Time Spiral Standard: Testing from the Top

With Standard States just around the corner, and Time Spiral officially released today, Constructed testing has kicked off in fine style. Mike takes a powerful updated Solar Flare deck and throws it against a gauntlet of possible Standard contenders… and reveals the deck he would take to States if they were to be played tomorrow.

Part One: From the Top

Up until this week (Victory! by the way), Frank Karsten’s Online Tech column over at the mother ship MagictheGathering.com has reported Solar Flare, boring old Solar Flare, as one of the top two Magic Online decks for several weeks running (including a multiple consecutive week stint in the numero uno a.k.a. big bad best spot). The top aggressive decks have steadily been Satanic Sligh a.k.a. Sand Burn and Dutch Simic a.k.a. Sea Stompy (okay, not really).

Moving forward for Time Spiral a.k.a. States Standard, I decided to test the most popular aggressive archetypes against the most popular control – a.k.a. “overall” – archetype.

The beatdown decks were the same stock-ish U/G and Rakdos from my article last week.

I pulled some Solar Flare deck off Magic-League.com. This version differed greatly from the version ManningBot played at the Mock Tournament we ran last Saturday (more on that later), but, as I suppose all the Solar Flare decks will, ran Akroma as the updated kill.

Clutch of the Undercity remains a versatile one-of from the Japanese Nationals Top 8 version, and Sift is up to two copies in this version. The big change is a much more significant reanimation sub-theme, with all four copies of Zombify maindeck, the maximum number and twice the default from last season.

Leaning more on the Japanese Nationals style rather than pre-Coldsnap Solar Flare, this version skimps in an important way on Court Hussars, and is thus unable to hit the two-for-one "chain" that makes some updated versions so deadly (see below). I’ve never been a big fan of Solar Flare, but even under the umbrella of the B/U/W mid-range control decks, this one seemed kind of underwhelming. Without Court Hussar, it had no really efficient way to stem early beats while setting up and gaining card advantage, and the reactive cards are just so mediocre. If Solar Flare continues to be a popular strategy going into Champs, and aggressive deck with mana control as a key method of strategy suppression may be the way to go.

U/G, 7 over Solar Flare, 3

This matchup was odd because it really felt like Solar Flare had U/G covered. I think Solar Flare gave up a game to possible mis-play, but U/G handed one right back, so from that standpoint it was pretty even.

Solar Flare took an early lead of two (or was it all three?) wins but could not hold it. ‘Flare has the trump cards, Wrath of God and especially Akroma, but U/G has just enough interaction to be able to sneak in some wins due to a Timeshifted addition last seen in Alpha. From ‘Flare side, Akroma really feels unbeatable. U/G only managed to beat Akroma in play a couple of times, and it was always based on getting a few points in with Looters (sometimes equipped with Moldervine Cloak), and then having exactly the necessary number of Psionic Blasts to win with like one life left (I always want to type "Char," by the way).

U/G was good on the play because of the large number of times it led on Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves, then moved directly to Ohran Viper second turn. Mortify was bad in these spots – and Condemn would have been equally bad – because U/G’s early acceleration was so much better and Plaxmanta was conditionally a back-breaker. For that matter, Plaxmanta would often come down post-Wrath, saving nothing, just so U/G could Dredge Moldervine Cloak and hit for a quick packet of damage before ‘Flare shot back with Zombify (this strategy, while not great, was surprisingly not bad… kind of like when Adrian and I used to call Simian Grunts Lightning Bolt… God, that deck was terrible).

Weakness from the U/G side came from self-imposed garbage play, like running Looter on turn 2 instead of Call of the Herd, swinging with an Elves, so that it could pitch and flashback Call (trust me, this seemed cool at the time). The U/G win percentage went up later when tricky play like this was de-emphasized for doing more damage more quickly while trying to hold a lead with Remand. The hard thing from the U/G side was correctly meting out threats while leaving enough mana back to run the reactive two-mana cards. The U/G side often felt helpless because even when it was right to Remand, that would often just slow a Wrath by a turn; same on Zombify. Remanding Compulsive Research was also reasonable (especially because it staved off Zombify), but U/G never felt like it was in control, even if it ended up winning.

I think that the 7-3 is deceptive because in a good number of its wins, Simic just drew two Remands and two Psionic Blasts and it was the pathetic defense of Solar Flare that did it, and a better equipped reactive deck would have easily won… Bait to Remand, Remand for damage, let the answers hit, Char twice, "Thanks, b." A lot of those wins would have gone the other way but for two Remands and two Chars (Char always going to the dome).

