The Madness In Standard

We’re a few weeks into Shadows over Innistrad Standard, and the madness mechanic has yet to make a huge impact. Matt Higgs wants to change that at #SCGStates, but he needs your help!

SCG States April 23-24!

Ever have one of those Magic friends that, no matter what, you just couldn’t beat? Maybe they were the ones in your dorm who bought booster boxes as often as you bought ramen, or the kid in class who always read up on what the best players were playing? Maybe it’s a coworker that you laud for this “sweet deck.”

In my case, it was none of them. His name was Braden.

I started playing Magic in college, and the vast majority of our playgroup experimented with lots of different decks and strategies until we found the one we liked. Even then, we usually liked to brew other decks with the smattering of cards we had left over from our weekly drafts. But Braden was different. He usually didn’t come out to our weekly events and would usually just wave as he passed us in our dorm’s lobby, where we were huddled around misshapen tables on uncomfortable chairs, playing the game we all loved.

On one occasion, though, we hosted a Constructed tournament. No restrictions, really, no particular format. Just bring your best Casual deck! We all did, and Braden came down with a sleeved stack of cards in an old box.

I bet he was just here to have some fun, right? Aww, he’s got this cute little deck that….

That crushed me. That crushed all of us. He was casting spells so cheaply, so quickly, and he attacked with creatures so efficient and powerful I was sure he was cheating somehow. I couldn’t just be bad at Magic, right?

No. Well, maybe. But no, Braden had just brought his Madness deck.

It wasn’t fancy, but it beat us all to death. I’d shuffle up after getting defeated and play again. Nope, he always had the Circular Logic. Oh, there’s another 4/4 for three at instant speed. Great. Wait, how hard is that Wild Mongrel I can’t target hitting me?

Game 3, 4, 12…I couldn’t beat him. He graduated a couple of years later, and in the dozens of games we played over that time, I never defeated him in a game of Magic.

This was my introduction to madness.

Our first trip to Innistrad was about scary creatures, the defense of the Humans from Demons, and the battle between the tribes of Spirits, Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves. With Shadows over Innistrad, though, we’re trying to piece together clues of what happened to the plane and what fresh horrors await. In such a Frantic Search to fill our minds with knowledge, some things are bound to fall out.

Madness has two forms in the current Standard: a Vampire form and a spell form. Occasionally they overlap, but for the most part, brewers are looking for ways to cheat their black and red aggro creatures onto the battlefield or to leverage their spells efficiently with well-planned discard effects. As the Vampire one proves to be linear, I’m going the spell route.

Okay, so I know you’re going to say that Jace is the best way to go for madness, but I’m not playing Jace for several reasons. One, I don’t have any copies and thus cannot honestly test with it in a paper tournament. Also, and this might be a bit controversial, but I believe that Jace is low-hanging fruit for brewers. Not that he doesn’t make decks better, because he undoubtedly does, but because he makes them so much better without actually providing much uniqueness.

Any deck that can play Jace probably should, as he makes your draws that much better. He’s out of financial reach for many players, though, so it also makes decks with multiple copies that much less accessible for those players who, because they don’t put a lot of money into Standard, are more inclined to brew. Finally, I’m not even sure he’s that good anyway in a world of Bant Company and W/X Humans.

To build an effective madness deck, as is the case with any on-theme deck, you must balance the cards that possess the desired mechanics and cards that directly and effectively support them. There are several ways to do this with the madness strategy, but I took a page from Braden’s playbook: Ravenous Bloodseeker.

As with Wild Mongrel, you can discard a card at no cost and as often as you like, at least on one turn. Most of the other enablers in this format require some cost or are limited in their activations: Tormenting Voice requires two mana, Sinister Concoction requires that you lose a life, and Jace, well, Jace doesn’t have haste so you can’t even use him for madness until a turn later. Boy, that card’s overhyped, huh?

Ravenous Bloodseeker also lets you activate it multiple times in response to itself to discard a large quantity of cards, though you’ll also be killing the Bloodseeker in the process. This allows you to spend as much mana as possible on your spells and not on activating your madness trigger.

