The Next Step in Steam Vents

After last week’s examination of the Standard strength of the U/R Vore deck, Mike moves on to an in-depth look at Wafo-Tapa. Does this more ponderous control deck have the edge in the Steam Vents versus Steam Vents matchup. And when it all boils down, just how relevant is the Red mana anyway? Magic’s Godfather of Deckbuilding presents an innovative take on the U/R Control archetype – dropping the Red entirely. If you’re looking for the next big thing on the Standard scene, then this is the article for you!

Last week I wrote about some moderate success I had with Vore. Don’t get me wrong, Vore is a fine deck, and its performance for me was quite solid (two wins and one finals loss in five queues), but as a person I’m given to restlessness in deck design. When I sat down at my first Pro Tour and saw superstar and former US National Champion Mark Justice a few tables away, something inside me assumed he would be playing with Howling Mines and perhaps a lone Elkin Bottle (though my conscious mind knew this would not be the case); I was, though, heartened that Justice was playing Karplusan Forest, echoing his Whirling Dervish win somewhat, and recalling in some small way the colors on his inaugural Pro Tour Stormbinds… Magic’s not like that – “that” being my whimsy of what a player I had only read about in books should be playing, that is – for me, or for most people, I think. After all, you can’t design nine poor decks for every one good one without, you know, playing some different decks.

Steam Vents just seemed to me one hundred times better than the other duals in Standard for the most part, so I elected to go from the proactive Vents in Vore to the defensive stance of Wafo-Tapa. My theory was that the Steam Vents pairings move in a kind of circle, with Tron losing to Vore, Vore losing to Wafo-Tapa, and Wafo-Tapa… did Wafo-Tapa lose to Tron? I had actually never played the matchup, but I had played an awful lot of Tron versus Jushi Blue before Pro Tour Honolulu, and Tron had a clear advantage in the matchup; I wasn’t sure how far I could extrapolate the generalization, as the Tron deck I tested was my meticulously mana-efficient version with no Wildfires, and Jushi Blue, while sharing a general philosophy with Wafo-Tapa, is not functionally the same deck.

I decided the Tron pairing should be winnable if I added four Ghost Quarters to my deck two plus two, theorizing that a lasting disruption of the Tron machinery would put our decks on essentially even footing, but that his cards would be much more expensive whereas my setup, on model, would be more efficient. I played in queues pretty rapid-fire so I didn’t take a lot of meticulous notes on matchups and how they went, but my general impression was that my version of Wafo-Tapa had an edge on Tron. I was a clear favorite against Vore, winning that matchup every time. My losses were nevertheless various… A couple to Tron, one to Heartbeat, and the others generally to manascrew.

To cut a long story short, I played in five queues with versions of the deck, and only won one of them. This is the build that I used to do that:

Take two damage and see me in the morning

This version differs a fair amount from the one Guillaume and Pierre played in Honolulu. I assume the lack of Compulsive Research in their Hawaii deck was an oversight; I cut Repeal, a card I like not at all, for that allegedly Constructed Unplayable sorcery. With four Compulsive Researches, I decided that I didn’t need a fourth Tidings; that morphed into the fourth Mana Leak. Spell Snare, a card Guillaume didn’t have access to in pre-Dissension Standard, is just leagues better than the ponderous Rewind (sorry Shaheen), an easy swap… Nearly as easy as cutting the Niv-Mizzets for two more beautiful Keigas. Keiga is the best of a cycle of some of the best creatures printed in recent memory whereas Niv-Mizzet is… not quite. I suppose Dr. Mizzet, as he is called at Finkel Draft, is serviceable enough in the abstract, but he wasn’t very good in our Block testing, let alone Standard, and seemed really out of place for a deck that I chose aiming deliberately at a metagame featuring two different Steam Vents Wildfire decks. The Wafo-Tapa style is threat poor enough as it is… I didn’t want to tap out for a wannabe monolith only to lose it to Char.

