As any of you who followed the coverage of GP Singapore know already, I showed up to that tournament with a spicy little brew. I'd identified what seemed like the weaknesses of Caw-Blade and built a deck to exploit those holes in its armor. I wish what I had for you were the tale of a conquering hero who fought back against the evil menace and won, but, alas, I do not. I like the deck I played and think it could be pretty solid with a bit more tuning, and it's certainly a lot of fun to play, but the solution to Caw-Blade once and for all it is not.
The deck I played was based on the lists I'd been brainstorming in my articles over the last few weeks and not far off from the one that went up in my article the day before the tournament. I'd been brewing decks built around utility artifact creatures and Spellskite for a while, and when Sam Black mentioned Vedalken Certarch in his article last week, I thought I'd found the missing link. Certarch seemed like the perfect card to complement Spellskite, Etched Champion, and friends to shut down the Equipment-based offense of Caw-Blade. Both Champion and Certarch can effectively shut down a Batterskull token, while Certarch has the added bonus of being able to lock down lands or equipped fliers, while Spellskite keeps the whole team together by protecting them from stray Into the Roils and the like.
I didn't get a ton of testing in with the deck, since I was preparing for Legacy going into Providence, and then spent essentially two days traveling to Singapore. When I first proxied up the deck on Sunday in Providence, people were laughing when I asked them if they wanted to play against my Vedalken Certarch deck. When I played against Steve Sadin and Edgar Flores playing Edgar's Caw-Blade deck and won ten games straight, the laughter changed to bewilderment and interest in the list.
I spent quite a few of the fourteen hours in flight to Japan goldfishing the deck, tweaking cards and numbers to get the curve right while I pored over the Gatherer app on my phone. One of the major discoveries from that scouring was Steel Overseer, which I was pretty surprised I'd missed before. Overseer was immediately one of the best cards in the deck, turning the smattering of utility creatures into an ever-growing army while coming down early and helping to enable metalcraft. I had been looking for something to help bring the curve of the deck down more, since at that point, I only had Revoker and Spellskite in the two slot, and Overseer fit the bill perfectly.
When I arrived in Singapore, I didn't have many opportunities to test or many people who were interested in working on the deck. Everyone was sold on Caw-Blade already and was spending their time working on Block Constructed, which was totally understandable. I played in one Daily Event on Thursday night and played a bunch of games at the site on Friday against Nick Wong and Thomas Pannell, but that wasn't exactly a rigorous testing process.
I did learn a few things, namely that Lodestone Golem wasn't really pulling his weight, especially in sideboarded games when I was certain to be playing against a bunch of artifact removal. Argent Sphinx, which I had been trying as a sideboard card, was absolutely awesome, so I cut the final two Golems I still had in the maindeck and replaced them with the Sphinxes that had been in the board. I heard that a lot of local players were running Mono Red or Vampires in an attempt to combat Caw-Blade, so I decided to devote a substantial amount of sideboard space to beating aggressive decks. Perilous Myr seemed like an obvious inclusion, serving to enable metalcraft as well as protect against an early assault while being resilient against artifact removal. Batterskull seemed like the best card to take control of the game when it went longer—which should really say something about how powerful the card is even when Stoneforge Mystic isn't involved!
Here's the list I played:
- 4 Etched Champion
- 2 Hex Parasite
- 1 Leaden Myr
- 3 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Phyrexian Revoker
- 3 Spellskite
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 2 Argent Sphinx
- 4 Vedalken Certarch
My tournament experience wasn't especially remarkable. I finished 11-5-1, good for exactly 64th place. Three of my losses actually came to Caw-Blade decks, which is pretty unimpressive when you consider that I built the deck specifically to beat Caw-Blade. I feel like I got pretty unlucky against a few of my Caw-Blade opponents, but more importantly many of the Caw-Blade decks I played against were built substantially differently from the decks I'd originally been testing against.
During the stretch when I 10-0ed Edgar's deck with my original build, I was playing against four Into the Roil for removal. That's it. The world has changed since then, however, and Caw-Blade decks have cards like Dismember and Divine Offering in their maindecks now. Dismember in particular changes the matchup dramatically because it gives the Caw-Blade player an incredibly efficient answer to any of the utility creatures in the deck, and you're not able to put them under nearly enough pressure to make the life loss threatening, especially when they just Dismember your Certarch or Revoker and drop a Batterskull into play.
