Black Magic – Extended Musings: Faeries and Astral Slide

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Friday, March 27th – As you’re probably aware, Sam Black made Top 8 of the recent Grand Prix: Singapore. He piloted the popular Faeries deck drummed up by Martin Juza, Manuel Bucher, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and Zac Hill. Of course, his secondary choice was the emergent Astral Slide deck. Today, he takes a look at both decks, as he believes that either strategy could lead a player to PTQ success.

By now, most of you probably know that I finished 7th at Grand Prix: Singapore, and that I didn’t play Slide to do it. What happened is that Martin Juza, Manuel Bucher, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and Zac Hill stayed at the same hostel we did, and I spent a reasonable amount of time playing with them and talking about the format. Basically, Manuel crushed my Slide deck with his Faerie deck until I gave up on it and decided to take advantage of all the excellent Blue players I was staying with, to make sure I knew how to play that deck as well as possible.

I still think the Slide deck is for real, and I would guess that there is a sideboard configuration that would make the match closer, but it seemed better for everyone involved in this situation for me to spend time working on Blue instead of trying to make people test against a deck no one else was expected to play. As for the deck, I said I’d come back to it, and I intend to do so even though I didn’t end up competing with it. The first change I made to the list I posted last week was adding Chrome Mox. Getting a Loam engine going faster or getting Knight of the Reliquary or Kitchen Finks going on turn 2 is great. I wanted to use Chrome Mox rather than Noble Hierarch to do that because there’s a very high chance that one of my first two lands will come into play tapped, so that I can’t play a 3 mana spell on turn 2 if I have a Bird, but I could with a Mox. Miren, the Moaning Well had been underperforming (it’s very mana intensive, and the games the deck loses aren’t really the games Miren would win), so it was cut to make room for Moxen.

You really don’t want too many Moxen though, and acceleration was playing very well, so I added Noble Hierarchs too. At the moment, I’m not entirely sure what the proper mix of accelerators is, but the format seems pretty friendly to Noble Hierarchs at the moment, and given how much this deck can use extra mana, I definitely think it wants some.

As for the sideboard, Jotun Grunt is one of the cards I’m most excited about. It allows you to fight other graveyard decks while furthering your own beatdown game plan. Also, it gives you an awesome early blocker against Zoo that, by keeping Tarmogoyf small, should always be bigger than all their creatures (or at least big enough to trade with a Woolly Thoctar, which you’ll be happy to do). Moreover, as it stays around it can usefully power up your deck, reloading cards like Path to Exile that your fetch lands shuffle back to a spot where you may be able to draw them.

It’s hard for me to resist Ancient Grudge in a deck with Life from the Loam, but your Affinity matchup is already good enough that it’s hard to justify devoting more than two slots to it, which is about the number you’d want against Blue.

The rest of the sideboard has to be dedicated to your rougher matchups, notably combo and Blue. I like the plan against Storm of having a variety of hate cards such that you can put them in a position where Echoing Truth won’t be enough. Similarly, I think I also want to split the cards I use against Blue decks because most of them aren’t good in multiples, and subtle differences in Blue decks make some sideboard cards, like Choke, bad against some variants, while being the best possible card against others. The result is a potentially ugly-looking sideboard that’s full of one-ofs, but remember, they’re really just diversified larger numbers.

The deck as a whole would look something like:

I’d like to see the deck do well, but I can’t fully endorse it in the current metagame if I was unwilling to play it myself, so on to what actually happened in Singapore:

As I mentioned, what convinced me to play Blue was getting crushed by Manuel Bucher. He x-0’d me before and after board. He also seemed to be dominating everything else we threw at him, including, from what I heard, the mirror. I’m very serious about learning to get better at Magic, and when confronted with such mastery, I had to try to get everything I could out of Manuel as far as advice. What I got out of him basically boiled down to, “play around everything.”

At first, this sounded kind of irrelevant or unrealistic, but it really was how he played the game. He would opt not to suspend Ancestral Visions on the draw on turn 1 if he had a Spell Snare, he might even wait another turn in some matchups if he had a Mana Leak as well. I watched him play games where he’d have about 10 lands out, count his mana, and determine that he didn’t have enough mana to play and equip Jitte, and he would just pass, then at the end of my turn, he’d do nothing.

Faeries in Standard often plays as a tempo deck. This is not Standard Faeries. Without Bitterblossom putting you on a clock, and with inevitability through card advantage generated through Riptide Laboratory and six pure card draw spells, you can afford to take your time. Jitte is in the deck to seal late games; it’s almost never used aggressively, which is why Manuel wasn’t a huge fan of the third Jitte. We just played it because he didn’t like anything else either, and at least it gets discarded to Thirst for Knowledge.

Playing around everything would go so far as to take an extra six damage in combat against Naya to leave Mana Leak up during their turn when Engineered Explosives could be activated in combat to save the life, but if you just take the damage, they probably pass rather than running into a counter, you clear the board at end of turn, and you actually get to untap into a clear board, which the kind of position from which you can lock up a game.

With this deck I learned to be extremely disciplined about doing anything. Think about what they could do to punish you, and never let it happen if it can be avoided in any way. It feels a bit awkward to write that when I threw my match in the second to last round of the GP against TEPS by arbitrarily attacking with a Mutavault on turn 3, but that was basically because I didn’t respect his deck enough and thought it was too early for him to win through a Spell Snare. In other words, it was just terrible, and only really served to reinforce the “don’t do anything” lesson. A side note on playing against TEPS: it somehow didn’t occur to me until very recently that the reason Vendilion Clique is so good against them is that you play it in response to the ritual that gives them their 6th mana and take Mind’s Desire after they’ve spent their hand, which more or less straight up wins the game. I’d been running it our earlier because I hadn’t played the matchup much (or just because I’m terrible). It may be obvious to many of you, but if I didn’t think of it, I’m guessing someone else didn’t either.

