Two-Headed Giant: Hits and Misses in Ravnica Block Team Trios, Part 2 – Hits

On Friday, Mike shared his opinion on the mistakes made during his testing for Pro Tour Charleston. However, it wasn’t all bad news at the PT… his team, Two Headed Giant, finished strongly in 26h place. While some things went wrong in testing, some things definitely went right. Today he reveals the strengths of their testing, the secrets behind their fine finish, and analysis of the deck that gave him his personal best Constructed performance to date.

Again, the framework for our deck lists for the inaugural Team Constructed Pro Tour was based on Patrick Chapin “greedy” deck. Many teams had a deck chock full of good cards that weren’t being played by other decks… Our team started off with a deck that was all insanely good cards – Loxodon Hierarch, Simic Sky Swallower, Putrefy, Angel of Despair, and so on – and the other two decks got whatever was left over.

At the end of the tournament, we finished 9-5, which for many players with that record meant a share in the prize money, but for us was a crushing 26th place out of 25 money winners (i.e. last place).

Last time, I went over some of the stuff we missed; this time I am going to focus on the one deck of the three that we did really solidly. It is not to say that I think that Paul’s deck or Steve’s were not good – our configuration had the vast majority of teams covered, and had a couple of small things gone differently, I think we would have done even better – it’s just that where there were certain decisions that we could have made better in the B and C seats (for example, playing G/W Glare in place of Paul’s deck, changing up to eight sideboard cards in Steve’s, or positioning our players a little differently to yield more favorable matchups), the A deck was essentially flawless.

The skeleton of this deck (no pun intended) was developed by Antonino De Rosa and company. It was originally Ant’s Aethermage’s Touch deck… but in testing we found the mana in the deck to be impossibly bad. The deck didn’t just have essentially my B/W as its center, it had Green for Loxodon Hierarch and Blue for Aethermage’s Touch, with no Sensei’s Divining Top of course. The deck was powerful – you could pop up a third turn Angel of Despair, Vindicating during combat and slapping a 5/5 into an ideal block, and setting up for some future Angel action – or you could whiff. The rule Zvi set down some years ago is that for four mana you should win the game, and with Aethermage’s Touch, sometimes you had the Blue, sometimes you didn’t, but even when you could run it out there, sometimes you were getting a temporary Belfry Spiritand I’m not knocking the Belfry Spirit – but, really, that’s so much worse than Scatter the Seeds… and too often you were getting zero without any significant way to control, um, anything.

Josh Ravitz and Alex Lieberman played Ant’s eventual version at the Pro Tour; you should be able to see the common ancestry of their deck and the one I ended up running pretty readily. Ant’s version cut the Touch Blue but kept Green for Loxodon Hierarch; as you know I didn’t have that liberty because of the Chapin deck. I played the fourth Mortify and fourth Last Gasp, so my version of B/W ended up being our best anti-aggro deck, better on the numbers than even Beatdown Destroyer; even with those in the deck, I still had slots to fill… Gleancrawler was my giant in place of Angel of Despair, and Steve O’Mahoney-Schwartz and I actually agreed at the Pro Tour that the big 6/6 was actually better in the deck than Angel of Despair would have been. I wasn’t actually sure what demographic of decks I was going to play most commonly, so I played a lot more two-ofs than I normally would (Patrick suggested I run all four Pontiffs in the main, but I ended up liking the configuration as I played it).

Despite being subject to fewer hours of testing than either of our other choices, the Bats deck ended up the most successful. I didn’t lose on Day 1, and even though I only went 4-3 on Day 2, only one of my losses mattered (I got carried for the only time ever in the first round of Day 2, and the third time I lost – sadly to my old friend edt – we got swept… I finished Day 2 on three in a row, though, which felt great). Going 14 rounds with only three losses will usually put you in the Top 8 of an individual Pro Tour, and the Charleston performance actually quashes my previous best Swiss 5-1/4-2 at US Nationals 1999, where I got double jumped the last round (despite winning) for a 9th place that felt much worse at the time than last week’s 26th. I know this is going to come as a little odd from me, but last weekend in Charleston was the first time – the first time in a long time, at least – that I felt like I could actually do this… The really uncanny thing was that I was winning matches with massively complicated board positions – like my token deck against Jon Sonne’s in a feature match – and unlocking a stalled board position tends to be the weakest part of my Limited game. Anyway, back to the deck…

Even though I cut the 4/4 Spike Feeder, this deck is, I must admit… you know the name; I even have a 6/6 Black and Green idiot with a hundred special abilities. I denied it all through testing, all through the Pro Tour, but really, you can only stare the truth in the face for so long before your denial erodes. This is a mid-range incremental card advantage deck, and whether or not my Duresses – or Castigates, as they are called in this block – were in the sideboard, I was playing one of those decks. Our Platinum hit was in fact The Rock.

