The Road to Regionals – Magical Hack: Canoodling With Standard

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In today’s Regionals-themed edition of Magical Hack, Sean presents five decklists that showcase a number of different ideas. Some are excellent contenders, and all invite discussion and debate as the metagame slowly begins to take shape…

Playing around with post-Dissension Standard has been an interesting exercise so far, and not just because my efforts to put together a playtest team have been consistently undermined by Brian David-Marshall saying “Let’s draft!” instead of having Standard actually, um, playtested. The big questions are obvious, and their importance is considerable: what do the three new color combinations change, or add, to Standard? How will the new expansion change the groundwork laid out by seven of the ten guilds as seen in Honolulu? Clearly, all of the work bringing us to this point is still at least in some ways valid, because most of the card-pool that is legal now was legal then. Many of the key fixtures were based on Ravnica or Guildpact guilds, so we need to figure out two “simple” things: what non-Guild cards change the pre-existing decks, and what the three guild models turn into for Standard.

Black/Red seems to be the odd one out; its cards are very powerful, and an aggressive strategy is clearly warranted, but what makes it more special than, say, the Red/Green guild or the Red/White guild when it comes to beating down? The answer doesn’t really come up the way we’d like it to, as one Jagged Poppet experiment or another might be able to tell you. Playing with an empty hand may mean a lot for the cards you have in play, but it’s just bad resource management and poor strategy when it comes to facing off against decks that do things every turn. Black/Red will likely exist, but not really in the Hellbent form, as dangerous as the discard elements can be… because one thing the deck is not is “consistent.” It’ll smash one game, blunder the next, and if we wanted that we could always just play Zoo and pray for good mana.

Blue/Green has at least one pre-existing archetype that will make good use of its cards – Critical Mass – and another archetype that could easily pick up a few things here or there if they suit its power needs, since the Heartbeat deck is pretty much done long before Dissension rears its head. Aggro-tempo concepts are always reasonable, even if they don’t have enough time to sit around and wait for shuffle-and-Top tricks to give them long-game power against decks that play fair. You don’t have time against Heartbeat or Ghost Husk to play tricks with your Divining Top anyway, so committing to the Top as a plan and filling your deck with cards that work with the Top (like Wood Elves) instead of cards that have body (or at least some impact on the game) is a key way to lose against the fast decks that laugh in the face of your Keiga.

Testing a theory of mine that is based on a lot of experiences playing on both sides of the Heartbeat matchup, it occurred to me that anything that cost more than four mana on your own turn was absolutely miserable against Heartbeat, and at best only passable against most aggro decks. Dropping Dragons on the opponent was often regarded as “a tactical decision,” also known in common parlance as “a mistake”… because you died. Playing three- or four-drops instead seemed the better route to victory, and splashing into U/G for creature removal like Putrefy didn’t come across as necessary when you could merely aim to win the Jitte war with the maximum number of pointy death sticks plus Spell Snare in your pile.

Of course, my efforts to discuss the deck in the forums here on StarCityGames were met with some resistance. Wanting to talk about a no-Dragon, no-Top “Critical Mass” deck, I was told my deck should instead be discussed in the U/G Graft thread because, well, two of the creatures have Graft. Never mind that otherwise this is an aggro-control deck focusing on efficient creatures and countermagic and control elements, based strictly on Critical Mass but omitting elements that make less sense now that you add the opportunity cost of playing the cards against decks like Heartbeat. Sensei’s Divining Top comes with the opportunity cost of having three-mana 1/1s in your deck to accelerate and shuffle and hold Jittes, and Keiga, the Tide Star comes with the opportunity cost of you accidentally being dead sometimes.

Modest playtesting suggested this non-Keiga, non-Top “hypo” Critical Mass deck did basically what I had anticipated it would do, functioning as an aggressive deck with just enough countermagic to dictate the tempo of the game, and some powerful creature interactions. Both of the Graft creatures make every creature in the deck better in one way or the other, thanks to the nuttiness of Meloku being nutty squared when he’s untargetable and a 3/5, or the fun that comes with Cytoshape Root-Kin when your first two plays were Vinelasher Kudzu and Plaxcaster Frogling. (Turn 3, opponent is at 18; turn 4, opponent is at 10 facing down 12 points of power.)

Obviously, there are a lot of directions you can take with Critical Mass, rather than just forswearing elements of the deck’s roots and benching two cards I know MichaelJ is going to scream about after he’s done playing in the Invitational… Sensei’s Divining Top and Keiga the Porn Star. After all, I’m cutting two of the five most powerful cards in Standard from my list, keeping Tribe-Elder, Meloku, and Jitte, but pitching Keiga and Top. Being one who cares about results rather than MichaelJ telling me that the sky is falling, I think you benefit by adding “Spell Snare” and having amazing creature synergy in addition to a much shorter clock than the one that starts with Wood Elves and ends with Keiga. The jury remains out, and that’s why they call it playtesting, but so far I have been happy with the deck.

