The Las Vegas Invitational & I

Josh Ravitz tells you about the decks he played to the Top 16 of #SCGINVI last weekend: U/W Control in Standard and Esper Stoneblade in Legacy.

The Invitational was coming up, and I was determined not to play a bad deck in Standard this time. Last time I played Mono-Blue Devotion, which is not necessarily a bad deck, but it felt like one at times. While the format was exactly the same (that is to say no new sets have been released) and Mono-Blue Devotion had still been racking up high finishes around the world, I still had a bad taste in my mouth. I was very confident in Legacy and knew that if I could pick a good Standard deck I might have a chance at all the glory—or at least a small diamond-shaped piece of plastic with some words inscribed on it.

The way the Standard format was shaping up it seemed that being able to compete with black and beat blue was a good place to be, so I was excited to play the U/W Control deck that William Jensen had done well with at Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth. I felt I should have played U/W Control, albeit a different list, at the last Invitational, so I knew that if I played U/W this time I would at least not feel terrible about it. Unfortunately, this didn’t end up entirely true, and I still have absolutely no idea how good the U/W deck that I we played this time really is.

For reference:

This list is a little different than the ones played by Reid Duke, Huey, and Owen Turtenwald in this tournament but largely the same, and certainly the strategy was the same. I think my 5-3 finish with it was unfortunately the strongest for our group, and I don’t think anyone of us would tell you that the deck was super well positioned or even above average for the field.

We didn’t play the Quickens or the Ratchet Bombs in the maindeck, and our sideboard was marginally different (again, no Ratchet Bombs and slightly different numbers). But overall the deck looked mostly the same. Since the Quickens were the easy board outs in most matches anyway, not playing them certainly seemed okay. The fourth Jace was welcome in the maindeck, but the flying haste and protection from the white elephant in the room had yet to be addressed.

I asked Huey what he would have done about a Stormbreath Dragon in the good ol’ days (aka the previous weekend), and he said he’d just Quicken and Supreme Verdict. However, this was no longer an option for us, and as I write this I’m starting to understand how instrumental the Quickens likely were to his victories last week. Often during gameplay I was faced with the choice of leaving up Dissolve or Supreme Verdict. Ideally you wait until you have UUUWW2 and do both, but that isn’t always possible. Quicken can fill this gap and essentially lets you do both before you have earned it.

Going forward I would recommend a deck closer to the one Huey actually played at the Grand Prix rather than the one we played here, although I did like my sideboard for the Invitational. That being said, I do think that if any of us made it to the finals of the tournament we would have been quite happy to face either competitor, which is an odd phenomenon similar to Grand Prix Washington DC a few weeks ago where I would have been thrilled to get paired against any of the 9-0 decks after day 1 and any of the Top 8 decks once the dust settled. However, getting to that point was not as easy in either tournament. It’s certainly good to play a deck that can actually win the tournament, but don’t forget that to win a tournament you need to make the Top 8 first.

The field at the Invitational was not quite as I expected for either portion though. Last week Ari Lax tweeted that he felt people should play the R/W Devotion deck from his most recent article in PTQs this weekend. This was a deck that I believe had one big showing recently—making Top 8 of a SCG Open—but it’s definitely real and powerful. It’s essentially the deck Team CFB played at Pro Tour Theros but with Chained to the Rocks to deal with Master of Waves.

Apparently people took Ari’s advice to heart, as you can see in the successes the deck had in the Invitational, with two copies in the Top 8 and more running rampant in the high-finishing Standard decks. There were two distinct directions to go with the deck at the Invitational, and while I don’t necessarily think the R/W list is better than the Naya list, I do think both versions of the deck must be evaluated in order to succeed in the format.

For reference:

Thea’s deck—R/W Devotion—is a more standard build, and while not innovative in and of itself, it was very well positioned for the weekend, boasting good matchups against everything but Mono-Blue Devotion (and that’s winnable) and perhaps the various black devotion-based control decks (also winnable). The downside to playing this deck, as we saw in the Top 8, is that if you stumble on mana or if you draw too many Nykthoses you get punished quite severely.

This deck is perhaps the most powerful deck in Standard, technically winning "the normal way" in combat but really just taking advantage of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. It boggles the mind to think of adding Rakdos Cackler to the deck as Erik Smith did. While it is obviously nice to get a head start on devotion, this isn’t really a beatdown deck; often you could seemingly do infinite damage, so nickel and diming with Rakdos Cackler really does not make sense to me.

