What Crystal Witness Does to MD5 Constructed

Like the ConTroll decks of Urza Block, this looks like a really, really good draft deck. I can almost hear someone walking by Cirigliano during a match and shouting,”You got three Crystal Shards? What scrub was passing to you!” When you’re talking Constructed, however, this deck seems to violate the Zvi maxim against bringing a knife to a gunfight. So why is this deck winning?

In my last article I discussed briefly how profoundly Matteo Cirigliano shook up the MD5 metagame, but I think it will take a while before it really sinks in for most deckbuilders, and it is quite probable that some good players will run unviable decks at the early PTQs. (It is quite possible, by the way, that the list of unviable decks may include the original version of Crystal Witness itself!) Before we dig in, let’s look at the decklist:

12 Forest

12 Island

4 Solemn Simulacrum

4 Viridian Shaman

4 Eternal Witness

2 Triskelion

3 Annul

4 Oxidize

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Echoing Truth

4 Condescend

3 Crystal Shard


4 Troll Ascetic

4 Last Word

1 Annul

2 Duplicant

4 Tel-Jilad Justice

Like the ConTroll decks of Urza Block, this looks like a really, really good draft deck. I can almost hear someone walking by Cirigliano during a match and shouting,”You got three Crystal Shards? What scrub was passing to you!” When you’re talking Constructed, however, this deck seems to violate the Zvi maxim against bringing a knife to a gunfight. Other people are playing KCI combo, Tooth and Nail, or dumping their hands on turn 2 while swinging with Disciple of the Vault, or can dump a lot of damage on your head before putting a 5/5 flyer into play while removing much of the opposing board. This deck is playing with basic lands and creatures that have to turn sideways and four copies of Echoing Truth!

It’s true that Crystal Witness doesn’t do the sort of gross things that normally herald a format-defining deck. It can’t combo you out or even win quickly. Its permission base is (of necessity, given the block) a bit janky, and I think most people would look at it and say,”Cute idea, but no way does this top 8 at a Constructed Grand Prix.”

Except, of course, that it did… going undefeated in the Swiss and only losing in the finals of the T8. So what’s the explanation? If it doesn’t do something as gross as Tooth and Nail, KCI or Ravager Affinity, how does it beat them?

The answer is simple.

Crystal Witness strategically dominates the format. (Sort of.)

Whenever I think of strategic domination, I go back in time to my first encounter with Kai Budde. I had talked Darwin Kastle into meeting me in London and then travelling up to Manchester for a Grand Prix. (I was fortunate enough to have a business trip with a stopover in London and was able to turn a few hours into a weekend for no extra charge.) The format was Rath Block Constructed, and I was naturally playing my pet deck that was not Living Death or Tradeawake or anything that could be considered a contender. (See”Are you Kidding Yourself” for an explanation.) I did okay for the scrub that I was, and had a lot of fun playing against the other people who weren’t playing the best decks. Darwin did rather better, and towards the end of the evening I watched him play a relatively-unknown young German player.

Things started off well for Darwin. He won game one (of five) and then Kai accidentally flipped over one of Darwin’s cards while shuffling, earning a game loss. Kai maintained his cool and came back to win the next three games and take the match.

I was naturally impressed by Kai’s self-control. Not many players would have continued to play as well as he did after going down two games to someone like Darwin, especially with game two being”lost” by stupidity. The combination of pressure and frustration would have overwhelmed many lesser players, especially when you remember that at this point Kai just some guy, not the man widely regarded as the best in the game. But I was even more impressed when I read Kai’s tournament report and learned how he tuned his deck to be unbeatable in the Tradeawake mirror match.

Kai’s basic plan was to sideboard into a Grindstone deck with Scragnoths for defense. Scragnoth was, for the most part, one of those”color hosers” that made people think that Wizards hated Green. He was so slow and expensive that in most situations the fact that Blue couldn’t counter or bounce him was irrelevant. But in this particular matchup it meant that Kai had a tremendous defense his opponents usually couldn’t deal with. Meanwhile, Grindstone was both cheap and fast enough to overwhelm any attempts to win by (for example) using Spike Counters to create a huge Tradewind Rider.

Kai had achieved strategic dominance in the mirror. As long as nothing crazy happened, his plan simply couldn’t fail to beat the standard opposing plan.

Crystal Witness does this to the artifact block. Or, rather, it comes very close.

Consider KCI. There are several ways to build an Ironworks deck and go off consistently on turn 4 or 5, if you aren’t disrupted. The problem lies in that last bit. Disruption is essentially any artifact removal, since you can always just go after a land and cost KCI a turn. Kai, on Brainburst, argued that there was a simple solution – card drawing. Just as Blue decks have often fought against land destruction by simply drawing more cards (and thus more land) than the enemy could kill, Kai’s decklist featured Thoughtcast and Thirst for Knowledge and he claimed that testing showed that decks full of artifact hate just couldn’t keep up.

It was partly in response to this that I came up with my (bad) version of ConTroll. (I can’t even call it Crystal Witness, since while I had Shard, I didn’t have Witness.) Why not combine artifact hate with comparable card drawing? But Crystal Witness essentially goes infinite. Oxidize your land, Shaman something useful, Witness back my Oxidize, Shard my Shaman… at which point the plan of drawing cards and outlasting the removal is clearly pointless because the removal is never coming to an end, and a growing army of two-powered creatures limits the turns you have to find an answer.

