As soon as I saw the list for Caw-Blade in PT Paris, it looked like one of the most beautifully put-together decks ever. I couldn't imagine wanting to play anything else with the cards currently legal.
When I started testing the deck, I won my first thirteen matches or so, and I was hooked. Sometimes people ask me about other decks, and I just have no answer for them because I can't see a reason to play anything else. I've started losing a little more lately, but I'm still currently 40-8 in matches on MTGO.
When people added colors to it, I was curious, but I started my testing with U/W, and I loved Tectonic Edge enough that I just couldn't see cutting it. It won me too many games. Looking at the mana in the three-color builds only solidified my position on playing two colors. They had fewer sources of blue and white mana and more enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, making it much harder to curve Jace into Gideon. When I discovered Mystifying Maze before Barcelona, the benefit to sticking to two colors seemed even greater.
Maximizing The Mana Base
Fundamentally, taking a deck that has more than enough good cards that work together in two colors and adding a color at a real cost to the mana base to change some spells around doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but the issue goes deeper than that.
I put a lot of weight on playing the deck with the best lands. Merfolk was the first Legacy deck I was drawn to because thirteen basic lands, no fetches, and eight good spells in land slots just seemed like the most stable and powerful mana base in the format.
I think Faeries is what it was and still is in Extended because it has always had the best mana in its format. When I say best mana, I don't just mean greatest ability to cast spells, but I mean the combination between being able to consistently cast every spell on time and the ability to get value out of lands.
Magic has been moving more and more toward allowing nonbasic lands to function as spells, not as just color fixers. This is great for consistency, since it lets decks play extra lands without getting flooded. Taking full advantage of this is critical to building a good deck.
Mythic and Jund were both awesome decks in PT San Diego because they were the best decks at taking advantage of the newly printed manlands.
There are so many different spells available as lands these days that playing fewer of them than you can is a tremendous handicap.
Faeries vs. Caw-Blade
In Barcelona, I was interviewed on comparing Caw-Blade to Faeries. They're very similar in a lot of ways. Both decks are good because of their lands and their flexibility of role assignment, including their ability to change roles quickly, and both decks are unusually capable of developing their own plan while being able to react to an opponent.
Caw-Blade and Faeries are both extremely easy for me to play against other decks because it's clear what role I want in each matchup, and I know how to shift the deck to play the role I have to play.
In both cases, the mirror is much trickier because the role you have to play changes from game to game or even from moment to moment.
I was actually a little slow to pick up Faeries. I first played it at Regionals in 2008 but then played Elves at Nationals. In Block, I played some Faeries but also some five-color decks and four-color Merfolk, and I even won the Block Constructed Championship with River Kelpie. It wasn't until Worlds that year that I was fully hooked on Faeries.
Sometimes, when I was learning to play Faeries on Magic Online, I'd play against someone else who was clearly much better at the mirror match than I was. I could tell because they'd beat me when I'd drawn all the cards I wanted to draw.
The same thing is true with Caw-Blade. I think I play the deck very well most of the time, but I've been completely clueless in the mirror. When I first started playing the deck, I couldn't figure out what I wanted my role to be after sideboarding or which cards were important. I experimented with siding out almost every possible card to get various kinds of edges but not really with enough iteration to learn as much as I needed to.
In Barcelona, I played a series of practice games against Christian Calcano, and I won a substantial majority of them despite playing the exact same list. I felt a little better than I had about the mirror and assumed I must be doing something right, but I still didn't feel like I could say exactly what I was doing better than he was; it just felt like maybe I was making a few slightly better tactical decisions, so maybe that was all there was to it.
Yesterday, I played against _ShipItHolla in the third round of a Daily Event. He crushed me. I drew well in game two on the play, and he won anyway. I felt as though he understood something strategic about the match that I didn't.
It's left me with the fire to learn what's going on because I can't go into another Grand Prix with Caw-Blade without understanding the most important matchup, and I definitely can't switch decks when I think I have a better chance with it than any other deck in every matchup except the mirror.
I feel like there hasn't been as much written about Caw-Blade as there should be, given exactly how dominant it is in the format, but then, I haven't really been reading much, so I could easily be wrong.
Studying The Blade
Today, I'm going to read everything I can find about U/W Caw-Blade to try to figure out what I'm missing. I'll come back here to write notes and reactions as I go.
I watched two rounds of _ShipItHolla playing U/W Caw-Blade against U/W/r. Again, he was winning games on the draw when his opponent had good starts, but I'm not entirely sure what he was doing that was unconventional. I guess he was willing to take a hit from Sword of Feast and Famine and trade blows, and he wasn't necessarily in as much of a hurry to resolve Jace as I might have been.
Josh Silvestri essentially argues that the mirror is about board presence rather than cards in hand, Hawk is the most important early card, and Jace should use its zero ability less than many people (including me) do. This helps confirm something I'd already been considering after watching _ShipItHolla's replays in the Daily I played against him, where he seemed to try to ultimate Jace more aggressively than I did.
