I know it is difficult to imagine this, but a few weeks back, Jonny and BDM were testing Constructed. No, really! It was during the Team Pro Tour Qualifier season, and BDM intended to play with McKenna and Jamie Parke… Dunno how Jonny got roped into, testing because even when he was the best player on the planet he avoided it. It must have been between drafts.
Anyway, Jonny was playing Vore. Don’t believe whatever second-hand rumors you hear. Jonny loves Magic, still and always. He loves having the feel of cards under his fingers, and spreading his manabase, and thinking, thinking about his plays. So in this case he looked down at his board, and thinking resulted his in remarking, “Whoever made this is incompetent*. This deck definitely needs Signets.”
Fast forward (actually backward, kind of).
The weeks prior to the first Team PTQs, I wasn’t sure what decks we were going to play. I knew I definitely wanted to play my B/G/W Combo Deck (nice choice there), but the other two decks were up in the air. I had Sadin pencilled in on Gruul Deck Wins, and Paul on Vore because it kind of reminded me of how he played Psychatog. If you remember from my Team PTQ reports, Paul was the dregs on Vore and Gruul Deck Wins could never beat Ghost Dad. I had Heartbeat on deck in the line-up (which ended up being Paul’s deck), but didn’t know about the third. Before Sadin ended up playing Nik Nygaard’s main to a 9-1 record or whatever, I – as with pre-Hawaii testing – had Annex Wildfire on the short list.
The major accomplishment of this deck has to be winning The Finals in Japan in the hands of the mighty Masashiro Kuroda.
Kuroda took essentially Adrian Sullivan Eminent Domain deck and made it more consistent and powerful. According to Masashiro, Adrian’s Dimir Aqueducts were terrible against control, and Spectral Searchlight was not contributing to turn 3 Annex, if ever. Kuroda therefore made a wild choice for a control deck: he included actual card drawing rather than redundant or offbeat threats, simultaneously emphasizing the regularity of the deck’s most likely best draws; he also swapped out Remand for Mana Leak.
Approaching this deck in a post-Guildpact universe (I know Dissension Standard is going to premiere tomorrow, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with the Guilds of this deck), I basically did what I did for URzaTron in Honolulu and took a clunky three-color manabase and made it a streamlined two colors for the testing session, adding some reasonable quick plays (hey, it worked for Osyp). You’ll notice that the deck loses essentially zero by sloughing Black. The Kokushos became more Keigas, something that I wasn’t entirely happy about, but hey, Keiga is the best Dragon, so mise (plus I wasn’t intending to test sides at this point, so Cranial Extraction was a non-issue short term). As I said, we didn’t test boards, but Adrian didn’t even play Cranial Extraction, so I figured the two-color version would not lose much in that regard should the deck make it to the next level.
For a time, I toyed with the idea of running Fellwar Stone over Dimir Signet (given the aforementioned paucity of Black spells in my new list), but ultimately left them because the idea of being unable to play turn 3 Annex was too hideous to imagine… Though I suppose Fellwar Stone would be better than Boros Signet (you can’t see, but I am presently shuddering).
Anyway, here is my updated playtest deck:
No, there aren’t any Dissension cards. I will now compose an aside of 447 words on people complaining about how this week’s “Road to Regionals” articles don’t have enough Dissension cards:
Last year, we had a similar injection of “new set” upon a fairly established Standard… Not as established as the current Standard that has been tried hundreds of times in Team Trios, but a fairly well known set of cards and decks. I played every round with my Red Deck, and in nine or whatever rounds, I played against exactly two Saviors of Kamigawa cards: Pithing Needle and Skull Collector. This was in Round 2, and they were in the same deck. Pithing Needle came down on my manascrewed hand naming Sensei’s Divining Top (of which I had a second upon first draw) and I still won (with Culling Scales). Is Twincast Saviors of Kamigawa? Okay. I also got Twincasted out (nice Beacon), but it was in Round 9 or something and I was already out of contention.