Like The Rock historically, much of the value of the Bats deck was in the fact that it could beat almost any kind of opponent, even if it had no great natural advantage against the top end of the metagame. Because Paul kept facing them, I didn’t get much opportunity to play against a lot of dedicated beatdown decks, but I beat all of them, except Mark Ioli (who blasted me to death quite effortlessly in Round 8). I actually played against the most Rolling Spoil decks, which sucked, because I thought Spoil was my worst matchup. I got most of those, including a come-from-behind against Star Wars Kid in Round 7, but eventually folded to Nik Nygaard in a Round 10 Feature Match, who was playing the same 75 SWK ran the day before. That matchup haunted me for several days… I obsessed over what I thought might have been a badly played endgame board position and eventually figured out how I might have beaten Nik, who was playing off the top, but whose top had just given him an Angel of Despair. My whole neurosis centered around the possibility that I could have pushed all my Bats in front of his Loxodon Hierarch by not regenerating my Skeletal Vampire (as you will almost always automatically do) to try to set up a win with my four cards of Hour of Reckoning, Gleancrawler, Orzhov Basilica, and Blind Hunter (the fifth card was Mortify). I eventually nutted up and looked at my life sheet, and it turns out I was at four and actually had to split up my blockers, meaning that there was no way I could beat his Angel. The last loss to edt was against a dedicated land destruction deck, probably my actual worst matchup on the weekend.

As for everyone else, it was a mix of U/R/W Firemane Angel decks, B/G/W “MTGO deck” Rolling Spoil board control, some Grand Arbiters, some Saprolings, quite a few Angels of Despair, and even a round 14 mirror match against Adam Horvath’s version of Bats. Steve didn’t love Muse Vessel, but it was one of the best cards in my sideboard. I brought it in against any vaguely controllish deck, especially where we shared at least one color. I could force down Muse Vessel on turn 3, set it up with Castigate, or keep the opponent’s nose clean on turn 10. In the late game, Muse Vessel basically played Wandering Eye, allowing me to control all the angles of an escalatingly complex game state so that I could make the tightest possible plays; if the opponent gave me actual cards I could play, all the better.

There are a couple of ways you can get an advantage with Muse Vessel. All of them are worthwhile, but when more than one of them comes online, you basically landslide the opponent. If you start using the Vessel early, an experienced opponent will generally pick a class of card, land or spell; you can’t really just pick whatever card you want from turn to turn because once you start giving the opponent spells, you can’t give him lands. When we were testing Muse Vessel in U/R/W against B/W, it became quite obvious with every position that included, say, a Last Gasp and a Mortify under the Vessel, that if ever a Swamp were to hit, B/W would never be able to recover.

Muse Vessel is good against Blue control decks because it keeps them from being able to use mana efficient answers against your sometime ponderous five- and six-mana threats. It is good against board control decks because it can often catch the opponent out of sequence. I had one game where a “greedy deck” opponent was trying to figure out how to beat my swarm of bats after an eight card Invoke the Firemind, and I tapped the Muse Vessel, under which were three Savage Twisters, all tossed in the early game.

Card Rundown:

4 Orzhov Signet
Orzhov Signet is possibly the most awesome card in the deck. This deck is very “Jamie Wakefield” in structure… The cards are big and very expensive, and when the deck loses, it’s because it can’t play out enough action. I won the vast majority of games where I could play a turn 2 Signet, whether or not I did.

4 Last Gasp
4 Mortify
The deck was awesome against aggro because I had reasonably quick response cards to fight off their early damage sources. The scariest beatdown in our testing was any setup into a second turn 3/3 Scab-Clan Mauler, and Last Gasp kept me alive against those kinds of decks. Running Last Gasp in the main – unlike many opponents – gave me the edge against the opponent’s…


4 Skeletal Vampire
Possibly this is the best creature in the block. As I said in the overview a few weeks ago, Skeletal Vampire was definitely short list, but I think the biggest Bat really came out at the Pro Tour. Five points of power for six mana means that this creature is comparable to a Kamigawa Dragon, and going long, Skeletal Vampire is extremely difficult to deal with or race.

