Weak Among the Strong: Arcane Control

Limited is about creatures and the spells that interact with them — removal and combat tricks. Right? Every now and then there’s an opportunity to break this rule, at least in Draft. A set contains an engine or interaction of commons and uncommons that lets a drafter turn a bunch of cards into a “constructed” powerhouse. In the past we’ve seen this with heavy R/B removal decks with some sort of graveyard recursion. But nowhere has this been seen more dramatically than in Champions draft, where a totally creatureless archetype has appeared.

Everybody knows that Limited is fundamentally different than Constructed. The strategies are different, the card valuations are different. Cards that are broken in Constructed are often unplayable in Draft or Sealed, and vice versa. Constructed specialists have to be reminded what words like “blocking” and “flying” mean, while Limited players prize evasion and will happily snag a 1/4 while singing, “I like big butts, and I cannot lie.”

Limited is about creatures and the spells that interact with them – removal and combat tricks. Right?

Every now and then there’s an opportunity to break this rule, at least in Draft. A set contains an engine or interaction of commons and uncommons that lets a drafter turn a bunch of cards into a “constructed” powerhouse. In the past we’ve seen this with heavy R/B removal decks with some sort of graveyard recursion. They just kill everything, almost like a Constructed control deck, and may win with something like Anarchist once the board is completely clear.

But nowhere has this been seen more dramatically (that I know of) than in Champions draft, where a totally creatureless archetype has appeared. The first I heard of it was in the coverage of Quentin Martin final draft at Grand Prix: Paris:

13 Island

5 Plains

1 Long-Forgotten Gohei

1 Candles’ Glow

2 Ethereal Haze

2 Consuming Vortex

3 Counsel of the Soratami

3 Dampen Thought

1 Hisoka’s Defiance

2 Peer Through Depths

2 Psychic Puppetry

4 Reach Through Mists

1 Sift Through Sands

What kind of insanity IS this? My kind.

Before we look at the deck’s problems, let’s start with its strengths:

Virtual Card Advantage

Just as creatureless decks dodge removal in Constructed (or, just as artifact-free decks dodge removal in the current Standard), Martin’s deck renders first-picks like Befoul, Rend Flesh/Spirit, Cage of Hands, etc., dead.

Card Drawing and Selection

With 3 Counsels of the Soratami and seven arcane instant-speed card-drawers on which to splice Psychic Puppetry, Consuming Vortex, Candle’s Glow or Dampen Thought, Martin is unlikely to stall out.

Powerful Defense

Candle’s Glow is amazing, essentially reading “Gain six life” if your opponent does three or more damage to you. This is more than enough to cancel most early attack steps, and with the Glow coming online on turn 3 (via Reach), Martin can stay at very safe life totals even against a very aggressive deck. Consuming Vortex is another great stall card, either on an early threat or spliced later in the game. And Psychic Puppetry can take out the best attacker at a cost of U.

Bomb Resistance

Most bombs aren’t bombs against Martin’s deck. In fact, most of them are awful. Kiku who? Meloku is Slowy von Slowerson. Hideous Laughter is laughable. Dragons are closely related to Meloku and certainly share the von Slowerson family name.

Faster Than You Might Think

Martin’s second match was a feature. He began by winning on turn 6… despite countering a creature on turn 3. The second game was more of a slow, control match – at one point Martin was attacked by four creatures while only at eleven life. That knocked him all the way down to ten. Two turns later, he decked his opponent.

All your cards are bad

Yes, this is a good thing. One of the best things a draft archetype can have going for it is high pick cards no one else wants, or at least rank much lower than you do. As an example, think about a R/B heavy-removal deck in Odyssey block. All the deck wanted to do was kill stuff turn after turn until its card advantage engine would overwhelm the opponent. So Innocent Blood was a great card, either taking out an early beater (and thus slowing the game down) or killing off a creature that was immune to the rest of your removal. It was “worth” an early pick for you, but you would often get it late, meaning your deck was getting better-than-average value out of its late picks. Same for Anarchist and Morgue Theft. Other drafters wanted them but not as much as you did, so you tended to get them.

