Thirst For Knowledge – Zen and the Art, Part 2

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Wednesday, October 7th – I’ve known many players in my years spent playing Magic that have told me that they enjoy Limited far more than Constructed, and I’ve personally just never felt that way. Even when Standard degenerated into a joke like Lorwyn Standard, I still would rather sleeve up 60-card decks as opposed to a draft deck. While that hasn’t necessarily changed for me, Zendikar is beginning to show me why so many players worldwide value Limited so highly.

I’ve known many players in my years spent playing Magic that have told me that they enjoy Limited far more than Constructed, and I’ve personally just never felt that way. Even when Standard degenerated into a joke like Lorwyn Standard, I still would rather sleeve up 60-card decks as opposed to a draft deck. I actually really enjoyed triple Shards drafting, but even then it was just something I liked to do on MTGO with some downtime. Constructed was where it was at. And while that hasn’t necessarily changed for me, Zendikar is beginning to show me why so many players worldwide value Limited so highly.

I’m only a handful of tournaments into Zendikar Limited, but I’m already hooked. I mean, the list of things I’d rather do than jump into a Zendikar draft is growing shorter and shorter. I even adore Sealed, which is pretty astounding given that I tend to detest that format. But, well, Wizards of the Coast has created a Limited format that is not only intuitive and exciting, but also balanced and engaging. They’ve focused the play on creature combat, but they’ve been careful about making it too over-saturated with aggressive cards so as to encourage very drastic differences between archetypes. Landfall is simply a brilliant mechanic, and I’ve yet to see a successful deck in the format that wasn’t incorporating the ability into its game plan. Playing an additional land in all of my decks than I normally would has so far been fairly painless, and playing with cards that turn those annoying lategame land topdecks into “wins” has been exceedingly satisfying.

This weekend I of course played in my local release event, and made Top 8 with a deck featuring Ob Nixilis and Rite of Replication, probably among the top three cards in their respective rarities. Ob Nixilis is obviously busted in Limited, but it’s Rite of Replication that makes for the most memorable stories. I was able to kick it targeting my opponent’s Rampaging Baloths in game 3 of a match, and drew the concession merely by flashing the tenth land in my hand (not that I really think the land was what did him in). Disgusting. I’m quite convinced that with my own experience now adding to all the stories that Rite might just be the best rare in the set for Limited, for I can’t recall a card outside of Sphinx of Jwar Isle that’s going to be able to avoid its shenanigans. Hellkite Charger is obviously one of the strongest competitors, but if you can survive a hit from that guy and stay alive long enough to kick Rite targeting it, it becomes virtually impossible to lose. In fact, the running joke was that even if you kick it targeting a Mindless Null you’re still going to be able to get there without any shadow of a doubt. Now that would be a story.

There were no treasure cards opened this weekend to my knowledge, which isn’t all that exciting. On the other hand, I did manage to open some insane cards in my prize packs from this past Saturday. In twelve packs, I opened (of note): Misty Rainforest, Arid Mesa, Marsh Flats, Elemental Appeal, Warren Instigator, Felidar Sovereign, Bloodghast, Summoning Trap, Mindbreak Trap, and Ob Nixilis. I don’t know, that seems pretty unreal to me. And to top it off, I still have four Japanese boxes on the way! Did anyone else get any prize pools that ridiculous? What about treasure? Anything memorable?

In any case, the bottom line is this: Zendikar is easily among the most enjoyable Limited formats ever designed, and you need to get out there and crack some packs. Even if you traditionally don’t like Limited, the times are changing. And it’s awesome.

Moving on, let’s get into some Constructed. I’m going to start by showing off the “deck that builds itself,” Vampires. It was mysteriously missing from last week’s aggro article, but I assure you it was merely an oversight. Without further ado:

To be totally honest, this deck isn’t that bad. I mean, it’s certainly not the second coming of Rogues — it’s actually a legitimate strategy that has a shot at being in the upper tiers (though I think tier one might be a long shot). A lot of your creatures generate card advantage on their own (Gatekeeper) or are just brutally efficient (Lacerator and Nighthawk), and your lategame is actually pretty exceptional (Bloodwitch and Nocturnus are pretty much the bee’s knees). Bloodghast is actually the worst card in the deck, and initially I had cut them entirely from the maindeck. They’re beyond amazing against the control decks, but they’re absolute dirt in the aggro match-ups. I mean, really, how much weaker of a card could you ask for than a 2/1 that can’t block when you’re competing against a guy packing Putrid Leeches? That being said, I think having some awkward cards like them maindeck as opposed to something like Sign in Blood is probably justified, so three of them found their way into the maindeck.

Vampire Hexmage is possibly the most annoying card I’ve ever seen, also. In my time spent testing this deck against Cruel Control, it was Hexmage that irritated me the most by a landslide (or is it a landfall?). I mean, have you ever tried getting any value out of Jace while she’s in play? I found myself multiple times using Jace as a removal spell for her, which is very awkward. You can’t play Jace and draw a card yourself, because then she can just swing back and off him. Instead, you’re forced to make you both draw one and then she’ll sacrifice to blow him up. This deals with the creature on one hand, but on the other you’ve basically spent 1UU to break even with your opponent. Like I said, awkward, but at least the art’s amazing ([insert joke here]).

