Part 1: The Evolution of Faeries in Standard
Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of Constructed Criticism. Last week I talked about a few different Standard deck ideas revolving around the powerhouse cards Banefire and Volcanic Fallout from Conflux while giving honorable mention to Path to Exile. Today I’ve decided to take on the other side of the spectrum of Standard delving into my two favorite control archetypes: Faeries and Five-Color Control. "Why no Reveillark?" you may ask. There have been plenty of articles written recently about the new builds of Reveillark by Stuart Wright as well as the pilot who took his version to an awesome 9th Place showing at Worlds: Mr. David Irvine (a.k.a. Dirv). Those two articles can be found here and here. [And David Irvine also did pretty well with his deck at the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open a few days ago… Craig.]
Decks sporting Cryptic Command have been my forte since the printing of the notorious Bitterblossom. Last week I discussed just why Faeries was so brutal to deal with from any opposing stance whether it be control or aggro. However with the printing of a few uncounterable burn spells Faeries’ already bad matchup in Red Deck Wins has become somewhat of a joke. It is almost unwinnable. That said something desperately needs to change for Fae to have a shot at beating the new red menace.
In the past Faeries has undergone several mutations from its original form evolving with the changing of each format or additional set. But the largest recent change was the rotation of Rune Snag leaving Faeries without a solid two-mana counterspell. Now without Rune Snag Faeries had to find a good alternative. For reference here is my 2008 Alabama State Champs Winning Decklist for Faeries sporting a playset of Remove Soul shortly after the release of Shards of Alara:
Looking back at this list it did exactly what I wanted it to do. I figured that the best players at the event would be playing either Faeries or Five-Color Control (with honorable mention to my girlfriend who made Top 4 with my Kithkin list) and the powerful synergies in my deck could overwhelm most of the random under-prepared decks in the room. Sure enough that is exactly what happened. I didn’t play against a single Spectral Procession the entire tournament and Remove Soul was actually the best counter in the entire deck. It took down creatures ranging from Demigod of Revenge (obviously after the resolved trigger) Reveillark Chameleon Colossus Cloudthresher Broodmate Dragon etc etc etc. It was good. Really good. Like Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Ice Cream good. However the metagame adapted to the dominance of Faeries in short order making Remove Soul worse and worse. Eventually it was substituted with Broken Ambitions to help counter problematic cards such as Spectral Procession opposing Bitterblossoms Ajani Goldmane Cruel Ultimatum Wrath of God etc. The point here is that Faeries had to adhere to Darwinism: evolve or die. Eventually something has to change or you will continue to fail. Faeries did evolve putting five players into the Top 8 of Worlds with quality results in the Standard portion of the tournament including eventual winner Anti Malin.
Enter Conflux spoiler: Banefire and Volcanic Fallout. Originally I thought Banefire was going to cost XRR but it obviously does not. What a sick card! I also thought Volcanic Fallout would be a sorcery but it definitely is an instant. Really?! I immediately clicked the "Classified" tab on MTGO hoping to sell my Bitterblossoms at a still reasonably high price (23.50 tix each) before they became relatively low in value. While this may seem like an exaggeration I assure you I did exactly that. However it didn’t hurt that I still needed upwards of 150+ tix to complete my Extended version of the little pixies but I digress. The point is that I felt Faeries could not survive in a sea of Red. While this is mostly true I also think that this logic is one shared by most of the Magic community. But when an entire group thinks alike you can usually flank them and gain an advantage by simply thinking outside the box. If everyone thinks Red will be popular then hopefully they will play decks that beat Red as opposed to actually playing it. Fist pump anyone?