As an aside, while I think Batterskull is the biggest mistake in NPH contextually—given the existence of Stoneforge Mystic, I feel like it should never have been printed—I think Dismember is the biggest mistake in the set from an overall design perspective. While I understand the desire to push the Phyrexian mana mechanic, I think Dismember goes over line in how it completely shatters the traditional vulnerabilities of particular colors. Before NPH, cheap utility creatures like Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman could be a serious problem for a deck like Caw-Blade because U/W doesn't have great answers to them. Nowadays, don't bother trying to combat the deck in that way because every strong Caw-Blade player will have Dismembers waiting for you.
It's one thing to give other colors access to effects that they don't traditionally have through Phyrexian mana, but it's another thing entirely to give them both that new capacity and tremendous efficiency. Dismember is the best removal spell in Standard. It kills anything short of a Titan for one mana at instant speed, which is better than anything you can do by actually paying black mana. With Dismember, Caw-Blade can kill a turn 2 Lotus Cobra on the draw and still play Stoneforge Mystic on their own turn 2 without missing a beat. What was previously a gaping vulnerability is now merely an inconvenience.
I don't have a problem with cards like Phyrexian Metamorph or Marrow Shards or Mental Misstep. They're all relatively narrow effects, and while they're certainly powerful when played for their life payment discount in the right situation, their existence is not going to impact the vast majority of games. Dismember, however, has already fundamentally changed deckbuilding in Magic across all formats. Creature removal is one of the most basic and most important classes of effects in the entire game, and Dismember has given every deck that wants it a one-cost, instant-speed removal spell. Not only has it served to oppress Lotus Cobras, Fauna Shamans, and Vedalken Certarchs in Standard, but also it has already popped up in Legacy Merfolk sideboards as an answer to the previously devastating Llawan.
I opened this article talking about how I felt like I'd found the chink in Caw-Blade's armor, but thanks to Dismember, there is no such chink. U/W need no longer fear cheap utility creatures, long its traditional weakness, and I think Magic is worse off for it.
Anyway, rant over. Back to the deck.
While I no longer think this deck is the mighty Caw-Blade slayer, it is a hell of a lot of fun, and I think it has a lot of potential with a bit more tuning. Like I said, I didn't get to spend a lot of time working on the deck, and my day or two of brewing is hard pressed to stand up to the focused gaze of the entire Magic community tuning Caw-Blade to a razor edge over the past six months.
The first change I'd make moving forward is to cut the Hex Parasites. They were just bad. I'd hoped that they would be a decent early drop to help with metalcraft and threaten Jace, but they're just way too low impact most of the time. You're already very well equipped to handle Jace with Phyrexian Revoker and Etched Champion, and while sometimes you can strand a Jace in your opponent's hand with the Parasite or kill it after it comes down, more often you end up with a Parasite just sitting around unable to do much of anything because your opponent has Squadron Hawks holding them off.
The card I want to go back to that I abandoned in my GP build is Flight Spellbomb. It seems silly, but Flight Spellbomb is actually quite good. It's a cheap artifact that helps you get to metalcraft quickly, and on top of that, the ability to grant flying is surprisingly relevant. In a lot of games against Caw-Blade, you can gain a ton of ground if you're able to stop a single attack from an equipped Squadron Hawk, and Flight Spellbomb is just the card for the job. Often just the threat of granting flying is enough to hold back their team and win you the race, which is pretty impressive coming from a one-cost artifact that can replace itself for just a single blue mana.
Ichor Wellspring was pretty good but should probably just have been Prophetic Prisms. The idea behind Ichor Wellspring was that I wanted a card that helped enable metalcraft that wasn't a creature, so I'd be more likely to be able to play Etched Champion already protected or be able to reestablish metalcraft quickly after a Day of Judgment. They both draw you a card when they enter play, but Prophetic Prism can help you cast Tezzeret or Argent Sphinx in games where you have awkward mana draws.