According to Thea, who had a flawless 8-0 performance with her R/W deck during the Standard portion of the Invitational, she felt the matches against decks that took the middle ground—decks that have removal and pressure—were the hardest. If your opponent was leaving your devotion alone, it was great, and if their cards just matched up poorly (as per the U/W or Esper Control matchups), it was also great. She also thinks that if people figure out to leave in or board in their Last Breaths against you things will also get tougher naturally. Against this deck Last Breathing a creature that costs RR is akin to killing a creature and two of their lands.

Of course, I think the metagame will evolve and adapt as it always does, and while these red-based devotion decks are not unbeatable, they can often seem unbeatable if you are ill-prepared. They also have the distinct advantage of not being beaten by the normal anti-aggro red creatures/strategies. It’s obviously true that an Archangel of Thune can beat a red creature deck—but only because Archangel of Thune is a ridiculous card that easily gets out of hand. Soldier of the Pantheon and Fiendslayer Paladin are little more than an annoyance here, as we have protection from white already and can easily do billions of damage.

This was the other direction to go, and to me this list is a little more hateful and a little more innovative. I had the distinct misfortune of playing against the deck thrice during the tournament, and there might have only been three people playing it! I finally managed to escape with a win in the final round when game 1 went to plan and game 2 saw my opponent mulligan to five. I also thought to bring in my own Last Breaths somewhere in the middle of losing to Jim Davis and executed the plan against Dan Jessup in the final round of Standard.

As for specifics, I don’t think I like Mindsparker very much, but Fanatic of Mogis is somewhat of a liability against decks that are full of Pharika’s Cures, which means maybe the split is okay. I’d go with four Fanatics if I played this deck, as I don’t want to increase the potential for inconsistency in a deck with four of the same legendary land. Extra planeswalkers are great, though, and the sideboard Mistcutter Hydra was a big surprise to me when the first guy cast it and killed me with it on day 1. It was no less effective when it happened on the second day, but I did know it was coming at least.

Going forward Standard at once seems solved and completely new to me. Black, U/W, Esper and Mono-Blue Devotion are seemingly everywhere, but you also have this great strategy that can absolutely eviscerate two of those strategies quite handily. Red Devotion throws a nice wrench into the mix, which I like. It also means that even if the format is bigger at least we know what we need to beat. For now, though, I’m actually excited to build the red deck online (in some capacity) and play some events with it, especially after seeing the ridiculous things Nykthos can do.

As for the rest of the Invitational, I already knew I’d be playing my own Stoneblade list in Legacy, and I was quite excited about it. I made some of the changes I suggested previously in my article to end up with the following list:

The changes were as follows:


-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Scalding Tarn
-1 Thoughtseize
+1 Inquisition of Kozilek
+1 Supreme Verdict
+1 Marsh Flats


-1 Duress
-1 Flusterstorm
-1 Supreme Verdict
+2 Thoughtseize
+1 Disenchant

I finished 7-1, losing the first round of Legacy to U/W/R Delver, which I believe is still favorable, but things didn’t work out. I lost convincingly, so I may need to revisit the matchup for next time. This brings my overall record with the deck (in this form) to 19-4 or 16-4 not including byes, and needless to say I am quite happy with the deck. However, for me this really hammers home the importance of knowing (and liking) your deck in Legacy. I have played Esper Stoneblade before, and I have never really fallen out of love with it. Sometimes the format dictates that it isn’t viable so we part ways still friends, but I am always happy to see the deck when it comes to town.

Obviously, this doesn’t only apply to me. You can see that Brian Braun-Duin, Matt Nass, Jacob Wilson, and even Shaheen Soorani all managed to succeed (more or less) with decks they are known for in the Legacy format and that their cumulative experience with their deck pays off huge dividends—especially in an environment like the invitational where not everyone is a Legacy enthusiast for one reason or another. Legacy can be a daunting format to dive into, and it can be enough of an ordeal just trying to sequence your own Ponders and Brainstorms correctly without taking into account trying to play around things or figuring out what your opponent is doing.

