1st, 6th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 16th.
Those are the top finishes of players running Caw-Blade at PT Paris. With three rounds to go, five copies of the deck were in contention for Top 8. Two
of them were knocked out in the mirror match. The deck’s only loss in the elimination rounds was also to the mirror. To say the deck had a
dominant performance at the Pro Tour would be an understatement.
For reference, Ben Stark’s winning decklist:
It’s obvious that this list is derived from the skeleton of Caw-Go, which was – not surprisingly – the deck I focused on most during
playtesting. Early on, I was just playing my SCG Open: San Jose list card for card, and it was performing well against most of our gauntlet. People
were giving me hell about pushing the deck so much, to which I simply responded, “Just beat me.” It didn’t happen much, but other
people still weren’t really getting on board.
The first real spark of interest I saw was from Josh Utter-Leyton. I was talking about possible sideboard cards and mentioned that I thought Stoneforge
Mystic seemed really powerful against other control decks. I’d seen Michael Hetrick playing Stoneforge plus Sword of Body and Mind in his
sideboard in San Jose and thought that the idea had a lot of potential, especially with the addition of Sword of Feast and Famine from Mirrodin
Besieged. Josh seemed genuinely intrigued by the idea but spent most of his time when we were still in San Diego focused on Elves.
As an aside, I think this kind of playtesting – that is, having individual players essentially “champion” certain decks – is a
really effective method to produce quality results. All too often, a group of players will spend much of their testing invested in the same deck, and
their results tend to be biased toward that deck because the other test decks aren’t appropriately tuned and updated and often aren’t
piloted well during the actual games. The best test groups, in my mind, are those that have a diverse range of play styles and viewpoints and can
produce a number of different quality decks. Having people mostly on the same page in the final days of testing is important, but if everyone wants to
play the same deck from the beginning, it’s likely the team will miss important developments for other decks in the field.
By the time we got to Paris, though, other people started to get on board with Caw-Go. On our first full day there, I walked over to the hotel where
most of the crew was staying and ran into Brad Nelson smoking outside. He told me that Wrapter had taken the Stoneforge-Sword idea and moved it into
the maindeck, and so far it had been testing very well.
At first, I was skeptical of the idea. I wasn’t sure what could actually be cut from the maindeck to make room for the equipment package.
I’d already shaved down the removal to the bare minimum, and all of the countermagic and Spreading Seas seemed essential to beating Valakut. I
tried the list with a few Mystics and a single Sword at first, cutting one Seas and the two Elspeths, and played a bunch of games against Matt Sperling
playing Eldrazi Green.
Those games were incredibly eye opening about the power of Stoneforge/Sword. Previously, matchups like Eldrazi Green and Valakut had been long battles
of disruption and attrition in which you’d look for windows to slip a Gideon into play so you could win with a few attacks with the planeswalker
plus a Colonnade.
Stoneforge completely changed the dynamic of the matchup. Rather than playing a control game in which you had to answer the trump cards from the ramp
decks, suddenly Stoneforge/Sword put you into the role of the aggressor. Your opponent was on a clock, and a fast one at that, as you tore apart his
hand with the Sword and got double use from your mana every turn. Where before you had to choose between tapping out for Jace or Gideon and keeping
counter mana up, now you could simply do both.
Perhaps equally as exciting as the impact on the game-one matchup was how well positioned the Stoneforge plan was against the expected Valakut
sideboard cards. The pre-MBS plan against Valakut was to cut Squadron Hawks and add extra countermagic, but that was a pretty awkward plan in a world
where Thrun and Gaea’s Revenge were likely to be coming in against you. Stoneforge not only let you take a proactive stance against Valakut after
sideboarding, but adding Sword of Body and Mind to the mix let you generate blockers that could easily handle Thrun – with protection from green
on both offense and defense, to boot.
Stoneforge plus Swords gave the deck everything we wanted against Valakut and other control decks, and we kept increasing the number of Mystics in the
deck, but I was never quite happy playing four of them because we didn’t have a particularly good equipment to fetch against beatdown decks.
We’d started with Bonehoard, which underperformed dramatically, and moved to Mortarpod, which was okay but underwhelming. I was in the middle of
playing a set of sideboarded games against Vampires when David Ochoa suggested Sylvok Lifestaff, and I knew instantly that it was what we were looking
With both Sword of Feast and Famine and Sylvok Lifestaff in the deck, you wanted to draw Stoneforge Mystic against every opponent, and you were never
really unhappy to draw multiples. Against Valakut or control decks, either they killed your first Mystic or the game was pretty much over, and in
either case, the second Mystic didn’t hurt. Against beatdown decks, you always wanted to fetch Lifestaff, and once you had Lifestaff, each
additional Mystic you drew meant another creature that could trade and buy you time with life gain.
Ultimately, the cards that came out for the Mystic package compared to the San Jose version of Caw-Go were the Spreading Seas and the Elspeths. I was
hesitant about cutting the Seas, but they were really the only way to get the full four Mystics in the deck, and the package was so powerful against
Valakut that the change certainly didn’t hurt the matchup overall. That being said, the change definitely changed the way the matchup plays out
and dramatically impacts the sort of hands that you could safely keep against Valakut.
