The Dragonmaster’s Lair – San Diego Testing

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Friday, February 26th – Brian Kibler spent the majority of his testing time searching for the ideal Knight of the Reliquary deck… and then played Patrick Chapin & Company’s U/W Control deck in the main event! Today he discusses his testing process before sharing the highs and lows from the tournament weekend…

Since the full story of my own mediocre performance at Pro Tour: San Diego isn’t an especially exciting one, and since Patrick already went over the deck we played in detail, I’ve decided to use my time this week to discuss the testing process that led up to my personal decision to play U/W Control in the Pro Tour. I’ll also take a look at some of the most interesting and memorable matches and moments of my PT experience — even if I didn’t win, or even do well, my weekend was not completely without tales worth sharing.

My preparation for the Pro Tour began immediately after the Worldwake Prerelease. Both Mark Herberholz and Patrick Chapin came to SoCal early and stayed at the estate of one Daniel Burdick, Esq. We wasted no time in getting down to business. Patrick, of course, was high on Blue, and immediately focused his attention on finding the best deck for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. My own inclination was that Worldwake had tipped the scales such that Knight of the Reliquary was arguably the most powerful creature in Standard, and I went in search of the best Knight deck.

Our testing gauntlet was centered, of course, around Jund. Despite the rise of UWR and Grixis before the release of Worldwake, it was clear that Jund wasn’t going to be giving up its position as top dog any time soon. While it was clear that Jace was going to give Blue decks a boost, the fact that Jund had Bloodbraid Elf and Blightning — the two absolute best tools for fighting against Jace — meant that the rise of Blue decks certainly wasn’t going to hurt the odds-on favorite. And it wasn’t like Worldwake was bereft of new toys for Jund players, either. In particular, the introduction of Raging Ravine improved Jund’s ability to go aggressive out of nowhere and make the incidental damage from Blightning or a few Putrid Leech or Bloodbraid Elf hits matter a great deal. Public enemy number one was well established from the get go.

What was not nearly as established, however, was what the rest of the field would look like. We all agreed that Jund would be the most popular deck, but after that things got a bit hazy. The popularity of Blue control decks prior to the release of Worldwake and the fact that they had gained powerful new cards like Jace and Treasure Hunt led us to believe that UWR and Grixis would make up the next tier of the metagame, but as our testing progressed, we couldn’t find any versions of either of those decks that we liked. Calcite Snapper initially seemed like it would be a star, but proved ineffective at holding off Putrid Leeches and Raging Ravines. Manlands in particular seemed problematic for most of the Blue control decks we built, both in terms of making it difficult to protect Jace and just in the sense that they gave creature decks a much higher density of threats.

It was my feeling that manlands were going to be so important in the Pro Tour that initially led me to focus on Knight of the Reliquary decks. I quickly found that Knights were even better than I’d initially thought. The first build I experimented with was a Bant deck similar to that which Manuel Bucher played at the World Championships last year, though I tinkered with the manabase to fit Jace the Mind Sculptor. I wasn’t thrilled by either the consistency of the mana or the survival rate of my Knights against Lightning Bolts, so I decided to try the deck as mono-color splashing for manlands and Knight so I could safely play more fetch lands. Here are rough approximations of my first few builds:

4 Steppe Lynx
4 Knight of the White Orchid
4 Kor Firewalker
4 White Knight
4 Knight of the Reliquary
3 Emeria Angel
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Oblivion Ring
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Brave the Elements
3 Stirring Wildwood
4 Marsh Flats
4 Arid Mesa
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Forest
1 Tectonic Edge
1 Sejiri Steppe
4 Sunpetal Grove
5 Plains

4 Noble Hierarch
2 Birds of Paradise
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Leatherback Baloth
4 Great Sable Stag
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Master of the Hunt
4 Wolfbriar Elemental
3 Vines of Vastwood
2 Eldrazi Monument
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Stirring Wildwood
1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
1 Tectonic Edge
1 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Stirring Wildwood
4 Sunpetal Grove
5 Forest
1 Sejiri Steppe

I played with each of these decks for a while but wasn’t thrilled with either of them. The Green version was very explosive and could get some sick draws, but had serious problems with opposing permanents, most notably Baneslayer Angel. The White version had solid answers and some powerful cards, but felt like it just had a lot of cards in it that weren’t big threats individually. Even the pro color pair of White Knight and Kor Firewalker often wasn’t enough against Jund, especially if they had something like Garruk to give them green creatures.

