Continuing my series on the start-to-finish process of deckbuilding I’m going to start tuning the list I ended up with last week by slamming it headlong into the worst of the matchups I encountered when doing my rapid prototyping: Red Deck Wins. Before I added Primal Command that matchup was essentially an auto-loss and I’m interested to see if the Command has changed that. Moreover I want to get a feel for how much I will have to warp the deck to fix this terrible matchup and if I can learn anything about the deck’s vulnerabilities in general (such as the too-high mana curve problem that came out last week) by testing against the deck that best exploits them.
Without further ado let’s get to the games!
Maindeck Game 1
I am on the play.
Opponent mulls then keeps.
I open with Forest go.
Opponent plays Keldon Megaliths and Suspends Gargadon rather than walking into countermagic. I get attacked to 19.
Draw Into the North. Play another Forest and pass.
Opponent draws plays Blood Knight and passes.
Opponent draws plays Mountain and Shard Volley on Tarmogoyf (making it a 4/5 with three damage on it) then finishes it off with Magus of the Scroll revealing Mountain as the only card in hand. Blood Knight attacks.
Draw Pyroclasm. The choice here is between playing Spectral Force and passing or playing Pyroclasm and Tarmogoyf and cashing in Horizon Canopy. Go with the latter option. Cycle Canopy into Mountain. Play Pyroclasm and Goyf.
Draw Spectral Force and beat with Goyf. Opponent takes four. Play Spectral Force. Get shot by Megaliths and end of turn.
Opponent draws and plays Mountain then shoots me with Megaliths activates Mutavault and sacrifices all but Mutavault and Megaliths to bring in the Gargadon swinging with the team. I trade Spectral Force for Gargadon and take four from Blood Knight and Megaliths.
Draw Shivan Reef. Play Pyroclasm to remove Blood Knight beat with Goyf for four and play Spectral Force.
Opponent draws nothing to save himself from the Force and concedes.
Maindeck Game 2
I’m on the draw this time.
Opponent mulligans once then opens with Mountain and Magus again.
I draw Shivan Reef and play Forest.
Opponent draws plays Mutavault beats with Magus then passes.
I draw Tolaria West play Shivan Reef and pass. I could Into the North here setting up Goyf plus counter next turn but if he resolves Countryside Crusher next turn I will have no answers. Instead I will just pass. Opponent Incinerates me on end step.
Opponent draws then beats with Magus (down to 15) then plays Mogg Fanatic. I reason that the Fanatic will translate into about 4 damage given my hand so it seems worthwhile to Remove Soul it.
Opponent draws beats with Magus plays another Magus.
Draw Plains. Tolaria West is definitely getting transmuted this turn but for what? The best options seem to be Ancestral and Pact of Negation; I’ll go with Ancestral even though I can’t Suspend it this turn because doing so would leave me without Rune Snag mana. However as Transmuting for Ancestral and then failing to suspend it even when I had the mana to do so would telegraph a counter like none other (and remember I’m trying to catch a Crusher with my Rune Snag) I’ll just play Into the North for Forest growing my Goyf to 3/4 and pass. This way if I topdeck something next turn that would leave me wishing I could transmute for something else that option is still open.
Opponent’s Rift Bolt de-suspends targeting Goyf which resolves. Opponent draws a card and then aims a Shock at the Goyf to finish it off. I debate the merits of Rune Snagging the Shock; a two-for-one is strong here and since he can’t resolve Crusher due to a lack of mana (even if he topdecks the Mountain he needs) I can Transmute Tolaria West for Pact of Negation and maintain my strong board presence. A two-for-one isn’t quite as good as a three-for-one but a two-for-one that lets me keep my Goyf and therefore a high life total seems better than a three-for-one four turns down the road while the dorks have been beating on me. Rune Snag the Shock.
Draw Spectral Force. Ding!
Beat with Tarmogoyf (opponent takes it dropping to 17) then play Force and Highland Weald.
Opponent draws then plays Magus of the Scroll.
Great so this time he was totally manascrewed while I was flooded; obviously this worked out in my favor once I topdecked the Force. Glad to learn so much about the matchup!
Maindeck Game 3
Opponent keeps as well.
