“So, Standard—what is that like?”
Last weekend I had the opportunity to compete in the StarCityGames.com Invitational—and let me tell you, seven rounds of Standard and seven
rounds of Legacy and a hundred-plus-player field of all ringers is quite the weekend ‘
I had recently been successful playing Legacy at the Grand Prix in Providence and felt pretty confident in my abilities and in my R/W/U Control Deck;
however, having to play seven rounds of Standard was not something that I was particularly looking forward to.
Let me preface the conversation by saying that the last time I played Standard I was battling a Michael Jacob’s RUG list with the super secret
new technology of Tumble Magnet (a full month before his article went up) against a field full of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks.
Here are some of the other things that were going on in the world of Standard the last time I sleeved up a Standard deck: Sword of Feast and Famine was
only a tiny sparkle in Aaron Forsythe’s eye; Stoneforge Mystic was in the store display case for $4; and the lexical item “Caw” was
certainly not common Magic vernacular.
Interestingly enough, as I began to prepare for the Invitational, I realized that I had essentially opted out of the “Caw” phenomenon in
Standard up until that point and that I was going to have to finally visit Standard, the land of Squadron Hawks and Stoneforge Mystics.
I suppose that as a long-time Magic player and enthusiast, it was only fitting that I should have to play at least one major tournament in the era of
“Caw-deck,” it perhaps being the most dominant Standard archetype of all time.
“Go, Blade, Darkblade, Twin, or Bust?”
My pre-Indianapolis testing for Standard basically equated to my asking Ari Lax on Wednesday before we left for the tournament: “Is Caw-Blade
really as good as people say it is?” and him answering: “It’s better than that.”
A pretty decisive statement…
Yet, I wasn’t completely convinced; perhaps I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to play round after round of Caw-Blade mirror
matchups, which I had absolutely zero experience with. So, I gave Patrick Chapin a call and asked him if Caw-Blade was the best deck for the
Invitational, basically deferring to his expertise on the format for a suggestion on what to play.
“Well, you could play Caw-Blade which is the most dominant deck in the HISTORY of the Standard format…”
I waited for an “or” that might suggest another viable option, but predictably there was none.
“How much experience do you have with the Caw mirror?”
About eight hours later, the R.I.W. crew was settling into our hotel room in Indianapolis and beginning to put together decks for the following day’s
Chapin dropped in shortly after we arrived to say hello and requested a few games against my Legacy control deck with his newly concocted brew;
“I need you to demonstrate for me why I shouldn’t play this deck tomorrow.”
“I might have a couple Monoliths.”
“No, but if I did you’d be pretty much locked into playing this deck, wouldn’t you?”
Chapin chuckled, “I had to ask; I wouldn’t bet against you having Beta Basalt Monoliths. It seems like exactly the kind of card you would
Patrick stuck around and socialized for a little while and eventually hit the road, but before he took off, I hit him up for a Caw-Blade list, and he
complied. It was actually kind of a comical exchange:
“So, any chance you have a list I can use tomorrow? I’ve basically got nothing for Standard. I’m not asking for ‘The List,’ just a
solid place to get started on playing some games—something that isn’t terrible.”
And, to Patrick’s credit, he casually pulled out a sharpie and gave me his exact 75 that he played the following morning, despite the fact that I
hadn’t worked on the deck or anything. I certainly didn’t expect that and thought it was pretty nice of him to help me out considering I
was going into the format essentially blind.
Cheers, Patrick—you are a scholar and a gentleman.
Mike and Ari had stepped out and made their return shortly after Patrick left. I sleeved up a variant of the list Patrick gave me, with a few small
tweaks, and got to work playing against Ari’s Caw-Blade deck.
After about ten games of testing, we informed Mike:
“The Caw-Blade mirror match appears to be about 50-50.”
The other realization we made in playing a bunch of games was that the matchup seemed to be very reliant upon drawing Stoneforge Mystic, but also there
was a trend where the player who had the proper situational card at the exact critical moment won a lot.
Aside from Mystic on two, the matchup seemed like it was all about having Divine Offering for when they dumped Batterskull into play on three; or Spell
Pierce to stop Jace; or Mental Misstep to stop an important Preordain; or other plays that fell into this vein of situational awesomeness.