I love card advantage, and I'm not one to try very hard to end a game I'm winning, but with Caw-Blade, you pull the important stuff out of your deck pretty quickly, and if you can get a Jace down on a stable board, it's probably very reasonable to just try to go ultimate with it or bounce blockers and go aggressive with Hawks if you can win faster that way. Basically, I think I'm trying to play the deck as more of a control deck rather than the tempo deck it should be, which explains why other people have been quicker to embrace Tumble Magnet than I have.
Brad echoes a suggestion Josh made to move away from Divine Offering, allowing more versatile cards like Tumble Magnet and Into the Roil to fill that role. Both of these solutions are temporary, which means that they have to be paired with more aggressive play, but that's a direction that's beginning to sound like a good idea.
I can't find much more of interest in articles, so the next place to turn to is Magic Online tournament results.
Noteworthy lists include _ShipItHolla's:
Lists like this scare me. You give up so much against Valakut by playing Condemn, Into the Roil, and three Tumble Magnets instead of Day of Judgments, and the loss of Oust from the sideboard makes Fauna Shaman and Lotus Cobra extremely threatening. On the other hand, he does look very well positioned in the mirror, and the seventh counterspell maindeck combined with the four Flashfreezes in the board does help the Valakut situation. If having the much maindeck hate for the mirror can allow me to take the advice above and cut Divine Offerings and Kor Sanctifier from the sideboard to make room for Ousts, I might be happy with something like this.
Jabs is leading the "boosters won on MTGO" list right now and most recently played this:
It's three-color, which makes me a little less interested in it, but it's worth noting the Heroes and Crusaders, which play well with Inquisitions to protect them. He's moved entirely away from counterspells in the main, splashing blue entirely for Jace, Preordain, and sideboard Flashfreeze.
Looking through other U/W Caw-Blade lists, the standard these days seems to be two Tumble Magnets, no more than three Day of Judgments, three Spell Pierces, 3-4 Mana Leaks, and 26 lands, with the equipment beyond one Sword of Feast and Famine totally up in the air.
I'd been playing only two Spell Pierces and wasn't very happy when I added a third, but I think I'll give it another chance. I started at 27 lands; I'm not sure why. I think I just copied some list that happened to have an extra as my starting point. I'd been happy with how it was playing, but when I saw that most people were playing 26, I thought I should try that. Then I realized that I could play Mystifying Maze as a 27th, and I've been very happy with that, but I think it's possible that I should only be playing 26 land, since I'm definitely missing the extra slot for spells, but I'm not sure which land I should cut.
I've been having a lot of trouble with aggressive decks in game one, and I think the extra Sword is relatively low value in game one compared to after sideboarding in the mirror, so I'm tempted to cut a sword for a Lifestaff main, especially if I continue playing the Mortarpod I've been experimenting with; or I could just play one sword and one Mortarpod. The problem is that anything other than two swords feels like a significant sacrifice against Valakut. (As an aside, the reason Valakut finds itself so well positioned is that every change to make the deck better against every other deck in the field seems to make the deck worse against Valakut.)
I've been playing Elspeth and reasonably happy with it, but I think it has to go to make room for Tumble Magnet, which I have to accept has proven itself at this point.
I think I should play something like:
From my build in Barcelona, this is -1 Mystifying Maze, -1 Elspeth, -1 Sword of Body and Mind, -1 Sun Titan, -1 Day of Judgment, -1 Deprive, -1 Jace Beleren, +1 Mana Leak, +1 Into the Roil, +1 Spell Pierce, +1 Sylvok Lifestaff, +1 Mortarpod, +2 Tumble Magnets in the main.
The equipment helps more against red and black aggro decks than anything I'm losing costs, so those matchups get better game one. I lose a sword against Valakut, but I net one additional counter to make up for it, although I lose a Day of Judgment and get a bunch of cards that are pretty bad. On the other hand, Sun Titan and Elspeth aren't great, and neither is Mystifying Maze, and Tumble Magnets might not be terrible, so I think I'm at most slightly worse there.
The equipment is pretty bad against other control decks, like U/B, and losing Mystifying Maze hurts a lot against Creeping Tar Pit. I also lose Elspeth, Jace Beleren, and a Sword. I gain a Spell Pierce and an Into the Roil, but I'm a little worse off than I was against control.
My red matchup is better because Kor Firewalker is huge. I lose access to the fourth Day of Judgment and the Elspeth from my 75, which hurts against Vampires, and I don't really have anything to replace it, so I'm more likely to win game one but slightly less likely to win games two and three.
My sideboard is worse than it was in the mirror, but I think I'm still better after sideboarding than I was because my maindeck is so much better.
It's slightly awkward to change my deck to make it worse against the deck that won the last GP, but most evidence suggests that it won't be widely adopted in America; also, I think I'm gaining enough against the rest of the field to justify the expense.
I hope this served as a useful example of how to process changes to a list you're familiar with.
The next step for me is to play some games and see if I feel more confident when I'm playing the mirror. I recommend you do the same.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter