Tempered Steel: A History in the Making

Wednesday, January 5th – Jon Smithers, GP Toronto champion, brought the gift of Tempered Steel to the world and wants to share his innovation with you. He tells you why you should play it and why you may have seen it fail.

Four times a year, the Magic world is graced with its marquee event — the Pro Tour. Thousands of Magic players from across the globe have their F5 button on lock, tuned to the event coverage waiting to hear how their favorite pro players and friends are faring in the tournament — and to some, more importantly, what new tech is being unleashed. The beauty of the way most recent Pro Tours have been scheduled is that they introduce new, unexplored formats. This is a deckbuilder’s paradise and historically has been very rewarding to innovators. I knew this is where I wanted to be for Chiba’s Extended format.

In the shadow of PT Amsterdam, the Extended format would surely be radically different thanks to the rotation of Punishing Fire / Grove of the Burnwillows combo. This meant that decks like Doran and White Weenie would lose their edge and make way for Faeries and Merfolk. Both blue-based aggro decks were extremely popular in the weeks and months leading up to Worlds, as seen on Magic-League and Magic Online. Jund was popular as well, though perhaps an outlier due to its recent rotation out of Standard and perhaps people had not yet sold off their old Standard decks.

Midrange-y aggro-control was the flavor du jour. All these decks claimed positive matchups against control and combo, so they were my primary target to beat with whatever brew I could come up with.

In brain trust with Felix Tse, perennial PTQ shark and fellow rogue designer, we began to tinker with the new format. We explored a hyper-aggressive artifact aggro deck with Tempered Steel and a bunch of zero-drops, but the deck just had no reach and no disruption. Boom or bust, really. We added Mana Leak, Windbrisk Heights, and Elspeth, Knight-Errant to try and solve these problems, but the deck just went nowhere.

We jumped ship and brewed a spicy “Soul Sisters” White Weenie that won against Fae and all the aggro mirrors, but the deck was a 100% dog to Scapeshift. Leonin Arbiter is a lie.

We knew we wanted to attack the format by being the aggressive deck. In the recent history of Extended formats, the unheralded aggro decks have done really well. Amsterdam was dominated by them. We knew there was some life in the Tempered Steel deck, so when Noah Long mentioned his fellow Torontonians had come up with something similar (though with a Glaze Fiend / Thopter Foundry mini-Fireball subtheme), Felix and I decided to revisit the deck.

What happened in the next few weeks was the result of constant dedication and innovation. Once we inserted Thoughtseize to complement Tidehollow Sculler and Ranger of Eos to trump Elspeth, I was convinced this deck was a contender. I secretly hoped nobody else in the pro world knew much about it, or if they did… that they didn’t give it the credit it deserved.

Spending the weekend prior to Chiba in Montreal testing with the Canadian national team members confirmed my thoughts on the deck. It just wasn’t losing! Many of the local Montreal ringers who saw the deck were just as surprised as I was sure my Worlds opponents would be. The final weekend of testing led me to this ultimate configuration:

I was confident playing against every matchup with the exception of 5-Color Control (5CC). Their high density of board sweepers and targeted removal (notably Esper Charm) is obviously not what you want to have to fight through. I thought our deck was 60/40 over every other deck in the field but 30/70 to 4CC. I was also factoring in the edge you gain by being a rogue strategy and was expecting my opponents to be unaware of how to attack the deck’s game plan.

As a result of my
deck tech video

and Pascal’s 6-0 performance with Affin… uh, “Steel Artifact,” the deck has since caught on like wildfire. Sunday morning after the Extended portion of Worlds, I woke up and checked Magic Online to find the entire tournament practice room playing the deck. Mirror matches were neat to watch, since I hadn’t ever played one before and also because they’re really luck based and mostly a faceroll. I was a bit abhorrent of some of the atrocious play I observed (and sadly still see), but the deck is deceptively hard to play perfectly, especially when deciding to keep do-nothing hands just because you can vomit five permanents into play on turn 1.

Tempered Steel has caught a lot of flak lately, and nobody is taking it very seriously. I think too many people are playing the deck loosely and blaming it on an apparent lack of consistency. I scour every MTGO Daily Event to watch the replays and see the same thing happen far too often. Nobody mulligans! I see plays of turn 1: Ornithopter, Plains, Mox Opal — Go… Turn 2: Nothing — Go… These people are either making poor choices for mulliganing or simply praying for a topdeck of some sort. Either way, this play isn’t defensible.