With this in mind we can evolve Faeries into a different machine altogether and attack the metagame from a different angle. Scion of Oona is no longer viable as you just get blown out by Volcanic Fallout. Unfortunately Sower of Temptation folds to this same problem. With 4+ open slots in our maindeck many positive changes can take place! Taking this into perspective we can safely deduce that Anti Malin’s Faerie list from Worlds is probably where we should start as he cut Scion of Oona from his list altogether. However for the tournament in which he played his deck I don’t think this was the right call. Scion of Oona was very important for the mirror match. But in the post Conflux metagame most Faerie lists will not play Scion of Oona so this is mostly irrelevant. This argument also makes Peppersmoke mostly unplayable as well. If no one is playing the mirror match then how good is Peppersmoke? On the same note how good is Peppersmoke in the mirror match when they aren’t playing Scion of Oona?
With the exclusion of Scion we are free to play more cards like Vendilion Clique and Thoughtseize to help deal with the prospect of battling Volcanic Fallout and Banefire. I think that Sower of Temptation should also stay in the sideboard as it is also victimized by Fallout but still very important in beating Spectral Procession decks. Here is my list for the new Fae:
While gaining virtually nothing from Conflux other than the potential "worse than Negate" Countersquall you still gain a wealth of knowledge from other formats. After playing her in Extended for some time now I can safely say that Glen Elendra Archmage is to quote Paul Cheon "The Blade." Against Five-Color Control she is an absolute house. She’s even strong against aggro acting as a double Fog or taking out 1-2 creatures in combat. She can also counter pesky problems such as a 4-point or less Banefire Flame Javelin Incinerate Wrath etc. She’s basically a double Negate attached to a 2/2 flying synergistic-with-the-rest-of-your-deck body with persist. Anti Malin found room for The Blade and you should too. Cutting Scion of Oona easily allowed for the inclusion.
The removal suite chosen for the maindeck is ratified by SCG’s own Paulo Vitor Damo de Longest Name Ever Rosa. He gives sound reasoning for playing a mixture of Terror and Agony Warp and playtesting has only glorified his statements. I have won multiple matches on the back of Terror where Agony Warp would not have killed the 4/4 Figure of Destiny. The same holds true the other way around where the three life saved by shrinking a second attacker from Agony Warp kept me in the game for an extra turn. Having a solid mix can make you less vulnerable to certain strategies while still giving you the same end result of removing threats. This strategy of "answer diversity" makes it very hard for your opponent to guess the cards in your deck or hand making their decisions harder against you. For example if your opponent sees you play a Terror in game 1 of the match he may make an attack that would be theoretically sound unless you are playing Agony Warp allowing for an easy two-for-one trade. Small instances like this one are the reason why people slap their forehead whenever they are paired up against Faeries.
I don’t feel it necessary to justify the entire counterspell package as each card included has been a staple in the deck since the rotation of Rune Snag last year. The two Remove Soul are there to compliment the Broken Ambitions helping with threats later in the game that Broken Ambitions would not counter. They also keep you from tapping out to deal with a cheap threat later in the game. It is also better than Terror in many situations such as battling against Cloudgoat Ranger Reveillark Siege-gang Commander or other annoying creatures with "comes into play" effects. Here is where the theory of answer diversity really shines as drawing Remove Soul over Terror could greatly affect the outcome of the game. Where normally you would be at a large disadvantage from a resolved Reveillark or Siege-Gang Commander now it is safely in the graveyard never having touched your opponent’s playmat.
Next we come to the singleton Loxodon Warhammer and the 2nd in the sideboard. While I do think this needed some sort of justification for inclusion I don’t think it would be particularly hard for any long-time Fae player to adopt. Many previous arguments for not playing it included the fact that Scion of Oona gave your creatures shroud meaning you could only equip it to said Scion of Oona while she was in play. This made attacking fairly awkward on occasion forcing you to choose between your life and your Scion. Now with the pixie lord turned from powerhouse into bulk-rare you can feel free to include at least one and possibly two copies of Loxodon Warhammer in your maindeck. This card in tandem with Bitterblossom and Glen Elendra Archmage can swing matches against Red in your favor. One connection with a faerie carrying the hammer and its lights out for the Red mage. Imagine for a moment if you will that you are a Red mage casting a five-point Banefire on your opponent’s dome sending them to a precarious 4 life. You’re holding another Banefire and a Flame Javelin looking to finish them off next turn! Even though they have a Mistbind Clique as well as a Bitterblossom in play they are running very low on life and time. However one Loxondon Warhammer equip and swing later and you’re looking at their healthy 10 life total staring you down courtesy of a 7/4 flying lifelink monstrosity. Compound this with the fact that even if you kill the Mistbind Clique you have to avoid them re-equipping the Hammer onto another dork. This will force you to cast your removal spell during their combat step giving them a huge opening to counter your removal spell and completely blow you out. On the other hand…you could try to race them gaining an effective 6 life per turn but I would probably just scoop’em up at this point.
