“So wait â€” what you’re telling me is that this time your deck really does beat Caw-Blade?”
When it comes to my deck choices for tournaments, I tend to swing for the fences. It’s rare that I’ll go into a tournament with a stock deck list,
because I’m always looking to brew up something new that attacks the rest of the field in a way it isn’t ready for. There’s huge value to be found in
playing something your opponents aren’t suspecting, and even bigger rewards if you manage to find something truly outstanding that others have
The problem with being a consummate brewer is that you’re often pretty much on your own. For every Standard tournament since Paris, I’ve tried to find
something new to break Caw-Blade’s stranglehold on the metagame… And each time everyone else I’ve tested with decided to play Public Enemy #1 rather
than try to beat it.
I certainly don’t fault anyone for their decision to play the consensus best deck in the format. In fact, it’s something a lot of people should
probably do more often. Many people have some kind of irrational aversion to playing the best deck (or “net decks”), and their refusal to do so can
severely harm their performance. I’ve played many a “best deck” in my day when I couldn’t find anything better, like Affinity in Mirrodin Block or
Mono-Black in Odyssey Block.
The key phase there is, “when I couldn’t find anything better.” I enjoy the challenge of brewing in Magic more than any other element of the game.
Identifying systems of problems and finding the solution that best addresses all of them — that’s my idea of a good time.
For others? Not so much. They prefer to test and tune within the known quantities of that system to find ways to gain small advantages on the
opposition. While I can appreciate the quest for marginal value, honing a blade to a slightly sharper edge doesn’t interest me nearly so much as
forging a new weapon entirely. I don’t want to play paper, rock, or scissors, or even scissors +1 — I’m on a quest for dynamite.
That kind of quest works out well in environments where others are willing to devote time to test out a lot of different ideas, but is much harder to
pull off without support. Caw-Blade in Paris, our Zoo deck in Austin, our Doran deck in Amsterdam, and the Next-Level Bant deck from Sendai — these
were all the result of looking for dynamite while others were busy sharpening their scissors.
It’s no coincidence that most of these decks were from Pro Tours — events for which people are willing to put in a lot more time and effort than for a
Some of my other quests have gone…less well. The infect deck I championed in the first half of this year beat the aggressive decks in the format
exceptionally well â€” then suffered tremendously when the aggro decks in the metagame shriveled up and died, and I didn’t adjust the deck in time for
the Grand Prix. The Vedalken Certarch deck I brewed up for Grand Prix Singapore was powerful against Caw-Blade decks from the weeks before the
tournament â€” but wasn’t ready for the universal adoption of Dismember, which made the deck’s reliance on weak but synergistic utility creatures a major
The quote at the start of this article came from Ben Stark, who had jumped on board with the Vedalken Certarch deck at the last minute in Singapore,
only to be disappointed that it didn’t perform as advertised in the tournament itself. I stayed with him at Grand Prix Pittsburgh as well, and when he
asked me what I was playing, I told him I was playing my Blade Breaker deck. He hadn’t gone to Nationals or the TCG Player championship event, so he
hadn’t seen it in action, and was understandably skeptical of my claims about the deck’s matchups after his experience in Singapore.
But the Certarch deck in Singapore had been a product of mostly theory and only a bit of testing, much of it against outdated lists. If I’d had the
opportunity to play it in real events and get a better feel for it, or had more interested parties who were willing to put it through the ringer on
their own, I would have likely been able to either identify how to improve the deck sufficiently or realized I should scrap it.
Blade Breaker had those opportunities that the Certarch deck did not. Nationals was the deck’s trial by fire â€” and while my overall record was poor
(4-4 in the Standard portion), it showed that the deck had the pedigree to compete with established strategies. It just needed some tuning.
The biggest advantage of playing an established deck in today’s era of StarCityGames.com Opens every weekend and Magic Online decklists hitting the
internet every few hours is just that — tuning. When the entire Magic playing community is working to perfect Caw-Blade, or Jund, or Faeries, or
whatever — you’re going to be sure that you can find a well-tuned list. But when you brew up your own deck, it takes a lot more effort to figure out
the best tools for the job.
My Nationals list was weak to aggressive decks — I got destroyed by Mono-Red because I underprepared for it, and over-sideboarded for matchups that
were already favorable. My TCGPlayer list was a bit better, since I’d at least identified the weakness to aggro and improved upon it with my
sideboarding, but I hadn’t really had time to do much real testing, since the event was the weekend after Nationals.