What I was happy with in both of the decks was the power of Knight of the Reliquary. Each of the decks was capable of leveraging Knight of the Reliquary very well, though each in somewhat different ways. The ability to protect a powerful creature with Sejiri Steppe — whether the Knight itself or something like Baneslayer Angel — made it extremely hard for an opposing Jund deck to win if you untap with a Knight of the Reliquary in play. Fetching up manlands allowed you to convert every turn with Knight in play into an incremental advantage in threats, and manlands are particularly powerful in an environment likely to be defined by Jace. Searching for Tectonic Edge could either kill your opponent’s manlands or stunt their resource development long enough to give you a chance to press an advantage. All of this, of course, was on top of the fact that you could just search for fetchlands every turn until you ran out of basics and pump your Knight to absolutely astronomical size. With Lotus Cobra, this searching for fetchlands could generate absolutely obscene amounts of mana. All of this for the low, low price of 1GW. How could that not be one of the best cards in the format? My goal became simple — find the best Knight of the Reliquary deck.

I liked the base-White deck’s ability to play Baneslayer Angel, which can simply win games on its own, as well as its ability to play Brave the Elements as a superior way to protect a Knight than Vines of the Vastwood. I also liked having access to an effect like Oblivion Ring. I wasn’t a huge fan of Path to Exile, since we were expecting a significant number of Jace decks against which it would be very weak, and since you really don’t want to Path early against a deck like Jund or Boros and let them get to their bigger, more powerful spells that much faster. I do think that having a way to deal with problematic creatures like Master of the Hunt and opposing Baneslayers is important, however, and a card like Oblivion Ring gives you the ability to remove them while playing double duty as an answer to Jace.

I liked the Green deck’s more explosive potential. Noble Hierarch is a good friend of mine, and Lotus Cobra can just lead to obscene opening draws. I liked Master of the Hunt, and I liked having the mana sink of Wolfbriar Elemental in the mid game, since playing with so many mana creatures can often lead to threat light draws.

From combining the elements of the two decks that I liked, and through many iterations, I eventually came up with this:

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Knight of the Reliquary
2 Dauntless Escort
2 Borderland Ranger
4 Emeria Angel
4 Baneslayer Angel
1 Thornling
2 Elspeth, Knight Errant
4 Maelstrom Pulse
3 Duress
2 Marshal’s Anthem
4 Verdant Catacombs
3 Marsh Flats
2 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Swamp
3 Stirring Wildwood
2 Sunpetal Grove
4 Plains
4 Forest
1 Sejiri Steppe

The Duresses and Dauntless Escorts took over for the Brave the Elements/Vines of Vastwood slots to protect the key creatures in the deck.. At one point the deck had Tidehollow Scullers, though I didn’t like the way they fit on the deck’s curve or increased the colored mana requirements, which at times felt shaky. I think my focus on discard effects was at least somewhat the result of inbred testing against the U/W Control deck we all ended up playing. Still, I felt like Duress was a great way to clear the way for a Knight or Baneslayer against Jund, and won many games on the back of disrupting a Jund deck’s draw and landing a Knight in the clear. Marshall’s Anthem gave a similar late game mana sink as Wolfbriar Elemental, though it was much less impressive than Wolfbriar Elemental unless you’d already had a few powerful creatures go to the yard. Making all of your Emeria Angel tokens into legitimate threats is a big deal, and the jump from ¾ to 4/5 on Stirring Wildwood means that it can fight with Raging Ravine or Broodmate Dragon, which is certainly far from trivial as well.

I tried a bunch more iterations of the deck, but ultimately couldn’t find a version that felt like it had both a significant edge against Jund and that I liked against the control decks in our gauntlet. I think if we hadn’t had the U/W control deck, I would have ended up playing some kind of Knight of the Reliquary deck, but trying to play a G/W creature deck against the U/W deck in playtesting was just miserable. I wanted to pursue both Bant and Naya further than I did, but ultimately just ran out of time. Since I wasn’t happy with any of the decks I’d come up with, jumped on board with Pat’s U/W deck.