When you look at the key cards in Martin’s deck (which we will do in depth below), you notice that almost all of them are either late picks or utter chaff – in any conventional deck. I play Ethereal Haze occasionally in other archetypes and like to have it in the board, but no one blinks when it tables. Dampen Thought, Peer Through Depths, Psychic Puppetry, Reach through Mists – all great cards for you that are chaff or filler for the rest of your table. In Martin’s deck, only Candle’s Glow and Consuming Vortex are anything like high picks generally, with Long-Forgotten Gohei being a high pick in a heavy spirit deck.

Okay, so that’s the good news. But there’s plenty of bad news as well.

All your cards are bad

Hmmm…didn’t I just say this was a good thing? Well, yes and no. The ideal thing for an archetype is to have a mix of good and bad cards. That way you start off taking good cards and only take the bad cards if the archetype is working out. The problem with having all bad cards is that if the archetype doesn’t come together you’ve just got a bunch of bad cards. Looking at the R/B example above, let’s say you start off with Firebolt first pick and then Ghastly Demise second. When Morbid Hunger comes third, you’re looking good for the archetype and won’t mind at all taking Innocent Blood fourth. But if the third pack has no removal and you pick up an Ember Beast, your first picks are still great cards and you might take a good creature fourth.

Not so if your first pick is Peer Through Depths, followed by Ethereal Haze, followed by packs that force you to abandon the archetype.

Vulnerable to disruption

The Arcane Control deck is great against conventional victory approaches, i.e. creatures. You Glow, you Bounce, you Fog, all the while ripping cards off of their library. It’s not unusual to end the game with double-digit life even against someone who hits every drop on their curve. If your opponent’s strategy is to play men and turn them sideways, you’ve got a great matchup.

With all that said, however, the deck can have a much harder time dealing with other forms of disruption. Hand destruction can be lethal, whether pinpoint (e.g. Distress) or general (e.g. Waking Nightmare). Honden of Night’s Reach or either of the discard rats can rip your game plan to shreds. Moreover, you’re also vulnerable to land destruction. Splicing is mana-intensive, and every early Stone Rain is roughly equivalent to time walk…especially if you’re short on Blue or White mana.

Dampen Thought is uncommon

Thus, even if no one else will take it, it may never show up. Martin got three; with none he would have no victory paths (in its current form). If your deck can’t win without it, “may never show up” is a bad thing. Fortunately, of course, there are ways around this. This is a bigger issue now than it used to be, because the Dampen archetype is known so people will randomly pull Dampens from packs instead of ignoring them. (As I was writing this article I took a break, drafted a great G/U deck and got smashed by Arcane. You can add me to the list of many people I know who will hate out a good Arcane spell if there’s nothing in the pack and our deck is vulnerable to the archetype.)

Your opponent can board in a few hundred cards. If your deck is truly creatureless and has no recursion, there is simply a finite amount of times you can cast Dampen Thought before running out of cards yourself. Looking at Martin’s deck, we see 14 non-Dampen Arcane spells and three Dampens. That means (ignoring the possibility of mana issues and whether Martin could do all this before running out of cards) the Dampens can be spliced 16, 15 and 14 times, plus cast once each, for a theoretical maximum of 48 Dampen Thoughts or 192 cards. You opponent can opt to prepare his deck in secret (I don’t think this is ever done, but it can be) so you have to play a guessing game as to whether he’s going to come back with 230 cards, 40 cards or some other number. Of course, this is much less of a problem if you have some creatures in the deck so you can go beatdown, or if you have some form of recursion.

Lord help you if someone else at the table tries to draft it too. Some archetypes can support two drafters at a table. In Invasion you could sometimes draft R/B/U between two other R/B/U drafters and get a good deck. Some archetypes can’t support two drafters. This is one of them.

