What I Didn’t Play At Pro Tour Origins

While the Pro Tour has come and gone and we all know what “the best decks” were from that event, that’s actually a very narrow slice of what is possible in Standard. Sam Black opens up his playtesting notebook to showcase just how widely he and his team looked in search of the best deck.

For every Pro Tour, I try a lot of ideas but I only get to show off one deck on the big stage. Today I want to talk about some of the ideas I worked on that I either couldn’t quite get to work right or that I just didn’t think were as good. Seeing how the PT played out, I thought my choice was great, but as the metagame develops further Mono-Red won’t always be the best choice and knowing what else the format has to offer can be a powerful tool for metagaming.

The first step in my process is almost always sketching out a list in the notes app in my phone. From there, I either set it aside or show it to Justin Cohen, and which of those I do depends on whether I think there’s anything there and whether I think I need to spend more time thinking of variations before taking it further. After showing it to Justin, I decide whether I want to physically put the deck together. Usually while assembling cards, I’ll make a couple last-second tweaks. From there, I play a few games. I usually want to make a few more changes after just a game or two, as I see what a card looks like in context or quickly find a major hole in the deck. At this point, I adjust the deck on the fly, and only sometimes go back and update the note. In the past, I’ve also updated a spreadsheet shared by the team with these decks, but for this Pro Tour we put our efforts elsewhere as I wasn’t sure how much other people were really using the sheet to follow our progress.

I’m going to try to talk through the decks I worked on roughly chronologically, but my memory isn’t perfect so this will be aided by whatever notes happen to be left in my phone, starting with the oldest.

My oldest note is an incomplete list:

4 Thoughtseize
4 Despoiler of Souls
4 Bile Blight
2 Ulitmate Price
4 Hero’s Downfall

It stopped there. I try to write my lists in casting-cost order. Sometimes I put creatures first and sometimes I don’t. Likely, having gotten to this point in an attempt to write a list for Black Devotion, I realized that Despoiler of Souls isn’t really a great fit with the spells in this deck and that there just aren’t any good options available to us at three mana. I’d return to try to build Black Devotion lists again later, but I never bothered actually putting any of them together myself because they always looked so bad. Patrick Chapin did actually put one together after Brian Kowal helped him come up with Devoted Retainer as a playable one-drop, but quickly realized that the deck was basically just a bad Abzan deck.

My next effort was to look at Blue Devotion. The casting costs in Magic Origins make it clear that WotC wanted to give us a last few months to play with the devotion cards, so we had to see if they’d actually made any of the strategies good enough. I’ve generally believed that Mutavault was the most important missing piece and without that there’s very little chance they’ll be good enough, but I had to at least see what they’d look like. Here’s what I had sketched out:

The first list was just straight forward Blue Devotion, but I lost interest before fleshing it out all the way. Then I moved on to a version that used the 1/3s that help cast artifacts, and then a U/R deck that went a little further in that direction. I physically built both the Mono-Blue and U/R decks here, and these were among the first decks we put together. I tried several variations on these decks over the first few days, but none of them were quite good enough. I should have been able to get to the U/R deck that did well at the PT from this point, but I have an irrational bias against Ensoul Artifact and I just didn’t push in that direction enough, so the decks never had quite enough power.

Early on, I noticed that Thopter Spy Network was outperforming Bident of Thassa and switched to focusing more on that, and my decks shifted toward more controlling U/R Thopter Spy Network decks. This was still before Jeff Hoogland showed the card to the rest of the world.

My next list was Jeskai Ascendancy with Reclaim, but I just didn’t know enough to build a good version of the list, also, I forgot to actually add Jeskai Ascendancy when I wrote the list. List redacted to avoid wasting your time, but it also had Magmatic Insight to try to fill the graveyard faster for Treasure Cruise. This was early on, when I was high on Magmatic Insight as a Delve enabler. After playing a couple games with Magmatic Insight, I started hating the card and removed it from every list I’d originally put it in because too often you just didn’t have an extra land and having a blank card is horrible. You need an exceptionally good reason to put this card in any deck.

This one never saw the light of day. I think Helm of the Gods is a really powerful card, but the other cards aren’t really good enough and I think I was too focused on trying to use Relic Seeker to get it, which I think is the wrong direction. If I were to come back to this idea, I’d drop the Relic Seeker. It just takes up too much non-enchantment space.