Most of the madness spells are in reach thanks to a quick search here on StarCityGames.com, so I had an initial list in just a few minutes.

More than any other card, madness decks ride on the heat of Fiery Temper. Together with Alms of the Vein, they will be pulling the majority of the weight as your move toward the kill. The strategy is fairly straightforward; this list gives us our baseline for moving forward and refining it.

This was the first deck I made for the new Standard. Getting the pieces was inexpensive, so I was able to try it in the early weeks of Standard.

As could probably be expected, it was far too clunky, slow, or ineffective to be much use, or even much fun to play. Ravenous Bloodseeker, while a good madness enabler, was bad in multiples and irrelevant as a creature. Wild Mongrel this was not. Furthermore, I totally forgot about the reprint of Lightning Axe, a hilariously efficient removal spell that can modally induce madness. Cards like Murderous Compulsion were too conditional. That being said, Tormenting Voice was way better than I thought it would be, and although I mostly used black mana for Alms of the Vein and its beautiful life-point swing, I was able to get three colors pretty easily and I could leverage black a little more.

I fiddled with it constantly over the following two weeks until I got to try it in a live event, shiny and ready to go.

I overlooked Stormchaser Mage the first time around, but with as many spells as we’re casting, this card seemed like an additional “burn” spell that was hard to block and could sneak out of range of removal. I shifted into Painful Truths as a way to make sure my hand was always full of spells to keep from falling behind. Fevered Visions could also help draw a bunch of cards. I don’t even care that much if I draw too many cards in one turn; I can cast many spells during my cleanup step, thanks to madness!

Before the tournament, I played an aggressive Vampire deck and got the upper hand on it thanks to basically being a deck full of removal and draw spells. Then I played a Mono-White Humans deck and felt even better after getting on the other side of a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, an Always Watching, and even an Archangel of Avacyn without dying. My first regular match of the night was against a guy named James and his B/W Midrange deck.

Hmm, that’s a lot of lifegain you have there, James. Let’s see if we can beat it.

In Game 1, he played too few creatures for me to remove effectively and instantly stabilized with Sorin, Grim Nemesis, targeting my Stormchaser Mage to kill my only threat and gain lots of life. In Game 2, he stumbled on mana and I moved in with Fevered Visions, punishing him repeatedly and sending us to Game 3, which looked a lot like Game 1. Painful Truths rotted in my hand as I sat at a low life total, a bevy of worthless cards in my hand, and no draw to get myself out of his Secure the Wastes / Gideon, Ally of Zendikar follow-up.

Too bad. Maybe it was just a bad draw for me.

Then I got a bye and I lost all will to sit and wait for another hour to play a deck I suddenly didn’t feel confident about, so I left.

With many decks, this would be the end. I’m used to losing as I test decks, but this one wasn’t over. While the deck still had issues, I realized that I wasn’t actually putting my best foot forward. I think I was taking off too much time to cast cards like Painful Truths without actually having an answer on the other side of them. Instead of a bunch of meaningless cards and lost life, I think we were just supposed to go deep on a card that had so far overperformed out of the sideboard: Fevered Visions.

This is a subtle card that, for a deck like this, is actually nuts. On the draw after a bad keep? No problem! This will bail you out. On the play? Get it out quickly to almost guarantee a two-point ping and get the chance to look at two of your own cards before they will likely get to use any of their own!

Stormchaser Mage did little but glean a removal spell from their hands, and even the Wandering Fumaroles weren’t very effective except in instances when they had no creatures and were somehow also tapped out. Nagging Thoughts was actually a good replacement for Jace, basically giving you one activation for 1U (look at two cards, keep one, bin the other), and the madness was relevant. Geistblast also did great; it was a painless, flexible card to discard for whatever reason, as its real strength was from the graveyard, particularly in pumping up a removal spell or a hefty burn spell.

There was another event the next day that represented another chance, and I knew where I needed to go.

Let’s do it.