Many a Faerie veteran can tell you that they could have won if they had only had 1 more life to work with. Having the shame of dying to my own Bitterblossom is not something I am proud to admit but has happened on more than one occasion. On many accounts this can be attributed to an unnecessary Underground River activation for colored mana. With the popularity of Red on the rise I can no longer see good reason for playing four of such a painful card even if it is a pseudo Underground Sea. If it weren’t for the tempo orientation of the deck I would suggest replacing all of the Underground Rivers with Arcane Sanctum but you just can’t afford a comes-into-play-tapped land. Having multiple Underground Rivers as your only source of Blue or Black in your opener is already game over versus any mage packing mountains and usually terrible against a tribal aggro deck like Kithkin. Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block Constructed proved to us that we did not necessarily need infinite dual lands for the deck to work properly.
Another question you might ask is "Why only three Thoughtseize?" This is primarily because I foresee an aggressive metagame at the beginning of the standard cycle with Conflux. Having access to three maindeck gives you a good chance to draw them early against everyone (where it shines) while not drawing too many in the late game. If the metagame shifts towards a Five-Color dominated environment I could easily see switching to four maindeck Thoughtseize to compliment the Vendilion Cliques and Archmages. However as of now I think that your matchup versus Five-Color is pretty absurd. I would feel bad if I lost even a single game to Five-Color with this list.
As far as I can tell it is going to be very difficult for Faeries to battle against a Red mage in the new Standard format. However with this evolving strategy you never know what is going to happen. How can Red Mages cope with getting denied the ability to actually cast Banefire when you are continually casting Mistbind Cliques? How can they cast Volcanic Fallout if you are stripping their hand with Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique? How can they recover from getting bashed to death with a pixie carrying a hammer (both physically and psychologically)?
Part 2: Evolve or Die - A Look at Five-Color Control
Now as far as I’m concerned there is only one other real contender for "best control deck" in Standard. This is of course the ever evolving highly-debated pro-loving blah blah blah Five-Color Control. A lot of the cards that are good against Faeries are not equally good against Five-Color Control. In fact some cards like Volcanic Fallout can be downright terrible. While Chapin and friends will try to tell you that they have a decent matchup versus Faeries I find this hard to believe. A competent Faeries player will not walk into counterspells. They will not let you Esper Charm their Bitterblossoms. They will not let you do anything they deem even remotely relevant. While this is somewhat of an exaggeration rarely have I played matches against Five-Color Control where I did not feel completely in control of the game. That being said your matchups versus the rest of the field looks pretty outstanding. It is not difficult to see why someone would choose Five-Color Control for a format where Faeries is thought to be "dead." One card that has been heatedly debated for some time is the one and only Cruel Ultimatum. While this card is a pretty savage beating I am going to barn Gerry Thompson and say it isn’t necessary for your overall strategy to win. I agree that the incredible advantage gained by casting a card like Cruel Ultimatum can be pretty devastating to a lot of strategies. But I do not think that the advantage gained warrants the awful strain on your manabase or your pre-tournament decisions on spell inclusion. For example if you are playing filter lands such as multiple Sunken Ruins and Cascade Bluffs to help support a late-game Cruel Ultimatum somewhere mid-game you are unable to play cards like Rhox War Monk or Volcanic Fallout because you ran out of Vivid Counters last weekend when you took your mom out to dinner. This will probably result in you hating life or just choosing a different deck. I’ve seen my opponent screwed by filter lands plenty of times but this can easily be fixed. Just stop playing Cruel Ultimatum!
