I just Q’d. It’s been a thousand years since I Q’d. Since this Pro Tour is in Japan, I’m strongly doubting I’ll be able to afford the trip. But, I finally Q’d again, even if it did take a thousand years. And I did it with Leonin Abunas.
A million years ago, it seems, I built one of my first truly successful control decks. Named”Baron Harkonnen”, the deck was a Blue/Green counter-control deck that didn’t really win the game. It just didn’t let you win the game either. Eventually, its one finisher, the Flying Fatman Mahamoti Djinn would come around to making it into your hand, you’d plop it down, and soon win the game. If that didn’t work, a Gaea’s Blessing or two would just started things all over.
It was a deck that was all about not losing, and it could not lose in a number of different ways. But as another Harkonnen would say,”I will kill him” was its motto.
A few months after that, Eric Taylor lavished praise on me calling it the first truly new deck in years. While I’m more inclined to agree with Mike Flores perspective on the deck (he thought of it as merely an interesting update on The Deck), it gave me a PTQ win and helped inspired the founding of Cabal Rogue. This was a million years ago. That was 1997.
Since then, I’ve had my ups and my downs. Magic-wise, this has been a down phase. It’s been two years since I had qualified for the PT, but I kept up the good fight. I had a number of factors against me. I couldn’t go to as many PTQs (let alone Grand Prix), and that always makes it hard to win. I had a couple of disappointing high K-level tournament finishes, so qualifying off of rating came within reach, but never quite. At times I was playing what I thought was my best Magic ever, and at other times, I felt like I was slipping.
Times have been interesting for Cabal Rogue too. We had a loss when Jamie Wakefield quit Magic. Time passed and we went away. We came back in a different form. Ups and downs. We were never really a team, and that has its good points and bad points. Right now, we exist like we did back in the day, as a little think tank. Only we don’t think as much as we used to. It was nice now and again to help each other make a great deck now and again (Brian Kowal’s”Kowality Control” Red/White deck piloted by Maher to the GP: Detroit championship, for example), but I wanted to Q. Bad.
This year, I made myself a pledge. I was going to Q again. After my birthday in November, I missed the Thanksgiving weekend PTQ I had planned on winning, so I had to wait until an Extended qualifier. Extended has always been a favorite format of mine, so I decided to take it back to the idea of Baron Harkonnen. I was going to not lose. And then after I hadn’t lost, I would win.
Right after Cabal got access to some Mirrodin cards, Sol Malka sent an e-mail that got me started:
4 Isochron Scepter
3 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Cunning Wish
Brainstorms, counters, blah blah blah…
SB: almost all <=2cc instants, including the 4th AK and the one
Shock/Brain Freeze/whatever that’s your sole win condition (you don’t
even have to main deck a road to victory)
What really excited me was how close this idea was to the concept for Instant.dec, our Cabal deck from the first Pro-Tour New Orleans. I had played the deck in subsequent PTQs and it had been amazing. Basically, that deck was Holistic Wisdom abuse. In Isochron Scepter, I found a card remarkably similar to the Holistic Wisdom, but far more abusable. Not only was it more powerful, the card acted as a mana-fixer! This, combined with Sol’s comment about not needing a road to victory excited me, and I started building decks. After 1.x rotated, we all were pleased/annoyed about the appearance of Cunning Wish. If we could have had that deck for the old Instant.dec we would have had something that was truly cruel to play against our opponents.
Winning from demoralizing the opponent can be one of the funnest things. Ever.
After working on numerous decks in T2 as well, and borrowing from my Burning Tog deck from the previous 1.x season, I had a fair skeleton for the deck. I knew I wanted:
A counterspell package
Fire / Ice
Brainstorm (and fetchlands)
Cunning Wish x4
Now I just had to figure out how to win.
There is a lot of tweaking that goes into building a new deck. Generally, most deckbuilders who have hit the mark and made more than one good deck will tell you the same thing. They made a ton of truly terrible decks on their way towards making the good deck.
I’ll spare you all of the excruciating details about that middle phase. Here’s what I ended up with, and why the deck looks like it looks.
