The Price Of Progress

Todd went west for the St. Louis Open Series and has learned a great deal in the process of preparing for the Charlotte Invitational. Read on for lessons in Standard and Legacy!

The StarCityGames.com Open Series came to St. Louis this past weekend, and boy were there some fireworks! Illusions picked up three slots in the Standard Top 8, and “nice guy” Andrew Shrout took down the Legacy Open with his innovative (and hastily constructed) U/R Delver deck. Blue and red are sick, and the secret is out!

As far as Standard is concerned, Delver of Secrets might still have some issues. Mono Red ended up taking down the title in St. Louis, which could prove troublesome for my new favorite tribe. However, I perceive this as more of an obstacle than an omen. Bad matchups are bad for a reason, but you can usually improve your deck enough to mitigate most of the negative aspects that actually make the matchup “bad” in the first place.

So what’s the deal? Is Illusions just getting started, or does the Mono Red deck’s win signal a reign of fire? Much like when I made it to the Top 4 of the Indianapolis Standard Open at the beginning of the season, sporting such monstrosities as Phantasmal Dragon, I had the exact same problem. Mono Red beat me in the semifinals and eventually took down the tournament. At that point, I had pretty much just given up on the deck due to the fact that Red was a bad matchup, and I moved onto other archetypes.

But I didn’t lose all hope. I knew that at some point, red decks would die down in the metagame, as they always do. Control players always figure out how to punish people for jamming Mountains, but it feels like people still just don’t get it. Mono Red is really tough to hate out, and for a lot of reasons. For starters, Timely Reinforcements is not a good card. It can’t apply ample pressure to them and rarely gives you enough life to survive a Shrine of Burning Rage. If you can shut down their Shrines, then you’ll usually be in decent shape anyway.

Control decks usually have good matchups against Mono Red, but there are some problems with this factor. For one, not everyone plays control decks. Mono Red is fairly notorious for wrecking aggressive decks due to their efficient threats and their plethora of removal. Add to this the fact that most aggressive decks usually just “try to dodge” the Mono Red matchup, readily abandoning cards that would otherwise improve percentages. They give excuses like “Mono Red players are the stains,” and various other bits of Magic jargon, and then wonder why they lost to Patrick Sullivan perfect play. The answer is that red decks are actually amazing when the pilot knows what they’re doing, and sometimes even if they don’t.

Red decks are incredibly powerful right now, but their power lies in their efficiency. While they lost Lightning Bolt and Goblin Guide with the last rotation, they didn’t lose the best card in their deck.

If you come to the party and you aren’t able to beat this card, then you should probably pack it in. Shrine gives the red decks a reason to fight, a reason to keep coming back to their Beta Mountains. Shrine gives the red mage the ability to do exactly what it is they want to do.

It creates chaos.

While burn spells aren’t necessarily chaotic in a Magical sense, they do throw the opponent into a frenzy. While you are cool, controlled, and precise, the opponent fails to interact with you because you are attacking them on a level that they are not able to defend. Shrine of Burning Rage adds to this chaos, building and building its power until you unleash it in a single, beautiful ball of hellfire and brimstone. This is exactly the kind of card that gives a red mage goosebumps.

I used to be that guy.

There was a time when Fireblast brought me more joy than you could imagine. Watching my opponent’s face as I cast Lightning Bolt to the dome during my main phase, then another, then another… Then, just as they think they’re safe because I’m tapped out, I casually put my Mountains into the graveyard.

“Take four. You’re dead.” Sweeter words have never been said! But alas, those days are behind me, and now I yearn for something more. Where once I only enjoyed winning, that just isn’t enough. I crave dominance, complete control, and utter devastation. When I win a game of Magic, I don’t want there to be any doubt in my opponent’s mind as to “why” I won, only that I did and it was all-encompassing. While there are draws from Mono Red that accomplish this on occasion, I often feel that you are scrapping at the end of almost every game, though you usually have the tools to get you there.

