Despite my decision to thus far play in zero pro-level events I wasn't going to miss Pro Tour Philadelphia. I always liked formats with bigger card pools and have typically done very well in them. In addition changing the Pro Tour format to Modern was a great move. The format is new fun and exciting. With most of the oppressive strategies gone I feel like the format has a real chance to succeed. Granted there are new oppressive strategies — but at least it's not all Jund all the time right?
Before the Pro Tour I chose to make a stop in Pittsburgh for the Standard Grand Prix. For the last couple weeks Standard had been going well for me so trying my hand on the big stage sounded like a good idea.
Naturally I wanted to play with Squadron Hawks. My deck from StarcityGames.com: Boston was one of the best I've played with in recent memory so I wasn't going to change much. The main things I liked from my list was playing with zero Swords and four Jace Belerens.
Sword is better in a more aggressive version with Blade Splicer much like Yuuya Watanabe's version. However I'd rather be controlling the board than moving all-in trying to get ahead. Sword of Feast and Famine is mostly useless when you're behind so I didn't want anything to do with it. Winning the games becomes a little harder but it's worth the effort because your cards become more versatile.
Jace is incredible right now. It's your best card against Splinter Twin and the mirror match. Against Valakut it's passable. The problem lies in containing their early mana development so that when you tap out for Jace on turn 3 you aren't facing down a Titan of some kind. If you led with Torpor Orb then even a Titan isn't that scary since you can just untap and cast Oblivion Ring or Day of Judgment.
Even against RDW or various Birthing Pods Jace is a fine card. Sure you could play creatures like Blade Splicer or Mirran Crusader instead but those cards don't suit me. I want something that provides card advantage. I built my deck so that it could win the long game — but in order to get there I need to have a steady stream of cards.
I need options and answers to the various threats that my opponents could present. For the most part three-drop creatures don't provide the answers but instead kill the opponent. You just have to hope that what your opponent is doing isn't better than your creatures and I don't like the onus being on them to trump me. I want to control my own destiny.
Here's what I should have played:
I swapped my mix of removal around for the tournament but I shouldn't have messed with it. Yes Oblivion Ring and Day of Judgment are kind of loose against Splinter Twin a deck that I was scared of but Into the Roil and Dismember are so much worse against everything else. Oblivion Ring is awesome! Being able to answer nearly any permanent is very valuable in this control-oriented Caw deck.
Mono-Red was likely on the decline before Grand Prix and I didn't mind cutting a Timely Reinforcements. As it so happened I didn't play against Mono-Red a single time. Before the Grand Prix I was testing some post-board games against StarCityGames.com's own Glenn Jones. He wanted to play his red deck against me and did a great job of playing around Timely Reinforcements. It helped when I drew it but it wasn't nearly the backbreaker I wanted it to be.
I started 8-0 before running afoul of Eric English and his Splinter Twins. In the first round of day two I faced off against probably my worst matchup – Eldrazi Green. Thanks to some mulligans and solid draws on my part I had him drawing basically dead in game three. However some confusion led me to concede all because I had a die representing an Emeria Angel token that I needed to block a topdecked Emrakul. I just forgot it was there.
I felt like an idiot and found some cards to represent tokens from there on out. It didn't really matter though as the wheels fell off. My mirror match against Brad Nelson was on camera and I made three mistakes in game one and another two in game two. Because Brad played extremely tight I had no shot of coming back after those blunders.
There were plenty of options I could have played for the Grand Prix but I stuck with Caw because I liked my deck from StarCityGames.com Boston. I was messing around with other ideas although all with the same shell. Jace Preordain and Mana Leak are all awesome right now and I'm not impressed with what white has to offer. Squadron Hawk and Gideon Jura don't have a lot of good matchups right now.
Emeria Angel is very solid but I was actually thinking of replacing it with Solemn Simulacrum. Currently the mirror is about not getting tempoed out in the early game and then being able to resolve a six-drop through their Mana Leaks. Solemn gives you the mana advantage and while it doesn't defend as well it's a very solid card.
Everflowing Chalice was the other card I was considering. I've considered splashing Explore since Chalice for two will make most of their counterspells useless. Oftentimes it's correct to sandbag it until you can do so.
Having no manlands was a definite problem but I wanted to keep it pure just to show exactly how extreme I was thinking. At one point I was thinking of splashing for just Creeping Tar Pit — but then why wasn't I just a U/B Control deck with the same shell?
The main issue was that I loved Shaheen Soorani's Bloodghast technology. I was left wondering if those could replace Squadron Hawk. Sure they don't block — but against other control decks they were a much better threat than Hawks.
Another issue was the fact that I wanted Torpor Orb against Valakut Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod and those didn't play well with Solemns. It was becoming increasingly clear that I couldn't play with Solemn although Everflowing Chalice was a possibility.
Maybe some other accelerator?
The problem I always had with these U/G decks was their weakness to a flying army from Squadron Hawk or Emeria Angel. Stingerfling Spider wasn't cutting it despite what Cedric Phillips may have told you. You could splash Hawks of your own — but the mana isn't great they take up a lot of room and aren't impressive in your RUG-style strategy.
Going back to straight RUG might be the answer. Inferno Titan is still awesome and has helped Michael Jacob fry over a thousand birds this year alone. Perhaps that's what the deck needs. Obviously Jace the Mind Sculptor was RUG's best card — and while you can't quite replace that Jace Beleren and Garruk Primal Hunter do fine impersonations.
Consecrated Sphinx is the best six-drop right now. Sure I messed around with Sun Titans and Phantasmal Images for a week and while they were fine against Valakut and ground-pounders they were terrible in the mirror. Almost all of the work you do can be undone by a single Day of Judgment.
