The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Tezz Gambit

Brian Kibler talks about Standard as he sees it: why people may be underestimating Red, what’s a better gambit than Jace Beleren, and how to update Tezzeret for the latest metagame.

If you told me a year ago that Magic would have two cards banned in Standard in the not-so-distant future, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you went on to tell me that even after those two cards were banned and a new set was released, the same decks that everyone hated were still winning, I would have laughed in your face. But it seems as if your Nostradamus self would be the one laughing all the way to the proverbial bank.

Sure, calling Tim Pskowski SCG Open: Cincinnati winning deck the same “Caw-Blade” that dominated Magic for the past six months is about as unfair as him expecting anyone to be able to pronounce his name. And yeah, maybe it’s cheating to lump in Tempered Steel with the decks that everyone hates, since it’s only really people who played a lot of Scars Block Constructed who grew to despise that particular little number. But when you look at the results of the first two big post-M12 Standard tournaments, you really have to scratch your head and wonder what happened to those predictions everyone was making about Splinter Twin, Mono Red, and Valakut being the decks to beat.

Then again, it’s easy to get lost in glory. Sure, “Caw-Blade” (and I’m going to keep saying that in quotes until a new name sticks for it because it really is a misnomer to use the same name to describe such a different deck) and Tempered Steel may have taken the crown at SCG Open: Cincinnati and Japanese Nationals, respectively, but they’re hardly the only success stories of those two tournaments. Neither Valakut nor Splinter Twin took home titles, but they each posted solid numbers, with three Valakut making Top 8 in Japan while three Twin decks finished in the Top 16 back here in the states.  

It was really only Mono Red, then, that underperformed from the supposed holy trinity of M12 Standard. Brad talked a bit about why in his article this week, but a major reason he didn’t really discuss is that Mono Red really doesn’t have any solidly established builds yet. I was talking to Patrick Sullivan last weekend when I made a cameo at the local M12 Prerelease (after spending all morning playing League of Legends with Nick Spagnolo so I missed the actual event), and like the guru of the Mountains that he is, Pat suggested that people are building their red decks wrong. Standard is a very different world than it was when Caw-Blade (without the quotes) ruled supreme, and using a red deck built for that environment in a field that has completely changed is a recipe for failure.

Red decks and the people who have a proclivity toward them have an unfortunate stereotype as being mindless and straightforward, and while that may be true of the players who do nothing but Lightning Bolt their opponents on the first turn every time at FNM, it’s simply not true when it comes to tournament play. A pile of burn spells is not a deck any more than a pile of Llanowar Elves and Craw Wurms is (though you try telling me that when I was thirteen!). Identifying the correct selection of creatures, burn spells, and even lands you’re going to play in a red deck is as sensitive to the metagame as the countermagic selection in a control deck, and yet people view building a deck with a mix of Mana Leaks, Spell Pierces, and Mental Missteps as brilliantly honing some kind of perfect weapon and putting together a deck with Furnace Scamps and Ember Haulers like tearing a club from a tree.


That said, Mr. Sullivan will be competing in the StarCityGames.com Open in Seattle this weekend, so I can’t share his exact wisdom with you. Suffice it to say that I think it’s foolish to be counting Mono Red out just yet.

So what else do I like right now? Well, I couldn’t help but notice a certain deck from Japanese Nationals:

Pardon me for going on endlessly about Tezzeret, but I find it interesting that Shouta and I have gone in some pretty similar directions with the deck since M12. We both started in much the same place (that place being his GP Singapore list) and seem to have come to many of the same conclusions.

One of the major challenges for a control deck in the current format (and any format, really) is choosing your removal. It’s a big wild world out there, with all sorts of animals looking to tear your head off. Even worse, some of the animals are actually robots and don’t die to the sort of things that kill real animals, like having their throats ripped out. Those of you who watched my videos a few weeks back saw just how embarrassing it was for me to die a horrible death at the hands of Tempered Steel with nothing but Go for the Throat as spot removal, and that’s something I’m looking to avoid by the time I actually get to a tournament table.

If the post-M12 results we have so far are at all representative of the future, it might actually be time to say goodbye to Go for the Throat, at least in any kind of significant numbers. Vampires seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor thanks to Tempered Steel providing another strong aggro option, and even Grave Titan isn’t the ubiquitous finisher for U/B control decks as he once was. Besides—thanks to Torpor Orb and Tumble Magnet—Titan isn’t even that scary for a deck like this, since you can frequently keep it under control long enough to kill them.

The rise of Tempered Steel has further implications than jettisoning our Go for the Throats. Most control decks (and blue decks in general) that I’ve seen post-bannings have almost automatically swapped Jace Beleren in for his forbidden incarnation, but is Jace even a card we particularly want anymore, at least in the main deck? Little Jace is a fine card against creature decks that we can fight with one-for-one removal, like Vampires—I used to actually sideboard in an extra Jace against Vampires back in the day with classic Caw-Go—because the games came down to attrition, and you could easily keep their board clear.

