The 2004 Championship Deck Challenge – Flores Mono-Blue

Greetings Agents Flores, David-Marshall, Lebedowicz, Rider, and Ferraiolo. Welcome to our little deckbuilding challenge. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it.

Assignment #1
Build a U/W Deck. It can be control, combo, or aggro… just build the best deck that you can, test it for a week, and then write an article about that deck.

As always, if you are captured, StarCityGames.com will disavow any knowledge of you or your mission. We wish you the best of luck, now get cracking.

Assignment #1

Build a U/W Deck. It can be control, combo, or aggro… just build the best deck that you can. All decks and articles must be turned in by Friday, 10/1. That will give me time to choose the order I want to post them in and iron out any issues with the articles. If you can, emphasize newer cards that will or even could be important in the archetype, and also discuss what just doesn’t work and why.

The building of a U/W control deck in the current Standard presents deceptively serious and surprising challenges. Initially I wanted to just take Gabriel Nassif Player of the Year Standard deck from the 2004 World Championships and update those cards lost in the Onslaught Block rotation with legal alternatives. After all, my experience with G/W at Regionals taught me that a deck based on White removal – provided it played the correct outs – could take Affinity, and take it consistently. The addition of some strong permission since Regionals – from Condescend to Hinder – would only make the White control deck more versatile, right? Moreover, initial looks at the”If Regionals Were Tomorrow, What Would You Play?” thread taught me that many of Star City’s prospective States players were on that same page. The problem that came up is that with Scourge gone, People Can Kill Your Finishers.

These days, if someone kills your Dragon (or Angel, or whatever) it’s dead. Done. Gone. It goes to the graveyard and stays there like any old Elf or Merfolk. It doesn’t come back, let alone come back every turn. You don’t get to rip every removal card out of your opponent’s hand until it finally kills him. In addition, People Can Also Counter Your Other Kill Card. I’m not kidding. Previously White had a versatile Fireball that could also block any number of threats while drawing a card, And No One Could Do Anything About It (with”no one” excepting Goblin Sharpshooter of course). But now, neither Blue nor White has any such kill card. The ramifications of this should be fairly obvious.

Any U/W control game is either going to go long or be lost. Now we don’t plan to play for losses, so we want the game to go long. However, in long games, opponents with even just a little bit of removal are going to draw it. And, unlike Brian Weissman at the dawn of Control’s creation, we don’t have the luxury of his environment’s expectations. Any U/W control player planning to take total control of a game and win with a pair of Angels (or Dragons, or Spirits, or some combination thereof) has another thing coming to him. In a very long game, such players will have to fight the opponent’s removal with cards like Mana Leak and Condescend which are clunky and inefficient against two mana answers, not to mention the nightmare of playing against other decks packing white removal and/or permission.

Going down this road of exploration taught me that U/W control in the traditional sense, based on answering threats and killing with late game fat fliers – from Weissman in 1995 to Nassif nearly a decade later – simply isn’t going to be viable. When you have to make decisions like Mahamoti Djinn over Keiga, the Tide Star For No Other Reason Than Fat Moti’s Fat Ass Survives Shrapnel Blast, you know that there is something seriously wrong with your strategy. As good as certain permission spells may be, cards like Mana Leak and Condescend are going to be next to useless to protecting your own threats in a long game. I suppose that you can go the Pristine Angel route, but Pristine Angel is difficult to defend against cheaper cards like Wrath of God in similar deck matchups, and is just never going to get past the opponent’s permission, if he has it. Because U/W decks of this flavor don’t do much before playing their 4/4 creatures for six mana, I can’t imagine they can scare another ill advised U/W or (God forbid) U/G opponent into spending his answers or even mana prematurely.

I therefore decided to try to explore alternate themes. The current Standard offers many tools that hearken back to earlier decks, from Big Blue to Penn Flying Beatdown. So dismal is the state of straight U/W control due to the finishers issue that I would not be surprised to see one or more of the other designers go for a White Weenie strategy, touching Blue for bounce or light permission.

I tried to make an Auriok Salvagers deck, but had a hard time fitting the cards that I wanted. Auriok Salvagers just seemed clunky to me, easily countered or killed for its mana cost. Obviously its upside is tremendous when mixed with the right cards, but 2/2s for three and 2/4s for four hardly seemed synergistic with the automatic inclusion of Wrath of God that does not exist in Block.

