The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Paris in Full Swing

Friday, February 11 – Brian Kibler, designer of Caw-Go, discusses his preparations for Pro Tour Paris and the fast evolution of the Standard metagame, including his version of Tempered Steel.

I’m writing this at half past midnight on Monday night, though I suppose that technically makes it Tuesday. My body doesn’t agree about
that little detail, since it seems to think it’s still 3:30 in the afternoon. I arrived in Paris yesterday morning after an overnight flight on
which I slept for maybe a few hours and struggled to stay up until 8 pm in order to avoid jetlag, completely ruining my sleep schedule. Apparently, my
efforts were in vain.

Jetlag has always been a major issue for me when competing in European events. Prior to PT Amsterdam, I had never made money in a European Pro Tour or
Grand Prix, let alone made it to the Top 8. When I was playing years ago, I was in school, so I didn’t have the luxury of being able to come out
early and adjust to the time change, but even with my much more flexible schedule these days, it’s been a challenge to be on top of my game at
European events. At Worlds two years ago in Rome, I felt like I could have won virtually every match I’d played if I had been just a bit more
awake and alert, so the expense of coming out a bit early is certainly worth the potential dividends.

We’re making great use of our time here, too. With all of the information from the SCG Indy Open, we’ve been able to kick our playtesting
into high gear for the final stretch. In the week prior to leaving for Paris, pretty much the entire crew I’ve been testing with was in San
Diego, staying at a beach house Gabe Walls was renting for the month. I was driving back and forth from the house to my apartment so I could keep up
with work at my other job (Ascension fans – the first expansion is complete and should be on the shelves in the next few months!), but the rest
of the squad – Brad Nelson, EFro, LSV, Conley, Wrapter, Ochoa, and Owen Turtenwald – was staying there and gaming (and durdling) until all
hours of the night.

We knew Indy would do quite a bit to shape the PT Paris metagame, so our Constructed testing during that week was mostly trying out new deck ideas
against Level One – Valakut. For those who don’t understand the terminology, “Level One” is a name given to a deck that is such
a big and important part of the metagame that it’s essential for decks to have at least a passable matchup against it for them to be worth
considering at all – i.e. if they can’t get past Level One, they don’t get to play anymore.

Valakut is a particularly unforgiving Level One deck. It has an extremely powerful proactive plan, as well as access to some brutally powerful
sideboard cards. It’s also a lot less predictable than it used to be. One big question early in our testing was just what Valakut decks would
look like in Paris. At Worlds, the big question was “Lightning Bolt or Pyroclasm,” but now there are any number of directions people can
take Valakut. Green Sun’s Zenith, Summoning Trap, or both? If they play Zenith, what bullet creatures do they play? Removal heavy or built to race?
Cultivate or Lotus Cobra? Certain builds can have wildly varied matchups against some decks, and it’s hard to predict exactly what plan will be
most popular.

One of the first decks I put together to try out was a Tempered Steel deck not too far off from the one I posted in my article last week. Here’s
what I was playing:

The deck was quite explosive and posted solid results against some versions of Valakut simply by measure of how quickly it could come out the gate. On
more than one occasion, I managed to kill my opponent on turn 3, courtesy of turn 1 Mox Opal and three artifact creatures followed up by turn 2
Tempered Steel. Glint Hawk Idol was actually much more impressive than he looks, since a Tempered Steel or a few Steel Overseer activations brought him
out of Lightning Bolt range and made him exceptionally difficult for most decks to deal with, thanks to evasion combined with the ability to dodge mass
removal. Lodestone Golem could significantly slow the opponent down, giving your army of robots time to beat them about the head and shoulders.

While the deck was capable of some incredibly potent draws, it was also remarkably inconsistent and extremely vulnerable to removal. While Tempered
Steel could get your creatures out of Pyroclasm range, Slagstorm could still kill many of them, and relying on Steel Overseer as one of your crusade
effects could leave you with a board of wimpy creatures if they killed it. Contested War Zone definitely showed promise, as did Signal Pest, but
neither of them seemed to be the perfect fit, since they both shine most when combined with cards that independently generate more than one creature.
Cue foreshadowing.