Obviously there’s a high variance on your opening draw, since this is an aggro deck with very little source of long-term card advantage, but when people come to me saying they are X-0 against it on MTGO, we then play a set of twenty games, and I go 70-30 over them; they naturally wonder what I’m doing differently. Their preconceived notion of it being a “joke deck” is dispelled.

That being said, this variance on your opening draw is the primary weakness of the Tempered Steel archetype. Lacking any form of card draw or filtering means you’re highly reliant on having a smooth opening draw. This past week I played in a Daily Event, started 2-0 beating U/W Control and 5CC (both bad matchups), then lost to Jund and Faeries (good matchups), since I had to mulligan nine times in those two matches. The very next day,
Just4myrage on MTGO Top 8s the 400+-player PTQ

with this deck, going 8-1 in the Swiss. If you’re running hot, this is the deck for you, my friend!

So where does this leave us now? Right now this is what I’m rolling with:

Meddling Mage has added a whole new angle of attack for this deck that really complements its primary role. It gives you an out to any potential Wrath effects but has the added bonus of being able to shut off an opponent’s hand after scouring through it with Thoughtseize or Tidehollow Sculler. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the Mage since I’ve been playing her, and the sacrifice made to fit her in (-2 Etched Champion, -1 Ranger of Eos) hasn’t been missed, for the most part. Now if only she were an artifact…

The new sideboard configuration has also been working well, though I keep wanting to add another Memoricide, since you can really catch people off-guard, especially Wargate players who get too greedy with ramp spells and then lose their Prismatic Omens, and thus any win conditions in their deck.

Sideboarding guide:

UW Control

+2 Duress, +1 Memoricide, +2 War Priest of Thune

-2 Thopter Foundry, -1 Ornithopter, -1 Memnite, -1 Master of Etherium

They’ll be bringing in Leyline of Sanctity to go with their Oblivion Rings, so War Priest is a must. Memoricide naming Day of Judgment just to take that threat out of the equation.

5 Color Control

+2 Duress, +1 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender

-2 Thopter Foundry, -1 Ornithopter

If you notice they’re also boarding in Leyline of Sanctity, go for your War Priests if necessary for game 3.

Wargate Scapeshift

+2 Duress, +1 Memoricide, +2 War Priest of Thune

-2 Thopter Foundry, -1 Ornithopter, -1 Steel Overseer, -1 Master of Etherium

You want to be a little more aggressive in this matchup, so leaving in Memnites to push early damage is better than having a Steel Overseer.


+3 Celestial Purge, +1 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, +2 Etched Champion,

-2 Tidehollow Sculler, -2 Meddling Mage, -1 Thoughtseize, -1 Memnite

You’re going to beat Jund by flooding the board, not by disrupting their hand. Jund’s topdecks are very powerful, so you want to win on board, notably via Thopter Foundry, your #1 threat in this matchup. Purge Putrid Leech so that your men can profitably attack. Their best card against you is Kitchen Finks.


+2 Etched Champion, +2 Duress (on the play), +2 War Priest of Thune (on the draw)

-3 Meddling Mage, -1 Master of Etherium

This goes without saying, but you really don’t want Faeries to have an unanswered Bitterblossom. On the play, my ideal start is Duress, Sculler. On the draw, I’d rather play dudes on turn 1 (Court Homunculus, Memnite, etc.), then on turn 2 blow up their Bitterblossom and apply some pressure right away.


+2 Disfigure, +2 Etched Champion, +2 Ethersworn Canonist

-2 Thopter Foundry, -2 Tidehollow Sculler, -1 Master of Etherium, -1 Memnite

Thoughtseize/Disfigure their Fauna Shaman, and that should slow them down enough to grind them out. Ethersworn Canonist will typically stop them from nut-drawing you.

Obviously this is a rough guide and by no means absolute. Whether you’re on the play or draw will heavily impact how much hand disruption you keep in after board.

What does the future hold for Tempered Steel? There’s a lot of room for innovation in this archetype that I feel hasn’t been fully explored. A lot of major Magic pundits predicted the deck to be Tier 1 or at the very least a highly competitive metagame force, but what little results we have to show since Worlds haven’t been consistent with that claim. With the onset of the PTQ season, GP Atlanta, and Mirrodin Besieged just over the horizon, I’m sure we’ll see this deck live up to its hype.

As for me, I’ll just keep bashing with my Memnites.