When I started brewing up decks for Nationals my goal was to beat Caw-Blade and Tempered Steel. Coming on the heels of the results of the various Nationals around the world and the SCG Open Series those two decks seemed to have surged ahead of the pack in terms of success and popularity. Caw-Blade seemed like the default go-to deck for anyone looking to play control while Tempered Steel was the most likely deck choice for anyone who wanted to play aggro. Sure I knew there would be a smattering of Splinter Twin Birthing Pod Valakut Mono Red and U/B Control; I felt like those two decks would be the most important to have a solid game against coming into Nationals.
As I've mentioned in my last few articles I knew that I wanted to play something aggressive. I didn't want to try to find a control deck that could out control Caw-Blade while trying to answer all of Tempered Steel's myriad threats—it just wasn't realistic especially in the short amount of time that I had. I wanted to try to play something with an intrinsically powerful proactive plan that could force an opponent on the back foot as well as answer all of the problem cards that Caw Blade and Tempered Steel can present. Easy enough right?
Here's where I started:
- 3 Wurmcoil Engine
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Blade Splicer
- 4 Hero of Bladehold
- 3 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Nest Invader
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
While I've seen a lot of people dismiss this deck as a fluke I figured it had to have done something right to finish so highly at an event as competitive as Japanese Nationals. It had a lot of what I was looking for in a deck—the ability to mount a powerful aggressive offense quickly and a solid selection of answers to potential threats. I proxied it up and ran it through the phantom ringer (read: goldfished it at my desk) and made some tweaks to it here and there before I ever played against a live opponent. After I spent a few days at the X-Games demoing the skateboarding card game I helped design (check it out at www.superheatgames.com) I drove out to +EV Games my friend Tom's store in Camarillo and battled a bit with it at FNM before bringing it to the LA PTQ the next day.
Those games taught me a few things pretty quickly:
I hated Garruk. He turns on Caw-Blade's Spell Pierces against you and even when you can resolve him he's rarely even that exciting. If you use his -1 ability they can peck him to death with Hawks and if you use his +1 ability to try to ramp into something big they can often just kill him with Colonnade anyway. I had been excited by the potential of ramping into Elesh Norn in particular but that rarely happened and even when it did you could just lose your entire team to Day of Judgment if you didn't kill them on the spot.
Twelve mana creatures were too many. I liked Nest Invader because it could attack into Squadron Hawks and live and your opponent couldn't profitably kill your mana acceleration with creature removal but it was just much less powerful than Birds and Cobra and I didn't feel like I could afford to have so many low impact cards in the deck.
Blade Slicer and Hero of Bladehold weren't as impressive as I thought they'd be. Sure they're efficient bodies and Hero is particularly effective if he gets to attack but that's a big if. It's funny that even with Jace gone a card like Hero just doesn't cut it. There are so many efficient ways to deal with creatures that don't do anything the turn you play them It's Dismember's world now—we're just living in it—and on top of that there's Into the Roil Mana Leak Day of Judgment and Timely Reinforcements all of which put a serious damper on the mana creature into Hero line as plan A.
On top of all of that the deck just didn't have enough game against Tempered Steel. Acidic Slime is good but not even close to fast enough and ground-based creature defense is a complete joke against Vault Skirge Glint Hawk Idol Inkmoth Nexus and friends. While playing green offered powerful sideboard options I just felt like the deck wasn't where I wanted to be against Tempered Steel in game one and it seemed like I'd have to use a lot of my bench options to turn things around.
So that's a whole lot that I didn't like about the deck. What did I like? The list was pretty short:
Yep that was pretty much it. I liked the mana acceleration and mana disruption elements of the deck especially in combination but everything else felt pretty unimpressive to me. Acidic Slime was particularly nice because it served double duty as a land destruction creature that occasionally hit a Sword against Caw-Blade and a straight up Flametongue Kavu against Tempered Steel. Slime was the sort of card that could help take over the game but only with the right supporting cast.
I knew that the next step was to look at red. Red offered the sort of removal that could slow down Tempered Steel enough to let Acidic Slimes take over as well as a card I'd been looking to play ever since Timely Reinforcements started to become popular—Hero of Oxid Ridge.