Chronoscepter (Instant.dec) – Adrian Sullivan
The Counterspell Suite
3 Memory Lapse
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Fire / Ice
1 Mystical Tutor
4 Isochron Scepter
4 Cunning Wish
The Quick Kill
2 Orim’s Chant
2 Chrome Mox
2 Mox Diamond
2 Reflecting Pool
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
1 Heroes’ Reunion
1 Honor the Fallen
1 Flaming Gambit
1 Flash of Insight
3 Leonin Abunas
There’s a lot going on with this list. In essence, this deck does what Baron Harkonnen did back in 1997. It tries to devote itself to just making sure that the opponent does not win. When you play Chronoscepter, your basic plan is this:
- Have enough countermagic to stop the opponent’s plan, even if only temporarily
- Start gaining card advantage (real or virtual) off of card draw or using a Scepter
- Use Cunning Wish to access a direct answer to any threats, or if there are none, to lock up the game
- Once the game is locked, kill the opponent as an afterthought
This takes a lot of patience. A lot. I lost four games at the PTQ. Three of them I lost because I lapsed in patience.
Still with a plan like this, there is a lot that can go wrong. Extended is a fast format, and I needed a deck that could hang it with all of those Speedy Gonzalezes out there. Moxes helped, but not enough. My control deck needed to be able to win just as fast as everyone else. And, in a sense, it does.
Against a lot of decks, Chronoscepter can win on or before turn 3. It might not look like it can happen that fast, but the deck can throw down an Orim’s Chant on a stick incredibly fast. In essence, for a lot of the match-ups, it is almost like both players are playing completely different games. While this deck makes for very interactive matches, against your fastest opponents, you are usually both goldfishing. The only difference is that you can use counterspells to mishmash the opponent’s plan. It’s those counterspells that make turns 4 through 7 (the turns your are most likely to have the opponent locked out) much safer.
That said, let’s take a look at the counterspells next.
Obviously four Counterspell is almost a knee-jerk. The rest takes some explaining. My initial counterspell suite was stolen card-for-card from my Tog deck. I’ll explain more in my next article about what today’s card drawing does to Tog decks and their counterspell choices, but I stole my old deck’s counterspell mix specifically because it had proven itself in the field and in testing so much. four Counters, three Mana Leaks, one other hard counter, one Misdirection, one Interdict.
After New Orleans, it became pretty clear that the card I had missed for that one hard counter was a Forbid. I’m not sure who in YMG (likely Zvi or Kibler) had put it in their Oath deck, but I completely overlooked it. In a deck with permanent card draw (like a Scepter deck!), this card can be great. At other times it isn’t as hot, but that is beside the point. New Orleans also taught me that Mana Leak is crap. Tinker decks can very nearly ignore the card, while a card like Memory Lapse can be quite effective. And if you put it on a Stick it is more than a little bit bitchy. Interdict becoming Stifle was just an easy switch. As for Misdirection, I’ve been a fervent believer in one maindeck in Blue for years.
This counter-mix was working great. But it still wasn’t enough against all of the non-tinker decks. I played around with Mana Leak again for a long time. I tried out Force Spike. Sadly, I did ignore Daze (which does make a whole hell of a lot of sense, but I haven’t tested it to know). I knew that I wanted a few more counterspells, but Memory Lapse was not cutting it against decks that just laid down a single threat and then did it again on the next turn.
The big breakthrough came when thinking about good ol’ ConTroll from Urza’s Block. In its design, Brian Kowal and I had used Miscalculation. Sure it was one of the only counterspells available, but there was a lot of similar stuff going on. The Miscalculation could act as a bad Force Spike against certain decks, but not be dead. I resolved to test it out. Out of something like one hundred games, in only the tiniest handful of them did I want to draw a Mana Leak. Every other time Miscalculation did exactly what I wanted it to: counter a spell or not rot away in my hand as a dead card.