In any case, I knew that I would have to explore this new draft concept. At first I just drafted the “normal” Dampen archetype. I found that with three packs I would usually get at least one Dampen, and that was enough for the deck to do reasonably well. But people were starting to be ready for the deck and it’s an archetype that can just blow up in your face if the cards don’t happen to come. That’s a very alarming thing, since if there’s another person at the table drafting the archetype you probably won’t find out until it’s too late for either of you, like when the pack you opened comes back and the Ethereal Haze or Psychic Puppetry isn’t still there. I wanted a way to draft the archetype that gave me more options, let me play with good cards and was hopefully less vulnerable to someone else having the same thoughts, and found myself thinking back to my early musings about Champions when it first came out.

As I’ve written about before, I think the best thing for me to do with a new set is just play around with ideas. Let other people do the heavy lifting of building the obvious new decks – they are better at it than I am. I’ll either come up with subtle tweaks or every now and then some bizarre idea that leads to a good deck or lets me dominate a particular matchup.

One of the first things I noticed about Champions was that it contained a soft lock on the combat phase, requiring three cards and six mana: Hana Kami, Ethereal Haze and Soulless Revival. Once you’ve got those out you can Fog every turn, splicing Raise Dead to get back your Regrowth.

Since most draft decks don’t like having the combat phase eliminated from the game, this seemed rather interesting. It’s also obvious that Hana Kami would be great in a base-Green Arcane deck, that Ethereal Haze is a great card for the deck as well as easy to pick up, and that Soulless Revival will be easy to splice as often as you like and often goes late. In addition to creating the potential for a lock, it makes any big blue flyer you’ve got a very credible victory path. Moreover, if you’re drafting a 4cG or 5cG deck you’re probably going to have some Elders in there as well, so even if you have few or no “real” creatures the Revival will provide you card advantage and defense by recycling Rampant Growth Guy. (This also means you don’t need Hana Kami for Soulless Revival to be a good pick.)

So I started drafting Arcane control with a Green base. I took mana-fixing very high, Hana Kami higher than almost anything, and kept an eye out for durable creatures. My results in these three drafts were obviously unusual, since not only did I get Hana Kami all three times, I got Myojin of Cleansing Fire in all three drafts. Hrm. Fortunately, I got to play plenty of games without the Myojin, or where it didn’t really matter that my finisher was an indestructible Wrath of God. Here’s a sample deck:

1 Hana Kami

1 Matsu-Tribe Decoy

1 Floating-Dream Zubera

2 Sakura-Tribe Elder

1 Myojin of Cleansing Fire

2 Reach Through Mists

3 Peer Through Depths

1 Consuming Vortex

1 Counsel of the Soratami

1 Eerie Procession

1 Ethereal Haze

1 Eye of Nowhere

1 Glacial Ray

1 Joyous Respite

1 Kodama’s Reach

1 Otherworldly Journey

1 Petals of Insight

1 Rend Flesh

1 Soulless Revival

7 Forest

5 Island

3 Plains

1 Mountain

1 Swamp

The deck breaks down pretty simply. The guys are all either good at chumping, help me play my game (Kami, Elders), or are my finisher(s). (While the Myojin seems determined to come visit me, you naturally can’t count on him… other great finishers are Teller of Tales and Sire of the Storm. Of course, if you have Revival and removal you can win with almost anything… these are good because they win the game and help you control it on the way.) I wasn’t thrilled about the Decoy, but he’s about as good a chump as exists in the game, and there’s always the possibility of making him a real threat with Otherworldly Journey.

Then there are the arcane search cards. These help you find your important spells as well as letting said spells piggyback on them while you keep them for later use. Reach through Mists is obviously nice because it’s so cheap, but Peer Through Depths still has to be my favorite. With the mana acceleration and chumpers it’s not so important to be splicing on turn 3. Eerie Procession is another uncommon that you want to take fairly high. A deck like this tends to have one Arcane spell that it really wants, and that spell varies greatly from situation to situation. Sometimes you’ve got Hana Kami and either Haze or Revival, so Procession puts the lock in place. Sometimes you need removal (or, if you have them, Candle’s Glow/Dampen Thought). Sometimes you just want to grab Petals of Insight.