We went through a bunch more decks that failed the Level One test, including many versions of Tezzeret. Our most successful Tezzeret deck focused on
the artifact infect creatures, hoping to animate them to kill the opponent in two attacks. It was a reasonable plan and met with some success, but we
found that the Tezzeret decks in general suffered from the problem of being too reliant on the planeswalker. They were passable – or even
powerful – in the games where they drew and successfully played Tezzeret, but in the games that they did not, the decks suffered greatly by
playing a huge number of suboptimal cards. Plague Myr and Necropede are scary when they’re 5/5, but they’re not going to kill anyone on
their own, and the deck relied heavily on the assumption that Valakut decks would not have any kind of instant speed removal, which – while
plausible – didn’t seem so cut and dry that I’d want to bank on it.

Then came SCG Indy. Two notable things came out of that event for our testing. First, Valakut is still Level One despite Mirrodin Besieged, with the
deck making up a full third of the Top 16. Second, aggro decks are back in full force, with some important new players to keep in mind.

We’d been messing around with Kuldotha Red a bit in our testing and had certainly seen the power of Contested War Zone and Goblin Wardriver, but
we weren’t sure how much it was going to catch on in the real world. Then Gerry not only wrote about it in his article last week but posted about
it on his blog and played it in the tournament.

Gerry is in an interesting position to be hugely influential on any given tournament. As one of the top deckbuilders in the game over the past year or
so, Gerry has proven that the decks he produces are ones that should be taken seriously. Gerry is also in the unique situation that he is the only
writer with the sort of chops who actively writes about PT level formats prior to the events. Sure, writers like Chapin and myself will share rough
lists and tease about ideas, but we’re too heavily invested in our own success and the success of our teammates to reveal too much of what
we’re working on. Gerry doesn’t have that same conflict of interest, since he’s not actually attending Paris, so there’s no
reason for him to hold back.

Gerry’s article on Kuldotha Red reminds me a bit of Sean McKeown article many years ago just before PT Tokyo about Invasion Block Constructed
in which he published a R/G beatdown deck that turned out to have a huge impact on the tournament’s metagame – so much so that Zvi won the
event with his U/W “Solution” deck that was tuned specifically to beat it (as well as the B/R decks that made up much of the rest of the
field). I’m sure there are many players out there who may make the switch to Kuldotha Red after giving Gerry’s list some test draws, and
there are certainly a number of players who are pissed that the deck went public before the Pro Tour because they were planning on playing something
like it.

I can tell you from experience – Kuldotha Red is the real deal, and anyone who thinks his or her deck beats it without having played against it
is probably wrong. The deck can regularly kill turn 3 or 4, which can make even Slagstorm too slow to be an answer on the draw. I was playing Caw-Go
against Kuldotha Red when we first got a decent list of it together, and in my first playtest session, I lost 0-10. My draws weren’t great, and
my opponent’s were above average (there’s a reason Brad is going to be Player of the Year!), but ten straight losses is enough to make you
seriously wonder if a matchup is salvageable.

An interesting side effect of the unveiling of Kuldotha Red, along with the general success of aggro decks at SCG Indy, is that the field in Paris is
likely to be much better prepared for fast beatdown strategies. People who were debating whether to play Pyroclasm or Slagstorm in their sideboard may
very well move one to the main and add some extra Obstinate Baloths to their board for good measure. Valakut decks that were previously skimping on
removal may overload on it now. Control decks that were tuned for the mirror may cut some of those Jaces for Ratchet Bombs, Black Sun’s Zenith,
and the like. Despite the fact that aggro decks dominated Indy, that may just mean that control decks are more likely to do well in Paris, if only
because control decks are easier to build when you understand exactly what you need to tune them against.

What am I going to play? Well, by the time you’re reading this, it will be day two of PT Paris, so check out the coverage and find out! I
don’t want to give anything away to opponents of mine who might be similarly stricken with jetlag and looking for something to read in the wee
hours of the morning before the tournament. But come on – take a wild guess.

Until next time,