That extra bit of card drawing helps with the final and most crucial element of the deck. The card drawing and library manipulation. There’s not much here that is really too surprising, other than four Cunning Wish and one Mystical Tutor. The Mystical Tutor serves a couple of purposes. It helps your sideboarding options (it isn’t unreasonable to side in one Starstorm, Rack and Ruin, or Shattering Pulse so that your access to them is pretty big between Wishes and the Mystical). It shuffles after a Brainstorm. But most importantly is that it adds some more consistency. It all but adds a”+1″ next to all of the cards in the card list. Against Tog you suddenly have another hard Counter. Against the Rock you can fetch a Stifle to stop their Pernicious Deed before you lay down your Scepter. It makes the Orim’s Chant easier to find. And it does all of that with only a single card slot.
Despite the slowness of four Cunning Wish, they really are critical. As one of my playtest partners noted, while there aren’t as many solid counterspells any more, you have more potent answers, which might as well be counters. If you blow something up, it is just as gone as if you’d countered it. This is an important consideration. Your countermagic makes these four Wishes also quite dangerous. At two-mana, countering a spell can slow an opponent down considerably, and on the next turn, you often have the choice between actually countering the spell or letting it resolve while you tutor up an answer.
The Mana is another strange part of the deck. Color is certainly a consideration. After a lot of work in trying to get the colors right, I came to realize that I simply needed some Wasteland-proof fixers. Getting the Kicker from an Orim’s Chant off of an Isochron Scepter is critical to how Chronoscepter works. Damage from pain lands was really adding up, and I wanted to be able to spend WW for hard-cast Chants as well. In the end, try as I might, I couldn’t find a better fixer than Mox Diamond. And running Mox Diamond plus Chrome Mox gets dangerous.
You can’t simply run two Mox Diamond and four Chrome Mox in the deck. All-in-all, the deck is a control deck. Tossing away that much card advantage requires a lot to recoup it. Without Fact or Fiction, this deck’s plan to get card advantage is to Wish for it, AK for it, or Scepter for it. Something had to give.
In the end, the combination of Mox Diamonds and Reflecting Pools did a ton to stop the damage from pain lands while increasing the access to mana. This 1.x is weird. A ton of decks that might have had Wasteland in them back in the day go without it now. The Pools are just a lot less scary now.
It’s the board where the deck truly gets potent. Let’s hit those card by card:
This card sits in the board and never leaves. Here is your Wish target when you want to lock out the game.
A gift from Zvi, this card can push the few damage dealing decks way out of the game once it is on a Scepter.
Honor the Fallen
This card is simply here to hate Angry Hermit. If this card gets cast, it is incredibly unlikely that your opponent will be able to win.
Rack and Ruin / Shattering Pulse
These two cards serve the same purpose. They wreck decks that Tinker. Occasionally they will be useful in other contexts, knocking out non-dedicated artifact decks few artifacts. Both cards have a very different purpose, and including 2/2 is critical.
Some decks run creatures. No really, they do. Starstorm, especially in a deck with Fire/Ice is a nice way to punish them for it. Without a card to recuperate from Myr Incubator with, the deck would simply scoop to a smart Tinker player. This is a big out.
The ostensible finisher (Some old-timers in Minneapolis jokingly referred to this card as my”Baron”). In a lot of the control matchups, this is a great late-game card, often being the only damage you inflict on your opponent.
Flash of Insight
The most tutored for card, this is the card you get when you have nothing to do, when you want to get rid of your Accumulated Knowledges in your own yard, or if you want to out-card another control deck. Slow and clunky, this card still gets the job done in those slow and clunky matchups.
The gold in the board. He blocks. He’s hard to kill. And against decks that plan on blowing up your artifacts, he laughs. A lot. Sure he’s only two-power, but that five toughness is shockingly good. This guy comes in so often, he should almost be main deck. Almost.
Now as much as I love this deck (it totally suits the way I like to play Magic), it isn’t for the faint of heart. A lot of games are going to go long. Very long. The deck tires you out. It doesn’t have that beautiful ability of Psychatog to just win in a single turn (usually). But it sure does have a lot of good matchups.
I joked with Cabal that I wished I had gone to New Orleans to play the deck. This one has great game against most of the decks that did well there. It has the advantage versus all of the combo decks. It has the advantage versus the Red decks. It has the advantage versus most of the control decks. What could be better?
Well, there are some strong weaknesses.
The deck doesn’t like decks that just beat you down with big creatures and have access to artifact kill. In this format, I’m pretty willing to bet that most decks are going to have access to artifact kill. Yup. Pretty sure.
