The Road To The Invitational

The FNM Hero takes a break this week to share how Adam Prosak prepared for Legacy and Standard at SCG Invitational: New Jersey this weekend.

FNM Hero is on hiatus this week. My Magical energy has been focused on the SCG Invitational in Somerset, New Jersey, and this week I will give you a look into my preparation.

M14 is a deceptively great set. In my mind, it is what a set of Magic cards should look like. If everyone is complaining about how the set is underpowered before it’s released, that means it’s probably well balanced! It could mean we just have another Homelands on our hands, but if you’ve been paying any attention, that’s clearly not the case. A full three decks in the Top 8 of SCG Standard Open: Richmond were inspired by M14 cards (W/B Humans, Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-White Humans) in addition to taking advantage of the very powerful Mutavault. Furthermore, five of the Top 8 decks feature Scavenging Ooze, an incredibly powerful reprint that has seen significant Legacy play despite fitting into Standard mana curves much better.

From a personal standpoint, this makes things somewhat difficult. I often playtest exclusively in tournaments, and there simply aren’t enough real-life tournaments for me to play in to adequately prepare for a new format. Magic Online, as you may know, is also not an option yet.

So I tried to play some Legacy on Magic Online. Let’s just say it did not go well. I borrowed an Esper Deathblade deck and had trouble finding a wide variety of matches. I suppose the world just doesn’t cater to my every whim. Rats.

I wanted to try out Esper Deathblade because it’s absolutely the deck to beat in Legacy right now. I borrowed the deck and played in a bunch of queues to help me get a feel for the deck and see where I want to take it.

The only problem is that I cannot play it well enough to save my life. Caring about everything your opponents play is no fun. One of my opponents played a Kitchen Finks, and it was somehow awesome against me. That’s not ok. It didn’t take me long to realize something.

I don’t know all that much about Legacy, especially once you get deep into it. Basically, my Legacy experience in the past few years has been one of unfair decks. I have learned to only care about a small subset of cards. I laugh at Lingering Souls. I mock Punishing Fire. Your Mother of Runes is HILARIOUS. Even a card like Natural Order is so uninspiring. I want cards that do powerful things like discard your entire hand. (The second most powerful ability in Magic, right after sacrificing your own creatures. Sam Black would agree). I want to abuse the threshold mechanic in ways Nimble Mongoose can only dream of.

I considered learning how to play the Drew Levin inspired Dream Halls deck, but by the time I had figured out that Esper Deathblade is stupid, I was out of time.

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne.

As for Storm, the format has become quite hostile now that it’s on the radar. Players are more prepared for Storm now, and meanie-face cards such as Leyline of Sanctity and Meddling Mage have picked up in popularity. They know that Force of Will is not enough. Drats.

Nonetheless, I want to take my own advice. I think that playing something you are comfortable with is always better than playing something you think is a better choice but are unfamiliar with. Look at it realistically. If I were to play Esper Deathblade or another similar deck, what advantage would I have over all of the other players that chose the same deck but have more expertise than I do? I’m looking for an edge at any given Magic tournament, and generally that comes with my knowledge of whatever deck I’m playing. If I’m playing Storm to the best of my capabilities, that’s a pretty big edge! If I have to slog through some difficult matches (based on deck decision) for that edge, so be it. Storm it is!

As I’m writing this, I’m still trying out a few different configurations, but nothing drastic is going to change. If you’re looking for a Storm deck, I point you in this direction.

As for Standard, this man was very helpful to my testing process.

Nolen Thief

Lauren Nolen decided that there was enough happening in Cincinnati to come down for the weekend and help me figure out some Standard in the meantime.

Friday night was reserved for Jack Grannan’s adoration of Triscuits and other Jacktivities. This included but was not limited to jumping into a pool fully clothed with contacts and/or cell phones. We’re $10k Champions because we won a Vs. System tournament years ago, not because we know how to conduct ourselves around a pool. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the details.

Saturday was the 30th Annual Taylor Gunn Appreciation day, and we celebrated my roommate’s arrival into this world by drafting. A lot. I think I drafted Modern Masters once and M14 four times. Sprinkle in a little Small World at our awesome house and we had ourselves a grand ol’ time. But Standard testing was quite minimal, and I felt a bit of a time crunch.

Fortunately, watching SCGLive on Sunday was the perfect remedy. We could break up our playtesting sessions by just relaxing and watching some Standard at #SCGRICH. It was pretty cool to get as much done as we did on Sunday. Executive Producer John Douglass and Peter Johnson joined Lauren, Taylor, and myself for a day of plentiful gaming, and I learned a ton about Standard.

