Thirst for Knowledge – Dethroning the Champ

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Wednesday, August 19th – With only three weeks left in the Austin qualifying season, choosing a deck is becoming increasingly difficult. Last week I talked about Five-Color Control and its position as the “best deck,” and I still stand by that. You’d need a very good reason not to play Five Color over something else, although I think the leading excuse would be because playing against the mirror all day is not an ideal thing.

With only three weeks left in the Austin qualifying season, choosing a deck is becoming increasingly difficult. Last week I talked about Five-Color Control and its position as the “best deck,” and I still stand by that. You’d need a very good reason not to play Five Color over something else, although I think the leading excuse would be because playing against the mirror all day is not an ideal thing. Granted, you’re not going to be staring down the mirror every round, but given that you make Top 8 you can expect to play against it three to four times (or more) at the average PTQ. That’s pretty significant, and I could understand if someone did not want to grind that out. The Five Color mirror is easily the most skill-intensive and experience-based mirror match in the format, so it is understandable that the common course of action would be to play a deck that beats Five Color instead.

But what exactly does one need to do in order to beat the best deck? Time Sieve Combo is quite easily the worst match-up for Five Color, and in most cases you can expect an easy win against Five Color as long as you’re packing Silences. Five Color has some real options out of their sideboard should they decide to acknowledge Time Sieve as a real threat, but in general playing Time Sieve is the best way to gun for Five Color. Of course, I honestly don’t recommend this approach at all considering that you actually can’t beat the UK Nationals Barnslayer deck, which is quickly picking up steam. In addition, even the decks that you could traditionally beat, like the Jund decks, can now Hemorrhage out your win conditions and Jund Charm your graveyard in response to an Open the Vaults. The Red/Black decks have Blightnings and a fast clock, and even Elves! is often a turn ahead of you. And, sadly, that is ignoring the fact that Faeries is literally almost as bad as the UW deck for you. Someone in the forums a week ago or so (I think it was in one of Adrian’s articles) asked why no one here at SCG has been talking about Time Sieve outside of Olivier, and I think the biggest reason is because although it has the strongest match-up with the “best deck,” it simply doesn’t beat much of anything else. I don’t particularly feel as though it is worth playing, and in general choosing it as your PTQ deck is asking for trouble and overall banking on quite a bit of good fortune to get you to the Top 8.

There was a lot of talk about the Merfolk/Five Color match-up, and most of it was concerning the allegedly large advantage that Merfolk has. I tested these two decks against each other quite a bit (using the Five Color list from last week’s article), and I never felt like Merfolk was exceedingly favored at all. It’s not that I didn’t feel as though the deck was good or that it was giving me a tough time, but rather that it in no way was “smashing” me. In fact, according to my notes, whenever I went first with Five Color I usually ended up winning (although there were a handful of games where this wasn’t true, naturally), and even when I went second I didn’t feel that far behind. I mean, when I can Fallout on their fourth turn when they swing at me with five or more power’s worth of creatures and still end up winning despite their double Harm’s Way in response, it says something about the match-up. Merfolk can certainly get a strong hand and beat Five Color, but the traditional list isn’t nearly as favored as I had been told. Still, I think there are steps that can be taken to make the match-up a bit closer. Consider this:

I think this list much better-suited to take down Five Color, but it unfortunately doesn’t go a long way in dealing with Merfolk’s problem match-up: Jund. I was considering cutting a maindeck spell for another land and playing two to three Baneslayer Angels in the sideboard to combat Red-based strategies, but I’m not sure how far that would go given that the Angel is a five-drop. Granted, Meddling Mage ensures that Red match-ups aren’t just punts, but I’m still not pleased with that glaring weakness in this deck’s strategy.

This archetype is very good at taking down Time Sieve and Faeries, and if you’re playing Vendilion Clique you can also have a shot at Five Color. Merfolk is probably a decent choice to play in the last PTQs of the season, although hopefully you’ll dodge Great Sable Stags and Bloodbraid Elves should you decide to give it a whirl. I do recommend Adrian’s sideboard setup he used at Nationals (more or less the one depicted above), as it does a good job (with what the color restrictions allow) dealing with the deck’s troublesome match-ups.

Moving on, there is another UW deck that should probably be commented on. Here is the Barnslayer Combo deck from UK Nationals:

This deck is very well-positioned against Five Color Control, and I personally loathe its existence. Any deck playing four copies each of Cryptic Command, Glen Elendra Archmage, Vendilion Clique, Baneslayer Angel, and Meddling Mage is going to have a decent game against Five Color, but I don’t think I really need to go into why, right? The real killer here is Glen Elendra Archmage, as it becomes very hard for the Five Color player to win if that card resolves. Locking them out of counterspells and Cruels is simply superb, and I think anything less than four in the 75 is probably just flat-out wrong. You can probably drop one from the maindeck for another Reveillark without too much regret, but I’d always want to battle with at least three maindeck. Now, the issue for this deck is Volcanic Fallout, as it gets around Archmage and kills any creature not named Baneslayer Angel. However, if you can evoke a Reveillark getting back an Archmage and a Meddling Mage chanting Fallout, you’re simply going to win. I’d say increasing the likelihood of such plays is the best way to secure your strong match-up with Five Color, so definitely adding more Reveillarks to the maindeck will help, as would having some Negates in the sideboard. Vendilion Clique is beyond nuts in this match-up as well, and will help to keep Fallouts out of their hand to a point, so keep that in mind also.