Prophetic Prism also potentially lets you change some of your lands to Tectonic Edges, which can potentially be huge. Against Caw-Blade, Tectonic Edge can serve a ton of different purposes, from helping you lock down their mana early on with Vedalken Certarch to protecting Tezzeret from Celestial Colonnade to keeping Inkmoth Nexus out of the way of Etched Champion. Inkmoth Nexus is actually one of the more annoying cards in Caw-Blade to deal with, since not only can it block Champion, but it can actually kill you in two attacks with Batterskull even if you've been attacking with a Champion equipped with a copied Batterskull of your own—a situation that comes up remarkably often in the matchup.
Speaking of Inkmoth Nexus, it's one of the best cards in your own deck as well. This is a deck that makes better use of Nexus than even my U/B Infect deck because it has so many tricks it can do with it. Nexus can serve as an extra artifact to turn on metalcraft in a pinch, which can keep The Champ alive in a tight spot or enable Certarch. A very common line of play is turn 1 Certarch, turn 2 two-drop, turn 3 two-drop, activate Nexus during the opponent's upkeep, and tap a land. Keep in mind that this play can be dangerous because of opposing removal (like Dismember...ugh) but can also keep your opponent off key colors or key mana amounts.
Perhaps the most impressive interaction with Inkmoth Nexus comes from Steel Overseer. Nexus is an artifact creature, so Overseer gives it counters, and these counters stay on the Nexus even though it turns back into a land at the end of the turn. That can make a Nexus lethal out of the blue really fast. I actually won a game in the Grand Prix in which I stalled at two lands—a Drowned Catacombs and a Nexus—for probably a dozen turns. My opponent had both Jace and Inferno Titan in play, the latter of which I contained with Vedalken Certarch (thanks to Torpor Orb), and despite that, I managed to kill him with my Nexus that became a 2/2, then a 3/3, then a 4/4, and then a very lethal 5/5. That's a lot of poison!
This deck makes by far the best use of Tezzeret of any deck I've ever played. Each ability is simply awesome at all times. Obviously it's great to turn anything into a 5/5, and not only do you pretty much never miss with the +1 ability, but the ultimate is almost always immediately lethal. I played against a Vampires opponent in the GP who had Highborn in play with a pair of Bloodghasts and attacked and drained me down to eight, and on the next turn, I popped Tezzeret to drain him for sixteen and then killed him with Etched Champions.
Another card that performed particularly well in the deck was Argent Sphinx. As I mentioned before, I originally had Sphinx as a sideboard card, intended as a way to sidestep some amount of removal and give me more game against Day of Judgment. It dramatically overperformed, especially against Caw-Blade, where it basically does everything you could ask for. It's a non-artifact creature, so it doesn't die to Divine Offering, and it allows you to commit more to the board without worrying about Day of Judgment. It can hold off Colonnade, Nexus, and Hawks all day long and even block Batterskull and blink to prevent the life gain. It attacks Jace and can even avoid a Jace bounce if you have metalcraft. A superstar, all told. I'd like to fit another in the maindeck, but it seems like seven fours might be too many. I'll definitely be trying it out.
One card that I had very early on in my sideboard but removed—and ultimately regretted not playing—was Hammer of Ruin. The idea was that Hammer of Ruin on an Etched Champion could break up all of Caw-Blade's Equipment in short order. I never had a chance to really try the idea, in part because I was afraid of boarding in Equipment against an opponent boarding in a bunch of artifact removal, but I wish I had because I think it could be awesome. A lot of games against Caw-Blade drag out really long, and they rely heavily on Swords and Batterskull to get ahead, and Hammer of Ruin could easily break those games wide open.
Here's where I'm going to start with the next version of the deck:
- 4 Etched Champion
- 3 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Phyrexian Revoker
- 3 Spellskite
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 2 Argent Sphinx
- 4 Vedalken Certarch
As I said, I don't think the deck is the end all, be all in the current Standard, but it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than it looks. I'll freely admit you're a bit weak against Inferno Titan decks, and it's quite unfortunate how much splash damage you take from artifact removal aimed at Caw-Blade, but it's nothing The Champ can't overcome! I'm looking forward to making some MODO videos with it once I get back stateside. Take it for a spin yourself—you might be surprised.
Until next time,