The Road to Regionals – Orzhova Maxima

Magic the Gathering Regionals!

Richard takes a peek at B/W decks… and presents the list he’ll be piloting to his own Regionals tournament. We all know that Black and White have been supremely popular of late, be they Hand in Hand, or Ghosts of both the Dad and Husk variety. Does Richard’s build have the pedigree to take it all? He thinks it does… and has the testing to prove it.

It’s been awhile since my last article. This has not been a function of my not having any tech to share, or of my not spending as much time with the game as I normally would, or any of the normal reasons. No, I’ve been keeping my mouth shut because, frankly, I’ve had no positive results to report about all season.

Two articles ago, I described how my team began Team Season by missing Day 2 at Grand Prix: Madison by literally the smallest of margins I have ever heard of: 4% on second tiebreakers. But that was okay, because we only needed to start off our first PTQ 2-0 in order to hit 1700 and qualify on rating. We started off 1-0, bringing us to 1689…

…then we lost a match. Then we lost another. And then another. Then another one after that. Then yet another. Then we thought we couldn’t possibly lose any more, and we lost again. After three tournaments, we had gone on an unprecedented (for any of us) 0-6 match run in the team PTQs, knocking us from 1689 to below 1600. I couldn’t possibly tell you what happened, as I’m sick to death of repeating the bad beats stories

…and besides, that’s not what I’m not here to talk about. I’m here to talk about Regionals. If there is one good thing that has come out of this disastrous PTQ season for me, it is a very in-depth knowledge of the pre-Dissension Standard decks.

If there is a second good thing that has come out of this season, it is what I believe to be the best deck to play at Regionals. That’s right—the very best.

Did I say the best deck in Standard? No. Did I say the most powerful deck? Also no. But the best deck for Regionals? I certainly won’t be taking anything else.

“What’s so special about that thing? Looks like a normal B/W Aggro list to me… except for a few weird card choices, I guess.”

You’d be quite surprised what a difference a few card choices can make.

Remember Goblins before the Japanese figured out to splash Black for Patriarch’s Bidding?

Remember Affinity before Darksteel came out and it got Arcbound Ravager and Arcbound Worker? (Not to mention Aether Vial, which the initial lists weren’t even playing yet.)

“A few weird card choices” can so drastically alter an archetype’s win record, it’s not even funny. I remember playing Magnivore against B/W – all I could think about after I saw Godless Shrine hit play was “Do they have Paladin en-Vec? How many Paladins do they have? Did they draw any Paladins?” Then whenever I was about to play a game-ending Wildfire, the thought would be “Please don’t have Shining Shoal. I cannot possibly lose if you don’t have Shining Shoal, but if you have it, you win.”

There are a lot of cards in this format that change the entire course of games by themselves.

“Yeah, you’ve got lethal on the board, but I’m comboing off next turn, so who cares… Castigate, you say? Well, damn.”

“This alpha strike will cost me my team, but it will take you down to six life. Attack. Now I’ll just cast this Shock, targeting you, and this Charoh God, is that a Shining Shoal?”

“I don’t care that you Pilloried my Pride of the Clouds. All my weenies have evasion, and the four life I just gained from Azorius Herald will make it impossible for you to race me. Wait, what’s that card you played? Descendant of what?”

I call this deck Orzhova Maxima, because its goal is to pack the maximum amount of archetype-destroying weaponry available to the Regionals B/W player. It can win many matchups simply by playing one card that wrecks the opponent so badly, he cannot recover in time to beat your smattering of small attackers. Other matches it will win by playing cards of such high quality (other than Tallowisp’s one-ofs, what cards in that list aren’t amazingly high-quality on their own?)

As to the evolution of this deck, I guess the starting point has to be this article, which unveils two of the most powerful cards to grace the Orzhov Aggro archetype: Shining Shoal and Tallowisp. Everybody figured out stuff like Ghost Council of the Orzhova (hereafter abbreviated GCO), Paladin en-Vec, Descendant of Kiyomaro, and Umezawa’s Jitte. But Ben’s squad was the only one to adopt these two cards.

Do you know how strong these two cards are in the current Standard environment?

I mean, Shining Shoal is free. Its effect turns games around and it doesn’t cost mana.

What happened when someone played a Wildfire and scooped up his cards? Shining Shoal happened. How about when a Zoo player crashed his 2/2 and his 2/1 into your Ancient Law, lost both, and still didn’t kill your man? Shining Shoal happened. When a Pyroclasm from Izzetron or Magnivore domed its caster for three instead of killing your Dark Confidant and your 2/2? Yeah, Shining Shoal happened.