The sideboard I used to play in the first three queues had four Pyroclasm and four Goblin Flectomancer (the latter being a throwback to our PTQ Vore listing). I lost quite badly to Heartbeat when pressed with a strategy I hadn’t seen before; I countered the first Bound / Determined with a Spell Snare, but as the game started to go long, I figured out that I had exactly enough mana to play Keiga, which would either resolve or draw a Remand – I didn’t care which – and that if I allowed Heartbeat of Spring to resolve, I would have exactly enough mana to cast both my Hinders and both my Remands. Given his number of cards in hand I didn’t think that Recover into Bound / Determined was exactly what I wanted to fight (I was saving all four counters for his Invoke the Firemind or Maga, Traitor to Mortals), and that cost me when he was able to immediately Top into “main deck” Gigadrowse with more than twenty cards left in his deck. The second was anticlimactic. I kept Shinka, Izzet Boilerworks, and Goblin Flectomancer on the play… and lost with those three cards as my only permanents four or five turns later.

The essential strategic problem of Wafo-Tapa against Heartbeat is that they are a deck flush with two mana counters and boast far superior mana acceleration (and far better early game library manipulation), meaning that it is often precarious to pick a spot whereby you can play Keiga and not immediately lose. Goblin Flectomancer isn’t really an All Star against Heartbeat, but given this framework, he serves two-and-a-half purposes: 1) Gray Ogre or no, Flecto is a clock you can play in a window before you will immediately lose, 2) the ability that makes this [otherwise] Gray Ogre playable is conditionally relevant against those aforementioned two mana counters, and 2.5) sometimes you will play against a Heartbeat with 1-3 Compulsive Researches… Goblin Flectomancer is best against any Compulsive Research decks.

Just as Canali falls back on his twin Guillaumes for deck help, my pair of Patricks did the final tuning. Pat Chapin instructed me to play Azorius Guildmage in place of Goblin Flectomancer, as it is faster than Goblin Flectomancer in every matchup where I might want a beater, absurd against Heartbeat for all the reasons Heartbeat can aspire at being good against Wafo-Tapa, and an answer to Selesnya Guildmage or Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree… Unlike the Honolulu sideboard with its Pithing Needle and Blood Moon, my deck was soft on token production defense.

For his part, Pat Sullivan posted this in my Vore forum:

In my experience playing Boros, Repeal is far and away the best card Vore can have in the board (not that it makes the matchup at all good for them, but whatever). I’ve actually started cutting Jittes post board because Repeal (along with the bounce/removal package) makes it way too tough to get going.

Not that Spell Snare or Hammer or Threads or whatever else are bad cards, but Repeal is better than any of those cards, and it isn’t close.

For those of you who don’t know, Patrick Sullivan is probably one of the most underrated deck designers on the planet, and easily one of the Top 5 strategists in the United States. If I lack data, I just assume Patrick is right about whatever he is saying; as such, I put Repeal straight in despite disliking it generally, at the cost of Pyroclasm. With no sweeper main or side, I added the singleton Falling Star in this role, a “threat diversity” throwback to our Honolulu deck that could also masquerade as Wrath of God.

If memory serves, in the queue I took, I won two routine games against Vore, a hard-pressed battle against Tron, and a sideboard-driven victory over Heezy Street in the finals. The prevalence of Vore as a Tier 1 deck in the current meta is one of the main selling points of a Wafo-Tapa style control deck. I think I took out my Electrolyzes for two Ghost Quarters (just more land against a land destruction theme) and two Azorius Guildmages, given the correct expectation that he would have no Pyroclasms. Azorius Guildmage is a fine little beater, and served quite nicely against Goblin Flectomancer.

The prevalent Tron matchup is a difficult one. If Wafo-Tapa has an edge, it is thinner than Posh Spice, and ephemeral. Ghost Quarter is strong in the abstract, but there is nothing you can really do about it if the opponent out-draws you because he will often have a large mana advantage if he doesn’t maintain the Tron throughout. You will have about an equal number of games where you blow the opponent out on Spell Snares and Strip Mines, and frustrating games where the opponent draws through three Ghost Quarters for yet another relevant Tron component. Generally, the advantages Wafo-Tapa has are on more efficient spells and a high concentration of cheap and relevant answers; Tron’s core strategy is, however, superior.