The other deck I wanted to put together was Propa-Orb. The problem? We might have Propaganda, but we have no Winter Orb. As a pure race strategy, that might not be terminal… but we also don’t have the right kind of flying beatdown. When altran and I worked on Penn Flying Beatdown in the late 1990s, we had cards like Waterspout Djinn and Man-o’-War running the offense. The closest approximation seemed to be a U/W Affinity deck with Qumulox and Somber Hoverguard, but that just seemed to me like a terrible Affinity deck, so I didn’t even bother trying to sketch out a listing.

The most promising deck that I wanted to explore from a conceptual standpoint was Turbo Xerox. With the new cheap card drawing in Champions of Kamigawa, I decided that it might actually be possible to summon the Unspeakable. There were two problems with this:

1. Peer Through Depths looks like a great Impulse replacement. We considered it not just for Turbo Xerox, but as Wrath of God five through eight in a traditional U/W deck. What would suck more than looking at the top five cards when you need a land (and you will!), seeing Island, Island, Island, Island, guy? Sigh.

2. I figured that I could hit four on four, and if I were Bob Maher, five on five, but I decided that on 17-20 lands, ever hitting six mana was a pipe dream. Even if I still had the Unspeakable sequence even after burning through a bunch of cantrips to keep my drops going, the idea that I would be able to play them all in one turn didn’t seem very realistic under pressure.

The deck I ended up working on most seriously was a mono-Blue deck in the 1997 and 1998 CMU Blue or Buehler Blue tradition. I know that it probably isn’t what Ted was looking for when he assigned U/W, but as I said, I don’t think that U/W as we have known it for the past year or two is particularly good without Exalted Angel, Eternal Dragon, Decree of Justice, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and especially Akroma’s VengeancePristine Angel just doesn’t seem like she is worth six mana to me in a format with Wrath of God and so many playable permission spells. Even the Black beatdown decks are packing Barter in Blood! In any case, I decided the Editor was asking us to limit our explorations to Blue and White, and never really said how much of one color or the other he wanted. [To clarify, I tried to leave it as open as possible, and it will be even more open in future weeks. I want a general deck concept, but I don’t really want to constrain anyone to building a bad deck. – Knut]

One thing that I noticed as I sketched out various U/W decks was that you can build your deck as a White removal deck like my G/W deck, but supporting it with cards like Annul and Condescend rather than cards like Oxidize. Now as we have discussed, the loss of Akroma’s Vengeance in particular decreases the incentive towards this class of decks, so I went the other direction as well. As I started sketching out Blue-based control decks with twelve to sixteen counters, I found that the only uniquely White cards Blue control really wanted to support its Blue cards were Wrath of God and Pulse of the Fields. The problem, of course, is that even with four Coastal Towers and four Wayfarer’s Baubles (as I had in many previous versions), I couldn’t reliably present WW on turn 4 for Wrath of God and I couldn’t really break Pulse of the Fields.

The Blue deck actually went through a lot of cards on the way to the builds I am presenting below… The best Nevinyrral’s Disk or Powder Keg seemed to be Oblivion Stone, but I asked myself… on turn 3 against beatdown, would I rather have Oblivion Stone or Vedalken Shackles? The answer was clear. The main thing that I dislike about this deck is the lack of life gain. Playing even one Pulse of the Fields against Affinity is so backbreaking, and this deck can’t really do that.

My first build was this:

4 Relic Barrier

4 Vedalken Shackles

4 Annul

3 Condescend

4 Echoing Truth

4 Gifts Ungiven

4 Hinder

1 Keiga, the Tidal Star

4 Mana Leak

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

16 Island

4 Stalking Stones

The first thing you probably notice is this deck’s own lack of finishers – exactly the issue I brought up regarding”traditional” U/W decks. The difference with a deck like this one is that rather than playing overpriced cards like Pristine Angel after dedicating 30+ slots in my deck to control cards, I just win with lands. This makes me more consistent against beatdown and gives me the luxury of having kill conditions that can’t be countered by another control deck. Clearly this isn’t a perfect strategy given the high concentration of Oxidizes and Viridian Shamans in the current Standard, but I think it is more consistent than trying to win with expensive creatures in a format where 1/3 of the opponents will probably be some style of control and an even greater portion have access to cards like Oblivion Stone.

