The author would like to apologize for breaking the column topics in line for release. The usual articles are there but the author isn’t. That is, it’s his last week of vacation and he’s out of town… and forgot to pre-submit something! So he’s working from his browser and his mailbox this time.
I saw an article on Mask decks last week, and expressed some reservations about it to the foremost proponent, Chris”CF” Flaaten from Norway – who was mistakenly named a Swede in the article!
(In case you weren’t checking my past articles, these black-based decks use the Illusionary Mask/Phyrexian Dreadnought combo to make the most counterintuitive fatty plays in the game.)
The Mask deck has been around for a long time already, but it’s nice to see someone write about it. I’d like to share the notes I threw to Chris on IRC:
The Thesis Statement Of Mask
The article discussed the components, but failed to unify what the deck simply does in the first place. This is crucial because it determines how you board against Mask, something Matt D’Avanzo and I spent a long string of e-mails on months back, after I tested several times against Chris with various configurations.
At first glance, people may see it as a combo deck. However, it’s actually closer to Suicide Black and should be treated as such. I once asked if it was rightly categorized as”aggro-control.” Chris laughed and quipped it was”aggro-combo.”
This thought should tie up the various scattered notes on Mask to form a single coherent philosophy on how to play the deck.
Is Mask A Combo Deck?
So what’s the difference between thinking”aggro-control” and”combo?” The author of that article listed non-Phyrexian Dreadnought creatures under”alternative strategy.” I disagree with the thinking implied by this, since threats are threats – and getting killed by a Phyrexian Negator isn’t so different from getting killed by a Dreadnought.
From my past anecdotes, you might’ve gotten the idea that if you Swords to Plowshares/Chainer’s Edict/Dismantling Blow/Balance the first Dreadnought, the Mask player has to wait a bit to topdeck his next threat, not necessarily a Dreadnought. The decklist given listed only four Phyrexian Negators and one Hypnotic Specter as its other threats, which means it may rely a bit too much on the Mask/Dreadnought combo itself.
Realistic expectations from Mask’s Illusion
Check out the text of Illusionary Mask, then read this quote:
“If possible and intelligent at the time, you always pay more for Dreadnought than one because it will truly serve to disguise the creature. If you pay three, they will almost assuredly plan for a Phyrexian Negator or a Hypnotic Specter – but really, you’ve got a 12/12 on the way. (Doesn’t sound like much of a mind game to me if someone knows the deck, but it might work extremely well against a few randoms-The Ferrett, possibly showing great ignorance)”
Ferrett is absolutely right, and you won’t fool a smart player. I wonder about the experience of the author because a smart player will plan for both possibilities, not assume that you have a Negator… The bluff is effective in the sense that it drives a Powder Keg player nuts, for example.
How a smart player reacts to the built-in bluff is crucial, because when you’re dealing with 12/12s, you may not have another turn. Let me illustrate with a snippet from a past column:
Game 2 against Mike Skolnik from Canada (Atreides on Mana Drain) had me successfully beat his opening wave, but he got two Illusionary Masks out and added an unorthodox Nevinyrral’s Disk to complicate the board situation. I hit the first Phyrexian Dreadnought with Dismantling Blow – teasing him to use the Disk to counter the Blow’s kicker – and then a second with Swords to Plowshares. I broke the standoff with Vampiric Tutor for Braingeyser, tapping out for six cards. Unfortunately, he topdecked an unorthodox Winter Orb.
We topdecked and slowly untapped our lands until he played another Masked creature with 23 cards left in the library. I had a full hand, but the only relevant cards I had were The Abyss and Balance.
I checked the graveyard and removed from the game zones. Three Dreadnoughts accounted for.
But I was at eleven life.
Balance would kill the possible Dreadnought – but would also kill all but three of my land and my entire hand, and I’d most probably lose the topdeck war since he’d Disk away my Moxen, too.
I told him,”BALLS!” and played The Abyss instead. He flipped… Skittering Horror.
He knew he only had one Dreadnought left, too, so Disked away the Orb, the Abyss, his Masks, and all our artifact mana. I untapped and ask him to guess my topdeck.
“Um… Yawgmoth’s Will?”
Where’s The Blue?
The article claimed to present a build superior to what Chris Flaaten plays, allegedly because Chris’s versions are mono black. Thing is, I know Chris’s tournament Mask builds had a blue splash since he started tuning the deck, and his test decks are mono black.
Chris e-mailed the author:”The local originator of the deck played splash blue from day one. I first tuned a monoblack variant, because I used my blue stuff in Keeper and because testing a monoblack variant meant it would be easier to see which black cards should be in and which shouldn’t.
“Tainted Mask came later (Odyssey was new and unexplored), and as far as I know, I was the first one to include them – immediately changing to splash blue.”
But I was scratching my head when the article discussed splashing blue by lingering to discuss Chapin Gro, of all things:
“Blue is inherently slow, but inherently powerful. The fastest blue gets in a viable Vintage deck is in something like Chapin Gro: With Mask, you want to play the combo out immediately, and having a heavy blue build would require either a lot of pitch magic or else suggest that the deck slow down in order to accommodate hard counterspells. We attempted a version using heavy blue, but when you look at the key cards that need to be in a deck like this, and the synergy of Dark Ritual – the number of blue spells that can fit isn’t enough to support all the desired pitch magic and so forth.”
Okay, that was just a side comment. I was actually wondering if, by”heavy blue build,” the author meant the”Back to Basics + Illusionary Mask = guaranteed to kill ‘The Deck'” decklist that was a big joke on Internet forums a long time ago. If so, I discussed it last August when discussing how decks that rely purely on hate but not on a real deck structure and philosophy fall apart.
But I can vouch for Chris on the Tainted Pacts. When I asked who needed a black Impulse, I never thought Chris would actually answer.
