Well, it's here. Innistrad is finally on shelves and in the hands of gamers around the world, and last weekend's StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis marked the first time the denizens of Magic's new world saw the light of day in the tournament arena. Though maybe “light of day” is the wrong choice of words given just what denizens we're talking about…
With so many people trying to brew up intricate new control decks with clunky cards like Forbidden Alchemy, Think Twice, and Liliana of the Veil, is it any wonder that straightforward aggressive decks ruled the day? While the new breed of Solar Flare decks are clearly powerful, they certainly need to spend the early turns of the game doing something other than mucking around with their library in order to beat a streamlined beatdown strategy.
This is a pattern that we see with virtually every new rotation. People get excited about all the sweet new cards and mechanics coming in with the new block and build decks designed around them only to get pummeled into oblivion by those players who show up with linear aggressive strategies. It applies to Magic as much as it does the rest of the world—those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as we saw in the pair of Mono Red decks facing off in the finals of the SCG Standard Open in Indianapolis.
- 3 Chandra's Phoenix
- 2 Goblin Arsonist
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 2 Spikeshot Elder
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 23 Mountain
- 3 Chandra's Phoenix
- 3 Furnace Scamp
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
The strength of these decks lies primarily in the one-two punch of Stromkirk Noble and Stormblood Berserker. While the departure of Lightning Bolt along with the rest of M11 may have defanged red's burn arsenal somewhat, it also left one fewer way to efficiently deal with fast creatures. An unanswered Stromkirk Noble gets out of hand very quickly, and many of the best ways to stop the Noble efficiently or at a profit—like Arc Trail, Galvanic Blast, Gut Shot, or Geistflame—can't actually deal with the Berserker when it gets bloodthirsty.
The fact that both of them are pseudo-evasive doesn't hurt either. Stromkirk Noble's apparent throwaway text of “can't be blocked by Humans” is actually a big deal in a world full of creatures like Snapcaster Mage and Mayor of Avabruck, to say nothing of the actual mono-Humans decks. Stormblood Berserker's evasion is ever harsher, as blocking with two or more creatures is often a pipe dream against a deck sporting as much removal as these two are.
It's worth noting that the loss of powerhouses like Goblin Guide, Lightning Bolt, and Searing Blaze has made red decks much more reliant on not only connecting with creatures, but keeping those creatures in play. It's a lot easier to contain a modern red deck with removal spells than it used to be, even if it's not quite as easy to find the right removal spells for the job. That's a big part of why I'm a fan of the Koths in David's deck, since they give the deck an angle that can't be dealt with in the same fashion as most of the rest of its threats. Koth gives Mono Red a serious threat against both opposing control decks and the mirror, one that is much harder to deal with in the new format without creature lands to fight against it. I almost feel like someone might have predicted this sort of thing might happen…
In particular, I think Koth is much better than Hero of Oxid Ridge right now. When I was testing my new version of Blade Breaker (which I'll get to momentarily), I cut down on the Heroes in the deck at first and ultimately removed them entirely. Hero is precisely the opposite of Koth, in that he's an expensive threat that dies to all of the removal people are going to be playing to deal with your early creatures, and he's at the perfectly wrong point on the curve to die to that same removal being recurred with Snapcaster Mage—not to mention that Snapcaster conveniently has two power and flash, so he can get in the way of a Hero-fueled attack very easily. I was one of the biggest proponents of Hero in the last Standard season, but I feel very strongly that Hero is not where you want to be right now.
I'll also go on record that the prospective list I posted in my article last week is not where you want to be right now either. It was pretty optimistic of me to think that much of my work on Blade Breaker from last season could be effectively ported to the new Standard, but the shifting format combined with some major losses from the deck contribute to the basic structure just not feeling viable to me. I played quite a bit this week against Matt Sperling (who has recently joined the Ascension team, by the way) playing a variety of decks, and while I had a reasonable amount of success, I felt I was a dog in most of the matchups I was playing.
Basically, Blade Breaker worked in the old Standard format due to of a combination of speed and disruptive elements, as well as leaning on some individual cards like Hero of Oxid Ridge and Sword of War and Peace that overperformed against the field. In the new Standard, the disruption of Goblin Ruinblaster and Tectonic Edge are gone, leaving the deck with only Acidic Slime to even hope to stop an opponent from playing Titans. The loss of Lotus Cobra means that Slime comes quite a bit later to the party, and trying to keep an opponent packing Mana Leaks from playing Titan with a five-casting-cost land destruction spell as your only disruption is questionable to say the least.
Those same Titan decks are now typically Esper instead of U/W, which means they have Doom Blade to pick off your early Skinshifters and Snapcaster Mages to block your Heroes (even if they are carrying Swords) and flashback those Doom Blades on the rest of your team, along with even Liliana to handle the previously unstoppable Thrun. And you were never that good against the aggressive decks before sideboarding to begin with, and now you don't even have Obstinate Baloth to lean on in games two and three. All in all—a total mess.
While the deck I was testing didn't perform particularly well, I did come away from the playtesting sessions having learned things about the format I could apply elsewhere. This is an important skill for Magic players in general and budding deckbuilders in particular. Playtesting isn't just about jamming decks against each other for results, but about learning what works, what doesn't, what's important, and why.