The second thing is that this deck is extremely hostile towards artifacts. As you probably know, I am not the biggest fan of Thirst for Knowledge, but this deck plays a reasonable amount of artifacts to pitch.

I tested a good amount against Affinity, using Kamiel’s version from the World’s Top 8. After taking a powerful lead in the first few games, the Blue deck actually ended up going 5-5 in the first 10 game set. One thing that you should keep in mind when looking at a deck like this one is that even though it ran an even pace with what is generally considered to be the best deck, the Blue starts the maximum number of both Annul and Relic Barrier; 5-5 really isn’t that spectacular.

The test games were actually very surprising… Affinity won every game that it double mulliganed, and the Blue deck lost several games where it went first and had Annul to start. The problem for the Blue deck was that it could never really beat active Aether Vial and a grip full of threats. Even when the Blue deck played strong attrition Magic going into the mid-game, it would often have a hand full of useless Mana Leaks and Hinders against an opponent deck that is pumping out Arcbound Ravagers for free. The card Arcbound Ravager in particular is a beating in this matchup. So much of the Blue deck’s game against Affinity is based on Vedalken Shackles, and Arcbound Ravager just laughs at that strategy. One card I would consider playing because of that is Engineered Explosives, even though I can only set it to zero or one. The fact that I can sweep Aether Vials and maybe snag a Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Worker along the way makes me think the card may be good.

I decided that the reason the Blue deck only went 5-5 was mana. So I made the slight switch of -2 Gifts Ungiven, +2 Island. To be honest, Gifts Ungiven went for Gifts Ungiven, Blinkmoth Nexus, Island, Stalking Stones almost every time anyway. I am not sure that Inspiration wouldn’t be better, actually. Gifts Ungiven doesn’t do anything broken in this deck unless you are already pounding the Affinity deck and is never going to consistently get you the out you want. Even when you go for Relic Barrier, Vedalken Shackles, Keiga, Gifts Ungiven, you never really get the cards you want, and kind of slump in your chair when you have to”settle” for the Relic Barrier. That said, your opponent’s Myr Retriever will often annoy the hell out of him due to the interactions between Vedalken Shackles and your own card drawing spells.

The second round version:

4 Relic Barrier

4 Vedalken Shackles

4 Annul

3 Condescend

4 Echoing Truth

2 Gifts Ungiven

4 Hinder

1 Keiga, the Tidal Star

4 Mana Leak

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

18 Island

4 Stalking Stones

This version of the deck did considerably better and finished 7-3 over Affinity. This seems a little too good for me, and even though I played out the testing myself, I am guessing that the small n may be indicating the matchup. That said, it makes sense for a deck that is essentially pre-sideboarded against Affinity to have a reasonable matchup in the first game.

I am not certain of what the sideboard would be for States. I don’t know if U/R will show up after its poor performance at Worlds, but if it does, Time Stop might be the right card against Obliterate. I think I would like to run March of the Machines as well, because, even with the 7-3, I am pretty sure that Affinity will be the top deck at States, and it makes sense to be prepared. Believe it or not, I wanted to play Wall of Air in the main, but couldn’t find room. As the deck stands presently, turn 2 Tel-Jilad Chosen is pretty much game… I have only the Tidal Star to block. Green in general seems rough, with cards like Troll Ascetic, not to mention the ability to ignore Relic Barrier, Annul, and to a lesser extent, Mana Leak and Condescend.

One caveat about this build is that even though it draws inspiration from the 1998 CMU Worlds deck, it can’t take total control in a real sense. Keiga gives you an out against removal, but it is no Rainbow Efreet. All the crappy copies of Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven in the world are not going to add up to the fantastic Whispers of the Muse. To win, you have to seize whatever openings you can, apply pressure with your Vedalken Shackles, and just get blockers out of the way with Relic Barriers to get damage through. It’s not always pretty.

