I started writing this at Nationals.* Ingrid was judging, so I tagged along. I came one match short of grinding in – but I lost that match, and the whole format (Type 2 w/ Skullclamp) is dead anyway, so I’ll skip the tourney report. Instead, I’ll talk about netdecking and the performance of netdecks. I’ll throw in some Magic the Puzzling stuff, and finish with an overview of the MD5 metagame so far.
During the run-up to U.S. Regionals and Nationals, I spent a lot of time looking at the decks that won big events around the world. I also read a lot of posts on various forums where people dumped on decks they”beat consistently” or could not get to perform. I have some thoughts on that. Since the next Constructed PTQ season is just starting, those thoughts are just as relevant, and I’ll provide some examples from MD5.
I’ll bury pieces of my tournament reports in the discussion. Beats wasting them.
In every Constructed format I can recall, there have been control decks, occasional combo decks and beatdown decks. The control decks have often been the best around (Maher Oath, Slide, etc. ad nauseum), but the average netdecker has always had better results with the beatdown decks.
The simplest reason for that is that it is easier to play beatdown decks appropriately. Take Ravager Affinity, for example: you beat with it. If you netdeck a control deck, you need to understand how to play each matchup – with beatdown, you just attack. Take the block mono-Green versus Affinity matchup. In that matchup, Affinity is always the attacker, mono-Green the control deck. The Affinity player has an easy task – explode, then beat with a flier and Cranial Plating. The control player has more decisions to make. Do you hit lands or other artifacts? Hold the Oxidize or blow it now? etc.
It is far easier to misplay a control deck than to misplay a beatdown deck. Moreover, misplaying a control deck is more likely to be lethal than misplaying a beatdown deck. This was especially true in Skullclamp Standard, where the power of Goblins and Ravager Affinity allowed people to misplay constantly and still win. I cannot begin to count how often I saw an Affinity player screw up and still win. The decks were so broken that trained monkeys could have taken them to 3-3 records in most events. Poorly-trained monkeys, at that.
The decks that get the shortest shrift from netdeckers and those scouring the net for tech are the subtle decks – the ones with a ton of specialized interactions. Those decks are only good if you play them up to their full potential – and that full potential is really hard to discover.
As an example, I played Crazy 26 Old (decklist below) in the grinder. Going in, I figured the strongest decks were Ravager and Goblins, and that Elf and Nail would get played, despite the bad matchup it has with Goblins. (Note: the splash Mountain version can sideboard Goblin Pyromancer – it actually works.) I was looking for something with Wrath, plus Silver Knights and something to hose Ravager. I was nervous about MWC, first because I figured that most decks would have a way of killing old-tech Damping Matrix, and because I assumed some players might still squeeze Flashfires into their sideboards.
Here’s the deck.
Crazy 26 Old
Tomohiro Yokosuka, Japanese Nationals T8
4 Elfhame Palace
4 Windswept Heath
1 Flooded Strand
1 Grand Coliseum
3 Pristine Angel
3 Viridian Shaman
4 Silver Knight
4 Krosan Tusker
2 Solemn Simulacrum
3 Renewed Faith
4 Wrath of God
3 March of the Machines
2 Pulse of the Fields
1 Mycosynth Lattice (wow – is this good!)
2 Mycosynth Lattice
1 Pulse of the Fields
4 Wing Shards
2 Tooth and Nail
I started to do what a lot of people do with netdecks – I tweaked the build a bit. But then I realized that I kept finding new interactions in the deck, and that the designer had had a lot more time than me to build the decklists, so I played it almost card for card. The mana looks like an unholy mess, but I wasn’t color screwed once in six rounds – mana screwed early, but not color screwed.
Yes, there are reasons for Krosan Tusker over Solemn Sims, and so forth. I debated Grand Coliseum / City of Brass, but I think that’s right, too. The main change I made was to include one Darksteel Colossus in the sideboard as a Tooth target, and it won me some games. Other than that, the deck – janky as it looks – was built correctly. Before you dismiss it, remember that it won at Japanese Nationals, and took me (me!) five sixths of the way through the grinder. Then remember what I said about netdeckers misunderstanding interactions.
Here’s one example of some interactions: side events – I’m playing against a mono-White control player who won game one. He mulligans, and cycles a Dragon. Turn 6, I hit my sixth land and drop Lattice. He misses his fifth land drop, again, having just two Plains, a Temple of the False God and a Cloudpost. I untap, then play two Shamans, killing both his Plains, then show him the Oxidize. He concedes.
When you first scanned the decklist, did you see the potential to mana screw an opponent via the ten maindeck artifact kill spells? Hopefully you spotted the fact that having March out, then casting Wrath and Lattice means you have not only cast Armageddon, but have an invisible Meddling Mage naming”lands” and a 6/6 beater as well.
It’s all about the interactions.