My point is that Saviors of Kamigawa was laden with (eventually) format defining cards from Hand of Cruelty to Celestial Kirin to Promise of Bunrei, and even in a format where Tooth and Nail dominated Top 8s, most players didn’t even figure out to play Arashi, the Sky Asunder, even in the sideboard. Despite the hype on cards like Stampeding Serow and Thoughts of Ruin, those made no impact at all.
I’ve qualified for US Nationals via Regionals more than once, and I don’t think I’ve ever cared that much about whether my opponent had some cards that I wasn’t prepared for via online magazine. Seriously. Especially in a format that promises to be as diverse as the one on Saturday. You would do well to just figure out how to blast, burn, or manascrew your opponent out, regardless of his Guild affiliation… Unlike the typical three-deck metagame, in today’s Standard there are simply too many potential enemies to metagame against all of them. This is not to say that you shouldn’t innovate if you can. Maybe you have the world’s best Rakdos deck. By all means, you may take many opponents by surprise… But one of the things that makes me a good playtester is that I try to stay away from figuring out the other side of the table. I copy decks off the Internet and test against those without variation. Remember: The goal is not to be able to beat the absolute best and most creative decks, but merely the ones that show up, so worrying about Dissension build this and Dissension build that when everyone already knows how good Heartbeat and Ghost Husk, Vore and Heezy Street are seems like so much noise drowning out your ability to efficiently evaluate what is important: the kinds of board positions, threats, and options that will come up on Saturday.
Anyway, I’ve been wondering for some time why the Annex deck, once a ubiquitous spoiler in Magic Online 8-man Queues and champion of one of the world’s most challenging tournaments, fell completely off the map. I knew that it had always had a soft pure Red-x beatdown match, so I decided to test Annex Wildfire against two of the top decks four decks, but not the ones that seemed like they would have idiotic results (Vore versus Annex, nice way to spend two hours). My choices were Heartbeat and Ghost Husk, arguably the two best decks in Standard. If Annex Wildfire could run against these, then it might be a contender once again. If not… Time to move on or play Husk or Heartbeat.
Before I get to the actual playtest games and commentary, I am going to write an additional 817 word aside on playtest methodology, or “why you shouldn’t try to think for yourself” (/sarcasm, “sarcasm,” I say!), or in actual context “why you shouldn’t try to think for the other player.”
The main thing that irks me about most people’s “playtest results” is that they have no idea how to playtest. You will notice that in this article, as in most of the articles that I write that include playtesting, I test a deck that I am somewhat interested in investigating, that may be an archetype deck but that usually has some sort of clever twist. This is a moving object that no one should consider part of any reasonable metagame, at least at the outset. The other deck involved is a stationary object. I take what should be a reasonable list from the known Magic Internet and play against that. I only make the most rudimentary changes that anyone would figure out (for example, one Mortify in Greater Good), but most of the time I try to change nothing. Otherwise there are too many moving parts. For example, my U/W control deck has a Transmute side theme and gains most of its value via a transformational sideboard contingent anticipating Rakdos sideboard cards and heavy Heartbeat. It is not dissimilar to Sean McKeown U/W deck, playing many cards in common (such as Mana Leak, Wrath of God, Spell Snare, and so on), but I still have a different finisher suite and radically different counter configuration. We don’t even have the same card drawing spells. Which is the right U/W deck to test against? Obviously the answer isn’t mine. Is the answer Sean’s? I got beaten up by him in testing the other night, but I don’t think that makes his deck something to consider against the mile high tidal wave of established decks in a format where there are fewer rounds – even innumerable Regionals rounds – compared against the number of viable deck choices. To tell you otherwise would be a disservice.