In the mirror I felt that the only way to gain advantage was to play with more situational blowout cards and try to set up or hope to encounter
scenarios where they would be better than all-around “good cards.”
I didn’t like this aspect of the mirror.
As my conclusion to the monologue titled “Miserable Misery: Gaining Advantage in the Caw-Blade Mirror, Or, Just Accept that the Caw-Blade Mirror Is 50-50” came to an end, Mike flipped his laptop around to show us a decklist he found on the
“It’s a Caw-Blade deck that also has the Splinter Twin combo; it got second at a PTQ. I think I’m just going to change out the bad
cards for good ones and play this.”
Ari and I glanced over the list and instantly and simultaneously agreed that we would rather be all-in on this new deck than play seven rounds of the
After an hour of brewing, the three of us ended up playing lists within a few cards of each other, and here is what I ended up registering for the
“The Best Deck You Will Ever Play.”
Some people may have noticed that in my articles I spend a lot of time discussing how I came around to choosing or developing a deck for an event, and
how/why specific card choices were made.
Firstly, I think it is more interesting to talk about Magic tournaments in terms of stories and narratives and about actual people interacting with one
another, rather than focusing primarily upon interactions between pieces of cardboard or debating the number of a specific card in a decklist.
It isn’t that decklists or interactions of cards are not important—they obviously are—and I do include them in my articles, but I
think that in the spectrum of improving one’s game and being successful in tournament play, the abstract or critical problem-solving skills
associated with making good deck selection/construction decisions largely outweigh anything that can be learned from reading an article.
Especially at a big event, for instance a SCG Open/Invitational, Grand Prix, the Vintage Championship, the Pro Tour, or a PTQ—any tournament
where a lot of people are all trying to gain an edge to be victorious—the good innovation is created in the moment onsite.
When I write, especially about the large events that I attend, I try to emphasize the importance of this aspect of tournament Magic, as it really is
one of the most exciting, at least for me, things about playing the game and—with regard to tournament success (aside from competent technical
play)—yields the largest rewards for due diligence.
Keeping up to date with articles by prominent Magic writers is obviously important if one wants to have tournament success but, it’s also important to
note that if you are playing a decklist from an article, everybody else who has read the article (presumably, everybody else who is serious about
winning) knows about the same technology that you do.
Articles and public lists are a great way of figuring out the lowest-common denominator with regard to the metagame; because, if Gerry Thompson,
Patrick Chapin, or Brian Kibler has published and endorsed a decklist then you should know people are going to either play it or have built their decks
with those lists in mind.
All of this is a tangent that leads up to the following point:
The best decks that I have ever played—and I’m not talking about “Long.dec,” the most overpowered deck of all time, or Ravager
Affinity in Standard, which was absolutely unbeatable by anything other than the mirror, etc.—for a specific event have never been public
knowledge. Rather, they are the decks that get brewed up with an awareness of what is happening around them and correctly predict, interpret, and
outwit the rest of the metagame.
All of the best decks I have ever played have been brews that came into fruition within a couple days of the big event; if they were not brews, the
adaptations or technology that made them good came on the cusp of the event.
It makes perfect sense if you think about it—if your deck isn’t current, isn’t in the moment, isn’t directly connected to what
is going on in the metagame, then what is it?
Most likely, it is a wasted opportunity.
Anyway, I try to emphasize the “how” of the good decks I am behind, as much as the “what” of them, since by the time the decks
get published in the articles, they are largely outdated relics anyway.
In particular, I always try an emphasize the social aspect of deckbuilding; Patrick Chapin, Mike Jacob, Steven Menendian, Paul Mastriano, etc. are not
mad scientists locked away deep underground in a bomb shelter testing decks against Bobby Fisher’s Brain in a Terminator cyborg body for 22 and a
half hours a day, seven days a week; rather they are developing their ideas in the car on the ride to the event the night before, proxying up decks in
the hotel room, the same as everybody else.
One thing I would draw the reader’s attention to in the narratives from my articles is that when things get accomplished, it is always a result
of cooperation and open exchange and thoughtful consideration of other people’s ideas.
One might also note that in the stories I describe, people don’t do the following things:
- People don’t tell other people that their ideas suck or that the cards they suggest are “unplayable.”