I lead with Yavimaya Coast and Ancestral. As I’m going to suspend one of my two one-costers on turn 1 and the other on turn 2 and as I currently have no relevant plays with four mana I am in no hurry to let the Search resolve; as such I can afford to play the Ancestral first.
Opponent draws then plays Mountain and Mogg Fanatic.
Draw another Search for Tomorrow. Play the other Yav Coast and suspend both Searches dropping to 17 from the pain.
Opponent draws then plays Mountain and Blood Knight. A Mogg Fanatic attack drops me to 16.
Draw Plains and play it then pass.
Search up a Forest and an Island; Ancestral has one counter left. Draw Rune Snag. If I leave mana up I could counter a Crusher if he plays one but if I don’t play Spectral Force here I’ll be dropping to six from his attack. Play Shivan Reef and Spectral Force.
Opponent Bolts me draws a card plays Countryside Crusher and suspends another Bolt.
Ancestral goes off and I draw Pyroclasm Shivan Reef Tolaria West and Rune Snag on the draw step. I was really hoping for a Primal Command or another Force with which to race it but I’ll work with what I’ve got. Pyroclasm away the dudes (Mogg Fanatic drops me to 7) and pass.
Opponent reveals Shock off Crusher Rift Bolt takes me to four and I Rune Snag both of the Maguses he plays. I am now down to 3.
Draw Ancestral Vision. I am dead if my opponent chooses to attack me with his Countryside Crusher and Mutavault and then Shocks me. However if I have a counter for the Shock or a bounce spell he will be down to just Mutavault facing down my Spectral Force.
The opponent swings with the team and I die.
Interestingly in a tournament match my opponent might have held off for a turn for fear of a bounce spell. Had he done so it turned out he would have Crushered into Blood Knight which would have given me another turn with which to topdeck…
… Primal Command. I’m pretty sure I could have closed the deal from there. Alternately had I taken two fewer points of damage from my lands this game the alpha strike into Shock option would not have been open and I would have been able to get to the Primal Command no matter what. Close game.
Maindeck Game 4
The opponent keeps and leads with Mountain and Magus of the Scroll.
I draw Horizon Canopy and play Highland Weald and pass.
Opponent draws then plays Mountain and Keldon Marauders. Frown. I take one from the Magus.
Draw Shivan Reef and play it. No real sense in casting Into the North now and Rune Snag helps hold off Crusher.
Opponent draws then plays Mutavault and attacks me to 14 with the Magus and the Marauders. I Rune Snag a Blood Knight.
Draw Forest play it and cast Into the North for another Forest then pass. At this point I need to cast Into the North more than I need to bluff countermagic as topdecking Spectral Force or Primal Command is one of my only chances of clawing my way out of this epic flood.
Opponent draws attacks me to 9 with the Magus and Mutavault then plays Keldon Marauders.
Draw Forest. Next turn’s attack will take me to operating at one life so I really damn well need to find a business spell. Play Horizon Canopy and cycle it hoping for a Goyf. Draw Forest. Pass.
Opponent draws beats with the team takes me to two life.
Draw Yavimaya Coast. Concede.
So that would be a Rune Snag and a Cloudthresher for business spells that game followed by nine lands and an Into the North.
Backing up to the six-card hand I kept - three lands Into the North Rune Snag and Cloudthresher - should I have mulliganed? Obviously I did not know I would go on to draw exclusively lands from that point but should I have sent back a hand with four mana sources and two business spells for five cards?
Honestly I don’t think I could expect to do better than that on five cards. The best argument I could see for going to five is that one of the two business spells would not come online until turn 5 against non-Faerie non-Reveillark decks (remember this is game one so I can’t always be sure what I’m up against when I make my mulligan decision) which would be a liability against the faster decks. Obviously this is one of the faster decks and it didn’t pan out for me but I think the keep was justified at the time.
By now you hopefully have a feel for how the decks interact with one another so I’ll just do some quick summaries from here on out to save time.
I win the fifth game of the set at one life tapping three Yav Coasts to summon a mid-combat Cloudthresher that drops me to two and paying for the Pact of Negation on an otherwise-lethal burn spell next turn with a Yav Coast and Tolaria West. (Naturally my Goyf and Thresher then come across for the win.)