Back to the grinder. The first four rounds were nothing special. Silver Knights handled mono-Red control, I outlasted some decks. The only interesting play was against Ravager, when he tried for the combo kill. I was at low life, and he started sacrificing artifacts to the Ravager with a Disciple in play. He sacrificed artifacts, I cast Pulse in response. He sacrificed a lot more in response to Pulse, and I hard cast Renewed Faith in response to him sacrificing the Ravager to itself. I wound up at positive life, with Pulse of the Fields in hand and six lands in play, while he had a only a Disciple in play and one card in hand. Okay, I take it all back – I guess life gain can win games.
The fifth round was interesting. I was playing against a U/W control deck that had won its last round with Pulse of the Fields. The Grinders are single elimination. Unlike Swiss tournaments, if the match is tied at the end of the five extra turns, the match is decided on life totals. If life totals are tied, then the first change wins the match. Pulse changed the totals.
I won the first match with some quick beats via Silver Knights, Solemn Simulacrum, and (following a Wrath) a Krosan Tusker. (Note: the Tuskers are better than more Solemn Sims, since they were often cast to bait out Wraths. Pulse of the Fields can offset Solemn Sim beatdown easily, but negating a 6/5 that way is harder.) Game two went longer, with me still having to play beatdown and mana burning to foil Pulse of the Fields. That strategy is dangerous, however, since I didn’t have a Pulse of my own. Eventually, he Wrathed, I slowed too much, and he cycled a Decree EoT. So much for game two. We had almost no time for game three. We both mulliganed, and both played early fetchlands. I let him break his first, but we were quickly in the extra turns.
Since people seem to like Magic the Puzzling stuff, here’s one. It’s fairly unique, since the match was going to be decided on life totals, or first life change.
It’s my turn, on extra turn 4. I was at nineteen life, he was at sixteen, and I had a Silver Knight in play. He had seven lands, untapped, and had passed his turn without doing anything. I had a Renewed Faith in hand, six lands in play and nothing but a Wrath, Pristine Angel and junk in hand. Should I attack?
My answer was no. Here’s my reasoning:
If I attack, he goes to fourteen, and can Pulse, get it back and Pulse again. That puts him ahead. I can then cycle Renewed Faith, but if he has a second Pulse, I lose. I can also hard cast Renewed Faith, but if he counters, I lose.
Likewise, if I attack, he can cycle Decree. If he does it before blockers, he can block, then swing back with three Soldiers. Alternatively, he can cycle during his end step. On his turn, he can Pulse, going to eighteen and getting the Pulse back, then attack with three soldiers. Now I have to hard cast Renewed Faith or lose, and he can counter it or Pulse himself. We could end up tied again, with him having two attackers and me one blocker – although I had Wrath, he might have had two Mana Leaks.
Note that casting the Pristine Angel is not really an option. Mana Leak stops it, and I end up tapped out – meaning that I cannot even cycle Renewed Faith in response to his Pulse. Remember, the game is decided on life totals at end of extra turns, or first change thereafter. If we are past the five extra turns, I can cycle Renewed Faith in response to the Pulse and win – unless I’m tapped out.
As it played out – he did have the Decree, but no Pulse. He cycled Decree during my end step for four soldiers. On his turn (turn 5), he cast Thirst for Knowledge, then attacked. I blocked one soldier, and we both went to sixteen life. He tapped out to Wrath. I cycled Renewed Faith for the win.
Grinders are 6 round, 256 person (max) single elimination tourneys. The four people left standing at the end get to play in Nationals, I would like to conclude with a description my sixth round win and Nationals experience, but it didn’t happen. Both games in my sixth round were similar – I mulliganed, I drew some artifact kill, but my opponent played Welding Jars on turns 1 and 2 and Skullclamps. By turn 3, I had killed three Welding Jars game one, and two game two. Not by choice – I had drawn Naturalizes and Shamans instead of Oxidize. I had March of the Machines, but not in time, so Ravager and Disciple killed me. Afterwards, we played for fun, I didn’t mulligan, and March smashed him – but he still had the invite.
I played the same deck in a couple standard side events during the weekend. Here’s a misplay – see if you can spot the correct play.
I was playing against a U/W deck. I had sided in the extra Mycosynth Lattices, and had been baiting counters. I had a Pristine Angel, March of the Machines and ten lands in play. He had a Pristine Angel of his own, plus a Silver Knight and lots of land. He had four cards in hand, including a Pulse of the Grid, and had cast a fair number of counters already. Life totals were irrelevant. I had two Shamans, two Oxidizes and a land in hand. He had one more card in his library than I did. What was the correct play?
What I did was wait until he played the Pulse, leaving him with fewer cards in his library, then played the Lattice and counted libraries – showing him that he would be decked. He conceded.
What I should have done was play the land, tap everything for mana, then play Lattice. Once that resolved, I could have played the Shaman and used it’s ability to kill his Pristine Angel. Yes, the Angel was untapped, but the last line on Mycosynth Lattice says that my Shaman was colorless. If he leaked that. I could Oxidize the Angel. Then my Angel and Lattice could have beat for the win.