The most concrete example I can point out is how some players have chosen to update the manabases on U/R/W Firemane control. I cringe when I see Azorius Signets and review the Karoo counts. Some players have Chancery. Some players have cut Boros Garrison. Azorius Signet… Really? Do you have six Signets? No? Then you probably shouldn’t have Azorius Signet, at least over the second Boros Signet (you can make an argument past that one, but it won’t be a good one considering your 6+ Islands, Kamigawa Legendary Lands, likely Fountains, and decided paucity if not complete absence of UU spells)… I guess Azorius is better than Izzet Signet, but that is a totally different argument that requires even more minute land balancing and consideration to the sideboard (for example the presence or absence of Electrolyze).
Some players don’t like Karoos (Boros Garrison). I’m pretty sure they’ve never actually played with them, because these players don’t see how you can go Signet into Karoo into a perfect Compulsive Research curve using the Karoo for efficient mana on turn 3 into a perfect dump or, I think, the fact that Karoo on the draw – typically a negative – allows you to discard Firemane Angel for free. The thing that really bothers me, though, is how players just ignore the mana advantages that Kamiel and Julien already built into the deck. Are you kidding me? Look at the White spells…
Half the White spells are White. The other half are Boros-stamped. You never need specifically Blue and White mana together. Ever. You need Red and White mana. Together, and more than half the time if you count Angel reanimations. You can re-blend the land base, sure, to incorporate Hallowed Fountain (obviously), and Adarkar Wastes (if you still want them), and come out to the exact color balance that you need. But the mana that you get in concert (specifically to play your Guild-stamped spells)… Doesn’t it make sense for your double colored sources to give you the mana to cast those spells? Do you know what the kicker is? One hundred percent of the Red spells in the typical U/R/W main require White mana to play or activate. All of them.
This is just one deck, and not a particularly popular one, and that people are re-thinking the most basic elements – and quite badly – to accommodate phantom “new cards” is leading to embarrassing errors in tuning that are actually obvious if you spend all of thirty seconds to think about them.
That is why I try to keep myself out of both halves of the equation. I am already always testing some sort of inbred metagame germ of an idea from one side of the table. Why, for the love of God, would I infect the “ordinary” side when my half-reasoned changes are just going to replicate and exacerbate these same errors (unless, of course, my intention is no more than to be the best deck designer at my particular kitchen table metagame)?
Matchup 1 – Ghost Husk
I keep a hand with some lands and nice acceleration and an Annex. I’m on the play and run my first Signet. Steve clocks me and Castigates my Annex. At the end of the game I have six Signets… and pretty much no action down but a Remand. Dead.
Steve opens on Bob Maher, which is bad in the Annex matchup as it was bad for Vore. The cards that Bob draws aren’t really very important, so much as the fact that he’s drawing into more lands and I am a mana denial deck. I answer with a Signet, and Steve follows up with a Castigate (for Electrolyze). I can either Electrolyze Bob or go for a greedy Annex (which would spend my mana more efficiently), and given the card economies, I opt for the latter. I’d say it doesn’t really matter, but Steve follows up with Promise of Bunrei (mistake?), Husk, and Ghost Council (irrelevant mistake then, “whew”). Dead again.
This is the first game that Steve plays Pithing Needle, and it’s a doozy. I only have one relevant Needle target (Icy Manipulator), and wouldn’t you know it, I draw all three Icys this game. How lucky. Obviously that is frustrating, but I guess with all those Icys I don’t have many cards for lands, and am stuck on three for a while. I don’t really do much… Steve Mortifies an Annex and sets up Husk plus Pontiff kill. To give you an idea of how the tempo of this matchup works, my hand at the end of the game is four Wildfire, three Dream Leash, and I was never in a position to play them due to stalling (luckily I had Icys to discard). Dead again.
I have a halfway juicy hand, but Steve is on the play and elects to Castigate Izzet Signet. That is quite relevant because my newly two-color deck is locked out of Red for the remainder of the game. I had mana but nothing that mattered that I could cast… Of course, the speed of Husk makes this kind of a hiccup more relevant than it might be against a slower B/W that can’t, you know, kill you from 20 out of nowhere. Promise and Pontiff do the damage this time. Dead again.