Then there are the defensive cards. The U/W version has shown everyone how insane Candle’s Glow is and that Ethereal Haze is good, but once you’re mana-ramping in Green Joyous Respite is much better than any of you will believe… even those that think I know what I’m talking about.

The Arcane control deck has good staying power and thus gets to late turns quite consistently. Moreover, the Green version has considerable (and often reusable) mana-ramping. In game after game, my opponent would get me low on life but be unable to finish me off, and then Joyous Respite would break his back. Once you’re out of reach of Devouring Greed, or burn, or you’re using Hana Kami and Revival to gain more life per turn than he can possibly dish out, you’ll appreciate the beauty of this spell.

Finally, there are the splice cards. These are naturally key to the abuse of the deck and must be counted as the scarce resource. Candle’s Glow is roughly one million times better than Ethereal Haze because it will counter multiple attack steps.

Out of the three drafts, I won one (without losing a game) and lost the other two in round two. However, both of the matches I lost were lost on time in game two (with me having won game one) or game three, with me having a complete lock on the game. The problem is that the lock takes much more time on MTGO than it does offline:

Cast Fog

Splice Raise Dead

Target Regrowth

Pay mana

Fog resolves

Regrowth is returned to my hand

Play Regrowth

Sacrifice Regrowth to get back Fog

In an offline match, those games would have been easy wins and I would have at least made it to the finals in all three drafts.

One thing I learned in playing the deck is that if possible you want two Mountains (assuming you have Glacial Ray) and two Swamps (assuming you have Revival and multiple creatures). Quite often you have the potential to lock a game up completely by splicing one spell or the other twice per turn rather than once. That wasn’t possible when I needed three Plains for the Myojin, but if I didn’t have him I would definitely have run the extra lands in those colors.

So how do you draft this deck? First of all, you take advantage of the fact that you have good cards in your archetype rather than just committing to Arcane control from the very start. Kodama’s Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder are fine first-pick cards and leave all of your options open. The Big Blue Fliers restrict you a bit more but are fine first picks in any case. If you get an early Candle’s Glow or Dampen Thought you can snag it and look for a few more good picks to pull you into the archetype. More generally, here are how I see the priorities:

Mana ramping/fixing

This deck is quite mana hungry and can almost always use more. That, combined with the need to pull your splash colors out makes Elder and Reach your top two cards, even more important than Dampen Thought or good finisher cards. The more of these you get, the more greedy you can be about off-color cards like Glacial Ray and Soulless Revival.

Dampen Thought and Glacial Ray, or Big Blue Flyers

The relative importance of these cards can vary a lot, depending on your build. The better your white control arcane the better Dampen Thought becomes. The more creatures you have, the better Glacial Ray is, because you can use it to kill your opponent. In any case, these are your two best non-creature victory paths. Dampen is better as a victory path, but Glacial Ray naturally helps you control the board as well. The worst thing about Glacial Ray is that it requires another color. Worse, you really want two Mountains so you can Ray twice per turn. The worst thing about Dampen Thought is that now that people are aware of this archetype you can’t just ignore it the first time knowing it will table. Someone may hate it, or (much much worse) someone else may try to draft the archetype!

Candle’s Glow

This is by far your best defensive spell. Consuming Vortex, Ethereal Haze and Psychic Puppetry are all good, but none come close to the Glow. Worse, Candle’s Glow is a good combat trick for conventional decks so it (like Consuming Vortex) will tend to be taken high. It may well be that Candle’s Glow is even more important than Dampen Thought!