Tempered Steel is much harder to fight that way. Between Origin Spellbomb, Glint Hawk Idol, and Inkmoth Nexus, Tempered Steel decks have a lot of pseudo-creatures that you can’t just kill then safely drop a Jace to start getting ahead. They can also outpace one-for-one removal draws quite easily thanks to free creatures like Memnite and Ornithopter, and you can’t even plus-two Jace to try to get him out of range because they can always drop a Tempered Steel and completely blow you out.

The card I have been trying in place of Jace Beleren in my maindeck is Tezzeret’s Gambit. Jace is certainly dramatically better against other control decks (though not clearly against “Caw-Blade” style decks, since Hawk fights little Jace better than just about anyone), but Gambit gives the deck some card drawing power along with the happy side effect of proliferate.

Proliferating is downright awesome in a deck like this. There aren’t that many things you can proliferate on (and I’d like to warn against trying to dig too deep and turn a solid build into effectively a proliferate theme deck), but there’s a ton of value on those where you can.

Consider this sequence of plays.

Turn One: Land, Preordain or Inquisition

Turn Two: Everflowing Chalice

Turn Three: Gambit, draw two, move Chalice to two counters

Turn Four: Tezzeret with Mana Leak up, Consecrated Sphinx, or Wurmcoil Engine.

Now that’s explosive! Chalice goes from a marginal Mind Stone to a Sol Ring—and you even came out ahead in cards on the deal! If you can spare the two life, you can even cast the Gambit for the Phyrexian mana cost on turn three and then use the two mana from the Chalice to play something like a Torpor Orb or Spellskite!

While Chalice is the most exciting thing you can proliferate on, it’s not the only one. Tick up your Ratchet Bomb to kill what you want a turn sooner, keep your Tumble Magnet in the business of tumbling for one turn longer, or take your opponent by surprise with a lethal Tezzeret ultimate out of nowhere—now that is Tezzeret’s Gambit!

Here’s what my deck looks like right now:

It’s worth noting that this list includes no M12 cards, and that’s partly due to the fact that I’m still stuck playing on Magic Online without M12 and in part due to the fact that there really aren’t any M12 cards I feel particularly inclined to play. Shouta’s single copy of Sorin’s Vengeance seems kind of neat, and I can certainly see it winning a lot of games when your opponent doesn’t expect it, and you get in a couple hits with animated artifacts or Creeping Tar Pits, but I’m not convinced it’s the sort of effect you want.

Karn Liberated, on the other hand, is a card that fits particularly well with the ability of this version to accelerate its mana with Chalice plus proliferate. I’m not sure Karn is exactly what you want, either, but I like the fact that it gives me an out to absolutely any kind of threat my opponents could play—there isn’t much that trumps Karn.

The part where my deck differs the most from Shouta’s is the sideboard. Shouta uses Calcite Snapper, which I think is quite likely the best card against other heavy control decks but may not have as many applications as the cards I’m using instead.

If the Caw-Blade style decks get popular, Snapper is a pretty poor card for that matchup; I’m happy to have Duress, and Spellskite gives me a way to keep my artifact count high enough for Tezzeret against aggro decks where I don’t want Torpor Orb, all the while giving me yet another card that helps shut down Splinter Twin.

I’ve played this and a very similar version of Tezzeret for quite a while now in the two-man queues on Magic Online, and while those may not be the stiffest competition, I’ve been doing quite well—although I did have to topdeck a Tumble Magnet just last night to avoid dying to a Blackcleave Goblin with Armored Ascension on it. I wish I were kidding.

That said, the deck with which I’ve been having the most trouble has been Tempered Steel. I recently moved the second Ratchet Bomb to the main deck and put the third in the sideboard, and I’m debating cutting one of the Tumble Magnets in the main deck for a Disfigure and trying to fit another in the sideboard. As I said earlier, one of the toughest parts of building a control deck is figuring out your removal, since there’s any number of potential threats you can face.

In Standard right now, you need to be able to deal with everything from Goblin Guide to Primeval Titan to Deceiver Exarch to Hero of Bladehold to Steel Overseer. That mix is why my primary spot removal spell has been Doom Blade, but that gets a bit awkward when you factor in Vault Skirge and the occasional jerk who shows up playing Vampires. I suppose you can’t win ’em all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try!

The fact that Shouta was so successful with a build very similar to that which I’d been working on, and the fact that we came to those conclusions about the format independently gives me faith that I’m on the right track, even if I literally haven’t played a game involving an actual M12 card yet.

This weekend is going to be my first foray into testing in the real world. I’m going to make my way to the PTQ being held at the Radisson LAX this Saturday to try to get some drafts and Standard battles in with the likes of Paul Rietzl and Matt Sperling, so if you’re in the area and looking for a fight, drop in and maybe we can do battle!

Until next time,