While Bladehold is the more powerful of the two Heroes in a vacuum we don't build decks in a vacuum. Hero of Oxid Ridge succeeds where Hero of Bladehold fails at matching up well against the sort of cards that people are actually playing with and the way that games of the format actually play out. Squadron Hawks do nothing to protect from a Hero of Oxid Ridge fueled attack and he can make Timely Reinforcements look downright embarrassing.
Next to join the squad was Skinshifter. I knew I wanted to cut down on mana creatures but I didn't want to cut down on plays lower on the curve. Skinshifter had caught my eye when he was spoiled as a creature that could fight through Squadron Hawks well and I wanted to give him a shot. As it turns out Skinshifter (or Udyr as I have taken to calling him after the League of Legends character) is not only a superstar at attacking past Hawks and Spellskite as a 4/4 trampling rhino but is also a top-tier defender against Vault Skirges and Signal Pests. Being able to turn into a 2/2 flying bird also helps get damage in past an opposing Grave Titan or Solemn Simulacrum both of which may become more relevant after Ali Aintrazi's victory at US Nationals with U/B.
Having to use mana to activate Skinshifter each turn makes the draws in which you're curving out perfectly somewhat worse but it makes the draws in which you're playing off-curve much better since you have a remarkably cheap four-power threat. Skinshifter plays a lot like Putrid Leech in that it makes blocking miserable for your opponent but you don't always have to pump it.
The card that raised the most eyebrows when I played it for the first time was Manic Vandal. A lot of people question the inclusion of what seems like a sideboard card in the main deck but think about it—what decks is Manic Vandal bad against? He's obviously great against Tempered Steel and against Caw-Blade decks sporting Spellskite or Blade Splicer. He kills Sword of Feast and Famine Birthing Pod Shrine of Piercing Visions Shrine of Burning Rage and Solemn Simulacrum not to mention the occasional Everflowing Chalice or Ratchet Bomb. Worst-case scenario he's a Gray Ogre but a Gray Ogre that can sometimes blow your opponent out isn't all that bad. He was basically a cheaper higher variance Acidic Slime and since Acidic Slime was one of the cards I was happiest with Manic Vandal seemed like the right place to turn.
The parade of value creatures doesn't stop there. Goblin Ruinblaster plays the part of Acidic Slime's other half punishing mana-hungry decks and keeping opponents off of their expensive spells. I knew that making the switch to red over white would make me that much more vulnerable to cards like Gideon Consecrated Sphinx and Titans and Ruinblaster along with Edge and Slime try to ensure those don't hit play until it's too late.
My original build of the deck had Vengevines but they proved to be somewhat mediocre. With only a handful of cheap creatures it was often difficult to recur Vengevines when I needed to and they were occasionally embarrassing when my opponents would play a Blade Splicer or just quadruple Time Walk me with Timely Reinforcements even when I could bring them back. I decided that I'd rather take a different angle to give my deck resilience to Day of Judgment.
Enter Sword of War and Peace. What better way to avoid having to overextend into Day of Judgment than to make every single creature I played a potentially lethal threat? Sword also plays double duty as another card to make opposing Timely Reinforcements and Squadron Hawks simply embarrassing letting any of your creatures power through virtually any opposing creature Caw Blade can muster.
Interestingly enough Sword did a lot more than make the Caw-Blade matchup better—it improved a lot of matchups you wouldn't really expect. Among those was Valakut which has traditionally been the bane of midrange style creature decks like this one. I certainly won't go far as to claim that Valakut is a good matchup but the explosive damage potential of Sword of War and Peace with Hero of Oxid Ridge to push Battlements out of the way can end the game in short order. If you play a turn two Cobra and they play a turn two Rampant Growth playing a Sword and equipping it to your Cobra instantly puts them on a two-turn clock. That's a lot of damage very fast and that's the sort of explosive start that can mark one in the W column against even the worst of matchups.
Along with Sword of War and Peace came Thrun. Thrun is a card that hasn't gotten much attention since the initial fervor after he was spoiled in large part due to how poorly he matches up against Squadron Hawks especially those carrying Swords. With Sword of War and Peace though Thrun puts Caw-Blade opponents on very few outs chief among them “hope you mess up and forget to leave open regeneration mana”. The fact that Thrun lives through Day and is big enough to take down even a Consecrated Sphinx while equipped makes him an incredible threat—just as long as you can give him that little push past his winged arch nemesis.
