Sullivan Library – Updating the Boat Brew

Read Adrian Sullivan every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, January 8th – Red/White Reveillark, christened “Boat Brew,” has been a strong yet underappreciated Standard option for a few months now. With metagames shifting every week, Adrian Sullivan updates his build to reflect the dynamic nature of the format. Sharing extensive card evaluations and strategic tips, he states his case for, in his opinion, the current Best Deck in Standard.

I am sometimes amazed by how surprised players are at decks that are abundantly out there, if you have your ear even a little close to the ground. Players showing up for Pro Tour: Elves, for example, not prepared for that matchup remind me of players who showed up for Kobe unprepared for Affinity; even if Affinity was yet more obvious, the failure to respect Elves strikes me as almost willful for anyone who is paying attention. Kyle Sanchez surprise at the Red/White “Boat Brew” deck (which he attributed to Flores) is amusing, if for no other reason than it had been covered by a total of three articles on one day (including both my coverage of the deck, and Pete Jahn’s here on this very site). As I wrote last month, it is more important than ever to pay attention to all of the sources out there that you can if you want to stay competitive. One of the more respected voices in the game, mentioned to me at the PTQ in Chicago last week that he has heard people saying that they weren’t bothering to read StarCityGames anymore. They didn’t think it was relevant. I respectfully, deeply disagree. Just in the last month, we have seen Richard Feldman introduction of a Red/Green metagame deck, Zac Hill excellent look at Magic Investment theory, Stephen Menendian very illuminating examination of Legacy from a recent tourney, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa Worlds Top 8 report, Patrick Chapin recapping of all of the decks that can be seen in the current Extended, LSV’s article examining the guts of Swans-combo, and a huge variety of other great bits of knowledge, not bothering to count my own contributions I think are worthy of note.

To be fair, the sheer amount of sources out there can be staggering. Right now, I’m following StarCityGames very closely, reading essentially every article, reading a handful of bits of information from WotC itself, following several blogs, watching multi-media sources, and visiting sites like themanadrain.com and others. There is a lot of stuff out there to devour, but its well worth doing so, if only so that decks that have been in the public eye since at least October or November, like Boat Brew, don’t surprise you.

In many ways, my examination of the development of the deck (through the views of Treviranus, Canali, Kowal, and “Lebedowicz” (Kowal actually built the Lebedowicz update as well, though Lebedowicz’s public thoughts on the list were probably influential on Nicastri’s build) is the result of the kind of thing I think is necessary these days. When applicable, you must apply the ideas of Collective Intelligence into the mix. These other lists are available at the end of that earlier article. Let’s take a look at the most public version of the list recently played, Aaron Nicastri:

Nicastri’s build very clearly seems influenced by Osyp’s comments on the deck, which criticized the Knight of the White Orchids and suggested that Spectral Procession could be a better fit, especially since they could trigger a Windbrisk Heights. At the same time, he kept the Vithian Stingers that had been largely rebuked by nearly all sources that had employed them. Further, his reduction of the deck to two Siege-Gang Commanders flew in the face of nearly everyone that had played the deck; this signals that either Nicastri had determined that that count of cards was unnecessary given the reach of Procession/Heights, or that perhaps he had been bound by the lesser amount of mana that his deck had come to play without the Knights. Kowal himself suggested that perhaps the change to those numbers had come out of the widely misreported decklist of Osyp’s — most lists reported incorrectly that it had run Knight of Meadowgrain, when it had continued to run the Knight of the White Orchid — and that his changes had actually happened simply because he had tried the deck with Knight of Meadowgrain, found it wanting, and had simply shifted upgear to Spectral Procession, independent of Osyp’s published views on the deck.

Whatever the case may be, this list added a lot more fuel to the fire for my own brainstorming on the list. I spoke extensively with John Treviranus and Brian Kowal, two people who were very responsible for the genesis of lists of this type (often misnamed as “Reveillark”), examined Osyp’s published comments on the deck, watched Nicastri’s Deck Tech videos, watched Canali’s much older Deck Tech from Berlin, and went through every other source that I could. I spoke with long-time friend, Philly player (and Madison transplant) Ted Renner, who piloted the deck to a Top 16 at the StarCityGames $5000 Standard Open, and compiled everything that I had found into the following version of the list:

First, a couple of quick comments before I speak more generally about how the deck is laid out: I’m still struggling with whether or not I want to replace a 4th Reflecting Pool with an additional Plains. Second, I cut the 4th Kitchen Finks from the board, but I can definitely see value in re-adding it, depending on the metagame. Finally, I think it is worth noting that I showed this list to Kowal, and he definitely is of a school that is quite different than most other players who have played this list recently; he still views the Knights of the White Orchid as critical, while Osyp, Nicastri, and Ted Renner, all players who have done well with the deck, viewed the card as incorrect in the current metagame.