I’m on the play this time, but Steve has not one but two of his ubiquitous Castigates (for Annex and Dream Leash). However, he has no threats for once and I get Icy out. This allows me to resolve Tidings under essentially no pressure, and play into two Wildfires and a Keiga. Got one!
Steve opens on Isamaru and Bob. I have three Signets, but am basically stuck on three lands and, per usual, have not enough action. Dead again.
This game was pretty interesting. Steve had a Promise but no guy. He Castigated me first, but left two Electrolyzes. Turn 4, Steve tapped for Ghost Council of Orzhova, which I obviously double Electrolyzed. This was fine – certainly the kind of play you will jump on – but it left him with four Bunrei tokens. I thought I was okay, but he followed up with Husk into Pontiff (lethal), but Pontiff followed by Husk would have been equally so. Dead again.
I have a weird draw with two Tidings… and Steve has two Castigates. That sucks, because those are all my Tidings. He Needles Icy, which of course is no picnic given that I’ve drawn multiple copies again. I play Wildfire but it doesn’t really matter… He follows up with Husk and Promise of Bunrei. Dead again.
Steve opens on Maher but I have the equalizer: Mikokoro. It’s not really that equal, as he misses land drops despite the fact that we are both drawing extra. The next fight is Ghost Council… versus Keiga. As in Honolulu, the fight favors Keiga. We get into this dumb standoff where Maher is betraying Steve and he plays a Bunrei… for no net value as he has to sacrifice to keep Ghost Council alive against my Wildfire… but then all the tokens vanish. Got one!
Steve is a bit flooded, but once again I didn’t have enough action. Dead again.
I only won two games. The reasons were pretty straightforward:
1) Annex Wildfire has an awful curve. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at my hand and saw all cards that cost five or more mana. What was really disturbing was that in many games I didn’t really have a graveyard. A removed from game pile, possibly. A graveyard? A typically Kate Moss-thin bin is indicative of my not having made any relevant plays.
2) Annex Wildfire has somewhat inconsistent mana. In Honolulu testing I actually thought a version of Annex Wildfire was going to be our best deck. However, Osyp and other members of the playtest squad objected to its ability to compete against Jushi Blue (what we initially thought would be the dominant Blue strategy). The deck had 23 lands and 8 Signets, and needed to hit its Signets, and sometimes had a Signet instead of a land, and… You know where this is going, I’m sure. If this deck burps, Ghost Husk jumps down its throat for an immediate kill.
3) Annex Wildfire fails to develop in the midgame and has inconsistent mana outlets. The version I tested, at least, can’t lean on Compulsive Research to fix its hand. I thought Electrolyze would fill that role (and Kuroda didn’t even have either; neither did Adrian), but it just wasn’t enough. Too often I would be dead in two, and the deck would burp and that would be it.
4) Ghost Husk had better conditional card advantage. For example, Steve only played Pithing Needle twice in ten games. However, in both cases I had drawn more than one Icy Manipulator, at least eventually.
5) The most important reason I lost was Wildfire. I played a total of four over three games, and got at least one off in both the games I won. Not playing this card is significant. The fact that Steve had Promise of Bunrei and Ghost Council (and, to a lesser extent, Nantuko Husk) made profitably playing Wildfire a narrow occurrence. Also, the comparative costs of Castigate versus Wildfire can’t be swept under the rug.
To be fair, Annex Wildfire was not designed to nor ever intended to compete against Ghost Husk… The card Castigate wasn’t even publicly known when Adrian first assembled Eminent Domain for his Champs. Just to clarify, if you didn’t get it from the game recaps, this deck basically folds to a single Castigate… and Osyp’s version of Husk (which we tested) plays only three copies.
Rather than act simply as an indictment of Annex Wildfire, I found the matchup with Ghost Husk to be enlightening for the other side of the table. First of all, that deck is really, really, good (big surprise, I know). The interesting thing with Kami of Ancient Law and Mortify is that Ghost Husk was able to operate as trump to Annex Wildfire’s primary plan without actually stretching its capabilities or going to the board, oftentimes at a significant tempo advantage.