Card Drawing

This category may even fall below the other defensive spells in importance because the cards you want are mediocre for most other drafters. Draw a card for U is fine, but only in your deck does it become draw a card and gain six life for 1UW. Peer through Depths will often table unless someone is getting naughty with their Glacial Rays, and I seem to be one of relatively few players who likes Counsel of the Soratami in anything other than this archetype. You need a good base of these cards (particularly Peer through Depths), so if they aren’t coming late in pack one you need to be more aggressive in packs two and three.

Eerie Procession

This is especially good in the 5cG version because it can fetch you the lock (if you were fortunate enough to draft and draw Hana Kami) and because you will often have a lot of situationally broken Arcane spells to fetch, e.g. Candle’s Glow, Glacial Ray, Soulless Revival, Petals of Insight or Kodama’s Reach. Depending on how the rest of the draft is going, this can jump up substantially.

Other defensive spells

Vortex and Puppetry are nice because they can be spliced, but I think the best here is good old Fog. The low cost makes it easy to splice whatever you want on it – ideally something like Mill you for four, Raise Dead my Regrowth. Eye of Nowhere is great for buying tempo in the U/w version, but it’s too slow to be exciting here since we won’t have UU on turn 2 ever.

Again, these spells are absolutely essential to the deck – the only reason you don’t have to be more aggressive about them is that no one else wants them (other than Glow and Vortex). Ethereal Haze will almost always table, as will Puppetry, but Eerie Procession will often get picked up by someone with a Glacial Ray. Moreover, in my drafting so far I find I often end up with more of these than I need, which is why I take them only when there is no card-drawing alternative.

Random creatures

I like my creatures like my men: cheap and easy. Zuberas (especially Blue) are solid and River Kaijin is good filler. I’m quite happy if my only creatures are Green or finishers, but sometimes you need them, either because the arcane cardpool was light or because you’re light on defensive spells. The more non-Fog spells you have the better blockers are, since you can bounce or Glow what they don’t handle.

How to Beat Arcane Control

Now that we’ve discussed the deck and how to draft it, the next question becomes how to beat it. We’ve already discussed the best disruption available – namely, hand destruction and potentially Stone Rain when combined with a fast curve. (Stone Rain is naturally much better against the 5cG version where your opponent may only have one land in a particular color and a correct guess on your part can lock him out of some spells for the whole game.) Permission is rarely effective because you only counter the base spell, leaving the key splice cards in hand. You’ll slow them down a turn, but probably at the cost of slowing yourself down by a turn as well.

The real key to beating this deck takes place during the draft itself. If you’re drafting Black, take hand destruction a bit higher than you would have before this archetype came out. More importantly, look for those late discard spells that are generally not worth maindecking, like Nezumi Bone-Reader. A Bone-Reader combined with an Ashen-Skin Zubera and anything with Soulshift two or greater can completely empty an opponent’s hand… and against most Arcane decks you don’t have to worry that you’ll fall behind on tempo while you’re doing it, or that you’ll draw the Bone-Reader when your opponent’s hand is empty. (By the same token, if you’re drafting Arcane Control, you should be hating these cards out if there isn’t a good pick for you, lest someone who didn’t think much about his 13th pick Bone-Reader suddenly says, “Hey, I should board this in!”)

If you’re drafting a conventional archetype that will have a really hard time against Arcane Control, don’t give them the free picks the deck normally gets. Instead of the filler card you know you won’t use, take the Dampen Thought or even the Ethereal Haze or Peer Through Depths. (Normally I think hate drafting is a terrible plan, but the normal problems with it don’t apply here, unless you’re in a Rochester Draft where you can attract retaliation.)

Of course, for this season Rochester draft is the most important, since that’s what the PTQ Top 4s will be. Unfortunately it is not an archetype I can recommend, although I know some have had success with it in Rochester drafts at the Pro level. [Tim Aten team drafted it in the semi-finals at GP: Chicago. – Knut] If you happen to have an arcane deck and grab a Dampen Thought late, or notice that your opponent will have a hard time disrupting the strategy then go for it, but your opponents almost have to not pay attention to your deck in order to make this a realistic possibility.

Hugs ’til Next Time,