The other Blue/Green deck is the Heartbeat deck, and I can see at least one U/G card that makes it in, that being the cantrip half of Bound / Determined. A tutorable card (thanks to Muddle the Mixture’s transmute ability finding the two-mana “Determined” even if you happen to want to cast “Bound”) that negates things that use the word “counter” and “spell” as part of their plan to not die to Maga seems pretty good, and at the worst it includes the phrase “draw a card.” But looking at the split cards in Heartbeat, I kept wondering why I didn’t just add more and more of them, because some of them had to be better than cards already in the deck.

Train of Thought, Boomerang, and Recollect made room for the three split cards in the main, under the following logic: Boomerang is a poor answer to any problem but it does answer any problem… but you can answer those same problems just as readily with Crime / Punishment, answer all of them (such as multiple Pithing Needle), and has a similar effect to the Savage Twisters many players advocate. PT Top 8 competitor Max Bracht suggested the main-deck sweeper should be Pyroclasm, rather than Twister, because it is just that much faster and thus more relevant when you need it, such as against Zoo decks. Turning your Boomerang effect into something that can mimic the lost Twister for when that is needed is a definite benefit, even if you do lose the instant-speed utility of Boomerang. And being able to answer multiple copies of the same problem permanent is also for the good.

Recollect is hardly ever used during the combo, and is basically just a safety net that some (such as Steve Sadin) prefer to run without (and use a fourth Kodama’s Reach over). In this case, it is replaced in its technical presence with Bound, able to get back any one specific card you need if somehow you need to get one thing back within the bounds of your entire deck. But it is actually replaced with Determined, which at the worst cycles and at its best can completely demolish key matchups. The loss of Train of Thought is hard, but acceptable: casting Research for either three cards or three men, or some variation in between, has got to be pretty good against the decks you want Train of Thought – B/W Aggro – while it also presents a unique solution to the Cranial Extraction problem that black-based control decks can pose as early as turn 4 of game 1. In addition to negating an Extraction it can allow you to access your sideboard during the first game, creating a situation where you get to use Meloku when the combo doesn’t pan out. It’s not as good a card as Train of Thought long-term against control decks, but it’s equally good against aggro and has the benefit of being instant speed to boot.

At least one of those cards remains accessible in the sideboard; Train of Thought is very good against Black-based aggro decks, and slow control decks without Swift Silence or Voidslime, so it is worthy of being found somewhere within the bounds of your deck and sideboard. The other two aren’t missed, because few situations require a Boomerang but can’t be answered by Crime / Punishment. The sideboard is tentative, based on prior sideboard strategies discussed at length during the Team Standard portion of the past few weeks. It brings in ways to stop the early beats against Zoo-like decks; something to keep the opponent busy with (Vinelasher Kudzu) when a partial transformation will require the opponent to leave themselves vulnerable to the combo; plus the right silver bullets and some Shadows of Doubt for the mirror. (The Kudzu are also for the mirror, but the Shadows of Doubt are only applicable against Transmute, Weird Harvest, and Cranial Extraction… the latter of which you can even now answer after the fact, thanks to Research / Development.)

This is only two of the possible Blue/Green decks, which doesn’t touch upon Blue/Green/White or other three-or-more-color permutations. When good mana and powerful gold cards flow as plentifully as they do now, the potential for quality decks is as deep as your imagination allows. My next deck of interest, however, comes from too many long conversations had late at night with dedicated Blue-White mage Scott McCord, on the train ride back to fair Astoria after yet another late night out drafting. With seriously good cards available in Dissension for the colors of Blue and White, it seems obvious that with just that little bit of help a solid Blue-White Control strategy could be quite powerful.

You start with a solid anti-beatdown plan care of Blue/White’s power control cards, which cleverly start taking control of the game as early as the first turn thanks to one-drops Spell Snare and Condemn. Life-gain provider and power blocker Descendant of Kiyomaro can also double as three-power-for-three-mana beatdown provider when the opportunity becomes available, giving a solid clock against non-aggressive decks… and it’s pretty punishing to be playing a Blue/White deck with Jushi Apprentice, Compulsive Research, and four Karoos against opponents who have to mulligan. There are enough counters to win key fights against Heartbeat and keep serious problems off your back, and the sideboarding plan allows you to tune yourself against whatever is needed: a Disenchant effect for troublesome enchantments like Phyrexian Arena and bothersome artifacts like the Pointy Stick of Doom, and Azorius Guildmage is able to contain either side of the Heartbeat deck’s man plan while also cleverly working to contain an Umezawa’s Jitte (and complementing the small but nonzero early beatdown plan brought to you by the Descendant of Kiyomaro). Threads of Disloyalty beat down on beatdown decks, and Disrupting Shoal is a counterspell that wins counter wars readily while you’re tapped out… so it can protect Descendant of Kiyomaro or Meloku the turn you cast them, or counter key spells against Heartbeat even if Gigadrowse resolves.