Now a more thorough card-by-card analysis:

4 Mogg Fanatic
In a lot of people’s eyes, this card has become deeply underwhelming in Constructed. Note the sheer amount of times this deck has been passed over in people crafting Demigod-based Red decks. More spectacularly than I’ve seen in any other deck, though, Mogg Fanatic really shines here. As a deck that is running not only Siege-Gang Commander and Reveillark, but also Ranger of Eos, the ability for this deck to have out multiple Fanatics is actually very impressive. Mogg Fanatics power in this deck is likely higher than it is in nearly every deck in Magic’s history because of the additive power it receives from these complimentary cards.

4 Figure of Destiny
This card is the one that really actually makes the deck work, I think. The big problem for midrange decks of all stripes is converting into the aggressive role easily. A Figure of Destiny, all on its lonesome, can be a potent aggressive force, but when you’re on the defensive, it can trade with opposing Figures or simply hold the ground until you convert it into its super-powered form. It’s rare that such a potent aggressive card can also play a good defensive game as well — Tarmogoyf spring to mind in recent history, but not much else.

0 Knight of the White Orchid
With so many people who have been actively playing this deck eschewing the card, I am more than willing to listen to their feelings on it. I have to say, I’m not missing the card one bit. Unless you are casting it on turn 3, on the draw, without your opponent missing a land drop, it just doesn’t do much. If you get a card out of it later in the game, this usually is not that exciting, and if it’s simply a 2/2 for 2, I do find myself wishing for that little extra lifelink option.

3 Kitchen Finks, 3 Spectral Procession
Threes are always numbers that need defending. Essentially, these cards both play the same role: they allow the deck to alternately supplement the beatdown that the deck can legitimately provide, or they allow the deck to gain defensive time while the higher end of the curve gets to come into the mix. In an ideal world, I would absolutely be running four copies of each of these cards. They are good enough to both be played at that number. However, there are a number of other key cards who simply must be included. Three Spectral Procession was the absolute minimum that I could cut into to feel comfortable being able to commonly and aggressively activate Windbrisk Heights. At the same time, Kitchen Finks was often a more successful aggressive creature in the face of Bitterblossom, Wrath of God, Cloudthresher, and others, and was often a much, much better defensive creature. The 3/3 split is a compromise. Going to two of either card felt like too few, and none of the other cards in the deck felt like they could be safely trimmed.

2 Oblivion Ring, 2 Voice of All
This is the first pair of those “necessary” cards that I cut into the Fink/Procession count to fit in. Firstly, Canali’s list ran two of each (and independently, Treviranus also ran two Voice of All, and three Oblivion Ring), and cited these cards as being one of the things that made the Faeries matchup more positive. Nicastri, for his part, cited the need to deal with Bitterblossom as a reason why he would include the fairly tepid Wispmare in any update he might make to the deck. Both Treviranus and Canali both make strong claims about how Oblivion Ring and Voice of All could simply knock opponents out of a game. Canali felt so strongly about Voice of All that he included only one copy of Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender in his board to deal with Red. That’s pretty impressive. He cited it as “one of the best creatures in the format”. Those are strong words. Oblivion Ring’s flexibility makes it valuable against a variety of non-Bitterblossom players, and a generally safe card to play as removal in the main deck these days. Further, as the world is likely to see more and more enchantment and Planeswalker threats, having a direct answer to them can be a good thing.

4 Ajani Vengeant
Canali cited Five-Color Control as the bane of his deck. It is unsurprising, then, that he didn’t even play Ajani Vengeant, which changes that dynamic all to hell. A resolved Vengeant is incredibly difficult for a Five-Color deck to deal with, and also provides the deck with a degree of flexible removal that it wouldn’t otherwise have. There’s no way I could justify ever going to below four.

3 Ranger of Eos, 3 Reveillark (and 0 Flamekin Harbinger) —
A part of the card advantage package of Boat Brew, these two cards supply you a nearly never-ending supply of critters. While three copies of Reveillark has largely become the standard, this is mostly because of the constraints of an otherwise already high-reaching curve. Four copies is the common call for Ranger of Eos in later decks, but both Treviranus and Canali are proponents of three copies, and several of the deck’s recent pilots have all claimed that the extra copies sometimes felt superfluous — at a certain point, they would simply have preferred drawing a different card, because their hand was already abundant with little men. Without the need to tutor up a singleton one-drop, going to three Rangers seems like a reasonable concession to the necessity of the other card numbers.

One of Osyp’s more intriguing suggestions for the deck was to include a singleton Flamekin Harbinger so that any Ranger of Eos draw could also be turned into a chain of Reveillark. I shy away from this idea because of the time it takes to actually get a payoff that seems worthwhile. The first Ranger that summons the Harbinger reduces the potency of that Ranger. The Reveillark that is summoned is often only of real note when you’re bringing back cards that have actively been disrupting the opponent and that they’ve had to deal with. It only felt as though the second Reveillark that was retrieved really got any scary mileage out of the Harbinger being in the deck. Any other card that the Harbinger would replace, though, just seems like it would have placed the deck in a stronger position to begin with.