The interesting thing about a really superb deck like Ghost Husk is that it can smash established decks – even champions – that it was never really designed to fight. In this case it is via Splash Damage, but for a diverse day at the Regional Championships, it might just mean not losing to some guy’s inconsistent homebrew (a deck that would have otherwise bashed your inconsistent homebrew rogue Weapon of Choice).
Final 2-8 Ghost Husk
I thought that Annex Wildfire would have a better chance against the de facto best deck of the format. Reading back to Adrian’s original Eminent Domain report, he claims to have bested Heartbeat on at least two occasions on his way to the Wisconsin State Championships. Additionally, it is the kind of matchup where if Steve gets a weird mana draw (i.e. he actually has to play Mountain and / or Swamp) I can strand him with a Wildfire. Of course, I can just steal his kill condition lands as well, slowing him down or forcing him to kill with Tribe-Elder beatdown.
Steve has a weird draw with both Mountain and Swamp, and ultimately both of them in play as part of his first four lands. With two Signets I know that the plan is to go for the quick Wildfire, but Steve had a fifth land, so I end up just leaving the board on me with two Signets and him with a Swamp. I fail to topdeck lands for a couple of turns, allowing Steve to recover before I can kill him with Keiga. Dead.
Steve has two Remands for my Icy Manipulator, which gives him a ton of time. He doesn’t really know what to do, so he just draws five… I look at the game state and know I have to win immediately or I won’t – not “Wildfire,” win – and I don’t. My hand at the end of this one is Keiga, Keiga, Wildfire, Wildfire, Remand. Dead again.
This game is a total beating. I have a heavy Signet draw, and figure I can Wildfire with only three (!) lands in play. My 4-0 mana advantage post-Wildfire doesn’t matter overmuch, but the style points are very heartening given the outcome of most of the evening’s playtest. It is actually absurd how much work I have to go through despite a powerful opening, with a Tidings follow-up and two Annexes required before I can put the game away. A desperation Heartbeat of Spring actually makes it close, but Keiga doesn’t let me down this time. Got one!
I Remand Sakura-Tribe Elder and hit a fast Leash, so I am feeling pretty good. All of a sudden I don’t know what happened and I am dead. Steve saw he was falling behind and just played three Heartbeats over consecutive turns, which blanked my Remands and allowed him to hit a large Weird Harvest. Dead again.
I have double Icy this game, and Steve is color-screwed. He has Forest, Forest, Forest on turn 3, and doesn’t make a play until turn 4 Kodama’s Reach. It’s pretty miserable when I lose therefore, but the Annex deck’s curve is so high that it seems impossible to keep up against any kind of high velocity deck. My hand at the end of this one is Electrolyze, Electrolyze, Wildfire, Wildfire, Tidings. The hand itself seems fine, so I don’t know… I guess if you don’t draw acceleration, things just don’t come together. Dead again.
Believe it or not, this game mark’s Steve’s first first-turn Sensei’s Divining Top. For my part, I mulligan this game. I hit an Annex, and go for Dream Leash after missing a drop the next turn, but Steve Remands the Leash, untaps, and kills me. It turns out that I had a land on top, so if I hadn’t mulliganed, I would have been able to run Annex and Remand rather than the Leash, and possibly won (“But we’ll never know,” according to young Sadin) Dead again.
This was a wonderful game with many decisions and both of us drawing action for once. I had two Remands, and Steve was once again stuck with both Mountain and Swamp. I thought it was a good Wildfire opportunity, but Steve drew all four of his Remands, which allowed him to continue to develop while I kept trying to resolve expensive spells that I thought might matter. Eventually I did get the Wildfire, but Steve answered with Heartbeat and Heartbeat. I used the extra mana to get out multiple Icys, which must have been annoying for him. The important turn was the last one. I tapped his Forest (lone Green) and Steve added GGG and passed. I had UU left but didn’t want to use my second Icy for fear of his knocking me out with an upkeep Early Harvest in response. We both passed and both burned and Steve went to his main; he calmly Boomeranged his Forest, re-ran it as his land for the turn, and killed me. Dead again.