Looter was good. Ohran Viper was good. Call was okay. Birds and Elves were necessary, but mid-game Birds and Elves were often pitched to Looter in favor of lands when the shadow of Wrath started to loom long. Plaxmanta was sometimes high five material but didn’t really feel like an All-Star in the matchup (which is logical because more than half the time, it was defending against Angel of Despair, meaning that there was still a 5/5 in play on the other side of the table). Besides Remand and Psionic Blast, which were essential to winning, the next best card was probably Moldervine Cloak, because that card let U/G shorten the games so that its complete inability to control tempo in the long term would not bite it, lethally, in the ass. Spell Snare was the worst card in this matchup. I cannot recall it ever countering a Signet and I don’t think it ever ended a Remand fight; in fact, I think U/G lost every game Spell Snare appeared in hand.

Aside: I don’t know what is up with Spell Snare in this season of playtesting. It was terrible in control-on-Zoo testing with Billy and BDM, and here is another matchup where it hasn’t been good. In White Wafo-Tapa versus Solar Flare, Spell Snare was one of the key cards because it allowed U/W to stop ‘Flare from getting a mana advantage, then won the Remand fights late. However in this aggressive deck, Blue mana is never free to stop the Signets in the earliest turns, as Simic is always tapping for fellas. I told Josh about how bad Spell Snare was in control versus Zoo and we agreed to cut it from the control main… But Josh said he would never hesitate to side it in against Zoo, which disturbed both of us given the reasons for moving it in the first place. End aside.

The 7-3 in favor of U/G was startling because Solar Flare started the matchup on a tear, even winning a mulligan to four (quick Research into Zombify for Akroma). Solar Flare is clearly the more powerful deck. U/G, though, has the better first two turns due to eight first turn accelerators, and can briefly hold a lead, then follow up with Chars when ‘Flare is tapped out. As such, this seems a fairly draw dependent shoot-out, with little strategy from either end.


I think Asher’s version would have done a lot better than the ‘Net version of Solar Flare. Asher doesn’t play Persecute, and I don’t think Solar Flare played a single profitable Persecute. Instead he has proactive card advantage, meaning more consistent Akroma dumps, more velocity, and a higher frequency of drawing the trump cards.

From the U/G side, I was really unhappy with the permission suite. I don’t know if I would go so far as to cut Remand (it was, after all, important to winning), but I think some kind of Voidslime (maybe two main?) like Billy [Moreno] suggested at testing last week might be more effective here. Just countering Zombify / some Angel / Wrath would put Solar Flare on done quite a bit because, hey, it’s not very good against unchecked Ophidians. U/G has eight swinging from turn 3: Probably my proudest moment in the playtest session was being too lazy to mulligan Looter and six lands on the play. Good old Looter! Shadow came in cheat Cheat Cheat, and all of a sudden it was Viper, counters, Cloak, and Blasts to finish. Solar Flare never had a chance.

Rakdos 7, over Solar Flare, 3

Even though its ten game set was the exact same over Solar Flare as U/G, the numbers seem just as surprising to me, but for the opposite reason. Rakdos won the first five games. Big. I was wondering if Solar Flare was going to win any games for a while. The matchup did not feel like ‘Flare deserved three at all.

The Rakdos wins were all the same. Sometimes B/R got a few points in with Shadow Guildmage, or four at a time from Rakdos Guildmage, but it always came to a fist full of Red cards late, no matter what ‘Flare board was. I felt like Shuhei Nakamura in the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Columbus, burning out Reanimator with Akroma in play (admittedly it was only turn 5 Akroma). Again, this matchup was not very strategic, beyond figuring out what cards were good and what were not good.

If Solar Flare had Court Hussar, it would have saved itself some damage, for sure.


Persecute was like 1-X in resolutions. Once it took two Demonfires and that was it. Winner Winner for once. Most of the time it just turned on the Madness on Fiery Temper. One of the goals of testing this matchup was to see how good Fiery Temper was versus Rift Bolt or potentially Giant Solifuge (right now my Rakdos deck has only 1-3, no CMC 4); I think Temper over-performed because Solar Flare is a Black deck with discard. Guildmage plus Madness never came up. I like it more than Rift Bolt here, but Rift Bolt has been just fine in Boros so what are you going to choose?

Rakdos Guildmage was fine. Bobby was fine, but I don’t know if he actually mattered to winning that much. He was like Fiery Temper. Sure, it was cool to discard to Persecute, but those Tempers were going to the dome either way. If Solar Flare were ever in any games, Bobby might have mattered more, but his downside is so bad against Akroma (remember this deck can make turn 4 Akroma easily) that he actually hurts the race. More than once I sent multiple Mahers into the Angel of Wrath just to get one killed in the hopes that I wouldn’t flip a spell and my seven life would hold (didn’t work out that way). I think Maher was success-neutral in this matchup, purely because of ‘Flare endgame plan of easy 18 damage, with Maher essentially being a Time Walk for the other team; he’s probably above average elsewhere; just a guess.