What this means is that you have a near autoloss to the Rock (5% frown). While Sol was smiling at this, I can’t say I was too happy. I consulted everyone I could, and I couldn’t find an answer. My best answer was this: hope. Hope you don’t play the Rock. If you do, hope you get lucky. You can bring in Abunas and Starstorm, but fighting against their hand destruction matched with Deeds and whatever artifact hate that they have is going to be more than rough.
No one plays mono-Black beats, right? Well, some people do. And this deck doesn’t like that either. Big, big men aren’t a fun matchup when they have plenty of hand and mana control to mess with your plan. Scepter might seem like a great way to make them lose, but like everyone else they have access to Damping Matrix. You need to be quick about both getting out a good Scepter, and answering their answers.
Embarrassment upon embarrassment. The deck loses to Elf decks of all things. While I doubt that you’ll see an Elf deck at Table 1, you might see it round 1 or 2. Or some other deck that packs fast men and Naturalizes and Viridian Shaman. The point is, many random creature decks just have game against this deck.
But, let’s go back to the good news.
Tinker Variants (50-70% depending on build)
There is a lot of variation here. A typical board plan here will be to take out 1 Stifle and 2 Miscalculation for 2 Shattering Pulse and 1 Rack and Ruin (leaving 1 to Wish for). If they are playing with Red mana, expect that they will have artifact kill. In that case, out comes a Misdirection (they don’t have much to Misdirect since they won’t have Stroke), a slow Forbid, and either Mystical or Cunning Wish for 3 Abunas.
You basically plan on countering threats and blowing up good cards. Once a Scepter gets a Chant on it, it is usually game.
Tog decks (~60%)
This is not considering Hate-Atog. I haven’t had the chance to test against that deck. This is just the varied Tog builds from New Orleans. And, this is basically a typical control matchup. In general, the better player will win, or the player with the right amount of mana. The better player will not make mistakes with their Facts or when they can resolve AK. The better player will have a great chance to shine here. Mana, as always, can make that not matter at all. But, when it comes to weapons, they have better one-shot card drawing, while you have better countermagic and long-term card drawing.
Since you are better able to protect a Scepter, you can win a game simply from that. Cunning Wish for Flash of Insight is huge here. With fewer real threats, your ability to win counterspell wars against them is very key. They do have a big weapon in Psychatog, which is very hard for you to answer (typically you need a Scepter on a good target). All-in-all, I like seeing Psychatog on the other side of the table, but it can be hard for someone to win if it goes to Game 3, and the super-fast game does go to their advantage.
Your typical board will be -1 Miscalculation, -2 Mox Diamond (you don’t need fast mana) for 3 Abunas to serve as speedbumps and actual threats. If you want Starstorms as well, board in 2 for that last Miscalculation and a Mystical.
This might be your dream matchup. Your disruption on this deck is so intense, they have a lot of trouble winning. A well timed Orim’s Chant can completely ruin their chances. If they try to play fast, they can run into your countermagic. Playing slow, they run into your anti-artifact Wishes. The board here is kind of strange, with 2 Rack and Ruin and a Shattering Pulse coming in for 1 Stifle, a Misdirection, and your slow Forbid. That last Pulse stays in the board so that you can quickly wish for it and cast it in the same turn for one less mana, and the Stifle leaves the deck just so it can be wished for.
Red Decks (60-70%)
Keep the table clean of men, and you can’t lose. Slith Firewalker is the big problem here, with a quick Slith spelling doom. But we knew that, didn’t we? Your board here is 3 Starstorm and 3 Abunas. Out go Forbid, three Memory Lapse, and two slow Cunning Wishes. We don’t have time, really. Hold back on those Sticks until you can get an Abunas out. Stick on Hero’s Reunion will lock it down.
I loved playing this deck. If I can find a sponsor or some other surprising funding, maybe I’ll actually be able to go to Kobe and play Block. I hope so… after all, Cabal seems to have a specialty with Block.
If you play this deck in the last few weeks, I wish you luck. Make sure you practice hard. This ain’t a deck that works without really knowing it well. Diving in without knowing it inside and out is a recipe for game losses. When played properly (and ungreedily), this deck has all the takes to keep your opponent from winning. So that you can.