2 Murderous Redcap, 3 Siege-Gang Commander
Nicastri’s deck included a swap of this number, 3 Murderous Redcap and 2 Siege-Gang Commander, but that decision just seems insane to me. Siege-Gang Commander is so ridiculously good in the deck, and drawing it is often vitally important. A part of me imagines that one got cut for mana concerns (more on this in a moment), and that the Redcap was a concession to the needs of having a slightly stronger removal package in the deck. By running Oblivion Ring, as well as the Redcaps, this need for lower-curved removal is much mitigated, and the sheer power of that third Siege-Gang Commander can be reintroduced into the deck, as it was played by Treviranus, Kowal, Osyp, and Renner.

3 Mind Stone, 2 Ghitu Encampment, and the 22 other mana —
Everyone is running four of Mind Stone and a grand total of twenty-six mana sources. I am running three, and twenty-seven mana sources. My overall higher count is based on the need of the deck to compensate for the mana lost to the dropping of Knight of the White Orchid. The reduction in Mind Stones, however, is based on a long-time experience in playing with the card. Very, very rarely did four Mind Stones supply the kind of increase in value over three. Further, even at twenty-three lands, the deck would sometimes stall for a moment on mana, and given the inclusion of Spectral Procession, hitting that mana without hiccup was critical. Only John Treviranus ran Ghitu Encampment, and while the rest of his mana was much less honed than the mana in lists found afterwards, he did include two copies of the 2/1 first-striking manland. Testing and data-mining seem to indicate that two to three non-White sources are the maximum that can be run, but, especially with the extra two land in the deck, Ghitu Encampment provides high return with only a rare cost on the player. I love the mana for this deck, although sometimes I have my doubts about that 4th Reflecting Pool.

Other cards —
Maindecking Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender seems superfluous with access to Voice of All, especially if you have access to more in the side. Other singleton tutor-targets seem underwhelming, though access to Loyal Sentry might increase in value if Chameleon Colossus sees a return to the spotlight. I’ve already addressed Flamekin Harbinger. Canali’s Knight Captain of Eos might have some value for a player in a heavy aggro environment, but I’d probably still relegate it to the sideboard. If anything, I’d love to find room for a single copy of Ted Renner’s Rise of the Hobgoblins, which seems simply brilliant.

Now to the sideboard!

4 Stillmoon Cavalier
Combined with access to Voice of All, Stillmoon and Voice together are deeply problematic for any of the White Weenie variants. Stillmoon also is a nice way to handle Faeries. It is true that it can be Infested away, but rational play by a pilot who understands that Infest can happen mitigates the fear that the card produces.

3 Galepowder Mage
This card must seem like an incredibly bizarre card to board until you think about the way that the mirror match will play out. Maybe I’m wrong, and the mirror isn’t a reasonable possibility (in which case you have a bonus three cards in your sideboard to work with, probably 1 Kitchen Finks, and two something), but I’m confident that the mirror will become more and more important anywhere that Standard sees regular play. Galepowder Mage, essentially, is a win-more card. However, in the mirror, all you really want to do is win-more. You want to be the same deck that they are, but more of it. In fact, they have almost no answer to this card on turn 3 or 4, unless it is in the form of Ajani Vengeant. At that point, you get to start Flickering your men and things go to hell for them very, very quickly.

3 Guttural Response
In many ways, this card is simply a recognition that you need to be able to deal with Cryptic Command. You don’t need to counter much, but you do want to have the ability to stop that one painful Command that will just own you otherwise. Stopping Agony Warp is just gravy.

2 Chandra Nalaar
You can only run 4 Ajani Vengeant. Against those matchups where Ajani Vengeant is hard to answer, you’ll find that Chandra Nalaar is also hard for that deck. Chandra is, then, your “weaker” Ajani Vengeant 5-6. Bring it in against anyone who hates seeing a Planeswalker.

2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
Canali only ran one of this guy in the board, but most people I know tell me that that was too ambitious. If you’re looking space and are particularly confident, consider cutting one of these guys. To my mind, though, that second Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender is great insurance.

1 Voice of All
The boarded third Voice of All was partly why Canali only ran a single BFT, but it is worth noting just how difficult this card is for many decks, not just Red. This can come into play at surprising times, such as when playing against Merfolk or Jund Ramp, and having a card that is simply very difficult for the opponent to actually deal with, even though you aren’t planning on the card being used specifically for them.

Overall, Boat Brew isn’t just an exciting deck to play, it is also deeply powerful. In my mind, some variant or other of this deck really is the best deck in Standard. My own build comes from the collected knowledge that I’d found from every source that I could get my hands on, as well as my own playtesting.

One of the things that makes the deck so good is the incredibly complex board positions that it can craft that can be hard to deal with. When facing down a board that includes tokens, Siege-Gang Commander, Reveillark, Kitchen Finks, and Ajani Vengeant, knowing what to do can simply be overwhelming for an opponent. No matchup is out of reach for this deck. It has the sheer power to be in the game against anyone, and the versatility to have something to do against nearly any opponent. If I had to play in a big Standard tournament tomorrow, it would definitely be with this deck.

I hope you all enjoyed my version of Boat Brew. Let me know how it works out for you.

Until next week, at a new time!

Adrian Sullivan