I think Shadow Guildmage did the most damage of any creature, just because he got in for one on turn 2. The Rakdos beatdown isn’t the fastest, and you can get smashed by Signet-into-Wrath and just lose creatures on the draw. Once Akroma came down, the little Shadow was key at dealing non-Red Zone damage, helping to prepare for the combined Alpha Strike plus flurry to win by tight margin.

One thing I can say for Solar Flare: It sure won all the games it mulliganed to five or less (in both matchups we tested)! One land; one land; two lands, Signet, and Compulsive? I’ll keep (that hand consistently turned into Zombify and Akroma, in case you were wondering)!

Testing is young at this point, but if States were tomorrow, I’d run this Rakdos I think. Shadow Guildmage gives it the edge over decks with Birds and Elves, and even though Josh thinks we’re behind against G/R, I don’t know that G/R is playing the right cards to beat us (Thornscape Battlemage and Call of the Herd are some strong Magic though). The fight against the default control (at least as far as what we can tell is the default control) is just too easy with all the burn spells, endgame Demonfire, and just surviving getting hit by freaking Akroma, Angel of Wrath a couple of times! If we really wanted to, we could side some catch-all answers like Void, but I don’t think those kinds of cards will be necessary.

Here is the current sideboard:

4 Coldsteel Heart
3 Persecute
4 Giant Solifuge
4 Skred

I actually want about 2-3 Stalking Yetis, so Josh and I are working out how to fit Solifuge in the main. Siding the Coldsteel Hearts is all Ravitz, and brilliant. Our maindeck is all 1-3, but we want to accelerate to 4 mana on turn 3 with the sideboard cards. Coldsteel Heart is perfect and boosts Snow count for Skreds. We really need Giant Solifuge because even with the strong control matchup, Serrated Arrows is going to be a problem for our team of 1/1 and 2/1 utility (apparently Patrick thinks they will be played, and I myself sided four in my deck at the Mock Tournament last Saturday). Beating Akroma with all non-renewable two-damage packets might otherwise be "challenging."

Completely Unrelated Aggro Testing Interlude:

What happened to Boros?

Last season I would gladly have played my Boros deck against Zoo, Gruul, Rakdos, or Orzhov (at least the ones without maindeck Descendent of Kiyomaro), and most versions of control… and won the vast majority of the time, provided I wasn’t up against a lot of Hierarchs and Descendents, and I even beat the Hierarchs most of the time. It was sometimes difficult, but the tools were there, even when I was stupidly playing Manriki-Gusari over Jitte main. In Time Spiral Standard, though, the loss of Bushido to fight Green 3/3s has not been kind in the transition. Last season I could play out of being on the wrong side of Jitte… But for some reason last night we just ran the Boros I posted last week against the commensurate Zoo and I have no idea if either deck has the advantage, or how.

One deck just blew the other one out every time; I think whoever went second had a mild advantage but it was not really appreciable once I got Icatian Javelineers out of Boros (I tried playing Icatian Javelineers over Volcanic Hammer on Chapin’s suggestion, but Boros needed the three damage to fight Watchwolf and Kird Ape). Basically, no one ever lived. Serra Avenger was not as good as I would have liked because the other deck had Helix. No creature was really big enough, as Char served the ultimate equalizer, and both decks packed four.

Boros tended to win if it drew Paladins, but at least last night they only showed up in packs, meaning Boros won big when it won. I’m not sure how a single Paladin interacts with, say, a single Watchwolf, because that fight either didn’t come up or the Watchwolf didn’t last very long. Generally the deck that drew fewer (but sufficient) lands would win. Zoo’s more precarious manabase was not so much of an issue because all the games were blowouts one way or another. Either Zoo would stabilize life total with Helixes, or all of the Boros guys would be dead so closing the last half of life points would not be an issue, or it would have lost anyway.

This might have been the most draw dependent, least strategic, fight of all of them. My initial thought was that Boros would chump low and win in the air, but… That doesn’t really work when either all its guys are dead so it isn’t swinging, or all the opponent’s guys are dead so it doesn’t matter that the home team flies.