Meanwhile, Crystal Witness has some wonderful tools to help it reach the point where it can take control of the game. Echoing Truth buys a lot of time against an awful lot of decks, and is especially important to make sure a lone non-artifact flyer isn’t fatal. It would be good enough on its own, but when combined with Shard/Witness it serves as a permanent answer to many threats the deck doesn’t look like it can deal with more than temporarily. Solemn Simulacrum is the perfect chump-blocker, as well as offering a long-term mana-ramping plan in a stall situation. Against decks without artifacts, Eternal Witness can keep fetching Thirst for Knowledge or Condescend, while applying a bit of pressure.

So is Alex Shvartsman right? Commenting on Cirigliano’s performance for www.magicthegathering.com, he wrote:

Italy’s Matteo Cirigliano may have broken the format. He built a deck that is completely different from anything else I’ve seen in this format, a deck that looks deceptively simple, but a deck that seems to just dominate the format. He went undefeated through eleven rounds of Swiss (he had 2 byes) and intentionally drew in the final round, entering top 8 as first seed, and only mana problems kept him from winning in the finals (he already won the same matchup in the swiss rounds).

In my opinion, this is going too far. Crystal Witness has its weaknesses, too. First off, it’s a bit slow. Second, it has only Triskelion and Duplicant (in the board) as permanent removal for creatures, and its three-drops can’t really punch through anything. In my opinion, it looks like it could be vulnerable to a sufficiently fast approach as well as a slower one.

In terms of speed, I think Frank Karsten has the right idea. In his recent Brainburst article, he describes his sideboard changes for fighting Crystal Witness:”You sideboard nothing.” He goes on to explain:

The blue/green deck resembles a mono-green deck that can’t put on pressure. They surely will be able to have Annul, Condescend, Echoing Truth, Oxidize, Shamans and more nonsense for your early plays but they can’t put pressure on you since they have no good creatures. That means you will have lot of time to find your Disciples (the deck has no good answer to them) and win with them.

In other words, Karsten isn’t trying to break Crystal Witness’s game plan or transform his own. Instead he’s going to try to do as much damage as possible while relying on the one strategic advantage he has – Disciple of the Vault. Since his opponent can’t apply quick pressure and has no way to remove a Disciple, Karsten will concentrate on doing as much damage as possible and try to finish him off with life loss. I suspect that Karsten overestimates his deck’s chances (his original impression was that it should be a bye for his Ravager Affinity deck), but it’s clear that any deck that can come out of the gates fast and then keep dealing out damage other than by attacking on the ground has got game vs. Crystal Witness. Similarly, I’m sure there are Big Red builds that represent a real problem for Cirigliano’s build.

Looking at a slower approach, the obvious strategic foil to the Witness deck is a similar deck with Auriok Salvagers and Trinket Mages. The Mages would up the 187 count, allowing at least partial replacement of Solemn Simulacrum with Wayfarer’s Bauble, which in turn probably lets you shave off a land. (Despite the color issues this deck would have, I would be very tempted to run one Darksteel Citadel for my Mages to fetch in case I stalled at three land.) Then, in addition to having a 2/4 (almost unbearably large for Crystal Witness) card advantage engine, you could foil the Witness recursion plan with a single card: Scrabbling Claws. I don’t know whether a deck like this is viable in the metagame, but at a glance it looks like a perfect strategic foil to Crystal Witness, taking advantage of its modest speed and lack of permanent answers to non-artifact creatures to create an anti-Witness lock.

Spellbomb abuse isn’t that ridiculous an idea, since once you’ve got Salvagers in play, any spellbomb lets you draw a card for 3W and effects like”search your deck for a basic land and put it into play tapped,””gain five life” and”return target creature to its owner’s hand” can be pretty powerful when they never end, let alone when they start happening twice per turn. If you’re willing to really stretch your mana base (possibly just in the sideboard for control matches) you could even try for a Necrogen Spellbomb lock, denying your opponent his draw for the rest of the game.

Moreover, if you’re bouncing Viridian Shaman (or even if you just wish you could Oxidize your opponent’s Cloudpost) there are worse things in life than turning one of your opponent’s lands into 3/3 artifact creatures until end of turn. And, of course, you can keep using Engineered Explosives to clear away troublesome permanents like Disciple of the Vault so that you don’t just get drained out. Even Synod Sanctum would look pretty reasonable in some matchups, protecting key permanents from removal and giving you another way to reuse your 187s.

I think it would be quite poetic if the answer to this”great draft deck” would be another broken draft strategy – abusing Salvagers and Trinket Mage.

Meanwhile, there will still be plenty of decks that simply don’t take Crystal Witness’s strategic domination into account. Most Black Control decks I’ve seen fits this category, running a handful of artifacts (including mana artifacts) that will come out at roughly the exact pace Crystal Witness will send them to the graveyard. At the moment, KCI seems virtually unplayable unless and until someone develops a version that doesn’t depend on artifact lands (or some development in the metagame makes Crystal Witness unplayable). Whatever you decide to run, make sure you aren’t setting yourself up to be dominated.

Unless that’s what you’re in to. Your private life is up to you.

Hugs ’til next time,