The TCGPlayer event, at least, gave me nine rounds of “playtesting” in a tournament environment, which gave me a better sense of how the deck
functioned against a pretty wide field. I saw which cards overperformed, which cards underperformed, and the ways in which the metagame was shifting
since I first built the deck:
With that in mind, here’s the list I played at Grand Prix Pittsburgh:
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 3 Goblin Ruinblaster
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Cunning Sparkmage
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 3 Thrun, the Last Troll
- 4 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 4 Skinshifter
The biggest differences from the version I played at the TCGPlayer Championship and Grand Prix Pittsburgh are in my removal suite. When I first built
the deck, I was trying to hedge my bets against a field of Caw-Blade, Tempered Steel, Valakut, and U/R Twin, and I didn’t really know how everything
would play out. That led me to play two Dismembers and two Arc Trails main, which worked well enough that it didn’t really stand out to me as a
The more I played the deck, though, the more awkward those choices seemed. In the wake of German Nationals, where Mono-Red put up a dominant
performance, and Pat Cox and Tim Landale finishes with Valakut decks sans Overgrown Battlement, I started to question whether I really wanted
Dismember in my deck. Sure, it was nice to have a potential answer to Exarch Twin, but the cost against a lot of other decks in the format was very
real. Additionally, a number of Caw-Blade players, including my test group, were moving toward lists with Mirran Crusader, which made Dismember
something of a liability and made me want more red removal.
So I went back to the old favorite — Lightning Bolt. When I first built Blade Breaker, I’d dismissed Lightning Bolt in large part due to the popularity
of Spellskite â€” a.k.a. “Bolt’s Bane.” Spellskite has since decreased dramatically in popularity, both due to the decline of Tempered Steel and its
fallout of favor in Caw-Blade, which makes Bolt a much more reasonable option.
The shift to using Lightning Bolt may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge boost to the deck’s capabilities in a lot of different situations. Not
only does it give the deck access to one-mana instant removal (with no life cost!) against opposing beatdown decks, but the ability to deal direct
damage significantly changes certain matchup dynamics. An opposing Gideon Jura at low loyalty no longer represents a guaranteed Fog for a turn.
Stabilizing at a low life total, even with a Titan or Consecrated Sphinx to protect you, no longer offers a virtually guaranteed victory. Blade Breaker
can do a lot of damage very fast — sometimes, just a Lightning Bolt or two is all you need to finish off an opponent after a fast start.
It’s also worth mentioning that you used to need both Dismembers (or a Dismember and an Arc Trail) to kill a six-toughness creature like a Titan or
Sphinx, but now you can use two of the four Bolts — in your upkeep, even, in the case of a Sphinx. It’s a small detail, but a very meaningful one that
can be the difference between victory and defeat.
The other maindeck is the departure of the Manic Vandals. The Vandals were another response to the popularity of Spellskite and a nod to Tempered
Steel, Swords, and, later, Birthing Pod. I had something of an epiphany then night before the Grand Prix, though, and realized that Cunning Sparkmage
was better against pretty much every deck that I wanted Manic Vandal against anyway. Against Caw-Blade, it picks off Hawks and Emeria’s bird buddies,
not to mention anything copied by Phantasmal Image. Against Pod, it kills precious mana creatures. Against Tempered Steel, it kills…well, everything.
In the one match I played against Tempered Steel in the tournament, I played Cunning Sparkmage in two of the games and won both very easily. The second
game, my Sparkmage came down turn 2 and literally stranded every non-Glint Hawk Idol creature in his hand — once I answered his Tempered Steel, the
game was all but over. I wondered why I ever had Manic Vandal in my deck for the matchup at all.
The Grand Prix also led me to wonder why I previously thought U/R Twin was a bad matchup. I played against Twin four times in the GP, and I won all
four times, even without a single maindeck way to kill a Deceiver Exarch. The combination of fast aggression and a variety of answers after
sideboarding makes it very difficult for them to play against you. Splinter Twin is a very powerful combo deck, but it takes time to sculpt the sort of
hand it needs to fight through disruption, and Skinshifter and friends aren’t the patient type. I was able to put my opponents in tough spots all
weekend by attacking their life total and forcing them to go for it before they were ready, and always seemed to have one of my answers when they did.
The matchup that’s probably worse than I thought it was before is U/B Control. Against U/B, you really need land destruction plus Thrun the Last Troll,
because even Thrun gets trumped by Grave Titan. Those of you who watched my match against Lukas Blohan on GGSLive.com saw me basically get
manhandled, since I had none of these things, and Lukas even had Solemn Simulacrum both games.
Solemn is a serious problem, since it can trade with a lot of your creatures while building your opponent up to Grave Titan â€” which is mostly
unbeatable, barring a Sworded Bird or Skinshifter. If U/B Control is popular in your area, I’d suggest trying out a few Sword of Feast and Famine in
your sideboard — it helps protect your non-Thrun creatures from removal, and can get the Troll (or anyone else!) through a Grave Titan defense.
My loss to Lukas was one of three on the weekend, a record that was good for twelfth place. I lost to a RUG Pod deck and a Mono-Red deck, and beat four
U/R Twin decks, three Caw-Blade decks (including LSV in the final round), a Tempered Steel deck, a Vampires deck, and Craig Wescoe White Weenie deck.
All told, not a bad weekend. If the Grand Prix Pittsburgh Top 8 and my results against those decks are any indication, I think Blade Breaker is a good
choice moving forward — if I were playing and not commentating at StarCityGames.com Open Atlanta, it’s certainly what I would play!
But between now and then there’s still the minor issue of a Pro Tour in an entirely new format â€” which I’ll be back next week to talk about, hopefully
with a tale of victory…
Until next time,