First things first, your Hexproof deck should probably be built close to this.

Gladecover Scout is a piece of trash and led to the highest number of games where the Hexproof deck would do its thing and it wouldn’t be enough. That’s not ok. Witchstalker is similar given its higher mana cost.

Fiendslayer Paladin, on the other hand, is pretty solid. It lets you win lopsided races even without Unflinching Courage, and it’s nearly as hexproof as a card like Witchstalker. It’s the peanut butter to Voice of Resurgence’s jelly. Every deck is scared of at least one of the two cards.

The sideboard is basically whatever. Ray of Revelation for the mirror, Gift of Orzhova or Nearheath Pilgrim for additional racing shoes, Mending Touch for Supreme Verdict. Maybe some creatures to swap out for the bad ones. Basically, draw your good cards. You can’t change how the deck functions.

Either way, I think that Hexproof is level zero. It simply reduces the number of worthwhile strategies available since there isn’t much that can handle a souped-up Geist of Saint Traft. I’m sure Brian Braun-Duin would have a fantastic pun for you here.

For example, I don’t think aggressive decks are remotely viable. Between Unflinching Courage, Fiendslayer Paladin, and Gift of Orzhova, Burning-Tree Emissary is not a happy camper.

Furthermore, I question the B/W Humans deck piloted by AJ Sacher that actually won the tournament. As I was watching AJ’s win-and -n match against Hexproof, I commented on how fortunate AJ would have to get to win the match. Minutes later, the Hexproof player suffered a loss of four permanents, leaving AJ to Profit from a Top 8 appearance. Heck, the Bant Hexproof player won the game in which he cast a mere three spells!

I would question the Naya Midrange deck in the Top 8 on its ability to handle Hexproof as well given its weakness to Unflinching Courage, but Joshua Cross definitely played some cards that look otherwise out of place. Bonfire of the Damned isn’t as powerful as it could be—the games are too quick, and there isn’t enough mana. Except for some Boros Reckoner shenanigans, Blasphemous Act is downright embarrassing in a Domri Rade deck. Better hope your opponent doesn’t have a Reckoner too! However, they make more sense in a Hexproof World. This is not how I would personally go about trying to beat Hexproof, but I at least respect the attention devoted to beating it.

To beat Hexproof, I want a deck with some natural foils to the strategy. Jund Midrange is one such foil, as it has the desire to shut off the opposing strategy rather than advancing its own strategy. You see, Hexproof is one of the biggest things you can do, but it’s fragile. Trying to beat it primarily with creatures of your own is generally futile unless they are silly enough to mess with Gladecover Scout. On the other hand, mildly disrupting a deck like Hexproof is often enough to shut it down. Jund is a much better home for Bonfire of the Damned as well, as more mana + longer games = bigger miracle blowouts!

U/W/R Flash is another option because Supreme Verdict is quite excellent against the Hexproof deck and has the tools to compete with everything. Lauren Nolen was a pretty big Jund Midrange advocate from the very beginning of our testing process, and as much as I wanted to play devil’s advocate, it was simply too difficult.

Jund it is.

We had multiple Jund Midrange decks built, and nearly every one of our playtesting sessions involved it in some capacity. We figured that other players would figure out that Jund is very strong as well, so we devoted plenty of resources to figuring out the mirror match.

Despite his tendency to go to time in every round of every tournament, Lauren Nolen is actually quite the quick player in testing. We were generally able to get in ten-game sessions in under an hour, giving us plenty of time to go to the drawing board. In matchups where the removal suite was important, we would typically rank them based on strength in a particular matchup. This helped us shape our removal suite and the numbers for both the maindeck and the sideboard. For example, against Junk Aristocrats, our removal priority looked like this:

Junk Aristocrats

1. Pillar of Flame
2. Tragic Slip
3. Golgari Charm
4. Putrefy
5. Abrupt Decay
6. Dreadbore
7. Doom Blade
8. Liliana of the Veil
9. Barter in Blood

We considered Bonfire of the Damned to be non-negotiable and did not consider any other removal spells. For this list, the bottom three cards are basically unplayable and huge liabilities. I was actively happy to have the first three cards, but in a perfect world everything else would be sided out.

Bant Hexproof

1. Barter in Blood
2. Liliana of the Veil
3. Golgari Charm
4. Abrupt Decay
5. Pillar of Flame
6. Tragic Slip
7. Doom Blade
8. Putrefy
9. Dreadbore

This time the bottom four are unacceptable, while only the first four are actively good. Unfortunately, there isn’t much overlap here.