Game 6 I draw Primal Command and Pyroclasm and it is a huge blowout in my favor.
Game 7 my opponent has a gassy draw and even after a Goyf a two-for-one Pyroclasm and a Pact of Negation I am banking on an Ancestral to save me from his two Blood Knights and Keldon Marauders. Unfortunately it is a total dud: three lands and a Search for Tomorrow. I lose in a big way.
Game 8 I mulligan a zero-lander into a one-lander into a zero-lander into a zero-lander. Somehow my three cards do not get the job done.
Game 9 was going well - I had two Spectral Forces! - until he played two consecutive Countryside Crushers with Greater Gargadon suspended and four lands out. Suddenly my 8/8s were too small and I got er Crushered.
The final game seemed to be going fine except that I went through 25 cards and could not find a Pyroclasm or a Primal Command to save my life. (Literally to save my life - Magus got me while Spectral Force held off his attackers.)
That seems about right. This feels like an even matchup in game one and 4-6 in a ten game set isn’t so far off from even that I can’t attribute it to regular statistical variation.
Now that I have a feel for the maindeck matchup I can figure out a preliminary sideboarding strategy. I want to bring in at least six cards - 4 Dragon’s Claw 2 Flashfreeze - and I definitely want to take out Cloudthresher.
The remaining questions are: one which four cards do I cut to make room for the Dragon’s Claws and two should I cut anything else to make room for Teferi’s Moat? At this early stage in particular it’s worth trying things out so I want to see how the Moat does. I have to remember that my opponent has Threaten so Spectral Force will be more of a liability than usual. As far as I’m concerned finishing with Tarmogoyf alone is perfectly acceptable so I can take out at least three Forces to make room for goodies. I think I need to leave one in as a tutorable (via Primal Command) response to a resolved Countryside Crusher which is otherwise likely insurmountable for a Tarmogoyf. So I still need to make one more cut plus perhaps another one or two to make room for a couple of Moats if I want to try those out.
However at this point in the boarding strategy it already seems like the Moats are incompatible with my overall strategy. Really the cut I want to make here is an Into the North because I have cut out three Spectral Forces and two Cloudthreshers and I simply don’t need the mana that quickly anymore. Furthermore my opponent will have Magus of the Moon like it’s nobody’s business. I don’t want to be seeking out Boreal Shelf just because it might enable Teferi’s Moat when doing so could cut me off from Blue entirely. No thanks.
Okay so here’s the plan.
-3 Spectral Force
-1 Into the North
+4 Dragon’s Claw
Post-board game 1
Opening hand is a one-lander. Ship! Second hand is also a one-lander but the one land is a Forest it has Search for Tomorrow and also Dragon’s Claw Remove Soul Rune Snag and Pyroclasm. I’ll be a bit late to start but I’ll have Dragon’s Claw and a hand full of two-drops to play starting on turn 3. I think this is better than five because of the powerful hoser so I’ll keep it.
Opponent keeps as well. I lead with Forest and Search.
Opponent draws then plays Mountain and Magus of the Scroll.
Draw Rune Snag. Miss the land drop as expected and pass.
Opponent draws hits with Magus then plays Keldon Marauders.
Search fires off retrieves and Island and I topdeck Remove Soul. Interesting question: do I play Dragon’s Claw here? On one hand if I do I will surely gain the most life from it. On the other hand if my opponent resolves a Countryside Crusher I lose. My hand is two Rune Snag two Remove Soul. I can defend against an awful lot from here and if I can find two more lands I will be set up to Claw my way back into the game. On the other hand who knows how long it will take me to draw two more lands?
I don’t like my chances if I just throw my hat into the ring and defy him to have any of his four Crushers in hand so I’ll go with the countermagic defense plan instead. Pass.
Opponent draws knocks me to 14 then plays Magus of the Scroll. I could Remove Soul it but he’s already got another one on the table and it’s probably bait for another Marauder or Blood Knight. I let it resolve; he then plays a Mountain and passes.
Draw Tarmogoyf and pass. I am Incinerated down to 11 on my end step.
Opponent draws and beats with the Magi to take me to 8.
Over the next few turns I topdeck Pact of Negation and Tarmogoyf and lose.