The other point about this particular deck is that it is very good against the Jund decks as well. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as it was when Paladin en-Vec was in the format, but it’s still a tad awkward for the red players. If Jund can’t deal with Baneslayer Angel (and it would be surprising if they could, since the “combo” is that the deck has a zillion ways to either keep her alive or keep playing more), they’ll just lose. Anathemancer is nearly useless against the deck as well, and Great Sable Stag is far from stellar. Granted, I don’t think the match-up is something outrageous like 80/20 or something, but it’s at least 60/40 in favor of the UW deck, if not better. Pretty discouraging for the aggro players.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses. This deck can never beat Faeries. You thought the Reveillark/Faeries match-up was bad before? Try it now, where it’s virtually impossible to deal with the tempo that Faeries shoves down your throat. A lot of people have pushed Faeries to the side when preparing for events, but that’s a pretty foolish thing to do. This decks’ weak match-up with the Fae is actually the reason I won’t be playing it, as it’s literally a total punt and I just won’t accept total punts for my last-chance PTQs. The deck also struggles with Elves! and Kithkin (to a degree), so that also factors into my decision against it.

So what else? How else can one attack Five Color? Clearly Anathemancer, right?

A number of players always make jokes about red-based aggro, saying how it’s never “the best deck,” and that’s mostly true. However, at this time last year it WAS the best deck, and that Red Deck Wins featured Figure of Destiny and Demigod of Revenge. The deck isn’t nearly as good now as it was then, but I still think it is a good deck to play in the current format. The maindeck is pretty cut-and-dry: there isn’t a lot of room for innovation. If you were more concerned about game one against control as opposed to opposing aggro decks, then I could see dropping some of the Fallouts for Banefires, but otherwise I think the maindeck is pretty flawless.

The sideboard, on the other hand, is open to changes. You certainly want some number of Banefires and Deathmarks, but from there you have plenty of options. If Baneslayer really becomes too big of a problem, Terminates in the side in addition to Deathmark are possible inclusions, though I don’t think you’ll need them. Manabarbs has been very good for me against Five Color, as forcing them to choose between Runed Haloing Anathemancer, Demigod, and Manabarbs is simply huge. Granted, they can just Esper Charm it, but if they do then they didn’t draw cards with it and they also might have had to Bolt themselves to do it (considering that if it resolved, they were obviously tapped out). No matter how you slice it, Manabarbs makes the cut.

Stillmoon Cavalier is an attempt to not just lose to Kithkin. It’s taxing on your mana, but very workable. It can steal games from white decks (it’s actually fairly good against the Reveillark deck), so I think it’s a ton better than Infest in that slot. Wild Ricochet is kind of a catch-all in the sideboard. If you’re not Crueling back at a Five Color player, you’re blowing out mirror matches (whether it be in response to a Blightning for the epic win, or even something as small as a Bolt that kills two of their guys), neither of which makes me anything less than extremely happy. Of course, Thought Hemorrhage is probably just as good, though far more narrow. If Baneslayer Angel stays as popular as it is, then you’re probably going to want two to three Hemorrhages, arguably over this card.

Alright, so that’s a bit to consider. Let’s recap:

Time Sieve: Great versus Five Color, but very weak to a majority of the field.
-Merfolk: If tuned correctly, good versus not only Five Color, but also Faeries and Time Sieve, loses to Bloodbraid Elf
-UW Baneslayer: Very good against Five Color, Sieve, and red decks, though fails miserably against Faeries and Elves (if you don’t have Canonist)
Blightning: Very good versus Faeries and respectable versus Five Color (and arguably Jund decks), terrible against white decks
-Jund: Strong versus Five Color, Faeries, and Merfolk, poor versus Baneslayer and Blightning (I suppose)
-UBr Faeries: Can beat Five Color and smashes Kithkin, Sieve, and Baneslayer, loses hard to Jund, Blightning, and Merfolk

The reason I included Jund decks here is because although I didn’t talk about those decks in this article, I have in the past few weeks and obviously any deck with Anathemancer is going to be fine against Five Color. I also mentioned UBr Faeries for much the same reason, and also because the splash eliminates some of the edge that Five Color has in the match-up, which is good (I guess if you like Faeries, see). For a good place to start with UBr Fae, check out Gavin’s article from last week (which you can find here).

So, where does that leave us? There are many ways to combat Five Color, and some are better than others. This article may give the impression that Five Color just has a bunch of weak match-ups, but that obviously isn’t true. More so, it is just that Five Color has some distinctive weaknesses that many decks in Standard can incorporate into their strategy. Of the decks mentioned today, Time Sieve clearly is the best at winning games against Five Color, but UW Baneslayer is easily the most realistic deck choice. The Merfolk, Jund, and Blightning decks are only “strong” against Five Color and don’t necessarily grant you an insane edge, and as a Five Color player I wouldn’t call any of those “bad” match-ups, whereas Sieve and Baneslayer certainly are. Personally, though, I think Faeries is the deck to play in the next two weeks, as it not only has the tools to beat Stag now, but also is well-positioned against both Five Color and the Baneslayer deck, which is absolutely huge.

In any case, get thinking. My best advice is just to play Five Color and properly defend yourself against Glen Elendra Archmages, Anathemancers, Mistbind Cliques, Blightnings, Vendilion Cliques, and Meddling Mages, but should you decide to run the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” plan, then you now have some insight into which decks can actually beat Five Color and which one is best for you based on their respective weaknesses. The season is almost over, so best of luck to everyone in the remaining weeks!

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
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