But I still like to bring the beatdown, so what am I to do? In most matches of Magic, there are two different sides to the coin. One player is supposed to apply pressure, while the other tries to establish control. At times, there are decks in Magic that try to break these rules, and we usually call those “combo decks.” While Mono Red is not a combo deck, it has a card type that functions very similarly to those cards found in traditional combo decks. Burn spells are unlike anything else in Magic, because they can attack a person’s life total as well as their creatures. There are some spells in other colors that function similarly, but red traditionally has an abundance of these types of cards, and most red decks look fairly similar. This makes it really easy for someone who hasn’t played in a while to get back into a newer format. Red decks are almost always competitive, and this format is no different.

With that said, Illusions filled a vital hole in the previous iteration of the Standard metagame. Mono Red was being pushed out of the picture by decks like Wolf Run and Solar Flare, but Illusions punished those decks for having cumbersome, sloppy draws. Illusions showed the world that you couldn’t just play a few removal spells and take care of the aggressive decks. You need dedicated, pinpoint hate or they’re going to walk all over you. Why do you think that Olivia Voldaren is so good? Illusions can still bring the pain, but it opened up the door for Mono Red to sneak back into the picture. And thus, we’ve created the cycle. 

While Mono Red is not a good matchup for Illusions, it is definitely not unwinnable. In fact, I’ve beaten Mono Red the last two times I played against it. There is definitely something to be said for the most recent addition to the deck:

Really not sure how this guy isn’t $25 at the moment. When combined with the efficiency of the Illusion anti-creature package, Geist of Saint Traft packs an enormous punch. His ability to swing games is tremendous, and he is easily worth the white splash by himself. He poses a serious threat that red decks can’t aggressively interact with and singlehandedly changes their mindset when he enters play. Couple this with the fact that he’s amazing against control and ramp, and you’ve really got a winner. I just wish I had caught on before now.

For what it’s worth, I don’t want to spend the entirety of this article talking about Illusions. God knows I’ve done a lot of that lately, but I’m only good at writing about things I have experience with. Illusions is pretty much the only deck I’m playing in Standard at the moment, but I should be looking to expand in the near future once Modern picks up for the PTQ season on Magic Online. Let’s just say that I’m probably playing Illusions this weekend in the Invitational, and I will be running somewhere between three and four Geist of Saint Traft. Pat McGregor list from St. Louis is a great starting point for anyone working on the deck.

The Legacy Open was also a lot of fun for me. I played with a Counterbalance deck built by GerryT, who will probably be doing some kind of write-up on the deck later this week. For those curious, here is “The Masterpiece.”

Overall, I felt like the deck was absolutely amazing, with two of my three losses coming against the same awkward Stax deck built by Caleb Durward. He provided a few of his friends with the list, and I happened to get paired up against Caleb and another one of them. Suffice it to say that I never played a Sensei’s Divining Top on the first turn, and lost to Armageddon quite a few times. My other loss came at the hands of a Knight of the Reliquary deck when I couldn’t draw into Swords to Plowshares and got wrecked by his double Wasteland draw.

I really liked Gerry’s list from Kansas City a few weeks ago, but this one had answers for a lot of the problems that the format could present. The older version was a little light on answers to cards like Knight of the Reliquary, but could handle pretty much anything else. However, adding white to the manabase put a bit of a strain on it. I loved the deck, but it was a bit vulnerable to mana denial, and that is primarily what I lost to.

Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows is an insane combination in this type of control deck because you have such a solid midgame with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. My sideboard was obviously a few cards off, but that was probably due to my inexperience with the deck. Relic of Progenitus would have been spectacular against a few of my opponents, and Grim Lavamancer would have made my aggressive matchups a bit easier in the process.

One of the biggest drawbacks to playing control in Legacy (and specifically three or four colors) is that you can get severely punished for your vulnerable manabase. I’ve been knocked out of the last two tournaments I’ve played in due to Wasteland with some form of recursion. Life from the Loam and Crucible of Worlds are both clunky, but they are just absurd against a control deck that doesn’t have a lot of basic lands. Without enough basic lands to cast your late game spells or the capacity to control the board with your Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows, some decks will eventually get the upper hand, even if you have Counterbalance and Top already in play.