4 Blind Hunter
After seeing my deck in action, Brian Kowal said that Blind Hunter was the better Loxodon Hierarch. Clearly worse against beatdown because it merely profitably trades with Skyknight Legionnaire rather than containing all non-Rumbling Slum ground attackers, Blind Hunter has the added bonus of actually hitting the opponent. Loxodon Hierarch might be the best in the abstract, but it doesn’t really get through very well. All the opponents running the so-called “MTGO deck,” as well as some versions of Swallower, were hiding behind Carven Caryatids; personally, I out-classed many a Hierarch with everything from Skeletal Vampire (plus a buddy or two) to Gleancrawler or Ghost Council on the Ground.

4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
News flash: he’s good.

2 Gleancrawler
Actual news flash: He’s awesome. I have a ton of Gleancrawler stories from the weekend, many of which you have probably heard by this point, but at the end of the day, the reason this card was so effective was just its immense size in relation to the rest of the creatures in the format. A 6/6 trampler is basically the biggest kid on the playground, which is why Simic Sky Swallower is scary at all. Gleancrawler is the faster, oftentimes more potent (if non-flying) version of the same.

I are a jenius

2 Orzhov Pontiff
As I said before, I didn’t really know what deck type specifically to metagame against (the way I aimed our U/R/W deck only against beatdown or beatdown destroyers), so I played a couple of different cards that were good in different situations. Orzhov Pontiff was probably my most sideboarded out card, but it was nevertheless reasonable against control; for example, I could get a big edge on tokens and then set Pontiff on Overrun and cut down the clock by a turn.

3 Teysa, Orzhov Scion
I actually had to think about this card whenever I played it, so I figure my opponents did, too. Basically, Teysa takes all the “fair” elements of the Bats deck and makes them unfair. Teysa plus Ghost Council is trump against most creature decks. Teysa plus Skeletal Vampire, unchecked, leads to infinite token flyers. Belfry Spirit isn’t infinite, but it buys a lot of time. Orzhov Pontiff and Teysa aren’t particularly great together, but they have sufficient synergy on the sacrifice plus haunt elements to swing many a board… Sadly, the reason why this card is effective varies from board to board.

2 Belfry Spirit
I joked over the weekend that Bats actually plays more like a Vs. System deck than a Magic deck. In Vs. you can look in the corner of a creature look across the table at the corner of the opponent’s creature, and you almost always know where to pick a fight. Unlike Magic, which has very good 3/3 creatures for two like Watchwolf and very good 3/3 creatures for five (that you would never play on five) like Morphling, in Vs. you can almost always predict the cost of a creature by looking at its stats.

Like Magic, Vs. System has a lot of different strategies, but most of them revolve around creature combat. Because over the course of the game, the bigger the cost, the more likely a creature is to win a fight against smaller creatures, it is sometimes profitable to “throw away” cards to skip turns to a position where you are likely to hold trump. [Battering-Ram, Short-Lived Strongman]

I thought of Belfry Spirit as my Battering-Ram. He isn’t the most cost effective creature or token producer on the squad, but he is just awesome at Time Walking because of what point in the curve he appears. I could set up Belfry Spirit to Affinity out Hour of Reckoning with a profit, block all of the opponent’s guys and enter a stage of the game where I would play a series of six mana creatures that were all better than the opponent’s late game cards, or, as with Blind Hunter, just set up my Skeletal Vampire with pre-emptive defensive bats.

A lot of people don’t know this, but Blind Hunter is a Bat and so are Belfry Spirit’s tokens. Those people blow Lightning Helixes and Wrecking Balls and God knows what else on your Skeletal Vampire with its Bats on the stack and smack themselves in the head after they’ve made a mistake that they know has just cost them the game because, honestly, you can’t beat Skeletal Vampire.

3 Hour of Reckoning
I have a lot of tokens; more importantly, this card kills Simic Sky Swallower to death.

3 Godless Shrine
8 Plains
9 Swamp
4 Orzhov Basilica
This is the part of the deck where I put my foot down. Paul got a Godless Shrine for his Farseeks, but what he really wanted was a share in my Orzhov Basilicas and Orzhov Signets (two of each, optimally). He couldn’t have them.

2 Muse Vessel
I already talked about this… It was one of my best sideboard cards against control.

2 Woebringer Demon
Edict your Simic Sky Swallower… Also a combo with Teysa (gg).

4 Castigate
I brought all four in whenever I was going to play Muse Vessel against Blue decks, to set it up in the middle turns, and I also brought this card in when I thought I might have to set up a game breaker. For example, I sided in three Castigates against Raphael Levy (u-g Graft with Remand) so that I could make sure that my Culling Suns hit.

