The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Modern And Breaking Blades

What’s it like to have every Caw-Blade player fear getting paired against you? Brian Kibler gives you a taste, as well as his opinion on the new Modern format for the Pro Tour.

Last Thursday, I was sitting in my living room playing big screen Magic Online with Matt Sperling and my roommate Jeff when my phone buzzed to let me know I had a new email. I looked down and saw a message from none other than Scott Larabee with a title that was quite the attention grabber.

“IMPORTANT: Pro Tour Philadelphia format change”

I had gotten wind at Gen Con that some players had been talking to Scott about potentially using Modern for the PT format, but I came away from my brief conversation with the man himself under the impression that it was extremely unlikely that anything would change. So much for us pros having insider information!

My feelings opening that email were a mixture of surprise and excitement, and that excitement only increased when I followed the link to Tom LaPille article detailing the format’s banned list. While some players have expressed their displeasure at the wide reaching (and in some cases seemingly scattershot and haphazard) banned list, I think the combination of the banned list and the eleventh-hour format change shows that Wizards very much wants to avoid Modern turning into yet another format dominated by cards and decks that people are sick of already.

This, I think, was the real death knell for four-year Extended—fatigue. The idea behind it was sound—make it so people can still play their old Standard decks in Extended without getting laughed out of the room—but in reality what it did was just make for another format that would have all the Faeries, Jund, and Caw-Blade decks you’d grown to hate over the previous few Standard seasons. Sure, you could play your Kithkin deck, but it was never really that good anyway (really, Cedric, it wasn’t), and it was just going to get eaten up by the turbo-boosted versions of the decks you already had trouble with in Standard.

Given that Wizards went to such extreme lengths to end the reign of Caw-Blade, banning two cards—including the flagship mythic planeswalker that had gained the mystique of a modern-day Black Lotus—it makes sense that they’d do what they could to make sure that those bans actually did what they were supposed to do. If Philly had been Extended, and Jace/Stoneforge decks dominated yet another major tournament, players would likely feel that fatigue all over again.

So what did Wizards do? Not only did they change the format, but they nipped all of the oppressive decks from the past few years of Standard and Extended right in the bud. Sick of playing against Stoneforge? Don’t worry, he’s banned! Hate Faeries? Bitterblossom is banned! Jace got you down? Banned! Valakut? Banned! Dredge? Banned! Banned banned banned banned banned!

I love the bannings. I love the fact that this is actually looking to be a new format, rather than simply a collection of old decks battling it out with the best utility spells from each era replacing whatever old and busted versions they were using in their day. With most of the most powerful, most oppressive strategies defanged, we can see a format full of sweet new decks, running the gamut of beatdown, combo, and control.

Oh, and my entire PT Austin deck is legal. Tee hee hee.

I haven’t done a ton of work on Modern yet, but starting this Friday, I’m going to be holed up in a cabin in the mountains of Pennsylvania with LSV, Brad Nelson, PV, and company until the Grand Prix, and we’re going to spend pretty much all of our waking hours brewing and battling. I’m excited to see what we come up with.

And no, I’m not telling.

What I will talk about is Standard. This past weekend, I played in the TCGPlayer Championship event. I hadn’t planned on going because I didn’t think I was qualified, but I found out that I had enough points from an event I played out in Cali that I only needed to scrape together a few more from the grinders in order to play. I felt like I couldn’t leave that kind of money on the table—the prize purse was the biggest awarded in Magic history outside of a Pro Tour—so I used some of my plentiful frequent flier miles to book a last-minute ticket and made my way there.

On top of the prize money, I just wanted to play Magic! I really enjoyed the Standard deck I’d played at Nationals, and I felt like I was on to something, but just hadn’t quite gotten all of the details right. The overall shell of the deck was working, but some of the specific card choices left me wanting in certain matchups.

At Nationals, I finished an unexciting 4-4 in Standard, losing to U/B control, Esper Persecutor, and Mono Red twice. I knew coming in that my deck was somewhat weak to Mono Red, but didn’t expect there to be much of it in the field thanks to the ubiquity of Timely Reinforcements. I don’t know what the metagame breakdown actually looked like, but there was enough of it that I suffered for my dismissal of it.

I expected the field of the $75K Championships to be a bit more aggro heavy, so I wanted to be prepared; that said, I knew that most of the top players would come sporting Caw-Blade, so I didn’t want to bias my deck choice too much against aggro. That meant that I was perfectly happy to play Blade Breaker again, but would have to do some tinkering to improve the matchups against Mono Red and Vampires, which I expected to be the most popular choices among players looking to go beatdown.

Here’s what I played:

As you can see, all of the cards in the main deck are the same—only the numbers are different. I cut a Manic Vandal because Tempered Steel is on the decline, and Spellskite has somewhat fallen out of favor in Caw-Blade decks since Nationals. I still like them as an answer to Birthing Pod, Shrines, and opposing Swords, but they’re certainly the card closest to the chopping block in the main deck. I really like having a cheap answer to Pod, and it’s almost never that bad against anyone, but I could certainly see cutting the Vandal completely at some point. I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet, though.

