The Time Has Come

Two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Sam Black writes about why it might be time for him to switch from Mono-Blue Devotion and what he’s thinking about playing instead at #SCGINVI.

Like many others, I’d planned to attend Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth, but my travel plans were disrupted by the weather. Luckily, I wasn’t terribly committed to going. I’d felt some temptation to skip the tournament even before I knew about the weather, but having already booked my flight, I wouldn’t actually do that. I checked to make sure my flight was still on and drove from Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago early Friday morning since I was flying out of O’Hare. My mom lives near Chicago, so I often fly out of O’Hare (it’s frequently a lot cheaper) and leave my car at her house for the weekend. It takes a little over two hours to drive there and another 30-40 minutes to get to the airport, but it often cuts out a connection is a good excuse to see my mom.

When I arrived at my mom’s house, I checked again to make sure my flight was still on. As I arrived at O’Hare, I checked again. An hour before my flight left, I was checked in, and the flight was listed as on time. Immediately after they checked my boarding pass at security, I got an email saying that my connection in Memphis to Dallas had been canceled and my flight was being rebooked. I immediately called my mom and asked her to head back to the airport and then called Delta to figure out where I was at.

They said there were flights that day to Dallas but that all of them were overbooked. They could fly me somewhere to wait standby but I might get stuck, and they asked what I wanted to do. I said I needed to get to Dallas by 1:00 PM Saturday or I’d want to cancel the trip and that I’d rather take a guaranteed flight Saturday morning than try to push through today if I was likely to fail. They said I they could get me into Dallas at 2:00 PM Saturday. If I’d been in a different spot, I would’ve said that’s close enough so let’s try it, but since I needed to Top 8 to get a point, I wasn’t very motivated to try to make it happen. I said I’d need to just cancel at that point.

Then they said that while we were talking someone else rebooked me on a flight to New York later that day that would get me into Dallas around 9:45 that night. I said that my current flight had only just been canceled so clearly things weren’t being determined far in advance, and asked what the odds were that that flight would just end up getting canceled too. I was told that in addition to the storm in Dallas weather was picking up in New York so there also might be a problem on that end. Based on the stories of other people’s difficulties that I’d already started seeing on Twitter, I decided the odds were pretty bad and said I’d rather just cut my losses and cancel the trip at this point.

So my flight was refunded, and I went back to my mom’s with minimal inconvenience.

An old friend of my mom’s works for the high school I attended and had been asking me to come in and talk to some kids there since apparently there are a lot of students who play cards (some Magic, mostly Yu-Gi-Oh!) in the media center where she works these days. I was suddenly in my hometown on a weekday afternoon with nothing to do, so I contacted her and ended up giving a two and a half-hour interview to a small group of high school students that was recorded by a teacher who remembered me from when I was a student. Then I went back to my mom’s for Shabbos dinner, a weekly tradition/gathering at her house that I try to attend whenever I can.

All in all, this worked out far better for me than I suspect the Grand Prix would have, especially when I look at the results.

I intended to play Mono Blue Devotion again—playing it has felt like playing Faeries, and I’ve always regretted all the tournaments I talked myself out of playing Faeries at. Even as the metagame developed and new cards were printed to beat the deck, I continued to play it through hostile environments to substantial success. I thought this might be similar, but after looking at the results from Dallas-Fort Worth, I’m quite skeptical of the choice. Those decks look seriously hostile. I think people have finally figured out how to beat Mono-Blue Devotion.

Now, I’m not sure about this, and I think I might still have done well. I know that Mono-Blue can beat all of those decks a reasonable portion of the time and that I spent all of GP Albuquerque playing relatively difficult matchups, but still that’s a lot of Last Breaths and Banisher Priests.

After Stanislav Cifka success in Vienna, I anticipated the shift from Esper to U/W Control, and I knew that that was a more difficult deck to beat and mostly hoped to dodge it.

The new challenge that I didn’t anticipate was the rise of W/B Aggro. White aggro was already one of the decks I was less happy to play against, and Ben Stark’s version looks even more challenging.

Orzhov Charm is more threatening than Boros Charm in a very real way, but the bigger concern isn’t even the black splash; it’s just the exact creature mix. Imposing Sovereign and Banisher Priest are the best aggressive white creatures against Mono-Blue Devotion, but beyond that Boros Elite is a somewhat uncommon choice that will certainly optimize the deck against Mono-Blue since it doesn’t do anything to fight battalion. Spear of Heliod over Ajani, Caller of the Pride is another subtle choice that just makes the deck a little better against blue.

Out of the sideboard, the deck has access to several more hard removal spells, which are certainly good, as well as Profit // Loss, and I really have no idea how much of a problem that is. Ben listed the Mono-Blue matchup as a reason he chose to play the deck, and I’m certainly willing to believe that W/B is highly favored there.