My next list highlights my inappropriate aversion to Ensoul Artifact:

This has a core that wants to empty its hand as fast as possible to reload with Day’s Undoing. I recognized that that might not be enough card draw, and might want Thopter Spy Network to back it up, but that really makes things too slow for Day’s Undoing. What I needed was a cheaper card that would be high-impact enough that I wouldn’t necessarily need Day’s Undoing. Also, we already had burn together as a primary deck to test against, and Day’s Undoing was clearly awful there. I know I quickly moved away from Day’s Undoing and from Hewed Stone Retainers, but I still couldn’t get to a point I was happy with.

This was the U/R Artifact control deck that I moved toward that featured a combo finish with Howl of the Horde that actually worked moderately well, with Howl of the Horde + Magmatic Insight as another reasonable play to make with Howl. Obviously this was before I learned my lesson about Magmatic Insight. I put this deck together and played with it for a while, and I think had gotten down to one Magmatic Insight by the end of working on it.

I’m sure you knew I’d have decks like this in my phone somewhere. I never actually put this particular build together, but this was my first step in trying to find ways to use Liliana, Heretical Healer and Nantuko Husk. Obviously this was still long before Ray Tautic showed us Abzan Rally.

Abzan Ascendancy does look really sweet with that set of creatures, but I just assumed they’d be too slow to get on the board and too bad at blocking, and I’d lose to anyone who went under me despite playing Siege Rhino. Also, the small-ball value game is horrible against Green Devotion, who just ignores the little synergies you’re building and goes way over the top. Nothing about this list made me think it was well-positioned enough to put time into.

My version of Constellation was probably trying to do too much without a strong-enough defensive core. There are some cute ideas here, but it just didn’t feel like I’d rounded it out well enough to bother playing, and then we saw that Pascal Maynard had written about Constellation and decided to test against his version instead. When that didn’t impress us, we basically just dropped it.

I really wanted to find a way to use Knight of the White Orchid with Archangel of Tithes, the problem is that all the white removal spells and all the counterspells are so narrow that I couldn’t get a mix that felt like it’d be reasonable against a diverse field. I never put this list together.

I was into Demonic Pact/Woodland Bellower/Invasive Species/Chord of Calling pretty early, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit a good curve, enough interaction, and enough bullets into a deck. This effort looks like it might have been a reasonable starting point for more work, but I never put it together and I imagine it’d be better to start with decks from the PT at this point.

Writing out a Demonic Pact list obviously got me thinking about Daring Thief, who’s also very good with Thopters, and that led to the decks in my next note:

I actually wonder if there’s something to that first deck if you drop some of the top end and focus on Ensoul Artifact and using Disciple of Deceit to try to find more Ensoul Artifacts. Well, I wouldn’t use the green, and it would look pretty different, but really, I just mean U/B Ensoul Artifact with Disciple of Deceit and Thoughtseize could be a thing. That idea is only loosely related to these decks.

Yisan is something I spent a lot of time wondering about but no time actually playing with. Later I’d come back to an idea like the second deck here, but that also had Willbreaker, which is great with Kiora’s Follower and Whirler Rogue.

After isolating Thopter Spy Network as the “Artifacts Matter” card that I liked but concluding that I didn’t like most of the other artifacts, I came back to Blue Devotion with morphs and Cloudform to use Ghostfire Blade to let me have enough artifacts to comfortable play Thopter Spy Network. It still didn’t look good enough to put together.

We later identified Sidisi’s Faithful as the best blue one-drop for Devotion decks, and it certainly would help here, but I don’t think the shell is good enough. Again, maybe if I’d been willing to push Ensoul Artifact.

The idea here was to have enough enchantments for Helm of the Gods so that I could use it as another cheap equipment to turn on Thopter Spy Network and make the Thopters high impact. This would also let me use Ornithopter and Springleaf Drum, and maybe even Knight of the White Orchid to cast Thopter Spy Network earlier. This deck would probably be about a million times better if I’d just been willing to cut Knight of the White Orchid for Ensoul Artifact, but like I said, that was really my blind spot for this PT. I ultimately decided there were just too many constraints on this deck in terms of needing enough artifacts to turn on Thopter Spy Network, enough enchantments to power Helm of the Gods, and enough creatures to hold the equipment and use Springleaf Drum. I didn’t think it was possible to do everything.

I really wanted to find a list that at least looked good enough that I could put it together to see Helm of the Gods on the battlefield, because it seemed like a card that had a really high power ceiling. This was my next attempt, but it still didn’t feel quite strong enough to actually sleeve up and I never ended up playing a game with Helm of the Gods.

