That’s One Poisonous Pike…

Brian Kibler takes a trip to Japan (figuratively) and finds a new take on U/B Infect. Runechanter’s Pike makes those infectious little creatures doubly dangerous!

Japan is an awesome place. It’s the birthplace of a huge number of features of modern popular culture, from sushi to karaoke to anime. It is home to the most polite and helpful people I’ve personally ever encountered and has an incredible system of public transportation rivaled in few parts of the world. That is to say nothing of its rich culture and remarkably successful industries, in which it is a leader the world over despite the country’s relatively small size. Oh, and it just so happens to produce incredible Magic players.

Many years ago, Japan was something of a laughingstock on the Magic Pro Tour. Japanese players were seen as erratic and unpredictable in their drafting habits and deck choices—and that’s putting it politely. Sitting across from a Japanese player was seen as about as close as you could get to a free win. But over the years, something changed in the Japanese Magic community, and Japan went from bottom of the heap to king of the hill. It wasn’t until Brad Nelson in 2010 that America wrested the player of the year title away from Japan—a title that had been theirs since Kenji Tsumura won it back in 2005.

A huge part of the success of the modern Japanese Magic community is the incredible organized play support that exists within the country. Over the years, Japan has developed a series of tournaments at many levels, from a high school championship to the major end of year tournament—The Finals. The Finals has long been a high-profile tournament, with a list of top finishers over the years that includes virtually all of Japan’s best known pro players. For those looking for new tech, it’s a great place to search, especially since the coverage is in Japanese, and the decklists aren’t as easily accessible as those from tournaments state side. But if you’re willing to put up with the hilarious card names that Google translate spits back at you (any guesses what “dead one hundred feet” is?), it can be a veritable gold mine. So when I heard that this year’s finals tournament was won by U/B Infect, I couldn’t help but go digging…

Okada N. 
The Finals 2011 Top 8 (Standard)

6 ” island ” 
5 ” Swamp ” 
4 ” dark sides of the slip , ” 
4 ” submerged Catacombs ” 
4 ” corner habitats “

– Land (23) – 

4 ” agents of the devastation , ” 
4 ” crusade of the Phyrexian “

– Creatures (8) –

2 ” Gitakushia school survey ” 
2 ” mutagenic growth , ” 
4 ” Ponder ” 
4 ” malignant wounds , ” 
4 ” mana leak ” 
2 ” edge of doom ” 
4 ” alchemy taboo ” 
2 ” corrupt conscience ” 
3 ” length of the cast Rune spear , ” 
2 ” sword of feast and famine “

– Spells (29) –

2 ” The destruction of the Phyrexian ” 
2 ” engine coil worm ” 
1 “, the growth of mutagenic ” 
3 ” 蔑Mi ” 
3 ” escalating bomb ” 
3 ” denial ” 
1 ” corrupt conscience “

– Sideboard (15) –

What, you don’t like Google’s translation? Okay, fine…

This deck (which you can see me take for a spin in a Daily Event in my video next week) has some core choices in common with the infect decks that I’ve played but has a vastly different fundamental strategy. While my decks have typically focused on control elements and leveraging the power of proliferate, this deck uses the “double strike” element of infect to the fullest. Much like the mono-black Lashwrithe builds that were popular some time ago and continue to pop up now and then, this deck is capable of dishing out huge numbers of poison counters extremely quickly thanks to how infect double dips on power boosting effects.

Foremost among those effects is Runechanter’s Pike. This little piece of equipment existed very much under the radar in Standard for a long time but has recently burst out in a big way. Charles Gindy victory at SCG Atlanta this past weekend came in no small part due to the power of the Pike in a spell heavy U/W Delver deck. In his deck, Pike could consistently provide a boost of four or five power, which is enough to make a Delver—or Moorland Haunt token, or Invisible Stalker—exceptionally deadly.

The number of spells in this deck is roughly comparable to the count in the Delver decks, which makes Pike similarly potent. The big difference is that one point of power on a Blighted Agent is worth a whole lot more than that same boost on his hexproof friend Invisible Stalker. Remember Blazing Shoal? A perfectly reasonable card—even a frequently mocked card—in “fair” decks, but ban worthy when combined with infect creatures.

One of the big problems I’ve found with building infect decks is the vast disparity in the quality of the creatures. Phyrexian Crusader is head and shoulders above the rest, with Vatmother and Skithiryx falling in line behind. The cheaper infect creatures—Plague Stinger, Plague Myr, Necropede (aka “dead one hundred feet”), and the like—all suffer from the unfortunate reality of being vulnerable to Gut Shot, which is everywhere these days. The other side of that coin is that Vatmother and Skithiryx are downright embarrassing against Vapor Snag, making it pretty hard to find any sort of configuration that works in the current Standard environment.