Jund Midrange

1. Dreadbore
2. Putrefy
3. Tragic Slip
4. Doom Blade
5. Abrupt Decay
6. Pillar of Flame
7. Liliana of the Veil
8. Barter in Blood
9. Golgari Charm

Ugh, this isn’t getting any easier. Dreadbore, Putrefy, and Tragic Slip are all valuable solely because they kill Olivia Voldaren, who must be killed or else the game is over. Doom Blade is decent, as it allows you to play a Huntmaster of the Fells into their copy, but doesn’t kill Olivia. Everything else is comically bad. One of the more comical games involved Lauren trying out some different configurations. I played out a pair of Huntmaster of the Fells and asked Lauren not to draw a Bonfire. After he showed me that he was trying out Barter in Blood just to help with Olivia instead of Bonfire, he quickly scrapped that idea.

Burning-Tree Emissary Decks

1. Pillar of Flame
2. Golgari Charm
3. Doom Blade
4. Abrupt Decay
5. Tragic Slip
6. Dreadbore
7. Barter in Blood
8. Liliana of the Veil
9. Putrefy

While cheaper is generally better, instant speed is also important. Golgari Charm gets a huge uptick because it is capable of keeping you in the game against Burning Earth while also being a nice blowout against some of the more x/1 heavy draws these decks are capable of.

We did a similar ranking with the secondary threats, conceding that Olivia Voldaren, Thragtusk, Scavenging Ooze and Huntmaster of the Fells were all incredibly important. All of these cards overperformed, and the only question concerned the numbers of each. As of this writing, I am planning on playing the following deck.

Some notes:

I found that mana was a little too easy, so I ventured to see how much I could push it before I was no longer comfortable with the tradeoff. My very unscientific answer is four colorless lands. I tried four Mutavaults and zero Kessig Wolf Run; each has their advantages, but I want Wolf Run in the mirror 1000% of the time if I have to choose.

For the most part, I just want to Farseek for Stomping Ground. Extra green sources are good for Scavenging Ooze, while extra red sources are good with Olivia Voldaren. Speaking of which . . .

Scavenging Ooze plays more like a legendary creature than Olivia Voldaren. If you have an active Olivia, you are going to win. Four copies is not enough in many matchups. On the other hand, the second Scavenging Ooze is so much worse than the first. Ooze is amazing and provides another angle of interaction in the deck, but four copies is too many.

Golgari Charm is another card that feels legendary. Usually the first copy is excellent, but often the second copy is bad. Its modes are all pretty narrow, although you can usually sculpt one of them being good.

Garruk, Primal Hunter is pretty bad against most of the field, but it is so good in the two matchups I need the most firepower against: the Jund mirror and Sphinx’s Revelation decks.

I can’t wait to lose in the finals of the Invitational because I hastily draw a Bonfire of the Damned into my hand. My passion burns for Mark Sun, but it is fueled by my hatred of Bonfire of the Damned. I’ve tried avoiding it, but I cannot reasonably do so any more. It’s simply too good. I know this goes against everything I said in my Legacy portion about deck familiarity, but I did my best to come to terms with Bonfire of the Damned. As I played with Bonfire more, I felt like I was doing better with it. [Editor’s Note: Welcome to the dark side, Adam. We’ve been eagerly awaiting you.]

The sideboard is currently constructed for appropriate sideboarding in all of the major matchups. I’m sure I will sabotage this with some last-minute changes.

I would love a twenty-card sideboard. I’m sure you would too. Standard is so diverse.

Arbor Elf sucks. Jund Midrange is a robust deck, and Arbor Elf gives you some speed that is otherwise hard to replicate. However, you pay for it when it comes to this deck’s amazing mid-to-late game draw steps. Every card makes an impact by itself, and I’m happy to get into a game where both of us are drawing off the top with nothing in play. Arbor Elf compromises those games.

Like Reid Duke, I’m still not sure if I want to play or draw in the Jund mirror. The power of Farseek is evident and makes me want to play, but nearly every game is either decided by one deck’s inability to hit a certain mana threshold (usually five mana) or some late-game spells. One interesting thing is that a number of cards—including but not limited to Scavenging Ooze; Huntmaster of the Fells; Olivia Voldaren; and Garruk, Primal Hunter—pretty much blank your opponent’s ability to play the exact same copy of that card. It came up enough in testing that I think I’m going to play, but I might change my mind. I’ll probably just hope I lose the die roll and win every game.

Finally, I hope to see each and every one of you in Somerset, New Jersey this weekend. Please tell me how much you used the information in this article to crush your opponents. Just don’t let said opponent be yours truly!

Adam Prosak