Testing for the New Standard: U/G Versus Solar Flare!

Put your Champs deck to the test at the StarCityGames.com $1500 Standard Open!While I’ve devoted most of my free time to testing for Pro Tour: Kobe, I had the opportunity this past weekend to play some Constructed against Mike Flores. I took Mike’s U/G Beatdown deck and took it for a spin against U/G/W Solar Flare. Mike predicted it would be 7-3 in my favor – but I’ll tell you how it really played out, how to play the deck, and what kind of a matchup you can expect.

Looking at my last nine articles, it seems that seven of them were about Limited. It’s true that I prefer talking about Limited, and I generally get bored in about three hours when discussing Constructed, but still, there is a limit to the number of Limited articles one can really write. Also, there is a tournament coming up. Well, that’s always true, but at the moment there happens to be many tournaments coming up. While I’ve devoted most of my free time to testing for the upcoming Pro Tour (Kobe), I had the opportunity this past weekend to play some Constructed against Mike Flores.

This opportunity was afforded to me by yet another disastrous PTQ performance. I might write about it later, so I’ll save the details, but let’s just say that it was quick and brutal. The rest of the day was spent drafting for Kobe and finally playtesting for States.

Yes, that tournament. Now it’s called Champs, and they go even further to specify that it is Standard, as there are both Limited and Two-Headed Giant versions of the tournament, though neither of those tournaments is particularly meaningful. States, on the other hand (or Standard Champs), is a high-impact tournament. After Kobe there is just one Pro Tour left, and it is Worlds. Traditionally (and this year is no different), Worlds has a Standard portion as well as a draft portion, and then either Block or Extended, although it will probably be Extended for quite some time (again, this year included). These Champs are the only large-scale tournament using the format that feed the events, so naturally they are much more important than the aforementioned Two-Headed Giant and Limited varieties, though the tournaments are obviously similar.

This alone is a fine reason to play in and test for the tournament. Yet some people – pros even – choose to ignore the tournament or dismiss it as unimportant and/or a waste of time. As you’ve just read, it isn’t. So, then, back to the testing:

First, the decks…

I was with Mike’s Blue/Green, it looked like this:


We played game 1s without the knowledge of the other person’s deck. Mulligans were to be determined without that information – that’s the main concern. Of course, I was allowed to play around Wrath of God once it was obvious what deck I was playing against, and he — well, beyond Psionic Blast and a few counterspells, there aren’t many cards to play around.

Going into the matchup I was genuinely unimpressed by every deck in the format (so far), and after playing the series that has not changed.

I had an idea of how the matchup would go. I knew I was the aggressor and that once an Akroma was in play, I wouldn’t have many ways to win beyond burning him out. It’s also a short clock, and if he hits me three times with Akroma I am probably dead, or playing for — at best — a draw. Considering that in the ideal world he can play Akroma on turn 4 or 5 with Remand up, it is a threat.

He predicted 7-3 in favor of my deck, the same result he found in previous testing sessions. The fact that indeed he had played the matchup previously (I had not) and the fact that Mike’s play has improved of late — probably directly as a result of Magic Online testing — and I felt like it might be a struggle to win those seven games. Actually, though, it wasn’t.

My baseline strategy was to apply some pressure, not get wrecked by Wrath, and counter only the cards that matter, protecting them with Spell Snare when I could. I never bothered countering a Sift or a Compulsive Research, not even when he was mana screwed and I was ahead on the board. It matters that little. Let them draw their whole deck; they still only have so much mana and so many relevant cards. Also, I would imagine these things change in the later game, should one ever exist. If they were to let you counter card drawing in the late game when neither player is ahead on the board, then by all means do so. However, that game state (late, even) never really happened. In general, games did not last that long.

How the games really played out:

On the whole, my strategy was successful. The set finished with me ahead seven to two, with a draw forced by my Psionic Blast in one of the games.

There are a lot of things you have to manage on your own side of the board, to be perfectly honest.

First, there is the need for pressure. It doesn’t have to be a lot of pressure – two a turn is enough to get you started. Of course, eventually you’ll need to find a Cloak to force Wrath of God or compete with the heavier hitters (Angel of Despair, Akroma, Angel of Wrath). So, a large part of my games started with turn 1 mana creature, turn 2 Ohran Viper. This gives me two creatures in play, one arguably the best in my deck and certainly the best one to have in play and attacking, the other being a mana producer that is basically a liability after turn 2. At this point they have between two and three mana (Signet or no), and you have to make a decision. If they have three mana, you don’t want to commit more to the board in any way. They’ll be happy to cripple your mana while gaining a card and ridding you of your Viper, should they have the chance. Ideally, they go for the Wrath and you protect with Mana Leak.

With just three Wrath of Gods left in their deck and no knowledge of their decklist, you can assume their remaining removal comes in the form of Angel of Despair, potentially Avatar of Woe, and potentially Mortify. The most imminent of those dangers is Mortify, of course. However, all three of these potential “removal” effects fall prey to your Plaxmantas. Wrath of God does not. It restricts the way you can play your cards – that is to say, if they did not have Wrath of God you’d be free to commit to the board as much as you can, leaving up mana for Counterspells — if you want — because frankly, they can’t do anything about it.