In one game, against a mono-Red player, he diligently used his land destruction to keep me from having either double white or blue mana, but he let me get lots of Forests into play. I dropped the Lattice. Next turn, I cast Wrath, and then March, using the Forests and a single Plains. Lattice means never having to feel color-screwed.
Those are the types of mistakes that opponents are supposed to make against complex decks – but unless you can see the interactions to set those traps, the complex decks don’t win.
These types of interactions are subtle, but critical. When people check out these decks for the first time, they miss them. Missing them makes the deck perform more poorly, and makes people disregard it. The more subtle interactions are the hardest to spot, and the cards involved are often the first cut.
Here are some examples. Many people have dismissed Fangren Firstborn in mono-green. The Firstborn looks bad, until you begin exploring the interaction of Fangren Firstborn and Blinkmoth Nexus. If people miss that interaction (the counters stay on) Nexus seems less powerful and gets cut. Then players wonder how the mono-Green deck can beat Affinity with Somber Hoverguard. Without Nexus, that is a problem.
The same sort of issue comes up with Predator’s Strike and Echoing Courage. Predator’s Strike means that your Blinkmoth blocks theirs, or blocks Somber Hoverguard and lives, even when you don’t have enough mana to activate the pumping action. Echoing Courage combos pretty well with Beacon of Bugs (okay, Beacon of Creation), but it doesn’t save the Nexus from another Nexus, or from a Hoverguard without help. Subtle, but an impact. I haven’t tested near enough, but Echoing Courage / Beacon of Creation seems to be a wins more card, while Predator’s Strike looks to be necessary to win a tough matchup. (But I could be wrong.)
At GP Zurich, a U/G deck that abused Crystal Shard and Eternal Witness came in second. It had Condescend, Oxidize, Solemn Simulacrum and more. It had a lot of cool effects, and was the sort of deck that has the pilot making lots of decisions every turn. Now people are trashing the deck and saying that it cannot beat Affinity. My question is whether those commentators are playing it correctly – should you be hitting Cranial Plate, Ornithopter or artifact lands with early Oxidizes and so forth? It makes a difference, and I don’t know for sure. Yet.
So far, I have seen T8 lists from five tournaments – GP Zurich, two PTQs at Origins, and a PTQ and 2 GPTs at Canadian Nationals. Here are the results so far.
Ravager Affinity still rules the roost, with eleven of the top forty spots. Cranial Plating is almost universal, and Somber Hoverguard is typically used as a delivery system.
Tooth and Nail decks are running second, with nine slots. The kill conditions vary, but most decks run Darksteel Colossus. The Triskelion / Mephidross Vampire combo is a one-sided Wrath, but is usually sideboarded. Some decks also pack a Bringer of the White Dawn for the Mindslaver lock. Finally, the Leonin Abunas / Platinum Angel combo still appears, but not as often.
Mono-Green is in third place, with six spots taken. However, mono-Green seemed to be more popular early, and it may be slipping as its best matchups – Affinity without Somber Hoverguard – fades and Tooth and Nail decks gain. The early builds that featured maindeck cards like Tel-Jilad Chosen seem less effective nowadays.
Big Red is still a powerhouse, with five top 8 slots under its belt. The main difference seems to be the creatures to accompany Arc-Slogger and Solemn Simulacrum. Some decks are running Furnace Dragon, some Furnace Whelp, some Megatog or a combination of these – while some pack Fireballs in that slot. The acceleration is a mix of Seething Song, Chrome Mox, Talismans and Solemn Simulacrums. The deck finishes off with a mix of burn, including Electrostatic Bolt, Magma Jet, Shrapnel Blast, and Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author].
The U/G control decks have managed to grab six slots as well. The decklists have a lot of variety, however, and I don’t really have a good handle on the issues. Yet. I will say that I think these decks are good, and are being dismissed too soon. I think they need a lot of practice to play correctly. I would predict that they make a comeback later in the season, as people learn them and play them.
U/W Pristine Angel control decks are also being played, although the success rate is somewhat lower. They have taken just four slots. These decks seem to be evolving. I’m not going to say more – I like these decks, and want to play them first. Once I have my invite, I’ll tell you how to beat them.
The final slots were filled by several one-ofs – a Green/Black control deck, a mono-Black control deck, and a R/U March of the Indestructibles deck. Quick count – that’s 39 decks. I’m missing one. What else was there?
Oh, yes – the Ironworks deck. Remember the”turn 2 win / its horrible / totally broken / how could they have printed this / ruin the format / totally stupid combo engine from hell?” Yeah – the mistake that will kill block and T2. It didn’t happen. The Krark-Clan Ironworks deck managed to take exactly one T8 spot, and it lost in the quarterfinals.
Maybe the sky was falling – but if it did, it missed.
P.S.: during the run-up to Regionals, I spent a lot of time and effort compiling stats on decks and results. Was that useful? If you think I should continue, or stuff it, tell me in the forums.
* U.S. Nationals. After the feedback I got a while back, I had better mention / concede / show that I am aware that other nations have Nationals as well. My government displays enough arrogance as it is; I don’t need to add to the total. U.S. Nationals.