Testing with the deck so far has been highly positive; beatdown strategies hate to face off against it, especially with the usually-sideboarded Descendants of Kiyomaro present in the main as a four-of and part of the deck’s main strategy. Opposing control strategies find that the deck has a lot more land than they do, more powerful answers to most creatures in play, and a solid suite of countermagic (despite the fact that Remand is not present at all). Heartbeat decks are presumably difficult opponents, unless Jushi Apprentice and Descendant of Kiyomaro are played well prior to their fundamental turn, but going off against a Jushi Apprentice is a difficult prospect at best… and short of Giant Solifuge, Meloku, or Kodama North-Side, Azorius Guildmages tends to trump both sides of their sideboard plans.

Green/White/Blue Control is also distinctly possible, but not necessarily much better than Blue/White. The key attraction is that such a deck gets to play all the countermagic plus Loxodon Hierarch, but when played properly Descendant of Kiyomaro plays as useful a role without the third-color splash and more painful manabase… and can start doing it a full turn faster. One mana may not sound like much, but it can be, especially since that one mana could be Spell Snare mana and thus a full-fledged counterspell. Red/White/Blue Control sounds more appealing to me, such as the Dutch Angel deck with an improved manabase, but that deck requires a heavy beatdown field to prove very good, or else face down against only control decks that are likewise concerned with a heavy beatdown field; the presence of decks like Heartbeat and Magnivore make it a poor prospect indeed, and for (again) minimal gains over a “pure” Blue/White strategy.

What is truly curious, though, is what you get when you start mixing colors more thoroughly. What if you lose one of the three “traditional” colors from Zoo, which was present in its current form at least in part because that was one of the few three-color blocks that was already out with its applicable dual lands when Guildpact came around. Swapping Red for Black seems poor, and if it were any good it would likely have shown its face sometime in the last two months. Swapping Green for Black, however, lets you keep Isamaru and Savannah Lions, but asks you to drop Kird Ape for other potential additions (offering, among other things, Frenzied Goblin and either Scorched or Plagued Rusalka). Watchwolf and Scab-Clan Mauler can be replaced by Drekavac and Dark Confidant, though you’ll not likely see Drekavac anytime soon. All in all, you gain the ability to keep your Red burn spells that are so important to Zoo, but also turn on the power of Confident Bob, and gaining access to Black makes it distinctly possible to get discard in order to disrupt the opponent.

4 Savannah Lions
4 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
4 Scorched Rusalka
4 Dark Confidant
4 Kami of Ancient Law

4 Seal of Fire
4 Lightning Helix
4 Char
3 Flames of the Blood Hand
3 Shock

4 Sacred Foundry
4 Blood Crypt
4 Godless Shrine
4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Sulfurous Springs
2 Caves of Koilos

4 Giant Solifuge
4 Castigate
3 Orzhov Pontiff
3 Hidetsugu’s Second Rite
1 Flames of the Blood Hand

My personal favorite fun twist on an old deck by swapping some colors around comes not because a new dual land is available for this combination, but because of the powerful potential of a card that was previously not available: Fertile Imagination. Most players glossed over this card when they saw it, but I wondered whether it could reasonably replace Promise of Bunrei from your average Ghost Husk build. Hilarity ensued, providing a deck that is technically capable of killing on the third turn if it guesses your hand right:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Plagued Rusalka
4 Dark Confidant
4 Fists of the Ironwood
4 Nantuko Husk
4 Orzhov Pontiff
4 Fertile Imagination
4 Distress
4 Mortify
2 Pithing Needle

4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Caves of Koilos
2 Brushland
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Godless Shrine
4 Temple Garden

4 Glare of Subdual
4 Loxodon Hierarch
4 Last Gasp
3 Mindslicer

Because basic lands are for sissies.

Next week, we’ll have less of a jam session and more of an honest look at what you can expect to see for Regionals the next day… and a fair chunk more playtesting results for the decks I have been looking into, to discuss the potential pros and cons that are leading into the decision-making process as I see it for Regionals. See you then!

Sean McKeown
[email protected]

And you’re mistaken, it’s you that’s faking
Living and breathing and dying too
This message is for anyone who dares to hear a fool
You can’t bring me back, you can’t bring me back
Cause I give it all back to you…
The Smashing Pumpkins, “*** You (An Ode To No One)”