In the sideboard you need to focus on dealing with cards like Putrid Leech and Baneslayer Angel, and so Deathmarks take center stage and are complimented by lots of cards to take on control decks of all kinds. Bloodchief Ascension is very efficient against Cruel Control and any deck that tries to halt your advances, as it basically allows you to turn each of your opponent’s actions into free swings. Mind Sludge is the best card in the entire deck after sideboarding, and in all honesty I don’t think Cruel Control stands much of a chance against this deck if it packs four of these in the sideboard. Between Ascension, Bloodghast beats, and Mind Sludge, I find it hard to believe that the advantage is not just absurdly in the favor of the bloodsuckers. None of this really translates well to the aggro match-ups (although you do have Disfigure for the mirror at least and Tendrils is obviously very good versus any creature deck), but overall it’s possible to give this deck game against nearly anything. I don’t normally enjoy turning guys sideways, but this deck is fairly enjoyable to play and packs a bit of a punch. Besides, any deck with 4/4 pro-white Consume Spirit creatures has got to be pretty decent in a format based on Path to Exile and Baneslayer Angel, right?

That out of the way, let’s talk about control decks. And, for starters, why not choose Cruel Control?

Yes folks, that’s a full-fledged Chris Jobin control deck with five maindeck counterspells. It’s horribly depressing, but we work with what we have. There simply is no Cryptic Command, and these days we’ll have to settle for solving problems (removal) rather than preventing them from ever becoming a problem (counterspells). Path and Bolt are actually both just very superb at what they do, and the reintroduction of Wrath of God gives me hope that this style of deck is far from dead. Blue arguably may be the weakest color in Standard right now (at least from first glance), but as long as Cruel Ultimatum requires blue mana there’s little chance that I’ll stop playing Islands anytime soon.

To get this out of the way: yes, the manabase is atrocious. The reason is that we need white mana early, and there’s simply no way to avoid playing so many tapped lands. The good news is that mana is fairly consistent as a result, but you’ll almost always be a turn behind on your spells. It’s a necessary evil, but in the end you’re left with something similar to what we had before rotation: a control deck that plays all of the best cards. Cruel is every bit the spell it was before, and it’s probably even better now considering that will get countered far less often. You still have all the same card-drawing potential that you had before (Jace and Charm), and your removal suite is probably simply as good as it gets. You shouldn’t be losing to small creature decks, although the Vampire decks packing Mind Sludge are truly as annoying as I let on earlier. The control match-ups aren’t that bad either, especially with all-stars like Magosi, Ascension, and Crisis coming in from the board. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not the creatures that I’ve chosen are correct or not. Patrick Chapin champions Sphinx of Jwar Isle, and I’ll admit that that card seems very reasonable as well. More testing with that card in a week’s time should give me more insight into that.

I’m not sure if this archetype will have much staying power, but it’s easily the premiere control deck in the young format. It has answers to just about anything that can be thrown at it, but at the cost of being exceptionally slow. Time will tell whether or not “exceptionally slow” is going to cut it or not.

Next up to bat is Cascade Control:

Despite my love affair with Cruel Ultimatum, this is the deck I foresee myself playing the most in the new Standard. Fully equipped to punish the aggro decks and more than ready to go toe-to-toe with even the most powerful of control decks, Cascade Control seeks to make the most of every spell it plays. Bloodbraid Elf will always kill a creature or dump an efficient blocker into play, and ten cards in the maindeck alone keep your life total in a very healthy spot. The mana is surprisingly consistent, albeit a tad slow (again, Rupture Spire just isn’t Reflecting Pool). You could easily get away with playing more Sunpetal Groves and less Rupture Spires, but overall I think it’s more reliable to play the five-color land (even though it is SOOOOO slow).

I truly can’t say enough good things about this deck, as it accomplishes just about anything you could want it to. Should soldiers get out of hand for one reason or another I think a fourth Day of Judgment in the sideboard is probably needed, but otherwise I think the list plays about as well as I could ask it to given the power level of Standard. This is a prime candidate for “best in the format,” though it has Naya and Jund Aggro to compete with. Though there might be another deck vying for the top spot…

You’ve probably heard people talk about this deck making a comeback (again), and you may have even seen some lists. But Turbo-Fog is ridiculous, right? No sense in taking it seriously, yeah? Wrong. This deck is at its very best right now, and I’ve spent the past three weeks trying to find a hole in the deck’s strategy. That is, is there a decent reason as to why this just isn’t the best approach to such an aggressive format?

The list I’ve presented is from John Treviranus of Team Revolution (of which I am also a part), which was further developed by the rest of the team. I believe it to be the strongest version of the archetype, as it features a refined maindeck that gets rid of clunky removal spells and sweepers and even gets to forgo Luminarch Ascension in favor of a drastically more focused maindeck. The game plan is stream-lined, and laughably easy to execute. Without Spellstutter Sprite, Mistbind Clique, and Cryptic Command in the format, what’s there to stop this monster? While I did indeed say that I’d probably spend more time with Cascade Control than I would with anything else, I think this deck is by far the right call at least for the time being given that everyone and his brother will be playing aggro decks until the control decks are established. I greatly encourage the nonbelievers to test this deck. Seriously. Don’t read this and just pass over this portion of the article and write this deck off. If you do, I firmly believe you’ll be sorry you did. As much as I hate to say it, this deck is good.

And, sadly, that about does it for the control decks. I don’t doubt for a second that the handful of decks that I outlined in these past two weeks will share Standard with dozens of other viable decks, but for the most part these ones will likely shape the bulk of the format. Standard actually is turning out to be pretty fun so far, and I for one can’t wait for the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia to be over so I can see some results. I’d love to see some decklists in the forums this week, so if you have any lists you’d like to share that would be awesome.

In any case, that concludes this week. I haven’t decided on a definite topic for next week yet, but I’m sure another week of testing will lead me to some interesting things to talk about. In the meantime, I’m going to try to avoid decking the next person who makes a World of Warcraft “LFG” joke about quests and allies. No joke.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else