Then there’s the Wisp. With him in play against an aggro deck, the next 2-3 Spirit/Arcane spells you play are Nekrataals. Freaking Nekrataals! Sure, you’ve got to pay a couple extra mana to take them out, but card advantage in the beatdown mirror is never sexier than when you’re using a Pillory to increase your own clock as well.

The most important innovation in Tallowisp technology (since the birth of Ghost Dad, of course) came at GP Hamamatsu, in the deck played by Kotatsu Saitou. Saitou’s list featured two Pillories and one Enfeeblement in the maindeck (compared to three Pillories, zero Enfeeblements in the original list), and added a spicy little number to the mix known as Unholy Strength.

Now I’d heard rumblings of people adding Shadow Lance to their Ghost Dad builds to add a clock against Heartbeat, but one need look no further than Saito’s finals match against Akira Asahara to see the brilliance of this upgrade. Saito cast a turn 2 Tallowisp followed by a turn 3 Ancient Law, allowing him to search up Unholy Strength with his Tallowisp trigger. He then played his third land and suited up the Wisp, beefing it up to a hearty 3/4, then attacked for three points on turn 3. Nice Watchwolf!

Against a deck with no spot removal (like Heartbeat), Unholy Strength is essentially a 2/1 Haste for one mana, which can be tutored up by the normally un-aggressive Tallowisp. That substantially increases the deck’s clock against the combo deck, and does not inhibit its ability to play critical disruption spells alongside it like the mana-hungry Shadow Lance does. This innovation shores up the Little Lumengrid Warden That Could’s game against combo and control, making him now a solid man against every archetype. (And actually just golden in the post-board Heartbeat matchup, where he can attack for three and tutor up answers to Carven Caryatid and/or Dragons.)

Unholy Strength also has tangential benefits like taking Neal (short for Neal of Cleansing, a.k.a. Kami of Ancient Law) and 8.5 Tails out of Pyroclasm range, and allowing Dark Confidant to attack into a Sakura-Tribe Elder. (That’s why we’ve decided to keep it over Riot Spikes, which could otherwise serve as extra removal against opposing Dark Confidants, Plagued Rusalkas, and random x/1 beaters. That being said, I think there is a good case to be made for the Spikes, and they may well be worth playing now that there are fewer Pyroclasms running around Standard.)

As soon as we saw Saitou’s list, Troy switched right back from the Ghost Husk deck he had been playing to the Shoals and the Wisps that had taken him to a 7-1 record at GP: Madison. We were all impressed with the way this new deck performed in playtesting, and after the season concluded and Regionals began approaching, I picked it up.

Initially, I was only going to play it because I knew I would only have a couple of days to test for Regionals, and did not feel confident I could learn a more complicated (but probably better) deck like Heartbeat in that small a period of time. Now, having tested the deck for only a few days, it has become my first choice no matter what.

Now before I go into individual card choices, let me start off with some individual not-card choices.

First up on the list are Ravenous Rats and Shrieking Grotesques. My problem with these guys? They don’t break games open. Rats has a 1/1 body that is unlikely to do anything by itself – G/W decks crap out all sorts of incidental 1/1s alongside their mana acceleration and artifact/enchantment destruction, and still need multiple synergistic cards (Glare, Guildmage, Jitte, Chord) for them to be productive. Shrieking Grotesque has a 2/1 flying body, whose evasion is practically irrelevant except in the B/W mirror… where you can expect a Plagued Rusalka to take him down anyway. And if you read the text of “Opponent discards a card” carefully, you might notice that it actually reads “Opponent discards his worst card.” So, while technically these guys are two-for-ones, the two “ones” you’re getting are pretty lackluster. The bottom line is, these aren’t powerful enough cards without multiple combo pieces like Teysa and Plagued Rusalka.

Speaking of Plagued Rusalka – has anyone else noticed that guy charges you both mana and creatures to take down enemies, and bashes for a mighty one damage against control and combo? Sure, he becomes decent if lots of trades are happening in combat, and actually strong if you’ve got tons of cannon fodder creatures lying around… but in a deck like this one, I’m not okay with sacrificing any of my guys to give someone else’s guy -1/-1. You know why? Because none of my guys suck. And I’m not willing to change that to fit a 1/1 into my deck, even if he does trigger Tallowisp.