How good does Prophetic Flamespeaker look in this list though?

I gave up on this before deciding what the last few spells would be. I was curious about the idea of trying to play early Renowned creatures into Avatar of the Resolute, plus burn spells to get my Renown creatures through. Abbot of Keral Keep is probably the card I’d use to flesh this deck out, but the problem is that the lands in Standard just don’t properly support two-allied-color aggressive decks so the strict casting costs in this deck would probably kill it.

This is a chronologically much earlier note that got bumped to here in my discussion, but this is all still very early (last modified July 10th, like most of these so far). You’ll note the second deck is four cards off from what I played at the Pro Tour. The Goblin deck is also pretty good, and Paul Rietzl was working on variations until just a few days before the event. I’ve also heard that most teams that didn’t test a burn deck like the second list here because they were distracted by Goblins or Atarka Red-style red decks as the red decks to test against (and probably weren’t strongly looking to play red themselves).

I felt obligated to try harder with Black Devotion. I realized Despoiler of Souls wasn’t taking us in the right direction and focused on spells, just accepting that Liliana, Heretical Healer was the best three-drop I had to work with. Matt Sperling identified Erebos’s Titan with Necromatic Summons to get it back as an interaction he was interested in very early. This list still looked terrible to me.

Adrian Sullivan had been working on a Mono-Red ramp deck with Pyromancer’s Goggles that used Mage-Ring Network and Astral Cornucopia to ramp up to four copies of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon with Haven of the Spirit Dragon to get it back. He and Matt Severa reported being impressed with using Mage-Ring Network to cast Ugin, but found the red spells mediocre. I wondered about a white version:

We looked at a few other Mage-Ring/Ugin decks, but ultimately decided they were too slow to beat the most aggressive decks, and didn’t have a good enough plan against counterspells. I never put this one together.

This was an effort to deal with the concern that my other Abzan Ascendancy deck would be too slow to get creatures onto the board by shifting its focus to green. Likely a step in the right direction, but I still never went so far as to build the deck.

The idea here was to take the “Turbo Ugin” plan we liked but add Thoughtseize and Den Protector to it in order to beat control and Languish to beat aggro. I actually tested this one, and it had moments that looked promising, but ultimately it didn’t have enough control over its draw steps and it had the classic ramp problem: too much mana and too many cards that didn’t matter when we drew them later on.

I’m realizing that this is getting long, and I’m not terribly far through my notes yet. I’m imagining that it’s easy at this point to reach the point where you’re overloaded on lists and just skimming them, so I’m going to try to err toward not copying the actual note.

My next list is a U/W Control list with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Knight of the White Orchid as creatures that uses Myth Realized, Mastery of the Unseen, Elsepth, Sun’s Champion, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to win the game. Myth Realized reads as a strong card that never found a home to me, and I realized here that Jace might actually be pretty good. This still has the problem that the blue and white spells are a little too narrow.

The next list is a U/B deck that I actually put together to try out Liliana with Hangarback Walker. You’ll note that I’ve had that pair in a lot of lists – I like having the ability to play Hangarback Walker for zero to flip Liliana, but I hadn’t found a shell I liked enough to play with yet.

This list didn’t have enough early power or enough late power – it couldn’t reliably end games early or overpower the opponent going late, which meant it ended up losing to Abzan in the midgame, which is an easy trap to fall into in this format.

My next project was Elves, and I actually like where I ended up there… but ultimately I wasn’t beating Abzan in testing, it still felt like the best direction to take the deck though:

The idea here was that Demonic Pact was good with Invasive Species, which is also good with all the enters-the-battlefield effects on our various Elves, and Elves as a deck is aggressive enough that you don’t always need to answer your own Demonic Pact. This deck was designed on the assumption that my opponent would be very good at killing my Elves, so I wanted as many ways to reload and keep casting Elves as possible. This deck was pretty good at not running out of things to do most of the time.

Patrick Chapin came to my house to test for a few days around this point, and he brought an Abzan deck with Evolutionary Leap with him. The idea was that he could get a lot of value against control decks without changing his deck much by including Evolutionary Leap because it’s great with Deathmist Raptor and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. I wanted to take it a little further and try Hangarback Walker and Liliana, Heretical Healer in an Abzan shell with Evolutionary Leap. I think we ultimately decided it took too much space away from Abzan Control’s core plan, and then moved away from Evolutionary Leap entirely – it was powerful, but it just wasn’t the kind of power the deck needed.