My biggest complaint about the deck is that Top and Counterbalance prevent you from being able to play Snapcaster Mage, who is my pick for best card in the format. While he doesn’t do anything special on his own, the best spells in the format are the ones that cost one mana. While he allows you to rebuy something you’ve already cast, he also attaches a body that can apply pressure to combo/control decks, or provide some breathing room against an opposing aggressive deck.

Going forward with Counterbalance, I’m not sure that it is necessary to splash for Swords to Plowshares. I think something like Dismember could give you the ability to take care of their Knights of the Reliquary. Having Relic of Progenitus to continually shrink them, or just shrink them for a turn so that your burn spells can kill them should be enough, but I don’t have enough experience with the deck to know for sure.

And now we come to the last deck I wanted to talk about this week:

In my mind, Price of Progress is the only card that makes this archetype viable. The fact that everyone’s manabase is incredibly greedy gives me the feeling that he stole a lot of games on the day by just obliterating them with this card. Snapcaster Mage also has a pretty huge target with the Prices, and you could just kill someone from 14 or more life fairly easily.

While Snapcaster Mage is probably still the best card in the deck, Delver of Secrets is no slouch. With only fourteen creatures in the deck, you can dedicate the rest of the slots to card selection, removal, and disruption in the form of instants and sorceries. With only eighteen lands, you can bet that Delver is going to flip naturally a decent amount of the time. With both Brainstorm and Ponder, he should be swinging in for three on the regular.

So what could make this deck better? I’m honestly not sure, but I have a few ideas. Grim Lavamancer is an absolute house, but Goblin Guide doesn’t really excite me too much. While I can see the role he plays and why he’s there, I can’t help but feel like his ability is a hefty drawback. However, with Price of Progress there to punish people for playing too many lands, perhaps Andrew really got it right. The Price of Progress is death!

With Force of Will, Daze, and Spell Snare to help out against potentially troublesome combo decks, Andrew’s pressure suite combined with efficient removal gives him a solid chance against any opponent he faces. After talking to Andrew for a bit, there were a few realizations that we’ve come to:

1. Fireblast is probably not great.

2. Daze is underwhelming without Stifle and Wasteland.

3. Snapcaster Mage is ridiculous.

While many will argue that Snapcaster Mage is overrated, I feel like they’re just playing it incorrectly. Legacy has a huge void as far as card advantage is concerned. Snapcaster Mage can be a bit mana intensive, but I feel like we’re really starting to see him shine. While he’s great in U/W Control decks (mostly for flashing back Swords to Plowshares), he really proves his worth by being able to throw more burn at the opponents face or creatures. And that, in its essence, is what makes him so good. When combined with Lightning Bolt, it’s almost like he has an alternate effect. One side allows him to kill a creature, while another allows him to apply more pressure to the opponent’s life total directly.

Depending on the matchup, you can pick and choose how you would like to direct your spells. That’s the beauty of playing with burn spells, as they function almost like a split card. The drawback, of course, is the fact that they can’t easily kill a larger creature like Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary. This is where a card like Swords to Plowshares would come in handy, but that makes the rest of your aggressive cards much worse. With Price of Progress functioning as your haymaker, I wouldn’t try to add too many colors to the deck. You’ll end up getting punished by Wasteland, and the deck obviously has the tools it needs to win matches.

As people push the current formats forward, expect a lot of changes and innovation to established archetypes, as well as newer archetypes to shine. Andrew attacked the format from a different angle, using elements from Mono Red and disruptive blue spells to take home the trophy in St. Louis. Rogue deckbuilders everywhere should rejoice, because this one came out of left field and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I was happy to see that Andrew took it down, because it takes a lot of heart to put your faith into something that is untested, but just generally looks like a lot of fun. Sometimes you just randomly stumble upon something beautiful.


Thanks for reading.


strong sad on MOL