I added a Goblin Ruinblaster and a Thrun. Both are generally solid creatures that are especially good against Caw-Blade and U/B Control, the former of which I knew would be out in force and the latter I expected to grow in popularity due to Ali Aintrazi victory at Nationals. Like Vandal, these are cards that range from decent to spectacular, and both are capable of singlehandedly winning games while performing reasonably well against pretty much every opponent. These numbers can easily be shifted around to adapt to a local metagame depending on what you expect to see.

I’d briefly tried the deck without Inferno Titan, but I missed him when he was gone. Having a huge threat you can draw into can win you games that nothing else can—sometimes even Thrun with a Sword isn’t big enough. I did want to cut down the curve of the deck somewhat to speed it up, so I felt like I couldn’t afford to keep all four slimes along with the Titan; one slime had to go. I found the way I was losing most often was just to having slow draws, and an abundance of high-cost spells was the prime cause of that.

The other cause was my mana base. As a solo project, the deck hasn’t undergone the rigorous testing that gets the mana base perfectly right, so I’m still tinkering with it. I cut a Raging Ravine and a Rootbound Crag to reduce the number of draws that stalled due to an excess of enters the battlefield tapped lands, and I added one of each basic land. I also shifted my fetchland count from 3/3 to 4/2 in favor of Misty Rainforest since the deck needs early green mana more than early red.

The sideboard is the home of the most changes. I pared my Naturalize effects down to two and cut Flame Slash entirely. My theory with Flame Slash before was that it was a removal spell that was good against everything from Tempered Steel to Valakut, but Tempered Steel is disappearing and Valakut is even cutting Battlements, so I wanted a higher impact card in its place. The obvious choice was Obstinate Baloth, since it provides much needed life and a large body against both Red and Vampires. It’s also a fine card to bring in against Tempered Steel, since you’d rather have a creature that gives you some life and can block Memnite with Steel in play than a Hero of Oxid Ridge any day. It’s possible I want a fourth Baloth, depending on how the metagame shapes up, but I’d probably have to cut a Garruk for one next, and I like the planeswalker as a long game plan against any other creature deck.

I also added Act of Aggression, in part due to the rise of Valakut again and in part because of Patrick Chapin RUG Pod deck. Basically, if anyone is going to play an Inferno Titan against me, I want to be able to smash them in the face with it. This deck is quite explosive—much more so than it looks like on the surface—and a single attack from a stolen Titan can often steal the game. It also doubles as somewhat expensive Splinter Twin hate, which I lost a bit of when I cut the second Nature’s Claim.

The tournament did not go as well as I might have liked. I took a loss in the first round to a four-color Birthing Pod deck that beat me with Lotus Cobra into Skinrender on my Lotus Cobra in game one, and then a sequence that included casting Skinrender, Deceiver Exarch, and Emeria Angel in game three (all without a single non-basic land!). That meant I was fighting my way up from the bottom tables all tournament and doomed to lose any tiebreaker battles to the many players in the event who were fortunate enough to come in with byes—for the record, three byes (which was the maximum number awarded) are far too valuable in a nine-round event. Compare that to a Grand Prix, where players receive three byes in a sixteen-round tournament—the impact is simply massively higher, and byes are already awesome to have in Grand Prix.

Anyway, I managed to win my next five rounds (two on Saturday night, three on Sunday) against Eldrazi Green, Vampires, and three Caw-Blade decks, before I made a crucial error in judgment in game three of my seventh match—incidentally, also against Caw-Blade.  

I was on the play with a hand of four land, Hero of Oxid Ridge, Goblin Ruinblaster, and Acidic Slime. Not a particularly good hand, since it can’t start applying any kind of pressure early and is particularly vulnerable to countermagic due to having all expensive threats. I drew another Hero while my opponent just played out lands and passed.

When it came around to my fourth turn, I decided to play a Hero, with the reasoning that because my hand was so slow I needed my land destruction effects to resolve to keep my opponent from getting to Consecrated Sphinx. I played the Hero; he Dismembered it and took his turn. I then played another Hero (with the same justification in mind), which hit him down to 12 and died to Gideon Jura.

My reasoning in this spot was, put simply, terrible. My draw was pretty weak, and what I should have done was recognize that I needed to just hope that my land destruction resolved. Not only did I give my opponent more “outs” to my draw, by letting him effectively cancel my turn with Dismember and then Gideon (at a profit, no less), but I also reduced the effectiveness of my land destruction effects when I did play them, since my opponent was already sitting pretty with five lands and a Gideon in play. I went on to lose that game in extremely close fashion, but would have won convincingly if I’d just hoped for the best and tried for Ruinblaster on turn four.

After that, I was out of Top 8 contention. I won my next round, then looked at the standings and realized I was probably fighting for 17th even with a win thanks to my terrible round one loss tiebreakers, so I offered a draw, which my last round opponent accepted. I ended up finishing 25th, good for $750, which isn’t a bad weekend, but certainly wasn’t what I was hoping for when first place gets twenty grand.

So yeah—without that huge error on my part, I would have been within striking distance of Top 8 of the event and would have beaten every Caw-Blade deck I played against. I’m happy with how the deck performed—just not how I did. If you’re looking for a sweet one to bring to SCG Boston this weekend or GP Pittsburgh coming up, give it a spin. If nothing else, it’s funny to hear every Caw-Blade player in the room talk about how much they hope they don’t get paired against you…

Until next time,