This deck doesn’t solve that problem, but it isn’t dead in the water to it either. Mutagenic Growth is insurance against Gut Shot that doubles as a burn spell in a pinch. It’s especially satisfying to use Mutagenic Growth to protect a Pike-equipped Inkmoth Nexus that your tapped out opponent thought they were safe from thanks to a Gut Shot in the grip.

That particular board state—an Inkmoth Nexus threatening to pick up a Runechanter’s Pike—is one of my favorite things about this deck. It puts the opponent in an incredibly awkward spot because they’re in danger of dying instantly if they ever tap out, and barring something like Ghost Quarter or Acidic Slime, they can’t do anything about your Nexus unless you let them. You can even get the same surprise kill with Pike-Nexus that you can get with Skithiryx for the same amount of mana—the Nexus itself, one to activate, and four to play and equip the Pike. And in this deck at any later stage in the game, a Pike-bearing Nexus is likely to be able to kill your opponent from a much lower poison total than Mr. Blight Dragon ever could.

The parts of the maindeck I’m not totally sold on are the full set of Forbidden Alchemy, the Sword of Feast and Famine, and the Corrupted Conscience. I understand the principle behind the Alchemies—they both give you selection and help fill your graveyard for Pike—but I find that they can lead to some awfully awkward draws sometimes, particularly in combination with the other culprits I named. The current Standard format is one that operates at extremely low levels of mana. The defining cards are Delver, Vapor Snag, and Mana Leak—do you really want to play a deck full of cards that cost three-plus mana and don’t have an immediate impact on the board? Sword and Conscience are certainly powerful, but I feel like they may be getting just a bit too greedy. I feel like this deck wants to try to come in under most of its opponents and beat them before they know what hit them rather than try to go over the top with more powerful effects.

The sideboard seems all over the place to me. Wurmcoil Engine? Despise? And what is Phyrexian Revoker even for? The first change I made before I played the deck was replacing the Revokers with Curse of Death’s Hold to try to improve the deck’s Delver matchup, but even then I felt like I was quite a bit behind. Mutagenic Growth wasn’t a satisfying answer to Gut Shot and Vapor Snag, and I didn’t feel like I had enough cheap ways to interact with my opponent’s creatures and keep from being overwhelmed. I also felt quite vulnerable to Geist of Saint Traft, which I imagine is part of the intended role of Despise, but the discard spell didn’t seem particularly effective at defending me from the ever-present hexproof bomb. I could only really hope to block with a Phyrexian Crusader or a Piked up creature, which seemed like it was asking a bit much.

I did like the deck in the other matchups I played, though, and think the basic shell has enough raw power that it’s worth exploring ways to try to shore up the Delver matchup and improve the deck across the board. Here’s where I’m at right now:

This version works to slim down the deck’s curve somewhat and improve its ability to defend itself in the early game. Corrupted Conscience has moved to the sideboard for a full set of Doom Blades, while the Alchemy and equipment numbers have been shaved to fit two more copies of Gitaxian Probe. I really like Probe in this deck because you often find yourself in a position where you can outright kill your opponent if they don’t have anything and you just need to know if you can go for it. The fact that it also helps boost your Pikes is pretty sweet too. The Sword of Feast and Famine left for a Silver-Inlaid Dagger, which is substantially cheaper to play and equip and gives an especially nice boost to Blighted Agent.

The big addition to the sideboard is Mental Misstep. I think Misstep is particularly exciting here because it covers so much ground for the deck in the Delver matchup. It can be a counter to stop an early creature, cover against Gut Shot or Vapor Snag, and even act as a brick wall against a desperation Ponder for land. I think it might even be worth playing the full four, but I wanted to include some other ideas in this list for now.

Vatmother is a card I’ve sideboarded in a number of creature-light infect lists, and it’s here for much the same reason as in those decks. In some matchups—like against red, or Wolf-Run—you can’t afford to play a waiting game without a creature. You need a sizeable body, and you need it fast. Vatmother is my go-to extra infect creature, but if you’re not worried about red, I can see using Whispering Specter in the sideboard instead. A Pike-powered Specter is a Mind Twist waiting to happen.

Last, but not least, I included a singleton Contagion Clasp in the sideboard. This could be anything, really, and perhaps should be something like Phyrexian Metamorph to shore things up against Geist, but I wanted to explore the idea of merging the power boost and proliferate-based infect builds. Some games turn out to be extremely attrition based, and in those long games, Clasp is exactly what you want to have to grind your opponent out. The -1/-1 counter is quite good against Delver decks and the like, and those games can certainly go long, so perhaps that’s the way to go.

In any event, this deck is certainly a hell of a lot of fun to play and can put your opponents on serious tilt when they just die out of nowhere. If you want to see an example, be sure to check out game one of round four of my video with the deck—it’s the textbook example of how to make your opponent want to reach through the screen and strangle you.

This deck is certainly on the short list of lists I’m considering playing this weekend in GP Orlando, so if anyone has any ideas they want to share in the comments, I’m all ears. Maybe we can break it!

Until next time,