Next I went on a big Whirler Rogue kick. I started by building Jeskai with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Whirler Rogue, and Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, obviously hoping to discard Whirler Rogue to Jace and then return it with Alesha, which would let me immediately make one of them unblockable. It was a cute interaction and I generally liked Whirler Rogue, but I didn’t like Jeskai in general in this format.

My next effort was the Yisan/Whirler Rogue/Willbreaker list I mentioned earlier, with three Whirler Rogues.

From there, I went to Temur with Whirler Rogue because I was looking for a way to play with larger creatures that cost less than Whirler Rogue that I’d care about making unblockable, and I came up with Goblin Rabblemaster and Savage Knuckleblade. This list also had Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Become Immense. I’ve never really liked Savage Knuckleblade decks, so I didn’t bother testing it.

This one I just had to include the list for. Another that’s probably just trying to do too much, and too much of it is cute, rather than something I have any reason to believe is well-positioned. When I’m preparing for a PT, I spend a lot of time writing out lists like this to see how far I can push things, but I’m generally pretty good at knowing that they’re not where I should really be putting my time.

I really wanted to like something like this – it’s like a more aggressive version of my R/W deck from the previous season, and I wanted to try Kytheon, Hero of Akros, who I couldn’t find a good home for. The problem is that the nature of Chained to the Rocks really pushes up your land count if you want to reliably be able to have both an actual Mountain and enough white mana, and the land count required to make that happen suggests playing a higher curve than this deck has, but the more expensive spells don’t really make this deck better so it just doesn’t quite work out right.

I actually put this deck together and thought it was pretty sweet. It wasn’t quite good enough, but it had some things I really liked going on. Obviously the interaction between Nantuko Husk and Whirler Rogue is great, but this is also how I discovered the interaction between Liliana, Heretical Healer and Sidisi’s Faithful, which basically gives Liliana, Defiant Necromancer Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s -1 ability, but it actually plays out even better because you get the extra bounce from casting the Sidisi’s Faithful. I really wanted to find a way to play those cards together.

Next I tried updating the artifact deck with more of a focus on Chief of the Foundry and Whirler Rogue, but despite playing Ornithopter I was still staying away from Ensoul Artifact. I did have Ramroller, which, while not great, is probably better than Hewed Stone Retainers.

Next, another attempt and U/W Archangel of Tithes, but this time with Prognostic Sphinx as I realized its stats were suddenly in demand now that it would live through Languish. This would also push Dragonlord Ojutai, Prognostic Sphinx’s natural predator, out of the format.

Next up, Temur Planewalkers with Harbinger of the Tides and Sidisi’s Faithful to hold off attackers while getting the planeswalkers going. Meh.

At this point it gets into a lot of variations on other decks that I’ve already discussed. Eventually, I built a White Devotion list, it’s pretty similar to what I saw at the PT from people who played White Devotion, but it’s worth noting that after Knight of the White Orchid, I think Consul’s Lieutenant is the best white two-drop over something like Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit because I think first strike is a really big deal, it allows you to attack into small opposing creatures or threaten double blocks with it and Knight of the White Orchid to stop even larger creatures from attacking. Also, it’s very likely you’ll be able to connect for the Renown trigger, and then it’s just a great rate.

I think this is actually not terribly far off from what some people actually played at the PT, but moving away from Ghostfire Blade probably wasn’t right. Still, this list demonstrates that at least I knew Ensoul Artifact was a card.

This G/W list looks totally reasonable, if uninspired. I can only assume I never got around to testing it because it was just too boring.

I gave up on this one when I realized Hardened Scales added one counter rather than doubling the number of counters, which made the combo with Hero of Leona Tower much less exciting.

Next up was a string of Sidisi’s Faithful decks with Gather the Pack, Liliana, and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Eventually I realized that too many of the creatures I wanted to play were Legendary, which would really restrict my options with Liliana, so I gave up.

And that’s basically what the brewing process looked like from my end. We played with a lot of other decks, since other team members were building decks and we’d sometimes test against successful decks from the Open Series, but those were the decks I built. Hangarback Walker was probably the card I included most often, which is interesting because at this point, I don’t really think the card’s that great. It’s good, but it’s pretty slow, and it can line up badly against a lot of what the format’s trying to do.

Sidisi’s Faithful is the unplayed card I have the most hope for, since it blocks well against red and answers Ensoul Artifact. I’d really like to see that interaction with Liliana come together at some point.