After Affinity, I ran the deck against Manuel Bevand’s Krark-Clan Ironworks deck from Worlds. It played out about as I thought it would – 7-3 in favor of the Blue. The Blue was up a ton of cards the first two games and lost them both when it didn’t have an answer to 27 token creatures or so. Blue seemed to do better when it just made a Stalking Stones and started hitting for three while the Ironworks was trying to put stuff together, like it’s first Blue mana. Relic Barrier + Echoing Truth isn’t perfect, but will beat a lot of people a lot of the time, and will set up a win against a Blue-screwed Ironworks player as long as you have any kind of clock. That said, the majority of the wins came from the Ironworks deck being manascrewed and/or the Blue deck having Relic Barriers in play, stranding all of the opponent’s non-artifact spells. One particularly embarrassing game ended in victory for Ironworks when Blue had a 20-2 lead and triple Relic Barrier in play, but Ironworks played Chrome Mox with Fabricate, played Thoughtcast, made Pentad Prism, cast Thirst for Knowledge, and had enough left for Krark-Clan Ironworks into Myr Incubator into Goblin Charbelcher after being stuck on s single Talisman of Progress (i.e. Blue screwed) for something like fourteen turns. But 7-3 prior to March of the Machines is still 7-3.

After two strong 7-3 finishes against artifact-based decks, I decided to test against an artifact hostile G/R deck. I don’t know if it is the best version of G/R, but mine plays all very good cards. I can’t imagine land destruction being good in a format with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach, so I just played quick elim and powerful finishers. It has a lot of mana, so maybe I should have had a Hammer of Bogardan. I dunno.

Anyway, I figured this deck would be a challenge because the Blue deck needs its artifacts to win, but more importantly because the G/R deck had no targets for Annul and Relic Barrier, stranding many cards. The matchup ended up 6-4 Blue. It felt a little more Blue favorable than 6-4, and I think I may have actually misrecorded a game. I think 65-70% is reasonable. The thing is, the G/R deck I played is a little threat light, so the Blue deck can kind of ignore the beatdown for a long time while drawing extra cards and finding Keiga.

The games tended to go very long, which would theoretically favor Blue, but G/R had such a huge mana advantage that it could do things like play Eternal Witness for a lost Rude Awakening and resolve the Rude Awakening with mana to spare against Condescend and Mana Leak. The first couple of G/R wins all seemed predicated on late game Rude Awakening when low on life. The Blue wins were all about weathering the artifact destruction, putting Stalking Stones and Blinkmoth Nexus in harm’s way, then saving them with Echoing Truth. That way, a Vedalken Shackles that had been hiding in hand could come online in the very late game. More than one duel was decided by Arc-Slogger attacking its master.

I’m not sure if it is right to try to fight the Sakura-Tribe Elders and Kodama’s Reaches in the early game. On one hand, it is pretty much impossible to beat all the mana acceleration, on the other hand, burning counters as one-for-ones against just about anything in the early game seems right, given the massive late game mana advantage that G/R has versus the long term liability of Mana Leak and Condescend. The last game finally played out as a G/R rout, with blue stuck with a million Relic Barriers and Annuls and nothing else. Would have been a good draw against Affinity, though.

The main thing the G/R matchup taught me is that Oblivion Stone may have some virtue in the deck. I wouldn’t cut either Relic Barrier or Vedalken Shackles for it, but the extra artifacts would be welcome. Oblivion Stone is helpful against Affinity and not terrible in any matchup. The other thing I learned is that Kumano, Master Yamabushi is a beating against Keiga, and therefore gets through even when you have a 5/5 Dragon Spirit on defense.

So up in all the matchups I played, the Rabbit finally convinced me to run my deck against Tooth and Nail. I just took John Ormerod’s deck from UK Nationals and added one copy of Boseiju, Who Shelters All and four Eternal Witnesses. The matchup was a nightmare. I was down either 1-3 or 0-3 before I decided to throw in the towel. I think 25% game one is actually generous to the Blue. Incidentally, I made the casual change of -2 Talisman, +2 Vine Trellis, not realizing that the Ormerod deck, with twelve Urza’s lands and only ten Forests Actually Needs The Talismans For Green Mana (this I learned through a few dozen slow draws over various matchups). That said, I am pretty sure Tooth and Nail wants a full compliment of Vine Trellises main in Standard (my own version also plays four Sakura-Tribe Elder). Remember the GP: New Jersey addition of Electrostatic Bolt to halt Slith Firewalker and associated beats? I think that playing a bunch of cheap drops that also fix your mana is probably better. More on that another time.