In my first match on a lovely Saturday night, I played Josh and his G/W Collected Company Humans deck. This was a match I felt like I’d cracked pretty well, but he really made me fight for it. In Game 1, he overwhelmed me, as I expected. In came the Things in the Ice and the Radiant Flames. While he dodged two of my Radiant Flames with Eerie Interlude, eventually I had two Things on the battlefield that transformed at the same time. At that point, he was on chump-blocking duty for life and conceded.

After a close-fought last game, all my planning came to a head. I untapped with an Alms of the Vein and a Just the Wind in my hand. I had eight lands and two Geistblasts in the graveyard, and Josh was at nine life. If I could draw my ninth land, I’d be able to cast the Alms of the Vein and copy it twice, draining him for exactly lethal. Instead, I drew a Lightning Axe, which was basically the same thing. I tapped two for the Alms and Axe, and then paid six to copy Alms twice for the game.

In my second match, I played Austin, who was on a Jund midrange list. We made it down to Game 3, with Fevered Visions pulling its weight in both games and Triskaidekaphobia making life hard for him post-sideboard as he balanced his life total. He was at nine life with a Sylvan Advocate and two lands to animate, as well as a Pitiless Horde in his hand, all with my name on them. I was at three life. I had a land in my hand and a Sinister Concoction and a Triskaidekaphobia on the table.

I was in a pickle. I had a Geistblast in the graveyard, but no real hand. Still, an Exquisite Firecraft off the top would close the game right there. At my upkeep, I ticked us both down one life with Triskaidekaphobia, pushing him within Firecraft range. I reached for my deck, holding the Sunken Hollow firmly in my hand, mentally banishing any more to the bottom of the deck.

I drew a Swamp.

I flicked my cards between my hands, reviewing the battlefield. I could crack the Sinister Concoction and go to one life, but that would only save me if he attacked with nothing else. Furthermore, I’d have to give him a life back at upkeep to avoid death myself, pushing him back out of Firecraft range. I cast a few furtive glances over his permanents and played my Hollow.

“Pass turn.”

I stared Austin down, flicking my last card in my hand. His eyes got wider.

“You drew the Fiery Temper, didn’t you?”

I tried to mask my cocked eyebrow, and I didn’t respond. He’d bought the bluff.

Austin sighed, untapping and trying to figure out how to kill me by attacking with three creatures. He only had six lands, so animating and casting Pitiless Horde was not an option. I tried to force myself to blush, and I smiled, trying to mind-game him out of an easy attack. After several minutes of flipping through his graveyard and reviewing life totals, he animated his Hissing Quagmire and attacked with resignation.

I tapped a black and a red mana and dropped my Swamp with a flourish onto the table. “Yeah, I’m full of it.” Austin laughed and extended his hand to shake; we talked about the game after both having a genuinely fun and exciting experience.

In my third round, I played another G/W Company deck, mulliganed out of both games, and lost without much fanfare. My “fourth” round, a pickup game against one of the shop’s employees, yielded a win against another Jund Midrange matchup where Fevered Visions was unbeatable. My “fifth” round, against a pretty scary Werewolf deck, did not go so well.

The deck was consistent and exciting, but it was lacking a bit of power and some outs to rough situations, so for the most recent iteration of Grixis Madness, I’ve added a couple bullets.

Chandra would have been stellar in all of the games I played, as I rarely died with fewer than five lands. Jace helps keep me well-stocked and it helps keep creatures in their hand to trigger Fevered Visions’s damage clause.

This list can do a lot against a bunch of different decks, and it has good game against aggro, control, and midrange. The manabase and exceptionally aggressive starts present problems, but the deck did a great job of working with a little to make a lot happen. Nagging Thoughts, the close analogue to Jace, provided consistency and reliability to get to three mana and a Fevered Visions. After that, burn, bounce, and sit back, letting your opponent flounder under the Visions. Ultimate Price replaced the Concoction, both maindeck and sideboard, as another way to deal with most creatures that end up out of burn range.

The deck turned out great, and I’m definitely a convert, especially given our current metagame. Braden, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re happy. Rematch?

All of the madness spells in the format are tightly costed and fun to cast. Which is your favorite and which have you been able to get the most out of?

SCG States April 23-24!