When I say this, I don’t mean “strategy” as some nebulous term, as it is generally used in alleged strategy articles. I mean Tron’s actual game strategy, its approach, its path to inevitability, is trump. In the early game, Tron has Signets. It is sometimes correct to spend Mana Leak and often correct to spend Spell Snare on a Signet. I will always Leak a turn 2 Signet if I can, and Snare a turn 3 Signet, stranding the opponent for Blue mana and generally ensuring that I can hit Compulsive Research on my turn. However, once the Signets start hitting, it is generally better to hold counters for threat/answer fights that might not occur for six turns. Once the Signets are down, they’re staying there, acting in concert almost as threats themselves in some future counterspell battle. Wafo-Tapa’s game plan in this matchup – how I play it, at least – is to profitably trade wherever I can early, so that I can reload with Compulsive Research and Tidings and find a spot to stick a Dragon that I can protect. Tron, though, fights like a seventeen-year-old swordsman. Tron has no fear. Tron cannot die. Tron can – and will – play cards on its own turn into known counterspells, and generally doesn’t care if its own Researches stick. It doesn’t necessarily think about mana for the Remand or Mana Leak… Sometimes it doesn’t have to, because of the Signet a turn earlier. You see, Tron has about as much card drawing as Wafo-Tapa, but far more mana. It knows, therefore, that, barring some heretofore unforeseen disruption of its supply lines, there will come a time after all these proactive trades where it will hit something… and that something will be good. Wafo-Tapa is skilled, but sometimes lacks relevance (Spell Snare against Dragon, Mana Leak against Urza’s Tower); Tron is ugly, oddly angled, and expensive… but fearless, heedless, and far more potent. Ultimately, the biggest problem for Wafo-Tapa is that if the game goes very long, it is almost certain to lose to Simic Sky Swallower. You can’t race the SSS because Tron has Demonfire and you don’t, and North Tree’s big brother both dodges and contains a Keiga, making Tron a rare matchup where the Tide Star isn’t trump.

Additionally, the flow of the matchup is just awkward on the mana sometimes. In my fifth and final queue – the one where I was riding high after almost giving up on the deck but inexplicably winning a fourth – I immediately bit it to a Tron deck very similar to the one I had just drubbed. I won Game 1 easily on mana disruption, but Game 2 I had to play Izzet Boilerworks as my second land, obviously discarded, and ate a sideboarded Annex… It was probably over before my third turn. In the last game, we both developed steadily… but that’s my bad because long game, Tron has better proactive elements! I drew three Ghost Quarters, but he drew something like eight Tron parts. That’s why threats are better, I guess.

The beatdown matchups are not particularly difficult for this deck, but you do have to watch things like getting burned out, getting swarmed, or sometimes unusual angles of attack, like Sea Stompy. In the Heezy Street match I won, I took it in three, sideboarding out all my Tidings and Hinders, and two Compulsive Researches, for four Repeals, four Volcanic Hammers, and Ryusei. I side out up to two Tidings quite a bit, and will side out two Boomerangs on most matchups when on the draw (but not beatdown). The loss of pure card advantage machinery in the beatdown matchups is not that relevant because your sixes are all trump, so focusing on a five that might get you killed if you tap for it is not particularly desirable. Anyway, you have a lot of velocity on Repeal at similar (or cheaper) mana. I have been siding out Hinder in every matchup that is faster than my deck since I have been playing the card (Critical Mass and so on)… The way most Hinder decks work, and this one is no exception, is that the other answers – Spell Snare, Volcanic Hammer, or just a creature, are far more efficient ways to control your own life total. So basically, the game plan is to stay alive in the early game by trading one-for-one or better, and then just hit a six that is worth the opponent’s next three cards on turn 6. If you are north of ten after executing on this plan, you should race even Red Decks if you are willing to do things like trade Spell Snare for Lightning Helix (and you should be).