One thing to keep in mind with this project is that there is no way we can exhaustively test every deck submitted to satisfaction. Running just 3-4 matchups for each deck is a tremendous investment in time, especially for the control decks. Nevertheless, we believe that hitting at least an Affinity deck, some control deck, and one or two more matchups for each deck will give us a feel for what cards are good, and what decks – both mainstream and rogue – feel the best over a couple of hundred games. As for this deck, it really surprised me. I’m not sure how it would match up against Black (Nezumi Shortfang, yikes!) or Red (maybe Dan Paskins will know), but I feel that it did really well in the matchups in which I did test it. I will try the deck out against some of my colleagues’ U/W decks as well and report back next week.

Lastly, neither Thirst for Knowledge nor Gifts Ungiven performed particularly well. A deck like this one, with so many one-for-one answers, really needs consistent bulk card advantage in order to not fall behind. The more I played, the more I thought Inspiration might be better. Thirst for Knowledge of course has the curve advantage and can pitch dead Annuls and especially Relic Barriers, so it is not terrible from that standpoint, but I really just want to increase my hand size, make consistent drops, and fight every threat as it comes. Failing that, the deck has to race, strategically, because with so many lands, almost every other deck is going to be able to long game it due to inherent card advantage (see specifically Why Dave Price Goes Second).

For Reference:

Turbo Xerox – Alan Comer, Regionals 1997

Penn Flying Beatdown – Team Discovery Channel, Standard 1998 plus http://www.classicdojo.org/feature/feb98deck.html

Flying Beatdown – Christian Luhrs, Standard 1998

CMU Blue – Erik Lauer, Worlds 1998

Buehler Blue – Randy Buehler, Worlds 1999

Player of the Year – Gabriel Nassif, Worlds 2004

Gauntlet thus far:

Kamiel Affinity

4 Aether Vial

4 Arcbound Ravager

4 Arcbound Worker

4 Chromatic Sphere

4 Cranial Plating

4 Frogmite

4 Myr Enforcer

1 Myr Retriever

4 Disciple of the Vault

4 Thoughtcast

3 Atog

4 Blinkmoth Nexus

3 Darksteel Citadel

1 Glimmervoid

4 Great Furnace

4 Seat of the Synod

4 Vault of Whispers

Bevand Ironworks

4 Chrome Mox

1 Goblin Charbelcher

4 Krark-Clan Ironworks

4 Myr Incubator

4 Pentad Prism

3 Talisman of Dominance

3 Talisman of Progress

4 Condescend

3 Fabricate

3 Serum Visions

3 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Thoughtcast

1 Fireball

2 Ancient Den

4 Darksteel Citadel

4 Great Furnace

4 Seat of the Synod

3 Tree of Tales

2 Vault of Whispers

Random G/R Deck I Made [And we wonder where the bad deck names come from. – Knut]

4 Eternal Witness

4 Oxidize

4 Kodama’s Reach

2 Rude Awakening

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

4 Viridian Shaman

4 Arc-Slogger

4 Electrostatic Bolt

2 Kumano, Master Yamabushi

4 Magma Jet

11 Forest

9 Mountain

4 Shivan Oasis

Modified Ormerod

2 Darksteel Colossus

2 Mindslaver

4 Oblivion Stone

4 Solemn Simulacrum

1 Talisman of Impulse

1 Talisman of Unity

1 Triskelion

2 Oxidize

4 Eternal Witness

4 Reap and Sow

4 Sylvan Scrying

4 Tooth and Nail

4 Vine Trellis

1 Boseiju, Who Shelters all

10 Forest

4 Urza’s Mine

4 Urza’s Power Plant

4 Urza’s Tower


Bonus Section: The Straightforward Approach

4 Wayfarer’s Bauble

4 Condescend

4 Hinder

4 Mana Leak

4 Peer Through Depths

4 Thirst for Knowledge

3 Blinding Angel

4 Pulse of the Fields

4 Wrath of God

4 Coastal Tower

11 Island

10 Plains

I have no idea how this deck is supposed to beat an opponent with any kind of Counterspell or Terror. As I said earlier, you can just play Mahamoti Djinn instead of Blinding Angel because it doesn’t die to Shrapnel Blast. I am really not comfortable with this deck’s threat/answer capabilities either way. Again, Thirst for Knowledge might just be worse than Inspiration, especially with the availability of Peer Through Depths and only Wayfarer’s Bauble as a reasonable pitch spell.