I still haven’t posted the decklist I’m talking about, and since I want to talk about some specific card choices, I’ll include it here for easy reference:

About the unusual/flexible card choices: Given that the goal of the deck is to play around everything and keep as much mana open on your opponent’s turn as possible, we need to maximize our ability to develop our game during the opponent’s end step. Thirst for Knowledge is included over a more reactive card like Cryptic Command because it lets you aggressively develop when your opponent doesn’t force you to use your mana. The inclusion of Thirst for Knowledge requires additional artifacts, and this provides an incentive to run cards like Vedalken Shackles and Chrome Mox. This strategy is also the reason not to play cards that make you use too much mana on your turn, like Glen Elendra Archmage and Trinket Mage. Sower of Temptation and Vedalken Shackles are necessary exceptions based on their power level and current roles in the metagame. Two of my three losses at GP: Hanover were directly related to not being able to steal enough big creatures. With this build, I felt much safer against decks like Bant.

The end game you’re playing for is based on abusing Riptide Laboratory with come into play effects, and it’s one of the most powerful and unfair things this deck is capable of. Because of that, and again, a desire to further our game plan, we’ve essentially maximized our Vendilion Clique and Venser, Shaper Savant counts. Tezzeret is supposed to be a bad matchup, but without Pithing Needle, they have a huge problem dealing with this game plan, and I was able to decisively win a match at the end of Day 1 by abusing these creatures. Venser is also just generally amazing right now. He’s the best way to stabilize and make up for the early turns where they were able to sneak spells through, and he frequently gets you out of otherwise unwinnable situations involving resolved cards like Ensnaring Bridge, Vedalken Shackles, or Sulfuric Vortex. I loved having three copies of this card.

I hate Chrome Mox. It’s necessary because it lets you keep up with the fast decks that represent your worst matchups, but I’m almost never happy to see it. That said, if I played the deck again, I’d still play two, because cutting them would feel like giving up on the now more important than ever Naya matchup.

The 1 Stifle, 2 Trinkbind setup in the sideboard is based on a desire to have more options in sideboarding. I want 3 cards to stop a storm trigger from TEPS, but I’d like to bring in Stifle against some Zoo decks to counter fetchlands or Duergar Hedge-Mage or Oblivion Ring triggers, and I want Trickbind in the mirror to shut off their Ancestral Vision without fear that they’ll win a counter war over it. In these cases, I don’t bring in the worse card.

The 3 Relics of Progenitus in the board are a question that Manuel raised. He said he never needed them, and I never brought all three in either, but Loam can be a bad matchup if their deck is built for it, and I think Relic is actually a fairly important card against Tezzeret, which sometimes leans heavily on Academy Ruins. While these decks aren’t overly common, I think I’d feel safer being prepared for them and I wouldn’t cut Relic.

Umezawa’s Jitte as a three of I think is a holdover from people saying it’s good when they play for it. They tap out on turn 4 to play and equip a Jitte and hope nothing goes wrong. Most of the time, that works. I wouldn’t plan to play the deck that way most of the time myself at this point, so I think I’d probably cut the 3rd Jitte. I would most likely replace it with 1 Stifle, and I might play something different in that sideboard slot (possibly try Manuel’s Curse of Chains suggestion).

Tarmogoyf isn’t in the deck based on the conclusion that the damage from the lands required to play the card isn’t worth it. Gaudenis feels strongly that it is, but after playing with this deck, I feel like Tarmogoyf is a crutch that lets you deal with problems that you face by not playing the early turns defensively enough, and that it’s probably better to just stick to mono blue. I think I feel similarly about Chapin’s Disrupting Shoal. They let you tap out, but you don’t need to be able to do that, and it often isn’t worth pitching a card for the luxury. Cutting Mana Leak seems terrible and I’m not sure how else one could make room for the card.

Disrupting Shoal is more interesting to me in a deck that looks similar but has a notably different game plan, specifically a Blue deck that wants to tap out early to play cards like 4 Tarmogoyf and 3 Vedalken Shackles, or maybe 2 Vedalken Shackles and 2 Trinket Mages. Again, I don’t think this is a better direction to take the deck. To make room for those kinds of cards you have to reduce the Riptide Laboratory engine, and I’d prefer to maximize that game plan at this point.

On a personal level, this trip was fantastic for me. I feel like I learned a lot and got markedly better at Magic, which is hugely encouraging. I feel like my rate of increase in skill has been rising in the last few months, and I’m extremely optimistic about where I can go from here. I feel like I’ve moved from trying to play my game to trying to anticipate my opponent’s game. This week was about preparing for the worst and trying never to get blown out, in the future, I plan to work on playing to anticipate their actual rather than merely their ideal game plan. To learn to successfully read what they’re doing and thinking, and to get better at putting them on cards in their hand. I think this is one of the areas where I need the most improvement.

I also learned that I can Top 8 a GP (this was my first), and that traveling to foreign GPs is on the more rewarding side of how I’d imagined it. This encouraged me to take a closer look at the GP schedule this year, and I’m now considering hitting every GP except Kobe and Kitakyushu.

For the moment, I’m excited that there isn’t a Constructed format I desperately need to prepare for, because I’m pretty dissatisfied with my Limited game, as I’ve been completely neglecting it for the last 3-4 months. I intend to work until Alara Reborn’s release to rectify that as quickly as possible.

Until next week!