The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Deconstructing Caw-Blade

What makes the core of Caw-Blade and why is that core so good? Brian Kibler breaks down the deck piece by piece until he finds exactly what makes it tick. And how to beat it.

Another week, another Caw-Blade deck on top. Not only that, but a full six Caw-Blade decks made the Top 8 of the Standard Open in Pittsburgh. While signs of other forms of life have been seen in National tournaments outside the US, not a single American tournament has been won by a deck other than Caw-Blade since the banning of Jace and Stoneforge Mystic. That’s right—all three StarCityGames.com Standard Open events have been won by Caw-Blade, and by three different players piloting three different versions to boot.

“Jace and Stoneforge Mystic—the least effective bannings since Prohibition.”

It should be clear by now that Caw-Blade isn’t a deck that relies on a single broken card (or even a pair of broken cards!) to carry it to victory. Jace and Stoneforge were powerful weapons in its arsenal, but no more than that. Caw-Blade is simply a powerful deck, and disarming it of a few of its many threats is not enough to keep it from racking up victory after victory.

But why? What makes Caw-Blade so powerful? Why, with the Hawks deprived of their greatest allies, are they still dominating tournaments? And how can we fight back?

While some Caw-Blade decks these days play Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold, others play Spellskite and Timely Reinforcements, and still others play Emeria Angels and Oblivion Rings—and all of them are winning tournaments—there is a core down to which Caw-Blade can be distilled.

Here’s a look at those three decks:

These spells can be found in every winning modern Caw-Blade list, no matter what the direction they take the rest of the deck:

Squadron Hawk
Spell Pierce
Mana Leak
Sword of Feast and Famine

With the exception of Dismember, which wasn’t legal way back when, all of these cards have carried over since Caw-Blade’s debut at PT Paris, and all the rest other than Sword were present in the very first incarnation of Caw-Go back at the World Championships last year. More than Jace and Stoneforge ever were, these cards are the heart and soul of Caw-Blade, and these cards are the reason Caw-Blade has continued to dominance.

What makes this mix of cards so powerful? Why have some birds, a few counterspells, and a piece of equipment dominated Standard in such a way for so long?

When you’re playing against Caw-Blade, do you ever feel like it’s incredibly hard to get ahead? And even when you do, your advantage is always a tenuous one because there’s always something they could draw to get back in the game, like a Day of Judgment or Timely Reinforcements or Gideon Jura. They seem to have all the answers to even your deck’s most powerful starts, and slowly but surely the game slips away.

The secret to Caw-Blade’s success is rooted in the fundamental resource systems of Magic. Better than any other deck in recent history, Caw-Blade is built to make profitable resource exchanges. Whether that resource is cards or mana or life or tempo, the deck has the tools to sculpt the game in its favor from start to finish.

Look at that list again. Mana Leak. Spell Pierce. Squadron Hawk. Sword of Feast and Famine. Dismember. What do all of these cards have in common? They may look like a motley crew, but they share a very important trait. They are all capable of creating resource advantages.

Everyone knows about card advantage. The first and most basic resource of Magic, cards are the fundamental units of the game. More cards equals more options. Card advantage is the first concept that any even semi-competitive player learns. It’s better to kill a creature with a Doom Blade than two Lightning Bolts. It’s better to kill two creatures with Day of Judgment than one. Eventually, the player gaining such an advantage will have cards left while his opponent has nothing and ought to be able to easily win from there.

The ways in which Caw Blade generates card advantage are obvious. Any time a Squadron Hawk trades with an opposing creature or gets killed by a removal spell or countered after fetching up buddies. Any time an equipped creature connects with Sword of Feast and Famine—all of these are examples of card advantage. And, while card advantage like this adds up over time, it’s hardly the end all, be all that Brian Weissman would have had us believe back in 1995.

The more important kind of advantage that Caw-Blade generates is mana advantage. Everyone knows about the card and mana advantages provided by connecting with Sword of Feast and Famine, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The mana advantages that Caw-Blade generates are highlighted in what I feel is the deck’s most iconic card outside of its namesakes: Spell Pierce. Spell Pierce was the card that really turned me on to the original Caw-Blade deck. Back then, if you can believe it, Spell Pierce wasn’t so widely adopted as a maindeck card. It was generally thought of as a singleton or two-of for the sideboard, a kind of “gotcha” card to fight counter wars between control decks.