Previously, you could keep just about any hand with a decent mix of mana and countermagic, since your goal was to disrupt your opponent’s
acceleration and land a planeswalker to help take control of the game. You could afford to tap out for Gideon and let a Primeval Titan hit, since you
could kill it and deal with the leftover Valakuts with Edge and Seas. Now, your hands with Stoneforge Mystic are much more powerful than anything the
deck could do before, but you’re much more reliant on being able to stop Primeval Titan from hitting play, since you only have Tectonic Edge to
deal with Valakuts. Your best draws are much better against them, but you’re much more reliant on the specific contents of your opening hand than you
used to be.
The sideboard was built primarily to address weaknesses to aggressive decks. While the maindeck was certainly capable of winning games against
beatdown, with nine counters, it was primarily tuned against control and Valakut. I identified Oust early on as the removal spell we wanted to start
with, since it was effective at stopping both aggressive creatures and utility creatures like Lotus Cobra or Fauna Shaman. With the Mystics in the
deck, the one-mana cost was even more important than before, since you’d more often be using all of your mana on turn 2 for a Mystic or a Hawk
and more often would have one leftover mana on turn 3 after activating Mystic to put an equipment into play.
Ratchet Bomb was something of a necessary evil. It’s not a card that shines against decks like Boros or Vampires but is the absolute best card
against Kuldotha Red, which was a very difficult matchup. It’s also a solid card against Quest decks, which are also very hard to beat in game
one. The Baneslayer/Elspeth slot was one that people filled differently, with Elspeth being much better against Vampires but with Baneslayer shining
against Boros, Mono-Red, and Vengevine decks. I played one Baneslayer and one Elspeth, while Ben Stark went with just two Baneslayers, and Tom Martell
cut one of the anti-control cards to fit two Elspeths and one Baneslayer, though I think adding three five-drops to the deck against beatdown seems
like a bit much. You can’t really bring in everything against every deck, either – after the first nine cards (the nine counters),
you’re replacing good cards against beatdown, so jamming your sideboard full of anti-beatdown cards doesn’t even buy you that much more
The last card to get added to the sideboard was Divine Offering. The night before the PT, there were rumors going around that the Japanese had bought
out all of the Swords of Feast and Famine from the dealers. We knew some people were playing Tempered Steel decks, and Tezzeret was sure to be popular.
I decided that I wanted a way to deal with all of these, and Divine Offering fit the bill. It was hard to get others on board at first, and I had to
argue to convince anyone that we’d even want one copy, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and by the morning, everyone was on
board with two copies, and by the end of the tournament, most people were wishing they had more.
Here were my basic sideboard plans, with the caveat that all of them are subject to on-the-fly adjustments based on the specific contents of my
Vs. Valakut with Lotus Cobra
It’s extremely important to contain Lotus Cobras against the more explosive Valakut builds, and Oust is a great way to do it. You can’t
have too many anti-creature cards against them, so even though Day is an effective card in the matchup overall (and especially good if it’s
killing Cobra as well), it’s more important to keep their mana pinned down and keep them from casting their big threats by Ousting Cobra early.
Vs. Boros (with Stoneforge/equipment)
This is the sideboard plan BenS and I decided he should use in the finals against Rietzl, and I think it’s solid. We discussed the possibility of
bringing in Flashfreeze to stop Koth and Hero of Oxid Ridge (the latter of which is by far the biggest problem card in the matchup) but decided that
being stuck with counters in hand in a matchup where you really want to tap out every turn is too big of a cost, and it’s better to just hope
they don’t draw their two-ofs and fight against the rest of their deck.
On the draw:
The mirror is mostly about containing your opponent’s Swords and winning the planeswalker fight. On the draw, the three-mana counters can be too
unwieldy to use effectively, and you need to be able to answer your opponent’s Mystic before it gets out of hand, so Ratchet Bomb gives you some
extra leeway at beating your opponent’s best hands when you’re on the draw.
Pretty straightforward – cut the counters; add the removal and the five-drop trumps. Baneslayer is at its worst against Vampires, so you need to
be careful when you play it so you don’t just walk into a Gatekeeper or Go for the Throat. Try to protect it with a Squadron Hawk for sacrifice
fodder at least.
I haven’t given a ton of thought to updating the deck after the Pro Tour, but the biggest new consideration is fighting the mirror and playing
against opponents who are ready to deal with equipment. Valakut decks with Nature’s Claim or Acidic Slime are clearly much harder to beat –
even decks with Lightning Bolt can be annoying, since they can keep you from getting Mystic online quickly. One card that comes to mind is Sun Titan,
since it can fight against removal for your equipment and can also provide solid value on its own. I’d definitely consider it for the sideboard,
if not for a slot in the maindeck.
If you’re looking to beat Caw-Blade, it’s important to approach it from the correct direction. Fighting the Stoneforge/Sword package only
addresses part of what the deck is doing – you have to remember that you’re playing against U/W Control, as well. For a deck like Valakut,
some number of Nature’s Claims is a solid option, since Sword of Feast and Famine is the real problem card, but overloading on Divine Offering
effects in the mirror match can leave you looking foolish against Squadron Hawks and planeswalkers.
The decks that give Caw-Blade the most trouble are those that present threats that none of the equipment plans readily solve. The toughest matchup I
found in testing was Elves. Both Ezuri and Vengevine make Day of Judgment an unexciting answer much of the time, and both can push through Gideon in a
single attack with relative ease. Of course, if Elves really explodes in popularity, Caw-Blade can always sideboard a full set of Baneslayer Angels or
even Linvala, so I wouldn’t count it out just yet.
Caw-Blade is sure to be the new face of Standard over the next few months. Learn to play it, or learn to beat it, because it’s here to stay.