With decks that play infinite tokens and token generators on top of disruption elements it is rare that Cruel Ultimatum will affect many games. Generally Cruel Ultimatum is good versus decks with little or no reach. Specifically I am talking about Kithkin as they tend to lose to a few well-timed sweeper effects and a Cruel Ultimatum. In these matches I can see trying to justify one or two. However Kithkin is not the most popular aggro deck in the format. It is being outclassed by such monsters as BW tokens and Boat Brew both of which give control decks headaches. When the BW token deck plays a turn 2 Bitterblossom and turn 3 Glorious Anthem it is extremely difficult to keep up. On top of this they are constantly playing cards like Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler to disrupt your game plan. Even if you do manage to resolve an Ultimatum on turn 7 you will probably still be dead on board since they have been gaining 1/1’s pumped by Anthem or Ajani Goldmane over the last 3-5 turns. They have to sacrifice a single creature? Darn. They had to discard the excess lands in their hand? *Pout.* While generally a resolved Cruel Ultimatum is impressive I don’t believe this is the metagame where it can shine.
There have been occasions where I’ve seen Vivids run out of counters before turn 5 leaving them as dead weight when trying to cast your Cruel Ultimatum (I’m looking at you Vivid Grove!). It is also the worst card in your deck against Faeries as it will rarely resolve (especially if they are packing Archmage). It will always tap you out and tapping out against Fae is an extremely bad idea on turn 7 as they will usually end up gaining incredible tempo and swinging for (near) lethal damage. Even if you somehow get lost in MCL (Magical Christmas Land) and get Cruel Ultimatum to resolve all you do make them discard their 1-2 cards in hand that are probably lands and make them sacrifice a Faerie Rogue token. Oh yeah and you gain five life. Then they can still untap and bash you to death with Mistbind Clique and manlands.
I have won multiple games against Five-Color after they had resolved Cruel Ultimatum mainly on the back of a Bitterblossom Scion of Oona Mistbind Clique etc. The five life they gain is mostly irrelevant and they can’t usually cast other spells on the same turn they resolved said Ultimatum leaving them vulnerable to a large counterstrike. I’ve also noted that the only cards I have ever discarded to a Cruel Ultimatum were lands and Agony Warp/Terror. Massive flooding is basically the only way Ultimatum should ever resolve. Even if they stabilize the next turn with a Wrath or Cloudthresher you can still usually kill them in short order with manlands. This is also assuming you haven’t drawn a counterspell for their sweeper on your draw step which you have a decent chance to do so. When the most impressive early plays in a format include Bitterblossom and Spectral Procession it is time to put the Cruel Ultimatum back in the binder.
While a lot of people are still clinging to the thought of playing Kitchen Finks in Five-Color Control he is pretty much outclassed by the 3/4 Pancake Flipper on most accounts. The only situation where Finks is better is when your RDW opponent chooses to play Tarfire over Magma Spray or if you’re playing against a deck running Wrath of God. While Finks does have persist he does not pose the same kind of threat against aggro or Faeries like War Monk which are the matchups where you really care about your 3-drop threat staying in play. With the addition of Path to Exile in a lot of strategies there is virtually no difference in the removal spells that kill both Finks and War Monk and Monk still avoids getting Magma Sprayed. If I were trying to build a Five-Color Control deck for the post Conflux metagame it would be mostly a Bant Control deck that splashed for some Pyroclasm effect Ajani Vengeant and Esper Charm. While Chapin and a lot of other Five-Color Advocates are pushing towards only playing two Wrath of God I feel at least 3-4 is necessary to battle with the coming hordes of aggressive creatures that are sure to dodge 2 toughness hosers like Volcanic Fallout. People are not stupid especially at the Pro Tour.