Bonus mini-report section!
R1 John Scully, BUR Tog, 2-0
Game 1 and 2 play out exactly the same. I force through an early Scepter and use it to start drawing cards. He resists a little by fighting hard to resolve Boomerang on a Scepter. Down it comes again and pushes him slowly out of the game until a Flaming Gambit finishes the job.
R2 James Beltz, Life, 1-0
I stifle his Mox, put Fire on a stick and smash him. Game 2, he goes to a billion on turn 2, but I put sticks on Heroes Reunion, then Chant, then am going to get decked so put a stick on Memory Lapse and stay alive that way, countering my own Brainstorms at the end of his turn.
R3 Tue Lee, BUR Tog, 1-1
I get mana screwed and fall way behind. Tue plays really strongly, and I have to work hard to win game 2, resolving Flash of Insight four times to pull way ahead in card quality, before Chant gets on a stick. After my hand is amazing, I Fire him every turn with a new stick. The draw bracket… uh, oh.
R4 Luke Ojala, Nether-Go, 0-2
I get greedy twice, and lose both games. His deck is almost the same as the Anaheim deck, so he has very potent countermagic and man lands. Slightly more conservative play would have won me both of these games, but overall, I think I’m an underdog for the matchup.
R5 Mike White, BUR Tog, 2-1
I get greedy and lose a counterspell war over an early Tog that eats me. It takes a lot of hard work, but I manage to get two games off of him lickety split, somehow. One was a Fire-on-a-Stick going the whole way. Another, Abunas’s hold the table long enough for me to get a Chant on a Stick. I lock him out at one life.
R6 Dan Nordlul, BUR Tog, 1-0
This game is all about playing for the long game. I win the Accumulated Knowledge wars with more countermagic, and I Flash away my AKs to keep his from being scary. Game 2, he gets out Togs, but I am able to barely stay alive by keeping an Ice on a Stick and holding him off with Abunas after Abunas. He kills them all, and nearly taps out on his next to last turn in extra turns, succeeding in getting a Scepter with Counterspell on the table, with just enough to kill me on his next turn. I Chant him, then wish for Honor the Fallen, gaining four life from his dead Tog and my three dead Abunas, and he doesn’t draw a card drawing spell to finish me on the last turn of extra turns.
T8 Justin Meyer, BU Tog, 2-0
He doesn’t have access to Fire/Ice or Scepter, so this game has me as the beatdown deck. I knock off the first game pretty well. The second game is a lot closer, with me spending several turns half a life from dead. A Starstorm for two when he has three Togs out gains me some time, and then a subsequent Starstorm for four kills two of the Togs, and leaves me with two Abunas standing. He never quite recovers.
T4 Ben Dempsey, Twiddle, 2-1
Ben and I playtest together a ton, so we know what to expect. I offer him an insurance split. Since we both would need the money from the event to actually go if we won the whole thing, I propose that if one of us goes on to win the whole thing, they buy the other guy a beer. He agrees.
I manipulate my hand into retardedness. At one point I have Stifle,
Orim’s Chant, Memory Lapse, and Rack and Ruin in hand. I lose another game to being greedy off of his Temporal Fissure and not simply Shattering an artifact (oh, boy, did Shattering Impulse on a Stick look saucy. But it was just greedy). Game 3 is uneventful. Chant hits a stick early, and when he tries to go for the win, I have four or five cards in my hand to stop him.
T2 Luke Ojala, Nether-Go, 2-0
He’s tired so doesn’t play well, and I stretch out the first game super carefully. The longer the match goes on, the more mistakes he makes simply from fatigue. In the second game, I drop a turn 1 Scepter on Brainstorm. He drops an Energy Flux on Turn 3, which I let resolve. Losing my Mox, but riding my Scepter, I draw tons of cards, and he falls behind the mana race very quickly. At one point he tries to pressure me with man-lands, but I hold him off with a Starstorm, knocking out key mana, and all but locking up the game.
With the victory in hand, I am Qed for tour and owe Ben a beer. Wish me luck on finding a sponsor so I can go, everyone!