The Standard metagame functions under the laws of natural selection and seems to be an equation with two variables: good decks and good players. These two variables have converged into Caw-Blade (even Conley Woods played Caw in Singapore).
There is a song that I love a lot. It says (obviously in Russian): “Someone between the two of us went mad. We now have to determine whether it is the whole world or just me.” This is what I think about the metagame. Caw-Blade's dominance has unleashed Unnatural Selection among other decks and spawned monsters like Shouta Yasooka's deck with four maindeck Torpor Orbs.
In this article, I'll take a look at the decks trying to survive and grow under the pressure of Caw-Blade and try to give some answers to an obvious question: “Is there a deck that can outlast Caw-Blade, as mammals outlasted dinosaurs, or will Caw reign until the end of the Zendikar period?”
The first chapter of my Origin of Species (that should definitely be called Mutagenic Growth) is about symptoms.
Chapter One – Symptoms
The clear sign of an unhealthy format is maindeck hate for a specific deck. Four maindeck Oxidizes is the classic example from Mirrodin era. Is the current format Closer to the Edge than the Affinity-ravaged one? There are maindeck Manic Vandals in red decks, Nature's Claims in occasional Valakut decks, and even three maindeck Divine Offerings in Patrick Chapin's Caw-Blade. Any more questions? Yes, I have them.
Should every deck have artifact hate to be successful? The answer is “no.” Caw-Blade, despite its versatility and power, has its own weak points that should be exploited. Why does no one use these weak spots? Because, as I pointed out earlier, the fact that Caw-Blade enjoys a lot more attention from the best deckbuilders than all the other decks combined means that not enough attention is paid to the exploration of anti-Caw strategies, and this is very important to understand if you want to find the hawks' worst nightmare.
Chapter Two – Predators
Patrick Sullivan is a well-known red mage, and his deck from the SCG Invitational looks very inspiring.
There is no Koth of the Hammer in the list! How is it possible? Very simple. A powerful planeswalker doesn't help the deck's game plan: to deal with all the creatures and to kill the opponent before Batterskull becomes threatening.
There are twelve one-drops and twenty removal spells. Furnace Scamp is super-awesome if it has nearly a one-hundred-percent chance to hit the opponent.
The signs of corruption in the deck? Four maindeck Flame Slashes. A Batterskull on the battlefield is more threatening than the player at the other side of the table. There's no other excuse to include this spell—which can't burn a player—in the maindeck of Mono Red.
Another interesting Mono Red attempt can be found in the MTGO.
This build attempts to maximize the impact of such powerful cards as Koth of Hammer and Shrine of Burning Rage. Volt Charge and Tezzeret's Gambit are rare guests in the aggressive decks, but here they fit perfectly. There are very few creatures in this build because red creatures are weak to Batterskull and Sword of War and Peace; only very fast ones or very powerful ones can fit the deck, which needs to be ready to immediately punish Caw-Blade for tapping out.
Matt Landstrom's Vampires is also a successful example of the “kill all creatures then somehow win” strategy. There's the list used by Matt to win SCG Open: Indianapolis.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 3 Manic Vandal
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 3 Viscera Seer
The deck contains fifteen maindeck removal (with eleven spells killing a powerful 0/0 Germ) alongside three Manic Vandals—and additional removal in the sideboard! There is literally no chance that any creature on the other side of the table can survive long enough to be equipped. I think that Caw-Blade pilots dispatched by Matt should sue him in court for Genocide no less.
I like Matt's deck very much—so much so that I participated in a Moscow PTQ with 57 identical cards maindeck. (I had Vampire Hexmages instead of Manic Vandals. Gideon Jura is still a threat here in Russia.) I wasn't very successful, but my buddy with nearly the same list went to the finals, proving the strategy to be viable. I sold my soul to the gods of removal and left Dark Tutelage on the sidelines: it seems counterintuitive, but despite possible card advantage, the powerful enchantment is just too slow to fit into the “kill Stoneforge Mystic then win as soon as possible” plan.
I believe that Mono Red and Vampires are extremely well-positioned in the world where control decks don't play Gideon Jura and mass removal—and where Valakut is almost extinct. I strongly recommend you try any sort of removal-heavy aggression at the next tournament.
By the way, if aggressive strategies become more popular (I hope they will), I have a very interesting tech for aggressive mirror matches: Sylvok Lifestaff. It can be used in Vampires to ensure that our creatures are better that the opponents' and make racing tough for them. Sylvok Lifestaff is extremely powerful in the creature battles, and the only thing you should be wary of is an occasional Hero of Oxid Ridge; it's hard to lose the mirror match if you have Lifestaff while your opponent doesn't.
That's the end of my ode to Vampires today; it's time for the next chapter.
Chapter Three—Herd Animals
A different way to beat Caw-Blade with aggression is not to kill all their creatures—but to provide enough pressure to deal with Caw-Blade before they're able to deal with your assault. The simple requirement sounds like “we would be able to totally ignore Batterskull.” There's a plethora of ideas on how to do it, and I want to speak about two of them.
First, Elves was a well-known and beloved archetype that went extinct some time ago because it was almost impossible to beat a combination of Gideon Jura and Day of Judgment. But there's nothing to stop the swarm of small green dudes now—even the most removal-heavy builds of Caw-Blade are powerless (paying four life to cast Dismember is an ugly proposition against Elves). So I want to present you with a list from Dmitry Medvedev himself.
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Copperhorn Scout
- 4 Elvish Archdruid
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 2 Joraga Treespeaker
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Sylvan Ranger
- 4 Vengevine
- 1 Viridian Corrupter
- 4 Ezuri, Renegade Leader
This Dmitry Medvedev is a complete namesake of our president (and you surely can predict his nickname based on that), and he is a well-respected player here in Moscow. The idea is clear: an endless stream of creatures backed by a Fauna Shaman toolbox and Green Sun's Zenith—but mostly just the stream of creatures that don't care about Sword of War and Peace and that can immediately punish you for tapping out on any single turn.