One thing I noticed while testing with Julian Levin and Josh Ravitz last weekend was that in the absence of Niv-Mizzet, Electrolyze was the only Red card in my deck. After some discussion, we decided to try a “White Wafo-Tapa” deck that just substituted Wrath of God in this slot.

Gets into all the nooks and crannies!

I decided to mix up one White threat as part of the swap, a concession to the fact that White’s finishers are peer to Blue’s, and sometimes better to have (especially in the face of potential Cranial Extraction). While I think that Patron of Kitsune is actually superior to most of the other cards at its mana cost – certainly better than Yosei in any kind of genuine defensive control deck – this happens to be one of those decks that actually revolves around Miren and has a Debtors’ Knell endgame.

The more difficult swap was Boomerang for Repeal starting. Wrath of God is in essence superior to Electrolyze in the majority of matchups that matter (i.e. you don’t automatically scoop to a swarm of terrible creatures, and Simic Sky Swallower ceases to be trump); however, one of the great inducements to playing Electrolyze is that it mimics Compulsive Research in the control-on-control early game, only unlike the Cadillac, Electrolyse never gets countered. Losing the early game ‘trip was a mite stressful because of how important land drops are in control-on-control, especially as the wing of decks I am discussing today have no Signets and four Karoos each. The compromise was to play Repeal as an early game cycling card, inefficient as it may be, and foregoing the broken openings that Boomerang can afford… And while I have won countless games on Eye of Nowhere in Vore, in five queues with the previous update to Wafo-Tapa control, playing a majority of Steam Vents decks, I never had even one broken Boomerang landslide; this mollified me considerably. Playing White also gave me the opportunity to run Debtors’ Knell as a pseudo “fifth” Dragon… As this deck style can strangle the opponent for control of the game and then hold it with sixteen counters and a ton of card drawing, the Knell has been more consistent than you might suspect (seeing it only in terrible B/W slow decks).

One point of potential tuning is that the White Wafo-Tapa deck is much more reliant on White mana than the previous version was on Red mana (Wrath and Yosei being WW and Debtors’ Knell being WWW). Guillaume played three actual Mountains in his Honolulu deck, to support the RR on Niv-Mizzet and Giant Solifuge. On the other hand, while my versions actually have more secondary color mana – and the second deck performed to spec for me – I was sometimes hurting for a second White to hit the Wrath under pressure. Therefore I am considering one Plains just so that I can randomly Ghost Quarter for it if someone tries to Annex or Dream Leash or Confiscate my Azorius Chancery (sometimes the only White source I have in play); this is not necessarily a move I would make in the previous version. At the time of this writing, I have only played two queues with White Wafo-Tapa and have not had a chance to try the Plains.

I am not sure, but this deck might just be superior to both Red-style Wafo-Tapa (my version at least, due to shoring up that archetype’s potential deficiencies long game against resolved threats on board) and the creature-hostile breed of U/W Control decks that we have seen from Sean McKeown and so on since the release of Dissension. The only reservation I have on the former claim is that with four Volcanic Hammers in the sideboard, the Red deck can theoretically burn the opponent out for exactly 20 (2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3), and this deck can only win on creatures, of which there are only four (plus the Knell); as for the latter, the Descendent of Kiyomaro-into-Meloku decks with main-deck Condemn and so on border on mid-range control decks. Certainly they are better against pure aggression – and this deck is quite strong in that regard itself – but White Wafo-Tapa style can beat essentially anything, and is certainly more robust when facing another control deck, viz. Green mid-range, or certainly Vore.

