For those of you who think the king is dead because Caw-Blade didn’t win the StarCityGames.com Open in Edison, NJ — I have some very troubling news.*
He may not be on the throne right now, but that’s only because he was out getting a drink of water when you looked in on him.
*Disclaimer: This article was written prior to SCG Open: Memphis as a function of how the submission deadline fell.
Patrick Sullivan took a fairly stock red deck and smashed his way through a Top 8 filled with six copies of Caw-Blade, both with the red splash
and without, to a first-place finish, but we suspect that his ability to do so was partially a result of his play skill and partially a result of what
some Twitter pundits have called the U/W deck’s inbreeding — because it’s the best deck, we tweak it to perform better against itself, frequently
weakening its matchups against other decks (and when a deck is this dominant, we might not even care).
When we first look at Patrick’s list, we might be tempted to suspect that his victories over Caw-Blade were the result of his varied ways to remove a
creature in response to a Sword of Feast and Famine (or Sword of Body and Mind) activation:
His list has a full 24 cards (not counting Koth’s emblem) that can kill a Squadron Hawk or Stoneforge Mystic. However, a brief qualitative analysis of
the semifinals and finals coverage (both matches against the U/W/[x] menace) demonstrates only three instances where such a play was key — twoagainst Edgar Flores and one against [author name="Mike Eisenhauer"]Mike Eisenhauer[/author]. For the most part, it seems as though his
high quantity of burn, and creatures that approximate burn (Plated Geopede is the only card in the entire deck that can’t deal damage the turn it comes
into play), let him play the tempo game very effectively.
What may be even more interesting, though, is the lack of dedicated anti-red tech among the Caw-Blade players. Among the six copies of Caw-Blade that
made Top 8 in Edison, four had maindeck concessions to aggro decks (one copy of Baneslayer Angel and three copies of Sylvok Lifestaff, all in separate
lists). While the singleton Baneslayer Angel is unusual (and reportedly was a profitable decision), the Sylvok Lifestaff was a standard piece of
equipment in Paris, suggesting that at least three skilled players were that unconcerned with aggressive decks at the tournament.
Further, only 31.1% of the total number of sideboard cards in the Top 8 (Caw-Blade players only) were potentially relevant against Sullivan’s deck. Of
these, 14 (a full 50%) were copies of Flashfreeze — while it’s nice to have a hard counter against red cards, it’s not soul-crushingly powerful against
red (and probably was included more as a concession to the Valakut matchup). The remainder of the cards included Baneslayer Angel (6; a good answer,
but, as the finals in Edison demonstrated, potentially soft to Mark of Mutiny), Basilisk Collar (2), Elspeth Tirel (2), Condemn (2), and Celestial
The primary “take-away” from this analysis is that Caw-Blade players were unprepared for aggressive red decks, especially those favoring burn
spells over the “Kuldotha” plan.
To the extent that the metagame corrects itself (i.e., adds cards like Kor Firewalker to Caw-Blade sideboards), it proportionally will be unlikely that
a red deck will accomplish a similar feat in coming weeks, although the red archetype certainly has answers to Kor Firewalker (Ratchet Bomb, Perilous
So how, then, can we attack the Caw-Blade menace?
In many ways, Caw-Blade should remind us of Affinity — not so much in terms of the deck’s mechanics but in terms of how it has influenced the format.
To a large extent, the development of new decks after Pro Tour Paris has revolved around finding the most efficient way to use the Stoneforge
Mystic/Sword of Feast and Famine combination (spoiler alert: it usually involves Squadron Hawk). First, Gerry Thompson and others added red to
the deck for Lightning Bolt and Cunning Sparkmage. Then, others tried adding black to the deck for Grave Titan. Although that variation didn’t crack
the Top 16 at Edison, it seems to be a reasonable alternative. Finally, the deck has evolved toward a â€˜Bant’-style list with the Sword combo + Fauna
Shaman and Vengevine.
So, if Caw-Blade is our â€˜Affinity,’ where is our â€˜Freshmaker?’* Or, better yet… where is our Tooth and Nail?
*R/G Freshmaker was an anti-Affinity list with lots of artifact removal that briefly was popular, although it was fairly weak to decks that weren’t
Potential Answer #1:
Although Edison is far too far to travel given my current work schedule, I managed to travel the four minutes it would take to play in Mirrodin
Besieged Game Day on March 5 to test out a new variation of an old list against a field of 28 other competitors. Granted, playing in a local tournament
to test a deck is akin to testing a new car’s safety features in a hallway full of mattresses, but it gave me a feel for the deck in a setting where I
wasn’t casually playtesting and provided me with further insight into how the list might develop, as the list that I played certainly wasn’t optimal.