The one thing I will say is that Boros with four Gemstone Mines and four Garrisons runs like it’s right out of the box. You preserve lands, and when you’re finally burning the Mines out, you have more than enough to operate. I guess it’s because both decks are set up so similarly, essentially within one land of each other, that the matchup is so even. Kird Ape was good on defense. Mistral Charger was uninspired. Tin-Street Hooligan never got value (obviously), but did fine swinging for two or trading with a 2/x flyer considering the creatures on the other side. Kird Ape and Watchwolf were the best cards for Zoo (Magus of the Scroll got exactly one activation, and it was in a game where Zoo had a 3-0 creature advantage). Josh thinks Soltari Priest would be better out of Boros than Mistral Charger, and he might be right… I have no idea how Boros will win if Zoo sides in Thornscape Battlemage to kill Paladin En-Vec (the Boros Legion’s only ace).

End interlude.

Part Two: Battling ManningBot

This past Saturday, BDM organized a pre-Time Spiral mock tournament at Neutral Ground. If you’ve been following the Top8Magic.com podcasts for the past year, you know that our first foray was the pre-States mock tournament where Mono-Blue was cemented as the group’s Weapon of Choice, and that subsequent mock tournament winners predicted successful rogues like Deadguy Ale before Grand Prix: Philadelphia. For my part, I played a B/U/R board control / Yawgmoth’s Will deck called Heezy Avenue. It was an attempt to hybridize my Charleston "Batman" deck with a Mishra Legend deck, created in concert with Mark Herberholz. Mishra really feels like Yawgmoth’s Will in 1998-2000 Extended and Standard; really powerful, sweeping, and high velocity… but not game ending as it is in Vintage. Heezy Avenue was… How shall I put it? I threw it in the trashcan after 1-2.

I lost to Keith, a newish Neutral Ground Regular who I’ve only met in the past week or two, playing U/R Snow in the first round. I made a key error in the third game. I had two Defense Grids in play (if you play Defense Grid with Mishra in play, Blue can’t really stop you from getting a ‘Grid), which made my Persecute good. I elected to go Blue instead of Red, which was just stupid. His counters were next-to-blank, but the Sol’Kanar I wanted to resolve was going to die to a Skred if he had it. It turned out he had two Demonfires and killed me that way. I baited and fenced well… the shortsightedness on color, though, was not bad play, rather prototype Bad Strategy [Picking the Right Plan].

Second round I beat Billy Moreno Dragonstorm deck, piloted by the incomparably cool Luis Neiman. First game I hit third turn Persecute… so he won (suspend Storm triggers, and Blue cards in hand allowed him to play Dragonstorm for four Bogardans despite Persecute on Red). Second game he assembled all the cards for the fifth turn combo kill, so I won (Clutch of the Undercity bought one turn, then I ripped Void for nine). Last game I had Persecute on turn 3, then Sol’Kanar and Void.

Last round I got spanked by Scott McCord’s Mono-Blue Teferi deck. My deck was built a little badly, but if I had Sudden Death and knowledge of Scott’s list (which I saw after the tournament), I think I would have won easily. But as Josh reminded me, you don’t know your opponent’s 60 first time around on the Pro Tour. He spanked me 2-0, largely because I was playing too hard around threats that weren’t there. Dumb-on-dumb, Blue usually beats Black. Black has to be smart, often Sculpting the Perfect Hand, to beat Blue. In order to be smart, you’ve got to know what’s what, and I didn’t.

After the tournament – armed with the knowledge that if I had better information, about four cards different in my main, and played just a little better, I could have won instead of going 1-2 – I battled the actual winner, "ManningBot" Asher Hecht. Asher became barn to the mighty Chris Manning during New York Two-Headed Giant States, and finished in Top 8 of the Deckade Book Signing tournament. If I wasn’t already convinced that Solar Flare was going to be popular if not very good in the next Standard by Frank’s work on the mother ship, ManningBot’s easy win in the mock tournament cemented the necessity of battling against that default.

Here is his winning decklist:

Asher beat up on Heezy Avenue quite a bit after the tournament. I consistently got the early advantage, especially by setting up profitable Voids or sending Clutch of the Undercity at his Karoos, but given time, he would sculpt a chain of two-for-ones, Hussar, Research, and Careful Consideration, until his win was certain via Akroma or Zombify.

Asher defeated U/W control in the first round of the tournament. He said that he thought the matchup was heavily in favor of Solar Flare, which surprised me because in the previous Standard, we thought U/W Wafo-Tapa was way ahead of Kamigawa Solar Flare. "If I played again, I would play two Urza’s Factories, which are really good against U/W (and I think a good portion of the field will be control). Solar Flare can just sculpt the perfect hand if U/W is trying to win with Akroma."

In the finals, Asher dropped a quick first game to U/G Graft. "I think that matchup is basically unwinnable game 1." However Teferi’s Moat appeared in the sideboarded games, and young ManningBot took home first prize, BDM’s foil Grim Lavamancer.

More to come…