Again hindsight is 20/20…should I have gone to five? This time I think I should have. The mistake was overvaluing Dragon’s Claw when I couldn’t cast it until turn 3; having to tap out in the face of Countryside Crusher was basically a concession if he had it which invalidated the whole premise of the hand’s strength based on the hoser.
This will be useful information in the future as well as keeping two-land hands with Claw when I am on the draw runs a similar risk: if I go all-in on a turn 2 Claw and the opponent plays a turn 3 Crusher on the play what are my outs?
I hadn’t considered this much in my post-board strategy but a really big problem for me is that my traditional out against Crusher - namely fatter men like Spectral Force and Cloudthresher - have been boarded out because they are a huge liability in the face of Threaten. What matters in the matchup has shifted and my current board plan is not doing anything to address that.
In fact at this point it almost seems like removal for Countryside Crusher is the biggest priority. I could try to do that with Incinerate though that is trumped by Greater Gargadon and Shard Volley or I could do something drastic and splash Black instead of White - which would be totally doable incidentally - in order to gain access to Tolaria West-able Slaughter Pacts (good against Swans in case that becomes relevant later) and Primal Command-able Shriekmaws. However that route puts me back in the undesirable position of needing to fetch my minor splash color against Magus of the Moon…
Well I’ll keep it in mind. Even after only one game I’m already interested in changing some things up but I do want to get in at least one more game worth of feel for the post-board matchup and the other cards I’ve boarded in first.
Post-Board Game 2
I mulligan another one-lander into a zero-lander and keep at five with Forest Yavimaya Coast two Tolaria Wests and Search for Tomorrow. It’s something at least.
The opponent mulligans and leads with Mountain and Mogg Fanatic.
I draw Pyroclasm then play Forest and Search.
Opponent draws beats with Fanatic then suspends Rift Bolt.
I draw another Search Suspend it and play out a Tolaria West.
Opponent draws Bolts me and beats with Mogg Fanatic. I am down to 15. He then casts Browbeat. Interesting. He has three cards left in hand and the best spell he can muster when it is guaranteed to resolve is Browbeat? I suspect him of being low on gas; as I have no answer to Crusher but can Tolaria West for Pact of Negation to guard against topdecks I think it makes the most sense to just take five here. I drop to ten.
I Search out a Mountain and draw another Pyroclasm. This turn is easy; removing the Fanatic staves off damage and I can’t Pact next turn regardless so I’ll run that. Pyro the Fanatic (it shoots me down to 9 in response) play Yavimaya Coast pass.
The opponent draws and plays Keldon Marauders and I have no answer. Frown.
Search out an Island then draw Forest. Man I really wish I could turn Tolaria West into Slaughter Pact and save myself three life about now but instead I’ll have to settle for fetching Pact of Negation and passing.
Opponent draws knocks me to five with the Marauders then plays Magus of the Scroll.
Draw Highland Weald. Man… Pyro the Magus away play the Weald and pass.
Opponent draws and plays Mogg Fanatic. Embarrassingly I have to Pact of Negation it.
Pay for Pact draw Remove Soul. Sweet. Play Forest and pass with Remove Soul mana up.
Opponent draws and plays Magus of the Scroll and I Remove Soul it.
Draw Primal Command! I’m definitely gaining seven and tutoring up a creature…but what creature? Choosing Spectral Force would really screw me up if the opponent is holding Threaten - and he’s been holding two cards in hand this entire game; one of them’s almost certainly Threaten - so Goyf it is. (Plus I can cast Goyf this turn.) Gain seven then search up and play a 4/5 Tarmogoyf. Pass.
Opponent draws suspends Rift Bolt and Threatens my Goyf. No surprise there; I go down to 8.
Draw Remove Soul beat with Goyf.
Opponent draws Bolts me to five plays Mutavault and Threatens the Goyf again; I go down to one.
Draw Pyroclasm. I can’t very well attack with the Goyf with that Mutavault there so I’m going to pass.
Opponent draws and plays Magus of the Scroll. No problem.
Draw Yavimaya Coast Pyro the Magus.
Opponent draws and passes.
Draw Dragon’s Claw and play it. Not the best timing but I’ll take it.
Opponent draws and Incinerates me for the win. Frown.