The thing I found odd was how good my Castigates were, and how bad my opponents’ Castigates seemed to be. I had several matchups where it was clear that my opponent had sided in Castigate (or at least left it in) and I left mine in the board, where I felt they belonged. They would Castigate and it wouldn’t do anything, because most of the B/x matchups are played on the board (especially consider that you are putting pressure on the opponent with Muse Vessel). However, when I was playing Castigate, it was usually the case that my opponent couldn’t win. I have no idea why that was, but I suspect that it has to do with threat density. When I was Castigating Simic Sky Swallowers, that was it. The opponent had maybe, maybe a Civic Wayfinder left to fight, but if I got Castigated for Skeletal Vampire, I would just rip another one, or a Gleancrawler, or a Belfry Spirit even, and have offense.

I have spent the last 10 years trying to be more and more clever with deck design, shaving numbers, adding card selection, smoothing draws, but the one thing Ravnica Block Constructed taught me is that, at least sometimes, more is better. I saw a lot of U/G/W token or Glare decks, and we tested those, finding that our boring G/W version with more concrete stuff instead of more Grand Arbiters, or tutoring, or late-game singletons, was winning more. By the same token, the Bats deck has a couple of cards that draw the imaginary question mark over your head when you read the deck list, but they come off the top and kill the opponent more-or-less as well as whatever other ones sit near them on the curve (just make sure and draw Signet and Basilica).

3 Culling Sun
I debated on playing this card, or not, quite a bit. I had four, I had two, I had none, in various versions of the board, and for a while, I was convinced I wanted that instant speed Vicious Hunger for burn decks. Luckily I played Culling Sun, though; it was instrumental in winning me both the feature matches that were covered, against Raphael Levy and Jon Sonne.

2 Debtors’ Knell
This was a last-minute addition. For a while I was going to play the last two copies of Crime / Punishment on the team after seeing Jonny steal Steve’s Firemane Angels in testing, but then I decided Debtors’ Knell would just be better against U/R/W.

Debtors’ Knell won me one match on Day 1, and I never sided it in on Day 2. I was ahead via Muse Vessel against the Copy Enchantment / Dream Leash version of U/R/W, and I was offered a saucy opportunity to go Mortify your Firemane Angel at the end of turn, untap and play Debtors’ Knell, and I didn’t. This took a supreme amount of effort… I have this little daemon on my shoulder who is always pointing at how much mana I have and how much economy I can get by tapping out for things, and I fear this daemon is responsible for a good many of my most embarrassing tournament losses. I ignored him in this case and took a Firemane shot or two, strategically preserving the Mortify in case of any Copy Enchantment shenanigans, and spent my next turns emptying the opponent’s hand with Muse Vessel so that I could lock out the game in peace. I figured that even though U/R/W has quite a bit of reach, it doesn’t have twelve ready, not when it is getting donked for a card each turn, and that the main way I could lose a game from a commanding lead would be to waltz the Knell into a Dream Leash or Copy Enchantment (or a Copy Enchantment for Dream Leash). Once I eliminated all those potentialities with hand destruction, winning was academic.

Debtors’ Knell was, like Castigate, another odd card that seemed to be in my opponents’ decks in games where I had left mine in the board. I’m not saying that I didn’t spend my Mortify each and every time, just that seven against three never seems like a very good trade. SHRUG.

2 Orzhov Pontiff
Because you play four.

There were a reasonable number of dedicated Bats decks played on Day 2 of the Pro Tour, and I can’t even say for certain that mine was the best… but I do know that I played against Angel of Despair on several occasions and never felt like it was out-classing my cards; in most cases I let the opponent think that he was creating the upper hand on the board, let him commit, and then followed up with an Hour of Reckoning (my seven). Even if my deck wasn’t perfect, I don’t know what I would have changed… it came out well for me consistently, had plenty of ways to win, and produced threats off the top when I was in late game attrition wars at a nice clip. Oddly, we played all the Two-Headed Giant / Antarctica decks head-to-head, and Bats always finished worst, generally getting buried by Greedy Chapin, but it did overall the best in the actual tournament. My guess is that while Bats has a less impressive main deck proactive plan, its versatility combined with playing many more significant threats than either the Chapin deck or Beatdown Destroyer allowed the deck to exploit any short-term Castigate– or Muse Vessel-driven advantages to game wins more quickly than one of the other decks might have been able to… Also, the deck was our best against aggressive decks, and our internally perceived “best” deck did most of its losing on the wrong end of a Giant Solifuge.

That’s the last thing I ever plan to say about Ravnica Block Constructed, which is a shame given how much time I put into it. That said, I can’t complain… much.