The article presents a fresh mana base because it’s the first Mask article we’ve seen after Onslaught. The fetchlands are an obvious addition, because Mask needs better topdecks more than land midgame, and because it further diversifies the land slots for Tainted Pact without destabilizing them (like what Snow-Covered Swamp does, as Ferrett discovered).
My eyebrows were raised, however, when I saw three Cities of Brass and three Gemstone Mines in the primarily black deck. The given reason was Seal of Cleansing, but Chris’s blue splash already allowed Recoil. I honestly don’t think the third splash is necessary. You want something against things from Moat and Parfait’s Humility to Control Magic and Powder Keg, but I think you can live with bounce to keep a stable mana base. You’re just bouncing the permanents, but you can also attack the life total very quickly. On the other hand, you don’t want to get hit by a timely Wasteland when using a deck that needs to run few land and win fast.
Finally, the article mentioned Misdirection to argue in favor of the author’s Seals – but when you look at a Mask decklist, Misdirection isn’t that hot against the deck, is it?
And in any case, I wondered why Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] wasn’t used with those fetch lands anyway, and Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrublands[/author] would allow a few more Bloodstained Mire slots.
I’d like to nitpick over another quote:
“Control decks are often too slow to deal with the Mask – the best chance is for Control decks is to draw removal to get rid of the Dreadnoughts. Mono Blue, Oath, Chapin Gro, and even Keeper are favorable matchups for this deck.
“The bane of this deck is creature removal. Balance is the scariest card this deck has to deal with.”
The first paragraph is pretty much right (though Gro is not a friggin’ control deck, for crying out loud), but I don’t really worry about Mask once it’s on the table when playing control. Remember, the guy still has to draw a Dreadnought, and you have other toys like The Abyss or blocking Morphlings for the”alternative” creatures.
Being an aggro-control twist with one hell of an aggro option, Chris once described his Mask build as”Sixty slots against control.” However, he noted that his Game 1 still can’t go beyond 60% against”The Deck,” though he’s made me earn the 40% in sweat and tears when he schools me on fighting Mask. I find it a lot more fun to play against Mask, because you develop nuances in your own strategies playing against the very strange deck. (And besides, you learn not to make a lot of mistakes against one-mana 12/12s.)
The Mask deck isn’t a secret and you should never assume people don’t know how to play against it with a standard deck, but there really are some things you’ll discover for yourself if you test a few against it.
Balance, though, isn’t that hot from the control player’s standpoint. Consider playing Balance against a Mask player with a Dreadnought on the board, just two or three land and an empty hand. Then consider that his Mask and Moxen won’t be hit. It kills Dreadnought, but there’s a caveat that was illustrated in the earlier anecdote.
A curious underemphasis was the lack of discussion about Necropotence. It wasn’t really discussed, but it’s something a control player should be wary of midgame, if he blunts the first wave. It’s easier to forget about Necro than it is to get fooled when the Mask player pays three mana for a Dreadnought.
The sheer size of Dreadnought allows it to out-muscle a number of other creature-based decks, but a control player would rather scramble to deal with Dreadnought #2 than Necro. Control decks have no reliable way of dealing with it since they don’t attack the life total, see counters discarded, and can’t simply destroy it since the Mask player will still get to draw. And there’s no point in adapting for Necro, because it’s restricted now.
The article mentioned it was one of the most important cards, but I’d emphasize you go for it against control if you know you can search for and force it – forget Mask if you can Necro. Playing with Chris, he’s turned tutors into game-enders during topdeck wars, and I had one game where he was about to lose but won when he fetched Necro with Demonic Consultation.
Besides, I think good Mask players have developed this annoying habit of snickering at Swords to Plowshares thanks to the skull… Having to use Swords truly makes you feel like you’re playing against Trix (a deck whose combo was allegedly Illusions of Grandeur + Donate, but was really Dark Ritual + Necropotence)..
Mask is a very interesting deck to play against, and I was happy to see an article on it – though I was hoping Chris might write up his own thoughts someday. I just presented my notes since I felt there were a few gaps in the discussion of Chris’s trademark deck (not to mention his name was misspelled). I really think that deckbuilding articles should strive to present a unifying thought for decks’ strategies instead of just scattered notes; that’s what distinguished, say, Eric“Danger” Taylor from vanilla”Deck Deconstruction” articles back in Dojo days.
Also, I was wary of how the article implied that Mask is underplayed or unknown. You have to realize that Illusionary Mask isn’t normally found in people’s trade binders, of course… But people should be familiar with at least the decklist. Chris bugs Level IV judge Rune Horvik about it regularly, and I’ve mentioned it so many times in my articles. Anyone who browses online forums or lurks in IRC channels should have seen a list, and all the good ones don’t differ from Chris’s by much.
Anyway, don’t ever assume your deck will win simply because it’ll confuse your opponent.
To end, I’ll leave you with Chris’s original deck. The deck in the article is essentially identical except it substitutes Seal of Cleansing for Recoil. Anyway, I’ll be kayaking at the lake now…
Chris Flaaten, Tainted Mask, November 2002
Threat base (13)
4 Illusionary Mask
4 Phyrexian Dreadnought
3 Phyrexian Negator
2 Hypnotic Specter
1 Hymn to Tourach
1 Mind Twist
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Demonic Consultation
1 Vampiric Tutor
4 Tainted Pact
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
4 Dark Ritual
3 Mishra’s Factory
3 Underground Sea
1 Underground River
3 Snow-Covered Swamp
2 Bloodstained Mire
2 Polluted Delta
1 Lord of Tresserhorn
2 Diabolic Edict
2 Cursed Totem
1 Zuran Orb
1 Phyrexian Negator
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University of the Philippines, College of Law
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Author of the Control Player’s Bible
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