The tournament field was mostly Caw-Blade (three variations appeared: U/W, U/W/r, and U/B/w), Valakut Ramp, Boros, Kuldotha Red, Eldrazi Green, and a
few other lists (one of which, Big Boros, we’ll be discussing later on). For reference:
Round 1: Elves (Win, 2-0)
Round 2: Kuldotha Red (Win, 2-1)
Round 3: U/b/w Caw-Blade (Win, 2-0)
Round 4: Big Boros (ID)
Round 5 (Quarterfinals): U/W Caw-Blade (Loss, 0-2)
The Top 8 of the tournament was composed of: U/W Caw-Blade, U/W/r Caw Blade, U/B/w Caw Blade, Valakut Ramp, G/r Eldrazi Ramp, Big Boros, Boros, and
The matchup against Elves felt fairly trivial (a function of the matchup and not of my opponent, who played well), but the Kuldotha Red matchup was
very close. I was able to win because of a key deckbuilding decision that was prompted by my girlfriend prior to the tournament. I initially wanted to
run four Cultivates because, in the abstract, it’s better than Harrow when I’m not interested in accruing triggers on a Khalni Heart Expedition. She
argued, however, that given the nature of Slagstorm (it’s primarily an anti-aggro card), I need to be able to access â€˜RR’ on turn 3 more consistently,
and so I should run Harrow to enable a Slagstorm after a turn 2 Explore without seeing red mana. Sure enough, I was able to defeat his turn 1 Goblin
Guide into turn 2 double Goblin Guide in the final game because of Harrow and Slagstorm.
In the third round, I first encountered Caw-Blade, and the singleton Mystifying Maze proved its worth, as it held off a Sworded Creeping Tar Pit for
several turns while I prepared an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre for action. When I moved to sideboarding, however, I came to an important realization:
I really don’t like Nature’s Claim.
In my mind, prior to the tournament, I thought: “Oh cool, this card kills Sword of Feast and Famine!” In reality, though, I never ended up boarding it
in. What does the card really do? Its application is far too narrow against Caw-Blade. It’s a card that interacts with one, maybe two cards in their
deck, and they don’t need those cards to beat you. U/W Control/Caw-Go was a deck before Sword of Feast and Famine, after all.
I’m not sure whether I boarded correctly, but:
If I had access to an additional, multi-functional card like Mold Shambler, I’m not sure that I’d bring it in against this particular version of the
deck (he wasn’t running Gideon Jura), but I certainly would want it against any deck running a combination of Gideon Jura and Jace, the Mind Sculptor,
since it also can hit a Sword or a Celestial Colonnade.
What other concerns might we have with this list?
1) Where is Joraga Treespeaker?
As useful as it might be to speak to trees, this young lady’s time has come and gone. Lightning Bolt appears as a mainstay or as a splash in nearly
every relevant archetype: Valakut, Mono-Red, Vampires, Boros, Kuldotha Red, and even U/W/r Caw-Blade. The potential loss in utility from having her
killed in response to â€˜leveling up’ on turn 2 outweighs the possibility that we will level her up and then tap her for an Explore.
2) Why are three copies of Tectonic Edge in the board instead of in the maindeck?
This… is a very good question. Valakut Ramp already is a touch-and-go matchup, and the loss of three copies of Tectonic Edge worsens it considerably.
Further, the Edge’s ability to kill Celestial Colonnade and Creeping Tar Pit cannot be understated. Although Mystifying Maze often serves to hold these
cards back, it does so at a more significant resource cost. The question at hand, we might suppose, is whether it is better to reduce our need for red
mana (i.e., remove Slagstorm) in order to move Tectonic Edge to the maindeck.
Having played the deck quite a few times since “designing” it, I think that the answer is yes. Very often, I find myself using Slagstorm to kill one or
two creatures in lieu of a Lightning Bolt, or I find myself directing the damage at a planeswalker. It we can find a card that fulfills a similar
function without the more stringent mana requirement (“RR”), then we can move the Tectonic Edge back into the maindeck and regain those precious
percentage points in some of the more prevalent matchups.
At first, we might consider Pyroclasm, which similarly has the potential to sweep away multiple creatures and is especially good against Kuldotha Red.
However, it doesn’t have the ability to target planeswalkers, which is fairly relevant in the current metagame, in which Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an
ever-present threat, in addition to a supporting cast of Gideon Jura and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas.
This restriction leaves us with a few other choices. Burst Lightning is a reasonable alternative, and, as a mana ramp deck, we usually will have the
ability to pay the kicker cost. However, it’s not a card, in and of itself, that can deal with more than one creature (despite its utility against
planeswalkers). This leaves us to consider either Arc Trail or Staggershock. While Arc Trail sometimes will be a 2-for-1 (the most notable example
right now would be removing a Stoneforge Mystic and a Squadron Hawk), there are other times where it will simply remove one of several two-toughness
creatures and hit an opponent for one, and its utility against planeswalkers is limited.
For these reasons, we may conclude that Staggershock is the optimal replacement for Slagstorm, as it can remove multiple two-toughness creatures
(granted, over more than one turn) and can deal a total of four damage to one or more planeswalkers.