Some of you may still be wondering why I don’t play with True-Name Nemesis; after all, isn’t it the bee’s knees? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Shahar Shenhar asked me the same question the night before the event since he was interested in my deck. I told him what I will tell you now. No, it’s not the bee’s knees. While this wasn’t the first weekend the card was available, it was still an early weekend in the life of True-Name Nemesis, and I do not think the field has adjusted. There are ways to make True-Name Nemesis ineffective that frankly embarrass the controller of the card, not the least of which is simply playing a big and powerful combo deck, and that’s just the issue.

I don’t want to try to get free wins at the expense of my other matchups. Simply put, I don’t think the rewards are there for playing with True-Name Nemesis in this deck. I think the card is excellent in a deck that wants to be attacking, as it simultaneously solves a few issues (like being able to block an equipped creature without yielding any benefits for the Equipment’s controller) but this is of course not an attacking deck. Esper Stoneblade in essence is a very versatile controlling deck that plays a big-picture game each time and isn’t worried about attacking for three damage here and there.

Furthermore, in addition to being allowed to play the game the way I want to play it and not being forced to simply attack or block, not playing with True-Name Nemesis again yielded me perhaps an entire match win’s worth of confusion for one unfortunate opponent. In round 8 of the Invitational, my opponent boarded in a couple of Golgari Charms in his BUG Delver deck to deal with my True-Name Nemesises.

For the record, he was playing his own True-Name Nemesises, which makes the Golgari Charm a bit risky to even try to cast in the deck (think about how terrible is it to kill your own TNN just to kill mine if you have to). Nonetheless, he was gunning for my nonexistent TNNs, and who knows what he might have boarded out. This is a nice and subtle advantage to not playing with the card that may subside soon enough, but you may as well enjoy it while you can.

As for the changes I made to my list, adding another way to get the basic Plains was definitely necessary to help the Stifle / Wasteland matchups where you’re trying to resolve spells that cost WW in post board games. Elspeth is a great card and may have a place in a field dominated by Jund decks. But overall it underperformed for me at the GP in DC, and I wasn’t expecting a ton of Jund decks at the Invitational in Las Vegas. It turned out that there were plenty of Jund decks and successful ones at that, which is certainly something worth keeping in mind going forward.

Finally, I also just like having a maindeck sweeper, and Supreme Verdict was absolutely something I was happy to add. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a blue card for Force of Will. It was definitely missed at the Grand Prix in DC.

I also got to speak briefly with Tom Martell about the deck, and in between berating me for not playing with True-Name Nemesis he brewed up his would-be decklist. It contained the two and two split of Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize as well as the extra two Thoughtseizes in the sideboard. This was very simple and clean, and I liked being able to go up to six discard spells against decks that were attempting to do things on a different axis. Leading Thoughtseize into Meddling Mage can be quite devastating; Inquisition can be near equally devastating. Taylor Raflowitz, my unfortunate round 16 opponent, can tell you exactly how bad it feels:

The game where I was able to lock out Sneak Attack and force him to Show and Tell against my in-hand Humility was the best. I wisely removed his Gitaxian Probe from his hand with my discard spell, and the trap was set. Humility also won the match for me against Matt Nass. He never drew a Cabal Therapy that game, and when it came out, I had Academy Ruins and Jitte already hanging around. He scooped ’em up, noting he had no outs to the enchantment in his 75. It’s quite a delight indeed to be able to play Humility in your Legacy deck, which is yet another reason not to play with your own True-Name Nemesises.

So if you’re wondering if I would recommend the Esper deck going forward, the answer is a resounding yes, but you need to practice and know not only how to approach each game against any deck but also each turn. Jacob Wilson, a virtual Delver expert, won the Legacy Open with U/W/R Delver, and you can really start to see how much experience pays off. The rest of that Top 8 was a little boring, with two Junds, three more Delvers (RUG), an Elves, and a Painter.

A hearty congratulations goes out to Max Brown, who has been doing quite well for himself lately. I think I want to try his U/R Omni-Tell list soon. I sort of liked playing the mono-blue version and would not mind revisiting the archetype since I think a Defense Grid / Leyline of Sanctity combo deck could be very well positioned if that’s what the field really looks like.

There aren’t any Opens or Grand Prix for a while, which is an interesting place to be. The PTQ season will continue to rage on, eventually boiling down each decklist to its absolute essential and perfect version, but as this happens the Legacy format will return unscathed and in essence quite wide open come January when the Open Series starts again.

What do you think will win the first Legacy Open of 2014?