That was an awfully protracted fight considering I started with an anemic set of five cards but it illustrated my long-game quandary: without much access to Spectral Force it is a lot harder for me to finish games in the face of so much burn. Bizarrely a good answer to this problem is Chameleon Colossus. He only hits me for four when Threatened but punches for eight or sixteen when on my team.
I also need to really address this problem of my huge vulnerability to Countryside Crusher. Okay so let’s say I try the Black splash. I can’t know if it will screw me against Magus unless I try it right? It might be an awesome idea for all I know.
A quick scan of available Black cards makes Dralnu pique my interest. Against Reveillark having a Dralnu in my deck means that resolving a midgame Primal Command should give me a nice stash of countermagic to work with not to mention at least one more Primal Command. However he seems pretty terrible in most maindeck circumstances so I’ll relegate him to the board until I get to the Reveillark matchup and see if he’s really worth making room in game 1.
Out with Boreal Shelf in with Frost Marsh. Out with Plains in with Swamp. Out with Horizon Canopy in with Llanowar Wastes. Actually While I’m retooling things I’m going to try experimenting with the manabase a bit.
I’ve noticed two things since starting this deck: one the Tolaria Wests have really not pulled their weight (and I don’t think Slaughter Pact alone will fix that) and two unless I plan on casting Cloudthreshers I am simply running too many mana sources in this deck. If I cut the Tolaria Wests and Pact of Negation I have no remaining cards with double-Blue meaning I can reasonably relegate Blue to a splash color. This would leave me with a base-Green deck that splashes Red Black and Blue for various tools which is much more stable from a mana perspective than what I’ve got now.
Plus this way I can play Mishra! (Kidding kidding. There’s no room for a freightload of artifacts in this list.) Seriously though Nicol Bolas is pretty sweet. (Kidding! He has double-colors in his mana cost so obviously that would never be a good idea.) Seriously seriously though Garga Zol Plague Queen… okay no - wait for reals how about Sol’kanar? This is getting uncomfortable. Let’s just move on.
Really though If I’m making a commitment to Black especially for the sake of removal spells a Shriekmaw seems a natural fit for the maindeck. I’m going to try scaling back the Cloudthreshers all the way to one and see what that does to my Faeries matchup as that will lower my curve to the point where I think I can cut an Into the North from the main like I successfully just did in the post-board Red matchup.
Now I have an interesting opportunity to try restructuring the deck again based on the new information I’ve gained. I’ve now got 23 lands 4 Search for Tomorrow 1 Into the North and the following business spells:
4 Spectral Force
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Remove Soul
4 Rune Snag
4 Primal Command
This leaves me with two open slots which gives me an idea. What if I cut an Into the North and a land and added 4 Ponder? According to the Alan Comer rule adding four cantrips and subtracting two lands should balance out and 4 Ponder could help smooth my draws immensely - especially in matchups where I really need to dig to Primal Command or Pyroclasm.
Finally I have an opportunity to redo the manabase. I’ve been dying to support my Tarmogoyfs with some Terramorphic Expanses and with Tolaria West out of the picture (PT master Marijn Lybaert emailed me after my first article on this deck to ask when I was finally going to ditch that clunker) I now have my chance.
As before my two critical turn 1 mana sources are Green and Blue; I really want to suspend those Searches and Ancestrals right on time whenever possible. Yavimaya Coast is an automatic inclusion because of this goal and a Forest an Island a Mountain and a Swamp are also natural because of the Expanse and the Searches leaving me with 10 remaining lands with which to make my colors work out. As I’ll doubtless be boarding Thoughtseize for the Reveillark matchup now first-turn Black is of increased importance so a set of Underground Rivers makes sense. That gives me nine first-turn Blue sources (Underground River Yav Coast Island) which is a bit skimpy but it will do if it must.
I still have only five first-turn Green sources and only six cards left with which to help that count. I need some extra basics in order to make sure Search and Expanse don’t run out of targets and adding four Forests leaves me with two remaining mana sources and nine apiece of first-turn Green and Blue sources. As Red has gotten no support yet in this cycle I’ll add a Shivan Reef and a Karplusan Forest to bring both the first-turn Blue and the first-turn Green counts up to ten and see where that takes me.