One thing I strongly agree on with Patrick is the pushing of Plumeveil. While this guy doesn’t really pose a threat to any deck per se he is a pseudo removal spell that sticks to block and kill again. Enough players don’t play Plumeveil that you should still have a huge surprise factor giving you even more of an advantage. With this in mind playing 2-3 should be a great idea. Props.
As a long-time Faerie player I can attest that Five-Color desperately needs a change in order to compete in this metagame. Here I’ve tried to make a decklist that would cause the most trouble for Faeries as well as having solid game versus the rest of the field. With that in mind here is my list for Five-Color Control:
The sideboard is heavily geared towards Faeries as well as having a smattering of good cards versus the mirror and aggro decks. Additional sweepers are necessary against decks like Boat Brew and Tokens. These strategies can be particularly hard to handle without additional sweeper effects as they don’t have to over-commit to the board in order to apply sufficient pressure. However these can be matchups where Cloudthresher shines flashing in to ambush a Reveillark setting you up to Volcanic Fallout the following turn and attacking for seven! Sweeping Bitterblossom or Spectral Procession tokens against the BW token deck can be extremely advantageous as they will then be forced to commit more and more cards to get around your 7/7.
You want to constantly keep aggro on their toes and lead them into traps that ultimately cause them to make mistakes or eventual lose. You can even go so far as to bait your opponent into overextending with as little as acting like you missed your fourth land drop. Then when they over-commit on their next turn by casting a Spectral Procession when they already have a Stalwart and Wizened Cenn in play you just play your fourth land and Wrath. This play can be extremely risky but if you had played your fourth land they wouldn’t have committed any more pressure to the board leaving you a turn behind anyway. This is not something that should be done often but definitely something you should think about when piloting a deck with as many different routes to victory as this one. If you ever feel as if you are losing against an aggro deck then you’re probably doing something wrong. Decks like Kithkin and Red Deck Wins should be your "byes" while mirror matches faeries boat brew tokens etc should be hard-fought matches with the outcome riding on the back of play skill and good draws.
26 lands should be no real surprise as most Five-Color Players will attest that they generally wish they could draw more lands Adding a 27th could be fairly difficult as I am tight on cutting a spell as is. The singleton Courier’s Capsule was originally another land but I thought that the "draw 2" aspect was worth the inclusion. I will be the first to admit that I am no master when it comes to building a manabase and I personally would not mind any suggestions you may have. I’m sure there are some mathematical wizards that could tell me that playing eleven Vivids is wrong or that playing one Underground River over one Adarkar Wastes is better but I haven’t had trouble casting the spells. That was my main concern before building the manabase and it has worked well so far.
Path to Exile versus Condemn: Basically you have two options and both are decent inclusions in the deck. However Path to Exile can aggressively affect the board where Condemn would be extremely weak and easy to play around. This is something that I think Five-Color really needed in order to fight against the dreaded Mistbind Clique. This creature alone has won me tons of games against Five-Color Control where there was no real reason I should have won. Time Walking your opponent when they’re holding Wrath of God or Cruel Ultimatum is actually a dream scenario and Path to Exile can help eliminate Mistbind Clique and effectively solve the problem. It is also the cheapest removal spell since Swords to Plowshares with a minor drawback. Also you can occasionally Path to Exile your own Mulldrifter while evoking in order to accelerate you into an earlier Cloudthresher.
Overall I definitely think that control decks need to evolve in the upcoming Standard metagame to have a chance. Faeries needs to adapt to beat Red and Five-Color needs to adapt to beat Faeries. It is the everlasting struggle that keeps me coming back to the game. With Conflux shaping the coming format both of these decks would be fine choices for any of the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open Tournaments as well as Pro Tour: Kyoto. As always I’m open to any criticisms you may have as long as they are constructed (hehe).
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