People don’t tell each other that their deck is “unbeatable” or “the best” and that everybody should accept it and
The Twinblade deck was probably the best non-Eternal deck I have ever played in a major tournament, and it was the result of a late-night brew session.
Between the three of us who played the deck—Mike, Ari, and myself—we put up a combined record of 15-4-2, with the two draws being
intentional! Not too shabby for three guys who hadn’t played Standard in months.
“The Stone Twinblade—Impressions, Thoughts, Etc.”
I’m obviously not the foremost expert on modern Standard, but after playing in the Invitational, I am happy to share what I learned about the deck I
played and about the format.
Firstly, playing the Stoneforge Mystic deck that also had the Splinter Twin combo felt really, really unfair compared to what my competition was
bringing to the table. My impression of the deck (and keep in mind it is just my impression) was that Twinblade was simply a more powerful
deck than the other decks that people were playing.
The way the deck plays and executes its game plan(s) reminds me of how a well-built and well-positioned Vintage deck functions within the metagame. All
of its cards are individually awesome (with the exception of the most efficient combo win condition in the format card—“Splinter
Twin,” i.e., “Blightsteel Colossus,” “Tendrils of Agony,” “Time Vault,” “Voltaic Key,” etc.), and
the “dead” cards combo with other synergies in the deck to create the most efficient and deadly way to end games.
The bare bones of why I felt the deck was good:
In the Caw-Blade matchup my opponent could never actually tap out against me for fear of getting instantly killed by my combo. I got several free
game ones against people who tapped out for a Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn 4 and were unaware that they were completely dead on the spot to my
combo. If an opponent knows you have the ability to combo them out, it creates a disparity between what each of you can do on your turns with your
mana. If I know you can’t combo me, and you know I can combo you, things are really awkward for you. In such a scenario, I know I can tap out
on my turn to apply pressure, and there isn’t much you can do to punish me—however, if you tap out on my turn to apply pressure, you
might lose the game on the spot.
In the Splinter Twin matchup, my opponent had a really difficult time dealing with the pressure that my Stoneforge Mystics could produce. We both
have the combo; we both have tools to disrupt the combo; we both have tools to force through our combo; and the difference is I have a free
instant-speed 4/4 that smacks my opponent every turn. It basically puts them in a situation where they must make a move first. You can stop the
move, and then you untap and kill them.
The sideboard plan of Consecrated Sphinx/Inferno Titan gives the deck a lot of versatility against how opponents are sideboarding against you. For
the most part I boarded out 1 Sword of Feast and Famine, 1 Splinter Twin, 1 Deceiver Exarch, and brought in 2 Consecrated Sphinx and 1 Inferno
Titan against every Stoneforge Mystic deck. You already know that depending upon how you beat them in the first game, they are probably bringing in
hate for either the combo or a bunch of cards to deal with Stoneforge Mystic and/or Equipment. So, if they are going to have answers for all of
that stuff, they are unlikely to answer a Sphinx or Titan.
Overall, I had a lot of fun playing at the Invitational and would like to thank StarCityGames.com for giving me the opportunity to attend the event.
My impression of the Standard format, on the other hand, was not quite so favorable. First of all, I played almost exclusively against Caw-Blade and
Splinter Twin combo decks every single round—not exactly the sign of a diverse format.
Stoneforge Mystic is also a really obnoxious card, especially with Batterskull in the format. The Stoneforge + Batterskull combo is strong enough that
it is my chosen win condition in Legacy. I think that it is prudent to be wary about combos in Standard that are good enough to see play alongside
Lion’s Eye Diamond + Ill-Gotten Gains, or Show and Tell + Hive Mind/Emrakul in Legacy.
My impression of the format is that Stoneforge Mystic + Batterskull is ridiculous and shouldn’t be allowed. When I pitched the idea of playing a
Stoneforge Mystic + Batterskull control deck to my teammates for the Legacy Grand Prix, I described the combo like so: “It is Tinker for an
unbeatable, un-killable, and recurrable robot.”
It was fun to have a go at Standard and to play a big tournament in the era of the “Caw-Deck,” but I imagine that it wouldn’t be very
fun to play the format every week at FNM—Caw mirrors for days—so, with that in mind, if it were up to me, I would ban Stoneforge Mystic and
Splinter Twin because I feel those cards are really oppressive and that if they were gone, it would likely breathe some fresh air into the format for
the next few months.