Six-drops aren't what you want against Valakut anyway. Emeria Angel tends to be a better beater as does Gideon Jura. Getting to six mana just isn't a realistic possibility even if Sun Titan (with help from Torpor Orb and Tectonic Edge) can lock them out of the game. I'd rather just have cheaper spells.
If I can find a way to use Lotus Cobra to turbo out Consecrated Sphinxes I would be a very happy person. As I said earlier though the weakness to Hawks is a large reason not to play anything like it despite how awesome it looks.
So I talked about those mistakes I made against Brad earlier. They're subtle but very clear mistakes.
In game one I kept a loose hand. I remember I had a Mana Leak probably a Dismember and maybe a Day of Judgment or Preordain. It's the fact that I can't remember my hand that leads me to believe that it was a suspect keep.
Anyway he leads with Hawk and I've got nothing going on. I finally draw into a Jace Beleren which I'm able to force through and a Day of Judgment. With a Jace on five counters and two mana open I pass the turn.
Now it's very clear what's going on here: he knows I have Mana Leak. It might as well be face-up on the table. He's making a play that if I have Mana Leak I am able to trade profitably with. Does he have another land? It's likely but if he played his land first then it would be unlikely that I would Leak his Sword as he can simply pay.
So it's clear that he wants me to Leak his Sword — but why? Either he's got one of his two Sun Titans in hand or he has Spell Pierce and a land. That would allow him to force through a Sword hit or kill my Jace.
After all that reasoning I should probably rethink my play… but I don't. I Leak his Sword thinking that if I'm wrong about him having Pierce I would be very happy. However clearly that isn't the case and he gets a huge untap step.
What I should have done was let the Sword resolve Dismember his Hawk when he goes to equip and then Dismember it again after he Spell Pierces it. That leaves me at a much lower life but my Jace is safe I don't take damage from the Hawk and I'm able to untap with Jace in play.
Later I have a freshly-cast Emeria Angel plus fetchland. He casts a Gideon (which I can't stop) and +2's it. Without thinking I end of turn sacrifice my fetchland giving myself another attacker which I use to put Gideon down to three loyalty — a fairly arbitrary number.
I then cast Consecrated Sphinx and pay for his Mana Leak tapping out. He casts Preordain… and mistake #3 is that I get tunnel-visioned into thinking that Sphinx is only for their draw step. I elect not to draw two cards.
He proceeds to use all of his cards. First Phantasmal Image to copy my Sphinx. That's fine I'll just Dismember it on my upkeep I think to myself. Second he plays a Dismember on my lone bird token leaving me with just Sphinx on defense. Third he suits up Mirran Crusader with Sword of Feast and Famine.
At ten life I'm forced to trade Consecrated Sphinx with Mirran Crusader and take six from Gideon down to four life. His last two untapped lands are Island and Tectonic Edge therefore I'm unable to profitably use my Celestial Colonnade. I'm dead on his next attack.
Technically I suppose that's four mistakes considering the hand I kept. So much of this reminds me of Grand Prix: Oakland that it makes me sick.
Was I Dismember-flooded? Yes. Was my hand six lands other than that? Sure was. Could I have won that game? A resounding yes. That's the difference between a good and a great player. The good player will play solid but take lines of play that slowly cost them equity throughout the entire match. The great one will almost always make the subtle but best play and won't give up those small edges.
I don't think I outright threw my game at least not in the fashion I did in the match before it — but I certainly made enough mistakes that cost me.
Before I get back to Modern testing I'd like to present another scenario.
You're playing against RUG Splinter Twin/Birthing Pod and have Jace Beleren with two counters and three land. Your opponent has Spellskite Solemn Simulacrum and six lands of various colors. You start your fourth turn and your hand is:
What do you do?
It's all about the process of elimination. You want to Oblivion Ring the Solemn but he's likely going to redirect it to Spellskite so that he can keep your Jace under control. The “obvious” play is to Oblivion Ring Solemn and see what he does. If he lets it go maybe because he wants to keep Spellskite to protect his Twin combo at which point you can safely -1 Jace. If he doesn't then you need to +2 Jace. It's clear that you Oblivion Ring because you need Jace.
However in my mind it's clear that you Preordain before you do anything as that may influence whether or not you cast Oblivion Ring at all! Sure enough I cast Preordain found a Day of Judgment and held off on using the Oblivion Ring.
He ended up playing an Urabrask the Hidden or Inferno Titan — I don't remember which — and I swept away his team. Because I was able to hold that Oblivion Ring for a better target and got more value out of my Day of Judgment I went on to win the game.
It's little plays like that which involve sequencing that end up mattering most. They may seem miniscule but Caw-Go isn't as powerful as it used to be. You need to extract the maximum amount of value from all of your cards in order to win.
What about this one?
Your hand is:
Do you Preordain on turn 1?
In this scenario I do 100% of the time. It's clear that I'm digging for lands as I want to play Jace on turn 3.
What about this one?
Do you Preordain on turn 1?
This one isn't as cut-and-dry. You could use another land specifically a white source. However by waiting until turn 3 you get a lot of extra information. Sure Preordaining into Jace Beleren would be awesome but that isn't what you need right now. You most likely need white mana to win the game.
I would wait until turn 3. If I've drawn a Plains then I can safely Preordain for more action. If I've drawn spells then I'd cast my second Squadron Hawk on turn 3 followed by Preordain. It's important that you cast the Hawk first as you're going to shuffle your deck that turn no matter what. If you find two cards that you want with Preordain you're going to want to keep them both.
Next week: Modern!