The other major obstacle is the resurgence of B/W and the discovery of Last Breath. After Pro Tour Theros, I expected this deck to gain popularity as a foil to Mono-Blue Devotion after Patrick Chapin and Paul Rietzl success with it. Mono-Blue Devotion may have won the tournament, but Paul was eliminated by G/R Devotion. It’s fairly likely that he would have won the next two matches and won the tournament if he’d managed the upset against Makihito Mihara. It’s interesting to imagine how differently the format might have evolved if B/W had won the Pro Tour instead of Mono-Blue. Anyway, the matchup was bad before Dublin, but the discovery and addition of Last Breath, the best and most versatile removal spell against Mono-Blue, tilts the dynamic even further

Marlon Gutierrez’s deck is quite different from Paul’s deck at the Pro Tour:

Where Paul had cheap white creatures that hedge against control decks when removal spells are bad but which are not generally terribly effective against Mono-Blue unless everything’s going right, Gutierrez has more removal and an optimized creature suite. In fact, this deck is basically just Mono-Black Devotion with Blood Baron of Vizkopa over Gray Merchant of Asphodel, presumably to beat the “mirror.” Outside of that, the difference between this deck and Owen Turtenwald deck from GP Albuquerque are +1 Sin Collector; +2 Duress; +2 Last Breath; +2 Devour Flesh; -1 land; -1 Erebos, God of the Dead; -1 Doom Blade; -4 Nightveil Specter.

Nightveil Specter is good against Mono-Blue, but it’s not clear whether it’s better than three more two-mana removal spells. Duress and Sin Collector aren’t great, but Erebos isn’t either. The similarities in the sideboard make me think this deck directly evolved from Owen’s deck. Overall, I think the two decks are very similar against Mono-Blue, with the more significant changes coming in places where the change from Gray Merchant of Asphodel to Blood Baron of Vizkopa is more significant.

So on closer inspection, I wouldn’t choose to play against this deck every round over a random opponent, but if I were playing Mono-Blue Devotion, I’d feel like I could beat it and would rather play against it than U/W Control or W/B Aggro.

The problem is that U/W Control and W/B Aggro are likely decks I’ll have to play against a lot next weekend. That leaves me with the question of what to do now that the time has come to switch decks.

The obvious answer: if you can’t beat them, join them! I do love playing a control deck that Andrew Cuneo’s had time to tune, like the one William Jensen lost with in the finals of GP Dallas-Fort Worth, but it’s not clear that I can’t do better.

Looking at the results of the SCG Standard Open in Oakland paints a slightly brighter picture for Mono-Blue, taking three of the Top 8 spots but again losing to U/W Control. This was also presumably a field without a handful of W/B Aggro decks preying on Mono-Blue Devotion, which means the question might really come down to whether I think W/B Aggro will be a force to stay in the format. Will other players pick it up, or was it just a one-off gambit by a select group of players?

The real question to ask here is to what extent its success invalidates it. If it succeeded in chasing away its primary prey, Mono-Blue Devotion, how does it fit into the remaining metagame?

Ben Stark listed Mono-Black Devotion as another good matchup, but does the change to Blood Baron of Vizkopa change that if it catches on? I like Brave the Elements and Imposing Sovereign as ways to push through and win the game before Blood Baron can turn it around, but the additional removal is certainly more valuable here than Nightveil Specter so W/B Aggro is further disadvantaged there. It’s a very small sample size, but one data point is the 2-0 win by Gutierrez over Stark in the Top 4. Ben’s draws weren’t perfect in those games, but he didn’t mulligan to oblivion either. Draws are rarely perfect.

It doesn’t seem like it’s positioned especially well against U/W Control either. Xathrid Necromancer is cute, but it’s no Boros Charm when it comes to stopping Supreme Verdict. Last Breath also deals with it quite nicely.

Thinking through the matchups against control, I know that I’m not personally compelled to play W/B Aggro, so I probably shouldn’t expect it to become too popular immediately.

To me, the real question becomes “how does one beat U/W Control?”

The obvious first place I’d want to go is a Thoughtseize deck that makes Last Breath bad—and here we immediately come back to Gutierrez’s winning deck. Esper is another option, and U/W/R is another, with Counterflux serving as another potential trump in the control matchup. It’s awkward that all the answers to solving the control problem are just to go to a metagamed control deck—the issue is that by making its mana smooth and painless and playing a full set of Last Breaths U/W is positioned very well against aggro and midrange strategies that aren’t doing very specific things.

If I had to beat it with aggro, I’d look to maximize resistance to Supreme Verdict and Last Breath, and I’d probably find myself playing a G/W deck with Fleecemane Lion, Advent of the Wurm, and Mistcutter Hydra.

The final approach that I’d consider—and I think there’s a good chance that this is the best option, especially with a potential rise of white aggro decks, decline of blue, an off-chance resurgence of G/W if people follow my thinking above, and a potential shift to Blood Baron of Vizkopa in what would otherwise have been Mono-Black—is a shift back to Lifebane Zombie over Nightveil Specter main.

This offers a card that doesn’t care about Last Breath that can trump Blood Baron and offer value against all manner of aggressive strategies. I think this subtle shift could go a long way toward beating B/W Devotion and U/W Control (simply by dodging Last Breath, though the information can also be valuable, especially if you haven’t already peaked with a Thoughtseize, but even if you have, it can be good to check again periodically).

It’s fun to choose a deck that’s at the right point in a predicted metagame or win because of a subtle tuning shift like moving back to Lifebane Zombie. I don’t know for sure what I’m going to play at the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas, but I think the most likely candidates are U/W Control (I think I’d be disadvantaged against the three-color versions, but I just hate the three-color mana bases against the rest of the field), Mono-Black Devotion with Lifebane Zombie (I really like to minimize the number of colors in my deck when it’s a question in this format, so I don’t think I’d want to go B/W), and Mono-Blue Devotion (self-deception and inertia are strong, and I might find a way to convince myself that just as after Dublin all my fears are imagined and the actual metagame will look quite familiar).