- 4 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Goblin Ruinblaster
- 4 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 3 Manic Vandal
- 4 Skinshifter
- 2 Thrun, the Last Troll
The role of most of the sideboard cards should be pretty obvious—various removal spells for the matchups in which I'd want them. The split of Flame Slash and Dismember was a nod to Splinter Twin while still giving me efficient removal against beatdown decks and the Naturalize/Nature's Claim split gave me some protection against Mental Misstep if it were to come up while also letting me board in Naturalize against Caw-Blade where I'd rather not give them the extra life.
Tectonic Edge made its way to the sideboard when I found myself unable to support the color requirements of the maindeck spells when I was playing too many colorless lands. The particularly nice thing about the Edges in the sideboard is that they gave me a way to board into additional mana sources in matchups where my curve shifted upward somewhat as well as letting me board out some number of Birds of Paradise against decks with Wrath effects without hurting my total mana significantly.
Garruk was originally Inferno Titan but I decided that I wanted a better trump card. Sure Inferno Titan is powerful but it can be something of a liability against Birthing Pod decks with a boatload of clone effects. Garruk is a card that can ultimately trump opposing Titans that can't be copied while also serving as an incredibly powerful defensive card against decks like Vampires. I briefly had a few Garruks in my main deck but wanted to pretty much entirely nullify opposing Spell Pierces so they made their way to the sideboard.
So how did the deck actually fare? Well despite finishing 9-5 overall I went a disappointing 4-4 in Constructed. I soundly defeated all three of the Caw-Blade decks I played along with one Mono Red deck while losing twice to the other Mono Red decks I faced once to an Abyssal Persecutor Esper deck and once to U/B control in a nail biter. I felt like the deck performed how I'd expected in most of those matchups—U/B is rather even Mono Red is pretty rough without Baloths in the board and Abyssal Persecutor is just about the worst thing that can happen to me. I didn't expect to face as much Mono Red as I did and I certainly didn't expect to lose to Conley's favorite card—especially against someone other than Conley!
I haven't had a chance to tinker with the deck much since Nats but I'm going to continue to explore it over the next few weeks. I'm extremely happy with how the deck performs against Caw-Blade and it doesn't look like that part of the metagame is in danger of going away any time soon. As for the rest I'm going to see what I can do about making the tough matchups better while maintaining the good ones—but if GP Pittsburgh looks like it's going to be a sea of Caw-Blade again I don't know that I'd change a thing…
But for now—story time!
I'm not sure how many of you have been to Gen Con but it's truly a remarkable event. Tens of thousands of people descend on Indianapolis for four full days of gaming which leads to a rather amazing shift in the demographics of downtown. Every hotel is packed to the gills with people playing games of all kinds through all hours of the day and night and you can encounter any number of… characters in your time there. This is a tale of one of those characters.
I was in the elevator down from my hotel room with my friend and co-worker John Fiorillo (of 2HG PT Top 4 fame!) when the door opened and three more people got on—a girl and two guys. Now these three were obviously gamers just by looking at them (with the dead giveaway Gen Con badges around their necks) but even if I just heard them talking I might have suspected they were a little… odd.
They're in the middle of a conversation as they walk in.
Girl: “Yes I know that Starbucks coffee is good but that's not going to stop me from complaining that it's too expensive.”
Guy: “Yeah it's expensive but that's why when I go to Starbucks I order their strongest coffee mixed with their strongest espresso!”
This is when I looked up and noticed the guy had a strange expression on his face. His brow was sort of furrowed and he was staring straight ahead. It took me a moment to realize it but he had one eyebrow cocked kind of like The Rock and he was staring at himself making this face in the elevator mirror.
Girl: *laughs* “Yeah right.”
Guy: (never breaking eye contact with himself in the mirror) “You've just never seen me drink coffee!”
Girl: “I guess you're right…I was thinking of Dylan.”
Guy: (STILL STARING AT HIMSELF) “When I drink coffee I drink it a pot at a time!”
And that my friends is how I met The Coffee Badass.
Until next time