When I was debating playing Caw-Go at Worlds, one of my big concerns was that I’d lose a lot of my edge once word got out about my deck and the fact that I was playing Spell Pierce. But then I kept testing games with the rest of the team who were playing around Spell Pierce every game, and yet I was still winning, and Spell Pierce was still good even when they knew I had it.

The power of Spell Pierce in Caw-Go, and then in Caw-Blade, was the fact that it put opponents in largely untenable positions. If you’re on the draw, and they play a Squadron Hawk on turn two, and then another on turn three leaving one blue open, what are you going to do? Sit there and wait until you have the extra two mana to pay? You’ve got a pair of Hawks pecking away at you, with more waiting in the wings, and if you wait until you can pay for Spell Pierce you might get Mana Leaked or even double Spell Pierced if you leave three mana open for that.

Spell Pierce generates mana advantages whether you play into it or not. If you just say go on your first few turns to avoid getting Spell Pierced, you’re giving up the use of your mana on those turns and falling behind. If you go ahead and cast your Cultivate, or your Jace, or your Garruk or whatever, and you get Spell Pierced, you’ve just traded your entire turn’s worth of mana for one mana of your opponent’s—your opponent who, by the way, has been free to develop his own board every turn, barring leaving a single mana open for Pierce, whether he has it or not.

Spell Pierce is perhaps the most oppressive card in all of Caw-Blade. We talked a lot about “The Jace Test” over the past year or so, but we haven’t said much of about The Spell Pierce Test. Spell Pierce has a similar impact on spells that Jace had on creatures, except Jace had an upper limit on the creatures that it punished. But Spell Pierce knows no such bounds. Spell Pierce can counter everything from Preordain to Karn and does so almost always at a profit. Once you started getting into the realm of Titans with enters the battlefield triggers, even Jace was ill-equipped to handle them—of course, that’s where Mana Leak came in.

The one-two punch of Spell Pierce and Mana Leak makes playing against Caw Blade extremely difficult to do correctly, since you’re often in a situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Playing your spells before you can pay often gets them countered, but waiting gives the Caw-Blade player more time to develop and even draw into a second copy of the counter to make your patience all for naught.

And the Caw-Blade player can afford to make poor exchanges on the card advantage front to press mana advantages because so many of the other cards in the deck naturally provide card advantage. Who cares if you have to Spell Pierce a removal spell twice if it means you’re connecting with a Sword of Feast and Famine? What does it matter that you “wasted” a Mana Leak to force your opponent to tap out if it means you get to resolve a Consecrated Sphinx? And sure, you’ll end up with dead copies of Spell Pierce in your hand against some opponents, but those same opponents are the ones who you crush with Day of Judgment, Gideon, and Timely Reinforcements anyway.

That last one has been a doozy added to Caw-Blade’s arsenal. In the pre-Batterskull days, one resource Caw-Blade often had difficulty managing was its life total. Aggressive mono-red decks could put the Caw-Blade player on his heels quickly and, barring an unanswered Kor Firewalker, end the game in short order. Not so anymore. Timely Reinforcements is not only better than Kor Firewalker against red decks, since it doesn’t need to be in the opening hand to have an impact, but also provides Caw-Blade an incredibly powerful tool against any kind of aggressive decks it might run into, red or otherwise.

The most important new weapon Caw-Blade has gained, however, is Dismember. I’ve talked at length about how I feel that Dismember was a huge mistake to print, and I feel like the Caw-Blade dominance we’ve seen of late is exactly why. If you were building a deck to beat Caw-Blade in its heyday, what kind of cards did you look to? Cheap utility creatures, like Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman, because they could come down under countermagic, and U/W decks lacked efficient ways to deal with them. We saw any number of Shaman/Vengevine brews that allegedly matched up well against Caw-Blade, and GP Dallas showed the power of Lotus Cobra, with four RUG decks leaning on the mythic snake to split the Top 8 slots with Caw-Blade.

Nowadays we see none of that, and you don’t even hear that kind of talk, because Dismember has turned utility creatures from a severe liability for Caw-Blade into a mere nuisance. Sure, cards like Oust gave U/W a fighting chance against Lotus Cobra and friends before, but Oust was narrow enough to generally reside in the sideboard. On top of that, it was a sorcery, so Ousting a Cobra before it could get online in the first few turns generally meant leaving down your countermagic shields for a turn and potentially exposing yourself to threats.