Here is the list I ended up playing in the Pro Tour:

The only differences in my list compared to Patrick’s are that I played a second Path to Exile over the Celestial Purge in the main deck, an additional Plains over the fourth Tectonic Edge and that I played a fourth Baneslayer and a second Elspeth in the sideboard over the Plains and single Perimeter Captain. From my testing and observation of games, I’d felt like the deck was somewhat light on White mana and that I really wanted an extra white source in the main deck. I debated cutting either a Tectonic Edge or a Halimar Depths for the additional Plains, and was eventually convinced that Halimar Depths was too important to scripting your early turns and getting value from your Treasure Hunts to go without the full amount. The Purge versus Path was me simply wanting extra answers to Knight of the Reliquary and a cheap way to protect Jace in the early turns. The extra Baneslayer in the sideboard came as a result of discussing our sideboard swaps with Ben Rubin the night before the event and realizing that we wanted Baneslayer against almost everyone, and that Baneslayer was also by far our best card in many of our tougher matchups (aggressive Red decks), so I wanted to maximize my chances of having it when I needed it. The extra Elspeth was there because it was our best card against other control decks as well as a great answer to opposing Elspeths.

Amusingly, my first two rounds of the tournament were actually U/W Control mirrors, though not against any of the people from our testing group. In the first match, I managed to pull out the first game despite falling seriously behind in card advantage from Knight of the White Orchid and having no good answer but to Path them. I actually lost game 2 of the first match with my opponent stalled on two land thanks to a Luminarch Ascension and my draw never giving me a way to get damage through. I won game 3 of that match with only ten minutes on the clock as the game began, and both my opponent and I played extremely quickly so as to avoid going to time. I have to thank my opponent — Geert Bosch — for being a good sport and not slowing down his play at all in the third game when it became clear I was going to win. It would have been very easy for him to drag the game out to time given the nature of the matchup and just how slowly I was getting damage through toward the end.

My second match had an incredibly bizarre game 1. My opponent — again with U/W Control — managed to stick an Elspeth early on thanks to a maindeck Spell Pierce forcing it through my counters. I land a Jace, and I have to use it to bounce an Elspeth token, and am actually forced to Path his tokens twice to keep Jace alive. When his Elspeth reaches eight counters, my opponent chooses to use its ultimate to make his creatures indestructible for the rest of the game and plays a Baneslayer. I bounce and counter the Baneslayer, and then have an Oblivion Ring for the next Baneslayer he plays and start using Jace’s +2 ability to keep him alive against the token assault. Eventually I get up to enough mana that I can start blocking his token with a Colonnade while keeping counter mana up, and eventually I get Jace up to the point that I can ultimate the next turn and my opponent concedes. Interestingly, if he’d just kept using Elspeth to make tokens, I don’t think I could have possibly won the game. Sometimes the ultimate ability is not the best one! The match is somewhat anticlimactic overall, since my opponent mulligans and keeps a land light hand in the second game, and I’m able to leverage my mana advantage to resolve any number of powerful spells and keep him from being able to get back in the game.

My next match was against what looked to be a fairly typical Bant deck at first glance. In the first game my opponent wins the roll and is able to play a fast Elspeth and I am without a counter or Oblivion Ring. I manage to Day of Judgment away his board, but he has more in reserve and I can’t deal with the planeswalker anyway. The second game he has an early Luminarch Ascension, but I’m able to contain it with Celestial Colonnade before it gets active and take control.

The third game is probably the most memorable game of the tournament for me. My opponent opened with a Noble Hierarch and a turn 2 Luminarch Ascension, and then on his third turn he played a second Luminarch Ascension. I had a pair of Oblivion Rings in my hand, so I wasn’t terribly worried, and I removed one of them on my third turn. Then on his fourth turn he played World Queller. Now THAT is a problem. I Oblivion Ringed his World Queller, and he played a Baneslayer Angel. I’m forced to Martial Coup for three and start attacking into his Baneslayer to keep the Ascension from getting online. My opponent had a Stirring Wildwood as well, which I destroyed with Tectonic Edge to keep my damage coming through. I then drew a Jace, which I was able to use to bounce his Baneslayer and keep my tokens getting through. I bounced it again the next turn, bringing my Jace down to one counter, which let him attack and kill it with his Noble Hierarch since I couldn’t hold back a blocker for fear of him chumping and getting his Ascension online. When he replayed the Baneslayer, I had the Essence Scatter, and it looked like I was going to be able to turn the corner and take over the game.

And then he Summoning Trapped.

Into Iona.


I don’t draw another Jace or Mind Control, and the Luminarch Ascensions turned on since I can no longer attack, and the game ended quickly.

I feel okay after the round and joke that I certainly wasn’t expecting to lose to Summoning Trap into Iona in this tournament, and then, of course, I lose the next round in exactly the same fashion. Well, not quite exactly, but I manage to beat a Bant deck in the first game, and then lose the second game to a hard-cast Iona from Knight of the Reliquary/Lotus Cobra mana when I couldn’t stop an early Jace, and then lose the third to a Summoning Trap hitting Iona when my hand was two Oblivion Rings and a Martial Coup — and then as soon as Iona hit play my next two draws were the Negate and Flashfreeze that would have stopped the Trap.