Paladin en-Vec remained in the deck right up to the point where I started testing against post-Dissension aggro decks such as U-W and Thaddeus P. Kanootson’s Four by Four concoction, where he was disappointing beyond belief. Descendant of Kiyomaro quickly replaced him once I added the amazing Orzhov Basilicas that Osyp and Flores have been (accurately) trumpeting as a huge improvement for the Orzhov Aggro archetype.

On the subject of the other lands I’m playing, I think a snippet from a conversation I had with a friend recently sums up my feelings on the subject rather neatly.

Friend: no more eiganjo castle?
Me: its only targets are 8.5 and ghost council
Me: and 90% of the time, the only time eiganjo castle is relevant
Me: is when your opponent doesn’t see it and walks into a trap when he thinks he’s trading
Me: but that will never happen with 8.5 and GCO if you have untapped mana
Me: so now it’s even more narrow than it was before
Me: …in other news, blood moon is good against me

Speaking of Blood Moon, that’s why there are only two Caves of Koilos in the deck. (Can’t cast Ancient Law to get rid if it if you haven’t got the Plains.)

Cards that I am running include:

3 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails

I cut Isamaru from Saitou’s list to make room for this guy in the maindeck. Although the Hound is better in the first few turns of the game, the Fox is a lot better in the late game. As it turns out, the only matchups where you’re at all interested in a vanilla 2/2 on turn 1 are the (already favorable) matchups of Char-Based Aggro, Heartbeat, and Magnivore. 8.5 is a lot stronger against the other midrange aggro decks – especially the mirror – and markedly better against U/W control. It’s also better as a midgame topdeck against all the matchups where I’m interested in a 2/2 on turn 1, so it’s not as all as if he’s strictly a downgrade against those decks to begin with.

By the way, it’s important to think of this guy as a Kavu Titan, of sorts. Tim Galbiati asked me why I was cutting a one-drop for a five-drop (since you usually don’t play 8.5 without three mana open to back him up); the answer is that, in this deck, you’re fine with just playing him as a bear. This isn’t Kamigawa Block White Weenie; you’ve got plenty more powerful effects in your deck, so sending him into battle as you would any other 2/2 is a perfectly acceptable play. Don’t shed any tears when he dies, either – just remember that there will be other games where you’ll topdeck him in the late game and do a little happy dance when you realize how much better he is than a vanilla 2/2. Such is the versatility of the Legendary Fox.

4 Castigate

This card is a big part of the reason my Heartbeat and Magnivore matchups are so good. You’d be surprised how big a difference there is between “discard your best card” and “discard your worst card; I get a 1/1 Rat!” By the way, the fact that this little gem can be pitched to Shining Shoal in the aggro mirrors makes it a “slow” card far less often than in decks like Hand in Hand and Ghost Husk.

4 Umezawa’s Jitte

Not two, not three, four. This is Regionals. There will be suboptimal aggro decks running around left and right, and it will matter not one iota how bad their lists are if they have Jitte and you do not. Aggro mirrors since Kamigawa Block have worked like this, 90% of the time:

If I have Jitte and you do not, I win.
If you have Jitte and I do not, you win.
If neither of us has Jitte, we play Magic.

If you’re to succeed at Regionals, you need to be in the “I win,” or at the very least the “we play Magic” camp. The “I lose” camp does not go to Nationals.

Play four.

1 Enfeeblement
1 Pillory of the Sleepless
1 Pacifism

This maindeck Tallowisp removal package is, as far as I know, unique to this build. It allows you the most possible flexibility in a three-card suite, while sacrificing only the clock (and pitch-to-Shining-Shoal synergy) of multiple Pillories. I’m fine with that; before I moved Pacifism to the main, there were plenty of games where I’d tutor up a Pillory and wish, more than anything, that it only cost two mana so that I could play it on turn 4 alongside another two-mana card. I was fine with dropping my Pillory count to one in order to attain this ability, especially when a maindeck Pacifism gives me a way to halt pro-Black creatures such as Paladin en-Vec and Hand of Honor, which the all-Pillory package does not.

Enfeeblement, in case it is not clear, fully trades with utility men like Dark Confidant, Rakdos Augermage, and the Guildmages, which Pacifism and Pillory do not.


Versus Zoo

This is a classic case of “Who’s the beatdown?” Obviously, Zoo will outrace you if you let them. Play your two-drop on turn 2, and then cash him in at the declare blockers step as soon as you possibly can to take down an attacker. Even if it’s Eight-and-a-Half-Tails.