“Legacy Let Down.”
I admittedly ran really well with my Standard Twinblade deck, but in the end my good fortune was decidedly par because of a very disappointing Legacy
I made a few modifications on my R/W/U Control deck that I played in Providence and was pretty confident in my ability to put up a good showing with
I ended up posting a 3-4 record with this deck, which is admittedly disappointing for me. However, the great thing about losing is that you tend to
learn a great deal from it.
In the tournament I played against blue decks with Green Sun’s Zenith and Natural Order three times and was beaten in all three outings. All of
my matches were very close, but in the end I felt as though I was being beaten by the card Green Sun’s Zenith.
The reason is that the Green Sun’s Zeniths provide NO RUG or Bant with a pretty much endless supply of “the appropriate threat,”
which is really difficult for the Stoneforge Mystic deck to beat. The other big problem is the opposition’s access to Vendilion Clique + Natural Order.
Pre-sideboard Mystic only has access to a finite number of hard counters, and they are, sadly, Force of Wills. Vendilion Clique is pretty much a
must-counter because when it bottoms Force of Will on our end step, it makes it very difficult for us to protect ourselves from getting Natural Ordered
(and our only out to Progenitus is to race it with Batterskull).
I was 1-1 against Green Sun’s Zenith blue decks at the GP—and in the match that I did win, MJ told me afterwards that if my opponent had
played more efficiently, he would easily have beaten me in all three games. I respected that the matchup was unfavorable and added Spell Pierce to my
sideboard, as a way of gaining tempo on Green Sun. I also boarded in my Red Elemental Blasts to catch their Vendilion Cliques, but sadly it
In between rounds, I was discussing the Green Sun Dilemma with another U/W Mystic pilot, and the two of us brewed up a couple of ways to approach
solving the matchup that I would like to share:
As much as I felt like Grim Lavamancer was a burdensome card in most of my important matchups, he would have really shined in a meta full of Hierarchs,
Pridemage, Dryad Arbor, and Vendilion Clique. If Green Sun’s Zenith is the new “good stuff,” playing this card is probably correct.
I really like the idea of fitting one of these bad boys into the maindeck. Fire / Ice is one of the most mature cards legal for Legacy play.
Has it really come to this? I shudder to think.
The rest of my Legacy tournament played out as follows:
I beat U/W Stoneforge Mystic Control decks twice.
Red Elemental Blast was the most important card in the matchup; it is absolutely the best card, as it serves two very important functions:
I splashed the color red in my deck solely to play with Red Elemental Blast; it is that good…
In regard to the card drawing debate, I strongly advocate Standstill in the Stoneforge Mystic deck over Ancestral Vision. I won every single
post-sideboard game by resolving a Standstill on the turn when my opponent had an Ancestral Vision with one counter left: I drew three off Standstill
and then Red Elemental Blasted their Ancestral Vision.
Getting to draw three first is obviously really important because you can use the three cards you just drew to fight their draw three while it’s on the
Pre-sideboard the two Vendilion Cliques I added to the maindeck really worked wonders; they cleared the way for either a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or a
Crucible of Worlds, and the overwhelming, dream-crushing card advantage pretty much did the rest.
I was 3-3 in Legacy going into the last round. I was paired up against a Merfolk player, which was a position I was happy to be in because I feel U/W
is really solid against sea creatures.
Unfortunately, despite getting matched up against a deck I wanted to play against, I was bested when, much to my dismay, the Merfolk player drew and
put multiple Mental Missteps on the first stack in both games.
HIM: “Aether Vial?”
ME: “Mental Misstep it.”
And, for a change:
HIM: “Silvergill Adept?”
ME: “Spell Snare it.”
So, I got Merfolk-ed, a fitting end to a hard-fought, yet lackluster Legacy performance.
All around, I still like the deck a lot, but some of its tactics may need to be re-envisioned in order for the deck to improve against Green
Sun’s Zenith decks.
All in all, the tournament was a very positive experience and a ton of fun; the fact that the event was an Invitational and the level of competition
was higher than average also added considerably to my enjoyment.
Getting to battle against strong players is always a real treat for me, and I am already looking forward to competing in the next one!