In the fifth round I played against Eric Froehlich playing Conley Woods‘ GRW Knight/LD deck. I lose the first game to turn 3 Ajani Vengeant with no Oblivion Ring in sight, and then win the second when I get to play first and can contain his LD with Flashfreeze and Essence Scatter. I lose the third to all of my Blue sources getting destroyed and eventually die to Acidic Slime beats. I felt like I got pretty unlucky during the match, with none of my Treasure Hunts hitting land in a match where it’s obviously extremely important. On the other hand, I feel like I probably sideboarded somewhat poorly, bringing in a few of my Kor Firewalkers to fight against Ajani, Raging Ravine, and Goblin Ruinblaster when I probably should have just kept Day of Judgment in my deck instead.

I went into the draft needing to 3-0, and found myself sitting at a table at which I recognized all but one person — not exactly the sort of lineup I was hoping to see:

Davis, Jim [USA]
Snepvangers, Bram [NLD]
Orsini Jones, Matteo [ENG]
Woods, Jake [USA]
Oberg, Kenny [SWE]
Kibler, Brian [USA]
Imperiale, Jason [USA]
Jia Ming Tan, Melvin [SGP]

I opened a pack with Plated Geopede and River Boa as the two best cards and decided to take the Boa, knowing that I’d only very rarely seen Jake, a friend seated to my right, draft Green. I took a Welkin Tern out of the second pack, and then a Kazandu Blademaster out of the third, before solidly going into G/W. The Red cards were flowing pretty freely in the mid-late picks, and I was certain that Jason to my left was heavy Red, but I was getting pretty well hooked up with Green and Blue and felt sure that both colors were open to my right and would likely be coming from the other direction as well. I ended up with a very solid, extremely aggressive U/G deck with a great curve backed up by a pair of Whiplash Traps and three Groundswells. I get no chance at any Aether Tradewinds, which was the card I was really hoping for out of Worldwake, but I did get two Wind Zendikons, which — along with my two Welkin Terns — gave me a good deal of evasion to go with my Green ground pounders.

I beat Bram Snepvangers in two rather uneventful games in the sixth round, as his Mono-Black deck just didn’t seem to have much going for it with the exception of two Crypt Rippers. In the seventh round, however, I ran into Jason Imperiale and his Mono-Red deck. I lost the die roll and just ended up falling behind too quickly in the first game and ultimately he finished me off with a Spire Barrage for my life total when it looked like I might stabilize. In the second game, Jason played a Basilisk Collar on the first turn. Oh, that. I actually put up a serious fight despite the fact that he equipped it to a Bladetusk Boar and was draining me for three every turn, and on the last turn before it would kill me I had about five live draws left in my deck to kill him, but it was not to be and my tournament ended then and there. Well, technically they still let me play the last round, which I did (and I won, bringing my record to a stellar 4-4), but without hope of making Day 2 I pretty much checked out mentally.

I went out that night and had a great time on the town and was coming back to the site the next day around noon just intending on drafting all day, when I ran into GerryT on the street near my hotel, who informed me there was a Standard tournament for a bunch of foil sets starting in about an hour. I decided I might as well make good use of my time and play in that event with the same U/W list I’d run in the PT, only swapping an Elspeth in the sideboard for another Essence Scatter in case lots of people decided to play Ranger of Eos Naya decks. I went 7-0 in that tournament before conceding to Michael Hebky in the last round because I was starving and hadn’t had a chance to eat all day, and then convinced the Top 4 to agree to sell the sets to a dealer and split the money so I could actually go eat.

All told, I had a good time at the Pro Tour, though I certainly would have preferred to have done better. I felt like our deck was certainly among the best in the event, and think that if I’d gotten slightly different matchups (or if my opponents had just been slightly less lucky with their Summoning Traps!) I would have had a good chance to put up another solid result. It’s disappointing to feel like I’ve let one of the few Pro Tours this season go by without managing to do well, but I suppose last year I didn’t even get to play in the first one, so by any measure I’m starting off better than I did then, eh? If anything, I’m more stoked to play since I feel like I have lost time to make up for — in fact, just this week I booked tickets to Kuala Lumpur and Yokohama for the Grand Prix! The cards may not have fallen my way in San Diego, but there’s still a whole lot of Magic yet to be played this season, and I plan on making the most of it. Now to figure out just what these Pro Tour results mean I should play in Standard at the GP…

Until next time…