These tweaks to the deck lead us to a newer, theoretically improved variant:
In addition to the changes in the deck noted above, we’ve removed Nature’s Claim from the sideboard in favor of Mold Shambler. Though it’s not as fast
as Nature’s Claim, it actually does something against Caw-Blade when they don’t have an artifact in play and is synergistic with Acidic Slime.
Sometimes, we just end up going “Ponza” on our opponent. Because we run Summoning Trap, Terastodon may be a viable alternative in this slot, but it’s
not something that I’ve tested yet (perhaps a split, with 1-2 Terastodons, is appropriate).
Obstinate Baloth is not the strongest sideboard card in the world, but it’s a role-player against aggressive decks, and, although I wouldn’t board it
in against Caw-Blade, it’s worth noting that it does come into play for free if a Boros player hits you with Sword of Feast and Famine while
it’s in your hand.
The remainder of the sideboard can go in several different directions. When I first was revising the sideboard, I thought that Bear Umbra looked useful
against Valakut, allowing us to attack with a Primeval Titan that doesn’t trade with opposing Titans, while untapping with a freshly tutored Eye of
Ugin. Of course, I soon realized that Sword of Feast and Famine does nearly the same thing (absent totem armor) for an additional mana, while providing
repeated use. Valakut shouldn’t have much artifact removal in games 2 and 3 (though they probably will have some number of Acidic Slime), and so it
may be worth putting a few copies of the Sword in the sideboard.
However, it may be more efficient to use those sideboard slots to shore up aggressive matchups, especially now that variants of Red Deck Wins are back
on the radar. To this end, additional copies of Obstinate Baloth, in addition to “old school” tech like Pelakka Wurm, may be useful. We may also
consider Wurmcoil Engine. Against a mediocre player, Wurmcoil Engine is excellent, but a good red player will be able to play around our life gain
(i.e., block with Ember Hauler, shoot his own creatures in response to declaration of blockers, etc.). For this reason, we may better be served with
some mixture of the Baloth and the Wurm (unless we want to get â€˜super techy’ and try out Living Destiny to combine with our Eldrazi).
Although the results of SCG Open: Memphis have yet to be seen, I suspect that, unless the metagame shifts drastically, this deck has the potential to
be a role player, at Tier 2 or better, while the format solidifies.
Potential Answer #2:
Both this deck and the one to follow are accompanied by significantly less analysis, as they’re not decks on which I have worked but are decks that I
have encountered in real life or on Magic Online that merit sharing. While there was some informal discussion of a “Big Boros” list at Edison, it
didn’t really creep into the coverage outside of a feature match performance. However, Chris Hurley, who most recently took a Top 8 slot at SCG Open:
Indianapolis with U/B Control, piloted a version of Big Boros to the Top 8 at our small MBS Game Day. The shell of the deck, in particular, was very
It retains the Stoneforge Mystic/Sword of Feast and Famine combo while maindecking Cunning Sparkmage to take advantage of Basilisk Collar (and it’s a
fine card on its own, since it kills Squadron Hawk). The addition of Emeria Angel provides an equip target for the Sword that doesn’t die to Lightning
Bolt (once it’s equipped), and the landfall triggers have tremendous utility in a Squadron Hawk war. In addition, Gideon Jura provides the deck with a
level of resilience against sweepers.
Notably absent are the traditional Boros creatures: Steppe Lynx, Plated Geopede, and Goblin Guide. These didn’t appear anywhere in the list, although
Chris had a full four copies of Hero of Oxid Ridge in the sideboard. We might consider moving them to the maindeck (it seemed like he boarded it in a
To some extent, though, this “answer” feels like cheating because it doesn’t really solve the Caw-Blade problem; it’s just a different approach to the
Potential Answer #3:
I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be a R/G deck in the current Standard format that doesn’t use Primeval Titan to enable a powerful late-game
strategy (most typically Valakut triggers), but Magic Online has proven me wrong once again.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Acidic Slime
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Leatherback Baloth
- 3 Wolfbriar Elemental
- 3 Nest Invader
- 4 Mitotic Slime
We may not be sure, at first glance, how “good” this list is. While placing 4-0 in a Standard Daily is a meaningful step toward demonstrating a deck’s
viability, we can’t be sure whether this single appearance was facilitated by a sequence of unusual matchups (did he ever play against Caw-Blade?). To
be sure, certain sequences of plays, such as Birds of Paradise into Leatherback Baloth into Acidic Slime, can be very difficult to overcome, and the
deck has a decent removal suite, but certain card choices seem unintuitive.
We may wonder whether the ability for every land to come into play untapped is more important than the resilience provided by the addition of one or
more copies of Raging Ravine. This seems like a list in which one or more copies of Inferno Titan would be effective as well. That having been said, I
didn’t design the deck, and while I â€˜durdled’ around with it online, that doesn’t constitute solid playtesting.
If we take away one lesson from examining these decklists, it should be that Standard is still a format in flux
. There are a number of incredibly powerful decks stemming from Pro Tour Paris, but there most likely are undiscovered archetypes or old standards
that, with some tweaking, can become serious metagame contenders.