For instance, one realization I had in my testing is that mana creatures are in a particularly bad place right now. Pretty much every deck has ways to kill your mana creatures for value. Obviously red decks can kill them with Arc Trail or Geistflame, but even control decks can value you thanks to Snapcaster Mage.
In older formats, opposing control decks would often be hard pressed to “waste” removal on something like a Birds of Paradise for fear of a more important threat, but the current Esper decks can just kill the first mana creature they see and rebuy the removal spell later on with Snapcaster Mage. Not only that, but they actual have a huge incentive to do so, since Liliana relies heavily on facing an opponent with a clear board to get maximum value. I'd previously theorized that the addition of Garruk and Kessig Wolf Run made mana creatures better, and while that is true to some extent, the negative pressures outweigh those new upsides.
Garruk Relentless, however, is still awesome; though finding the right deck for him is a challenge. He's a powerful threat against control decks, since he can pump out a never-ending army of Wolves if left unmolested, and is an incredibly flexible tool against creature decks. My favorite moments with Garruk involve playing him against Tempered Steel, killing a Signal Pest, losing a counter off of him to an attacking Inkmoth Nexus, and then sacrificing a creature to search up an Inferno Titan. Even against Mono Red, he can often kill a creature and then eat a burn spell and can pull you far enough ahead to win the game on his own if he's not removed immediately. Liliana has been getting all of the attention in the set, but I'm guessing Garruk turns out to be serious sleeper.
Speaking of sleepers, I'm still of the opinion that Daybreak Ranger will play an important role in the way the Standard format ultimately shapes up. The format is looking more hostile for her than it did prior to Indy, since she doesn't match up particularly well against Mono Red, but if you look at the rest of the Top 8, Daybreak Ranger looks pretty good. The Tempered Steel decks have in the range of a dozen creatures that die to Daybreak Ranger itself—not even flipped—and the Illusion and Human decks aren't terribly well equipped to deal with a Nightfall Hunter. The more removal heavy decks obviously match up better against her, and it's possible that the format will be shifting more in that direction, but even then I'm pretty happy to have a three-mana creature that has the potential to win the game if my opponent doesn't remove it on the spot. I know all of the decks I'm considering playing in Nashville still have Daybreak Ranger in the mix.
What are those decks? Well, I'm not quite sure yet. I'm still very much in the brainstorm stages of many of my lists, but I have a feeling that any deck I play is going to want to have quick removal to deal with aggressive decks, Mana Leaks to deal with Titans, and sufficient ability to mount pressure of my own, so I'm not the one getting run over by Koth.
One card that I've been toying around with quite a bit is Caravan Vigil. While mana creatures aren't on my “cards to play” list right now, I certainly do want to have access to mana acceleration, since being able to play big things faster is one of the best ways to beat decks that are trying to overrun you. In a world where I want to play a bunch of cheap removal and generally expect it to be live against most of my opponents, Caravan Vigil can pretty much become a one-mana Rampant Growth—but even better since the land enters the battlefield untapped. Even better is the fact that it has sweet synergy with Snapcaster Mage, letting you turn your Mages into Civic Wayfinders in those situations that you have nothing particularly exciting to flashback and need more land. Both Snapcaster Mage and Caravan Vigil want a deck full of cheap removal spells as well, so they seem like a natural fit for the same deck.
Here's a very rough sketch of what I'm thinking:
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 3 Daybreak Ranger
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 2 Mayor of Avabruck
- 3 Skinshifter
- 3 Snapcaster Mage
- 3 Thrun, the Last Troll
This needs a lot of tuning, and I'm sure the mana is awful with all of the lands that enter the battlefield tapped, but it's very much the direction I'm looking at. I was also a big fan of the RUG list from Jacob Van Lunen's article earlier this week, though I'm personally looking to go in a bit more of a proactive direction than he is.
I feel like this sort of deck is a much better home for the Werewolves like Daybreak Ranger and Mayor of Avabruck than my previous lists, since the high number of instants give you the ability to interact quite a bit on your opponent's turn when you pass your turn with mana up to flip them. One of the easiest ways to get blown out with your Daybreak Ranger is to say go and then use it during your opponent's turn, only to see it get Dismembered in response. Since Dismember is -5/-5 and not just a removal spell, the poor Wolf would only get into her brawl as a -1/-1 thanks to last known information, which isn't really the kind of stats you need to be fighting anyone. Mana Leak can help protect from that kind of blowout, and your battery of red removal spells give you action on your opponent's turn in those instances that you can't keep your Ranger around for duty.
It's possible this list isn't focused enough toward beating either aggro or control and will struggle with both of them, but I like the way a lot of the cards are positioned. Skinshifter and Mayor are both excellent cheap threats against control that you can stick early and protect with Mana Leak, while Thrun does double duty against both red and control as a brick wall and uncounterable threat, respectively. Snapcaster is best against the aggressive decks, where he can rebuy removal spells and block but still has solid value against control as a Civic Wayfinder or to flashback Mana Leaks.
In any case, the deck still needs a lot of work, but so far I like where it's going. We'll see if I can get it into fighting shape in time for Nashville…
Until next time,