With Dismember, none of that is the case. It’s powerful enough to see play in maindecks everywhere, serving as an answer to not only Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman but Hero of Bladehold and Phyrexian Obliterator (to say nothing of Phyrexian Crusader and Vatmother—RIP Infect). On top of that, the fact that it’s an instant means that the Caw-Blade player can kill your turn-two utility creature and have mana up to counter your next play even on the draw.

Dismember is the absolute perfect card for Caw-Blade. It filled a gaping hole the deck had in terms of capacity, providing it with much-needed creature removal. Not only that, it gave Caw-Blade access to the absolute most efficient creature removal available, giving a deck full of cards that already generate advantageous resource exchanges the ability to solve its most glaring problem at a profit. Sure, Dismember costs four life to play, but that’s a bargain for a deck that can easily chump with a Hawk here or there and especially cheap in the world of Timely Reinforcements.

Dismember is the Spell Pierce of creature removal. It punishes opponents for bothering to play “interesting” creatures, meaning anything whose job isn’t just to attack or that isn’t monstrous enough to survive getting -5/-5. Its omnipresence in the format has much the same impact as Jace, except more subtlety—play with Goblin Guides or play with Titans, or expect to see every creature you play chopped into itty bitty bits for the low, low price of a single mana.

So how do we fight back against a deck that is so well positioned to win the resource fight on every front? How can we stop Squadron Hawk’s reign of terror?

We attack them in ways that don’t allow them to exploit their resource edges. This was my goal way back when with U/B Infect. Caw-Blade was well equipped to fight a lot of battles, but it was poorly set up to deal with Contagion Clasps refilling Tumble Magnets and slowly proliferating them to death. I was able to take the threat of an endless stream of Sworded hawks off the table by relying on Magnet rather than removal and circumvented their creature defense by getting in a single hit and leaning on it rather than trying to fight through Gideon.

Just how successful my plan was back then was debatable, but the lesson lies in the method—minimizing the strength of the tools at Caw-Blade’s disposal.

Doing that these days is quite difficult, as Caw-Blade has so many of the bases covered. Do we try to play aggressively to make the life loss from Dismember really hurt, or do we build toward a trump that can ignore the life gain and creatures from Timely Reinforcements? So many of the demands Caw-Blade places upon its opponents pull in opposing directions.

One of the most important things we can do, I think, is ensure that Spell Pierce isn’t good against us. As mentioned above, Spell Pierce is one of the most powerful weapons in Caw-Blade’s arsenal, and one of the best things we can do to fight them is minimize its effectiveness against us. As powerful as cards like Tezzeret or Garruk and the like might be, having them in your deck against Caw-Blade often feels like a liability, since they often just sit in your hand because your opponent is representing Spell Pierce. Remember when Caw-Blade made up 75% of the SCG Open Top 8s (no, not last week, I mean the LAST time it was doing that…) and Edgar Flores went so far as to cut Gideon from his deck? That’s the kind of respect you have to have for Spell Pierce if you want to take down Caw-Blade.

On the flip side, you have to respect Day of Judgment as well. Just because Day has fallen out of favor as a maindeck card in some Caw-Blade lists doesn’t mean you can just play mono-creatures and expect to never get Wrathed. You need to have a plan to fight through Day, whether it’s Vengevine or Bloodghast or something similar.

Speaking of Bloodghast… check out Matt Landstrom recent Vampires list:

Resilience to Spell Pierce…check. Aggressive position to punish Dismember…check. Trump for Timely Reinforcements…how’s Hero of Oxid Ridge sound? Hero also serves double duty at keeping Squadron Hawks and Spellskites out of the way of your attacking Vampires. Bloodghast teams up with the hasty Hero to recover from Wrath effects, as well.  

I haven’t played this list, so I can’t say for sure whether it’s something I’d recommend, but it’s an example of identifying the right problems and asking the right questions, and if nothing else it’s a good place to start.

As for me…I’ve got something spicy up my sleeve for Nationals that I built using the exact process I’m talking about here. What is it? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see…

Until next time,