Next I need to re-tool the sideboard. This seems like a good starting point:
Now my post-board Red Deck Wins configuration looks like this:
+3 Dragon’s Claw
+2 Slaughter Pact
+1 Chameleon Colossus
-4 Spectral Force
-2 Remove Soul
I’m not thrilled about boarding out Remove Soul; it’s perfectly fine but I think all the other spells in the maindeck are better in this matchup. To me this indicates that I might want to consider leaving either Dragon’s Claw or Slaughter Pact out of the boarding plan but we’ll see.
I tried out this new configuration post-board against the Red deck and quickly went 4-1. Fitting Ponder into the deck was nuts; I successfully dug to at least one Primal Command in every game and the one I lost was due to two Countryside Crushers and a Gargadon (I was only able to Shriekmaw one of the Crushers and although two Goyfs successfully ganged up on the Gargadon the last 7/7 Crusher got me). It’s a shame I didn’t try to squeeze Ponder in earlier.
Based on the previous games I played and this short set the common denominator among most post-board games I lost was Countryside Crusher getting out of hand not burn spells - and being able to kill Crushers with Slaughter Pact and Shriekmaw was besides Ponder the big difference in these games. (Dragon’s Claw was nuts but the two games where I had it I would have achieved victory anyway.)
It seems my ideal post-board configuration will offer me the maximum number of outs to Crusher - which means the Remove Souls should stay. I’m going to try cutting the Dragon’s Claws entirely for a third and fourth Slaughter Pact leave out the Chameleon Colossus (he wasn’t actually any better than Goyfs once I had a way to remove Crushers from the Goyfs’ path) and leave it at that. I’ll tentatively put a second Chameleon Colossus in the last slot for the Elves matchup.
This means my Red Deck board plan is now incredibly simple and maximally anti-Crusher:
+4 Slaughter Pact
-4 Spectral Force
Finally I have to pick a name for this thing. As the core of what makes it tick has started to take shape there are two cards that really stand out as the cornerstones of the list: Spectral Force which lets me beat Bitterblossom and Planeswalkers and Ancestral Visions whose superiority over Harmonize is the poster boy for the power and efficiency this deck gains over a simple R/G Big Mana deck by including Blue.
I got quite a few deck name suggestions by email after I posed the question in the first article of this series and Paul J. Dyson’s (well one of his - he sent me quite a few!) simple yet elegant title of “Spectral Visions” captures this the best.
After a hard day’s testing the next iteration of the list:
4 Yavimaya Coast
4 Underground River
4 Terramorphic Expanse
5 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
1 Snow-Covered Island
1 Karplusan Forest 1 Shivan Reef
4 Spectral Force
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Remove Soul
4 Rune Snag
4 Primal Command
At this point in the process I’m honing in on the strongest elements of the deck and cutting the weaker ones to make room for new cards. Notice that in spite of the seemingly radical changes the core of the deck has remained the same since last week’s version while last week’s version looks incredibly far removed from its predecessor.
Besides the new Ponder configuration which will affect every matchup I haven’t made any major changes to my non-RDW matchups. The Tolaria Wests are gone but that’s because they weren’t impacting much and I don’t expect to miss them in any matchup. The singleton Shriekmaw won’t make much difference in some matchups but against Countryside Crusher from Red Deck Wins and R/G Big Mana Primal Commanding for it should be quite strong. The biggest changes are to the sideboard and I like this one a lot better than the one I had going last week.
Still as far as the deck has come there’s still a ways to go. Sometimes through the process of tuning an experimental deck I come across insurmountable barriers - I just can’t get a critical matchup to fly or there’s some card that just destroys me and I can’t do anything about it. Unfortunately there is often no way to predict such occurrences from the start but fortunately I haven’t come across anything like that (yet!) for this deck.
Since last week I’ve turned the nightmare Red deck matchup into something that is close to even in game 1 and eminently winnable post-board without so much as a single Dragon’s Claw. Even better in the process I’ve lowered the deck’s mana curve and have included cards and strategies that should actually improve the matchups I was examining before.
Next week I will want to revisit the Faeries and Reveillark matchups with more than just a couple of “feeler” games. Now that the driving forces of the deck have begun to reveal themselves I’ll have a much better idea of how to tune the deck when I approach those matchups.
We’ll see where it takes us.
See you next week!