Steve had basically no respect for Annex Wildfire after eighteen games, and just ran out a third turn Heartbeat of Spring (mistake) (“You don’t have any action in your deck.”). I, in fact, had an Annex (“thanks, b”). So he ran out a second Heartbeat. I had a Dream Leash and Keiga. I would actually have been manascrewed this game but for Steve’s assistance. We learned not to so greatly underestimate the opponent in this one, no matter how lopsided the matchup seems. Got one!
I mulligan. Dead again.
Basically, Annex Wildfire is completely outclassed by Heartbeat. In Honolulu, our version of URzaTron sideboarded Annex for a semi-transformation designed to buy tempo against Gifts Ungiven and to a lesser extent B/W control. That said, Eugene Harvey was very uncomfortable with the sideboard card because he thought that if the opponent had any kind of land search (most notably Kodama’s Reach, but to a lesser extent the best card in Standard), then the Annexes were basically wasted. Over and over I was in situations where I had played one or more Annexes but was still behind on the table. The reason that Steve made the Game 9 play at all was that he didn’t respect my action, and after twenty games, it is not difficult to see why that may have been reasonable, if ultimately disastrous.
On a more subtle level, Heartbeat and Annex play fairly evenly on acceleration, but going long, Signets are much worse than Kodama’s Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder due to Heartbeat of Spring itself. Make no mistake: this costs you both tempo and games over the course of a set.
Again subtly, Steve and I played the same number of Remands, but because his plays were fast and wonderful and mine were all six mana, his Remands were better – Time Walks, for the most part – and counter war winners regardless. Interestingly, Steve’s Muddle the Mixtures were 70% blank, but he still won all the important fights, just with the Remands. For Annex Wildfire to be able to compete, or even just improve, it has to pick up some Compulsive Researches or other early action, and I don’t know how it can really do that without sacrificing some essential element of the current version.
Again, I take this matchup not as an indictment of Annex Wildfire, but a reminder of just how good Heartbeat is. I was disappointed I didn’t win more games, but in hindsight, the reasons seem obvious. Steve had so much velocity. He ran out Tribe Elders and Reaches, started manipulating on turns 1-2, and generally had more relevant casts in his graveyard in a single game than I did in maybe the whole series.
You know what’s good in Magic? Being able to cast your spells.
Final 2-8 Heartbeat
I wanted to keep going and fight Ghost Dad, but Steve and I had been testing for about four hours straight and he said that a deck that can’t beat either of the two best decks probably isn’t viable for Regionals. On balance, Ghost Husk and Heartbeat seem as on point as they were in the PTQ season. More than once Steve said, “wow, is this deck good” in relation to Heartbeat, whereas Annex Wildfire got the “nice deck” song (Thank you I also think my deck is nice). If Jonny wants Signets in Vore… They’re not coming from this once-storied deck. At this point, I’m actually wondering how this archetype ever won, even in the hands of the first of many great Japanese Pro Tour champions. Anyone care to enlighten me? It’s quite disappointing against plays on turns 1-3, I’ve found.
I’d conclude with “oh, how the mighty have fallen,” but that’s rather hackneyed, and good writing avoids the trite.
PS Pods are up. BDM’s computer exploded, dogs were lying down with cats, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man assaulted New York City… but luckily BDM was in Prague and I was in LA, so we dodged. Anyway, our pre-Prague Pods as well as the three we did this week are available here.
Good luck tomorrow!
* Jonny is always saying things like that. One day some unnamed person asked me if we (“we” being our group in New York) play or draws in Ravnica, and Jonny looked at me and asked if I was “an idiot” and if I really wanted him to answer the question. Obviously we play. Karoos much? Point being, despite being a loyal and generous friend, the Machine sometimes sounds over-harsh to the unaccustomed ear.