An even more interesting attempt came from somebody named Singer_from_Sengir. When I saw his list for the first time, it looked like a funny proof of variance. The second time, it looked interesting… fifth time, I was sold, especially when it became clear that all the lists belonged to the same player. Ladies and gentlemen, Naya Allies!
- 4 Akoum Battlesinger
- 4 Hada Freeblade
- 4 Harabaz Druid
- 4 Kabira Evangel
- 4 Kazandu Blademaster
- 4 Oran-Rief Survivalist
- 2 Sun Titan
- 2 Talus Paladin
- 3 Tuktuk Scrapper
I wrote about U/W/R Allies long ago, and the anemic blue was there instead of healthy green because it needed Spell Pierce for Day of Judgment and Gideon Jura. The current metagame allows you to play R/G/W (I still miss Naya Charm in this deck), and not to make yourself feel like a Castaway: every Harabaz Druid draw smashes the opponent immediately; every creature is a threat if left unanswered; Tuktuk Scrapper is a nightmare to Caw-Blade; and Sun Titan is even worse than a nightmare (and he's not so hard to cast with Harabaz Druid). The only adjustment to the deck I'd make is a pair of Remember the Fallen somewhere in the sideboard—this card would be better than Lead the Stampede in some matchups where you need not just creatures, but your important creatures back.
It's time to speak about Dangerous Animals, born of the will of the evil geniuses. Caw-Blade can win in a variety of ways (especially if you don't have the skill to cast turn-2 Stoneforge Mystic every single game), but it's just not enough. Michael Jacob used Twinblade on his way to the SCG Invitational Top 8, combining the most powerful strategy with the possibility of an instant win.
Do I like Michael's deck? No I don't. I never like the decks that sacrifice resiliency for raw power. It's hard to overestimate the power of such a deck, but I can imagine so many unkeepable starting hands that it's enough for me to avoid the deck like a plague. But this deck is not the worst news…
I was wrong when I said that maindeck Divine Offerings and Manic Vandals are signs of a problem. The real sign is the deck that uses semi-good conditional hate cards as maindeck four-ofs. I speak about Shouta Yasooka's Tezzeret.
Is Torpor Orb good? No, it isn't. I can possibly understand it in an artifact-less deck where it's bad for a Caw-Blade deck to keep or side in artifact removal. If you're on the draw, Torpor Orb becomes useless against turn-2 Stoneforge Mystic, and a discard spell with an untapped mana source (one of only seven) becomes necessary. I don't want to insult sensei Shouta, but I definitely want to warn my readers from trying a deck that must win a die roll, not just to win, but to start working properly.
Chapter Five—Mutated Finch Themselves
The final chapter of my Origin of Species is about Caw-Blade itself. I'll not speak about the precise tuning of the deck and about numbers of black cards in U/W Caw-Blade. I'm going to speak about creatures because regular Birds have evolved into something stranger than the Life on Mars. Even sir Darwin himself wouldn't have imagined such a transformation from a tiny bird.
While four Stoneforge Mystics are still in just about every decklist, other creatures have reared their heads to take the slots occupied by once-untouchable hawks. These are Mirran Crusader, Emeria Angel, Deceiver Exarch, and even Augury Owl. Why? Because the Hawk is pretty bad on its own, especially with all the removal around. The only real use for a hawk is to find its friends and carry a sword, hoping that the opponent has fewer than four removal spells.
Augury Owl is just bad. End of statement.
The big creatures—Emeria Angel and Sun Titan—are good additions in the mirror. As I said, the only real advantage of Squadron Hawk is its ability to take friends to the party. Angel and Titan create hawks from your lands and attack phases, respectively. It would be a big deal, but Sword of War and Peace makes any white creature worse and mitigates the effectiveness of these creatures. But if you have a way to deal with the sword, Emeria Angel becomes better and better, so it looks very interesting in Patrick Chapin's Caw-Blade with three maindeck Divine Offerings.
Mirran Crusader and Deceiver Exarch. These creatures are at different sides of the sword: the first one uses sword with maximum effectiveness; the second (in Splinter Twin-less builds) is to prevent Sword of War and Peace and Batterskull from making an impact. The common problem with both creatures is that they have no friends. I described a “kill them all” strategy for aggro decks earlier, so I should point out that being just one creature is a serious drawback nowadays.
So, I want to present a compromise: a creature that is good enough to fit into Caw-Blade and that is two creatures in one card. The creature that can block Mirran Crusader and trade with him. The creature that can deal with Batterskull if equipped (and without giving the opponent a chance to gain life). Blade Splicer. This card was estimated to be “an interesting one” in the days before the release of New Phyrexia, but it didn't find its place yet. Maybe today's dark times are a good time to try it?
Caw-Blade is still the Crown of Creation, but life changes constantly, and I want to witness this change, especially if it isn't just a new kind of Caw-Blade but a truly innovative metagame evolution. And I hope that banning Stoneforge Mystic is not the only way to inspire innovations in the format.
Good bye, take care of yourselves and of your species!
P.S. There is one inspiring song in every single chapter of this article, so my special thanks go to:
1) Тараканы!—Кто-то из нас двоих (just copypaste into youtube)
2) MUSE—Unnatural Selection
3) 30 Seconds to Mars—Closer to the Edge
5) Arctic Monkeys—Dangerous Animals
6) David Bowie—Life on Mars
7) Jefferson Airplane—the Crown of Creation
And, of course, to sir Charles Darwin.