By the time they have three remaining Wrath of Gods in their deck, they will probably have to dig. Digging, of course, always benefits them. They always get to discard an Angel (either kind, really) if they want, which turns on any number of potential Zombifies they might have. Zombify is another “must counter” spell. Again, you have four total answers to their relevant cards (Zombify, Wrath of God, and sometimes Persecute), so use them sparingly and effectively. If they remand your Ohran Viper you shouldn’t fight them with Mana Leak — only Spell Snare. You won’t have the option on turn 2; so obviously, I am referring to any time you cast it beyond turn 2.

Basically your Mana Leaks are your most valuable resource. Moldervine Cloak is the card you want to draw one of the most, but Mana Leak is the card you always want to draw in any quantity.

So, the early game is covered. Now assuming they Wrath and you can’t avoid it: hopefully you can reload with Looter Il-Kor or another Ohran Viper. At this point you might have extra mana creatures in your hand, so you can probably play one. A Bird at this point threatens Moldervine Cloak — this means your opponent’s Mortifies are essentially overloaded. At most, they’ll have five or six mana and probably less than four Mortifies in their deck. The combination of them having six mana and two Mortifies during your next attack step — and you not having a Plaxmanta – is pretty rare. So, then, you have two guys out again and their most probable play is to draw cards. Just let them, and don’t look back. On your turn you should look to suit up your less important creature. If it’s a choice between Viper and Looter, suit up the Looter; between Viper and Bird, suit up the Bird, etc.

At any time your Looter hits them you have a few decisions to make. You have to manage your threats at all times. I drew Psionic Blast very rarely; when I did, it once caused a draw from a five-card starting hand facing about a turn 6 Akroma. This doesn’t sound that impressive, but I did start with only five cards. The other time, I showed a pair of Psionic Blasts while Mike was going through the motions; he was trying to figure out how to beat my lethal board position (he couldn’t), so this was overkill. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t discard Psionic Blasts from a five- or six-card hand.

My most likely discard choice was excess Mana Creatures. I’ve highlighted that these are a liability and are inferior to lands very often. However, they are excellent with Moldervine Cloak in the later game, once your initial onslaught has been thwarted. So you must manage your hand just like you manage your mana and board position. Obviously you’ll never discard Mana Leak, and you shouldn’t discard your other counters or Psionic Blast, but they are few and far between. Ideally it’ll be extra lands, extra mana creatures (keep one in case you need to play him to wear a Cloak) or Call of the Herd, which is easily the most underwhelming card in your entire deck, against theirs. It also conveniently flashes back, should a 3/3 for four with no abilities be what you desire. It wears a Cloak just fine, anyway, right?

One other thing I’d like to mention about Cloak is that a Birds of Paradise wearing two Cloaks trumps all of their flyers in combat. In the final game against Mike yesterday my 6/7 bird forced a chump block while my 9/10 Bird, a turn later (the same bird, of course) delivered the killing blow as Mike dejectedly Sifted and Compulsively Researched for the mystical Mortify and land that neither dealt him damage nor came into play tapped, he found the land, three of them in fact, but the Mortify was not there. I would have reloaded with a 9/9 Call of the Herd, but at that point I was playing off the top with a pair of Calls in the yard and three Cloaks between yard and board — it might have been enough anyway, but as it was, it didn’t get that far.

I really hope you’ve found the descriptions of these decisions to be helpful because articulating these ideas are a bit tricky. Also, while it might seem like a lot — and a tricky deck to play, as a result — these are basically second nature decisions after playing a lot of Magic, or, a lot with the deck.

And the result, you might ask? Well, since I essentially hate all the decks equally and I know that this deck can beat a lot of decks, I myself might end up playing it at the tournament. Although, ideally a deck you play should be a deck you like; if there are no decks you like, what do you do?

I think Spell Snare should be in the sideboard, despite its effectiveness in this matchup. I don’t know what I’d replace it with, though. Potentially Remand or Voidslime, anything similar but more versatile, maybe even Mystic Snake, which I love, though probably outclassed. I also think that Simic Growth Chamber is a worthy inclusion, although it will prevent you from getting turn 2 Ohran Viper sometimes, I wouldn’t include four of them, I just think the extra card gained when you are fighting with Looter Il-Kor is really valuable.

Other sideboard cards? I don’t really know. I’m not going to lie, I haven’t put in the time and I don’t know the matchups. I can recommend that your sideboard cards not be weak and underpowered, and that, since your deck definitely has cards that are worse in some matchups than others (Call of the Herd against Solar Flare is a good example; non-Plaxmanta counters against Zoo, is another), you find a way to fix those holes for sideboarded games.

When you’re reading this I’ll be in Japan, but I’ll still hope you enjoyed reading.

Josh Ravitz