match to Patrick Chapin, where he cast an end-of-turn Teferi to absolutely ruinous ends.

I still think the deck is good, but I’m sad about my bad fortune in that first event. It would have been nice to take down Minnesota with a Scepter deck yet again.

Best of luck to everyone who chooses to play it…

Adrian Sullivan

P.S. And congratulations to Brian Febbo for his Top 8 finish in the most recent StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Dallas / Fort Worth. I always love to see my version of a deck perform.