As stated previously, I have only played in two queues with this deck so far. I won one, and the other… I might have won it but for the most embarrassing mis-click of my MTGO career to date. The matchup was U/W on U/W. He bit, playing Compulsive Research into my Mana Leak. I therefore had the opportunity to Research on turn 5, setting up the following turn one card up with either Mana Leak or Remand mana at the ready. However, I added four mana to my pool by accident. I don’t know why or how I forgot what the letter “U” does, but I decided that re-clicking one of my lands would untap it. Sadly, that land was Oboro, Palace in the Clouds. Well, this is awkward, I thought, pondering the myriad horrendous follow-ups I could make and how many cards I might be discarding with each… I decided to make lemonade and took the opportunity to play down Azorius Chancery. Long story short, it turns out he was playing a Copy Enchantment deck, and his next play was Dream Leash. Yeah, that one was my fault.

The next queue I made no such embarrassing mis-click.

The first match was against Sea Stompy. I figured out that I should just hold my Spell Snares for his Remands and I would not easily lose, despite taking several blows from Ninja of the Deep Hours. Actually it’s possible to lose, but only if you try to Condemn Kird Ape after Declare Blockers or something… Just don’t do that. In the deciding game, I actually got hit by Thoughts of Ruin for six… and still had two Chanceries and Miren left over, along with five cards in hand. This is how I sideboarded:

-2 Compulsive Research
-4 Hinder (As above; even when playing a slow defensive deck, I hate slow reactive cards)
-3 Tidings
+1 Repeal
+4 Condemn
+4 Faith’s Fetters

The theory was that cantrip velocity into Dragons and Knell would be trump regardless of his plays, as long as I hit my drops. This theory held up.

The second match was against Izzet Guildmage / Wee Dragonauts. I have only played this matchup once before, at a Top8Magic pre-PT Honolulu mock tournament, where I lost, with what eventually became our Tron deck, to Luis Neiman (you can check it out on our Magic Podcasts page… by the way, quite a few new ‘casts are up if you haven’t been in a while). White Wafo-Tapa is much stronger against this deck than Tron was because it has more counters to break up the flurries, and most importantly, Spell Snare – a card not yet available at Honolulu – for the Guildmages. In Game 1 I Snared all four of his Guildmages; he went to double Dragonauts against my Keiga. I swung and played second Keiga, stealing both, into a multiple Compulsive Research (i.e. “big pumps”) turn.

-3 Tidings
-2 Wrath of God
+1 Repeal
+4 Faith’s Fetters

I decided that Tidings was a card I was only likely to cast if I wanted to eat a fist full of Glacial Rays, and my board would consistently be better than his – and he didn’t have many guys – so Wrath of God was not a card I wanted in my opening hand. The jig was up when I Repealed my own Faith’s Fetters on his Wee Dragonauts when he tapped for Niv-Mizzet… Wrath followed, and the win was academic.

The final was against a certain R/W beatdown deck featuring Boros Garrison. This match may have been the only time in my life I thought “nice deck” and actually meant that it was, you know, actually quite a nice deck.

Game 1 I didn’t play any spells. I mean I would have played Keiga the next turn but I was too busy being dead. Anyway, if I had shipped and/or won, what would Sadin do during all those lectures he usually gives me about keeping “land and spell” hands with no early game action?

For this matchup I went with the same anti-aggression package as I described for Sea Stompy.

Game 2 he burned me down from 18 with one card in his hand. If the last two cards were Char and Seal I was dead. He Helixed me and passed with a card left. I played a Dragon and immediately popped Miren to go to seven or eight, with five cards left in hand, including another Dragon and Knell. He looked at his two cards and we went to three.

Game 3 the White cards showed up early enough to keep me around 18, and he gave me a quick scoop.

In sum, I quite like the U/W version of this deck, and am planning to play it some more on MTGO and see if I can continue my short streak of mis-click-free queue winning. I would have played in additional queues since Monday or whenever I took this one, but I have been busy blah blah blah… Actually, I have just been getting my ass kicked in the Tournament Practice room by Scouseboy’s Paladin plus Jitte skills, as I insist on tuning this Rakdos deck that I like but is probably not ready for the queues yet. Really, Craig? On a mulligan to four? [Gotta admit, I did enjoy that one… – Craig.]