Why is this so important? Think about it for a second. If you trade all your early drops for your opponent’s early drops, then you are left with a handful of things like Ghost Council, Descendant of Kiyomaro, Tallowisp, and Umezawa’s Jitte. The opponent has Burning-Tree Shaman and… burn spells. And since you’re not going to be at a low enough life total where he can burn you out, he’s now in the unenviable position of trying to match topdecks with you, when you’re topdecking superior creatures and Shining Shoals, while he’s topdecking burn spells and vanilla 2/1s, 2/2s, and 2/3s whose low casting cost has become practically irrelevant.

Of course, this ideal early-game trading scenario is not how all the games will play out. Clearly, if your opponent leads with turn 1 Kird Ape and turn 2 Watchwolf, you will not be trading your Kami of Ancient Law for either one of them, nor trading at all if he’s got the Seal of Fire for blocker anyway.

The concept is what’s important here. You have to realize that your opponent has to win by getting your life total down early, so any alleged “one-for-one” trade that removes one of his attackers (read: recurring damage source) is not a fair trade. It’s a trade in your favor, even if you lost a “better” creature by throwing your Legendary Fox in front of his Legendary Hound.

This philosophy should also guide your use of Shining Shoal. You don’t have to save it for some huge blowout. Ideally, you want to smoke a Burning-Tree Shaman with it (‘cause those guys stop your Jittes from being auto-wins), but your first priority is to keep your opponent from knocking big chunks out of your life total at a time. If you’re taking an unsafe amount of damage early on and need to shoot a man, by all means – shoot a man.


+3 Mortify
+2 Manriki-Gusari

-4 Castigate
-1 Unholy Strength

(Note that you sideboard for this matchup differently from the way you board against Gruul.)

Again, you’ll want to use Mortifies to kill Burning-Tree Shamans if possible, since they make Jitte and Manriki-Gusari much less awesome even when they’re costing you precious life points. But that’s still priority number two, second to keeping your life total high enough to take over the late game.

The only final piece of advice I can give for this matchup is to watch out for Bathe in Light. Don’t forget that it might be there to counter your Shining Shoal, or remove the Pillory and the Pacifism that have been sitting on-table the whole game.

Versus Gruul

Playing against Gruul is subtly different from playing against Zoo. For one thing, you have Giant Solifuge to contend with. His presence means you can’t attack back as aggressively with soldiers that won’t be blocking anyone you can see on the table. You also have Moldervine Cloak to “deal” with – and by “deal with” I mean “get awesome two-for-ones using your removal.” These game 1 subtleties are not as important, however, as the fact that…

+3 Mortify
+2 Manriki-Gusari

-4 Dark Confidant
-1 Unholy Strength

… Gruul boards Blood Moon. And sometimes Rumbling Slum. This means you keep in Castigates, even though their only good game 1 targets were Solifuge and the occasional Burning-Tree Shaman. Blood Moon is bad news even for a two-color deck, when neither of the colors are Red. For this reason, you should value your in-hand Ancient Laws more highly than normal. If you don’t have another way to deal with Blood Moon (such as Castigate, a spare Neal, or an ample supply of basics), you must be cautious with when you put those guys into play. “Burn your Ancient Law, play Blood Moon” is a quick way for you to end up hosed by a hoser you were holding the answer to all along. Don’t let it happen if you can avoid it.

Versus Heartbeat

Game 1 is only difficult if you draw no Neals and no Castigates. And if you have neither of those in opening hand, but a turn 2 Confidant instead, you’re rather likely to draw into one by the time you need it.

In other words, Heartbeat is a good matchup. You’re not the fastest aggro deck in the format, but you still put a decent clock on. As long as you can back that clock up with some disruption, Heartbeat‘s the underdog here.

Shining Shoal’s best use is to defend Neal from Savage Twister, but if a Sakura-Tribe Elder looks like it might stave off 4-6 points of attacking Dark Confidant damage, it might be worth it to expend the Shoal early for the sake of your clock.

+3 Persecute
+3 Mortify
+3 Pithing Needle

-4 Descendant of Kiyomaro
-3 Ghost Council of Orzhova
-1 Enfeeblement
-1 Umezawa’s Jitte

Game 2 is complicated by the fact that Heartbeat brings guys in. You can expect at least Carven Caryatid, probably Meloku, and possibly some combination of Kudzu, Keiga, and Ryusei as well. Luckily, you’re also bringing in an extremely potent arsenal yourself.

I have no words for this image

Pithing Needle on Drift of Phantasms makes going off take a lot longer; Pithing Needle on Meloku stops the One Man Band (who will beat you if the opponent untaps with him in play, unless you’ve Needled him, have an active Jitte and are at a high life total, or possibly have Shizo and a large legend handy), and Needle to kill an early Divining Top is always awesome. For this reason, I will play Needle on Top in the early game almost every time if I see one in play, and will hold onto it for either Drift or Meloku otherwise. If I feel like my opponent is poised to go off next turn, I will drop the Needle on Drift; otherwise, I will save it until he plays a Meloku.

Other random tips include naming Blue with Persecute if you’ll lose to a Meloku should he have one in hand, and Green otherwise. Also remember that you only need to leave two lands untapped to Mortify a Heartbeat in response to Early Harvest.

Versus Magnivore

Jitte can be dangerous source of tempo loss here if the opponent is playing Boomerang, but is generally amazing other than that. Also be wary of their maindeck Pyroclasms; unless you have a Shining Shoal to spare, don’t commit anyone else to the board alongside a Bob that could die to Clasm. Bob will hand you enough Shining Shoals, Descendants, GCOs, Jittes, and Castigates that you won’t need to play any other x/1s or x/2s if he sits on the board for a few turns.

Other than that, I would suggest enjoying a blowout matchup thanks to your maindeck Shining Shoals, 8.5 Tails, and Castigates.

+3 Mortify
+3 Phyrexian Arena
+2 Persecute

-4 Tallowisp
-1 Unholy Strength
-1 Enfeeblement
-1 Pacifism
-1 Pillory of the Sleepless

Most Magnivore players will board out their land destruction for stuff like Threads of Disloyalty and Volcanic Hammer, which makes Persecute a fine post-board addition. If the opponent does leave in his LD in game 2, and there is indeed a third game, I’d suggest taking out the Persecutes and leaving in an Unholy Strength and the fourth Arena.

Versus U/W Control

This matchup is what convinced me to add Phyrexian Arenas to the board. Assuming they’re playing Meloku and/or Windreaver, game 1 is pretty much terrible for you. Game 2, however…

+4 Phyrexian Arena
+3 Persecute
+3 Pithing Needle
+2 Mortify

-4 Shining Shoal
-4 Tallowisp
-1 Unholy Strength
-1 Enfeeblement
-1 Pacifism
-1 Umezawa’s Jitte

… is much better. Against any deck playing Wrath, Arena is absolute gold. They tap out for Wrath, you drop Arena, and suddenly you’re outdrawing their Compulsive Researches at a positively sickening rate. Persecute is a similar kick in the jaw, though it’s less likely that you’ll be able to play it on turn 4, and it’s a less permanent backbreaker than Arena is.

Dark Confidant is extremely important in this matchup, so don’t attack with him if the opponent is representing White mana for Condemn. They’ll have to Wrath him away sooner or later, trust me.

This is also a matchup where, to use a Flores term, “sculpting the perfect hand” is often important. If you’ve got an opening hand that features lots of mana (usually due to the presence of one or more Basilicas) and a backbreaker or two that you’d like to resolve, don’t play anything early. The U/W Control lists I’ve seen don’t feature bouncelands because they make countermagic hard to cast, so you should be able to sit there and out-land the opponent for several turns if he can’t afford to cast Compulsive Research or the like without giving you an opening to cast Persecute or Arena. Once you’ve run out of land drops, start playing your bombs.

I've found my Invitational card...

Spell Snare.”
Dark Confidant?”
Phyrexian Arena?”

Final Remarks

There are other decks in this environment – Izzetron, Wildfire Tron, Mizzet Control, Firemane Control, Ghost Husk, other Orzhov aggro decks, U/W Aggro, Rakdos, Four by Four, U/B Jushi, and then some. The limits of my time have not permitted extensive testing against all these archetypes, so I’m not going to pull some sideboarding “advice” out of thin air just to fill space.

What I do know that Troy was confident in his matchup against all the pre-Dissension decks I’ve mentioned here except for Ghost Husk, and the (admittedly few) games I’ve tested against U/W Aggro and Four by Four have significantly favored Orzhova Maxima.

That’s why I’m dead-set on this deck for Regionals. Even though I haven’t tested against every deck in this (ridiculously large) field, there’s not a single deck in the format that I’m afraid of sitting down to face. What’s more, I’m pretty excited to sit down across from most of them.

And in environment as open as this one, there’s nothing more I could ask from a deck.

Good luck at Regionals.

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]